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Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television program Xena: Warrior Princess. This story was written strictly for the pleasure of the writer and anyone who might honor the writer by reading it, and not for profit. No copyright infringements intended.

This story contains, among other things, recounts by various observers of and participants in the crucifixion scene from the XWP episode, "The Ides of March," so yeah, heavy on angst and violence.

PG-13, okay maybe R. Nothing too graphic here but come on y’all, we just saw the two women die, and their last words to each other were "you were the best thing in my life," and "I love you." If you don’t want to see them as lovers, move on to some other story.

Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation:
Thank the gods for spell check! I’ve tried, so if it’s not perfect, bite me!

This is my first attempt at XWP fan fiction. Any questions, comments, or suggestions are most welcome. You can e-mail me at or

This story begins on March 16th, the day after the 4th season cliffhanger "The Ides of March." I can hardly wait to see how they resolve it, and it is definitely one of my favorites. So, I’ve used my imagination a little and this is how I’d like to see it go . . .

Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


By Linda Crist

Part 3

... your innocent distractions

Hit me so hard

My emotional reaction caught me off guard

It was nothing at all

Like anything I had felt before

And it was nothing at all

Like I thought no it’s so much more

No one else has ever made

Me feel this way ...

From our first communication

It was clear

Any thought of moderation

Would soon disappear ...

-from "Nothin’ at All" by M. Mueller, Copyright 1984, Music Corporation of America, Inc. (BMI). As performed by Heart on their CD, Heart, 1985, Capitol Records, Inc.

Chilapa reluctantly climbed the stairs that led to the second floor of the inn. The Amazons had eaten breakfast, and those that were headed back to the village were packed up and ready to leave. The advance scout had returned, reporting that about a candle mark’s walk toward the compound they had found the remains of a campfire, the ashes still warm, and what appeared to be footprints of Roman sandals and horseshoe prints that bore the distinctive mark of the shoes worn by the horses of Caesar’s army. Xena’s chosen scouting party was prepared for drilling. A few brave Amazons had made tentative knocks at the door to the queen’s room, but so far those knocks had gone unanswered. It was now a few candle marks past dawn and the warrior and the queen had yet to make an appearance.

Chilapa sighed. The group of aimlessly milling Amazons had quickly become a group of anxious and bored Amazons, and bored Amazons usually rapidly became bickering testy Amazons. The regent had grimaced more than once as she observed several close calls during a game of "toss the knife," a game where one Amazon stood against the wall while others took turns seeing who could throw their knife closest to her head without actually hitting her. The target Amazon had but two requirements to participate. Nerves of steel and very good reflexes. A few swigs of ale didn’t hurt either.

As regent, she had been chosen to go awaken the queen . . . and the warrior. The sooner they all knew the day’s game plan, the sooner they would all settle down to whatever tasks awaited them, instead of fighting with each other and fussing with their weapons and feathers. She finally agreed to wake the queen only because she feared she might end up with a few dead Amazons if they waited much longer. As she reached the room she looked at the two guards. "Any sign of them yet?"

"Well," a rather young Amazon regarded the regent, "we could swear we heard them talking and um . . . laughing . . . but no, they’ve been quiet for a least a candle mark and they haven’t come out yet."

The regent merely nodded at the two guards and tapped on the door. No answer. She knocked a little louder. Still no answer. Oh, to Hades with this! Xena is the one who had everyone get up early this morning. Chilapa scratched her head and then hesitantly turned the door knob and tip-toed into the room.

Rays of sunlight shone through the window and lay in chunks across the bed, revealing two figures sound asleep under the covers, but very obviously wrapped around each other. Chilapa noted two sleep shirts which were resting haphazardly on the foot of the bed, and grinned silently. So. That answered that question. She also noticed the carefully placed sword within easy reach of the warrior and remembered Xena’s extremely quick reflexes. She stepped back against the door and loudly cleared her throat, "Ahem!"

Two piercing blue eyes popped open, followed by two green ones which opened more slowly. Xena merely stared fixedly at the regent while Gabrielle, assessing the situation, turned three shades of crimson and pulled the covers over her head.

"Yeeessss?" Xena drawled slowly, raising a severe eyebrow and protectively pulling the bard more closely against her.

"My queen . . . Xena," Chilapa fumbled, looking everywhere except the bed, "pardon my intrusion, but the advance scout has returned and we are all ready. We are merely awaiting your instruction."

"The natives are getting restless, huh?" Xena grinned. The warrior remembered the days when she led her army, and her constant efforts to keep them busy and out of trouble.

"Yes," the regent responded, visibly relaxing at the warrior’s good humor.

Gabrielle reappeared from under the warm blankets. "Chilapa," the bard said, trying to recover some measure of her dignity, "why don’t you go back down and bring us a tray of breakfast and then report to us what the advance scout had to say?"

"Sure," Chilapa replied, "that would give you time to um . . . get dressed."

"Thanks," Gabrielle smiled, "and Chilapa, I can trust your discretion in this situation, can’t I?"

"But of course my queen," the regent bowed deeply with a flourish and left the room, closing the door behind her. The two Amazons in the hallway looked questioningly at her. "The queen and Xena are . . . indisposed. Don’t let anyone else in the room. I’ll be back shortly," and the flustered regent quickly took the steps down to the main room two at a time.

Back in the room a bemused warrior laughed and hugged the bard. "You are good, Gabrielle . . . my queen," Xena teased.

"Xena, I can’t believe she saw us like this," the bard looked down at the two sleep shirts and buried her face in her hands.

The warrior smiled and replied, "Gabrielle, she’s an Amazon. They’re, um . . . very open. It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before, trust me."

"Yeah, but she’s never seen me like that before," a befuddled bard stated.

"Well, you are always complaining that the Amazons see you as a naive kid from Potadeia. Maybe this will help change that," the warrior offered.

"Maybe," Gabrielle considered for a moment and looked up at Xena with a wicked smile, "I guess they’d have to respect someone who was able to get this close to the mysterious and fierce warrior princess."

"Gabrielle," Xena said in mock exasperation and then without warning, she flipped the bard over onto her back and pounced on top of her, pinning the smaller woman with her strong legs and one arm, tickling her with her free hand. "Mysterious and fierce, huh?" Xena laughed, trying to keep her hold on the struggling bard.

"Did I mention your are also evil and sneaky?" Gabrielle shrieked, managing to lose one arm from the warrior’s grip, and desperately tried to gain the upper hand against her much larger and stronger partner. Xena eased her hold on the bard and a brief pillow fight ensued before the two women reluctantly rose from the nice warm bed and began to wash up in preparation for the day.

As they donned the leather and armor that had been loaned to them the day before, Xena caught Gabrielle glancing shyly at her, obviously trying to observe without staring. The warrior smiled and reached out with the back of her fingers to brush the soft skin on the bard’s face. "Gabrielle," Xena said, "it’s okay. I love the way you look at me. I always have." She tilted her partner’s chin up, forcing the younger girl to look into her eyes, and continued, "I remember the first time I was ever aware of you watching me . . . um . . . in that way."

They were riding double on Argo. They had just finished their first night of camping out in the open together. It was the day after they had left Amphipolis, where Gabrielle had stopped the townspeople from nearly stoning the warrior and Xena had defeated her former army captain, Draco, in a quarterstaff battle. After the staff battle, the warrior, cognizant of her vow never to kill anyone in cold blood again, had chosen to spare his life and then beyond all hope had reconciled with her mother. All in all, it had been the best day Xena could remember having in a long time, if ever.

Now she unexpectedly found herself in the company of this young girl from Potadeia, who had twice laid her life on the line for others in the short time Xena had known her. You’re not alone, Gabrielle’s words echoed in the warrior’s head. Xena could not explain, even to herself, why she was allowing the girl to travel with her. She obviously had very few fighting skills, she would be an extra mouth to feed, and by all counts could only prove to be a liability. Still, the warrior found herself inexplicably drawn to the bard, to her tenacity and her courage. Besides, for some unfathomable reason the young girl actually seemed to like the warrior, and Xena couldn’t remember the last time anyone had liked her.

Ah, well, Xena had mused to herself, what can it hurt to let her tag along for a while? She does amuse me with all the stories she tells and it sure beats traveling alone with my thoughts . . . and memories. The warrior realized that perhaps the young girl, if nothing else, would at least provide a distraction from the constant demons that tortured her. She’ll get tired of the road after a few days and go running back to Potadeia. Might as well enjoy the company while I have it.

As they road along in a rare moment of silence, at least for the bard, the sun beat down relentlessly, causing shimmering mirages ahead of them on the dirt road, which disappeared one after the other in succession as they approached. Small clouds of dust rose up each time Argo took a step, and the poor horse’s palomino coat was starting to darken in patches, damp with perspiration. Her flaxen tail continually swatted as flies buzzed around, the coarse dry strands of the mare’s hair occasionally flicking with a sting against Gabrielle’s legs and arms. The bard could feel sweat trickling slowly down her spine as her blouse stuck to her shoulder blades.

She was riding behind Xena with her arms wrapped loosely around the warrior’s waist, which she had to do in order not to fall off the horse. She was trying not to hold on too tightly, aware that their own mingling body heat was adding to the misery of the overly-warm day. She realized that as hot as she was, Xena must be suffering even more in the leather and brass armor the warrior wore. Gabrielle completely let go of Xena and scooted back just a fraction in an effort to give the warrior more breathing room, and felt herself falling from Argo’s back.

"Whoa there Gabrielle," Xena had caught her just before she tumbled off, "you’ve got to hold on better than that." The warrior had stopped Argo for a moment and shifted a bit, grasping the bard’s arms and pulling them back around her waist. Xena then chirruped for the horse to move on, leaving one of her own arms pressed against Gabrielle’s for safety, as they rode for a way in silence. "You okay now? You think you can hold on by yourself?" Xena had asked after a while.

"Yes, I . . . I thought you might be too warm. I was just trying to move back so you could be cooler," Gabrielle had managed to answer, aware of the new sensation of Xena’s arm touching hers and deciding she liked it.

Xena liked the contact too, and reluctantly removed her arm from the bard’s and she twined her now free fingers in a tuft of Argo’s mane. "It’s okay. Go ahead and grab a hold. I’d rather be a bit warm than have to bandage you up after a fall," the warrior had responded cheerfully, "besides, I can take the heat."

"Okay," Gabrielle murmured, taking a firmer grasp of Xena’s waist.

After a few candle marks Xena had stopped Argo near the edge of some trees. "Hey Gabrielle, it’s really warm and Argo needs a break. We can stop here. There’s a nice clearing on the other side of these trees where we can make camp for tonight, and . . ." she paused reflectively, "that path over there leads to a small pond, if I remember correctly," she had pointed to a faint trail leading through the woods.

They had quickly built a small fire ring with some stones and laid out their bedrolls. Xena removed Argo’s saddle bags and rested them against a log she had pulled up next to the fire ring. She started to brush Argo while Gabrielle gathered firewood to use for cooking later. The mere thought of fire had made the bard feel even warmer than she already was, and she unconsciously drew the back of her hand across her forehead to wipe the sweat from her brow and looked up to see two blue eyes smiling at her.

"Here," Xena reached into a saddle bag and straightened up, tossing her a towel which she barely had the presence of mind to catch. "Let’s go swimming," the warrior grinned, and she draped a towel around her own shoulders and started off down the trail toward the pond.

Gabrielle had followed after a moment, carefully pushing aside the lower branches that blocked the path in front of her, slapping at the odd knat that swarmed in her face. And then just stopped and stared in wonder as the trees parted and revealed the most beautiful little pond she had ever seen. The water was crystal clear and surrounded by low grape vines. Birds were singing in the nearby trees and ducks swam on the surface of the water. On one side was a tall rock cliff.

Xena had disappeared from view. Gabrielle had merely looked around and shrugged, and then had modestly stepped behind a clump of grapevine to take off her blouse and skirt, deciding that the pond was too inviting for her to wait on the absent warrior. As she struggled with her sweaty clothes she heard a loud whoop and looked up to see Xena standing on top of the cliff, completely naked and obviously totally uninhibited. She had looked down at the bard with a broad grin on her face and with another yell, the warrior had dove head first into the pond, cleanly slicing into the water and once again disappearing from view.

Gabrielle had stood up to try to see where Xena would surface. Failing to spot her intriguing companion, and with a bit of concern, she had stepped out from behind the vines and walked over to the edge of the pond, concentrating on the spot where Xena had entered the water. As she strained for a better look a cold wet hand patted her on the back of her shoulder. With a shriek she had whirled around to find the warrior grinning at her mischievously. The bard forgot her own nakedness and tried to concentrate on Xena’s eyes, and not on the small droplets of water beading on the warrior’s perfectly toned and perfectly tanned body.

"Coming in? The water’s nice and cool," Xena said lightly. "Hmmm? Gabrielle?"

The bard had blushed, realizing that her eyes had wandered away from Xena’s face and had been studying the play of the sun on the warrior’s thigh and calf muscles. "I . . .I . . . um," Gabrielle had struggled to respond and then shrieked again, as Xena had scooped her up and tossed her ceremoniously into the pond.

As the bard surfaced with a splutter, Xena had jumped in after her. The warrior had swam one lap back and forth across the pond, ducked under the water, and then popped up again next to Gabrielle.

"Great, isn’t it?" the warrior had stated with glee, taking on the expression of a child for a moment.

"Yeah," Gabrielle had smiled, "thanks for stopping here."

"No problem. I love this place. I used to come here with my brothers when we were kids," Xena had responded, before taking off for a few more laps. Finally tired of her swim and feeling thoroughly fresh and clean from the cool water, the warrior swam over to an overhanging grapevine and plucked some of the fruit from a branch. Holding her prize carefully up out of the water, she made her way back over to the bard. "Want a grape?" Xena held out her hand and offered a sprig.

"Thanks," Gabrielle replied, taking the surprising gift from her new friend and popping a grape in her mouth. "Yum," she mumbled appreciatively as she munched on the sweet juicy fruit.

"You’re welcome," Xena said, enjoying some of the fruit herself. After they finished off the grapes the warrior had flipped over and back stroked to a small cove near the cliff. As Gabrielle watched, the warrior stood up in the water and became completely still, cocking her head to the side.

"Xena, what are you doing?" the bard yelled.

The warrior turned around and raised a finger to her lips to silence her. After a moment, Xena had plunged her hand down into the water and lifted up a rather large bass. Xena looked questioningly over at the bard, "If I go clean this, do you think you might be able to cook it? I, um, never was much of a cook," the warrior sounded almost apologetic.

"Sure," Gabrielle had responded, not believing she had just seen Xena catch a fish with her bare hands.

"Great, then I’ll see you in a bit," the warrior had replied, rewarding the bard with a full genuine smile. Xena paddled to the edge of the pond, stood up, threw her head forward and back to shake the water out of her hair, and stepped out onto the pebbled shore.

As the warrior walked away, Gabrielle called after her, "Xena, how did you do that?"

"Do what?" Xena asked innocently, her blue eyes wide open as she turned around to face the bard.

"Catch that fish," Gabrielle asked emphatically.

Xena slowly turned back away from the pond and looked over her shoulder with a mysterious smile, quirked one eyebrow, and purred, not for the last time, "Gabrielle, I have many skills." And she sauntered up the path toward their campsite, firmly grasping the fish in one hand and shouldering her leathers and armor with the other.

Gabrielle watched the interplay of the warrior’s back and shoulder muscles as she walked away. "I’ll bet you do," the bard said softly, not realizing that Xena’s sensitive ears heard her.

The warrior had merely smiled and shifted her stride to a slow rolling gait.

"I remember that day," Gabrielle smiled at Xena, now looking openly at her partner with no shyness, "I had so many mixed emotions. I had just left home, I was half afraid of you, half in awe of you, and then you suddenly showed this totally playful side of yourself. It was such a surprise. And," the bard reached over and rested her hand on a strong biceps, "I thought the sight of your wet body shimmering in the sun was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. You took my breath away, love. I had never felt that way about anyone before. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with those feelings then. I only knew that I was very glad you let me tag along and that I hoped we did a lot more swimming," she finished with a laugh.

Xena laughed with her and impulsively pulled the bard against herself. "You, my love, you were the one that took my breath away, and you were the one who was beautiful. Up until then I had only seen you in that loose blouse and that long skirt you wore when we first started traveling together. I hadn’t realized just how beautiful you were until I snuck up behind you like I did. What you didn’t know is that I just stood there and watched you for a few minutes before I tapped you on the shoulder. And then when you turned around I could feel your eyes on me. I liked it and that scared me to death. Why do you think I did all that showing off, tossing you in the water and bringing you grapes and catching that fish? Part of me wanted to distract myself from the feelings I was having for you, and part of me was flirting with you, trying to impress you. As I walked away from that pond and heard your comment about my skills, I knew this was going to be a most interesting friendship. "

"You heard me?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.

"Yeah," the Warrior said, "when I heard that I slowed down. I wanted to hold on as long as I could to the feeling I got when I knew you were watching me like that. I wanted to remember it in case you ever got tired of me and decided to go back to Potadeia."

"I guess we’ve been doing this subtle dance for a long time," Gabrielle smiled up at her lover, "and Xena, I know I did go home a couple of times, but after this morning there isn’t a chance in Hades that I am ever going back to Potadeia, not unless you go with me."

"Gabrielle, I’d follow you anywhere." The warrior returned the smile and bent down to kiss her partner. They were interrupted by a loud knock at the door.

"Amazons," both women sighed in unison.

"Later. I’m not done with you," Gabrielle said, and she kissed her finger and pressed it to Xena’s lips before she reluctantly stepped out of their embrace and padded over to the door. She opened the door and let the regent in, who was carrying a large tray full of cereal, ham, and mugs of apple cider. The tantalizing smell reached the bard’s nose and her stomach growled in hungry anticipation.

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

After breakfast and a short planning meeting with Chilapa in their room, warrior and bard emerged in the large downstairs room of the inn, following the regent. They had decided that the Amazons who were returning to the village should go ahead and leave so they could make it home before nightfall. Chilapa walked over and spoke briefly with Loisha, who proceeded to round up the other Amazons and heard them outside. Rebina, Amarice, and Kallerine leaned quietly against a far wall of the room, observing the activity of their departing sisters in pensive silence.

The regent shouldered her pack and approached Xena and Gabrielle. "Well, I guess we’re ready to leave," she searched Gabrielle’s sparkling green eyes. "My queen, please be careful. I want to see you safely back in our village . . . someday. I wish . . . ," she trailed off. I wish you would just come on back to the village with us where I wouldn’t have to worry about you. Where you could really lead us on a daily basis. The regent continued, "We’ve lost so many, Gabrielle. Terreis, Melosa, and Velasca. And then Ephiny and Solari. It’s too many in too short a time. There is so much rebuilding to do. Some say the Amazon nation will die out in the next generation."

Gabrielle took one of Chilapa’s hands and squeezed it. "Chilapa, don’t worry. Xena and I will be watching each other’s backs. And I will return to the village. I may not ever live in the village permanently, because," she paused and looked over at Xena, the regent’s eyes following her gaze with new understanding, "well, anyway, I trust you completely to rule the Amazons in my absence. That’s why I gave you the queen’s mask. Don’t let me down. We are not going to let the Amazons disappear." Gabrielle hugged the regent and stepped back as Xena moved in closer.

"Gabrielle, why don’t you take Amarice, Kallerine, and Rebina, and go out back to prepare for a little drilling?" Xena asked her partner.

"Okay," the bard replied, realizing that Xena obviously needed to speak with the regent. "Come on," Gabrielle motioned to the three Amazons leaning against the wall and they followed their queen out the side door of the inn.

Xena watched them leave and draped an arm across Chilapa’s shoulders, guiding the regent toward the other door and out to the front courtyard where the rest of the Amazons were shuffling around, restlessly waiting to go home. "Chilapa, I can’t thank you enough for all you have done for us and especially for Gabrielle. It means a lot to her that you sent a party out to try to rescue her. She really does care about the Amazon nation. The fact that many of the older Amazons don’t respect her as queen bothers her more than she will ever let on. I know there were factions among the Amazons between followers of Melosa and followers of Velasca and followers of Ephiny. It’s been really hard on Gabrielle. She tries so hard to be a fair and just ruler. Perhaps you can help to rally the remaining Amazons in unity behind her," The warrior regarded the regent with more than a hint of pleading in her blue eyes.

"We’ve got a good start, with Amarice and Kallerine showing such obvious devotion to our queen," Chilapa responded, "especially Amarice, as she has the respect of many of the older Amazons. As for Kallerine, the younger group worships the ground she walks on. She is one unique young woman."

"Yes, she is," Xena chuckled, "that’s why I want her in my scouting party. I can tell she has a good head on her shoulders."

"Xena," Chilapa turned and faced the warrior, a serious look on her face, "please bring our queen safely back to us."

"Don’t you worry about that for one minute," Xena replied, "I’m not going to let anything happen to Gabrielle, not ever again. I don’t . . . I don’t know how I’d live . . . well, anyway," the warrior stopped herself from what she realized was almost a mushy open confession of her love for the bard, "let’s just say Gabrielle’s safety is my number one priority. Nothing is going to separate me from her. I won’t let it."

"I don’t doubt it," the regent said, as she started to turn toward the waiting Amazons.

Xena stopped her, "Chilapa, when you get to the village will you send Argo this way? She’ll find me."

"Sure," the regent regarded the warrior warmly, "no problem." Chilapa moved to the front of the group, "okay, let’s get going. It’s going to be a long walk home." As the Amazons started down the road Chilapa turned back, "see you later, Xena."

"You bet," the warrior smiled.

And with that the regent made her way to the front of the group of Amazons to lead them home.

Xena watched until the group disappeared from view over the hill, and walked around to the back of the inn. Gabrielle and Rebina were sparring with quarterstaffs while Kallerine and Amarice were drilling with swords, the loud clank of metal against metal mingling with the more hollow sound of the wooden staffs making contact. As she approached they stopped and looked at her, waiting for instruction.

The warrior took in the sight of all four Amazons, begrudgingly admitting that Gabrielle was indeed one of them, and her eyes came to rest on the unfamiliar sight of the leather scabbard strapped at the bard’s side, Ephiny’s sword tucked securely inside it. I promised her some sword drilling, didn’t I? And in front of these particular Amazons. I can’t let her lose face in front of her subjects, now can I? She sighed with resignation and walked over to her partner, placing a gentle hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Let’s spend about a candle mark on sword-drilling and then we can eat lunch and start making our way to the compound."

Gabrielle read the tell-tale slump of Xena’s shoulders, the grim tight line of her mouth, and the faint twitch in the warrior’s clenched jaw. She really doesn’t want to do this with me. "Excuse us for a moment," the bard looked at the others, and led Xena several yards away so they could speak privately. "Xena," she took the warrior’s hands in her own. Xena was looking down at the ground, kicking idly at a tuft of dead brown grass. "Look at me please?" Gabrielle asked with a steady voice.

Xena slowly lifted her head and sad blue eyes met the bard’s. "Gabrielle, I’m sorry. This is going to take some getting used to. It’s going to be a big leap to watch you go from not fighting at all to wielding a sword. And," the warrior reached across and ran her long fingers through the short hair on the side of the bard’s head, "I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you, either physically or emotionally. I had always hoped that if any killing needed to be done that I could do it. That I could spare you that. I know you’re not the innocent girl you were when we met. A lot has happened and we both made a lot of mistakes along the way. I can’t go back and wipe the blood from your hands anymore than I can wash it from my own. A little part of me dies inside when I realize that you took so many lives on my behalf. That really bothers me. What bothers me even more is the thought of you ever having to do that again. I love you Gabrielle. And now, when we’re just starting to, well . . . " she managed a small smile and raised their two remaining clasped hands, kissing the knuckles on the top of the bard’s clenched fist, "I love you more than ever. I . . . I want to protect you. That’s all."

Gabrielle stood up straight, taking a moment to compose her thoughts, aware of the anguish in the warrior’s eyes and of the pounding of her own heart. "Xena," the bard took both of her partner’s hands again and pulled her a few steps closer, "don’t you understand that I feel exactly the same way you do? That I want to protect you, too? And that after that day in the compound it became very clear to me that a staff isn’t always going to be good enough? Xena, if I had been beating those guys with a staff they would have gotten to you. It’s different when you’re on your feet and fighting, but you were helpless that day, and I was the only one there to protect you. I had to kill them. Knocking them around wouldn’t have been adequate. There were too many of them. Left alive, I couldn’t have held them off of you. Xena, they had to be killed, do you understand that? And I was the one that had to do it. And I’ll be damned to Tartarus before I will just stand by and watch someone kill you if I can do something about it," Gabrielle looked into Xena’s piercing blue eyes, finally reading recognition there, and continued, "Xena, the staff will always be my first weapon of choice. It’s what I’m most comfortable with. I didn’t like killing. I hated it." She released the warrior’s hands and held her palms face up, contemplating them, and then looking back up at Xena, "I don’t intend to become a murderer. But I want to know that if I ever need to protect you again that I can. That I will be prepared for it. That you can count on me, love."

Xena gasped in shock, feeling as if someone had thrown cold water in her face. Hello. Warrior princess. Get a clue. Xena admonished herself. Of course she wants to protect you as much as you want to protect her. The warrior hadn’t even considered the choices the bard had been forced to make as she herself lay helpless on the ground. She could see now that Gabrielle was right. There had been only one choice to make. Knowing the love they shared, she understood that completely now. She herself would have done exactly the same thing if their roles had been reversed. How can I deny her something I would not deny myself, to feel that I can protect the one I love?

Xena swallowed a couple of times. "Gabrielle, I have always known I could count on you." She gazed at her lover with a look Gabrielle could not read, and stepped back from the bard a few paces, and with a smooth swift motion drew the sword from the scabbard on her back. "Okay."

"Okay, what?" Gabrielle questioned, out of long habit warily eyeing Xena’s sword.

"Let’s drill," Xena stated evenly.

"Just like that?"

"Just like that," Xena smiled at her baffled partner.

"That was way too easy, warrior princess," Gabrielle smiled back.

For you maybe. For me it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Xena thought to herself.

Amarice grew tired of drilling with Kallerine, and sat down against a tree, wondering if warrior and bard were ever going to work out whatever it was they were talking so intensely about. The tall redhead was long on action and short on patience. Rebina sat down to join her. Kallerine made use of the time, dancing about the area slashing with her sword, sparring with invisible opponents. Satisfied with the exercise, she walked over to the other two Amazons and bounced lightly on her heels, the wooden spikes at her waist jiggling lightly with the movement. She had her light brown hair pulled back and she idly played with the ponytail.

"Come on, let’s drill while we wait on them," she tried to call her older friends to action. As Amarice groaned in protest, Kallerine turned around to see Xena draw her sword on Gabrielle. The others also looked up at the whoosh of the drawn sword. "What in Hades is she doing to Queen Gabrielle?" Kallerine asked, placing her hand on the hilt of her own weapon preparing to protect the leader of the Amazons, if needed.

"I don’t know," Amarice replied, "but I think you can relax. The queen is smiling and so is Xena."

As they continued to watch, Gabrielle drew Ephiny’s sword from her side and the smiles faded from both faces, replaced by total concentration. Xena stepped back and Gabrielle stepped forward, making the first tentative swipe with her sword. The warrior easily deflected the strike and the two women exchanged several more blows, Xena slowly circling around the bard, forcing her on the defensive. After a few minutes of sword-play they struck swords up over both of their heads, their bodies close together, and in rhythm the two crossed weapons circled around and down to the ground, never losing contact. An exchanged look between the two women conceded a tie on that round.

They stepped back for a moment, catching their breath. Gabrielle had a faint sheen of sweat across her brow but Xena was completely calm and cool. "You’re doing great Gabrielle," the warrior encouraged her. "Come at me again."

Gabrielle stepped forward, attempting an offensive move, trying to get inside her taller partner’s defenses by attacking up from below. Xena’s sword came down hard against the bard’s, almost knocking it from her hand, but Gabrielle determinedly held on. They continued to circle, exchanging blow for blow, and the bard looked up for some sort of recognition from Xena. At which moment the warrior struck a sharp blow from the side, sending Gabrielle’s sword flying across the courtyard.

"Number one rule, Gabrielle," Xena admonished gently, "in sword-play, just as with the staff, you must always watch your opponent’s weapon, not their face. Forget the face. You have got to concentrate every single second on the weapon and where it is going. With the sword, especially. It can mean the difference between life and death." The warrior walked over to the bard’s sword and with one foot expertly flipped it up into the air, caught it, and handed it back to her frustrated partner. Xena saw the dejection on the bard’s face and laid a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, "hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. Not many people can last with me as long as you did before I disarm them."

Gabrielle visibly brightened, "let’s go again," she said with renewed enthusiasm.

The Amazons continued to watch for several more rounds, each round ending either in a stand-off, or with the warrior disarming the queen. Unbeknown to Gabrielle, the respect the Amazons had for her was growing with each round. Not many people willingly faced off against the warrior princess in a sword battle. None could ever recall such a face-off ending in a tie. The warrior always won.

As the two women circled for yet another round, Gabrielle crouched low on her legs and with her eyes never leaving Xena’s sword, she said so low and seductively that no one but Xena could hear, "Xena, I love you."

"Wh . . . ," the surprised warrior looked up, at which point Gabrielle lunged forward underneath Xena’s sword and knocked it to the ground.

"Uh uh uh," the bard said teasingly, "never take your eyes off your opponent’s sword."

A stunned warrior just stood there for a moment before she burst out laughing. "You little sneak. Gabrielle, that tactic might work on me but I wouldn’t try it on an enemy. Well, on the other hand, I guess it might work," she continued to chuckle as she bent over to retrieve her sword.

"Relax, Xena," the bard’s eyes twinkled and she continued in a low voice, "I only did that to save some face in front of my Amazons. I don’t plan to incorporate endearments into my fighting strategy."

"Fair enough, love," Xena’s good humor still obvious, "I think we’ve drilled enough anyway. Let’s get some lunch and then pack up to go to the compound.

They re-sheathed their swords and as they walked silently side by side back over to the Amazons, the smiles on both faces vanished, replaced with much more serious thoughts.

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

The sky had remained clear but the wind still blew with a cold bite, and all five travelers wore heavy wool cloaks over their leather and armor. The road was almost devoid of snow and was drying out nicely, making the journey more pleasant than it would have been had they been forced to make their way through mud. Xena and Gabrielle walked ahead of the other Amazons, their heads bent together in quiet conversation. Amarice and Rebina were behind them by a few yards, ducking slightly to keep their hoods from blowing back off their heads. Still further behind, Kallerine brought up the rear, her eyes constantly scanning the surrounding trees as she listened for any misplaced sound, her hands twitching slightly each time she thought she might need to draw her sword. The mood was pensive, all of them on edge, unsure of what they might encounter in the wake of Caesar’s death.

As they neared the spot where Loisha had said they had found the soldier’s fire ring, Xena stopped abruptly and held up a hand behind her to silence everyone. One nice thing about Amazons, Xena reflected, they’re accustomed to reading and using hand signals. After a brief nod to Gabrielle, she turned to face the other Amazons. "Stay put,"she hissed, and glided quietly to the side of the road and disappeared behind some trees, Gabrielle following silently behind her.

"There’s the ring over there," the warrior pointed. She walked carefully over to it, trying not to disturb any of the footprints already there. She knelt down next to the ashes and felt them with her long fingers. "They’re cool now. That’s a good sign. Hopefully they’re long gone." She picked up some small bones from the edge of the stones that made up the fire ring and studied them closely. "They had rabbit for dinner last night." She looked around for a moment. "Looks like there were four of them. See here?"

Gabrielle joined her, crouching down to observe as Xena explained her findings.

"There’s footprints from four different sizes of sandals, as well as four different horses. One of them is a rather large fellow. See how deep this one horse’s prints are?" The warrior stood up and offered a hand to the bard, drawing her to her feet as well.

"Couldn’t it just be a heavy horse?" Gabrielle questioned with interest.

"The prints are too small for it to be a large horse, yet they’re deep. He’s either carrying a large person or else he’s carrying a lot of gear. However, the Roman army tends to travel light. Therefore he must be carrying a large man," Xena responded matter-of-factly. "The poor horse," she added with a bemused chuckle. She studied the ground further, walking the perimeter of the fire ring several times, as Gabrielle stood to the side and watched. The bard was always amazed at Xena’s powers of deduction.

The warrior circled a tree and pulled several long coarse hairs from the bark. "At least one of the horses had a black tail, and one had a flaxen one," she observed, "and they were carrying oats for the horses to eat," she said as she knelt and pushed a few oat grains around on the ground with one finger.

"Their tracks lead out to the road over here," the warrior was thinking aloud now as she made her way back through the trees, stopping every few steps to study the ground. As they returned to the side of the road Xena knelt down again and then stood up, silently looking down the road toward the Roman compound. "Looks like they are headed the same way we are," the warrior stated grimly, "Hopefully, though, they’re pretty far ahead of us now. They left early this morning and apparently without cooking anything."

"How do you know that Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

"Those ashes are cold now. If they had cooked this morning they would still be warm. The fact that Loisha said they were warm when she found the ring this morning tells me they banked that fire before they went to sleep last night and simply let it die down. Looks like they left in a hurry," and she smiled as she held up a small shiny dagger she had tucked inside her cloak, "I found this behind the tree where they tied up their horses. There’s no rust on it so it couldn’t have been there long." She started to slip the dagger in her belt and then thought better of it. "Here, Gabrielle, if you do end up in a sword fight you will need a good dagger, something small you can grab easily if someone manages to disarm you," and she handed the gleaming weapon to her younger partner.

The bard tentatively took it and observed Caesar’s crest imbedded in the ivory hilt. She bit her lower lip and smiled up at Xena, "Thank you Xena," she simply said, and bent down to place the dagger in her boot, her borrowed boot. Gods she missed her own clothes.

"You’re welcome," Xena replied, trying to look less grave than she felt.

Xena started to make her way back to the head of the group when Gabrielle called to her, "Hey Xena, what kind of tracks are these?"

The warrior stopped and retraced her steps. The bard had walked a few yards ahead, following along right next to the tree line. "What tracks?" Xena asked.

"These," and Gabrielle pointed down at some rather large and very odd cloven hoof prints.

"Don’t know," the warrior responded after a few moments of study. Weird. "I’ve never seen anything like them," she answered honestly. The tracks were the size of a large farm horse, but cloven like an ox, yet definitely not ox prints.

"Well, they’re kind of like cow tracks, aren’t they?" the bard offered.

"Kind of . . ." Xena trailed off with a faraway look in her eye, "but they’re not. It’s almost as if . . ."

"As if what, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

"Nothing," Xena said.

The bard started to press the issue but as she looked at her partner’s face, she could tell that Xena was struggling with something, possibly fear. She’ll tell me what’s bothering her when she’s good and ready, the bard decided. "Come on Xena, let’s get going," Gabrielle patted the warrior on the back as the Amazons came up to join them.

Xena was still looking down at the tracks with a perplexed expression. What kind of ox walks on only two feet? She asked herself silently. Minotaur? Nah, too big. Very strange. The warrior felt an involuntarily shiver run down her spine. "Okay, let’s go to the compound," she finally said. And she straightened up and began walking away, but not without one more backward glance at the odd hoofprints.

As the group resumed their travels, Kallerine hung back and bent down to look at the prints to see for herself what Xena had been looking at. Hmmmmm . . . wicked. With a slight glint in her eyes she stood up and unconsciously laid a hand on one of the wooden stakes at her waist. If whatever made those tracks was anywhere near, she planned to be ready for it. She looked around and loped ahead to catch up with the others.

Amarice moved up beside Xena. "So, Xena, what’s the game plan once we get to the compound?" The tall red head asked.

"Well, first I’m gonna climb up on that rocky hill to the side of the compound and make sure no one is there. If it is deserted, we will just go in and look for my and Gabrielle’s clothes and my weapons and armor. If it’s not deserted, well depending on who we find there, we will just deal with them, one way or the other," the warrior replied.

"You mean we might get to kick some butt?" the Amazon said, almost hopefully.

"Maybe," Xena sighed. Amazons. They looked for fights. I suppose they think I look for them too. Maybe I do. "Amarice, listen to me," she continued, "you have to follow my orders or Gabrielle’s when we get to that compound, okay?"

"Well, of course, but," Amarice started to answer.

"No buts, Amarice," Gabrielle interrupted. "I’m the queen of the Amazons. We are grateful to you for bringing our . . . um . . . bodies to that inn, and for having the faith to go get Eli. Don’t misunderstand me on that point. However, you tend to act without thinking first and you’ve had the habit in the past of not obeying orders, and it has gotten you and us into a lot of trouble. I’ll be honest with you. You wouldn’t have been traveling with us if Xena didn’t respect your fighting skills as much as she does, and" the bard continued, "I respect Xena. I trust her completely. With my life. There are times in the heat of conflict when I have to just do what she says with no time for questions. I am queen, but Xena is in charge of this expedition. You all are in this scouting party as my Amazons, and that alone subjects you to my authority. Xena is my partner and she is an extension of me, and I will defer to her in all things. Therefore, you are to defer to her as well. If she or I give you, any of you," and she looked around at Rebina and Kallerine, "an order, you are to obey without question, you got that?"

"Yes my queen," Amarice bowed her head slightly, realizing that this was the courageous queen speaking, the one who had taken out those Roman soldiers.

"Good, I’m glad we have that settled," the bard said sternly, and she purposefully walked several yards ahead of the rest of the group, not seeing her stunned lover’s mouth fly open as the warrior watched her walk away.

Xena turned to the remaining Amazons, "Follow us. Slowly." And she ran ahead to catch up with her partner.

As she reached Gabrielle’s side she slowed her pace to match that of the fuming bard, and clasped her hands behind her back. The warrior cleared her throat. No response. She fidgeted a bit with her cloak. Still no response. She whistled a few notes, rolling her eyes to the side and quirking an eyebrow at her lover, as Gabrielle finally looked over at her.

"Dinar for your thoughts," Xena offered quietly.

The bard sighed deeply and reached up to pull her cloak more snugly around herself. "Xena, I’m just so tired of not having the respect of the Amazons, at least when it comes to leading them. I didn’t choose to be queen but I am, and I do accept the responsibility that comes with that."

"Gabrielle," the warrior said measuredly, "these three Amazons do respect you, especially Kallerine. Even Amarice has come around. She told me so while you were out on your walk with Kallerine yesterday."

"She did?"


"My reaction was a little out of proportion, huh?"

"Well, since you said it first, yes it was."

"I’m sorry. I guess I’m just on edge about going to that compound. You’ll have to admit it is the site of what now stands as my worst memory." The bard reflected silently. More than poisoning Hope. More than the violation of Dahak. More than that awful day when Xena dragged me across the countryside behind a horse and damn near killed me. She continued, "Amarice didn’t make things easier for us in that prison cell. She made things worse. I just want to make sure that she doesn’t do anything to get you, or us, killed again."

"Well, Gabrielle, I think the display of authority you just made will take care of that. You sure shut Amarice up, that’s for sure," and Xena grinned, thinking of the bard’s stern words. "You’d defer to me in all things, huh?" The warrior moved closer to her lover and draped an arm over the shorter girl’s shoulders. She pulled her cloak up to shield them from the view of the following Amazons and with her other hand she reached out and turned Gabrielle’s head to face her, and stopped for a moment to kiss her thoroughly, feeling a giddy shiver as their lips met.

A surprised bard pulled back on a ragged breath and with her eyes half-closed, looked up at the warrior, "yeah, all things." Gabrielle leaned into Xena for one more quick kiss, reveling in the warmth between their bodies, and then they walked on, the warrior’s arm still draped around her.

"That’s something else, too, Xena," Gabrielle said after they had walked a little way.

"What is?"

"That. I mean this, or us," the bard stumbled for words, "you do realize that was just this morning, don’t you?"

"Um . . . yes . . . I do," Xena was concentrating on the floral smell of the soap they used, as it lingered in Gabrielle’s hair and skin. This close it was almost intoxicating. "I guess it’s been a pretty eventful day, huh?"

"Very," the bard smiled and pulled Xena a little closer to her side, "and remember, I’m not done with you yet."

"Gabrielle," the warrior looked at her lover with a feral smile, "I hope you’re never done with me."

"Count on it."

"Oh, I am."

They continued on ahead of the others, exchanging little endearments, until they reached the crest of the next hill, and there below them was the compound. Xena felt Gabrielle’s shoulders stiffen beneath her arm, and she leaned over and kissed the bard on the top of her head, forgetting the Amazons behind them. "Gabrielle, it’s okay. I’m here with you. This time we are walking in there and out of there together."

"I know. It’s just hard," and Gabrielle closed her eyes for a minute, took a deep breath, and steeled herself to face the scene of her worst nightmare, the scene of her partner’s worse nightmare. She turned to Xena, "Okay, let’s go."

"That’s my bard," the warrior replied with obvious affection.

They stopped and waited for the others to catch up to them. "Okay Amarice, you and I are going to go up to the top of those rocks overlooking the compound," Xena said, pointing over to the ominous boulders that Amarice remembered all too well. "Kallerine, you and Gabrielle stand around the corner from the gates where I can see you, but where if anyone else comes out, you can hide quickly. Rebina, you go to the far side of the compound, once again, where I can see you. Amarice and I are going to scope things out. Wait for my signal before you make any moves. Any questions?"

The Amazons all nodded negatively, and they closed in on the remaining yards to the compound. The warrior stood back and motioned for the others to keep walking, and she pulled Kallerine aside. "Kallerine, I want you to keep an eye on Gab . . . your queen. I’m not taking her up to the rocks with me because I don’t know what we might see in there. It’s only been three days and I doubt anyone has done any . . . um . . . cleaning up since they killed us. This is really hard on her. I want to see what we’re up against before I take her in there."

"Sure," the young Amazon replied, and she ran to catch up with the bard.

"Come on Amarice, let’s start climbing," Xena said, and she crouched down and leaped up into the air, tucking her knees under herself and doing a lazy flip that landed her on top of the first boulder. She grinned, pleased with herself, and leaned down to offer Amarice a hand up. "That was the hardest step. I think we can climb the rest fairly easily."

Amarice’s lips were pursed in a thin line as she remembered the last time she had climbed these boulders. She concentrated on following Xena’s steps, allowing the warrior to pick out the easiest path up. The Amazon tried really hard not to think about what they might see in the compound.

Xena reached a spot where she could see clearly into the courtyard on the inside of the gates. She knelt down behind a large rock and quickly scanned the scene below. Damn. The crosses still lay where Amarice had chopped them down, the blood stains where their hands and feet had been obviously visible even from where they crouched. Xena closed her eyes for a moment, remembering.

She had been in such pain from the waist up from the beating, and could feel nothing from the waist down. She had woken up, aware that she was resting in someone’s arms. Gabrielle? She had turned her head and looked up to see the bard’s tear-stained face above her own. She had swallowed, her throat searing, and she was chilled, probably from fever. She had wanted so badly to say something, anything to Gabrielle to make things better, knowing she couldn’t. She told Gabrielle not to cry, an absurd request at best given their circumstances.

They talked about Gabrielle killing the soldiers and the bard had assured her that it was not Xena’s fault. That she had freely chosen to try to protect her. Xena had tried to concentrate, knowing she was already dying. She had thought of all the times Gabrielle had put up with her bad moods, and being left behind, and taking orders, and all the horrible things she had done to the bard during that whole mess with Dahak, and Hope, and Solon. Did the bard know she was sorry? She had apologized for all the times she had treated her friend so badly, and once again Gabrielle had redeemed her soul, telling her that she had saved the bard, that she had seen things in her no one else did.

On some level Xena knew that was true. If they hadn’t met Gabrielle would have been sold as a slave. Even if she had somehow escaped, she would have married Perdicus and ended up a wife and mother in Potadeia, and all the bard’s stories and her imagination and her dreams would have died. Xena thought of all the times she had sat by their campfires at night and watched Gabrielle write her stories. She’d never taken the time to read them. Not even once, always thinking that someday she’d find the time. She told Gabrielle she wished she had read the scrolls.

Xena returned to the present for a moment. I will read your scrolls, love, I promise you that. The last she knew, Gabrielle had left them in the Amazon village for safekeeping.

So much of the rest of that last day was foggy to the warrior. She had drifted in and out of consciousness. She vaguely remembered being dragged out to the cross in the courtyard, and couldn’t see much but the feet of the soldiers who carried her. They had laid her on the cross and she had turned to see them tying Gabrielle down on a cross next to her. Her heart was breaking and there was nothing she could do. She had summoned up what was left of her strength, and tried to say Gabrielle’s name, barely able to talk loudly enough for the bard to hear. She had to tell her. She had to let her know. Gabrielle, you were the best thing in my life. And Gabrielle had looked at her and smiled, and told her she loved her.

They had just looked at each other and Xena had tried to project all the love she could to her soulmate. And then, in horror, she had watched as one of the soldiers had placed the first spike against Gabrielle’s palm. The brave bard had jerked her head away, looking toward the sky, and as the mallet fell had not made a sound. Xena remembered her own body jerking in response to the sound that mallet made, and crying out in anguish as she watched. She was helpless. She wanted to come flying off that cross and kill those soldiers, and hold Gabrielle to her and make it all go away, like a bad dream. If only she could take all the pain away that she knew her soulmate was feeling. But she couldn’t.

She barely remembered them nailing her own hands and ankles down, because her mind was too filled with the knowledge that her best friend lay dying next to her, a friend who would be alive if it weren’t for the choice she had made to spend her life with her. She tried to fathom the fact that time was up. That her vision was coming true and the thing she had feared most was happening. For the first time she was not going to be able to rescue her best friend. They wouldn’t be traveling together anymore. She didn’t even know if they were going to the same place. She might never hug Gabrielle again, never look into those beautiful green eyes or listen to her stories or sit while the bard brushed Xena’s hair again. So many things she would miss, that she had taken for granted. They were going to die and there wasn’t a gods-be-damned thing she could do about it. Everything went dark. And then to Xena’s delight, they had gone to the Elysian Fields. Together. And discovered they were in love.

The warrior opened her eyes and shook her head to clear the thoughts out. She looked carefully around the rest of the compound and could see no signs that anyone was still there. No animals were there. She lifted her face and carefully sniffed the air. No smell of animals either. The water in the trough was low and dirty, as if it hadn’t been replenished for a few days. "Amarice, there’s a change in plans. Go get Rebina and Kallerine and meet me by the gate. There’s no one in there. I need to talk to Gabrielle."

Amarice nodded in agreement and started to climb down the rocks. Xena signaled to the other Amazons to stay put. The warrior jumped from boulder to boulder and made her way around the corner to Gabrielle.

"Kallerine, go join Amarice and Rebina," Xena asked. Kallerine looked from warrior to bard and walked away, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand.

Xena turned to Gabrielle and Gabrielle’s heart froze at the evident anguish on her partner’s face.

"Xena, what is it? What’s wrong?" the bard searched the warrior’s eyes.

The warrior took one of Gabrielle’s hands in both of hers and squeezed it, "Gabrielle, this is going to be very hard. Everything is basically the same as when Amarice left here with our bodies, with us. It’s pretty gruesome, love. If you want I can have the Amazons do some cleaning up in there before we go in. That way you won’t have to see it."

"No Xena, I want to go in now. Need to see it. Need to know it was real and try to get past it," she rubbed the back of Xena’s hand with her thumb, "just promise me you’ll be right there with me."

"Always, love," Xena said softly, and she reached out and gently traced the bard’s jawline. Wordlessly, the warrior took Gabrielle’s hand and led her to the gates of the compound. They joined the Amazons and it took all five of them to push the large doors open. Xena looked down at her partner and squeezed her hand, and they walked in together, the Amazons holding back at the entrance to give them some privacy.

Gabrielle dropped Xena’s hand and walked silently over to the cross that had been her’s and looked down at it for a moment, noting the dark rusty blood stains where her hands and feet had been. Then she walked over to Xena’s cross. She knelt down and traced the blood stains where Xena’s ankles had been. She got up and moved to the head of the cross and bent over, pulling up a few strands of long raven hair that she found caught in the splinters of the rough wood. She stood up and clutched the hairs in her fist and held them to her chest, and felt the tears brimming in her eyes until everything became a blur.

Xena observed quietly from a few feet behind the bard. She saw Gabrielle begin to tremble and watched as her partner slowly sank to her knees and her body wracked silently. The warrior quickly closed the space between them, dropped to her own knees, wrapped strong arms around her lover, and rocked her as the bard took in a large gulp of air and let out a long agonized cry.

"Ohhhhhhhh . . ."

"It’s alright love, I’ve got you, let it out" Xena continued to rock Gabrielle and stroke her short blonde hair, planting small kisses on top of her head, as the bard clutched the front of Xena’s cloak with both hands and leaned into the warrior’s strong body. After several minutes Xena felt her partner’s sobs begin to subside, and heard a few small hiccups. She lifted one arm from around the bard and reached down to brush the tears from Gabrielle’s face.

As her equilibrium slowly returned, Gabrielle gradually lessened her hold on Xena’s cloak and pulled away a little. "I’m sorry, Xena, I didn’t know I was going to react that way. I guess until now it was all like a very bad dream. It was real, wasn’t it?"

The warrior smoothed her hand across the top of her partner’s head, "yes, love, it was real, all of it, even our time in the Fields afterward. Try to remember that whenever this part of it becomes too much, okay?"

"Okay," Gabrielle said, as she sniffled and smiled at the same time. "Help me up?"

Without thinking, Xena scooped the bard up in her arms like a child and carried her over to a low wooden bench next to the building and sat her down. "Gabrielle, rest here for a minute while I take a look around, please?"

The bard mutely nodded in agreement and leaned back against the cool stone of the building, her head pounding from crying so hard.

"Kallerine, stay out here with Gabrielle," the warrior barked, "Rebina and Amarice, come with me."

As Xena and her companions opened the door to the compound and went in, Kallerine crossed the distance of the Courtyard. "Queen Gabrielle," she knelt down at the bard’s feet and offered her a water skin, "Here, have a drink. You look like you could use it."

"Thanks," Gabrielle said, grasping the skin in both hands and taking several large thirsty gulps.

"Can I get you anything?" the young Amazon asked.

"No thanks, Kallerine, just sit here with me. That’s enough," the bard said, her voice still husky from crying.

"She really loves you, you know," Kallerine said.

"I know," Gabrielle stated. "And I love her. More than I ever thought it was possible to love anyone. Remembering what they did to her here, it hurts. It hurts a lot. I’m not used to seeing Xena in a place of weakness, and to remember what it was like to see her completely helpless, knowing how much she hates not having control. Two of them held me back and made me watch while they beat her, Kallerine, and she couldn’t even stand up to defend herself. Knowing how much she loves me and that she had to watch while they . . . did what they did . . . it tears me up in places so deep that I don’t know if they will ever heal."

"Queen Gabrielle," Kallerine patted the bard’s knee, "it will heal. I really believe that. The love you share will heal it. It is just going to take a lot of time."

"Has your pain healed?" Gabrielle asked earnestly, remembering that Kallerine had her own demons to fight.

The young Amazon looked down for a moment and then raised her eyes to meet her queen’s. "I think so. I mean it never goes completely away. You just go along and one day you realize the world seems normal again. It’s a different normal from when my parents were alive, but nonetheless, it is normal. I think the support I get from my sisters in the Amazon village has gone a long way for me toward healing. Of course, I don’t have anything like what you and Xena have. I’m a little young for that, I suppose. I do have a purpose, and that is to slay bacchae. I will keep doing that until I die or find my sister, whichever comes first."

Gabrielle patted Kallerine’s hand where it rested on her leg. "You are one of the bravest people I have ever met. You will find love someday, Kallerine, I’ve no doubt about that."

Kallerine blushed at her queen’s compliment and didn’t know what to say, other than, "Thanks."

Inside, Xena moved from room to room, not finding a whole lot left behind. She finally reached the back of the building and came upon the small cell she and Gabrielle had shared before the crucifixion. The door to the cell was open and the warrior walked inside, shivering at her memories. On the floor she spied a club spattered with dried blood. That’s the club they beat her with. The rage rose in Xena’s chest and she bent down, snatched up the club, and broke it over her upraised knee, savagely flinging the broken pieces across the cell with an angry yell. She looked over at two surprised Amazons and took a few deep breaths to lower her blood pressure.

"Sorry, just reacting to some bad memories." She apologized.

"It’s okay," Rebina said quietly.

Xena merely nodded and walked out of the cell back into the outer room. She looked around and saw a metal and leather heap, mixed with some yellow material, laying in a corner. Her eyes widened and she motioned for the two silent Amazons to follow her. She walked over and knelt down in the corner and sorted through the pile.

It was her leathers and armor, which were in surprisingly good condition. All they would need was a little saddle soap and polish. Even her boots were there. To her delight, underneath the leather she found the small breast daggar that Gabrielle had bought so long ago. She tucked it into her cleavage with a grin and then she picked up the tattered shreds of yellow material, recognizing them as what was left of the outfit the bard had worn since they went to India. She subconsciously lifted the material to her face, taking in the scent that was Gabrielle. Guess we’ll be getting you some new clothes, love. She thought grimly. She rolled the scraps up and tucked them inside a pocket in her cloak. Picking up her leathers, she rose and looked around.

They probably took my sword, she realized, but the Chakram, would they have taken that? It would have been useless to them broken. And they would probably have cut their own heads off had it not been, she chuckled to herself, almost wishing she could see such a sight.

"Amarice, do you remember seeing anyone do anything with my Chakram?"

The tall red head thought for a moment. "No. But I didn’t watch every single second." Part of the time I was puking behind one of those rocks, she added silently.

"Well, let’s keep looking," the warrior said, realizing that there weren’t any rooms left they hadn’t checked. "Amarice, you and Rebina go through all these rooms one more time. I’m going to go out back and see if I can find anything out there. The compound had no back door so she went toward the front, using it as an excuse to check on her lover before she went behind the building.

She walked back out into the sunlight and squinted. She saw Kallerine and the bard, deep in conversation on the low bench where she had left them, and went over and sat down next to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, I found our clothes."

"Oh, Xena, good," her partner’s eyes lit up.

"Don’t get too excited." She pulled the tattered shreds from her cloak pocket.

"Oh," the bard chewed on a lower lip for a moment. "Xena, we’re going to have to go shopping."

Xena chuckled as her lover visibly brightened. "Gabrielle, when this is settled we will shop wherever you want to for as long as you want to. I . . ." The sun kept glinting off something metal underneath a water trough, throwing light into the warrior’s eyes. Annoyed, she kept having to shift her position, to no avail. Shifting again, she searched for the source of the glare and her heart jumped into her throat.

"Be right back," and the warrior got up and practically ran to the trough and looked beneath it. No. It can’t be. She knelt down and began furiously pawing at a pile of dirt under the trough, out from which protruded the edge of . . . her chakram. She yanked up the two halves of the broken weapon and held them up, turning around for the bard to see.

"Oh my gods, "Gabrielle cried out, and ran over to her partner’s side. "Oh, Xena," the bard traced the jagged edges where the chakram had broken. That broke when it made contact with her spine, the bard shuddered, unconsciously reaching behind her partner and gently massaging her lower back.

Xena fitted the broken ends of the weapon together and jumped.

"Xena, what’s wrong," Gabrielle asked with some concern.

"I don’t know. When I put the ends together, I felt something, almost like a current running through me. Kind of like when you walk on a rug in the winter and those little sparks fly up when you shuffle your feet." The warrior put the broken chakram together once more and felt it again. "Weird."

"Maybe you shouldn’t do that," the bard cautioned.

"Maybe not," Xena responded absently. Ares’ gift. I have several questions for a certain god of war the next time I see him. She carefully wrapped the pieces of the chakram in the remains of Gabrielle’s clothes and tucked the package into her inner cloak pocket.

They turned back toward the building just as a triumphant pair of Amazons came out the front door. "Xena, we found your sword," Rebina beamed and Amarice placed the long instrument in the hands of a very stunned warrior.

"Where was it?" Xena asked.

"There was a high narrow shelf behind the door of that inner room where you found your armor. It was laying up there. We just missed it the first time because we never looked behind the door."

"Thank you," the warrior said simply, and she drew the familiar weapon from its scabbard, looking with approval at the good condition it was in. The last time she had seen it Gabrielle . . . had killed seven or eight soldiers with it, she reminded herself . Someone must have cleaned it up thinking they were going to keep it. Good. I’m glad she didn’t have to be reminded of that as well.

Just then, a very solemn bard reached over and ran one small shaking finger down the flat edge of the blade. Gabrielle stilled herself and looked up at her partner, managing a slight smile. "The path of friendship, Xena," she said quietly.

Without a word, Xena picked up the bard’s finger and pressed it to her lips in a kiss.

"Well, our mission here is a success. Let’s find a place to make camp for tonight, and tomorrow we will head back to the Amazon village." The warrior looked around, realizing that under other circumstances the protected shelter of the deserted compound would have been an ideal place to sleep, but knew that none of them had any desire to spend another minute in that place. "Gabrielle and I need to regroup and restock some supplies, and then we’ll probably go on to Mt. Olympus."

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

After a few candle marks Xena located a small cave she remembered from her warrior days. It was a short walk through a grove of trees, the opening tucked up under a long low outcropping of rock. "I’m going in to check it out. Make sure there aren’t any bears or anything in there. You all wait here at the entrance," the warrior commanded. She drew her sword and took slow measured steps into the dark cave, her ears attuned to every sound. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light she walked with steadily growing confidence. And then she smelled it. Blood. She approached a corner and stopped, pressing her body up against the wall. As she peered around the edge of the cool damp rock she saw two female figures curled up fast asleep, both laying on a ledge against the far wall that made up one side of the large inner room of the cave. A dead Roman soldier lay on the ground in the center of the room. Damn. Quietly, she made her way back to the cave entrance and motioned for the others to follow her.

When they were several yards from the cave she stopped them. "We’ll have to keep moving. We can’t stay in there," she said with regret. The sun was getting low in the sky and the wind was getting colder. She didn’t relish the thought of sleeping without some sort of shelter. And the cave would have allowed them to build a bigger fire, as it would hide the smoke from any potential enemies.

"Xena, why can’t we stay here? What’s in there?" Gabrielle looked questioningly at her partner.

"Bacchae," the warrior said flatly, "and one dead soldier."

"Ewww," Gabrielle made a face, remembering their last encounter with bacchae.

Kallerine stepped forward and pulled a wooden stake from her belt, "Bacchae? No problem."

Xena regarded her for a moment. The bacchae slayer. "Kallerine, there’s two of them."

"Like I said, no problem," the young Amazon repeated, a faint glint in her large brown eyes, "I’m going in."

"Kallerine, I’m going with you," Xena said, as she laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

"Okay, but only if you follow me. And stay out of the way,"

Xena fought back a brief surge of anger. Not many people ever told the warrior princess to stay out of the way. Okay, Xena, calm down. She’s obviously confident about this. And she doesn’t know you very well. She meant no disrespect. She took a deep breath and met Kallerine’s eyes with a steady smile, "Sure. Lead on, slayer."

Gabrielle giggled silently, watching her tall dark partner submit to the much younger Amazon. It was a rare moment. Xena sensed the slight movement of her lover’s subdued laughter and briefly turned around to look at the bard, rolling her blue eyes. The bard shook harder.

"Whatsamatter?" Xena asked, trying to look stern, without much success.

"Oh, nothing," the bard managed to be still. "Xena, Kallerine, be careful," she added on a serious note.

"This won’t take long," Kallerine stated. And she made determined strides toward the cave, a curious warrior in tow.

They walked stealthily down the narrow corridor. Kallerine’s eyes had immediately adjusted to the dark, something she had always been able to do. She felt the strength rising from her gut and she licked her lips in anticipation of the coming fight. She looked back over her shoulder at Xena, "Where are they?"

"Up ahead, just around that next corner."

"Here." The Amazon handed Xena a wooden stake. "Just in case."

"What’s this for?" a confused warrior asked.

"Just hold on and watch me," Kallerine replied.

Xena shrugged to herself and took the rough object.

They reached the corner and Kallerine looked around it, locating the two sleeping bacchae. The hairs at the nape of her neck rose and her fingers twitched around the stake. Better get this done. The sun is going to set and these two will be waking, she mused to herself. She held the flat of her palm against Xena’s chest, willing her to stay put. The warrior watched in amazement as the Amazon stole quietly over to the bacchae and knelt down next to them. She looked at both of them very carefully and grinned back at Xena. "Neither of these two is my sister," she whispered, "let’s have some fun."

Kallerine cocked a foot back and with one swift kick sent the sleeping bacchae nearest to Xena flying against the far wall with a loud thud. "Wake up, bitch!" the Amazon growled. The bacchae stood up and showed long fangs and dagger-like black fingernails, hissing and spluttering. It circled Kallerine, who tore into the creature with several swift punches to the stomach and face. Then she stepped back and swung her body around, landing a round-house kick soundly against the side of the bacchae’s head. The creature shrieked and fell to the floor. The Amazon crouched over the fallen bacchae and drew the stake up over her head, driving it hard into the middle of the creature’s chest.

As Xena watched in fascination, the bacchae turned to a puff of dust and disappeared. She had been so enthralled with watching the slayer that she let her defenses down, forgetting the other bacchae, who had quietly woken up. Without warning, it leaped through the air, knocking the surprised warrior to the ground. Xena felt sharp nails closing around her neck and looked up to see ugly yellow fangs inches from her face, and dimly heard Kallerine’s voice, "Xena, use the stake. Aim for the heart!"

The warrior felt the stake in her hand and quickly slammed it into the chest of the creature, and just like the other bacchae, it disappeared in a poof of dust. Cool. Xena stood up and brushed herself off, quite pleased with her new-found skill. "Kallerine, that was amazing. We’re going to be traveling together for a few more days. You’re going to have to tell me everything you know about killing bacchae."

"Sure," the young Amazon said, proud that she had actually done something to impress the warrior princess. "I’ll go gather some firewood and tell the others it’s safe to come in."

"Great, thanks," Xena smiled and then wrinkled her nose, "and I’ll drag that soldier out of here."

Kallerine gathered the two stakes and tucked them back into her leather belt loops. She glanced at the warrior with a thoughtful look and made her way back down the corridor toward the cavern entrance. Xena leaned over and picked up the soldier, balancing him across her shoulders. With a slight grunt, she raised up and carried the heavy burden out of the cave. Past the watching eyes of Gabrielle and the Amazons. Several yards away she dumped the body on the ground and having no shovel to dig a grave, she gathered stones and covered him up. "That’ll do for now," she turned back and eyed the small group, "right before we leave tomorrow we’ll burn the body. By the time the smoke can draw anyone here we’ll be gone. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s go in and make camp while we still have light."

A few candle marks later a very welcome fire was burning in the center of the inner room and the bard was crouched down next to it stirring a pot of rabbit stew that hung between two spits. While Kallerine had gathered wood and started the fire, Xena had gone hunting and found the small animal. That, along with a few odd vegetables they had packed and some herbs Gabrielle had taken from the inn made dinner. Rebina sat near the fire in quiet thought and Amarice was a few feet away sitting on a rock, sharpening her sword. Kallerine was rearranging their packs and checking their water supply, while much further away, sitting against the far wall of the room, Xena was busy polishing her armor, having already plied her leathers with saddle soap and set them aside.

The warrior cocked an ear, detecting an unidentified noise outside the cave. As the sound grew louder she recognized it as horse’s hooves. She closed her eyes and concentrated. One horse, approaching toward them at a sure steady pace. "Someone’s coming. Amarice, you have your sword out. Follow me. The rest of you stay here." Xena rose up and drew her own sword, and with slow deliberate steps walked toward the entrance of the cave, still listening to the approaching horse. Suddenly a familiar whinny rang out. "Argo?!" A huge smile claimed the warrior’s face and she dropped her sword to the ground with a clank, and ran the remaining distance of the corridor, coming to the entrance with a round of joyful back flips.

A very tired Argo met her, thumping the warrior’s stomach with a soft muzzle. Xena buried her face in the horse’s main and almost, almost cried, remembering a time when the palomino was her only friend and traveling companion. "Hey girl, you made it. I knew you would. Oh, Argo, I’m so glad they didn’t get you." She continued to coo at the horse until she heard a throat clear behind her. She whirled around to find bemused green eyes twinkling at her.

"I, um . . . was just welcoming Argo back. See, she’s here, she’s . . . ," a very sheepish-feeling warrior tried to save face. Caught. Heaping terms of endearment upon a horse. Damn.

"Xena, that is so cute," Gabrielle giggled.

"Cute!" the warrior exclaimed with outrage.

"Yeah, cute," and the bard moved in behind Xena and wrapped her arms around her waist, "but your secret’s safe with me. Wouldn’t want everyone to think you were losing that tough edge, now would we?" she teased.

"Gabrielle, I am . . . not . . . losing my edge . . . umph!" and she was silenced by the soft lips of her partner.

A spark shot from the warrior’s lips to her feet, and she almost lost her balance at the sudden contact. And then she found herself melting into it for a long moment, only coming up for air when Argo bumped her from behind, almost sending her sprawling on top of her lover. Which wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing.

Both women laughed.

"Xena, why don’t you take care of Argo and then come on back inside? The stew is almost ready," Gabrielle patted the warrior on the stomach.

"Okay," Xena ruffled the short blonde hair and then lifted her head and sniffed the scent of dinner with appreciation, "smells good, love. See you in half a candle mark."

As the bard ducked back inside the cave, Xena moved around to the saddlebags the Amazons had thoughtfully remembered to send with the horse and withdrew a curry comb, and set to work giving the mare’s soft coat a short brushing. She then traded the curry comb for a larger-toothed flat one, working the tangles out of the flaxen mane and tail, and finished by cleaning the dirt out of the animal’s hooves and working a little olive oil into the hard outer cuticle of each hoof. She placed the grooming kit back into the saddle bags and removed a pouch of oats, hanging it from a low branch. Argo nickered contentedly and began to munch on the sweet-smelling grains. Xena shouldered the saddlebags and patted the mare on the rump, "sleep tight, Argo. Glad you’re back."

Argo paused for a moment and answered with a short snort, and then returned to feasting on the oats. The warrior chuckled and started to go back into the cave. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a flash, and looked up to see a single shooting star blazing across the sky. She stopped and closed her eyes and made a wish, something she had done ever seen since she was a little girl.

It was a game she used to play with her brothers, Lyceus and Toris. As children they would sit outside in the evenings after dinner and try to be the first one to spot the first star to rise. The winner got to make a wish. They had believed a shooting star meant that certainly the wish would come true.

As she became an adult Xena knew better logically, but still the child in her couldn’t help but hope that a shooting star would bring some sort of special magic. Over the years her wishes had changed as she had changed. A pony. An apple tart. A new pair of boots. To beat her brothers and the other village children in the foot races they played at. The wishes of a girl. Gradually they changed to the wishes of a young woman. To be seen as pretty by the village boys. To fall in love. To find something more from life than a small out-of-the-way village like Amphipolis had to offer.

There had been the heart-breaking wishes as well. That she would wake up in the morning and Lyceus would still be alive. That the father she could barely remember would come home. That she would fit in with the other young people of the village, when she was so obviously different. She had started to grow tall at an early age, and for a long time was awkward, all gangly arms and legs. Gradually she had grown more sure of herself and had come to fit into her own skin.

She had always been strong and athletic, but it was as an adolescent that she began to realize that her skills and abilities were out of the ordinary, something she tried to hide. Still, when she was teased about her height or angered in any way, her amazing strength would come forth, often with disastrous results. She didn’t really have any friends, and sometimes that was her wish, to have one true friend in the world.

Well, guess I have that now, she smiled, thinking of the bard before returning to her memories.

After Lyceus was killed and she left Amphipolis, after her heart had become hard, and she had begun to build her army, for a long while she had simply forgotten to dream, or even look up at the stars at all. She lived in a dark place where the only wish in her heart was to kill and conquer and destroy. To rule Greece and force her subjects to submit to her through fear and manipulation. And she had almost succeeded. Then her army had turned on her and she had met Hercules, and had come to see a different way of living. And had vowed to spend the rest of her life atoning for the atrocities she had committed.

She and Hercules parted ways, and she had wandered alone through the foothills with Argo for several weeks, staying away from people and pondering what to do next. She had at first thought that the only way to move forward was to lay down her sword and give up any kind of fighting. She had buried her weapons and armor near Potadeia and was about to go home to try to make amends with her mother, when she happened upon a group of slave traders harassing a group of Potadeian villagers.

As she watched, a young village girl with long strawberry-blonde hair had stepped forward and bravely stood up to the large burly men, begging them to take her and let the others go. It was the first time she ever saw Gabrielle. At that moment the warrior had stepped forward to intervene, and was startled by the intense green eyes of the girl as she gazed up at her. Xena had summoned her fighting skills and used them to drive away the slavers, and liking the way that felt, had decided that she would continue fighting, but against evil instead of for it.

After Gabrielle followed her to Amphipolis, and after the bard had convinced her to let her stay, and still much later when they had become comfortable being around each other, she and Gabrielle had started to star-gaze together in the evenings. They would lay on their bedrolls and talk, and plan, and dream. And the warrior had started to make wishes again.

"Xena, are you coming in? You’ve been out here for almost a candle mark," Gabrielle interrupted the warrior’s dreaming, "It’s getting really cold love. The Amazons have already eaten and are getting ready to go to sleep." Gabrielle moved forward and draped the warrior’s cloak around her bare shoulders.

The warrior continued to look up at the sky for a moment, making her wish again as a silent prayer up into the inky blackness and then she turned around, "sorry, I saw a shooting star and I . . ."

"You stopped to make a wish," the bard said with a gentle smile, remembering all those campfire chats.

"Yeah. Thanks for bringing my cloak out."

"You’re welcome." The bard patted her on the shoulder. "Well, don’t stay out too much longer, or I’m going to have to finish off the stew by myself," and Gabrielle went back into the cave, but not without a backward glance at her partner, who had turned back around and was once again looking dreamily up at the night sky.

The warrior whispered her wish one last time before she went in, "Please, please, let her stay with me. Always."

She walked back down the corridor and dropped the saddle bags at the opening of the inner room and made her way over to an empty space next to the bard. Gabrielle picked up a mug of stew that was resting near the fire and handed it to her partner. A grateful warrior accepted it, feeling her stomach growl. "Thanks, Gabrielle." She made short work of finishing off the mug and was happy to see there was enough for seconds.

She ate the second helping more slowly, mentally running over the events of the day. Argo’s back. We found a safe place to sleep. I learned how to slay a bacchae. Found my armor. And my sword. And my chakram. Saw the Amazons off safely.

Xena paused for a moment and took another sip of the stew. It wasn’t all good. My chakram’s broken. She remembered watching her anguished partner in the compound. And for the first time having one-on-one sword drills with the peaceful bard. But that’s not the only thing we did today one-on-one.

She drained the mug and a brief smile played across her lips, remembering soft skin and the bard’s tentative touches, which had grown more and more sure as they had explored each other physically for the first time. She recalled the look in her lover’s eyes right before they closed, at the moment it became apparent that the warrior was taking her to a place she had never been before. A delicious shiver raced across Xena’s skin as she thought of her own response to her partners’s attentions. No one had ever made her feel the things she felt with Gabrielle. Ever. It was like we could read each other’s minds, like we could feel each other’s feelings. I felt completely loved. And I love her completely. Soulmates. The warrior turned to regard the object of her thoughts and found her partner looking back at her.

"Xena, did you get enough to eat? We have some flatbread. Are you still hungry?" the bard asked. She had watched the warrior practically inhale the first mug of stew and then attack half of a second one before she had slowed down, and apparently wandered far away from the fire, lost in dreams again.

The warrior looked around the room for a moment. The Amazons had already curled up on their bedrolls on the far side of the room. The soft breathing noises of sleep could be heard, as the exhaustion of the day had quickly caught up with them. Satisfied they had some semblance of privacy, Xena smiled a feral smile and leaned in close. "Gabrielle," she purred, "I’m afraid my hunger will have to wait for a few more nights."

"But Xena, we have food," a confused bard spoke, digging around inside one of their packs and pulling out some trail rations, "if you don’t want flat bread we have other options. See . . ?"

"Gabrielle," a husky voice drew out the name, "trail rations ain’t gonna cut it."

Gabrielle looked up to see fiery violet eyes slowly making their way appreciatively from the top of her head all the way down to her toes, and back up, coming to rest on her face. Xena unconsciously licked her lips and smiled.

"Oh," Gabrielle said with sudden comprehension, and she felt a blush creeping up her chest into her neck.

"Gabrielle, are you too warm?" the warrior teased, noting the color in her partner’s face, "perhaps you’re too close to the fire."

"Perhaps I’m not close enough," the bard replied with a low sensuous whisper, so as not to wake the Amazons, "in case you hadn’t noticed, warrior princess, or bedrolls are decidedly missing from this room. While you were out hunting down dinner I explored a little." The bard stood up and held out both hands to her mute partner.

Xena quirked an eyebrow and placed her hands in her lover’s, allowing herself to be drawn to her feet. Gabrielle led her to the entrance of the room and down the corridor, making a left turn down another short corridor, and through a low entrance that led to a small antechamber. A crackling fire burned low in the middle of the cozy room, and a few candles were scattered about, throwing dancing shadows across the walls. Their sleeping furs were spread out next to the fire and a bucket of water hung from a thick wooden stake that had been pounded into the wall so that the bucket sat high above the flames, just close enough to warm the water. A gentle steam was rising from it, the scent of lavender evident in the air.

Gabrielle walked over and retrieved a wine skin from beneath the furs where she had set it to warm. She uncapped it and motioned for Xena to join her. A stunned warrior made her way to her partner’s side and the bard held the wine skin up to her lover’s lips. Xena took a sip. Spiced wine, the warrior tasted with delight. She took the wine skin from her lover and returned the favor.

"Gabrielle, how . . . why . . . ," Xena trailed off, speechless.

"Xena . . . this morning was . . . wonderful. Unexpected. More than I had ever hoped it could be. I knew today was going to be hard on both of us. I think the physical aspect of our relationship has already gone a long way toward . . . um . . . healing. I know it has for me," she looked up at her partner with a smile, "I decided if I had any chance at all I wanted to do something really special for you tonight. I didn’t know where we might end up sleeping, but just in case, I packed a few extra things. Come here."

She led her lover over to the steaming water and reached up to undo the clasps that held on the borrowed Amazon armor. It fell to the ground. Next she undid the laces of the leathers and gently peeled them down the warrior’s long muscular body, and then removed her boots, leaving a very naked Xena shivering a bit. Gabrielle smiled and reached down to pick up a sea sponge and a bar of soap, which also smelled of lavender. She dipped the sponge into the water and lathered it up and then lifted it and began working it in a circular motion across the warrior’s back and shoulders, and down to the backs of her legs. She lifted the bucket and poured just enough water to rinse.

"Now for the front," and she turned her lover around. She once again set to work with the sponge, and Xena closed her eyes, feeling the tension of the day gradually drain from her muscles. Another quick rinse and then Gabrielle dried her clean-smelling partner off with a towel, finishing by wrapping the towel around the tall body before her, tucking the ends in so it would stay put.

During the bathing they had been trading sips from the wineskin, and between the drink, the fire, and her partner’s touches, the warrior was now quite warm. "Thanks, love. Here, your turn," Xena knelt down and unlaced the bard’s boots, lifting each foot in turn to pull them off. She stood and slowly removed the long shirt her partner had changed into earlier, and began to bathe Gabrielle, taking her time and enjoying the quiet look of adoration on her lover’s face.

Xena took another towel and began to dry the bard, working her way down until she was once again kneeling at her partner’s feet to dry firm muscular calves, which she couldn’t help but kiss. She began to kiss her way up the tanned legs, feeling nimble fingers tangling in her hair. She tentatively tasted some more sensitive places and heard a sharp intake of breath.

"What was that? Gabrielle, I didn’t quite catch it," the warrior teased, continuing to enjoy the sweetness of her lover.

Xena felt blunt nails digging into her shoulders and heard a few incoherent whimpers escape from the back of the bard’s throat. Smiling, she nibbled her way up Gabrielle’s washboard stomach and finally reached waiting lips. And felt the towel around her being unwrapped as insatiable hands began to claim her and their bodies made contact.

As the kisses became more urgent Gabrielle managed to pull herself away, and with a sultry smile asked, "still hungry?"

"Oh, yeah," the warrior rumbled, and she scooped the bard up and carried her over to their bedroll, laying her gently down. Xena hovered over her lover, her weight resting on her forearms, and had one last coherent thought. Time for dessert. And she lowered herself to feast.

Continued in Part 4

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