DEMONS IN THE DARK
By Pink Rabbit Productions

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to other folks, big corporate types, like MCA Universal, and Renaissance, and I beg their forgiveness, and ask them NOT to sue me should they ever get their paws on this (not that they'd get anything...think blood and stone here). If you're offended by a couple of women having lots of...er...fun, not of age, or it's illegal in your neck of the woods, kindly bail out now (so there). No parrots, meercats, centaurs, folks of any sexual nature (or nonsexual nature) were injured during the writing of this story (though at least two cats were severely ignored, and several oreos gave up their earthly existence--we wish them God's speed on their journey to the great Keebler beyond).

She rode through the village, hair and cape spread on the wind behind her in dark streaks, blood on her sword and a smile on her face. The villagers fled in the face of the conquering army, their screams echoing through the fiery night. Everything was burning around her, she could feel the heat of the flames. Cirra...no...Potedeia...Amphipolis? They had all become the same, just one more village to be conquered, one more town to grind under her heel.

A woman, young and pretty, her red gold hair glinting with the lights of the fires dancing all around them, broke from the crowds of fleeing peasants. She faced down the oncoming army with courage in her eyes and no more than a staff in her hands.

"Xena!!" the little peasant's call reminded her of something she should already know, or do. Had she seen the peasant, earlier in the battle when she drove Cortese and Draco to their deaths?

It was the heat and the flames that were making it so hard to think, and Xena's hand floated up to her temple, struggling to remember. A sword cut left a trail of blood on her arm, and she whirled in time to see a horse and rider flash by. Her assailant brought her mount around, a mad smile glittering on a face that would have been beautiful if not for the insanity that played there. Blonde hair blew back from a narrow face, and she lifted her sword, spurring her horse forward in a hard driving charge.

The fire burned Xena's skin, sending pain through every nerve ending and slowing her reflexes. She tried to get her weapon up in time, but it wasn't possible, and the madwoman's blade left a wake of blood as it knocked her from her mount. Xena tumbled to the dirt with a whoof, fighting to drag cool sweet oxygen into parched lungs. A soft hand landed on her forehead, bringing her eyes up.

"Xena?"

It was the little peasant, her hazel eyes round with worry. She slid a hand under the warrior princess, and Xena felt herself drawn against a soft and welcoming breast.

"It's all right...you'll be all right..." the girl whispered as she brushed sweat soaked hair away from the warrior's brow.

Xena leaned into the gentle touch, struggling to remember something she knew was important. "Gabrielle?" she rasped at last.

"That's right," a tender voice whispered. Cool hands petted Xena's forehead, banishing the pain even as rain trickled down, chasing back some of the flames threatening to burn them all. Soft lips touched her cheek. "You'll be fine..."

"Don't let the fire..." Xena whispered, then trailed off as darkness overtook her.

Xena came awake with a start, blinking rapidly to bring her vision back into focus. A hard swallow made her aware of the scratchy pain in her throat and the ragged quality of every breath she took. Dark hair hung in lank strands across her face, and she pushed it away, surprised by the amount of effort that simple gesture required. A soft fire glowed warmly a few feet away, casting dancing lights across mineral smooth walls. She was in a cave of some kind, wrapped in her own blankets. The smell of smoke and cooking rabbit hung in the air. Someone had gone to some effort to make things more comfortable. The warrior massaged her temple, struggling to remember how she'd gotten here. A narrow opening was faintly visible in the soft light, and the sound of rain echoed off the walls. As she watched, a cloaked figure stepped through the cave entrance, then peeled back the voluminous hood. The newcomer's features were silhouetted in darkness, but the faint light cast by the small fire glittered off her red-gold hair.

"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered in a voice that sounded raspy even to her own ears.

The girl's chin snapped up. "Thank the gods," she exhaled. She stripped off her rain soaked cloak, spreading it over a rock near the fire. She was carrying two heavy skins of water, and she laid them down as she moved to kneel by her friend. She brushed a gentle hand over Xena's brow. "I was beginning to think you'd never wake up," she admitted, remembered fear glittering in her eyes.

Xena swallowed hard again, in an effort to wet her dry throat. "What happened?" she panted.

Gabrielle grabbed a small water skin that lay near the warrior's sleeping pallet. "Here," she said gently. "Not too much." She carefully helped Xena lift her head, pouring a small amount of water into her mouth.

The warrior swallowed gratefully.

Gabrielle recapped the water skin and lay it aside, then rested a hand lightly on Xena's chest "Don't you remember?"

The warrior thought about it for a moment, frowning as she struggled with the confused jumble of memories. "There was a fire...and...Callisto...you were there too..."

Gabrielle frowned in confusion. "There was no fire, Xena, and we haven't seen Callisto since she and her men were turned over for trial. We were on the road to Thrace when you started to get sick..."

"No," Xena shook her head, "I never get sick."

"That's what you said then too...except you kept getting worse. You wouldn't even stop when it started raining."

Xena shook her head again. "No...no...I never get sick," she repeated.

Gabrielle sighed softly and brushed her inner wrist against her friend's forehead. They'd already had this argument, and she was in no hurry to repeat the experience. It had ended with Xena pitching face first into the mud. Gabrielle had thought she was dead for a moment. Once she realized the warrior was still breathing, she'd begun to get scared. If any of the other travelers on the road had realized who they were ...well, there were more than a few warriors out there who'd love to build up their reputations by killing the warrior princess, and her unconsciousness would only be an added bonus. "Well," she grumbled at last. "Then you've done one heck of an impression of a sick person, because you've been feverish and mostly unconscious for the last four days."

Xena started to argue, but harsh, convulsive coughs shook her frame, cutting off any possible words. Gabrielle disappeared for a moment, then reappeared carrying a clay jar of something foul smelling.

"Drink some of this," the bard ordered, sliding one hand behind the warrior to help her sit up.

Xena's nose wrinkled, as she struggled to slow the rough hacking long enough to get a small amount of the potion on her tongue. It tasted as bad as it smelled, swallowing hurt, and the coughing started again the moment she got it down. Unconsciousness might not have been such a bad thing. "Not sick," she groaned stubbornly. Finally, the hacking coughs slowed, then finally stopped, leaving her drained and exhausted. She rolled onto her back, eyes half closed. "Jus' tired," she groaned weakly. "Sleep now..."

"That's right," Gabrielle murmured, petting dark hair with gentle hands. "Sleep," she shifted into a slightly more comfortable position, and stayed that way for a long time, trailing her fingers over Xena's hair as she watched her sleep. She wasn't well yet, but her breathing had eased, and some of the awful heat had drained away from her skin. Gabrielle trailed a hand over a smooth bare shoulder. Her temperature wasn't normal yet, but she wasn't burning up either. For most of the last four days, Xena had twisted and turned in the fever, calling out, lost and alone. More than once, she had seemed to fight phantom enemies, swinging her fists, until Gabrielle had to back away to avoid getting hurt.

Helplessly watching the contortions, the bard had been nearly convinced her friend was doomed. She'd seen the fever take so many when she was growing up. It would move through a village, stealing the old, the young, and the weak, but also snatching men and women who seemed strong and able. It was all frighteningly familiar, skin fevered, breath coming in ragged rattles, while the mind seemed to go somewhere else. Gabrielle had treated her with potions purchased from a local healer, but she'd braced herself for the worst.

She touched Xena's cheek very lightly. She was so beautiful, Gabrielle didn't know what she would do if anything had happened to the warrior. She could never go back to her old life. She'd never again be the young girl who had left Potedaia. "You're going to be all right," she soothed the sleeping woman. "You've got to be."

The fire had burned out, leaving the village little more than a smoldering mess. Xena struggled not to cough as she strode through the smoking ruins, eyes alert and ready. Something was after her, something she should recognize.

"Join me," Ares smooth voice cut through her thoughts, and she turned to find the handsome god standing only a few feet away, a sensual smile curving his full lips, his eyes alight with conquest.

The heat rose at her back, driving her toward the god.

"You were always mine," he drawled.

"No." It was the little peasant, her hair flying, staff up in a fighting position. She bounded between the two. "You're staying with me, Xena...I love you...."

The warrior stood, faintly befuddled as rain began to trickle over her skin, banishing the heat from the still simmering fires.

"Mine...." Ares hissed, but the girl's voice overcame even a God's.

"I love you, Xena...come back to me...."

"Gabrielle," Xena snapped awake to the realization that the bard was holding her. Her skin and hair were damp with sweat, her teeth chattering with cold.

"That's right," the young woman whispered, her eyes glittering with relief. "Your fever finally broke."

Xena slipped a hand into Gabrielle's protective hold. "Ares," she gasped in confusion.

The bard shook her head. "He's not here, it's just you and I...I promise..."

The warrior sank back into the girl's gentle hold. "Just dreams," she exhaled.

Gabrielle pressed a light kiss to her forehead. "That's right..."

"Love you too," Xena sighed as she slid back into the welcome arms of sleep.

Gabrielle's eyes widened as she realized Xena must have heard her softly whispered words, in her confused dream state. She had talked to the warrior as she bathed her, chasing away the fever. Through it all, she talked about herself, her feelings, the love she was just beginning to admit to. "I do love you," she breathed.

Gabrielle awake with a start, reaching for the figure that should have been next to her on the sleeping pallet. She jerked upright as she realized she was alone. She was on her feet in a heartbeat, and moving toward the mouth of the cave. "Xena!" she called, panic threading through her voice. It was dark outside, and, while the rain was no longer pouring in thick sheets, it still pattered light and steady. If the warrior had fallen, or lost consciousness again, it would take pure luck to find her before morning. "Xena!" she called again, stumbling through the narrow entrance, her cloak and staff forgotten.

"I'm here," the low, husky voice reached Gabrielle's ears as a hand landed lightly on her shoulder.

Careless of the rain spattering down on her head and shoulders, the bard spun toward the black cloaked figure that emerged from the shadows. "Xena," she exhaled in relief, then reached out quickly, catching her friend when she might have fallen. She hauled an arm across her shoulders, taking much of Xena's weight, to help her back inside. "You're frozen," she panted angrily. "What did you think you were doing, going outside? If you had collapsed, or--"

"Yell at me later," Xena groaned, throwing off her cloak to sink down onto the sleeping pallet. She wore her boots and cotton underdress, and both, like her hair and skin, were soaking wet. Her skin was cold to the touch, and she shivered violently.

"We've got to get you out of those clothes," Gabrielle muttered and began peeling off her boots. When Xena's feet were bare, she backed away long enough to stir the fire, whipping the flames so that they burned brighter and cast more heat. When she turned back, Xena was only half out of the sodden cotton undergarment. With a soft curse, Gabrielle grabbed hold of the fabric, pulling it free with an unceremonious tug. She tossed it over a rock near the fire, then retrieved a blanket. Because of the nightsweats that tormented the warrior, she'd been changing their blankets every day, using one set, while laundering the other. Now she used one of the freshly washed and dried sheets to rub Xena's skin and hair dry, hands moving quickly to both dry and create a warming friction. "What were you doing?" she demanded, struggling to ignore the smooth flesh, separated from her touch by only the thinnest strip of cloth.

The warrior worked a hand through her wet hair, pushing it away from her face. "I woke up," she whispered through chattering teeth. "You were sleeping, and I just wanted...a bath..."

"So you went down to the pond?" Gabrielle clarified.

Xena nodded. "Not too bright, huh?' she coughed.

Gabrielle shook her head and resisted the urge to curse. Still half sick, walking through the rain to an ice cold pond qualified as more than 'Not too bright,' but Xena already knew that and it seemed somehow cruel to point out that she wasn't as invincible as she tended to act. Gabrielle just moved behind her, nudging her closer to the fire with the muttered comment, "Let's just worry about getting you warm again." She wrapped another blanket around the warrior, then sank to her knees behind the taller woman and began toweling her hair dry. In her haste, she forgot her own wet state and didn't even realize that her own teeth were chattering with cold until Xena twisted, her voice low as she spoke.

"Gabrielle." She laid a hand over one of the bard's, stilling her. "I'm not the only one who's freezing, and the last thing we need is for you to get sick." She was forced to pause as a hacking cough shook her shoulders. "I don't think I can take care of you, right now," she groaned when she could breathe again. She reached out, tugging Gabrielle's sodden shirt. "You need to get out of these."

The young woman started and looked down at her brief skirt and blouse. They were soaked, and tracking water into the sleeping blankets. She pushed away, and began peeling out of her clothes, tugging the last spare blanket around her shoulders. She wrapped herself tightly in the rough fabric, but the shudders wouldn't stop.

"Come here," Xena said gently. And patted the space in front of her.

Gabrielle debated momentarily, then gave way to that quiet tone of command, sinking down with a soft sigh of exhaustion. She'd been going steady since Xena had fallen ill and it suddenly all caught up with her.

"Just lean back," Xena whispered and tugged the younger woman back against her breast. She had warmed up, but Gabrielle was still freezing. Pressed together like that, the warrior could feel every hard shiver that shook her delicate frame. She rubbed the blanket firmly against the young woman's slender arms, then her breasts and belly and up over her shoulders, working warmth back into chilled muscles. Cold driven shudders gave way to tremors of another kind.

"I'm fine now," Gabrielle gasped abruptly, afraid of blurting out the truth if the warming stimulation continued much longer. Not that she entirely understood the truth. She only knew that her skin seemed to vibrate with every brush of her friend's hand, further heating the warm, wet center between her thighs. They had been unclothed together before -- swimming, dressing in the mornings -- but this was different and the close contact made her intensely aware of the woman at her back. Uncertain how to deal with these feelings, she would have pulled away, but Xena's hold tightened, tugging her back in spite of herself.

"Not yet," the warrior husked roughly. She worked long fingers through Gabrielle's bangs, combing them away from her face. As weak as she was, she felt a familiar burn of pleasure at their closeness. The young bard had pulled her from the flames of her own making -- both in dreams and in reality -- and she was far from certain she could have resisted the temptations of her old life without Gabrielle's innocent wisdom. Certainly, she would have faced a far more difficult time refusing the god of war's tricks and overtures.

Argo's saddlebag lay near the bedding, and Xena snagged it over with a hand, quickly digging through to retrieve a comb. "Our clothes are wet, and we're both still cold...." Her hand brushed against Gabrielle's bare shoulder as she moved her hair back, and they both shivered. Xena's throat abruptly went dry, and this time, it had nothing to do with being ill. Concentrating to keep her hands from shaking, she began combing the tangles from Gabrielle's silky hair, enjoying the slide of the wet strands through her fingers.

Desire. The realization burst through her with something akin to the violence of a volcano throwing fire and brimstone in the air. The knowledge was everywhere: her mind, where she accepted that she loved her young companion, her hands, and their need to do more than simply touch with the barrier of a blanket between them, her mouth, which longed to taste and tease, her eyes, which sought more than a glimpse of pale, bare flesh. It had been so long since she had felt genuine desire, unbound to politics or power. Even making love to Marcus had been tied to gratitude and the wish to offer comfort to a condemned friend. She swallowed hard, tamping down the rush of emotions. Gabrielle was far too innocent for such things. One day, she would find someone as innocent and kind as she was. She didn't need to be bound to a warrior whose dark past would never be completely forgotten or forgiven.

"Xena?" Gabrielle's soft voice was worried, and Xena abruptly became aware that her hand had stilled against sleek blonde hair.

"It's nothing," the warrior growled, her tone forbidding.

Startled by the sudden change, Gabrielle twisted, laying one hand over her friend's hand. "Are you all right?" she questioned worriedly.

The change in position led to a brush of bare shoulder and breast, calf and thigh. Xena's eyes glowed like an electric arc of blue lightning, and Gabrielle swallowed hard as she saw her own awareness mirrored in the crystalline depths.

Xena saw it too. The knowledge was there in her face before she averted her eyes to deny the obvious.

Gabrielle reached up, fingertips barely brushing Xena's cheek. That faint touch was enough to bring the warrior's head back around. "Don't turn away," the bard pleaded.

Xena swallowed hard, struggling against the tightness in her throat to answer. She understood far more than Gabrielle and that only made the situation more difficult. "I have to."

"I know you're still weak, but we can lie here together." Gabrielle didn't entirely understand what she wanted, but she knew it was more than this simple bit of contact.

"It's not that," Xena said gently, fully intending to explain it all away. She started to brush Gabrielle's shoulder, only to pull her hand back. Her eyes dropped from the bard's.. "One day," she began carefully, striving to keep the fear from her voice. "You'll find someone as...good...as you are..."

Gabrielle's mouth worked, and she started to deny the charge, but Xena laid a finger over her lips, silencing her.

"I'm not..." the warrior began hesitantly. "Right...for you..."

"That's not true," Gabrielle swore passionately, unable to stay silent any longer. "I've never known anyone more right."

Xena's eyes slid closed for a moment, and her lips moved in something that might have been a prayer. When she opened her eyes again, utter terror glittered in the crystal depths. "If this goes any farther, I don't know if I can ever let you go...it isn't a game...and just because I'm a woman doesn't mean it won't count..."

"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "I love you."

Xena swallowed hard, not wanting to let go and afraid she was doing the wrong thing if she didn't. "This isn't just about loving like sisters, or best friends...this is about loving and making love."

Gabrielle swallowed hard and nodded. "I want that... with you...."

Xena froze, wanting what was offered, uncertain it was best.

In the end, it was Gabrielle who made the first move. She curved her fingers to the back of Xena's neck, feeling the power of the muscles just below the surface as she drew her head down. The warrior jumped, neither aiding nor resisting the first tentative brush of soft lips.

"Please," the bard begged without completely breaking the kiss. Days of worrying had forced her to look at her feelings, while exhaustion stripped away the barriers they both usually kept in place.

Faced with the pure love in the young woman's eyes, Xena couldn't turn her away. She spread a hand across Gabrielle's upper back, drawing her close. The kiss was long, slow, sweet, and only broke when Xena pulled away to trail her lips along a silky cheek. "I do love you," she whispered near the delicate shell of Gabrielle's ear, then abruptly turned away as another round of wracking coughs shook her.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the woman, cuddling her close. "Maybe this isn't such a good time," she sighed.

Xena braced a hand on the pallet to keep herself upright. "I'll...be...all right...in a...minute," she gasped between hacks.

"No, you won't," Gabrielle disagreed, and pushed her down into the blankets. "We're both too tired," she soothed, petting Xena's hair tenderly as the spasms passed. The warrior burrowed against her lover, seeking closer contact. Whatever she might have wished, she was far too weak to do anything more than she already had. "Just sleep now," the bard soothed and pulled the blankets around both of them, forming a protective cocoon.

Xena wrapped her arms tightly around the bard's waist, already losing her battle to stay awake. "I never want to lose you," she groaned.

Gabrielle trailed her fingers through thick, dark hair. "You won't...I'll never leave you...." Limbs tangled together, both fell into the warm comfort of sleep within minutes.

Ares, Callisto, Talmadeus, Cortese, Draco...all gone. The fire in the village had long since burned itself out. Even her army was no more.

Xena knelt among the ashes, head down, careless of her surroundings. No longer a warlord, she was alone, and uncertain of her own identity.

She was still kneeling there when a cool hand landed on her shoulder. Her chin lifted until crystal blue eyes met clear hazel.

"Your army's gone," the little blonde peasant murmured.

"Xena's dead," the warrior princess exhaled.

The girl dropped to one knee in front of the former warlord, her answering smile infinitely gentle. "No, she's not," she exhaled, and brushed several strands of hair away from Xena's brow. "Xena's just begun to live again."

The warrior shook her head. "I don't know who I am..."

Again the gentle smile. "You're Xena...the warlord was someone else...."

"I don't ..." the former warlord whispered uncertainly. She swallowed hard, sounding lost. "I only know I'm alone."

"No, you'll never be alone...I've always been here...I'll always be here."

Xena reached out, fingers brushing a velvet cheek. "Gabrielle," she exhaled at last.

Xena woke with her lover's name on her lips. She was coiled like a child against the smaller woman's side, her head pillowed on her chest, dark hair spread across bare breasts. Moving carefully, she pushed up one hand to stare down at the sleeping bard. Her face incredibly soft in slumber, Gabrielle looked almost a child. Xena carefully lifted the blanket aside, eyes running over the smaller woman's slender figure. The soft curve of her breasts rose and fell steadily, signaling deep sleep, while one small hand lay loosely curved, near her cheek. Unable to resist the temptation, Xena reached out, resting one hand lightly in the warm valley between Gabrielle's breasts. Startled by the arousing power of the contrasting hues of peach and tan, she could only stare.

"I love you, Gabrielle," she husked at last.

"I know," the lazy reply came as the younger woman blinked sleepily. She reached up, sliding a hand up the center of Xena's body, her touch innocently sensual. "But it took you long enough to admit it."

"Things aren't always as simple for me as they are for you."

A wry smile twisted Gabrielle's lips. "You think you aren't good enough for me," she interpreted wisely. She'd seen this side of the warrior more than once. After the things she'd done, she didn't think she deserved any happiness.

"Sometimes I think it's my own...greed...that makes me keep you with me, not what's best for you."

Gabrielle shook her head. "I can decide what's best for me," she chastised gently. "And you didn't choose to keep me with you...I wouldn't go...remember?"

"I could have made you go," Xena pointed out.

"Ahh...but I wouldn't have stayed."

"Really?" the warrior drawled doubtfully.

"Really," Gabrielle confirmed and slid the hand on Xena's chest down and around her waist, tugging gently, until the warrior got the hint and leaned over her, her weight resting on her palm where it was braced against the floor near Gabrielle's head. "I knew we were meant to be together the first time I saw you."

Xena smirked. "You didn't even know we could be together," she teased.

A soft answering laugh echoed through the cave. "I didn't understand," the bard admitted, "but I knew."

The softly uttered words set Xena's normally cool pulse pounding. She leaned down until their noses were a few scant inches apart. "Gabrielle," she breathed almost inaudibly, "will you let me make love to you?"

The girl's answering smile was full of equal parts affection and love. "I won't let you not make love to me," she murmured, and ran a lazy finger up one of Xena's muscular forearms.

With a low chuckle, Xena made words obsolete as she leaned down to claim a pair of warm lips. The kiss was slow, searching, a learning experience for both women. Gabrielle traced her hands up Xena's back, drawing her closer, as she opened her mouth to a questing tongue, then pressed to taste her lover's mouth for her own. The kiss only broke when Gabrielle pushed Xena over onto her back and began kissing her way downward. "I've thought about this for so long," she breathed as she feathered impossibly light kisses over Xena's breasts and down. She caught one of Xena's hands and kissed her way along her inner wrist and hand. She nipped lightly as she reached the tips of well made fingers, then ran the sharp edges of her teeth over the bony rise of knuckles.

Xena groaned softly, startled by the erotic power of the simple caresses.

Gabrielle dropped a hand, sliding her palm over the warrior's flat belly, feeling the rise and fall of banded muscles as they twitched in response. Her fingertips touched a dusting of dark brown hair, and rode the storm as hips thrust upward in silent plea. Gabrielle's sole experience of sex came from self pleasuring, but that had taught her enough to recognize the sensitive nerve endings that lay only inches from her fingertips. She heard the soft gasp as she slipped her fingers downward, exploring slowly. She ducked her head again, mouth roaming over firm flesh while she used her fingers to draw gasps and shudders. It was all a learning experience, and Gabrielle warmed to the task, listening to the soft sounds her lover made and noting the way muscles jumped and pulled taut in response to each caress. She laved her tongue along a silver white scar that crossed the warrior's ribs in silent reminder of her past life, then tasted each breast before arching up to share another slow kiss.

The warrior slid a hand down her lover's side, then over her hips, cupping long fingers around her thigh. Muscles flexing with controlled strength, she guided it over and between her own thighs so that their legs were scissored together. Gabrielle jumped a second later as strong fingers darted into her intimate flesh with quick, teasing strokes. Still kissing Xena, she thrust her hips against the agile caresses, tasting every shared gasp of pleasure. The sweet lovemaking went on for long minutes until both of them were gasping and begging for completion. It was Xena who chose to slow things down, lifting her hands to Gabrielle's shoulders to push her over onto her back. Breathing hard with passion, she arched over the smaller woman.

"You're so beautiful," the warrior whispered huskily and trailed a single fingertip down the center of her body. She ducked her head to press the lightest of kisses over full lips, before moving on to bury her face in the curve of her throat. "I've wanted this for so long," she exhaled. "But I never thought´┐Ż."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her lover, holding her close, feeling the tension drain from her muscles. She pressed her lips to her lover's temple. "Sleep now," she whispered, knowing the Xena was still weak from her bout with illness.

"Tired," Xena mumbled and rolled to one side, cuddling against Gabrielle's warmth. She opened electric blue eyes to stare at Gabrielle for a long moment, gaze trailing hungrily over soft features. "I'd forgotten what it could be like when you love someone," she admitted, her tone awed. She petted silky hair away from the bard's forehead, then folded her arm across Gabrielle's midsection.

When it broke apart, Gabrielle gently brushed dark hair away from Xena's eyes. Even in the faint light cast by their small fire, the exhaustion was easily evident. "Go back to sleep," she advised gently. "You're still weak from the fever."

Xena's eyes slid closed, her breathing slowing. "Still say I wasn't sick," she exhaled.

Gabrielle brushed a gentle hand along her brow. "We'll talk about it later," she murmured.

A strong hand tightened momentarily on the bard's waist. "You'll be here when I wake up?" she questioned.

"I'll be here," Gabrielle assured her lover. "I'll always be here."

This time, when she dreamt, there were grass and flowers, and the golden haired girl never left her side.

THE END

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