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Xena dismounted, gave Argo a pat, and was joined by Ephiny who took hold of Argo's reins. "Go to her Xena. I'll wait here." Xena grasped the Amazon's upper arm, gave it a squeeze then let go and walked towards where Gabrielle was sitting. She could see Gabrielle's back to her and so decided to change direction so she would approach her from the front. She didn't want to startle her so she moved with more noise than was usual. The bird call told her that Ephiny was beginning to relay their news to the other searchers.
Gabrielle looked up when Xena was ten yards from her. Her eyes were swollen and bloodshot and Xena was struck by how gaunt she looked. But what worried her more was that the bard held a knife in her hand.
"Gabrielle, please, put the knife down. I'm here for you." Xena inched her way forward.
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Please Bri, this is not the way. I love you. I need you."
"I don't want to hurt you Xena, any more. You don't deserve that. This is for the best." Gabrielle looked down and Xena moved even closer. When Gabrielle looked up and saw how close Xena had moved, she held the knife so close to her wrist it drew blood. Xena watched the rivulets of blood mixing with the rain and dropping onto the ground.
"For the best? What do you think it will do to me if you kill yourself? I can't live without you. Don't you know that? Gabrielle you're my life." She took a deep breath in. The time was now, "And I know about the baby. It makes no difference to me, Gabrielle. I love you."
Gabrielle looked at Xena with astonishment and in her shock, dropped the knife. In an instant Xena was there, first throwing the knife into a nearby tree and then falling to her knees she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. The bard shuddered and sobbed and Xena said nothing and held tight.
Xena wasn't sure how long they sat there. Her hands moved all over the bard's back and arms. She wasn't sure if she was trying to warm the frozen bard up or after so long being denied contact she wanted to touch as much of Gabrielle as she could. The rain had eased slightly but they were both drenched and looking up she could see an anxious looking Ephiny joined by Aella.
"Gabrielle, we need to get back to the dry." Xena spoke quietly. She ripped some cloth from her cloak and bound it around the small cut on Gabrielle's wrist. Repositioning her hands she lifted Gabrielle up and started to walk towards the amazons and the horses. Argo knelt down as she approached and Xena raised an inquiring eyebrow at her horse. Aella covered Gabrielle with a dry blanket and Argo rose up and they walked back to the village in silence.
As they entered the village they were met by Piri, Epinon and Solari. Xena could see many amazons returning from the search watching in silence. Piri approached them and said, "Your hut is prepared. There is a fire, blankets and some broth." She tipped her head towards Gabrielle and Xena mouthed, "She's ok." She looked up and caught the concerned faces of Solari and Epinon. "Thank you," she said sincerely.
Argo sunk to the ground and Xena swung her legs around and stood up. "I could get used to this Argo." The horse neighed and brushed her head gently past Gabrielle's head. The bard moved slightly and gave a little smile towards the palomino. Xena tightened her grip on her. Up until then the bard had remained motionless in her arms, her head buried on her shoulder.
"Come on, let's get dry and warm."
Xena pushed the door and entered their hut. She gently laid Gabrielle on the bed and walked back to the door and closed it. As she walked towards the bed she started to shed her clothes, and grabbed one of the blankets that were piled high by the fire. She wrapped it around herself and then walked to the bed with several in her hand. Gabrielle was staring at the ceiling, looking terrified.
"Let's get you out of these clothes," said Xena gently. Gabrielle turned to look at her and she nodded. Xena gave her a reassuring smile and they eased her out of the soaking clothes.
It gave Xena a chance to see Gabrielle's body for the first time in weeks. It was obvious that despite the gentle swell of her previous flat stomach and the slight increase in her breast size, caused by the pregnancy, Gabrielle had lost a considerable amount of weight. Gabrielle saw Xena stare at her stomach and looked away. Xena cupped her face with her hand and turned it towards her. She smiled and then moved her hand down to Gabrielle's stomach and laid it flat on it. Gabrielle placed her right hand over it, and they both shared a shy smile.
"Let's get you dry," said Xena and she used the blanket to towel the bard dry. When she had finished she helped the bard on with a dry shift and piled several blankets on her. She could feel the coolness of the bard's skin and prayed that they would be spared a return of the fever.
"Thank you," said Gabrielle shakily. She was blinking rapidly and looked pale and weary.
"Let me bandage that cut and then try some broth then sleep. We can talk tomorrow," said Xena.
She saw the relief on Gabrielle's face. "I'm not sure I can eat anything," began Gabrielle.
"No, you have to. For you both." Gabrielle shook her head.
Xena sat on the bed and took Gabrielle's hand and started to bandage it. "Why aren't you eating? Is it nausea or something else?" Xena mumbled the words and looked away. The thought that the bard may have been trying to starve herself to death had occurred to her and was shattering to the warrior princess.
"I just lost interest in food," said Gabrielle. "I just can't face it any more, it turns my stomach."
"OK, well I've got some herbs to try, plus ginger is very good and there's the pressure point. Also lets try little and often. I've been guilty of filling up your plate, no wonder you've felt ill." Xena looked despondent.
"You were doing your best Xena, thank you." Gabrielle patted her hand and sat up propped up by the pillows.
"Let's see what Piri has left," Xena went to the table and sniffed at a couple of bottles. She poured the contents of one into a mug and added some broth. "That should help, just let it cool and it'll settle your stomach." She put the mug on the table beside the bed. Gabrielle looked at her. She gave her another shy smile. It was like a soothing balm on an injured sore. Xena drank it in. She handed Gabrielle the mug and she sipped it.
After many glares from Xena, Gabrielle finally finished the broth. She eased herself gingerly down the bed. Xena was still perched on the edge of the bed and she gently ran her hand through Gabrielle's hair. She revelled in the soft feeling of her hair, being able to touch the bard after so long was bliss.
"Stay please," said Gabrielle sleepily.
"Forever." Replied Xena simply.
Gabrielle lightly patted the side of her and after rolling her eyes dramatically Xena eased herself into the bed. She was even more delighted when Gabrielle timidly moved towards her and put her head on Xena's shoulder. Xena gave a smile as she wrapped her arm around her and within minutes they both were asleep.
When she awoke in the morning the first thing Gabrielle felt was Xena's arms around her. She snuggled in tighter and as she opened her eyes she saw that Xena's blue ones were already open and staring at her.
"Good morning," Gabrielle said. "Have you been awake long?"
"Long enough," said Xena and gently kissed the bar's lips. "I've been enjoying the view."
They both smiled and Xena hugged her even tighter. "I missed you," the warrior said shakily. "I missed touching you, you touching me. I was grateful for those nightmares," she said quietly. "Sorry." Gabrielle looked confused and then she realised why.
"I let you comfort me. Oh Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shut you out."
"Don't. No blame. No guilt, OK?"
Gabrielle nodded, and screwed her face up and started to sob. "I'm so sorry Xena. I was scared of losing you. How could you stay with me knowing I was carrying that man's child," she blinked the tears from her eyes. Xena rubbed circles on her back and bit her lip. Gabrielle continued," I felt so ashamed and that I let you down."
"You didn't let me down, Gabrielle. Don't ever think that."
"I was scared," said Gabrielle between sobs. "You'd leave me." Xena's heart broke at that admission. She knew that today would be painful for both of them but it would help them heal. She was sure the bard would open up now her secret was known. "I...Was" sob, "worried you… won't be able to face… my child," sob, "or love it." Xena said nothing but carried on rubbing Gabrielle's back.
"I'm scared of my own baby, what if I won't love it?" Gabrielle's voice was stuttering and faltering.
"Of course you'll love it, we both will. I love you Bri, and I will love this baby because it's yours."
"Xena what if my child-" she tried to pull away from Xena but the warrior kept a tight grip on her, "is like Hope?" She whispered the last three words.
"Hope was all Dahok; there was nothing of you in her. She was inhuman. Lindos is a brute but he's a mere mortal. And he'll have nothing to do with this child."
Gabrielle sobbed even harder. Xena said nothing until Gabrielle's sobs quietened down.
"OK?" she said sincerely. Gabrielle nodded.
"Breakfast time. You my bard are staying in bed for the day. You've no fever, but I'm not taking any chances."
"Xena I'm pregnant not ill. You ran an army when you were carrying."
"And you've got the amazons to look after. So enjoy the rest."
"Will you stay with me?" The bard sounded so vulnerable that Xena couldn't help but smile. After so much apathy it wonderful to feel wanted and loved.
"I think I can arrange that." She kissed Gabrielle's forehead and moved to the fire and started to bank it.
"Well?" Xena had barely enough time to cross the threshold before being accosted by Piri and Ephiny. Both looked as if they had a sleepless night.
"Breakfast." Said the warrior and took a few steps towards the dining hut.
You know what we mean!" said Ephiny angrily.
Xena smirked and turned to face them. "We're getting there. She knows I know about the baby. And she's admitted she was scared." Xena glanced back at their hut. "There's a lot more to come, but it's a start."
Piri nodded. "And how are you?" Xena was about to open her mouth but Piri interrupted. "This must bring back painful memories."
Xena thought for a moment. "She loved Solon, no questions asked. There's a lot we both feel guilty about with Hope. This is the least I can do for her."
"Slightly different Xena "said Ephiny. She swallowed and turned to face Xena. "Are you doing this out of obligation Xena? Because that is a sure route to failure." Ephiny looked stony faced.
Xena gave her a look of ferocity back. Then she broke into a smile because she knew the answer was in her heart and would satisfy Ephiny.
"It's a second chance for us both. We can raise this baby together. I love her. It's not an obligation. And Ephiny-"
The regent showed a flash of fear.
"Don't ever change. You're as much her champion as I am."
Ephiny was embarrassed by the compliment and looked away but Piri gave a slight smile.
"Any fever?" asked Piri becoming businesslike again.
"No. And the herbs seemed to work. She finished a cup of broth."
"I'll be in later to examine her. Much later," the healer added.
"Come on Xena, before the Queen wonders what is keeping you."
"You realise that you may have to warn the hunters that Gabrielle is eating for two," said Xena mischievously.
"Don't say it too loudly, we may have mass resignations. And that's from the deer and rabbits." Ephiny smiled back and they headed into the dining hut.
Xena caught sight of the red swollen eyes and tear stained face before it turned away. She quickly put the tray down on the table and walked to the side of the bed. She knelt on the floor beside it and grasped Gabrielle's hand.
"Please, tell me."
There was a long silence and Xena was about to ask again when Gabrielle spoke.
"I treated you so badly. I ignored your feelings."
"Like I did to you when we first met." Xena gave a little smile, but Gabrielle looked away. The warrior gently cupped her face with her hand and brought it around.
"It doesn't matter. We're fine now." Xena looked into the green eyes that reflected so much emotion. She could see the fear in them. "You were scared. Tell me about it."
Gabrielle swallowed. "My daughter killed your son and I was pregnant. How could I expect you to accept it, or me? I became confused, my feelings were running all over the place. Anger, hate, guilt, it changed from one minute to the next."
Gabrielle's mouth quivered and she gave Xena a shy smile. Xena gave her a reassuring smile back and kissed the top of the bards head.
"I didn't know what to think or feel so it was easier to withdraw. From you, the Amazons. I kept thinking of what happened in Britannia." Gabrielle lowered her eyes, but Xena cupped her face and brought her head upwards.
"Everything became confused and I was convinced you'd want my baby dead. I wasn't sure how I felt, I was so bewildered," the bard's words came tumbling out, "and I didn't know who to talk to. I couldn't rationalise it so how could I explain it to anyone else. I was scared of having the baby but of losing it too. And I was scared of losing you. I didn't want to have to choose between my child and my soulmate again." Xena looked embarrassed, but Gabrielle gave her a weak smile. "I couldn't think of anything, Xena, apart from telling you and I was convinced that you'd leave me for good when you knew. That's why I couldn't bare for you to touch me; I was convinced you could sense I was pregnant if you hugged me. Oh Xe, I was so crazy, so stupid. I was losing you anyway because of my indifference." She started to sob. Xena cradled her and kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry, I should have trusted you."
"You should have," said Xena quietly. "But I understand why you didn't. Hormones, Gabrielle, they are racing around during pregnancy making your feelings seem magnified. There was so much going on, so much for you to get your head around. You've just been brutally attacked; raped, watched one of your best friend critically injured and saw loved ones act like you were dirt. You find out you are pregnant-in circumstances that are far from ideal and remind you of your previous pregnancy. By the gods Bri, no wonder you were so bewildered. I just wish you'd let me share the burden." Gabrielle nodded wordlessly and lent into Xena's shoulder. They stayed like that for several minutes until Xena pulled away. "Breakfast for bards. It'll make you feel better."
"This makes me feel better," said Gabrielle with a shy smile.
Xena grinned; the long and rocky healing process was starting and this time she was convinced they would complete it.
"Hey," said Xena to a slightly disorientated Gabrielle.
"How long did I sleep?" She rubbed her eyes and pushed herself up.
"Long enough to miss Ephiny. She said she'd come back."
Gabrielle looked away with tears in her eyes. "I treated her so badly. All of you."
Xena moved across and sat next to her on the bed. "They're your friends. They understand."
"I don't." Gabrielle bowed her head. "When I think how I was." She shook her head. "I'm sorry."
Xena wrapped an arm around her.
"It's understandable. It's a shock, but we'll get through this together."
Gabrielle looked away, her expression unreadable.
"Talk to me, Gabrielle. Don't bottle it up."
"Do you mean what you said about the baby? You don't have to stay with me, you know? I do understand." Gabrielle's voice became a whisper.
"Do I ever say anything I don't mean? This baby will be ours, mine and yours."
Gabrielle turned to look into the blue eyes. The eyes she could read so well. She could only see love and devotion in them. No hint of disquiet or alarm. "Are you sure?"
"Thank you," her voice cracked with emotion and the bard laid her head on Xena's shoulder.
They sat like that for several minutes. "There's more recovering to do. You need to talk about it. We need to work through things. But not now. There's no rush."
Gabrielle gave her a weak smile.
"But now it's tea time!" Xena jumped up and went to the table and started to make tea. Gabrielle watched, joy and happiness flooding her heart. The situation was far from ideal. It was taking them down a path they hadn't planned. But they were doing it together. She hadn't dared to hope that Xena would be so supportive but she knew she shouldn't have underestimated her. Her overwhelming fear that Xena would leave her; or be repulsed by her was receding. For the first time in months, she felt they had a future. Most importantly together.
When Xena finished making the tea she brought the two mugs and a plate of biscuits. She put the mugs down by the side of the bed. "These have got ginger in; it's very good for nausea." The bard smiled and took a couple and started to nibble on one of them. Xena watched anxiously her face etched with concern. Gabrielle giggled spluttering crumbs everywhere.
"What?" said the confused warrior?
"You Xena worrier mother hen," the bard smiled. "Thanks," she added warmly.
"I'll get you bard," Xena said laughing and she looked down at the smiling face.
"You already have," said Gabrielle tenderly, "you already have."