DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Dang and blast. What's the other one? Dag nam-it? :)

Xena sits, staring into campfire flames. They dance madly as Gabrielle putters around, putting together either a feast or what may turn out to be famine for them both, considering how her last cooking attempt turned out.

A reluctant smile appears before she can squelch it, and Gabrielle, with the sixth sense she appears to have developed lately in regards to Xena, catches it.

"Something funny?" She puts a hand on her hip, challenging, and Xena notes how much better Gabrielle has become at reading her- when to push, when to let it go.

The thought occurs to her that they have become friends, and as she shakes her head innocently at Gabrielle and pulls out her knife, pretending to inspect it, she considers how much has gone opposite to plan, since meeting the woman currently burning dinner.

She carries a weight around with her, always. It isn't shifting, changing- towers of sand, like the thoughts that weigh on her mind. These, she has made an intrinsic part of her- they shape her, twist her, manipulate her path and whisper in her ear, rising and falling in mass and sound- her personal tide. She's long grown used to the falsely soothing, blatantly threatening waves, riding them in, riding them out. She knows intimately at what point they will break.

She used to believe insanity would take her long before an assassin's knife or a warrior's sword, but she has grown practiced at keeping herself tall and steady under the load she bears.

No, it is the weight on her chest, around her heart, that she is constantly aware of. It used to come in the form of a wall- forbidding, resolute. Nothing entered, nothing lived or grew behind it. She was a Warrior; and Warriors do not traditionally come with feelings. She used to believe, and still can't quite lay to rest the idea that having emotions is a fine way to end up on a fast horse to Tartarus.

Nowadays, she can't pinpoint what the wall feels like to her- where once it was hard and granite, to match the emotions which she wrapped brutally in stone, now it feels lighter, and somehow less stable. This is worrisome, considering how much she has invested in building the wall higher, in using her iron will to seal and protect against intruders. Only once has it been in similar danger of collapse.

When she first met Gabrielle, the walls had been rent, torn by the realization she would need to atone. That she was sorry. And when, grieving for the innocence she'd lost and the innocent she'd taken, she'd been refused amends at every turn. So she'd constructed new walls, of shock and anger, of despair and the raw need, clawing at her now, daily, hourly- to not be vulnerable. Because she was; and if her enemies saw her newly exposed heart, they would not hesitate to cut it out. The Warrior that still lived inside of her calculated all of this coolly, and the Woman, seeing there was no other way to survive except to hide inside the Warrior, accepted her fate. There would be no peace. Just battle, as constant as the rising and setting sun.

And now there is Gabrielle, with her burnt dinners and her stories and her eagerness and her constant questions. Gabrielle of the blond hair and bright smile, of rampant naivety and that stubborn belief in the goodness in people. In the goodness of her. Gabrielle, who despite all Xena's efforts to the contrary, is lightening the burden on her heart.

It angers her, baffles her, makes her fidgety, makes her nervous, when she feels the walls giving. It is like shafts of light in endless darkness; on one hand, she rejoices to see the light. But there is no escaping the fact for a very long time she has chosen to make her home in darkness, chosen torture and war and pain and a Warrior's desire to tear, to destroy for perverse glory, warped honour - so much so she is one of its creatures- isn't she?

She realises she's staring at Gabrielle without seeing her, the knife forgotten in listless hands.

Gabrielle pauses in stirring the pot she's put over the fire and shakes her spatula menacingly at her. "If you're just going to watch, you can't complain about the results."

She jerks upright. "Sorry. I was thinking. Let me-"

"-Xena." Gabrielle's voice has that gently exasperated tone it gets when she thinks Xena is being dense.

She pauses in the act of shoving the knife away. "Gabrielle?"

"Sit. Down. I was just kidding. Your old boots will be ready shortly. Kidding again, don't go all those-boots-are-not-for-cooking-Gabrielle on me."

She looks up into a pair of laughing green eyes, inviting her to play, too. She sinks back down on suddenly weak knees, trying to keep a Warrior's stern countenance and failing miserably. "Well, they are a good pair of boots."

"Mmm. That's why we're saving them to eat for Solstice."

A chuckle escapes, despite her best efforts, and Gabrielle grins at her, triumphant. "Now, go back to dreaming. Even Warrior Princesses need to dream." She turns back to the fire, and Xena resumes watching her, deliberately this time.

Gabrielle makes her laugh, more and more often now. She is reluctant and grudging as often as she can be, never sure if she can bear the light that floods through her heart at these moments. But sometimes Gabrielle can catch her off guard – and she surprises herself, that she can laugh like that- with abandon. Joy.

Gabrielle teases and gently mocks, pokes her sides and tugs at her hair, at first tentatively and now with distressing regularity. No one has felt comfortable enough to tease her for years; over a decade. She's forgotten the experience, and while she is careful to be snarky with a mostly unimpressed Gabrielle, she secretly hides and hoards, and in private moments nurtures carefully, the thought that someone sees her. Is unafraid of her.

Gabrielle translates her. She somehow reads the scrolls of Xena and isn't afraid of what she might find hidden beneath the words. She makes Xena human, makes her able to carry her own heart and its sorrows, and not be buried alive under the weight. And for that, if nothing else, she is grateful.

She used to be Tantalus, forever reaching for sustenance but forever denied. Now she doesn't know what creature she is becoming, but she has something now that she can touch.

She sighs, then snaps herself out of it. Too much reflection, she muses, and she'll end up like Narcicuss. She throws a bit of stone lightly at Gabrielle's back. "How long?"

"It'll take as long as it takes." Gabrielle informs her primly, then ruins it by smiling. "But it's not burnt!" She pauses, and Xena notes the slight panic in her eyes. "Well. Almost!"

She follows instinct and rises. "Want me to take a look?"

"Oh, well. Yeah. If you, you know. Want." Gabrielle's relief is almost palpable and Xena resists the urge to smirk in favour of being touched that she's needed, even in this small way.

Really, she's been her own undoing, she muses. Gabrielle has played with her, sat next to her - whether at a King's palace or a camp fire side, weaving her tales and oh-so-slowly but surely weaving herself into Xena's life. She has come at Xena from the outside- patiently chipping away at the walls, working into all of the chinks relentlessly. But maybe Xena isn't as content for her heart to remain locked away as she's told herself. Maybe she's been weakening those walls from the inside, too.

She takes a sip of Gabrielle's mystery stew and pretends to gag. "Okay. You're not cooking anymore."

"What?" Gabrielle snatches the spoon from her and tries some for herself. "It's fine-what are you- Xena!"

She spins in a circle, trying to pinpoint the danger. Finding none, she looks to Gabrielle's amused face. "What?"

Gabrielle smirks at her. "You made a joke. Major cause for surprise. It was a good one, though."

She smirks back, then gives in, tugs on Gabrielle's hair lightly. "Gee, thanks."

Something flickers at the back of Gabrielle's gaze, but when she goes to look closer Gabrielle shoves a bowl into her hand. "Eat your stew, funny girl."

She takes it, and thinks that darkness or light, weight or no weight, Gabrielle has a strange way of making her focus on the way her heart is beating, on the breath in her lungs, the way the breeze feels on her skin. Maybe that's the creature she is becoming- one of the present, not the past.

She smiles at Gabrielle. "Thanks, friend."

A/N: Just thinking of sorrow and how it has a tangible weight. Sorry if it's OOC, am only now watching Xena (up to the 2nd season, yay!) Love it