By Melissa Good
For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.
Xena leaned back; resting her arm on the conference table, and letting her head drop back against the tall wood of the chair. "Still working on that." She replied, running her fingers lightly through Gabrielles red gold hair, and tracing the smile on her face with the edge of her thumb. "Hows Jess?"
Gabrielle leaned both forearms on Xenas thighs, and smiled a little. "Hes doing ok." She idly played with the edge of the warriors tunic. "Hes really beating himself up over getting jumped like that."
Xena sighed. "I know how he feels. I know how Id feel if it were me."
"Mm." The bard agreed. "Though I cant imagine it happening to you." She grinned, and tugged on the hem of Xenas tunic. "Youre too good."
The blue eyes gazed at her with gentle regret. "It can happen to anyone, Gabrielle." She replied. "If I let things slip, or I get really distracted " She took a breath. "Sometimes its hard to keep the pressure on, all the time." She saw the concern erupt in the bards eyes, and cursed silently. Damn, Xena would you cut that maudlin garbage out? Youre scaring her half to death.. and she doesnt need that, not after what you just put her through. So cut it out and get a grip on yourself. "But.." She smiled easily, catching Gabrielles eyes. "I dont think theres any danger of that happening any time soon." She stroked the bards cheek and winked at her. "You keep me on my toes, my bard."
The green eyes studied her for a long space of time, then slowly brightened. "Im gonna do my best to make sure it stays that way, too." She promised, with a sly grin. "You warriors are so helpless sometimes you need someone to take care of you."
Xena laughed. "Oh really." She responded, chucking the bard under the chin. "Guess Im lucky to have you then, huh?" Her eyes twinkled. "Or who knows what trouble Id get myself into."
Gabrielle snorted. "Oh.. right.. like you dont get into trouble anyway."
"Me?" Xena asked, pointing a thumb at herself, and raising one eyebrow. "Was I the one who let the Titans get loose? Or get bitten by Bacchae? Or found Pandoras baby? "
"Well.." The bard took a breath, then stopped. "No fair."
"And just how many times have you been kidnapped?" Xena went on, with a devilish look in her eyes.
Gabrielle gave her a mock glare, and let out a dramatic sigh. "Ok.. ok.. you made your point."
They grinned at each other. Then Xena dropped one hand down and covered the bards. "Gabrielle?" Her face went quiet.
"Hmm?" The bard responded, getting to her feet and wincing at the stiffness from crouching so long. "Ow."
Xena stayed quiet, and leaned forward, putting both hands out and gently massaging Gabrielles legs. "Next time, just sit down, OK?" She chuckled, cocking her head as she heard Lestan and Wennid returning.
"Mmmm.." Gabrielle sighed happily. "You really are good at that. " She dropped into the chair facing Xena, and stifled a yawn. "Were you going to say something before?" She yawned again, and grinned as Xena tried to keep from following suite. "Cause I was about to say that I think Im the lucky one.. and dont think I dont know it."
A quirk of those lips. "I think we could have a debate about that."
A smirk from the bard. "Youd lose. Im the talker, remember?"
Lestan stretched, and shook himself as he ambled back into the room, and perched on a corner of the table. "Well, we found it." He rolled his mahogany eyes. "Ares, the boys a packrat." He bent his gaze on them. "Think its time we all got some rest. Ive got a feeling tomorrows going to be a long day. "
Xena nodded, and stood up, very aware of the bards watchful gaze, which made her smile inwardly. "Probably. " She paused thoughtfully. "Not much time though, Lestan. You said his challenge was for day after tomorrow?"
The forest dweller nodded. "So you know.. and Im not unhappy about it.. surrender is no longer an option. He.. tied my turning you over to him as part of the deal." Lestans face went quiet. "And that, my friend, is not going to happen. You understand that, right?" Right, Xena? There wont be any disappearing from my village tonight, on some solitary mission..
The warrior studied him pensively, turning over possibilities in her mind. "I dont see any point in it." She answered carefully, reserving her options, seeing Gabrielle stiffen from the corner of her eye. Ahh.. my bard. My friend.. you do know me too well. Her mind mused sadly. "On the other hand, Lestan they were able to get that archer right into the village." Her eyes fixed on him intently. "Got me worried they might try again." Her eyes flickered to Gabrielles face. "But its not me Im worried about."
The forest dweller blew out a long breath. "Good point." He admitted, with a nod. "Weve all let things slip a little, I think." He glanced at her with a rueful smile. "Dangerous. Because you usually dont realize it until you go to use something.. and find out its not there anymore."
For no reason he could detect, Xena seemed to find this funny, because she smiled, and even chuckled a little. "Thats very true, Lestan." She agreed. "Cant say Ill sleep soundly tonight, though. "
Gabrielle snorted. "As if." She teased gently. "I always do, as long as youre there."
Lestan laughed softly. "I'll set a double guard around the village. " He got up off the table, and started walking towards the door, and they joined him, walking out onto the porch and into a cool night breeze.
The moonlight slanted gently down through the leaves, scattering silver and black patches across their path as they strolled slowly back towards their cot. Gabrielle felt the silence, and found herself uncharacteristically unwilling to break it, focusing instead on the problem that was facing them. One short glance at Xenas face had told her what the warrior thought their chances were, and she realized that her partner was using the quiet walk to turn over her options, which were limited, and trying to decide what to do.
Nearby, a bush rustled as some small creature was disturbed by their passage, and Gabrielle felt the almost imperceptible shiver run through Xenas arm, which she had tucked neatly around hers. That was her detecting that noise, analyzing it, and deciding it was harmless, in less time than it took me to blink. A quick look up took in the warriors preoccupied expression, and the bard shook her head slightly. And she doesnt even know shes doing it anymore. Wow. How many years has it taken her to get herself to this level, where she can rely totally on her instincts. Where I can rely totally on them?
Their boots made faint crunching noises, as they crossed the dew rich grass, and sent up a gentle fragrance of the storm churned earth to waft around them, and combine with the heady scent of Wennids rose garden. "Mmmm." Gabrielle said softly, finally breaking the silence between them. "Thats nice."
"Hmm?" Xena replied, then she sniffed appreciatively. "Yeah it is." She cocked her head and looked at Gabrielle, standing there quietly in a pool of moonlight that bleached the color from her hair and turned her vivid green eyes a pale gray and smiled. "Thanks for making me stop and notice stuff like that."
Gabrielle dropped her glance, and grinned a little, the blush bringing a delicate trace of pink to her otherwise pale face. Its all still so new sometimes I just cant believe we are what we are to each other.. after what seemed like half a lifetime of both of us wanting this, and stopping short because we were.. scared. And after we almost lost even our friendship.. gods. That was a horrible time.
Shed been furious. And hurt, and a thousand other things after theyd finally sent Callisto and Velasca into the lava pit. And shed snapped at Xena a dozen times, over using Callisto, and then not telling her what convoluted plan Xena had come up with to get them out of what was, she had to admit to herself, an almost hopeless situation.
Xena had just taken it, and withdrawn into herself like she used to in the old days, and put a cold face on her interactions with the bard. Their conversations had been reduced to curt inquiries and sullen responses, until Gabrielle had to acknowledge to herself that she was wondering about her decision to stay with someone she thought she knew, but now apparently didnt.
Shed thought about just leaving, and making her way back to the Amazons, but a tenacious part of her was reluctant to give up on two years worth of inch by inch progress in what was without question a difficult relationship.
And then there was that part of her that desperately wanting nothing other than to throw herself down at Xenas boots, and take back all the sharp and biting things shed said over the last few weeks, and just beg for forgiveness. Because she knew what shed said had hurt. She knew Xena too well now, and the warrior couldnt hide the flinch and the stark pain in those blue eyes, and she found herself having to work very hard not to reach out, to try and take that pain away because it hurt her just as badly. And that should have told her something.
That knowledge was what had kept her there, on her side of a fire which spread no warmth to her, looking through the flames at Xenas expressionless face, as she steadily sharpened her sword with rhythmic strokes.
Then the strokes had slowed, and finally stopped, and Xena had taken a deep breath, and stared at her hands, then quietly stowed her sharpening stone, and sheathed the sword, letting the hilts rest between her interlaced fingers.
"Two days more on this path, and well be back in Amazon territory." The low voice had sounded clearly across the fire. "I think youd better stay with them."
Gabrielle had felt her heart sink right into her stomach as the words penetrated and she understood what Xena was saying. And found out right there and then exactly how she felt about leaving, and it must have showed in her eyes, because she saw Xenas sharp intake of breath, though the warrior remained silent and waited for her response. No.. dont do this to me.. please. Her heart pleaded with her, in all that quiet. Whatever weve lost theres something that runs between us, I can feel it. Even now. "I dont.." And she had to stop, and look down at the ground, as her throat just closed on her, and robbed her of speech. "Thats not your decision." She finally got out, still staring at the ground.
"Yeah, it is." Came the quiet response, in a cool tone. "You used to trust me to do whats best for you." A long pause. "Why not just trust me this one last time."
Gabrielle had stared at the ground, watching the dirt darken as her tears hit it. The sense of loss was so overwhelming it made her gasp audibly, and wrap her arms around herself in a vain attempt at keeping her composure. She couldnt look up, couldnt stare through that fire and see that coldness, those barriers shed spent two years chipping away at now back up, as solid as theyd ever been. "I cant believe " She managed to grind out, "You just dont care."
She never heard Xena move, all she knew was a sudden jolt as strong hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her upright, forcing her to meet the warriors intense gaze.
"Dont care?" Xenas voice was seething with anger, and something else that Gabrielle couldnt identify. "Dont care? Oh.. how wrong you are." Her voice dropped into a low, raspy whisper. "I care so damn much I risked the only thing I value in this life to keep you whole." Her eyes blazed. "I had a choice between saving your life and losing your friendship, and by the gods I chose to keep you alive." And then Xena had swallowed hard, and took a breath, then a second. "And Id do the same thing again if I had to. I knew youd never understand my freeing Callisto, Gabrielle." Her fierce gaze softened, and her shoulders slumped. "I knew what that price of that would be." She finished quietly, releasing the bard, and sitting down in front of her, letting her forearms rest loosely on her knees. "It was use Callisto, or find Hercules, or call on Ares for help." She looked up, with a tired expression on her face. "And it would have taken too long to find Hercules." Another pause. "So.. Ill drop you off with the Amazons, all right? Theyre good people, and youve got some good friends there.. unless youd rather go back home, or to Athens. You just let me know."
The only thing I value in this life.. kept echoing through Gabrielles mind as she blinked her eyes, and regarded the dark head bent thoughtfully in front of her. How lonely that choice must have been, for her.. I have friends, and a home to go back to. She has.. nothing, except Argo. Except me. She rolled that thought over in her mind. Except me. Oh my gods, Gabrielle. What have you done. To her, to yourself.. " Do you want me to leave?" Her voice barely more than a whisper.
There had been no answer for a long time. Then Xena had looked up, with a resigned expression in her eyes. "I want you to do whats going to make you happy, Gabrielle. And thats obviously.. not being here."
Gabrielle had felt a small spark of hope kindle, because the answer was an evasion, and she knew it. She had slid down off her log onto the ground, and sat knee to knee with the silent warrior. They just looked at each other for a tense while, then slowly, hesitatingly, Gabrielle reached out one hand and curled her fingers around Xenas, and felt a slight tightening in response. It had given her the courage to look up into that very quiet, and very still face.
"Im sorry." She had started, softly. "If youd have asked me to choose.. between falling off that bridge and what Im feeling right now, Id have chosen the bridge."
Strong fingers had clasped hers with a sudden grip that startled her. "Gabrielle "
"No.." The bard put a hand up. "Let me get this out before I lose it, OK? Because Im going to."
"All right." Had been the quiet answer.
But the grip on her hand hadnt loosened, and shed drawn strength from that, enough to put her thoughts in order, and settle down. "Look." She paused. "Velasca coming after me really shook me up." She swallowed. "Uhm I was scared, and it felt like I was losing control of.. everything." She bit her lip a little. "And I was dragging all of you into this with me and I.. felt so helpless." A look down at their linked hands. "I tried to convince myself that I should.. grow up. And take charge, since I was supposed to be this Amazon queen, right? Except that I didnt have a single clue what to do, because Im not anything of the sort. Im just a fraud." She ignored the sudden grip on her other hand. "And thats why I think Ive been so ratty. Its not you Im mad at, its me." She ignored the tears that had started running down her face. "And I think I resented the fact that you arent.. a fraud. Youre the real thing, Xena. You can do whatever it takes, and you can make the hard decisions and.. I have no idea why youve put up with me as long as you have." She took a shuddering breath. "So.. if you want to drop me off somewhere, I dont blame you. Home would probably be best. I cant run the Amazons."
Shed had no idea what to expect as a response from Xena. All she could do was put the truth out there, and let the warrior make of it what she willed. She heard the slight rasp as Xena took and released a deep breath, then the hands holding hers tightened. "Look at me." Came the quiet demand, and she did, looking up into patient blue eyes. "Do you want to go home, Gabrielle?"
"No." The bard had answered.
"Do you want to go to the Amazons?" Another gentle query.
"No." Gabrielle answered, studying the ground.
"What do you want?" Xenas voice was insistent.
And she had raised her eyes, and took her courage in both hands. "I want my best friend back." Watching Xena absorb the words, and holding her breath in tense anticipation of what her response would be. Dont let this be the end, please
One eyebrow had quirked, and a smile had tugged at her lips. "I havent gone anywhere." She quietly responded. Then her eyes had softened, and conveyed a true regret. "I should have told you what I was thinking about, Gabrielle. I just I wasnt sure if it would work, or even.. if it was a good idea." She paused. "I knew you were counting on me I was.. " A sigh. "Afraid I wasnt going to be able to come through for you, this time."
They had studied each other for a minute. "Sorry Ive been so ratty the past few weeks." Gabrielle said, quietly. "You didnt deserve that."
"Sorry Ive shut you out." Xena replied, with equal quietness. "I knew you were having a hard time. You didnt deserve that either." She paused. "And youre not a fraud, Gabrielle." She dropped her gaze to the ground. "There are a lot of times when I wish I didnt have the experience that lets me make those hard decisions." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I would have given anything not to have had to make that one."
Another long silence. Gabrielle studied their linked hands, and slowly, cautiously allowed herself to relax a little. She tightened her grasp experimentally, and felt Xena return the pressure. Its going to be all right. She realized, and the relief of that was so intense it was painful. I could have lost this. I almost did. Her heart clenched, and she took a shuddering breath. I know what I need. Shed thought, ruefully. But that would be too much to expect after all that. Give it time, Gabrielle. Its a start. She looked up, and against all probability found a compassionate warmth in those blue eyes, and a half grin that touched something deep inside her.
"Cmere." Xenas voice, and a tug on the hands still clasped in hers, and then she was being pulled across the space dividing them, and into the warriors arms. Into a warm, fierce hug that she burrowed into and never wanted to get out of.
How did she know her thoughts had mused absently. "Thanks.." Shed whispered. "I needed this."
Xena had tightened her grasp, then relaxed it, giving the bards back a little rub, and Gabrielle had felt her take a deep breath, then let it out. "So did I." Had come the admission, in a voice so soft the bard had to strain to hear it.
And after that, Gabrielle reflected soberly. Theyd been more open with each other. As if that dangerous intersection, once passed, had allowed them to take their relationship a step closer, and made them realize it was ok to get mad at each other, a little. Or play.. and Xena had a wicked sense of humor Gabrielle had then discovered. Now, she looked up at Xenas face as the warrior gazed up at the full moon, and smiled. "Hey.. if youre going to be playing swords with all of them all day, you need some sleep."
Xena gave her a wry look. "Yes, mom." She teased, ruffling the bards fair hair, then tilted her head up and took a closer look at her. "Hey.." Concern in her voice now, as she touched the moisture under her eyes. "Whats wrong?"
Gabrielle laughed a little, and shrugged. "Oh.. its silly, nothing. I was just thinking. Remembering, really." She glanced down and sniffed. "The moonlight here.. just kind of reminded me of the night we.. made up. After Velasca, and all that stuff."
"What made you think of that?" Came the quiet response. "You mad at me?"
The bard smiled, and gave her a little slap. "Dont be goofy." Then her eyebrow quirked. "Unless youre really thinking of giving yourself up to Secan and not telling me."
Xena chuckled easily, and put an arm around Gabrielles shoulders, tugging her towards the cot. "Nah." Her eyes twinkled. " Hed make a lousy dinner companion." She stifled a yawn. "Nope.. Im gonna wait until I see what Lestan has to work with in the way of fighters." She blinked a little. "Before I make any decisions."
Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Good idea." They mounted the stairs, their boots making a soft hollow noise on the wooden planks, and entered the cot, and stopped dead. "What " Gabrielle said, then burst into laughter.
Xenas eyebrows rose, and she put her hands on her hips, as she surveyed the sight of a very young forest dweller, crammed up against the wall of the cot, eyes wide. Staring at him, ears flat, tail down, growling, was a very fierce looking Ares.
"Ares." The warrior sighed, and patted her leg. The puppy looked around, and his tail wagged enthusiastically.
"Roo!!!" He yodeled, dancing from paw to paw, then bounding over to her, and jumping up to put his paws up on her thighs in a long stretch. "Grrr!!!" He added, as she scratched his head.
"Hi there." Gabrielle said, moving closer to the youngster. "Who are you?"
The boys head swiveled, and cocked, and he smiled tentatively. "Hi." He answered softly. "I didnt meant to.. cause trouble." He was shorter than Gabrielle, and had fiery red fur, and a very sweet smile. "Just wanted to bring this, from my sister." He held up a package, but his gaze didnt focus on either of them, and they realized the boy was blind.
Gabrielle dropped down to sit cross-legged next to him, and took the package from his hands. "Thanks. Whos your sister?"
Ears swiveled, and cocked at her. "Elaini." He answered, with a grin. "Im Tody." His face took on a wistful expression. "I cant see you, but you sure sound nice."
Xena chuckled softly, and Todys ears swiveled towards her. "She is nice." The warrior commented, picking up the still growling Ares and moving closer. Todys face grew apprehensive at the approaching sound. "Dont worry. He wont hurt you. Im holding him." Xena reassured the boy,
"Youre tall." Tody commented, with a little smile. "You must be Xena."
The warrior sat down slowly, so as not to startle either boy or wolf. "Thats right." She agreed. "And this is Gabrielle, who sounds just as nice as she really is."
Gabrielle giggled. "Ill remember that." She remarked, giving Xena a light poke in the leg.
"Put your hand out." Xena gently requested. Tody did so, and the warrior let Ares sniff it suspiciously.
"Rrrr." The wolf muttered, with a little sneeze.
Tody tentatively touched the soft fur he felt under his fingertips, and then patted the puppy with more confidence. "Hey.. thats nice. Is he really a wolf?"
"Yep." The warrior acknowledged. "Hes kind of overprotective."
Gabrielle looked up from her task of opening the package and grinned. "Takes after his mom." Her eyes twinkled at the faint blush that colored her partners face, and she got the expected sideways glance, to which she stuck out the tip of her tongue. "Dont deny it."
"Yeah, well.." Xena sighed, rolling her eyes. "Someone has to keep an eye on you."
Tody sat quietly, moving his head to catch their voices and smiling. "This is so cool." He sighed happily. "My first humans." He cocked his head towards Gabrielle, and blinked a little. "Youre the storyteller, arent you?" His snub nose crinkled in a grin. "Would it be ok if I kind of felt what you looked like? It doesnt hurt."
"Sure." Gabrielle responded immediately, and scooted closer, within his reach, gently grasping his hand, and moving it up to her cheek.
"Oh." He said, fascinated, as he drew sensitive fingertips across her skin. "Soft." His hand traced her jawline, and then traveled over her lips, and the bridge of her nose. "So different than ours." She smiled, and he felt that, his thumb touching the muscles on the side of her mouth. "Youre smiling." Then her eyelids fluttered shut as his fingers touched them, and he paused. "I can sometimes picture colors.. what color are your eyes?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated. What meaning would the color name have for him?
A low voice emerged from the semi darkness of the cot, where Xena was still seated, cradling a contented Ares in her arms. "You know how fresh grass smells?" She asked, with a quiet smile.
Tody nodded vigorously. "Yes.. I do."
"Thats what color her eyes are." The warrior responded, enjoying the look of wonder on her partners face.
The boy grinned widely. "Oh..wow." Then his face sobered, and he cocked his ears towards Xena. "Youve been blind." No question, just a statement.
"For a little while, yeah." Came the soft response. "Have you always been?"
Tody nodded. "Almost always." He returned his attention to the bards face, tracing her features, and ending up gently grasping a lock of her hair. His head turned, and he raised an eyebrow in question towards Xena.
The warrior took a breath, and thought a moment. "You know how the sun feels, when its almost setting?"
Unconsciously, the boys eyes closed, and a dreamy look crossed his face. "Uh huh.. is that the color?"
"Yeah." Xena answered, letting her eyes wander over the bards face affectionately
Tody sighed happily. "That sounds beautiful." He paused, then he giggled. "Youre blushing." As he felt the heat under his fingertips, and drew them back, lacing his fingers together and leaning forward. "Elani was out and gathered a whole batch of new herbs for tea.. she thought youd like some." He poked his tongue out a bit. "And I volunteered to deliver them cause I wanted to meet you the whole clans talking about you guys."
Gabrielle examined the herbs under her fingers. "That was really nice of her." She looked up as Xena stood, and reached down a hand for the bundle.
"Ill put them to good use. Why not tell our friend here a story? " The warrior winked. "Bet you have some he hasnt heard."
"Would you?" Tody asked, a delighted look lighting up his rust colored face. "I promised Elaini I wouldnt bother you for one."
Gabrielle turned a compassionate look on him, and put a hand on his, squeezing it lightly. "Sure." She replied. "Come on, lets sit down near the fire. " She stood and pulled him to his feet, guiding him towards the fire and settling down on the rug in front of it.
Xena stood watching for a minute, then smiled and put Ares down. The wolf trotted over and curled up against the bards leg, putting his chin on her knee and sighing. "Know exactly how you feel there, Ares. " The warrior muttered, then snorted at herself. Oh, boy when you fell, you really just went all the way, didnt you, mushball. She let her hands move automatically as she sorted the herbs, and collected a selection, dividing the pile into three parts and putting a packet in each cup, then carrying the cups and their water put over to the fire and settling down in the shadows of the fire, where she could watch the water and Gabrielle at the same time.
The bard had settled into her story, and had captured Todys complete attention, as the blind forest dweller shifted back and forth, and cocked his head to get all the nuances of her voice. Gabrielle had adapted her storytelling style, Xena realized, and dropped her usual use of graceful hand gestures, and instead put more descriptive terms in the narrative of the story. Shes good. The warriors lips quirked into a grin, and she let her head drop back and rest against the fireplace, stretching her legs out and crossing her arms.
And found her attention drifting, and her eyes closing against her will. Damn she sighed inwardly. Stamina still isnt there. And I got extra sleep this afternoon, too. She forced her eyes open, and shook her head a little to clear it, glancing up to see mist green eyes fastened on her. She quirked an eyebrow at the bard, and took the hot water off the fire, pouring it neatly into the cups shed prepared. Ignoring the stern look she knew she was getting.
"Hang on a second, Tody." Gabrielle said, putting a hand on his wrist reassuringly. "Ill be right back." She stood and walked the few steps to where Xena was seated, and dropped to one knee. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." Xena answered in their familiar exchange, handing her a cup. "Here you go."
"Thanks." The bard set the cup down. "You know, youve heard this story before." Giving her a meaningful look.
"Gabrielle.. Im in this story." Xena replied, with a quiet glint in her eye. "Your point?"
Gabrielle sighed, and slowly shook her head. "You are so stubborn." She leaned closer. "Would you please drop the tough as nails warlord routine and just go to sleep?" Her hand lifted and settled on the warriors shoulder. "Xena, its only been three days, OK? Anyone else would still be flat on their back in bed.. would you give your body a little healing time, please? For me?"
Xena gave her a smile. "Gabrielle.. "
"I know." The bard interrupted, putting her fingers on the warriors lips "But you told me the last time I was hurt that I should listen to my body, right? And if my body told me it needed to rest, I should?" She saw Xena take a breath to answer, but then she blinked a few times, and gave the bard a rueful look. "Am I right?"
A resigned sigh from the warrior. "Yeah." But she chuckled. "Let me finish this, all right?" She held up the steaming mug, and settled back against the wall, taking a large sip of the hot tea, and letting it slide down her throat. Hope she doesnt figure out I dumped a little something in this thing to keep me up for a while. She gave the cup a wry look. Gods know I dont have to do that often. Her eyes roamed the interior of the cot. Just have this feeling Im gonna need to be alert for just a little while longer.
Gabrielle went back to her storytelling, but she kept one eye on her partner, who seemed to be comfortably settled in her corner, and remained alert through the rest of the tale, blue eyes focused and interested in what she was saying. Shes doing that just to tweak me. The bard sighed inwardly, but couldnt keep a slight grin from appearing. Oh well Im almost done, then she wont have any excuse.
"That was great." Tody laughed as she finished the tale. "And.. thanks." He put a hand out and accurately patted her knee. "I could really see what you were describing in my head." He stood, and brushed his fur down, giving himself a little shake. "Id better get home.. mom gets worried when Im out after dark." He suddenly produced a feral grin. "Even though that almost gets me to even footing."
Gabrielle laughed, and stood up herself. "I have to get something from the healers cot. Mind if I walk with you?" She ignored the faint chuckle from her partner, who was indulging in a long stretch, having risen and joined her. She leaned back against Xenas warm body, and felt the long arms circle her from behind, and settle to rest around her neck.
"Be careful." Xenas voice whispered in her ear. "Take your staff."
The bard swiveled her head and regarded her partner quietly. "All right." She laid her cheek against Xenas arm, and closed her eyes for a moment. Oh.. bad idea.. she realized as a wave of sleepiness washed over her. And I had the nerve to go and tease her about this. With a sigh, she forced her eyes open, and saw the twinkle as Xena caught her at it. "Not one word." She advised, giving her best version of a mean look.
Xena made a low rumbling growl deep in her throat that vibrated against the back of the bards head. "Make it quick, and Ill save a nice warm spot for you." Came the gently teasing reply right in her ear, and the sudden warmth of her partners breath against her face sent skittering jolts down Gabrielles spine.
"Whoa." She exhaled, blinking. "Im awake." Sliding her gaze sideways and meeting Xenas mischievous twinkle. "Hold that thought." She slipped reluctantly out of the warriors grasp, and steered Tody towards the door, grabbing her staff on the way out. "Cmon, Tody you can guide me. Its dark out there."
"You bet." The boy said, lifting his russet chin importantly. "I'll protect you."
Gabrielle chuckled, and, turning, met Xenas amused glance. "You collect them." The warrior mouthed, giving her a big grin, laughing quietly at the bards sheepish shrug.
They passed into the misty night, darkling now that the moon had passed behind a set of thick clouds. Gabrielle found her companion did, indeed know his way, and threaded his steps between the trees with expert skill. "That was a great story." His childs voice echoed confidently out of the darkness. "And it was true, wasnt it?"
"Yep." Gabrielle confirmed, taking a better grip on her staff. "I dont have to make stuff up about Xena. The real things she does are more than enough."
"Wow." Tody breathed. "And your connection is just so super. I can see it without hardly having to Look real hard."
Gabrielle slowed, and cocked her head at him. "Whats that like? You all keep saying you can see us.. or see that connection I cant. I know Xena cant well.. I mean, I dont know, but shes never said, and I think she would have. Its just this " Her brows creased. "Like this feeling I get.. when shes in trouble, or whatever."
Tody scowled, rumpling the fur on his face. "Gosh. I never I mean well, what does it feel like for you when you sense your bond?"
Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "Like being totally immersed in sunlight." She finally said. "Its.. " The feeling she got when their eyes met, and she knew.. she knew she could sense something flowing between them. "I cant describe it."
The boy nodded. "Ok.. right. So you see my problem. I cant describe it." He swiveled his ears towards her. "I just know it when I feel it. Some mates are stronger, some not Lestan and Wennid are real, real strong. Yours.. is like theirs.. just all warm, and friendly, and nice. " His head turned, and he concentrated a moment. "That was weird." He muttered.
"What?" Gabrielle said softly, her own nascent instincts flaring, as her nape hairs lifted, sending a chill draft across the back of her neck., and sharpening her senses. That was something that had only begun to happen recently and her mind filed that information away for later study as she brought her staff up in an instinctive warding gesture, and bent her hearing around her.
"Something " The boy breathed back, his body deepening into a crouch, as he turned his head to different sides, trying to recapture the sound that had alerted him.
It happened so fast, neither of them had a chance to jump clear. A deep roar, and Gabrielle was faced with a blur of paleness coming at her, slashing claws catching against her staff raised by pure instinct.
"Hey!" She yelled, twisting violently and managing to somehow avoid the leap, clearing her staff from the sharp claws, and slamming it into the rapidly moving figure with all the force she could muster.
Heard the deep grunt, then a blood curdling snarl that sent shivers up and down her spine, as her attacker rolled, and turned, and launched back at her, bearing her to the ground, and knocking the wind out of her. She felt the rip of sharp claws against her skin, and kicked up, levering with her staff against the body on top of her and somehow rolling free again. "Damn. " She cursed, then looked up, and caught her breath, as her attacker bounded to his feet, and, spreading his arms wide, and baring his fangs, crouched for the leap she knew would be the end of her.
Except that she heard footsteps pounding closer, and she knew if she could just "Youd better make sure you kill me first time." She yelled, right up into his face, right into his fangs, and saw the eyes react. "Because by the gods, you wont get a second chance."
On her knees, only a thin staff between herself and his fangs and claws and much greater size, and she ignored it all, reaching for that core of courage that was as much a part of her as her bardic skills. "Damned if Im going to be done in by some coward!" She yelled louder, seeing his momentary hesitation, and managing to get to her feet.
Then his eyes blazed, and he leaped, both arms slashing down at her. Desperate, she dropped back to her knees, and raised her staff, and just.. prayed.
His growl thundered through her ears, and the hot breath blasted against her skull, then the growl stopped, with a shocked grunt, and his body was tossed over her and to the ground, knocking her down as he passed, but not fast enough for her to miss seeing what had taken him down.
Gods. Impeccable timing. As always. Her mind nervously provided, as she rolled out of the way, and found herself up against Tody, who grabbed her with shaking hands. "Its ok " She gasped, clutching his shoulders. "Are you all right?"
Tody nodded, bending his head to listen. "Whats happening?" He begged her. "Heard you go down, then someone was running, then someone hit him, and.."
Gabrielle looked over his shoulder, in time to see her attacker lifted off the ground and slammed into a tree by a powerful kick. "What happened? " Her voice was amazingly calm. "Xena happened." She watched as her partner bounced on the balls of her feet, and moved towards the pale form who was getting up. "Thats a bad idea." She murmured to herself.
Xena didnt even slow down, she just used her momentum to power a roundhouse punch that slammed her attackers head back with such force it sent saliva flying almost to where the bard was crouched.
Then the darkness was broken by a flood of furred bodies, three of whom grabbed her attacker, cautiously giving Xena a wide berth. A hand fell on Gabrielles shoulder, and she looked up into Wennids anguished face.
"Are you all right?, cubling?" Jessans mother asked, peering at her.
"Yeah.. Im fine." Gabrielle answered, taking a breath. "Who.."
Wennid wouldnt meet her eyes. "Warrin." She said through tightly clenched teeth. "Hes shamed our clan, and my family, and by all the gods, Gabrielle, Im sorry."
Gabrielle took a glance towards the cluster of forest people, and found stark blue eyes staring back at her. She gave a little wave, and saw Xenas body relax, and got a nod from the warrior, which she returned. "Its not your fault, Wennid." She said, looking up at the woman. "But why.. I mean, I know I said those things to him, but "
Then a hand touched her head, and Xena dropped to one knee at her side. "You all right?" The warrior asked, giving her a quick looking over.
The bard nodded shakily. "Yeah.. just got the wind knocked out of me. Im fine." She let herself fall forward, into Xenas welcoming arms, and tucked her head against the warriors shoulder. "Nice timing, as always." She grinned, giving the warrior a pat on the side.
"Good thing I decided not to take a snooze, huh?" Came the softly whispered answer in her ear.
"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, soberly. "Real good thing."
"Xena." Lestan crouched down next to them, his mahogany eyes almost black in the faint moonlight. "Let me have till morning to sort this out."
The warrior gazed at him. "Its your clan, Lestan.. but.. " Her brows creased. "What was his motive? Why Gabrielle?"
The forest dweller grimly shook his head. "I have to assume he either went over the edge, or .. no, I prefer to believe he just lost his mind. Because if he did this on purpose.. to break your bond.. Ill kill him myself."
"Maybe thats what he wants." Came Gabrielles clear, quiet voice.
Eyes went to her in shock. But her gaze was focused on Xenas face, and there was a sad understanding in her green eyes. "Maybe he did it because he knew if he succeeded, hed die." She paused. "And even if he didnt, even if he just managed to.. anyway. Theres a good chance hed.." Not wanting to say, outright, the truth.
"That I would have killed him?" Xena quietly asked, then shrugged. "Probably true." Or maybe he knew if she died.. hed have no trouble delivering me to Secan. If there was anything left to deliver. "At any rate, if youre taking custody of him, I think wed all better get some rest."
It was a very quiet walk back. Xena didnt speak even when they'd reentered their cot, and were standing, regarding each other in silence. Then the warrior shook her head, and let herself down onto the couch, resting her elbows on her knees, and letting her head drop between her shoulders.
Gabrielle sat down next to her, and put a hand on her back. "You all right?" A senseless question, when she could feel the painful tension present under her fingertips. "Sorry I caused all that trouble." She hitched herself up on the back of the couch, and was putting both hands to work, when Xena raised her head, and half turned.
"Come here." The warrior said in a weary voice.
"Hmm? Sure.." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xenas neck, and slid off the back of the couch, landing neatly in her lap, which elicited a faint grin from the warrior. "That what you had in mind?"
"Yeah." Xena responded, and hugged her close for a very long time. Finally, when the bard was half suspended between sleeping and waking, that low voice brought her back to the present. "Gabrielle?"
"Mmm." The bard mumbled, her senses full of her soulmate.
"Were going home after this." A very quiet, very peaceful sounding tone.
Gabrielle thought about that for a minute, then snuggled closer, and let a held breath out, ruffling the fabric of Xenas tunic. "OK." Was her only response.
Xena just tucked the bards head under her chin, and let herself drift, now that shed focused, and made a decision. At least for a while. Her mind mused. Until I can figure out how to cope with this. Shed known the instant Gabrielle had gotten into trouble, felt the edgy panic as though it had been her own, and that had sent her out of the cot and into the darkness at a dead run. Good thing Ive got decent night vision. She considered. Or I would have ended up plowing into a few trees.
And seeing that pale form standing over Gabrielle.. She took a deep breath. Had brought out that part of her that was all fire, all Ares. That had tapped right down into that part of her she tried to control, and released it almost without her permission. Gabrielle had been right.. if the other forest dwellers hadnt shown up, she would have killed him. She could feel it, in the way she had been attacking.
Funny. At one time, I would have welcomed knowing that. She realized. Now.. it just takes me further and further from where Im trying to go. A quiet melancholy descended on her. Not that I have a snowballs chance of getting there anyway. And that thought settled on her like a pall.
"Xena?" Came Gabrielles soft voice, and the warrior could feel the warmth of the bards breath against her skin.
"Hmmm?" The warrior replied, gazing fondly down at her.
Gabrielle tilted her head and gave her a dreamy smile. "I think Im gonna really like that."
"Yeah?" Xena answered, her eyebrows lifting in mild surprise.
The bard nodded. "Yeah." She nestled closer. "Its.. " A light sigh. "Been a really long road." Meaning more than the travel, Xena knew. "Im a little tired."
And that, the warrior realized, was an admission Gabrielle would never have made if she hadnt already decided to take a break.
"I didnt really realize it until we stopped over for that fortnight. I just " A pause. "So much has happened." The bard finished quietly.
Xena slid a hand under her jaw, and tilted her face up. "Why didnt you tell me that before?"
Gabrielles eyebrows rose. "This question is coming from the Warrior Princess of Communication?" But her tone was gentle. "Xena, I couldnt and I was willing to keep going as long as I had to, you know that. But.. Im not going to lie and pretend I wont welcome a chance to just sit back and.. let some stuff heal." She took a breath. "And.. " Her lips quirked. "I saw glimpses of another side of you at home that Id really like to spend some time digging out."
That got a smile back. "Yeah " Xena admitted. "I felt different wasnt sure if it was just being home, or.. if it was because of us, or.. whatever. " She stroked Gabrielles hair. "And honestly.. Ive been worried about you."
"You have?" The bard queried. Guess I wasnt as good at hiding what I was feeling as I thought I was..
Xena nodded. "Ever since.. that whole mess with me getting hurt, and all that." She cleared her throat, and felt the bards body tense in her arms. "I saw you getting wound up tighter all the time.. and I didnt know what to do about it.. wasnt sure if you were just tired, or if it was getting to be too much, or.."
Gabrielle smiled. "Didnt realize you noticed." She sighed. "Youre right, though. I think it was.. all that mess.. and just the stuff we do all the time, all the fighting, and all that.. and.." She hesitated, debating with herself, then shrugged. "And it was hard.. wanting.. " She paused, and trailed her fingers idly across Xenas collarbone. "This." She glanced up. "Not knowing if you felt the same way, or if wed ever I guess I was just scared, most of the time."
"You still scared?" Xena asked, tracing her jawline with one fingertip.
The bard closed her eyes, smiled, and shook her head. "No." She snuggled closer and sighed.
"Good." Came the answer. "Come on.. " Xena stood up, carrying the bard with her, and walked across the cot to where their gear was. "Bedtime for bards."
Gabrielle giggled, and held on to the warriors neck as her legs were released and she felt the ground under her feet. "No argument from me." She knelt and took a sleep shirt from her pack, and grabbed one of Xenas, tossing it to her. "Here you go." She stood, and stripped off her tunic, and heard Xenas intake of breath. "What.. oh."
"Damn." Xena cursed, running her fingers very lightly over the four parallel scratches that raked across the bards abdomen. "Didnt know he got that close."
Gabrielles hand dropped and covered hers. "Just stings a little." She said softly, squeezing the warriors fingers. "Its not nearly as bad as yours there." Her hand lifted and touched the faded claw marks on her partners shoulder.
Xena shook her head. "Put your shirt on, and go lie down. Ill get my stuff and clean those up."
"All right." The bard answered softly, pulling the shirt over her head, and padding over to the large round bed and lying down on it. Xena joined her shortly, carrying a piece of linen, and Gabrielle caught the sharp scent of her herbal cleaner as the warrior stretched out on the beds soft surface, motioning her to lift her shirt up. She did so, then let her arms relax on the bed, and closed her eyes.
Xena sighed, and warmed the linen between her hands before starting to clean the scratches. They really arent that bad. She admitted to herself, slightly mollified, as she finished up her task, and gave the bard a light tickle with her fingertips. "There."
"Cut that out." Gabrielle chuckled, slapping at her hand. "Xena!" As the warrior dodged her blow, and ran her fingers over the smooth skin. "Ugh!" She giggled, and rolled over, tugging her shirt down.
Xena chuckled herself, and relented, relaxing onto her back and allowing Gabrielle to snuggle up in her favorite spot, with her head resting on the warriors shoulder, and one arm thrown over her stomach. She wrapped her own arm around Gabrielles back, and began moving her hands in slow circles, massaging the tense muscles under her fingertips. "Youre all in knots back here, love." She commented, pressing a little harder.
"Mmmm." Gabrielle mumbled. "Not for long." She blinked her eyes open, and studied the face above her, seeing a fleeting expression she didnt like. "Hey.. are you OK?" She laid a hand on Xenas chest and searched her eyes. "You didnt hurt yourself again, did you?"
A shake of the dark head and a smile. "Nah. He didnt touch me." She reassured the bard, but felt the long delayed need for sleep tugging hard at her. Herbs must be wearing off.. well, they did what they were supposed to do.. cant complain. "Just a little tired, I guess." She heard it in her voice, and really didnt need the bards gentle touch urging her into sleep, but welcomed it anyway, and pulled her closer with a contented sigh. The world had begun to slip away when Gabrielles drowsy voice called her back.
"Xena?" The bard mumbled.
"Hmmm?" Her partner responded.
"How did you know.. I mean.. that new grass thing. " Came the incoherent question.
Fortunately, Xena had a good idea of what she meant. "Oh.. well.. " She responded thoughtfully. "When I was blinded, that time I sort of.. I started to think about ways to.. well, adapt. In case.. For a while I really didnt think I had a chance to get my sight back, Gabrielle. "
She felt Gabrielle move closer, molding their bodies together. Gods.. that feels good. She could feel the tension dissolve out of her and she felt her mind drifting. Probably not making a lot of sense.. She mused sleepily.
"Anyway.." she continued with a sigh. "I guess I started paying a lot closer attention to what things felt like.. smelled, sounded like.." A long pause. "I thought about.. you.. a lot. " She swallowed, and knew Gabrielle felt it, because the bard slid a warm hand under her shirt and rubbed her belly comfortingly. "When wed stop for rest, Id try to.. " She stopped for a long moment. "I didnt want to forget what you looked like, I guess." She stumbled over the last few words, and couldnt keep her eyes open any longer. "Sorry.. really tired."
"Its all right." Came the gentle reassurance. "Sweet dreams, love."
A faint smile tugged at her partners lips. "With you here, they always are." Was the half-mumbled answer.
Gabrielle watched those blue eyes slide shut, and her breathing deepen, at last releasing the tension in the body she was wrapped around. Mostly. Because a core of it still remained, and she could feel that, and knew it would protect them both from anyone foolish enough to take one step inside that door seen dimly across the darkened room, even as tired out as she was.
She laid her head back down on Xenas shoulder, and spent a few minutes just listening to her heartbeat, and watching the steady movement of her chest, and sighed. Shes still not 100 percent.. Her hands traced over familiar territory, and her brow creased with concern. But were out of time, I think.. and tomorrow, I know shell be pushing herself, and them, as hard as she can. Damn, Xena but there was no arguing with the warrior about this, she realized. All I can do is keep her still for as long as I can, and three days, wow.. thats a record. She snorted softly. And that was with.. what.. two fights and the rescue the other day? At least now, I know whats going on with her..
For a long time, when they first had started traveling together, Gabrielle had been convinced that the warrior either just didnt get hurt, or didnt feel pain, and that viewpoint alternated depending on the day of the week, and the phase of the moon because she went into these horrible, pounding, crunching fights, and came out apparently untouched, Every time..
And slowly, she was getting used to the monosyllabic conversations, and the lack of any real communication between them, though that was hard. She compensated by babbling, and she knew it, and was always kind of surprised when Xena didnt just tell her to shut up half the time.
And then, one day, theyd gotten into this fight behind some tavern, when a couple of big mercenaries had decided to grab her as she was walking in from the stable and Xena had appeared from the darkness and taken them on. Gabrielle had just ducked out of the way, having learned by now to stay clear of whatever area Xena was fighting in.. so shed gotten behind the water trough and watched as her traveling companion let loose with a fist into one of the square jawed faces, and took him down. But hed grabbed her arm as he was falling, and she wasnt able to jerk it loose in time to ward off a flying kick from the second, who slammed her back into the tavern wall with force enough to rattle the boards.
Shed bounced right off the wood planks and given back a savage roundhouse that had sent blood flying from the mercenaries nose, and sent him sliding bonelessly to the ground.
Gabrielle had watched as she stood over the fallen thugs, hands flexing, for a long moment before she shook her head, and walked over to where the bard was crouching. Gabrielle had thought she was making sure they would stay down.. that seemed like something Xena might do, though the warrior was still largely an unknown quantity to her at this point. "You all right?" Had come the gruff question to her.
Shed nodded, and risen, giving her companion a quick grin. "Yeah, thanks. That was nasty."
Xena had merely made a sound of acknowledgement, then glanced up at the tavern, thinking in silence for a moment. "Long as were here, might as well get something to eat."
That had surprised Gabrielle, since she knew Xena had wanted out of this particular town, but she wasnt about to argue, not with a hot meal in the bargain that she didnt have to assemble, nor Xena to catch. "Great idea." Shed grinned, and followed Xena inside.
It actually was a good meal, to her delight, and shed finished her portion with seconds before shed looked up and noticed that the warrior wasnt keeping pace. Which had been very unusual, since Xena tended to attack her food with single-minded persistence, though a usual marked lack of enjoyment. "Dont you like it?" Shed asked, studying that composed face across from her.
Xena had shrugged diffidently. "Just not hungry, I guess. Take it." Shed pushed her plate across the table, and leaned back in her chair, with a large mug of ale in one hand, which she took frequent sips of, letting her eyes scan the room for possible trouble.
And that was so unusual, it had caused Gabrielle to take the opportunity to study Xena closely, though the woman appeared completely normal.. slightly menacing dour glare and all. Then the warrior had shifted slightly in her chair, and the bard had seen a momentary flicker in that cool mask that was gone so fast she thought she imagined it. So she shrugged, and started one of her mostly one-sided conversations, stopping at one point for a response, and looking over at Xenas face.
Catching an unguarded look into her clear blue eyes and seeing something that made her instinctively reach across the table and lay a hand on the warriors arm, which was resting on the surface. "Xena, are you all right?" Shed asked, and thought for a long moment that she was going to be brushed off. As usual.
Those eyes had regarded her coolly, then they dropped to the table, to where her hand was resting, stayed there for an instant, then lifted back up, and met her gaze with a wry half smile. "Mostly." She admitted.
"Mostly." Gabrielle repeated, then took a breath to pursue this unusual opening, but stopped after feeling the arm under her hand tense, and changed tactics. "You know, my back is really killing me. Any chance we could stay around here for a night?"
She hadnt been sure, but that might just have been a twinkle of amusement in those eyes, as Xena had raised that one eyebrow. "All right." Shed replied, with a shrug.
And they had, settled into a spare, if comfortable room with two decent size beds on the upper floor of the inn, and Gabrielle had really enjoyed the opportunity to be out of the weather and sleep on something soft for a change. She had slipped into an old shirt, and curled up happily on her bed, working on her newly started scrolls as Xena went through her usual routine of weapon cleaning and sharpening.
Gabrielle had kept an eye on her, though, and watched as she put the sword away, and sat slowly back in the chair, staring silently at the small fire in the fireplace with a distant look in her eyes. Then she had taken a deep breath, and reached for her armor clips, unlatching both sides and lifting the breastplate off one handed over her head, dropping the heavy plates to the ground and starting to unlace her bracers.
After shed finished, she had quietly sat there for a minute, and then stood, and padded over to the other bed, sitting down, and leaning back against the headboard with an almost inaudible sigh.
The bard had packed her scrolls away, and slid out of bed, walking over and waiting until Xena turned her head, and raised her eyebrow in question. "Hi. Im going to make some tea for myself. You interested?"
"Sure." Shed said, for once without that faintly cocky tone in her voice. "That would be great."
And when shed brought the warm cup back to Xena, the warrior had reached out and taken it gently with her left hand, and given her a quirky grin. "Thanks."
Gabrielle had nodded, putting her hands behind her back to keep herself from the almost irresistible urge to give the warrior a pat. "You still mostly OK?" Shed asked,.
Eyes had locked with hers, then Xena had blinked, and gazed down into her tea. A light laugh. "Depends on what you consider a couple of broken ribs." Shed commented, knowing shed shocked the bard.
Gods.. Gabrielle had thought. Broken ribs??? She must be "Does it hurt a lot?" Came the quiet question, and this close, the bard could see the ugly bruise that started a few inches below her collarbone, and disappeared under her leathers.
Xena had started to shrug it off, then had chewed her lip briefly. "Yeah, a little." She finally admitted. "Ive had worse."
Gabrielle had finally given in to her instincts and put a hand on her wrist, giving it a little squeeze. "Im sorry. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Nah." Came the casual reply. "Im used to it." She held up the tea. "Nice job."
"Youre USED to it?" Gabrielle had said, staring at her in disbelief. "How do you get USED to that?"
And Xena had cocked her head to one side, and given the bard a quietly resigned look. "Have it happen often enough, you get used to it."
And Gabrielle had realized, at that moment, that she must have seen Xena get hurt a dozen times already, and never realized it, because the warrior just never said anything.
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