Bound – Part 6 continued

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

She still doesn’t, the bard mused, glancing up at her soundly sleeping partner. Except now, I know her body language so well she can’t hide it from me. She slid her fingers over the smooth skin and smiled as she felt the arm around her shoulder tighten slightly.

Suddenly the bed rocked slightly, and Gabrielle found herself tucked neatly under a protective arm, with Xena poised to strike, sword drawn.

A snorting laugh from her partner then. "Ares, are you testing my reflexes?" Xena sighed, staring at the cowed puppy, who had jumped up onto the bed, and was crouched by the warrior’s leg.

Gabrielle muffled a laugh, and patted her on the shoulder. "No problem with those reflexes there, Xena." She pushed gently on the warrior’s chest. "Come on, back to sleep with you."

Silence descended again, once Xena had resheathed her sword with a hiss of metal on leather. The night sounds penetrated the darkened room, along with draft of air carrying a mixture of damp pine and woodsmoke. Then the stillness was broken by a giggle.

"It’s not funny." Xena’s voice responded. "I could have cut his tail off or something. Now, how would that look?"

A louder giggle.

"Cut it out, or I’ll give you something to giggle about." Warned the warrior.

"Yeah? Like what, for ins… oh." The bard replied, followed by a prolonged silence. Then.. "and I thought you were tired."

"I was. I got over it." Came the response, with a chuckle.

"Mmm…." The bard rumbled deep in her throat. "The responsible thing to do would be to coax you back to sleep." Then her whole body shuddered as Xena’s hands moved over it.

"Oh… do you feel like being responsible today, my bard?" The voice was perilously close to her ear, and the warmth traveled through her like hot wine. "Hmm?" And Xena knew she’d won, by the sharp intake of breath, and the responding touch of the bard’s hands. Like I could go back to sleep after being woken up like that.. uh huh…

"You’re bad." Gabrielle whispered in her ear, then nibbled on the edge of it.

"I keep hearing that." Xena drawled, meeting her lips. "So it must be true."

Quite a while later, Xena leaned back, and studied the drowsing form sprawled across her chest. Guess I still had some stamina tucked away in there somewhere. She chuckled mentally, and allowed herself the luxury of a yawn, which was echoed by Ares, who settled back down against her leg, and laid his head on her calf. She ruffled his fur affectionately, then tucked the blankets neatly around Gabrielle’s sleeping form and settled herself comfortably, letting her eyes drift closed.

"What are we going to do with him?" Lestan wrapped his hands around Wennid’s, and gazed into her golden eyes. "He’s not rational, my heart."

Wennid sighed, and looked down at the ground. "I know.. I spoke to him, once he woke up." She paused, remembering his swollen face. "He would have killed her Lesti."

Their eyes met. "Why?" Lestan asked softly. "He’s been stable for so long.. why now? Why her?"

Wennid shook her head. "No rational reason. He’s just… Lesti, you know he hates humans.. you know he blames them for Aleen’s death." She sighed. "He can’t accept them having the gift, is all." She leaned back. "He tried to dart them, said he wanted to deliver them to Secan.. had some crazy idea that would make him back off, leave us alone."

Lestan looked straight ahead. "Xena had that same idea." He replied quietly. "I told her I’d chain myself to her if she tried it." He shook his furry head. "Stop him? Not in a thousand years. It would just make the final result worse, because we’d still have to fight, and she’d… no."

Wennid reached over and caressed his cheek. "Lesti, what are we going to do? You know we can't defeat them."

"I know." His voice was very quiet. "There’s only one real chance, love. And I can’t force that, I can’t arrange for it, and I can’t even hope for it."

Wennid was silent for a very long moment. "No, you can’t." She finally said, with a long sigh. "But Lestan, Secan is the best warrior our people have, much as I hate to admit it. What makes you think that’s even a chance?"

Lestan stood up and walked to the window, putting his good hand on the sill and looking out. "Wenni, she’s more than what she seems to be. I knew that when I was flat on my back, watching her fight off those soldiers. There was an aura around her… I could See it. "

"Something of Ares?" His bondmate asked, quietly. "She was his Chosen, after all."

"No.. " The tall forest dweller drew the word out. "It was cleaner than that. " He paused. "She builds things, she doesn’t tear them down."

Wennid shook her head. "Lesti, she’s a human female, unless you’re suggesting she’s something else. She’s injured, and she’s lifebonded. You can’t be pinning your hopes on her, that would be foolish." She moved over to him, and slid an arm around his waist. "if we fight, we’ll lose half the village."

He nodded. "I know." He turned and took her into his arms. "No good choices, Wenni. We fight, because we can’t surrender our ally, and we have no one to send up against Secan. It’s all so stupid – it’s not even about territory. It’s just about seeing who are the better fighters. Ares’ legacy."

"Fight for the sake of fighting." Wennid said, bitterly. "We could just leave." But even as she said it, she knew the words were meaningless.

"Mmm." Lestan agreed. "Well, with Xena on our side, at least ours won’t be the only bodies left on the forest floor."

Wennid looked at him. "I don’t understand.. why… she can’t be fighting, Lestan."

"I can’t stop her, my love." Lestan said, nibbling her ear. "She knows the risks." He took her hands in his. "As do I, as do our brothers and sisters."

They both looked up as Brennan poked his head in the door and gave them a nod. "Lestan. Wennid.. may I come in?"

"Of course." Lestan sighed, slumping back into his chair. Now what. "Wenni, do we have some mulled wine left?"

His lifemate gave him a look. "No, but you both can have some warm milk." She put her hands on her hips. "It’s very late."

Two furred and fanged faces peered back at her meekly. "I like milk." Brennan said, giving Wennid a grin. "Especially with honey in it."

Wennid shook her head, and walked towards the hallway, muttering. "Boys."

Lestan waited until her pale form had disappeared into the darkness of the hall before he turned and gave Brennan a wry look. "So. What’s up?" He yawned, and let his head drop back against the chair.

Brennan sat down, and leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. "Look, Lestan… we went out, and we had a meeting. The fighters, all of us." He kept his gaze on the wooden floor. "We know we let you down, letting that archer in, and all."

Lestan shrugged. "We’ve been at peace so long, Bren, it’s made us all a little soft, I think." He gazed down at himself wryly. "Some of us more than others, but whatever." He looked up. "Don’t gnaw that bone too long. It’s past."

The dark furred Brennan nodded a little. "Aye, I know." He glanced up. "But Secan upped the stakes.. I heard.. we all heard he wants the Warrior Princess or no treaty. Is that right?"

Lestan nodded. "Right. And.. before you tell me anything, I'd go myself first." His dark eyes glinted. "Don’t ask me to do that."

Brennan smiled, and looked up. "Not likely." He snorted. "What we want.. what we agreed was right.. was that she and her lifemate.. "He paused and looked hard at Lestan. "If they’re risking life and bond for us, they should be counted one of us. We want to adopt them, here. Into the clan."

Lestan tilted his head back, and regarded the ceiling, pretending to consider the request. And so it starts… with none of my doing, do you see that, Ares? He looked up as Wennid put a mug into hands, and the rich steamy scent of sweetened warmed milk wafted up to his nose. "Smells great, love." He said, giving her a smile. "Brennan tells me the fighters want to clan adopt Xena and Gabrielle." His eyes met hers. "What do you think?"

Wennid wound her arms around his neck, and kissed his nose. "What I think is.. the lifebonded also had a meeting tonight, and funny thing, they asked me the same question." Her eyebrows arched. "Seems they think our two human friends deserve protection.. apparently the storyteller made quite an impact the other day."

So, and so. "All right, tomorrow we’ll have a clan dinner. It’s right… since we’re meeting Secan’s lot the morning after. Put a vote out.. anyone who has a compelling reason to say no… sees me tomorrow. Or tomorrow night, if they agree, we’ll do it."

"You think they’ll say no?" Brennan asked idly, sipping his milk with evident relish. "Mmm… nice…" He waggled his eyebrows at Wennid, who snorted.

Lestan shrugged, taking a gulp from his own cup. "How should I know? Never asked a human before. Guess I’ll find out tomorrow." He looked up and shook a finger at Brennan. "And speaking of tomorrow, you lot please remember that the poor woman’s just gotten over being half crushed to death by a damn mountain. Don’t run her ragged, all right? "

Brennan finished his mug, and stood, stretching and yawning wide. "We know, Lestan We talked about that too.. we’ll treat her with extra care, don’t worry." He half bowed to Wennid, who slapped him in the leg. "Ouch… try to be nice, and look what it gets you." He winked, and ambled out the door, closing it behind him but not before a strong breeze blew in, carrying the scent of wood smoke and dew.

Xena kept her eyes closed and let consciousness slowly bring her up from the very comfortable warm spot her body was snuggled in. She was aware of the pre dawn hour, and the damp breeze coming in the window, and the wonderful feeling of having Gabrielle wrapped around her that made her very unwilling to move in the least bit. Reluctantly, she forced one eye open, and glanced at the window, judging that it was still at least an hour to sunrise. I should get up. She told herself. But I’m just way too comfortable. She sighed at herself. Isn't that just pathetic.

The moon was setting, and the last feeble rays were slinking in the window, throwing one negligent splash across the bed, and both of them. Xena gazed down at Gabrielle’s profile, where the faint light almost made her skin appear transparent, and highlighted the gentle planes of her face. Wonder what’ she’s dreaming about. Xena mused, seeing the smile on her lips.

Then the bard took a deep breath, and her eyes opened, and she glanced around, then up at Xena with an accusing glare. "Hey. It’s dark." The bard stated, tightening her grasp. "Thought you’d gotten over this dawn thing."

Xena grinned lazily. "Yeah, I did. I still wake up, I just usually don’t do anything about it." She cheerfully admitted. "Were you having a good dream? You were smiling."

Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. "I wasn’t sleeping." She answered softly. "The minute I wake up to the music of your heartbeat, I guess it just makes me smile."

The warrior took a breath before answering. "That’s very poetic, Gabrielle." She finally said, raising a hand and brushing the bard’s face with her fingertips.

Gabrielle’s eyes closed at the touch, then she captured Xena’s hand, and gently kissed it. "Must be that bard thing." She commented. "Besides, it’s true."

Xena interlaced her fingers with the bard’s and returned the smile. Then she turned her head, as she heard the distinctive clacking of Ares’ nails as he approached the bed. "At least this time I heard him coming." She muttered to an amused Gabrielle. The wolf puppy jumped up on the bed, and stumbled across to where they were laying, sat down, and dropped his jaws towards Xena’s thigh.

Releasing a mouse, which ran up the warrior’s leg in terror, and scampered across her chest.

"Whoa!!!’ Xena yelled, more startled than anything else, as the animal jumped in fright, and scrambled up on Gabrielle’s arm.

"Yow!’ The bard barked, jerking her am and sending the mouse flying. It chittered in alarm as it landed on the bed and seconds later was captured by Xena’s swiftly moving hand.

Silence fell.

Broken by the sound of smothered giggles, as Gabrielle buried her face in Xena’s shirt and just lost it. "Oh gods." She gasped.

Xena made wry face, and lifted her hand, examining her tiny captive. "Well." She said, "Hello there." She brought the hand closer to her face, and carefully opened her fingers, allowing the mouse’s head to pop out. The tiny whiskers tickled her hand, as the animal sniffed frantically at his soft, but inflexible cage.

Ares crawled up onto her midsection, and flopped down, panting. He nosed Xena’s hand, and she felt his tail wag against her leg. "Roo" He commented.

"Roo? I’ll give you a Roo, buddy." Xena growled at him, raising an eyebrow at the mouse. "Now what am I supposed to do with this?"

"Well." Gabrielle sniffed reflectively. "We could keep him."

"No." Xena stated, flatly.

"But.." Gabrielle started, with a wicked gleam in her eyes.

"No." The warrior repeated, then grabbed the back of Gabrielle’s shirt, and moved her other hand underneath the fabric. "Want me to let him go?"

The bard’s eyes widened. "Don’t you dare." Oops. Wrong, Gabrielle. Wrong, wrong wrong thing to say to the Warrior Princess of Competitiveness. "YAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!"

As the mouse skittered around inside of her shirt, and she jumped off the bed, frantically tugging at the fabric. "YOU’RE TOAST!" She yelled, as the mouse dropped to the floor and took off. She let out a wild growl, and dove back onto the bed, grabbing for one of the wrestling holds Xena had painstakingly taught her. "Ah ha!" She managed to get the helplessly laughing warrior into a solid grip. "Now I’ve got you."

Xena stopped laughing long enough to realize that Gabrielle did, indeed, have her in a very solid, and pretty unbreakable position. She could, she knew, power her way out of it, since she was that much stronger than the bard, and they both knew that. She could also flex her body, and roll them both off the bed, which would achieve the same purpose, but she thought for a moment, and ended up just grinning.

"Yep. You do." She admitted, then turned her head so Gabrielle had to look her right in the eye. "So.. what’s your plan?" Seeing the bard’s gaze soften, and take on a slightly dreamy look. "Hmm?" She kept their eyes locked, and leaned her head forward, brushing her lips against Gabrielle’s. "Well?"

"Plan?" The bard mumbled, "What plan?" As their lips touched again, and this time didn’t part for quite a while. When they did, Gabrielle dropped her head onto Xena’s chest, and relaxed her hold. "Gods. How do you do that?"

"Do what? " Xena queried, letting her freed hands slide slowly up the bard’s body.

"Ungh." Came the response. "That." Gabrielle lifted her head, and stared at her partner. "One kiss, one touch, one look...and I feel like my entire body’s exploding. "

One dark eyebrow curved up suggestively.

"If you say that’s one of your many skills.." Gabrielle murmured right into her ear. "I’m going to bite you."

Felt the return warmth of the warrior’s breath against her own ear. "Promise?"

A slight pause, then they both started laughing. "Oh gods.. that mouse." Gabrielle finally groaned, rolling onto her back, and slapping her forehead. "What a way to wake up."

"Yeah. " Xena agreed, but sighed happily, and regarded the ceiling with a smile. I have a best friend, the sister I always wanted, and a lover all rolled up into the same wonderful package. Just how did I manage that? I’m not supposed to get that lucky, am I? No wonder I’m as giddy as some kid. "Hey.. you hungry?" She asked, giving Gabrielle a quirky grin. "I’m going to go for a little run.. just to loosen up.. and I’ll stop by the kitchen on the way back. Anything you’re in the mood for?"

"Uhhhh…’ Gabrielle put her hands behind her head and thought about that. "Something involving… lots of berries. " She rolled over onto her side, and propped her head up on one hand. "You’ve got a pretty active day planned.. you sure you want to start it off this early?"

Xena nodded, giving her a serious look. "Have to. I haven’t used my muscles for fighting.. well, not really, for a few days. If I don’t’ take the time to loosen them up, I could do more damage."

The bard thought about that for a minute, then nodded. "Got a point there. " She surveyed her partner, stretched at full length on the bed, legs crossed at the ankles, hands interlaced behind her head and grinned. "Though, you look pretty loose right now."

‘Think so?" Xena drawled, a grin tugging at her lips.

"Yep." The bard affirmed, then blinked, as the warrior was no longer reclining lazily next to her, but was standing easily next to the bed, arms crossed, smirking. "Whoa!" Gabrielle’s eyes widened. "I didn’t… how did… what…." She shook her head and took a breath. "What’s made you so bouncy this morning?"

Xena chewed her lip for a second, then sucked in a deep breath, and crouched down next to the bed, resting her forearms on the soft surface, her eyes staring directly into the bard’s. "Maybe I’m starting to believe in forever." Seeing Gabrielle’s eyes react. "Maybe it’s because I’ve rediscovered what it feels like to be happy." She reached out, and touched a fingertip to the bard’s nose. "Or maybe it’s just because I love you." And she winked, and rose to her feet, padding towards the bathing area after grabbing her padded gambeson from her pack.

Gabrielle just gazed after her. "And you call me poetic." She said quietly to herself.

The very first tinge of dawn was staining the horizon with the barest of pale gray halos when Xena stepped off the porch, and onto the dewy, moss covered ground. She bounced a few times, mostly to make sure her body was awake, and took a deep breath of the pre dawn air. I feel… She considered the thought. Fantastic. She took another breath, savoring the cold tang as it hit her lungs, and brought the scent of the rich foliage to her. She bounced a few more times, and felt the energy rising in her, welcome after being absent since the accident. "Oh yeah." She muttered to no one. "That’s definitely better."

She managed to walk sedately through the village, heading for the path on the south side. As she reached the treeline, she noticed a dimly dark form sitting on a rock just to one side of the path, and she turned aside to investigate.

"Morning, Tody." Xena said quietly, recognizing him. The boy cocked his head at her, surprise evident in his features.

"Xena?" His child’s voice held delight. "Didn’t even hear you coming. Wow…"

The warrior chuckled a bit, and crouched down next to him, putting a hand on the rock he was seated on to steady herself. "I’ll take that as a compliment, then. " She glanced around. "What brings you out here?"

"Wanted to hear the sun rise." The boy said, matter-of-factly. "What about you?"

Xena took another long breath of air. "Well, I’ve been lying around like a lump for a few days… thought I’d better get out and get some exercise."

Tody grinned. "How cool." He drummed his heels against the rock. "You have such a neat voice." He cocked his ears. "All kind of rich and furry."

That got a laugh back. "Well, never heard it described like that before…" The warrior admitted.

"So.. what are you going to do?" Tody inquired. "For your exercise, I mean."

Xena patted him on the leg. "Just a little running for now." She chuckled. "I’m supposed to put the village’s fighters through their paces after breakfast."

Tody laughed. "How awesome. What’s running like? I don’t get to do that. I tried, sometimes.. but I kept bashing into things.. cause I go to fast for my senses to warn me of stuff." His face was full of interest.

Xena tilted her head, and regarded him in silence for a moment, an idea growing in her head. Bet I could.. he’s pretty small… and that would sure give me a workout. "Stand up." She said quietly.

"Huh? Why?" Tody asked, but scrambled to his feet, balancing precariously until she grabbed his hands. "Oh.. he said, fascinated, as his agile fingertips investigated her arms.

"OK." Xena said, turning around so her back was to the child. "Now put your hands around my neck. "

"Sure!" Tody said, clasping her enthusiastically. "Wow!" He laughed.. "You smell great."

Xena burst into laughter. "Thanks. Now wrap your legs around.. yeah. That’s it."

Tody’s grin threatened to split his face. "You’re giving me a ride! How cool… I used to be able to get Jessan to do that once in awhile." He tightened his grasp. "OK.. now what?"

Xena grinned wolfishly. "Hang on." She started down the path, breaking into a loping run as she passed into the treeline, adjusting to the boy’s slight weight with little trouble. Weighs less than my damn armor, I bet. She mused to herself, then picked up her pace a bit, as her muscles loosened, and the energy began to flow.

"OH.. wow…" Tody breathed in her ear. ‘You’re run lots smoother than Jess does…all.. kind of…" He paused, searching for the right words, to describe the power he was feeling uncoiling from her body. "Like water flowing." He felt her laugh, through the grip he had with his legs. Then the wind picked up, and whipped his fur back.

Xena headed down the path, and began describing what she was seeing to the boy . "Still in the heavy trees here… you can smell the underbrush.. and we’re going parallel to a small stream now. Hear it?"

"Yeah.." Tody confirmed, with a happy sigh.

"OK…" Xena said, and shifted gears again, as she headed up an incline and had to throw more power into her strides. "Going up now.. to the ridge." She broke out into the open, and bounded foreword at a faster pace. "Sun’s coming up.. feel it?"

Tody turned his face into the warmth and laughed out loud. "Sure do."

"Good." Xena grinned fiercely. "Now.. there’s a ravine coming up."

The boy’s eyes widened. "We’re going around, right?"

"Nope." Xena said, leaning forward now, and building speed. Let’s see.. not too big a gap. I can handle this, even with him. "Hang on tight." Feeling the boy’s strong arms and legs clasp her. "Here we go."

She deepened her strides, the last few steps, and sprang off the edge of the ravine, arms flung forward.

"Yow!!!’ Tody yelled, feeling himself airborne. "Oh my gosh!!!!!" He yelped, as his world turned over, he felt Xena’s body twist in mid air. "Wow!!!!" As he felt her land, and then surge straight up, and then the world was upside down again, and he was falling. He giggled in delight. Then another landing, and now Xena was bouncing a bit, from the momentum. "Oh boy.. was that the coolest thing ever!" He cried, bouncing in place a bit himself. "You jumped over the ravine!"

"Uh huh." Came Xena’s cool reply, as she bounded into a run again, and moved along the path, steadily increasing her pace. "Like that?"

"Oh yeah!" Tody giggled. "That was awesome… do you do that all the time?"

"Yeah." Xena answered, nodding a little. "I do."

"Wow! You are so cool." The boy informed her. "No wonder all the fighters think you’re just the best thing since seedless grapes."

"Since what??" Xena snorted. "That’s a new one." She ran smoothly through the lower section of Lestan’s territory, smiling as she felt her body responding with an eagerness that reassured her, and she could feel the depth of her reserves replenished. Looks like I’m gonna be all right. Her mind decided. And that brought another fierce grin to her face, and she shifted gears yet again, this time really pouring on the speed.

"Whoa!!!" Tody yelled, as he felt the change, and grabbed a tighter hold. "Gosh." He could feel the sun streaming now across his body, and it must be across hers, and he imagined they cast long shadows down the ridge. He wondered what she looked like, really… the body under his hands felt as strong as that of any of his people, with the very oddly conflicting tactile sensations of her soft skin, and the hard solidity he felt underneath.

Then they were slowing, as Xena approached the village again, and let herself wind down and cool off, running the last long stretch at an easy jog, satisfied with her steady heartbeat, and even breathing. I’m gonna keep this up at home. She decided, the chuckled wryly to herself. Gonna have to.. between my mother’s cooking and the bad habit I have of just lazing around all day with Gab, if I don’t, I won’t be able to move after a few months. She glanced around, then headed towards the healer’s cot. Besides… I like how this feels. An honest admission. I like being the just the baddest thing to walk in the door. She laughed at herself. Yeah, I sure do.

Elani leaned on the porch railing with a sigh, running her fingers along the rough wood, and gazing out across the foggy mist that covered the central open area of the village. She was worried, she finally admitted to herself. Worried about Jessan, who seemed to be sinking into a quiet depression, even as his body healed. She knew his pride had been hurt, but… he was slipping away from her, and she didn’t know what to do about it.

Shaking her head, she glanced up, and saw Gabrielle headed her way, her distinctively purposeful strides kicking up tiny showers of dew around her feet. "Hi." She waved, getting a smile back from the bard.

"Morning!" Gabrielle called cheerfully, glancing behind at Ares, who was faithfully following her. Who would have been following Xena, except that the warrior had knelt, and looked seriously into the puppy’s eyes, and told him to stay and watch Gabrielle. And so he had, and was now busy investigating long stalks of grass that were attacking the bard’s feet. "How’s Jess doing?"

Elaini sighed, and flicked a bit of wood off the railing. "Not good." She admitted. "Physically, he’s ok.. the ribs are healing, and that cut is nothing to worry about. But he’s… I don’t know, Gabrielle.. he’s really kind of depressed."

The bard chewed her lip thoughtfully, and leaned against the railing. "He’s not still upset about that fight, is he? " She concentrated. "Gods… it’s probably that ‘oh woe is me, I’ve disgraced myself in front of my idol’ warrior thing. " Her eyes rolled, and she sighed.

Elaini raised a bushy eyebrow and cocked her head. "You think?"

Gabrielle shook her head in disgust. "I think." She gave Elaini a wry grin. "Xena has that effect on people. " She paused, and her lips quirked. "Me included." She sighed. "I still sometimes find myself just goggling at her in this goofy wondering stupor."

"Really?" Elaini giggled.

"Yeah, I have to slap myself sometimes to knock me out of it." The bard assured her, with a smirk. "I mean… you know. .most of the time it’s just like.. we’re best friends, and it’s.. oh, that’s just Xena. Especially when she’s goofing around. But sometimes…. " She took a breath and smiled. "Sometimes.. she’ll just do something you know is just.. incredible. And she just does it, and grins, and goes on.. like it’s nothing, but…yeah, sometimes she gives me the chills." A pause. "In a good way." She finished.

A faint thud of running footsteps caught their attention, and they both turned their heads towards the southern entrance to the village. The early morning fog had not yet burned off around the cots, and wisps of it were wafting around the path, catching the slanting rays of golden sunlight which were suddenly scattered by a fast moving form that collected the stray sunbeams, and reflected them off tanned skin and dark hair, and the silvery white gambeson she wore. Fog ran in fear from her, as she turned to speak to the small russet body clinging to her back.

"Gods.. is that Tody hanging on to her back?" Elaini breathed, watching the warrior barrel towards them. "She certainly looks like she completely recovered."

Gabrielle just shook her head, absorbing the sight with a sensuous pleasure that warmed her almost as much as the sunlight she was standing it. "She is, mostly." She answered absently

"All right.." Xena said, turning her head slightly, as they passed into the village proper. "One more jump, OK?"

"Awesome!" Tody cheered, grabbing tight. "Go for it!"

Xena had spotted Elaini and Gabrielle standing by the healer’s cot, so she angled her path directly towards them, her mischievous streak firmly in control. Xena, you’re showing off to impress Gabrielle. She scolded herself firmly. Yep.. her conscience replied. I sure am. So she laughed as she judged her distance, then took two more strides, and catapulted into the air, flipping twice, then landing, letting her momentum push her into a deep crouch, then uncoiling and lunging back skyward, right over Gabrielle’s head, twisting in mid air and ending up standing neatly next to the bard. "Hi." She said casually. "OK, Tody, off you go." Sneaking a glance at Gabrielle’s face, secretly delighted to see her wide eyed gaze. Ooo.. Xena. Good one.

Looking at both of them then with studied nonchalance. "What?"

Gabrielle stepped close, and grabbed her padded sleeve, pulling her head down. "Showoff." She whispered into her partner’s ear.

"Were you impressed?" Xena whispered back, eyes sparkling. Gabrielle’s grin answered her. "Then it worked, didn’t it?" The warrior teased.

"It was great." Tody was now sitting comfortably on the edge of the porch. "Elaini, she jumped over the ravine!"

Elaini shook her furred head. "I’m glad you had a good time, Tody." She sighed and glanced Xena's way. "Looks like you’ve pretty much recovered, eh?" She threw a glance towards the door to the healer’s cot. "Wish my other patient showed the same progress."

Xena straightened to her full height, and put her hands on her hips. "What’s up?" She asked, looking from Elaini to Gabrielle and back.

"Well." Gabrielle said, sliding up next to the warrior, and putting an arm around her waist. "I think our friend Jessan needs your particular brand of therapy." She looked up at Xena’s serious face, and felt the warrior’s arm settle around her shoulders. "He’s still in a funk about that dumb fight."

Xena nodded quietly and stood in thought for a moment. "All right." She finally said. "Let’s go get some breakfast… I promised you berries, and I’m a little hungry myself."

Gabrielle gave her a squeeze. "Can’t imagine why." She teased gently.

"Right." Xena smiled briefly. "Then I’ll get my weapons, and I’ll be back, Elani. " Her eyebrow quirked. "And I'll take care of Jessan."

Warrin lay quietly in his bunk, not testing the bonds that tied him firmly, just resting on his back and staring sightlessly at the thatched ceiling. He had sent himself into that nowhere place that felt nothing, saw nothing… So close. The thought intruded into his mind. Just a few more seconds.. and humans would no longer know his precious gift. And he would have been reunited with Aleena – he knew it - he’d seen the blood fire in the eyes of the dark haired human woman, had felt in her obscenely strong blows the strength needed to kill him. So close.

He was only aware, now, of being very tired. Tired of hurting, of hating.. more than anything, he really just wanted to rest. He’d hoped, by ridding his clan of this human that seemed to be bewitching them all, he’d at least have done something worthwhile.

He knew the gift, knew it well enough to know that with the storyteller dead, her lifemate, and Warrin was honest enough to admit that the two humans were, regretfully, exactly that, her lifemate would be rendered harmless. She wouldn’t be able to rally his clan’s fighters, they would make no futile, stupid, last minute stand, and Secan might, just might be willing to allow them to quietly resign the field instead of spilling blood all over it.

He knew he was deliberately breaking a lifebond. And that was an ugliness that stained his thoughts, because as much as he hated humans, he knew the pain he would cause and regretted that. But.. what was one human’s life against the lives of his brothers, and sisters, and clan?

They were all blinded – by her skills, and her mystique.. blinded enough to follow her into battle, against a superior force, in a fight which would surely claim the larger part of them for no purpose.

None. And he would do anything to prevent that. Anything, and that included breaking this gods cursed lifebond, and sending this human warrior spiraling into the misery he’d lived with for most of his adult life. They call me a coward. His mind spat. They have no idea what it takes to live with this every minute of every day, all the days of your life.

The door to the small cot he was in opened, and he recognized his sister’s pale head. "Wenni." He said, his tired voice almost stumbling over the name.

Wennid sat down on the small stool next to the pallet, and put a gentle hand on his arm. "It’s morning, War."

"I know." He sighed. "Wenni, I’m sorry.. I know you don’t understand what I did." He gazed up at her, with an unhappy look. His younger sister, whose relationship with Lestan had joined their two shattered clans, and created this village, where peace had mostly reigned for many years. He loved her, and was wistfully happy when it turned out she was gifted as he was.

She had saved his life when Aleena died, he knew. Her gentle comfort had allowed him to survive those first few devastating hours, until his tortured mind could decide to follow his lifemate into the long silence, or to stay, and suffer, and live to raise his tiny son. Had he been alone, there would have been no question. But the boy had needed him, and so…he’d stayed.

And now every day was like a lifetime, without her. Every morning he woke up without her at his side brought the whole nightmare back again.

"War.." Wennid sighed again, and put her hand on his cheek. "No… I don’t understand. I can’t understand how someone who knows what our gift is, could ever bear to take that away from anyone, human or no. Not if they know the pain it would cause, for Ares’ sake, Warrin – what did the woman ever do to you that you would wish that on her?"

Warrin closed his eyes. "You’re fools. All of you.. you’ll follow this human into a hopeless fight, and die, and you ask me what I have against her."

Wennid fell silent, knowing there was, at least, a kernel of truth in his words. "I don’t know, War. You may be right. " She quietly admitted. "But I can’t find it in my heart to put blame on her shoulders. She didn’t cause this."

He looked at her. "She could leave, and let us surrender in peace." His eyes blazed. "But she won’t, because she has in her what Secan has, that gods be damned infernal fire that won’t let her give in, won’t let her back down. You know it, Wennid!" His voice lowered. "She is Ares Chosen. "

"Was." Wennid answered quietly.

"You really believe that?" Warrin challenged her.

Wennid smiled, and remembered the misty, dew rich scene she’d witnessed this morning, when she’d gone out to bring in fresh water for a special surprise she was making. Kneeling at the stream, she’d looked across, and seen Xena, bolting along the forest path for all the world like some headstrong colt, jumping in the air, to the delight of the child holding fast to her back. She’d closed her eyes, and Looked, and what she’d seen had made her smile. This was a spirit reborn, and there and then, she’d decided to bow at last to her unconscious desire to like the woman. "Yes, I believe that." Wennid said. "Because she wouldn’t know the gift otherwise, and you know it." Her eyes met his. "That’s not given to the darkness… that’s why Secan runs all the gifted out of his clan when they’re identified. He knows that.. and views the gift as a weakness."

"Isn’t it?" Warrin asked, wearily.

"It can be." Wennid said, but her voice warmed. "But I think more often it’s a lifeline that holds us all the more firmly to here, and now. I think it strengthens, rather than weakens."

"You are a fool." Warrin said, and turned his head towards the wall. "What’s to be done with me, Wennid."

She shifted on the stool, and rested her elbows on her knees. "Lestan hasn’t decided yet."

Warrin nodded. "All right.. then he can’t decide." The pale eyes turned and met hers. "Tell him to come here. I'll give him my word.. if he’s determined to follow that damned human into a hopeless massacre.. "He paused, then sighed. "I want to be at his side."

His sister gazed at him. "I will. " She said slowly. "But here me, brother mine. You will make no further harm against Xena or Gabrielle, or you will have me to contend with. " Her face was deadly serious. "As the senior lifebonded, it would fall to me to put those pieces back together, and that I will not, will NOT do because of something my brother in his anger and stupidity caused. Do you hear me?"

Warrin studied her a long time before answering. "I hear you." He said quietly. "You have my word, Wennid. I’ll lift no finger against your pet humans."

Wennid stared him down. "I hope you’re wrong. I hope Lestan is right, and his faith in Xena is rewarded. I hope she does do the undoable, and perform the impossible, and gets us all out of this, as my lifemate and my son seem to think she can. And if she does, maybe, Warrin.. just maybe, she’ll take pity, and forgive you for what you almost did to her Gabrielle."

And she got up from the stool, straightening her spine stiffly, and left the small confinement cot, with its single tiny pallet, and the close wooden walls with no windows to let in the light.

Xena finished adjusting the various straps and buckles which held her sword in place, and shrugged her shoulders, settling the cloth and leather into comfortably familiar places, then tightened the belt of the gambeson to make sure they stayed there. She briefly studied the worn leather strip that showed years of service, suffering through all kinds of weather, endless spans of weapons practice, and the occasional vagaries of her waistline without complaint. Time for a new one… she thought idly, tucking the long end up and through the buckle to keep it out of the way. This one’s about worn through in places.

"Hey.." Gabrielle’s voice cut the air behind her, and she swung around to see the bard wiping some ink off her hands. "You headed out to the practice yard?"

The warrior nodded, and finished with the last buckle. "Yep.. gotta stop by the healer’s cot first, then I’m going out there."

Gabrielle nodded. "Thought so." She stepped forward and put her hands on Xena’s stomach. "Listen.. that was a really neat thing you did for Tody this morning." She smiled up at her partner, and played with the buckles on the gambeson. "He’s really a sweet kid." She gave the straps one last twitch, and moved back, looking Xena over with approval. She’s back.. her mind realized. There’s that… edge… to her that’s been missing… Gabrielle felt a wave of relief roll over her, and she grinned. "You look good."

Xena stopped her fiddling , and glanced down, with a hesitant grin. "Thanks." She tilted her head and regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. "You do too." And she did, Xena mused, her eyes had regained their bright sparkle, which had dimmed just after the accident, and she looked strong, confident, and healthy in her comfortable Amazon inspired garb.

Gabrielle laughed. "Not." And found her face gently grasped by two strong hands, and her eyes captured by Xena’s, which were intense and serious. "C’mon, Xena.. I’m not a beauty pageant contestant." She winked, reminding Xena of that little escapade they’d suffered through.

The blue eyes softened. "Not true, my bard." Xena scolded quietly, letting her fingers trace the familiar planes of the bard’s face "To my eyes, you’re everything that’s beautiful."

Gabrielle moved instinctively closer, feeling the blush travelling up her face. "You get into some sumac again, partner?" She asked softly. "We both know who has the looks in this relationship."

Xena shook her head. "Oh no, love. Beauty comes from what’s inside of you. " Her eyes gazed with quiet reflection at the bard’s face. "And what’s inside you is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen."

And for that, Gabrielle had no ready answer. Huh.. she mused to herself. I always say Xena’s problem is that she doesn’t see herself the way I do. Wonder if she feels the same way about me? Maybe we should trade viewpoints just once… might be good for both of us. "OK.." She laughed a little, and glanced down, feeling the heat in her face. "Thanks."

"Anytime." Xena replied, folding long arms around her and pulling her close. She felt Gabrielle’s head settle into a comfortable spot on her shoulder, and the bard’s body mold itself to hers with unconscious ease. They stood like that for a timeless moment, then Xena sighed. "Gotta go." She remarked.

"Yeah… and see what you can do with Jessan, OK?" The bard mumbled a response into her gambeson.

But neither of them moved, and Xena found herself getting lost in a sensuous wave of warmth, drowning willingly in the clean scent of her partner, and reveling in the quiet feeling of Gabrielle’s hands sliding inside the padded shirt and brushing against her bare skin. And she asked me how I do that. Xena laughed silently to herself. Gods. Come on, Xena.. there’s an entire yardful of fighters waiting out there for you to tell them how they’re going to beat a much larger, better equipped, stronger force. Get moving.

"Mmmmm.." Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "You know, practice doesn’t start for a few candlemarks… you should sit down and let that breakfast settle until then." She tickled Xena’s stomach playfully. "Those little cakes were awesome, weren’t they?"

"Uh huh." Xena agreed. Small, soft, grilled cakes, covered with a honey and cinnamon syrup, that had hit just the right spot. She’d cleaned her plate twice, surprising and delighting the bard, who had disappeared determinedly into the preparation area in search of, she was sure, the recipe. "Did you manage to pry the instructions out of them?’

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle giggled, letting her hands slide around Xena’s back, and running her fingertips up and down the warrior’s spine. "I traded them three stories for it."

"Uh Oh.. I’m in trouble." Xena laughed, lifting her up and settling comfortably on the low couch for the suggested few candlemarks. "Well, at least I’ll have plenty of energy for sword practice." She felt Gabrielle relax completely against her. "What’s your plan for today? You going to come watch the fun, or…"

"Hmm?" Gabrielle forced herself to surface from the pool of contentment she was floating in. "Oh… well, I’m gonna do what you asked me to do – find out where people’s heads are.. then I’m going to see if I they’ll let me talk to Warrin." She waited for the protest, surprised when it didn’t immediately materialize.

Xena hesitated, caught between wanting to know why Warrin had attacked her partner, and wanting to keep Gabrielle far away from him. She could, she supposed, question him herself, but… something told her that the bard’s gentle approach would be more successful. "Only if he’s restrained, all right? " She finally growled. "Gabrielle, don’t take chances, please?"

Gabrielle gazed up at her peacefully. "Guess it’s useless to ask the same of you, right?"

And got a chagrined smile in return. "Point taken." The warrior admitted, giving her a nod. "But I think we’ll both agree I’m just small bit more able to take care of myself in a dangerous situation, hmm?"

The bard ran her fingers up and down the sleekly powerful muscles and sighed. "OK, You win that one." She relented. "I’ll be very careful, and I won’t go in there without someone lots bigger than me." She pinned a severe stare on Xena. "If you promise me that you’ll stop and take a break if you start getting worn out today, deal?"

A quirky smile. "Deal."

"None of this invincible warrior princess stuff, right?" Gabrielle persisted.

"All right." Xena promised, touching her forehead to the bard’s And heard, far off, the thin wail of the horn calling the fighters to the practice yard. "That’s my signal, I think." She reluctantly hoisted herself to her feet, carrying the bard along, and released Gabrielle to stand and stretch next to her. "Wish me luck."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Wish you luck? Give me a break, Xena. Wish them luck. " She gave the warrior a slap on the arm "Try not to hurt anyone, huh?"

Xena laughed a little, and shook herself again, resettling her weapons. "Later." She dipped her head and surprised Gabrielle with a long kiss, then broke off and winked, and ducked out the door.

Gabrielle just stood there for a minute, eyes closed, savoring the tingle on her lips, and the lingering scent in the air that filled her senses. Then she smiled to herself, and shook her head with a little sigh. Whoo. Her mind chuckled. I sure do like this new facet to our relationship A lot more than she had thought she would, actually, given her limited previous experience Xena was… endlessly inventive, her mind smirked. And the intensity of their physical contact was in an entirely different league from anything she’d experienced before.

Briefly she wondered if it was the same for Xena… Nah. Her mind snorted. Not with the amount of experience she’d had.. no way. I’m a backwater country bumpkin, and don’t I know it.. but she seems to enjoy what we do. She smiled to herself, and took a deep breath. Well, time to get going.. things to do, people to coax information out of.

Xena bounded down the stairs, heading off in the direction of the practice field, then remembered her promise, and changed direction towards the healer’s cot. Let’s see.. is this plan A or plan B time? Have to see just how bad a funk it is. With me.. plan A usually works. She spotted Elaini up on the porch, beating out a pair of rugs that usually graced the interior of the cot. The big forest dweller looked up at her approach and stopped making dust, waiting for the warrior to take the short flight of steps up and join her.

"Hello, Xena." Elaini said quietly, regarding the warrior with an approving grin. "Now, that’s how I like my patients to look." She studied the gear Xena was dressed in, and was impressed. So.. she’s a professional.. didn’t really expect that, even after the stories. That quilted number was designed pretty well – probably custom made for her frame, cause she’s no off the rack fit, I would think. She’d need the extra length. "Nice outfit."

Xena gave her a half grin. "This thing? " She quirked an eyebrow. "Thanks.. it’s been with me a while." She jerked her head towards the door to the cot. "Mind if I speak to one of your charges?"

Elaini waved her on. "Go ahead. Good luck – he’s only grunted at me since last night." Her eyes dropped. "And I thought… " She paused. "Never mind. Anyway.. I …" Her unhappy gaze found Xena’s again. "I wish I understood him."

Xena’s brow creased. Is this what Gabrielle goes through all the time? Damn.. I know I don’t communicate with her as well as I should.. Though, her mind reminded her with an internal smirk, that had changed lately. I can’t believe she put up with me for as long as she did.. guess I got lucky there… "Yeah well.. " She patted the forest dweller awkwardly. "I'll see what I can do, all right?" She pushed her way through the door, pausing just inside to let her vision react to the lower light level, then proceeding inside with soft footsteps.

The room was cool and dimly lit, as she remembered it. Off to one side, the young forest dweller whose life she’d saved was sleeping, his partner dozing quietly at his side. She grinned at the sight, and remembered her own time spent on that pallet, with Gabrielle’s form snuggled close by for comfort. On the other side of the room, on a pallet that caught an errant stray block of sunlight from the window lay Jessan, his golden chest fur catching the light and sending tiny dust motes dancing in time with the movement of his breathing.

He heard her approach, those bootsteps were distinctive because they carried a weight behind them that could have been one of his own kind, but lacked the telltale clicking of claws on wood. His head turned, and he regarded her quietly, managing a grin. "Hi." He said softly, his eyes studying her intently. "You look .. " His mouth quirked. "Completely recovered."

Xena hooked a low stool with one booted foot, and pulled it close, seating herself with a smooth grace. "Mostly." She confirmed, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. "Still get tired too fast, but otherwise, it’s all come back." Her eyes raked him. "You?"

He shrugged. "All right, I guess." His gaze left hers, and he played a bit with the soft cover snuggled around his big body. Not all right, and she knows that…I can see it in her face. And I wish there was something I could do to just… "But It’s like I’m just constantly exhausted.. everything’s too much trouble. I know I’m getting further and further into this hole every minute I just lay here.. but I can’t…. " He sighed, and shook his head. "Pathetic, aren’t I?"

Plan A, or Plan B, hmm, Xena? "Yeah, you are." She answered, making up her mind. "Guess I have to just give you a little of my own medicine."

"What’s that?" He asked, regarding her wistfully.

For an answer, she reached over, and grabbed two big fistfuls of his chest hair, and stood up, forcing him to come with her or face losing half the fur on his chest. "Hey!!!!" He yelped, grabbing at her hands. "Xena!! Cut that out!!!!"

"C’mon. " She growled, pulling harder. "Move your self pitying behind, Jessan. Don’t make me drag you out of here by your ears."

"All right! All right!" He snarled, getting his feet under him, and moving with her towards the door. "Damn, Xena…"

She gave him a look. "Don’t start with me." Her voice was a low controller thunder. "Just move." She finished, as she pushed him out of the door, and gave him a shove towards the steps, pausing to give Elaini a sardonic look, and a hidden wink of one blue eye. "Borrowing him for a while."

She nodded, and watched as they left the cot, and walked towards Jessan’s home.

A brief stop to pick up his weapons, and then they headed towards the practice field, where the hiss and clank of steel meeting steel could already be heard. Xena shot her silent companion a glance. "Mad at me?" She asked quietly.

"Yes." Jessan growled, his brow contracting and his eyes firmly on the ground.

"Good." Came the unexpected answer. "Then I’ll be nice and I won’t make you go first."

"What makes you think this’ll help me?" The forest dweller finally asked gruffly.

Xena turned her head, and gazed at him, with a faint smile in her eyes. "Personal experience."

It had been a while ago.. she remembered. A small village, just a collection of huts, really, not anything for a rampaging warlord to even want to bother with, but there had been a family with two daughters there, and… the men had wanted to take some pleasure.

She’d.. persuaded.. them otherwise, but one of the girls had screamed, and run, and an archer in the group had decided to take some target practice. No time to catch the arrow.. it had either been get between the archer and the girl, or not.

She had, and taken the shaft just under her ribcage, and managed, Ares only knew how, to continue to fight them, which has spooked them so thoroughly, they’d taken off running out of that little hamlet convinced she was… who knows what.

She’d watched them go, and slowly sank back against the wooden wall of the tiny stable, keeping her feet by force of will alone. Then she’d felt Gabrielle’s urgent hands on her, and the bard’s frantic voice urging her to get inside and lie down.. and somehow she had, leaning against the bard’s strengthening body until Gabrielle could let her down onto a thick padding of straw.

Talking Gabrielle through removing the arrow had been…one of the hardest things they’d ever been through together… the bard’s hands had shaken like a leaf in the wind, and she had flinched every time that Xena had.

"Xena.. I can’t." She’d finally sobbed, hugging herself in misery. "I’m hurting you."

And Xena had swallowed, and forced herself to calmness, raising one hand and grasping the bard’s wrist. "Have to." She’d rasped. "Gotta come out.. please.. Gabrielle.." She’d paused and found strength somewhere. "You can do it. I’m counting on you." In a clearer voice, which had cut through Gabrielle’s panic. "That’s better.. just.. take my dagger.. yeah.. ok. Make the cut larger."

"I can’t do that." Gabrielle had whispered, giving her a stark look.

"Yes you can." Xena had answered, capturing green eyes with her own, and willing her on.

And she had, finally, unwillingly, but the arrow had been removed, and Xena had felt the warm surge of blood that followed, hearing the bard’s rattling gasp but knowing it for a good thing. "S’allright.." She tried to reassure the bard. "Cleans it out that way."

Not well enough, apparently, because what followed was a nightmare of fever and pain that she shied away from remembering, aware only of the brief bright spots that were Gabrielle’s gentle touch on her, trying to ease her distress.

Finally waking, in the close darkness of the small stable, in her right senses but in agonizing pain from the wound, and had lain there, wondering if going on was worth it. Here I am.. she’d thought, in the dark, in a barn in the backwoods of nowhere, with a hole in me from some scumbag warlord’s whelp saving the life of a silly brainless girl who didn’t have the sense to stand still when she was told to. What’s the point? Why in Hades am I doing this? Nobody cares.

A cloud of depression had descended on her, and stayed there, even through the coming of the light. She’d sunk into a very dark place, and not even Gabrielle’s bright spirit could reach her. She knew the bard was taking care of her, but she just kept her gaze fixed on the badly made ceiling of the stable, and fended off any attempt at caring about what happened to her. If I do this long enough.. she’d reasoned.. maybe it’ll be over, and I can just… sleep.

And the darkness was coming closer, she knew. She could feel it.. and in the very dark, very depths of her soul, she almost welcomed that.. aware of just how tired she was of trying to fight her instincts, of fighting herself.. fighting years of a legacy that she knew in her heart she couldn’t ever atone for.

Only one thing, one annoying, intrusive thing kept pushing the darkness back, and now that one thing had a grip on her hand, and a sound cut through all her indifference and made her turn her face and open her eyes against her will.

A disheveled red gold head was pressed against the straw at her side, and the sounds she had heard were the hiccuping sobs that were shaking the body attached to it. "No.. no.. gods, please… no." The bard was whispering. "Don’t take her, please…don’t take her from me.."

Xena had felt a thread of shock course through her, cutting through the despair like a heated knife blade. She had known their friendship had been slowly strengthening, though with their differences she sometimes had wondered just how that was happening. But she’d never suspected Gabrielle’s feelings had any depth. They fought so much with each other.. and she’d treated Gabrielle so poorly.

So.. one person would care. Did it matter? She’d studied the pale head in the straw next to her, and felt the bard’s lips brush against her fingertips, curled within Gabrielle’s own.

It mattered. She’d closed her eyes, and set her will, and poked her fighting spirit from it’s slumber, and slept out the night, waking again in daylight in the dimly filtered sun that crept between the cracks in the walls’ boards and caught dust particles as they drifted lazily through the air.

They had fallen on the bard’s hair as she knelt at her side, carefully cleaning the arrow wound, and Xena had waited for her to finish before gently reaching out and putting a hand on her knee where it rested in the straw.

Gabrielle’s whole body had jerked, and her startled eyes had fastened on Xena’s face in wary hope. "Hi." She’d stammered. "I was… you were…"

"Thanks." She’d said, and given the knee under her fingers a squeeze. "Sorry I’ve been giving you such a hard time."

The smile that spread across Gabrielle’s face had been worth all the pain she’d gone through, and all that she’d know she’d have to go through now. That smile had brought color to the bard’s cheeks, and lit up her mist green eyes like sunlight hitting the ocean shallows. "’s ok.. it’s…" Then she’d stopped talking, and looked down at her hands, and Xena had seen her throat swallowing hard a few times.

Then Gabrielle had looked back up, and their eyes had met, and Xena had felt.. something. It was a something she now knew very well, but back then.. it had been enough just to know that her passing from this world into the next had mattered very much to Gabrielle, because it gave her a connection to someone that she found herself unwilling to sever.

"Sometimes, you just gotta have a reason to keep going." She added, letting her eyes meet his in a long, significant glance.

A long silence from Jessan, then he moved closer and cleared his throat a bit. "Sorry..didn’t think…"

"Didn’t think what?" Xena stopped, and crossed her arms on her chest. "That I don’t get tired of doing this? That I’ve never been depressed? That I haven’t thought a dozen times of giving it all up and just fading out of sight? C’mon Jessan, you don’t really think I’m that hero Gabrielle tells stories about , do you?" Damn, Xena.. this is no time for you to get on that subject.. you’re supposed to be helping him, remember?

And Jessan cocked his golden head, studying her for a long instant, before he allowed a sweet smile to take over his face. "Yes. I do." He answered quietly. "Now, more than ever." Ah.. my friend..I look at you, and think about what you had to go through, and I’m ashamed of myself. You show me the path to take just by your simplest of actions. "Xena…"

"Yeah?" The warrior growled.

He put his arms around her and pulled her into a hug. "Thanks." He whispered into her ear.

Xena gave him a pat, and stood back, grinning. "We’ll see if you want to thank me after the practice session." Her eyes twinkled. "Besides, I had to bring you. You’re the only one I’m not going to have to convince the hard way not to take it easy on me."

Brennan swung his sword over his head, trying to loosen up a stiff shoulder muscle as he watched the two far off figures heading their way. "Well well… looks like we’ll have a full compliment after all." He chuckled, giving Deggis a nudge. "She’s got your cousin up and out of bed."

Deggis gave a glance over his shoulder and snorted. "Bout time." They stood and watched the approach. "You said we gotta be easy on her." The shorter forest dweller mused, cocking his head and observing the ex warlord’s powerful stride. "Anyone tell her to be easy on us?"

Brennan raised an eyebrow. "You think we need to?"

Deggis snorted. "We’ll find out in a minute, I guess."

Xena strolled onto the practice yard, spotting the tall Brennan and angling her movement towards him. He ambled over to meet her, and nodded in response to her casual greeting. "Lo, Xena." He spread his arm around in a circle. "This is it."

Xena took a breath, and crossed her arms. "Might as well get started then." She muttered. Might as well get this over with too. "Who’s the best you have?"

Brennan sniffed reflectively, and studied her out of the corner of his eyes. Certainly doesn’t look injured..but.. and order is an order. "Talos, come here." He called out, and a tall, burly forest dweller with mottled gold and brown fur moved forward. "Show our guest how we do things."

Xena ran her eyes over him, noting in that single glance a great deal more than he would have guessed. They stepped a few paces away from the nearest spectators, and a little silence fell around them.

He topped her by at least a foot, taller even than Jessan, and was half again more than her body weight. Talos unsheathed his sword, and showed every evidence of being able to use it – his shoulders flexed, and he shifted gently from one foot to the other as he waited for her to draw her sword.

Now.. do I make this a real exhibition..or… She felt a reckless impulse take her. Oh.. why not? Taking a slow, even breath, she adjusted her weight over the balls of her feet, and put her hands on her hips, unlocking her knees and leaning forward just a bit. "Come on." She invited the warrior. "Show me."

A quick shift of his eyes to Brennan, then back to her, and a little shrug. Then he moved fast, sliding his sword out and across, twisting it so that the flat was headed out towards her instead of the blade. She waited until she knew his body was committed the blow, then just moved out of the way, letting the blade slip past her, then grabbing his arm, and giving the back of his hand a sharp blow, making him drop the weapon with a yelp.

The sword bounced twice on the ground, kicking up a bit of dust from the grass covered ground. Xena nosed her boot under the hilts, and kicked it upward, catching it neatly in one hand, then twirling it over her shoulder and down her arm, offering it back to Talos. "Try again." She managed to keep an impish grin off her face by sheer force of will.

He took the weapon, and came at her again, this time with more skill and less hesitation. She ducked under the blow, and slipped past him, giving him a swat on the behind with her hand as she did. He whirled, and slashed backhanded at her, and she ducked again, then came right up off the crouch and side kicked him hard, sending him off his feet and into the ring of interested spectators.

Xena landed from the kick, and bounced once, then crossed her arms. "We done playing yet?" She asked, in a bored tone. Then she heard the hiss of a sword being drawn to her right and cast a glance that way as Brennan drew, and advanced on her, a quietly grim expression on his face. Touched their pride.. good. Now we might get somewhere. She mused, and yet still waited until the razor’s edge of his sword was skimming towards her before she finally removed her sword from it’s sheath and met him.

A skittering hiss filled the clearing, as the two swords met and slid down each other’s length, and a mild scattering of sparks fell to the ground. Xena let his momentum dictate her movement, and she released his hilts, swinging out an down and forcing both blades that way.

Brennan swore under his breath, and fought to get his sword free of hers, realizing he was opening himself up to a counterstroke. Too late.. his mind regretted, as he felt his arms pinned, and then a sharp blow as her hits hit his chin. "Ungh" He grunted, then decided, Lestan be damned, he wasn’t going to go easy on this human.

Xena felt the change in him, and backed off a pace, to let him stand upright, and then she grinned as he came at her again. "That’s better. " She commented, as their swords crossed, and they started to spar in earnest. "What I don’t have to do sometimes, to prove a point." She knew he heard her, because she saw the surprised little quirk of his lips when he realized what she meant.

She worked with him for a few minutes, finding his strengths and weaknesses, then began exploiting them, their blades moving in a blur. Finally, she disarmed him with a powerful back stroke, and sent his sword flying, catching the sun’s sparkles as it fell to the ground.

Xena let her own sword blade drop negligently onto her shoulder, and regarded him, glad of her steady even breathing that contrasted with his ragged gasps. Now she had their attention, complete, and focused, and intent. "All right. "She said, addressing them, letting her eyes wander over their serious faces. "So now you know I’m for real. Let’s see what we have to work with."

Continued in Part 7

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