Bound – Part 7

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Gabrielle trotted across the central square, appreciating the cool breeze that pushed the hair back from her face, and send pleasant drafts down her loose fitting tunic. Not the time to be displaying my trophy marks from last night.. she'd mused ruefully as she changed out of her halter top and skirt. Besides.. sometimes that thing gets.. drafty. Her mouth quirked. She liked wearing it most of the time.. it reminded her of her ties to the Amazons, but while she was in Amphipolis, and later at home in Potadeia, she'd gotten used to the comfortable belted tunics that Xena also tended to wear when not in armor. The clean, sun dried linen felt good against her skin, and she decided she'd stick with them when they went home.

Home. The word struck a sudden chord in her, and brought a smile to her face as she neared the small path leading to Lestan and Wennid's cot. Home for her always meant at Xena's side, but now home was also Amphipolis, and her mind filled with warm memories of Cyrene, the forested paths they’d walked on, the cold spring they loved to swim in, even had been the longest they'd stayed in any one place the entire time they'd traveled together.. and Gabrielle was glad, in the depths of her heart that they were going back there.

She wanted to see the now familiar outline of the inn, and taste Cyrene's unmatchable cakes, and enjoy the private time they'd reserved for themselves every afternoon in the hidden glade to the north, where she and Xena would just rest quietly in each other's arms, and watch the slanting sunlight change it's angle, and listen to the world going by.

She had been at peace, and for the first time since she'd known her, so had her partner. And I want that back.. Gabrielle decided silently. I never would have asked her to stay home.. but.. Gods.. am I ever glad, because I think that's going to do more to heal her than anything else...I could see her changing right before my eyes there...all that hard watchfulness and angry tension just washed out of her, and left a very warm, and very loving person that I want very very much to coax back out.

She mounted the steps to the leader's cot, and the door opened as she got to it. "Hello." She said, as Wennid pulled the door back, and motioned her inside. "Just thought I'd stop by and ...Oh."

The conference room the door opened in on was filled with murmuring forest people, and she immediately stopped and started to back out. "Sorry.. didn't know you were in the middle of something here."

"No... Gabrielle, please stay." Wennid smiled, patting her arm. "We actually were just talking about you."

The bard's eyebrows rose. "Me?" She blurted, startled.

Smiles ran around the room. Wennid chuckled. "Well, you and your lifemate, actually." She guided Gabrielle to a chair, and settled her in it, pouring a cup of cider for the bard and putting it before her. "Here.. sorry I startled you .. it's really very benign.. you see, we were all just discussing our first experience with humans who share a gift we thought only affected our people."

Gabrielle settled back, resting her wrists on the table, and cupping her hands around her mug. Oh boy... this wasn't part of the agenda, Xena.. I'll just have to do the best I can. "Well.. listen, I know it must be really weird for you." She said calmly. "It's pretty weird for us, too." She leaned forward, and took a sip of the cider. "We didn't ask for this."

"Of course not." Wennid interjected soothingly. "We all understand that, Gabrielle, and believe me, we don't regret that this has happened..." Her eyes flicked around the room. "I won't lie and say that we weren't...dismayed.. at first, but that had more to do with what you are, than who you are."

Gabrielle took a breath, then thought better of it, and remained silent.

"Now.." Wennid went on. "We've gotten to know you, and we realize that... " She looked a touch sheepish "You're not so different than we are."

Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "No, you're wrong." She finally said, quietly, but her tone carried across the suddenly silent room. "I’m very different." Her mist green eyes traveled around the room. "Just like I'm very different from Xena, and she's very different from just about anyone else I've ever known." She paused. "We get in a lot of trouble with this us and them thing, you know? We're all different - you just have to learn to judge people by themselves, not as part of some other group."

Silence fell, as they regarded her, a ring of furred faces, with varying shades of golden eyes, and the odd fangtip showing. She took a sip of cider, knowing she'd made a point, and suddenly the room seemed friendlier. Good one, Gabrielle, Xena will be proud of you.

Her nearest neighbor leaned over, and gazed thoughtfully at her. "So.. you think I'm just another person, is that right?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Sure."

The forest dweller jerked forward, baring all his teeth and growled in a risingly fierce howl.

Oh yeah? Gabrielle got angry. Take this. And she dropped her head, letting her expression harden, and locked her eyes with the forest dwellers in dead silence. The forest dweller blinked, then drew back his head, and finally tried to find someplace to put his eyes other than hers. "Don't try that with me." The bard growled. "Because I've seen things lots scarier than you." She paused, then grinned right at him. "In fact, I travel with one of them."

"Alen." Wennid's voice was angry. "That was very rude."

Alen sighed, and gave Gabrielle an abashed nod. "I know, I'm sorry. But we're so used to humans thinking we're animals, it's hard to believe when one of you just comes in here and says you don't." He paused. "Sorry."

The bard relented, and let off her Xena look impersonation. "That’s all right.. I do understand – we go through that all the time from people who think Xena is a murdering warlord."

Wennid quietly refilled the bard’s cup, and settled back down in her chair, casually casting her glance around the room. Then she smiled, and gave a signal, and the group began to disperse. She laid a hand on Gabrielle’s arm when the bard started to stand up. "Please stay, Gabrielle. I’d like to talk with you for a little while."

Uh oh. Gabrielle’s mind raced. Ok..Ok.. take it easy, Gabrielle – you can handle this. "Sure." She said, shrugging, as she sat back down and took a long swallow of cider. And be careful with that.. it’s nice and smooth and tasty, and packs quite a punch, and you don’t need to be tipsy right now.

The room emptied, and quieted, and Wennid stood, moving around the room and collecting cups. She glanced across the room and quietly studied the young human who was sitting, hands wrapped around one of her glazed mugs, with a serious expression on her face. She is.. in her own, very gentle, very honest way, as formidable as her lifemate. The forest dweller mused. Smaller than Xena, yes, and less physically threatening, but her compact body was strong and muscular, and she had a force of personality that became it’s own weapon. She piled the cups on a tray, then crossed back over and sat down next to Gabrielle.

"Tell me.. Gabrielle… how do you feel about this gift?" She kept her voice gentle, non-threatening. "How did you find out you had it?"

The bard sat slowly back, and played with the arm of the chair she was sitting in. How do I feel? Good question. "I think it’s great." She answered slowly. "It’s saved my life.. oh.. I don’t know how many times now.. even before we realized what it was, Xena used it. "

"She did." Wennid murmured. "And didn’t say anything to you?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "What was there to say? It’s just a feeling you get.. that something’s not right.. something’s.. out of place. " She thought for a minute. "She did it so often, I stopped questioning it. It was just something.. one of the many things she was just good at. "

"And when you found out.. what it was?" Wennid gently persisted.

"Oh.. gosh. " Gabrielle laughed. "Well, we’d had this situation where I was with the Amazons for a while, and she wasn’t, and we got back together after a really nasty problem. She’d told me that she knew something was wrong with me, and that’s what made her come riding to my rescue. " She grinned at Wennid’s face. "Well, she does – that’s just how she is. Anyway, we were at a banquet the next day and I could… " She fell silent. "I think for the first time, really.. I could feel that something wasn’t right with her…it was.. really strange. "

"Were you touching each other?" Wennid asked, with a grin.

"Mmmm…yeah." Gabrielle acknowledged, blushing. "Did that have something to do with it?"

Wennid nodded, and quietly filled the bard’s cup. Gabrielle didn’t appear to notice. "Sure.. it would, if you had reached a certain point. And I guess you had." Her eyes twinkled.

Gabrielle blushed again. "Sort of." She muttered. "Anyway, I just turned around and asked her if she thought we were like.. well, you and Lestan. And she said yes."

"That was it?" Wennid blinked. "You didn’t question it or..???"

The bard nodded. "Yep.. that was it. We just sort of said, Ok.. we can deal with this.. and went on from there."

Wennid rubbed her head and gave it a little shake. "And how long have you been together?"

"Two years and some." Gabrielle answered, taking a tiny sip from her mug.

"And you never considered before.." The forest dweller seemed to be having some trouble with this.

Gabrielle sighed, and glanced at her hands. "I’m not really comfortable discussing this." She looked up at Wennid. "No offense, but it’s really personal to me."

The forest dweller blinked. "Gods above. I do apologize, Gabrielle.. we’re so used to talking about the lifebond amongst ourselves, that I forgot.."

"And please don’t try to get me drunk. I don’t like it." The bard quietly added, leveling a stare at her.

Wennid studied the table thoughtfully. "I apologize again, Gabrielle. I was only trying to get you in a frame of mind where you could discuss this with less anxiety." She looked up with a serious expression. "The clan has voted to ask you, and your lifemate, to allow us to adopt you – I wanted to make sure had all the information you needed to make that decision before I asked. I can see I went about it the wrong way."

Gabrielle gave her a slow smile, and sat back. "Actually, " she said with a casual air. "what you really want is to know more about us before you ask that. " Her mouth quirked. "So.. let’s just get to the "so.. what’s Xena really like" discussion and we can go from there, OK?"

They looked at each other, then Wennid started to laugh. "OK..OK.." She finally said, slapping the table. "You pass, storyteller. .. you win." She leaned back herself, and waved a hand at the chuckling bard. "All right then… tell me, Gabrielle, what’s Xena really like?:"

"That’s better." Gabrielle cheerfully responded. "You gotta remember, I get asked this a LOT." Her eyes twinkled. Whoa.. good catch, bard!!

"So.. you’re going to tell me she’s not like all the stories we’ve heard, not a bloodthirsty, ruthless warlord who kills at the drop of a hat, right?" Wennid winked at her.

And got back a sudden, serious stare. "No." Gabrielle said, her voice deepening. "I’m not, because she can be bloodthirsty, and ruthless, and I’ve seen her kill at less than a drop of a hat."

Silence fell.

"But she’s also endlessly brave, and totally honest, and she’s willingly offered her life up for others on more occasions than I can count. " The bard finished softly. "She’s the most complex, most driven, most determined person I’ve ever known. Or ever will."

Wennid absorbed this in continued silence. So.. the little girl is not a na´ve child after all. Her mind mused. She knows the darkness as well as the light of her lifemate. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome." Gabrielle answered.

Another silence. "She came and got Jessan this morning." Wennid commented offhandedly, but her eyes glinted. "Never saw anyone pull him by the ear before and get away with it."

Gabrielle giggled. "That’s Xena." She leaned forward again, more at ease now. "There was this time…" And she was off, snaring a fascinated Wennid into several of their more complicated tales, which she told with the ease borne of long practice. She’d just finished the last, when the door pushed open, and Lestan trudged in, to throw himself into a chair, and sigh explosively.

"Where…" He rolled his head to one side and glared at Gabrielle. "Does she get all that energy?" He closed his eyes and rocked his head to relieve pressure in his neck. "She took on all of us, one at a time, then went through battle formations, and taught me more about field generalship in one morning….Ares, she’s good."

Gabrielle smiled, and glanced down. And you probably ran yourself ragged doing it, didn’t you love. "You guys finished?"

Lestan nodded wearily. "Yeah. She said if we had a few more days…" He chuckled. "But she did what she could.. and it might … " His eyes opened and met Wennid’s, over Gabrielle’s head. "Might just make the difference." His face held a note of surprise, and a dim dawning hope. "She showed me a strategy that would work against Secan… takes advantage of his one glaring weakness."

"Excuse me." Gabrielle said, standing up. I’m gonna kill her.

"Wait.." Lestan put a hand on her arm. "Wennid’s spoken to you about the clan adopting you, has she?" His mahogany eyes searched hers in quiet gentleness.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah."

"You can say no." The forest dweller rumbled. "I know we’re very different.. but it seems we have the important things in common, and I'd really like to extend the protection of the clan around you both if you’re going to fight on our behalf tomorrow."

The bard took a breath. "I know.. and I’m sure that won’t be a hard decision. " She smiled at Lestan. "I’ll go talk to her about it." She slipped from her chair, and headed for the door, shaking her head a little. "Xena, you promised." She muttered under her breath.

Then stopped short, as a tall, pale furred form towered over her, and put up a hand to slow her progress. Warrin.. oh gods… "Don’t even think about it." She said firmly, backing off and taking a defensive position automatically.

"Ok.." Xena said, for what seemed the thousandth time that morning. "Try that again." And parried the resulting blow with what must have seemed to the forest dwellers smooth ease. But it wasn’t to her, and hadn’t been for a little while. Damn damn damn… she cursed herself. I don’t have time to get tired this fast.

She’d done brief bouts with all of the fighters, getting a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses, and had spent the last while teaching them some battle tactics she’d used successfully in forest battles in the past. It was going well – the forest dwellers were very fast learners, and this was something natural to them. She’d even spent a bit of time with Lestan, and showed him a way to compensate for his bad arm. All in all, an excellent session.

In fact, she mused, if she had a fortnight to spend with the forest dwellers, doing this, their neighbors might justifiably become very nervous. A smirk tugged at her lips, then vanished as she patiently parried yet another charge, this time letting the fighter just run right past her, and smacking him lightly on the back with her flat. "When you lose control of your momentum.." She called. "You end up in places you don’t wanna be."

Deggis rubbed his back as he turned around to face her and spoke up tiredly. "But they outnumber us, Xena. What then? It’s fine to do this one on one, and Ares in Olympus I’ve learned a lot today.. but…"

Oh boy. Xena sighed. I was afraid someone was going to ask that question. "Works the same in a crowd, Deggis." She answered, watching his face. Doesn’t believe me. Damn… OK, Gabrielle, I know I promised.. but if I’m gonna collapse in the middle of battle tomorrow, I’d better find that out now. "All right.. I’ll show you." She said, stepping back a few paces, and shifting her grip on the sword. Then.. I’m calling a break, because standing up might be a problem.

They all looked at her, a ring of serious, intent faces. She took a deep breath, and reached down into rapidly depleting reserves. Better make this good, Xena.. it’s what’s going to get them through tomorrow.. or not. They have to believe it’s possible. "OK – all of you. At me. Now."

For a moment, they all looked at each other, then at her. "Now!!!" She yelled, and saw them jerk in response, then they moved at her with frightening speed.

She met the first two blades with sudden backhanded lunges that sent them flying, then was in the middle of a solid band of fighters, whipping her sword around her in pure instinct, which kept their steel from her body and kept them at bay. Two more disarmed, and she was flipping out of the way of a third, landing and leaping high again, this time slamming her hilts on a furry head, and kicking yet another who tried to engage her.

It was long, and it was hard, and she took out all the stops and kept moving, driving them back and disarming them one by one.

And at last, at very long last when she thought she might possibly pass out on the battlefield for about the first time in her life, she looked around and saw she was the only one armed and standing. She stood with her sword resting against one thigh, in a very quiet field where the grass waved gently against her boots, and the insistent chirp of crickets could now be heard. A cool breeze filtered through, pushing the dark hair off her forehead, and bringing welcome relief to her pounding head. Gods.. I can’t believe I actually pulled that off. She felt her labored breathing began to settle, and quietly thanked the gods for all that time spent in endless hours of conditioning. Pays off.. when I really need it to.

They all stared at her with eyes that absorbed her every move, every word. "It can be done." She said, pitching her voice to carry across the waving grass. "In war.. the winners are usually the ones who want it the most. Not the strongest, not the best armed.. all it takes is just refusing to lose." And she flipped her sword over, and slid it into its sheath with a smooth motion.

They believed her, she could sense it. See it in their faces. She let a smile cross her face. "All right, let’s take a break…I’ve done about all I can here for the moment." Oh boy.. was that ever true. I hope I can actually make it back to the village. That would be embarrassing…" She was, she admitted to herself, exhausted. Gabrielle’s gonna kill me. Her tired mind chuckled, and she looked up as Lestan ambled over and patted her shoulder.

"Mind if we sit down a minute.. I gotta ask you something." He said quietly, cocking his head at her.

Xena shrugged. Sit down.. that’s probably a good idea. She realized, as her legs started to shake. "Sure." She waved a hand at a convenient pair of stubby rocks poking out of the ground, and seated herself.

He followed suit, and stretched his legs out with a wince. "Thanks." He sighed. And leaned back. "Haven’t had a workout like that in years.. how do you do it?" He glanced at her, and got an amused grin back. "If you say practice, I’m gonna have to kill myself."

Xena laughed. "Sorry. Practice." She informed him. A small silence fell, then she looked over at him. "What’s up?" She plucked a strand of pale grass, and munched on the end of it, waiting for him to get whatever it was off his chest.

Lestan studied her, chewing his lip. Beat around the bush? No.. bad idea. She’s the type who just likes to get things over with. Ok.. "We want to adopt you."

"What?" The warrior’s brow creased, and she stared at him. "Do I look like an orphan or something??" But she had a good idea of what Lestan meant. Well… that simplifies the backup plan. She mused.

"No no.." Lestan chuckled. "It’s a tradition of the clans, Xena. When we have someone who joins our clan from the outside, to make them family, we adopt them. It gives them clan rights, and the right of protection from anyone outside our group." He hesitated, then went on. "And.. since you’re going to be out there fighting with us tomorrow.. I thought… " He paused. "And because of your bond with Gabrielle also. We just think you two should be.. uhm."

Xena put a hand on his knee. "Relax." She reassured him. "I understand. And I appreciate that, Lestan, I really do. Let me talk to Gabrielle and see how she feels about it before I say one way or the other."

He nodded. "Wennid’s talking to her too." He looked up and grinned. "I hope you say yes." Then he put his hands on his knees, and pushed with a groan. "I need to go get some lunch before I keel over. Can I walk you back?"

"Sure." Xena nodded amiably, and rose to join him, stretching her back and shoulders gingerly. But the shakiness was gone, and she took a deep breath, feeling some measure of energy returning. "Let’s go."

They walked in silence across the field, and through the treeline that surrounded the village. The colder breeze under the tree’s shade felt good, Xena realized, and she ran her hands through her hair, freeing it from her gambeson to let the air hit the back of her neck. Whoa. That feels a lot better. She chuckled. "Gwan, Lestan. I’m going to take a walk to the stream and get a cold drink." She gave Lestan a push towards his cot.

"Home looks good." Lestan agreed, and gave her a nod. "We’re having a big dinner tonight.. I hope you and Gabrielle will join us, regardless of your decision. "

Xena gave him a wry grin. "Gabrielle miss out on a banquet ? Never." She sighed. "We’ll be there."

She left him to amble home, and knelt by the stream, drinking for several minutes from cupped hands, then splashing the cold water over her head and face. That feels better. Her mind analyzed. At least I can go get Gabrielle now and not worry about falling over in front of her. I’d never live that down. She got to her feet and headed back towards Lestan’s cot, where she’d heard Gabrielle’s voice a few minutes earlier.

Warrin stared at her coolly. "Be still, human. I won’t harm you."

She crossed her arms and studied him. How could they have just… maybe I don’t understand them as well as I thought. Her mind raced. "Oh.. you only do that in the dark? When your victim can’t see you coming, is that it?" Her jibe hit the mark, and she saw his eyes narrow briefly.

"Have a care, human… I gave my word no harm would come to your or your friend.. " His voice rasped. "But if tomorrow brings what I know will be the death of half my clan due to your involvement, I'll break that word, and show you what our people really are."

"No you won’t." The voice floated out from behind them, and Gabrielle felt a wave of familiar warmth crash over her. Xena stepped out of the shadows, and put herself squarely between Gabrielle and the formidable form that face her. "Because one, I’m not gonna let that happen."

Warrin’s eyes showed uneasy disdain. He threw a quick glance to one side, as though trying to figure out where she’d come from. "You can’t prevent it, don’t you understand?" He said. "You’ve taken away our choices."

Xena stepped closer to him, right into the range of his claws, and smiled. "You’ll just have to take my word for that. " She stepped even closer, until she could feel the wisps of fur on his chest rasping against the quilted tunic she wore, and could smell the musky scent of him. "And if you ever.." Her voice dropped to a silky rasp. "Touch her again I’ll show you up close and personal what it means to be Ares’ Chosen. "

A silence dropped over them, as the two warriors stood with locked eyes. Gabrielle could see the tension in Xena’s shoulders, despite the casual stance and knew her partner was on a razor’s edge, needing only the barest of movements from Warrin to throw her into battle.

"Are you threatening me?" Warrin whispered, in an ice-cold tone. His fur lifted on his back and his nostrils flared.

Xena gave him a lazy smile that had no warmth in it at all. "Yes."

A long pause, then Warrin stepped back a pace.

"Your arrogance will be the death of us." Warrin stated flatly, but his body language signaled defeat, and he turned and disappeared down the shadowed path next to Lestan’s cot.

Xena took a breath, and released it, letting her head drop forward for a moment. Damn I’m glad he didn’t push that. She tilted her head and regarded Gabrielle, who had moved closer and slid an arm around her waist. "Thought you weren’t going to see him without an escort."

Gabrielle gazed up at her with a raised eyebrow. "Thought you said you were going to take a break when you got tired." She responded, maintaining a cool expression, and daring her to deny it.

And got a wry smile back, and a long arm settling around her shoulders. "I know I did. And I meant to..." Xena admitted, with a heartfelt sigh. "But if we’re going to fight tomorrow, I needed to know just how hard I could push."

The bard considered this for a moment. "And you pushed really hard." It wasn’t a question, because she could see the strain in her face, and feel the effort it was taking her to move.

Xena took a long breath. "Yeah." She admitted very quietly. "But it’s better I know now."

Well, she has a point. "So what’s the verdict?" She snuggled closer, forgiving her for the moment.

"On me, or them.?" Xena asked, as they walked towards their assigned cot.

"Yes." The bard answered, giving her a squeeze.

"Mmm… if the battle ends before noon tomorrow, I'll be fine. " The warrior replied. "And they might have a chance at winning, if they keep their heads, and do what I tell them to."

Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully, then looked up, seeing in her eyes just how far she’d pushed herself. "And if it doesn’t and they don’t?"

Xena walked a few steps in silence. "If it doesn’t and they don’t.. well, we’ll have to go to plan B." She answered, taking a another deep breath and releasing it.

"What’s plan B?" Gabrielle persisted, wanting to know the worst.

And got a quirky grin back. "I dunno.. but when I figure it out, I’ll tell you."

Gabrielle sighed. "I was afraid of that." She chewed on that for a minute. "Do they really have a chance?" She studied Xena’s profile. Or are you depending on everything landing on your shoulders? As usual? As always…

The warrior nodded. "Yeah, they do." With me leading them. I’m the one crucial factor.. and gods know, I hope I’m up to it.

Gabrielle laid her cheek against Xena’s shoulder and gave her another hug. "Come on, hero. " Her lips quirked. "Let’s get you some lunch and a nap before you fall over." Daring Xena to contradict her.

"That sounds… really great." The warrior sighed, not bothering to dissemble. She negotiated the steps carefully, and reached out, grabbing the door pull and opening the wooden portal for Gabrielle to pass before her. She followed the bard inside, and stopped short as Ares bounded over and thumped up against her legs, yawning in an ecstasy of greeting.

"Roo!!!" He yodeled, tail going furiously. "Roo!"

Xena dropped a hand onto his head, and grinned. "Hello to you to, Ares." She was about to kneel down and play with him when a pair of strong hands gripped her shoulders, and she was pushed towards the low couch. "Hey… cut that out."

"Not until you sit down." Gabrielle kept up her steady pushing until Xena relented and half dropped, half fell into the pillows, laughing as Ares scrambled up next to her and put his paws on her chest, licking her face with aggressive vigor. "Ares.." the warrior growled.

"Grr…" The wolf growled back, but settled down on her lap, panting.

Xena patted the wolf’s soft fur, and let her head rest on the back of the couch, idly studying the ceiling and letting her mind drift until she felt a gentle hand on her forehead, and focused her gaze on Gabrielle’s concerned face. "Hey." Gods.. did I just go out like that? "Sorry.."

"Here." The bard said quietly, handing her a steaming cup. "Drink this.. " She slid onto the couch next to her partner, and put a supportive arm around her shoulders as she sat partway up and took a sip.

"Not bad." Xena said, giving the bard a grin, and trying to deny just how much she needed that supporting arm. The soup helped though, and so did sitting quietly while Gabrielle threw together a large plate of meatrolls, which they shared, along with most of a fresh loaf of bread the bard had gotten, that was still warm from the oven.

She felt a trickle of energy returning, and she used that to stretch out her length across the couch, and pull Gabrielle’s body down beside her.

"Hey!" The bard yelped, grabbing at the edge of the couch and missing. "Whoa.. cut that out."

Xena just grinned as Gabrielle lost her balance and collapsed onto the couch, half sprawled across the warrior’s body. "Nu uh… I like that." She growled, and wrapped her arms around the bard, holding her in place and feeling the giggles go through her. "So.. tell me about your day?" She asked, as the bard got over her surprise and relaxed against her.

"The usual." Gabrielle tried to stifle a yawn and failed. Xena’s warmth was very seductive, and she felt her body’s rhythm slowing as she nestled closer. Now.. why am I tired? She puzzled quietly. All I did was run around and talk to people. She stretched lazily and felt the tension leaving her body as Xena gently rubbed her back with light fingertips. "Uhm.. let’s see. I had the usual Explaining the Warrior Princess lecture with Wennid, and passed some kind of test with a gaggle of her friends that were over there when I showed up."

"The what lecture?" Xena laughed, and felt Gabrielle laugh a little too.

"Oh.. you know." The bard mumbled into her shoulder. "the ‘What’s she really like ‘ one.. everybody asks me. " She yawned again. "Damn.. don’t know why I’m so sleepy all of a sudden. .you must be a bad influence." She started to get up, but her body refused to obey and she simply collapsed again and gave in to the insideious craving. "Ungh.. guess I’m staying here."

"Having problems, my bard?" Xena asked, kissing the top of her head, and chuckling softly. "We got up pretty early. .and after that lunch you just ate, I’m not surprised you’re sleepy. " She teased, tickling her ribs. ‘Mmm? Guess I’d better stay awake just in case, huh.."

"I think I’m just addicted to you." Gabrielle answered in a lazy tone. "I should get up and work on those scrolls, or get some staff practice in, but I have absolutely no desire to do anything other than stay right here and snuggle." She unbuckled the leather belt and slid a hand inside Xena’s gambeson, starting to trace her gentle patterns there. "And you will not stay awake, you goof." She was rewarded by an involuntary fluttering of eyelids over amused blue eyes. That’s it… come on.. you need this, and you know it. "Are we going to let them adopt us, by the way?"

Xena let her eyes close as she considered the question. Couldn’t have kept them open anyway.. gods, she has that trigger down pat. "What do you think?" She finally asked, to buy time. I want this – but not for the reason she thinks… because there is a plan B.. I just hope to Hades I don’t need to use it.

Gabrielle hesitated, then shrugged. "I guess what’s bothering me is that I’m not really sure why they’re doing it.. I mean sure… we’re going to help them out tomorrow, and you’ll probably do something or other amazing and save the day, but…" She sighed. "I still get the feeling that most of them don’t trust us. So.. what gives?"

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "I get the same feeling." She stroked Gabrielle’s hair with a gentle rhythm. "Maybe more of them agree with Warrin." Her brow quirked above her closed eyes. "Not like they’d be the first people not to trust me, right?"

Gabrielle felt her breath catch at that, and she studied the still face carefully. Trust and personal loyalty were touchy subjects with Xena.. always had been. She knew her reputation preceded her, and had gotten used to strangers assuming she was a bloodthirsty killer.. But from those that knew her more closely.. distrust from them hurt her. Gabrielle knew.. she’d made that mistake once, and never forgotten it.

It had been the stupidest of circumstances… just a shopping trip in one of the larger cities around Athens, and she had decided to try and surprise Xena with a present. That was always hard, since the warrior didn’t do shopping much, and didn’t have a lot of extraneous possessions to base any possible purchases on.. after all, how many leather gauntlets can one woman have, right?

So she’d rigged up some dumb story to get out on her own for a while, and had bumped into an old acquaintance from the Bard’s Academy, and made a pretty pleasant day of it, since Aaron would have none of her going around the market by herself, and insisted on accompanying her. She’d even found a great set of sharpening stones to give Xena, correctly assuming a warrior could never have too many of those.

But she’d forgotten how arrogant Aaron was.. and when they’d finally ended up back by the Inn they were staying at, he’d disdained the rough lodgings, and insisted she accompany him to his hostel, several blocks away. She had been on the verge of refusing, when Xena had brusquely told her to go on, that she had something she needed to attend to, and that she’d meet back up with her tomorrow.

Aaron, who had really no idea who Xena was, took in the rough hewn clothes the warrior was wearing, and her acerbic speech, and made an assumption, which led him to sniff in her direction, and state that he’d love to invite her as well, but it was obvious she couldn’t be trusted not to stab one of her tablemates for their dinner.

And here, Gabrielle knew she’d made a grave error. She should have taken Aaron down verbally, and sent him on his way, but she was confused by Xena’s angry behavior, and so had said.. nothing.

As though she had agreed with him. And behind those icy blue shields that she had only recently started to be able to see through, she saw a look of profound hurt that nearly made her heart stop. Then it was gone, and Xena had stood, and put her hand on her sword hilt, and given him a look that made him back up, dragging Gabrielle with him out the door.

She’d gone the length of the street with him, her heart growing heavier with each step, until she stopped. And turned, looking back at the inn. "I have to go back." She’d said to Aaron, who thought she was crazy. "Maybe I am.. but you just really hurt a friend of mine, and I have to go fix that."

Aaron had laughed at her. "That’s a friend of yours?" He pulled on her arm. "What.. you keep her around to do a little hunting for you? She looks like an animal."

And Gabrielle had felt a slow burning fire in her erupt without warning, as she jerked her arm free, and slugged him with all the strength she could muster, connecting with his face with an audible crack that sent a jolt of red hot pain up her arm, but she didn’t care. "Don’t you ever." She yelled, grabbing him and shaking him hard. "Ever talk about her like that. " She hit him again, and he started to whimper. She shoved him away from her violently, and he stumbled off, giving her a look one usually reserved for a mad person.

She’d gone back to the inn, but Xena hadn’t been there., so knowing her companion, she’d gone outside and entered the stable.

And had frozen at the site of Xena standing quietly next to Argo, her arms wrapped around the golden neck, and her face buried in the mare’s thick cream mane. Just for an instant, until she sensed Gabrielle’s presence, and straightened up, pulling a comb through the thick hair, and arranging it neatly along the mare’s bowed neck.

"Thought you were going cross town." Xena had said, in a cool voice, as she worked. Keeping her eyes glued on the pale stiff hairs, and not looking up at Gabrielle.

"I don’t want to hang out with idiots." Gabrielle had replied, joining her at Argo’s side, and stroking the golden shoulder gently. "I'd rather be here with you." Because it was the only thing she could think of to say that might make a start at fixing this mess.

"Can’t see why." Xena had commented, now working on Argo’s forelock.

"I said.. he’s an idiot, Xena." Gabrielle had responded softly. "He doesn’t know you."

And Xena’s hands had stilled, as she turned and gazed at Gabrielle. "It’s all right. It doesn’t matter." Her eyes had dropped to the straw. "I’m used to people not trusting me to act like a.. decent human being." She took a deep breath and shrugged. "I just didn’t expect that… from.. you." She’d swallowed hard after getting the words out, and then just shook her head, and sighed. "I just… I thought.." Then she had stopped speaking, and went back to currying Argo. "Forget it."

Gabrielle had felt that pain like it was her own, and had moved closer, and put a hand on the warrior’s arm. "That’s not how I think of you." She’d said softly. "And you know that. "

Xena hadn’t answered, just went back to her currying, so Gabrielle had gotten right up against her, and forced eye contact "You do know that, right?"

And finally had gotten a reluctant grin from her companion, and light nudge in the belly. "Yeah, I do." Then her hand had been captured, and Xena’s eyes were pinned on hers. "What happened to your hand?"

Gabrielle had blushed, remembering. "I.. um… "

"Gabrielle, that’s broken." Xena had said, examining the aching bones gently. "Damn… I need to.. what did you do?"

"I hit him." Gabrielle answered, in a faint voice, now that the pain was hammering at her. "He said.. something bad about you and I got mad and I just…" Her head was buzzing, and now she was aware of Xena’s arm supporting her, and leading her to a small bench. "Oh gods, that hurts."

Xena had sat down next to her, and set Gabrielle’s hand down gently on her own knee. "I'll have to block off…She’d stopped speaking, and paused. "Wait a minute.. " She raised a hand and captured the bard’s jaw. "You were defending my honor, Gabrielle??" Her voice was an odd mixture of pride, disbelief, amusement, and something indefinable.

And Gabrielle had looked up into her eyes, and grinned bravely. "Sure.. you’ve got so much of it .. I thought you could use a hand defending it." The blue eyes widened, and she’d let her voice drop a little. "And I mean every single word of that." Very aware of the hand still cupping her chin, and the blue eyes so close to hers, and the rich scent of leather and metal and skin that always meant Xena to her.

A long still moment passed between them, then Xena leaned forward, and gently kissed Gabrielle’s forehead. "Thanks." She whispered into the nearby ear. "But next time?"

"Yeah?" Gabrielle responded, enjoying the closeness.

"Kick him in the groin., OK?" The warrior sighed, and blocked the nerves to her hand.

Gabrielle smiled gently in remembrance. Another milestone in our long journey.. she mused. "Well, I guess it can’t hurt us any, if we say yes." Meaning the adoption.

Xena grunted in response, and grinned as she felt Gabrielle’s body slowly go completely limp against her. Fell asleep before I did…that’ll be good for a tease later. She cracked open one eye, and regarded her partner in some amusement, then scanned the room, judging the sounds she heard outside and deciding it would probably be safe for her to take a short nap. She checked the position of her sword, lying sheathed along her right leg, and gave Ares one last pat before closing her eyes and joining the bard in sleep.

"So." Secan drawled leaning back in his large chair and throwing a powerful leg over the arm of it. "Tell me." He’d just gotten back from a recon to their own northern border, and it was the first chance he’d had to get a report from his favorite lieutenant, about his parley the day before.

"Good news, and bad." Kelten said, pulling up a low stool, and seating himself in front of his leader’s desk. "Which?"

"Bad." Secan said immediately, propping his sunset red furred head up on one hand. "Always."

Kelten nodded, and sniffed reflectively. "Bad news is, she’s.. about what the stories say she is." He gazed at his hands, as they twisted each other. Remembering those ice-cold eyes that scared him far more than a human’s should. "The rest of those grazers just rolled over for me, but not her.. no.. she got right up in my fangs and threatened me."

Secan’s shaded eyebrows rose. "No, really?" He showed his large fangs in amusement, and took a deep draft of the ale in front of him.

The silver forest dweller snorted a little, and shook his head. "Yes, really." He looked up. "You know we tried to dart her."

"Yeah? You said you were going to give that a try." Secan said, a fascinated look crossing his handsome face. "Did Selwyn miss?"

"No." Kelten put his chin on his hand. "She caught the damn crossbow quarrel."

"Really??" Secan laughed. "No… you’re joking with me."

Silver hair flew as Kelten shook his head hard. "Nope.. and it wasn’t even like she was trying.. she just was walking along, and I heard his mech release, then the thing was in her hand, and she was sort of.. playing with it. You know.. flipping it over, that kind of thing. "

"Whoa." Secan stuck the tip of his tongue out. "So.. what did she threaten to do to you?"

"Make me into a rug." Kelten admitted. "And I gotta tell you Sec, I believed her."

"Did you." Secan said softly, taking a sip of his ale, and leaning back. "Damn.. I wanted her… and not just because of what she did to Elusha. I wanted her here, so I could play with her… remember what I did to that last human we caught?" His eyes glittered. "She lasted a week. Bet this one would last a month."

"If she didn’t kill you in the first candlemark." Kelten added dryly. "But anyway, the good news is, you don’t have to worry about her getting in the middle of our little war."

Secan tilted his russet head and regarded his lieutenant. "Oh?" He ran his tongue around his fangs. "Not that I was worried anyway."

"She’s lifebonded." Kelten said quietly, watching Secan’s face for a reaction, and not being disappointed as the big leader’s eyes rounded, and he sat up straighter in his chair.

"No way." He breathed. "Humans can’t…." Then he stopped, and chuckled. "Well, I always said that was our softer side.. now I have proof. Is she really?"

"Yes way." The silver forest dweller acknowledged. "She’s got this little bit of a thing she keeps tied to her tail, and brother are they ever tied.. they stand out like a bald wolf in a pack reunion."

Secan laughed. "Better and better… we’ll take out that grazer village tomorrow.. and after I finish making my point with their precious lifebonds, we’ll take our little humans back here and have some real fun. You think that warrior would like to be chained up to my table here, while I burn our alphabet into her little bondmate?"

Kelten considered the idea. "Hmmm… that might be fun.. then are you going to take her right on the table? " His eyes glinted. "Maybe we could make the little one into a rug, you think? She has nice hair.. kind of like Jerusha’s."

Secan laughed deep in his throat. "No.. I’ll make a whip out of it.. and use it on the warrior. " His face creased into a dark smile. "It’s definitely going to be a fun day. And after we finish with this one, we’ve got a few more of the peace lovers down along the coast to take care of. Then…" His fangtips showed. "Then.. I have a taste for human blood." He took a long sip of his ale. "What amusement around the fire this evening, my friend?"

Kelten stood, and straightened a kink out of his spine. "Selwyn’s the amusement." He smirked, and waggled an eyebrow at Secan. "Not only did he miss, he let them catch him."

Secan laughed. "I see… well, when you’re done, you can toss him into the grazer’s village.. Ares knows they take all the other flotsam and jetsam that floats to the top around here. " He stood and yawned, towering over Kelten from his nearly 8 foot height. "They even took in that blind whelp of mine, would you believe it? What fools. Nature’s law is very simple, Keltie. "

Kelten nodded in agreement. "The strong survive and breed. The rest, die." He glanced down, then up at his leader again. "Secan?"

A heavy red furred hand descended onto his silver shoulder. "Yes, my friend?"

His pale eyes met Secan’s striking russet ones. "Be careful with her." His nostrils flared. "There was something there… I don’t know what it was, but… she’s no grazer."

Secan’s hand lifted, and patted his cheek gently. "No, I know that." His fangs glinted. "Believe me, dearest friend, I’ll treat her with the utmost care." He slid a muscular arm across Kelten’s pale shoulders. "Come on.. we’re missing the fun." They passed out of the door to his quarters, and made their way down the neat path to the fire. "You think you can make him squeak like the last one?"

"Maybe.’ Kelten drawled. "Can I use your dagger?"

"Sure." Secan said, as they passed from the darkness, into the rich red firelight and were greeted with enthusiasm.

Elaini folded the blanket that had been on the cot neatly, and put it away, shaking her head a little and muttering to herself. She looked up when the door opened, and then an involuntary smile crossed her face. "Didn’t think you’d be back." She commented, turning around and leaning back on a nearby table.

Jessan grinned bashfully, and moved all the way into the room. "Hmm… well.." It was like.. a heavy cloud had been lifted from him, and he wasn’t really sure about what to do with himself. "Looks like Xena did the right thing.. I guess. I feel a lot better." He walked over to her quietly. "And I owe you an apology for being such a lump."

Elaini glanced down, away, at the table, anywhere but up into his golden eyes. "S’allright." She shrugged. "I’m glad you’re feeling better." She snuck a peek at his face, and saw the gentle look there, and was lost. The next thing she knew, his fingers were lifting her chin, and those eyes were meeting hers, and she had no defenses. "Jessan.."

He smiled gently at her. "Tell me you don’t feel that." He challenged, brushing his fingertips down her jawline, and watching her nostrils flare in response. "Tell me."

"I can’t." Elaini whispered. "You know that." She put a hesitant hand against his chest, and felt his breathing catch. "I can’t… Jessan, we’ve known each other forever.. I don’t…"

Jessan moved closer, feeling her hands go flat against the fur of his chest. "Happens sometimes. You know that." He reached up and smoothed the hair out of her eyes. "It’s real, Elaini. Mother Saw."

Her eyes closed, and she felt her breathing deepen. This can’t be happening… But her mind knew it was. We’re too old… it never happens this way… But her heart, already happily building a bridge to his, knew better. "Gods." She breathed.

"Mmm." Jessan agreed, and took her into his arms, feeling the rich golden warmth of a forming lifebond for the first time. Now I know why it changed Xena… this would change anyone.. even Ares himself.

They stood like that for a timeless moment, then reluctantly parted and looked at each other.

"Uhm..’ Jessan said, blushing furiously. "Actually, I came over to ask you to go to the dinner tonight with me."

Elaini smile a little, and traced the line of his fur down the center of his chest. "Sure."

Another long silence. Then Jessan cleared his throat. "We’re getting two new clan members tonight, you know."

"I heard." Elaini responded. "They agreed, then."

Jessan nodded his golden head. "They did. I’m glad."

Another silence, shorter this time. "So.. what’s going to happen tomorrow, Jess?" Elaini asked quietly. "I’ve seen Secan’s fighters. We don’t really have a chance do we? What will they do with us?"

Jessan took a deep breath, and laid his wrists on her shoulders. "Elaini, don’t worry. Xena’s here."

"And..???" Elaini objected. "So.. what is one human fighter, no matter how skilled, going to do to make a difference? Will a half dozen more of Secan’s lot gets killed? It won’t change the outcome."

"She’ll get us out of this." Jessan replied, with endless confidence in his voice.

"How can you say that? How do you know, Jess?" Elaini’s voice was getting upset.

He clasped her face in his hands, and gazed deep into her eyes. "Because she said she would." Remembering her going against his entire clan that morning, her blade moving so fast, they couldn’t even see it. Taking them all one with a single-mindedness of purpose that allowed for no defeat.

"And you believe that?" Elaini whispered softly. "You really believe that?"

Rounded, golden eyes stared back at her. "Yes." He answered slowly. "I believe she makes anything possible."

Elaini sighed, and let her head rest against his arm. "I wish I had your belief." She looked up. "Because I’m scared, Jessan. Very scared that after tomorrow, nothing will be left."

He smiled a little at her. "You’ll see." He let his thumb trace her cheekbone. "This time, tomorrow, we’ll be sitting comfortably in our hall, listening to the storyteller’s tell the tale of it. " He glanced at the window. "Come on.. Xena and Gabrielle are waiting for us to walk over."

He guided her to the door, and opened it for her. They both smiled at each other, and passed through, to the porch where two now familiar forms were leaning casually. "Let’s go."

And the passed into the darkness, flickers of cloud scattered moonlight reflecting fitfully against hides of yellow and gold, and off tanned skin and deep hued linen.

The long, low hall was gently buzzing, as there was a break in the storytelling and the packed crowd was free to make conversation with their neighbors. The torches lighting the walls snapped fitfully in the mild breeze from the large windows, and the fireplace let off the hot smell of fire warmed granite along with the remaining scent of cooked meat.

Xena leaned back in her chair, and propped one foot up against a table support, surveying the room with idle approval. Every fighter, in fact, every resident of the village was present, crammed into a space that seemed to Xena far too small to hold them. She had kept her wits, in fact, only because she had picked a seat right next to one of the open windows, and thereby had a nice breeze riffling through her hair and an open space behind her that made it bearable.

Still, she pressed her back against the chair, which was pushed flush to the wall, and sighed, as she let her eyes drift over the crowd, coming to rest on Gabrielle’s animated form, as the bard leaned over the table talking. Xena felt a smile come unbidden to her face, and indulged herself in it, watching her partner make a point with a well placed hand gesture. I’ve watched her do this a thousand times. And every time, it’s different. She just captures these people.. snares in their hearts and never even realizes she’s doing it. She bit her lip to keep from grinning. Just like she captured mine.

It had been a shock, really, the first time she’d come wearily into a tavern they were staying by, and caught Gabrielle in the middle of a story.. about her. She hadn’t been sure whether to be embarassed or mad, or both, or a little flattered to be honest. But she’d slipped into a seat in the rear of the room, hidden in shadows and out of the bard’s line of sight. And she’d just listened.

It was one of their milder adventures, to be sure, but the sound of Gabrielle’s clear, sometimes slightly hesitant voice describing what they’d done.. how they’d done it.. and she’d gotten to see herself through the bard’s honest eyes for the first time.

That’s not me she’s talking about. Was her first reaction. But she knew the story, and eventually had to come to the conclusion that this… rational, brave, heroic person the bard was describing however unlikely she deemed it, was supposed to be her.

It changed something forever. She tried to deny that, tried to convince herself it was just Gabrielle’s misguided hero worship speaking through the bard’s voice. Tried to tell herself that it was just silliness.

But those clear, green eyes had held a conviction that drew her in, and for a tiny, short while in that wood smoke filled tavern, she’d gotten a glimpse of a possibility.

Then it had ended,and the crowd eagerly thanked her, and asked for more, and the bard had produced a delighted grin, which froze as her eyes lifted above the heads of the front rows, and met Xena’s own, there in the shadows.

She’d stumbled all over herself as they walked outside. "Uh.. I didn’t think you’d be back..I wanted to.. try that out I mean… I didn’t want to get you.. or maybe you’d be embarassed, or angry or.."

"Gabrielle." She’d said quietly.

"Look.. Xena, I’m sorry..I didn’t mean.."

"GABRIELLE." Xena had raised her voice.

"Yyyes?" The bard had stammered, sending her eyes anywhere but up to meet Xena’s.

Xena had gripped her shoulders, the unusual physical contact making the bard start in surprise,and look up. They had looked into each other’s eyes for a long instant, before Xena had spoken.

"Look.." She’d said, searching for words. "No one’s ever… What I mean is… most of the stories…" She’d given up. "Oh Hades. " She’d sighed. "Thank you, Gabrielle. It was a very good story."

The bard’s eyes had widened,and gentled. "You didn’t mind?"

"No." Had come the answer. Then, "You’re quite the storyteller."

And Gabrielle had hesitantly clasped the hands still on her shoulders. "I have a lot of inspiration." She’d said.

Xena had smiled, and patted the bard’s cheek. "C’mon. For that, you deserve a decent meal sitting down indoors for a change. "

I"d gone from trying to find a way not to let her drive me crazy, to inventing things to do for her..wonder if she realized it? Wonder if she realized she just took my heart like a spoil of war. And that was a strange feeling, Xena mused. Because Gabrielle was the first person in her life that she’d just… surrendered everything to. Held nothing back. All the rest of her involvements.. she’d been in control of. Dictated exactly how far she was willing to give, of herself, of her time…

Not this one. The warrior admitted to herself. I have no more control over this than I do the path of the sun. Her eyes studied Gabrielle’s face. can something this chaotic feel.. Her eyes closed and she let a warm wave crest over her. So wonderful. Even the dark situation she now found them in couldn’t put a damper on that.

"Hey." Gabrielle’s voice startled her, and she glanced up, to find the bard at her side, a concerned look on her face. "You all right?"

Xena grinned sheepishly, and rubbed her temples with one hand. "Yeah.. I was.. uhm." She sneaked a look at the bard’s face. Whoops. "I was.. uh.. planning." She even managed to keep a straight face. "For tomorrow."

"Uh huh. " Gabrielle remarked, perching neatly on the arm of Xena’s chair. "So.. like what part of tomorrow were you planning that put that goofy grin on your face?"

The warrior laughed. "Ok.. you caught me. I was daydreaming." She admitted, lacing her hands around her propped knee. "Satisfied?"

"You?" The bard squeaked. "YOU were daydreaming? About what?" And found herself being regarded by intent blue eyes, and gifted with a half smile that brought it’s own answer. "Oh." She murmured softly, feeling the blood heat her face. I put that look there? I did?

Xena broke off their absorbed gaze, and took a breath. "Well done on the stories, by the way." She glanced up. "You changed around the ending part on the Trojan War."

Gabrielle gave a little start, and rested her arm on Xena’s shoulder. "You noticed?" She let out a short surprised laugh. "Didn’t think you paid that close.." And saw the look in her partner’s eyes and stopped. "Sorry. I know better." She finished quietly, touching the backs of her fingers against Xena’s cheek. "My own dumb lack of confidence just poked its head up there."

To her surprise, Xena just nodded a little, and took a deep breath. "I noticed." She said, giving Gabrielle a brief grin. "I liked the change."

"Thanks." The bard murmured, studying her closely. "How are you feeling? You look a little out of it."

And got a light shrug back. "Just thinking, really. Different scenarios, that kind of thing." Xena reached over an picked up her cup, taking a swallow of ale. "It’s what I usually do the night before a battle." She gave Gabrielle a nudge. "Besides, I had a really nice nap this afternoon."

The bard rolled her eyes, leaned against the convenient shoulder next to her. "I have only your word for that." She complained, having been gently woken up by Xena’s playful nibbling on her neck. "*I* wouldn’t know."

Xena laughed softly, and rested her head against Gabrielle’s side. "Cross my heart, Gabrielle." She took another sip of ale, and regarded the crowded room. Lestan had made a brief, informal announcement about the clan adoption. Good.. short and simple, just how I like them. Xena mused. And they had proceeded on with the banquet, which had been along the lines of stuff everyone as full as possible, pour ale down their throats to relax them, then get the storytellers up to get their minds off tomorrow.

It had worked, Xena chuckled, even, to a small extent, on her. She’d enjoyed the meal, liked the ale, and allowed herself to get lost in Gabrielle’s tales for most of the evening.

It really had been a nice nap, and she was feeling pretty good, despite her morning’s activities. This might even work… she considered, feeling Gabrielle’s fingers tangle themselves idly in her dark hair. And if not… she sighed inwardly. There was always plan B.

Plan B, which called for her to take a much more.. personal.. role in what happened tomorrow, above and beyond leading the forest dweller’s forces. Which would pit her directly against the enemy’s leader who, by all reports and despite Lestan’s assurance, might be too much for her to handle. And that was the first time ever that she’d considered an opponent that way. Even Hercules.. who any rational person would have avoided challenging, she lit into without a thought.

Do I stake this entire village on something I’m not sure I can deliver? Was the question rattling around in her head. Only if there’s no other choice. The answer kept coming back, repeatedly. Because that would have dire consequences not only for Lestan’s people, but also for her, death being a likely result, and that would mean…

Her mind slid past that, deliberately shunting the thought off. What was that you told Hectator? People who go into battle thinking they’re going to die, generally do? Knock it off, Xena. They’re forest dwellers, just like these guys here and you beat up 100 of them this morning. How bad could this possibly get?

The door opened, and a very dark furred forest dweller stumbled in, scattering startled villagers until Jessan had the presence of mind to grab him. "Restie?" Jessan rasped, holding him up. "What happened?"

The dark Restie grabbed Jessan’s golden arm, and remained silent, his chest heaving. "Hold on." He gasped. :"Gotta catch my breath."

By now, the group had quieted, and a small ring surrounded the two of them. Jessan glanced up as his father appeared behind him. "He was on north border duty." He quietly reminded Lestan. "Restie?"

"He’s mad." Restie got out, after taking a large breath of the close air. "He’s lost his mind, Jessan. He’s going to… " His dark eyes flickered to Lestan’s face, then back. "If he wins tomorrow, he’s going to take the village apart.. he’s going to kill all the lifebonds."

"What?" Wennid gripped his arm, appearing as if by magic next to her lifemate. "All of them?"

Restie’s eyes met hers and his nostrils flared. "No. One of each pair."

A shudder passed through the room, bringing deathly silence, in which the crackle of the cooking fire could be clearly heard.

And a voice fell into the well of quiet. "Why?" Xena had threaded her way through the tightly packed crowd somehow, and was now standing next to Jessan. Her pale eyes captured Restie’s dark ones.

The forest dweller snorted wearily. "Because he can. Because he likes making other people hurt. That archer he brought to the village today… " He just stopped speaking and stared at the ground. "They branded him."

A buzz went up, and Xena could feel the panic start to build. She let it, for a moment, to allow Lestan a chance to calm his village, but the tall leader was staring at Restie with a blank expression on his normally good-natured face.

Now what? She felt her mind calming, her body relaxing as she responded to the familiar tingle of danger circulating the room. Now I put a cap on this. "All right, everybody calm down." She said, her voice quiet, but penetrating. A hand touched her back, and she leaned into the contact, needing Gabrielle’s comforting presence. The bard slipped into place next to her, and left her warm hand on Xena’s back as she watched the faces surrounding them.

Xena’s voice caught their attention, and after a long tense second, the buzz in the room dropped, and a very uneasy silence descended again. Everyone always told me I’m a natural born leader. Xena mused privately. Maybe it’s just that I’m always telling everybody to shut up, then I have to think up a reason why they should. "You heard all this?" She questioned the dark furred Resti quietly.

He nodded, eyes fixed on her. "They’re making noise enough to scare a deaf warthog over in their camp. I got into a tree not far, and just listened for a bit. I heard.. that archer scream."

She nodded slowly. "So they’re pretty confident, huh?"

Resti nodded. "It’s not like they even think they’re going to be fighting."

"Point one in our favor." Xena said, giving him an easy smile, and she felt, in the little quiet after she spoke, that seductive tingle of excitement as the fighters surrounding her shifted, and picked up her meaning.

"They think you won’t fight." Resti added, nape lifting as he unconsciously responded to the crackling air of energy around her.

"Point two in our favor." Now Xena’s smile turned feral, and she deliberately relaxed her posture, crossing her arms on her chest and leaning on one leg while crossing the other at her ankles.

Resti took a deep breath, and nodded. "He wants you." A glance went to Lestan’s face, which was darkening in anger. "He wants you bad."

Xena was aware of the eyes on her, of the expectant silence in the room that waited her response. Aware of Gabrielle’s tense body brushing hers, and the rapid beating of the bard’s heart that she could see as a fluttering at the base of her throat. "Well.’ She drawled, lifting an eyebrow and chuckling. "He’d better be careful what he asks for. " She paused. "He may just get it."

She felt the expanding circle of confidence that had her at the center, and let her eyes travel around the room, collecting theirs. Xena knew, at this moment, she held them neatly in her cupped palm, as she had done with armies since she’d been fifteen years old. They believed utterly, because she did. Or they think I do. She quietly amended to herself. I only wish I had that option. I’d like someone to believe in, right now. "

"All right. So they’re coming in overconfident, and they don’t think we’ll be much of a challenge." She nodded judiciously. "That’s not a bad position. We can work with that."

"We?" Lestan muttered, quietly.

"Hey." Xena just as quietly muttered back. "You adopted me, remember?"

Lestan let a smile cross his somber features. "Xena.." His voice was very low, and hidden in the again rising buzz of the room. "There is too much death in this. I don’t want you part of it." His eyes flicked to Gabrielle’s face. "Please."

Xena took a breath, and felt Gabrielle’s arm tighten around her. She looked down at the bard, and found those mist green eyes fastened on hers.

"You took us into your clan, Lestan." Gabrielle said, not looking at him. "What kind of clan members would we be if we ran at the first sign of trouble?" Her eyes remained locked with Xena’s, and gentle promises passed between them. "We’re in for the duration."

Ah Gabrielle… Xena’s mind caressed the thought. "She’s right." That to Lestan, whose eyes held a resigned understanding. "Besides, you need us." And felt a warm squeeze from Gabrielle at the words. Had to train myself to say us, my bard. Hope you appreciate that. Even with my other lovers, it was never us. Always me, and them. But you and I… I’ve think I’ve finally accepted that. "Time for us all to get some rest, I think."

Lestan nodded, and raised his arm, commanding attention. "Sleep now, the rousters will wake the fighters pre dawn. The rest of the village will pack, and make ready to move if needed. No one, NO ONE gets caught behind, in any case, for those carrion eaters."

They dispersed, filing slowly out of the hall and into the dark of the cloud-covered night. Xena stayed a moment, reviewing last minute strategy with Lestan, then gave him a shove towards the door. "Gwan, Lestan. Get some sleep. " Her eyes fell on Jessan. "You too. "

Jessan stepped up to her, and their eyes met. Xena grinned at him.

"You know." He breathed, smothering a smile. How does she do that… magic again, I suppose.

"I guessed." Xena drawled, patting the side of his face. "Jess, I’m glad for you."

Gabrielle just gave him a hug, and tugged his chest fur with a smile.

"Thanks." He replied, shyly. Then his eyes darkened, and he swallowed. "But if.."

Xena put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders, and stepped closer to him, meeting his eyes over the bard’s head. "Don’t." She said softly. "Because I’m not gonna let that happen." And with that, the battle crossed the line with her, and became very personal.

Because she was, she suddenly realized, one of the people Secan meant to devastate with his insanity. He’d kill Gabrielle... and a fierce jolt of anger shook Xena’s body, and sent an icy mask over her features. "Get some rest, Jess." Her voice held a chill in it, and the forest dweller backed a step.

Gabrielle felt it, saw the subtle shift in her features, and turned, sliding her arms around Xena’s waist and looking up at her. "Hey." She called softly, watching the icy blue eyes slowly track to hers, and look through her for an endless moment, before they focused, and warmed, and brought her partner back to her. She tugged hard on the warrior, and was rewarded with a quirky half grin. "You too, hero."

Xena nodded. "Yeah." She said, "Let’s go." She steered the bard towards the door, pushing Jessan ahead of them. "Tomorrow’s going to be a long day. "

Gabrielle walked slowly through the darkness of the central grassy square, aware of the soft voices on all sides, and the comforting warmth of Xena's hand resting casually on her back. Sidelong glances told her that the warrior's face was tense and still, and she remained quiet, giving Xena time to assimilate the information of the evening.

What's she thinking? The bard wondered, studying that angular profile. Then an idea occurred to her. I could just ask her. That was a new thought, she pondered, as was the very real possibility that her close-mouthed partner just might tell her. She waited until they were inside the cot, though, before putting a hand on Xena’s side, feeling the warm skin through the coolness of the fabric covering it.

The warrior half turned towards her, and raised an eyebrow, focusing her attention on the bard. "What?"

"Dinar for your thoughts?" Gabrielle asked evenly, moving a little closer, and allowing herself to feel their connection. Knew that Xena was feeling it too, from the involuntary smile that shaped her lips, and the almost unconscious lifting of her hand to the bard's cheek. "What's bothering you?" And.. how far we've come, she silently mused that I can now just ask her that. Question is, will she tell me?

Xena's eyes searched hers, and her mouth quirked. "The fact we're going to fight against a homicidal maniac tomorrow?" She offered tentatively, brushing her thumb against the bard's cheekbone. "Lotta things can go wrong, Gabrielle." Her voice had dropped to a near whisper. "I don't.." She fell silent, unable to voice her fears.

But the bard understood, and sat down on the low couch, tugging Xena down with her. The warrior collapsed onto the cloth surface with an uncharacteristic lack of grace, and spread both arms out across the back, stretching her long legs out and crossing them. After a minute, she rolled her head to one side, and regarded Gabrielle soberly.

"Stakes just got a lot higher, huh?" Gabrielle asked seriously. And got a nod back in confirmation. Do I go serious here, or try to get her to relax a little? No.. no serious stuff before going to sleep. There's enough time for that tomorrow. "So.. what is it with us? Do we just attract disasters, or something?" She made a disgusted noise, and was rewarded with a wonderful, full smile. "I mean it, Xena. If we went to go buy lunch, we'd cause at least one small war, the theft of the village temple altar, and the birth of a three-headed goat. I swear."

Xena started laughing, and reached over, grabbing Gabrielle's arm and pulling her squawking across the couch. "C'mere." She said, wrapping the bard up in a fierce hug.

Well, that worked. Gabrielle sighed in satisfaction, as she burrowed happily into the warrior's warm embrace. "Did I ever tell you just how much I love when you do this?" She mumbled, then tilted her head back to gaze fondly up at Xena.

The warrior smiled back, and kissed her gently.

"Mmm..." Gabrielle chuckled deep in her throat. "That too." She rested her head against Xena's shoulder, and took a breath. "This.. makes it harder, doesn't it?" The words were out before she thought about it, and she felt Xena's breathing catch. Thought we weren't going to do serious, Gabrielle..where in Hades did *that* come from?

Xena smoothed the red gold hair out of her partner's eyes, and let her fingers trail down the down soft cheek. "Yes, it does." She admitted quietly. "It raises the stakes.. beyond price."

A long still moment, when the only sounds were two sets of gentle breathing, the subtle popping of the fire, and the fading noises from outside coming in the window. Even Ares was motionless, lying tucked under Xena's extended legs.

"Are you.." Gabrielle whispered, then stopped as Xena touched her lips with stilling fingers.

"No regrets, Gabrielle." The warrior murmured. "No second thoughts, no what ifs." Her eyes were very serious. "Just something I have to take into account, that's all."

The bard closed her eyes, and let her fingers tangle into the soft cloth shirt Xena was wearing. Then she sighed, and raised her glance up again. "I'm going with you tomorrow morning." Her tone was inflexible. "I'm not staying behind here."

No, never again, my bard. Xena thought silently, we'll do what we do together. "Of course not." She acknowledged, feeling Gabrielle's heart skip a beat where the bard was pressed hard against her. "Who would watch my back?" She put a fingertip on the bard's nose. "I'm counting on you."

But then she took a very deep breath. "Gabrielle.. if it goes bad tomorrow.. " The bard's body went very still. "I.. want you to go home." She paused. "Please. I'd like to know you'll be someplace.. " She stopped. Gabrielle's hands clenched tight on her shirt, and she cleared her throat. "Someplace where you'll be loved."

Gabrielle stayed very still, letting the words play over and over in her mind until her breathing had settled, and she thought she might be able to speak. And what she said was something that she'd made a decision on, during that long, torchlit ride back from the mountain, with Xena's shallowly breathing form cradled in her arms. "No." Her voice was steady, and she saw the widening of the blue eyes locked with hers. "If something.. happens." She put a hand on Xena's cheek. "You just wait a heartbeat for me, all right?"

"No." The word on an explosion of air "You don't.."

"I do." Gabrielle spoke forcefully. "I can, I will, and nothing you're going to say, or do is going to change the way I feel." Her fingers twisted in fabric "I am not going to live like Warrin, Xena. Don't ask that of me." Her voice cracked a little. "Please. Promise me you'll wait."

Xena felt her whole world shift, then settle down again. Come on, Xena. You knew this. No matter what you told Lestan, and what you kept telling yourself, you knew it. She felt a mass of tension dissolve as she let her heart accept the concept. "On one condition." Came the quiet answer.

Gabrielle's eyes studied her. "What?" Trust go and try to put conditions on this.

"You make me the same promise." Xena replied.

Oh. The bard's mind reflected. Of course. "I promise."

A nod. "I promise too."

Gabrielle put her head back down on Xena's chest, and let out a deep sigh. They sat in companionable silence for some time, gazing at the fire, each lost in thought. Finally, Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, and tightened her grasp. "Let's get some sleep."

The bard yawned in agreement. "OK." She unwound herself from Xena's arms, and stood, indulging in a long stretch. "Sounds like a good idea." She extended a hand to the still seated Xena, and smiled when the warrior grasped it firmly. "Come on."

Xena allowed herself to be hauled to her feet, then padded over and stripped out of her light tunic, pulling a sleep shirt out of her saddlebags. She turned in time to see Gabrielle do the same, and stepped closer to the bard, casting a critical eye at the fading scratches on her stomach. "Looks ok." She pronounced, running a finger over the smooth surface. "Lucky for him."

Gabrielle knew what she meant, and traced the lines herself. "Yeah." She agreed quietly. "Doesn't even sting today."

Xena took the shirt from her, and gathered up the sleeves, settling the fabric over the bard's fair head. "There." She chuckled, giving her a pat on the side.

"Thanks." Gabrielle murmured, studying her. "Bruises are gone." She commented, tapping lightly on Xena's chest, then trailing her fingertips down the centerline of the warrior's belly, and felt the muscles shift under her hand. Then she reached up and touched Xena's forehead. "What about up here?"

Xena sighed, and shrugged. "Mostly." She acknowledged. "Still don't like closed places much." She pulled the shirt on. "But then, I never did, so.."

Gabrielle let that slide. "I know how you feel." She said quietly.

Xena stopped, and glanced up at her. "Huh?"

"Coffin." The bard said, succinctly.

"Ah." Xena breathed, raising her hands and cradling Gabrielle's face. "I should have realized."

"Yeah, well.." Gabrielle sighed, letting herself fall forward against Xena's warm body. "It never came up."

"Suppose not." The warrior muttered, tilting the bard's face up and studying it with a unhappy frown. "Gods, I'm sorry. If I'd just been faster.."

"Whoa..whoa whoa..!!!!" Gabrielle barked, grabbing Xena around the ribcage and shaking her. "Don't you even think about going there." She would have laughed at the startled expression on the warrior's face if she hadn't been so mad.

"OK..OK.." Xena blinked. "I was just.."

"I know what you were just doing. " The bard growled. "So just don't.. please?" She let her head bump Xena’s collarbone. "Not tonight."

Xena tilted the bard’s head up again and kissed her. "All right." She murmured as they separated for s second, then resumed. The warrior chuckled as Gabrielle moved closer, bringing their bodies into contact all along their length. She wound her arms around the bard, and straightened up, lifting her off her feet. "I can think of a better place to do this." She commented, as she walked over to the bed, and launched both of them up a little, twisting in mid air so that she’d land on her back with the bard nestled on top of her. "There."

"Much better." Gabrielle mumbled, as her hands explored and found bare skin, then sucked in a sharp breath as she felt a sudden, knowing touch in return. "Gods.. I’m sure glad you don’t have cold hands." Was her indistinct comment.

A low chuckle was the only response.

Pre-dawn brought a cold moist breeze into the window, and Xena knew there would be fog outside when she looked. Wonderful. Her mind sighed. Foggy, wet, cold morning. My favorite. She was glad she'd checked her leathers, and set them near the fire to make sure they were dry. Getting into clammy, cold leathers and then into chilly armor was one sure way to put her in a bad mood. And that was no way to start out a day of battle. Xena decided, then paused and examined that thought. Or any other day, for that matter. Gods, and I used to do it all the time. How dumb was that?

At the moment, however, she was still curled up in bed with Gabrielle soundly asleep beside her, the bard's head resting on her shoulder with one hand lying across her abdomen, and she allowed herself a few minutes of extra time to enjoy the warm feeling before starting what she suspected would be a very long day.

Well.. time to get moving Regretfully, Xena raised her left hand, and patted Gabrielle on the back. "Hey." She said, in a low voice.

"Mmm?" The bard stirred, and blinked her eyes open. "What? Oh..." She gave a quick glance around the darkened cot. "Let me guess, time to get up?"

"Uh huh." Xena remarked, giving her back a rub. "Bout that time." And despite her own self doubts, Xena felt that old familar tingle starting in the pit of her stomach, an anticipatation from that dark part of herself that found a seductive thrill in pitting her fighting skills against an opponent. That part of herself that always got loose during battle, and produced the deadliest of results, and that ringing laugh. "Gotta go, love."

Gabrielle sighed, and wrapped her arm tighter for a moment, giving the warrior one last hug. "All right. I'll go get us some breakfast." She grumbled, releasing her grasp, and propping herself up on one elbow.

"Well, I don't.." Xena started, then stopped as Gabrielle gave her a stern look. "OK, sounds like a good idea." She amended, managing to keep a grin off her face. "I am a little hungry." She poked the yawning bard out of bed and rolled out of the other side herself, stretching thoroughly and giving herself a little shake. No point in saying I don’t usually eat right before fighting, because she’s going to get me to one way or the other. Right? Right. Just go with it.

Gabrielle got dressed in a long sleeved tunic against the cold, and laced up her boots quickly, then trotted out the door, stopping for a moment on the steps to adjust her night vision. The central area was already whispering with gentle motion, dark shadowy forms crossed in front of her, throwing fog about in waves that lapped at the edge of the porch she stood on. Far off, haloed by the wisps of fog were the torches that ringed the circle of cots, throwing vague shadows off the trees, and the weapons racks, and the moving forms of forest dwellers.

The smell of burning pitch came to her, and woodsmoke, and the clammy, stinging scent of the fog itself that got into her lungs and brought an unpleasant taste to the back of her mouth. "Ugh."she muttered, dropping down the stairs and starting off towards the communal kitchen. "Hope Xena thinks to put hot water on for tea while I go scrounge."

Xena had thought of it, in fact, and had set the water pot on the fire while she ducked into the bathing room and let the reserviored water, now cold from the night exposure, rinse over her. Drying herself off, she slipped her linen undergarment on, padded over towards the fire, and stood regarding it for moment, then lifted her repaired leathers from the chair back they were slung over, and slid them on, fastening the shoulder straps with absent minded precision. Then she slid the upper arm protectors on, and pulled the bracers up, but didn't lace them.

Gabrielle came in as she was lifting her breastplate over her head, and settling the shoulder pieces, and paused as the bard put down what she was carrying and trotted over to help.

"Here..let me," she muttered, pulling the shoulder straps over and reaching for the buckles. "Hang on, these are loose." She sighed, tugging the straps out of the fasteners and making them tighter. "Will you hold still?" She gave the figeting warrior a light slap. "There... " she slid around to face her partner, and patted the breastplate. "That's on the last hole there, love." A tug on the leathers followed. "Pretty loose… this one took a lot out of you, didn't it?"

Xena blew out a long breath and fiddled with her shoulder clasp. "Easy enough to get back." She replied, giving the bard a kiss on the nose. "Especially if we're heading home." That got a smile back. "Give me a hand with these damn bracers?"

Gabrielle tugged on the laces without comment, getting the leather bracers settled, then sitting down on the edge of the bed and watching Xena lace up her boots and strap on the heavy leg armor, adjusting the fitting with expert hands.

The warrior stood, and bounced twice on the balls of her feet, settling the armor plates with a subtle clinking, then cocked her head and regarded Gabrielle with a grin. "Did you mention breakfast?"

They shared the meat and cheese the bard had acquired, along with a still steaming loaf of heavy grain bread that Gabrielle broke into small chunks, and put a dab of honey on before popping in her companion's mouth.

"Mmm." Xena gave a satisifed hum, as she chewed the flavorful bread. "Good choice, Gabrielle." She gave the bard a wink, then stood, dusting off her hands, and crossed to the small table, where her weapons were laid out in gleaming display. She clipped her sheath to her armor, and settled the daggers in their respective sheaths, then secured the chakram. Took a breath, and gave Gabrielle a nod."Time to go."

The bard stepped up to her, and put both hands on the dully gleaming armor. "You be careful." Came the gentle reminder.

Xena took the bard's hands in her own, and raised them to her lips. "Always." Then she pulled Gabrielle closer, and their lips met. And when they parted, Xena wrapped her arms around her partner and squeezed hard, then released her. "Come on."

She knelt down and ruffled Ares’ ears affectionately. "You stay here, boy. " She told the wolf gently, and smiled as his ears drooped. "Your time’ll come. "

"Roo." He sighed, chewing on her finger dejectedly.

"Aww." Gabrielle cooed, crouching down at Xena’s side, and scratching him behind the ears. "It’s all right, Ares. When you get a little bigger, mommy will take you out and show you how to bite people ." This got a dry look from the warrior.

"Maybe I"ll use you as a demostration victim. " Xena mused, making a sudden motion of her head and capturing a fold of the bard’s arm skin neatly in her teeth. "Mmmm.." Her eyes sparkled.

"Hey!" Gabrielle laughed, grabbing a handful of dark hair and tugging. "Cut that out!"

"Roo?" Ares cocked his head at them.

Xena kept her jaws locked for a moment longer, then released them, as Gabrielle’s fierce pull moderated to a gentle riffling of hair through her fingers, then a tracing of her partner’s angular features. Her green eyes softened, and a smile shaped her lips "I love you." She whispered, with a tiny shake of her head.

Blue eyes regarded her in silence for a space, then Xena smiled. "I love you too." She answered, reaching up and clasping the bard’s hand. "Come on." She released Gabrielle’s fingers, gave Ares one last pat, and stood, taking a deep breath, and heading for the door.

Gabrielle grabbed her staff, and followed.

The warriors were gathered in front of Lestan's cot, torchlight flickering off the soft sheen of their woven battlecoats that covered them from shoulders to mid thigh. The heavy fog flowed around their legs, making them seem for all the world like they were standing in a shifting pool of water, and that shifting pool parted as they sensed Xena's approach, and cleared her a path.

In silence, with only the light wind and the fluttering torches as a backdrop she strode forward, her steps muffled until she reached the porch, and then the wooden planks sounded a solid echo as her weight hit them. A step more, and she was even with Lestan, and his eyes were meeting hers with something approaching relief. "Xena." He acknowledged her with a nod.

"Morning." The warrior said, in a normal voice. She looked around the crowd and put her hands on her hips. "Nice fog."

Serious furred faces cracked hesitant grins. Gods.. Jessan wondered, from his front row position. What a difference she makes. In armor, as she hadn't been since they'd pulled her out of the rock slide, she gave off a dark energy that made his nape hairs lift, and he felt himself getting excited.

Lestan repressed a smile, and carefully went over the battle plan, making sure everyone listening understood what to do. Startled looks were traded, then a palpable sense of relief washed over the waiting fighters.

"That might work." Deggis whispered, poking Jessan in the ribs. "She come up with that?"

Jessan snorted. "She conqured half of Greece. How hard was it for her to come up with a tactic between two small forest clans?" He rolled his eyes at Deggis. "You guys just don’t’ get it yet, do you?" He put his fanged jaws close to Deggis’ sensitive ear. "It’s not just the fighiting..she’s got a brain, doofus."

His cousin flinched, and rubbed the ear. "Ouch. " He complained, scowling. "Ok..Ok.. I get it." He sighed, kicking the fog around his knees and watching it disperse. "I just hope it’s enough."

The quiet trek through the pre dawn forest carried it’s own burden of unreality, as the forest dwellers, no more than shadows, waded through the thick blanket of smoky fog, scattering small clumps of it before them. Even the nightbirds were silent, as though the forest was holding its breath in wait for the violence to come

They came to the assigned place, at the assigned time, when the first tint of gray was invading the eastern sky, and paused, settling their alignment carefully. Xena stood behind a fallen tree, one hand resting lightly on the crumbling bark, the other fiddling idly with a leather strap from her armor. Her eyes constantly swept the opposing forest, finding the shadows and watching them for movement.

Gabrielle slipped quietly up next to her, glancing over at the still dark treeline, then up at her face. "Xena?" She breathed, not wanting to disturb the silence.

Hooded ice blue eyes darted to hers, and a dark eyebrow raised a fraction.

Gabrielle moved closer, until they could feel each other’s body heat. "What’s plan B?" She asked, keeping their eyes locked.

Xena’s head cocked to one side slightly, and her lips twitched. "Me and Secan." She answered, watching the bard’s face intently.

Her partner nodded. "Thought so." Then Gabrielle looked across the way again, and back. "Why isn’t that plan A?"

An unexpected question, and one that Xena had been hoping not to have to answer. "What do you mean?" She asked, buying some time. Gods.. what do I tell her? What do I tell myself? That I’m too scared to face him? To put my life on the line?

The bard took a breath, and glanced around. "You against the enemy leader.. that’s an old one, Xena. We’ve been there before.. so.. I mean, if they go up against each other, lots of people are going to die, aren’t they?"

A sideways jog of the head. "Maybe." Xena answered quietly.

"Right." Gabrielle sighed. "And not that I want to see you do this.. but it’s more like you to save those maybes and put the whole responsibility on your own shoulders. So… why?"

Xena half turned, and let her forearms rest of the rough bark, giving her head a little jerk towards the area facing them, which was starting to achieve outline form from the pale glints of a dawning day. Shadowy forms could be seen, the foremost a massive, dark furred, still body. She felt her heartbeat start to increase. "Because I’m not sure I can win." Her voice was very quiet.

Gabrielle’s brows knit. "Are you ever sure?" She asked, putting a hand on the warrior’s tense arm. "I mean.."

"Always." Xena replied, at last turning and looking Gabrielle square in the eye. "But not this time."

The bard took a breath, then a second. "Why?" Whoa.. Gabrielle.. this is very very dangerous. Step carefully.

"I don’t know." Came the tense, upset answer. "I… " She stopped, and just stared at the tree trunk, then in a savage, frustrated motion slammed a fist against it. Bark exploded outward, showering both of them. "You were right." The warrior sighed.

Gabrielle swallowed a few times, and shot a nervous glance towards their adversaries, getting a clearer look at what must be Secan. Gods.. her mind shivered. He’s huge. "Right about what?" She asked. "Xena, you always find a way to come out on top, you know that."

The warrior studied Secan, who was now swaggering slowly across the open space between the two groups, motioning with one lazy hand for Lestan to approach. "Remember when you told me you thought I convinced myself to do things?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle replied, in a small voice. "I remember."

"Well, I think you’re right. Only I can’t convince myself that I can throw myself into battle without fear anymore, Gabrielle, and that’s what my kind of fighting requires." Xena’s face was set, and Gabrielle could read tension in every line of her body.

"But you.. " The bard objected softly. "When Warrin.. and with Jess…"

"Reactions." Xena replied succinctly. "A threat, and my body responds. No thought required."

"But this is different." Gabrielle mused. "Because you have to decide ahead of time."

A nodded response. "Yeah." The warrior half turned, and studied the bard, a look of regret on her face. She picked off pieces of bark that had landed on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Sorry."

Secan’s voice rang out over the lightening forest, and they turned to listen. "So.. you showed up. Unexpected, but it’ll make for a good drill." The russet forest dweller hooked his thumbs in his swordbelt, and leaned back a little, obviously relaxed and in a good mood.

Lestan didn’t answer. His mahogany eyes studied Secan then flicked across his waiting fighters. Outnumbered. His mind sighed. But then I knew we’d be. Casually, he spat into the grass near his feet, and crossed his arms. Stay cool.

Secan raised an eyebrow, and laughed. "Aren’t we in a mood." He sauntered closer and picked a wildflower, twirling it between his fingers. "So.. you got your pet humans here?" His eyes ranged through Lestan’s ranks, searching. "I got plans for them, you know." He laughed, and a fluttering of echoed humor ran through his line of fighters. "My fighters want to know.. from an intellectual standpoint, of course, if it’s possible to interbreed with the pathetic things. " His fangs showed in a huge grin. "Could only help them, right?

Gabrielle felt her chest tighten, and her breath come faster. "He’s crazy." She murmured, glancing up at Xena.

"He has Ares’ Gift." Came the quiet reply, but there was a glimmer of something very cold starting to emerge in the restlessly searching blue eyes.

Gabrielle took a breath, and thought hard about what and who her companion was, and what she hoped to become. And whether or not there was any way to reconcile the two realities. This could be my biggest mistake. Gods watch over me if it is. "So do you." Her voice cut clearly, and calmly across the distance between them.

Saw the shoulders jerk in response, and had bare seconds to prepare herself before Xena turned and caught her gaze, and she had to grip her hands behind her back to keep from reaching out and taking hold of her partner, so painful was the look of quiet hurt in her eyes. "You do.. it’s part of you, Xena."

The dark head dropped, and Xena studied her boots quietly. "I know." She finally said in a weary tone. "It’s where most of my fighting ability comes from." She turned her head and shot a glance at Secan, who was still taunting a silent Lestan. "And every time I let that out, I slip further and further back into the darkness, Gabrielle."

"No." The bard stepped forward and grabbed her by the shoulders. "No.. that’s not true." Her voice was shaking. "It may be his gift, but the use to which you put it matters, Xena, it matters more than anything else. And.." Her eyes lifted over the still bent head and found the enemy leader. "If you use it to defeat evil.. that’s all that counts."

"So." Secan stretched. "Shall we get this farce over with? I have a banquet planned, and I don’t wanna be late. " He yawned. "Can I assume you’re not challenging me? " One russet eyebrow quirked.

Lestan didn’t move, but he moved his shoulders in a certain way, and his fighters shifted their weapons to a ready position. I’ll die today. Lestan mused, knowing Secan would come straight for him. I’ve had a good life. His mind drifted for a moment to Wennid, and the quiet scene at their cot this morning when they’d said goodbye. I’ve been blessed more than most of my kind. "Come ahead, you son of a rabbit." His voice rang out over the rose tinted light of dawn.

"Fool." Secan spat at him, then turned, and headed back toward his own forces, raising a casual hand and signaling. Bodies began to move at his command, forming up , and waiting for him to reach their line.

"I wish I could believe that, Gabrielle." Xena replied quietly, raising her head, and meeting the bard’s eyes. "Wait a minute..are you telling me you believe the end justifies the means?"

Mist green eyes reacted, turned inward for a long moment, then shone with quiet understanding. "You taught me that." Her mouth edged into a grim smile. "And.. the end I want is you whole, and this village unharmed. Whatever means you need to use… do it."

No answer, but Xena turned and studied Secan, watching him walk back to his fighters. Her face was impassive, but the eyes flickered constantly, and gave a small indication of the thoughts keeping the same pace. A swift turn of her head. "Remember you said that." She said, carefully, and let their eyes meet for a long instant before she turned, and put her hands on the trunk of the tree, and vaulted over it.

Gabrielle sagged against the bark, and held on for dear life, waiting for the shaking to subside. Gods.. gods.. what did I just do? But as she watched her partner stride forward, dispersing the fog like stiff wind, she saw a certain bounce return to her steps, that brought a wan grin to the bard’s face. Be honest, Gabrielle. That’s a swagger. And it looks good on her.

Whatever it takes, huh Gabrielle.? Xena let the words ramble through her mind as she angled towards Lestan, with every step shedding the kinder and gentler side she’d developed recently. All right. A familiar thrill was building, and she let it, feeling it heighten her senses.

The angle she was at…Lestan only had a split second to realize her presence before she was on him, taking him down to the ground with savage efficiency. She drew her sword, and shaved a patch of fur off his neck, holding his eyes with her own. "Yield to me Lestan." In a voice so cold it rivaled the fog swirling about both of them.

Lestan stared up in total shock, seeing nothing familiar in those ice colored eyes, feeling the weight of her kneeling on his chest, and the exquisite sharpness of the blade she held at his neck. His fighter’s spirit raged.. but only for an instant. Then he turned his head slowly, and raised his rounded jaw, exposing his jugular to her. "To you, Xena of Amphipolis, I yield." His voice was very quiet. I thought she’d play by her own rules.. now I find she plays by ours. Never underestimate her, Jessan warned me. I should have listened. His eyes blinked sadly, and for an instant, a dark eyebrow rose, and a sparkle came into those blue pools, and she winked.

Xena leaned close to him. "Wish me luck." She said, putting a hand on his chest.

A slow, twitching grin found it’s way across Lestan’s face. "Send him to Ares, Xena."

And she was gone, standing and walking slowly towards Secan’s line, where he was standing, sword drawn, watching in amusement.

All right. She took several deep breaths, sucking the pine scented air deep into her lungs, and felt her heart pumping with slow, powerful beats, that sent a charge of blood right through her. Stared at Secan, with his sneering face, and remembered what he’d said he had planned for them, and let that start a boiling down deep, tapping into her darker side which rose up with little effort and sent a welcome shiver up and down her long body. Been awhile.

Xena stopped, halfway across the small open area, and held her hands out with a smile. Then she slowly sheathed her sword, and curled both arms up until her hands were even with her chin. Waited for his eyes to track to her, then crooked her index fingers at him. "Were you looking for me, fuzzball?" Her voice rang out, loud enough to carry across his forces, and back to her own. "Here I am." She lazily let her hands drop to her belt, and waited.

Silence across the forest, save the rising wind blowing the branches, and dispersing the fog. The rosy dawn light was now filtering through the trees, and sent a dappled blanket across her darkly clad and armored form.

Secan strolled out to meet her, stopping about two body lengths away and running his eyes over her with a possessive air. "So you are." He said softly. "Don’t tell me you’re the challenger from that grazer’s village." He laughed. "You haven’t heard the rules, I gather."

Xena sized him up slowly, letting her eyes linger over him as his had her. "Sure I have." She drawled, holding up the little clan token Lestan had given her and Gabrielle the night before. "It’s my clan." She smiled at him. "And I just took it over." A quick motion that tied the token off to her sword belt. "And the third… " She walked forward, within his grasp, armed only with that smile. "I think you’ll let me get by with. Right?"

His nostrils flared, and he felt his fur lifting in pure response to her presence. "They said you were lifebonded."

Xena cocked her head at him. "I am."

He nodded very slowly. "I’m going to kill you, human trash. And I hope your little lifemate watches every minute of it."

It happened so fast he had no time to breath, no time to react, no time to even think, as her hand hit his nose with enough force to send his head snapping back, and sending a light shower of blood over them both. Then she was out of range, and standing clear, and gracing him with that insufferable, sneering smile. His blood rose, and sent fire coursing through him.

"You’ll try. " That voice curled around him like the dissipating fog. "And I guarantee she was loving every minute of that." And Xena chuckled. "So did I."

Then his sword was out, and in his hands, and he was coming at her, with a speed and strength unmatched among his kind.


Contimue to part 8

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