Bound - Part 2

Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Jessan stood in his stirrups and stretched, and kneed his mount closer to Lestan, who straightened up in his saddle to greet him as he got closer.

"Son." The older forest dweller put a hand on his shoulder and glanced at the litter ahead of them. "Never in my life have I seen anything like that." He laughed. "I say that a lot around her, don't I?"

Jessan shook his maned head, and let out a long breath. "Like no one else I know." Or ever would. "They're quite a pair, huh?" His jaw jerked in Gabrielle's direction. "Did I tell you, or what?" Never mind that I was as surprised as you were, father. What changed, so far and fast? Not that it matters..even with her not conscious, I See that warm golden fire that surrounds her now... surrounds them both. I hope it brought her joy. She deserves it.

Lestan bowed his head in agreement. "You did." He glanced at them. "I wouldn't have believed it, and your mother is going to have a fit, but it's true, Jess. It's a strong a bond as ours is, and it might just have.." He hesitated, and swallowed, eyes going internal for a long moment.

"Kept her alive?" Jessan finished quietly.

"Given her a reason to stay alive." Lestan corrected, with a gentle smile. "It's been known to do that."

"Mmm." Jessan agreed, gazing ahead of them, where the first weak beams of moonlight were reflecting off the rippling surface of the boundary stream. "Almost home. She needs a healer to look at her. That's some really bad bruising, maybe worse than it looks."

Lestan nodded. "You should ride ahead and wake up Elaini." He glanced up. "That was quite a rock smashing job you did, by the way." He slapped Jessan on the shoulder. "You had chips flying halfway off the mountain."

Jessan grinned. "I did, didn't I?" He flexed his arms and made a wry face. "Got to display one of my best assets."

Lestan snorted. "Noticed you made sure everyone saw you carry her down off that granite mountain you made." He chuckled. "Show off."

Jessan gave him a wounded expression. "Her? You're joking. She hardly weighs anything, even with the armor. Now if it was YOU..." He gave Lestan a mischievous grin, and patted him on the belly. "Mom's been indulging you again, I see."

Lestan bared his canines with a snap. "Look who's talking, son of mine." He poked the taller Jessan in the gut. "Now I know where all those pies went to."

They both laughed, and Jessan was still chuckling as he dug his knees into Eris' side, and threaded his way through the patrol, headed for home.

It very quiet as he rode up to the gateway into the village, and the portal swung open silently at his approach. He paused Eris in the entrance, and leaned down towards the gate guard. "Might as well leave it open. Patrol coming back." Very calmly, he thought.

The guard grinned at him. "Brung her back then, did you? Knew a little mountain wouldn't do her in."

Jessan's smile showed every tooth perfectly. "Nope. We got down far enough and Ares' boots if she didn't do the rest herself." He sobered. "I've gotta wake up Elaini, though. Those rocks weren't kind."

The guard waved him on, and he trotted into the central open space, stopping Eris outside the healer's quarters and dismounted, his solid footfalls breaking the silence of the night as he padded up the stairs and onto the porch of the solitary building.

"Ah..Jessan." Elaini yawned, as she opened the door on his second knocking. "Didja find your human??"

"She's not mine. But yes, and we need your talents." Jessan answered, with an unseen rolling of his eyes.

"Mine?" The healer snorted. "What would I be knowing about humans? Send to Cirron." She gave him an amiable shrug. "Not that I have anything against em, mind you.. I just don't know what to do for em."

Jessan let his eyes narrow and stepped up to her. "Xena managed to take care of me when I was injured. Wonder how she figured it out." His voice dropped. "What with me being so different and all." He turned away. "Guess they're just smarter about that kind of thing. Ok..well, I'll.."

"Hey. I didn't say I couldn't figure it out." Elaini interrupted him. "Hold on..I'll get my stuff." She puttered around for a minute, then joined him at the door. "Just hope you don't expect me to do something impossible, like deliver a human child or something."

Jessan, blindsided, giggled. "Uhh.." He coughed. "Don't think that'll be a problem this time."

Elaini glanced at him strangely. "Whatever." She had been out at an allied settlement doing her healer's apprenticeship when their village had last been visited by the mythic Warrior Princess, and had missed that whole thing. In her opinion, which was always strongly professed, this human was probably very overrated. Guess I'll find out. She cheerfully thought to herself.

She stayed at Jessan's shoulder as he walked out onto the porch, and put his big hands on the railing, gazing towards the gateway. The night torches fluttered in the wind, and that breeze rattled the dry leaves on the trees overhead, sending a pattering of them down onto the roof with a sound like rain.

A flash of dim light at the gate, and the first sentries were trotting in, holding their torches out for the gate guards to grab and ground to the earth. They cleared the opening, and left space for the two litter bearing riders to come forward, as the rest of the patrol moved off towards the stables with a clatter of equipment, and a rising hum of good natured voices.

Jessan stepped off the porch and ambled down to meet the litter, pausing and gazing down at its contents with undisguised affection. Gabrielle still had her arms wrapped around the injured warrior and was looking back up at him with a sleepy smile.

"Good ride?" The tall forest dweller asked.

"Not bad.." the bard answered, taking a deep breath. "Much better than some I've been on."

Jessan chuckled. "Did she come to at all?" His eyes drifted to Xena's still face.

Gabrielle nodded. "A bit. She had some water."

"Great." Jessan smiled, and walked around to the other side of the litter, preparing to lift her up. "Let me get her into the healer's cot, and I bet you could use something to eat, huh?"

"Grr." Ares lunged at his hands, and stood over Xena’s prone form with infantile protectiveness. His thick ruff hair lifted on his tiny neck, and he growled again. "Grr."

"Ares!" Gabrielle stifled her laughter. She reached down, and lifted the puppy, cuddling him to her side and stroking his fur. "Sorry about that." She looked up apologetically at Jessan. "His mother was killed by a panther."

"What happened to the panther?" Jessan asked, edging closer again, and darting a glance at the puppy, who glared back at him.

"Xena happened to the panther." Gabrielle answered quietly. "Then she kind of adopted Ares."

"Uh. I see." The forest dweller nodded. "Ok..let’s go then – let me get her."

Reluctantly, the bard released her grasp, and watched as he lifted Xena up and cradled her gently. "Come on, Ares.." She remarked, hopping off the litter, and stretching painfully. "Ooof." Glancing up, she smiled at the two litter bearer riders. "Thanks... I really appreciate all you guys did."

The two young forest dwellers grinned back, and the nearer gave her a pat on the shoulder. "You can pay us back in stories, huh?"

Gabrielle grinned wholeheartedly. "You bet." she patted his calf, and followed Jessan's retreating form into the healer's hut.

Elaini watched as Jessan carefully settled the injured woman on one of the healing cot’s pallets then crossed over to him and studied the quiet form. "So that’s her, eh?"

Jessan nodded. "Uh huh."

The healer sniffed reflectively. "Pretty big for a human female."

"I guess. I don’t know that many of them." Jessan replied, turning as Gabrielle came in. "Elani, this is Gabrielle. She’s.. uhm…"

"A bard." Gabrielle finished, giving him an amused look, and holding out a hand to the healer. ‘Hello."

Elaini took the offered hand slowly, and grasped it, sensitive fingers detecting the surprising strength she found in the grip, and equally surprised at the steady power in the pale green eyes of this.. bard. So. "Nice to meet you, Gabrielle the bard." She drawled, releasing the arm. "Sorry you had such a bad time up there."

"Thanks." Gabrielle smiled, then glanced past her. "Jessan, give me a hand with the armor, will you?" She turned and gave Ares a stern look. "And you, leave him alone. OK?"

"Rrrr." Ares grumbled, trotting underneath the pallet Xena was on and lying down.

Jessan nodded, and joined her at Xena’s side, lifting the warrior’s head and shoulders up, which allowed Gabrielle to get at the buckles in the back and side. "Got them all?" He asked, noting her concentrated expression.

"Yeah.. hang on..Ooof. Ok, I got that last one." She sighed, and released the armor, lifting it gently off Xena’s chest and putting it aside, then starting to work on the bracers.

"Gods.. this leg armor is heavy as anything.." Jessan muttered, as he detached the greaves. He glanced back at Elaini, who was busy getting a tray of healing supplies together. "How does she…oh, never mind. It’s all magic anyway."

Gabrielle looked up from her task, and grinned. "You figured that out too, huh????" She slid the bracer off, and started on the other one. "I keep telling her that, but she thinks I’m crazy."

Elaini padded over, and put her tray of supplies down on the small table next to the pallet, and rubbed her hands together briskly. "If you two are done now, I can get to work." She reached out towards Xena’s arm, surprised when Gabrielle put out a quick hand to stop her.’ What?"

"Listen." The bard said, seriously. "Don’t make such fast moves. She’s been in and out of consciousness, and if she fades in while you’re making a grab for her, she might not know you’re trying to help." Her green eyes fastened on Elaini’s face with disturbing intensity.

"And..???" Elaini said, trying not to laugh. What did she think this human was going to do to her, anyway?

"I don’t want anyone getting hurt." Gabrielle answered calmly. "And you could."

The healer chuckled. "Listen, in her condition, she’s not going to hurt anybody. So relax and let me do my job."

The bard didn’t let go of her hand. "In her condition, she moved a rock as large as she is. I’ve seen her be almost unconscious and kill someone." Her voice dropped in pitch, but rose in volume. "Most people’s first mistake is to underestimate her. Don’t be dumb, ok? "

Elaini got mad, and shook off Gabrielle’s hand. "Look, I didn’t ask for you guys to come in here, ok? So stop the nonsense, and let me get on with what I need to get on with so I can go back to sleep." With deliberate roughness, she turned back and reached again for Xena’s arm.

And found herself sitting on the floor, holding her arm with her other hand, in shock. Never seeing the hand that grabbed her, or the elbow that slammed her off the chair and onto the dusty wooden planks. Looked up in utter bewilderment and found herself pinned in place by a pair of glittering ice blue eyes

"She doesn’t lie to people." Xena said, fighting down the utter agony caused by having to use her sorely abused muscles to make a point. But I think I made it, hmm?? Gabrielle, you owe me one.

Gabrielle recovered from her shock, and leaned over the edge of the pallet, gazing at her partner fondly. "Show off." She settled a hand on Xena's shoulder, and squeezed gently. Impossible, incredible, unbelievable.. I have to invent new words to describe her.

Xena tilted her head back, and regarded the bard with weary amusement. "After that little speech of yours, what was I supposed to do?" She asked plaintively, meeting the bard’s eyes and feeling the warmth between them. "Have to live up to my reputation, don’t I?"

Jessan sat down heavily on the floor, shaking his golden maned head. "Didn’t even see her move. Damn."

Elaini got up, and stood over the pallet, studying her erstwhile patient with new eyes. "Sorry about that. I’ll pay attention next time." Gingerly, she settled back down on the stool, and hesitantly took up her linen and cleanser. "Uhm..need to get that leather off.."

Ares, hearing Xena’s voice, came scrambling out from under the pallet, and heaved himself up on his hind legs, putting his front paws on the edge of the bed and peering over. "Roo!!" He shifted from paw to paw, then tried to jump onto the pallet and lost his balance, slipping underneath the edge and tumbling on his side.

"Hey.." Xena let out a tiny laugh. "Get him up here before he hurts himself." And watched as Gabrielle fished him out from under the pallet and hoisted him up next to the warrior, where he stumbled over, and put his paws on her chest, licking her face. "Ares, cut that out." Xena sighed, unable to muster the energy to push him away. Gabrielle chuckled, and moved him to the end of the pallet, where he sneezed, but curled up against Xena’s legs with a little satisfied sigh, and fell asleep.

"Whoops.. my cue to leave." Jessan said, lifting himself up and dusting his hands off. "Xena, please be gentle with our healer. She means no harm..she’s just a little blunt." Ignoring Elaini’s glare, as he knelt, and took Xena’s hand in his own. "Be well, my friend."

Xena squeezed his hand, and let a grin quirk her lips. "Thanks, Jess."

He rose, and walked over to Gabrielle, who stood and hugged him. "I’ll be back a little later with some food for you, Red." He whispered in her ear.

Gabrielle gurgled, and punched him. "What did you call me?" she hissed, grabbing his chest fur and pulling hard. "You better think again."

Jessan grinned, and poked the tip of his tongue out at her. "Bye." He swept them all a bow, and padded out the door and into the darkness beyond.

Gabrielle shook her head in mock irritation, and moved around to the other side of the pallet, undoing the shoulder strap on that side of Xena’s leathers, stopping when Xena gave her a little headshake. "What?"

"Cut em off." The warrior muttered, with a wince. "Can’t take it otherwise." Her eyes met Gabrielle’s, and the bard flinched at what she saw there.

"OK." She replied softly, looking up at the silent Elaini. "Do you have a.."

"Armor dagger." Xena interrupted her quietly.

"Right." The bard stood and went to where she’d put Xena’s armor, and extracted the dagger from the breastplate, handling it carefully. Knowing it’s deadly sharpness. She knelt at Xena’s side again, and with infinite care, sliced the leather down the seam along her side, moving the sharp knife along her skin with unerring precision. And realized suddenly that she was probably one of the only people in the world Xena would trust to do this. That she held Xena’s life in her hands, because if she’d chosen to use that very sharp blade against the warrior, there was no way for Xena to stop her.

She finished her task, and lifted the leathers up and away from Xena’s body, drawing a sudden breath at the damage revealed underneath. Even Elaini winced at the darkly mottled bruise that covered the warrior from her breastbone almost to her hips.

"Ow." Gabrielle breathed, putting a sympathetic hand on her partner’s tense shoulder. "No wonder you hurt."

Xena kept her eyes closed. "Got caught between two rocks, right at the start of it." Her eyes drifted open and found Gabrielle’s, and the bard sank down next to the pallet, and clasped her hand. "Ugly, huh?"

Gabrielle gave her a sweet smile. "How could anything about you ever be ugly?" Aware of Elaini’s suddenly startled look out of the corner of her eye. Whoops. She chuckled to herself.

Xena raised an eyebrow at her, realizing the bard was trying to distract her from what Elaini was doing. She turned her head and gazed at the healer, causing the woman to freeze as she was cleaning a nasty scrape on the warrior’s shoulder. ‘Relax, " she sighed. "I really am not in any condition to kill anyone right now."

"Could have fooled me." Elaini said cautiously, gingerly continuing to clean the scrape. "But that’s.." Her eyes drifted to the bruise on the warrior’s chest.

"Bleeding inside. I know." Xena answered, taking a shaky breath. "And you can’t do anything for it."

"No." Elaini answered, fascinated. "Are you a healer?"

"Sometimes." Came the answer. "And if that hasn’t killed me yet, I’ll probably get lucky this time."

"Probably." Elaini replied, relaxing a little. "But it’s going to be Hades’ own boots to heal."

"I know." Xena sighed. "Thanks for taking care of the scrapes."

"Sure." The healer answered softly. I came in here full of disdain for these people. Now I see a human who is more like us than some of us are. No wonder Jessan loves her. No wonder she won every warrior’s heart in the compound. What a fool I am. Or was. Covertly, she studied the tanned body as she worked her way down, this time looking at her with a warrior’s eyes.

And found they were not so different after all., save the matter of some fur, and a few fangs.

Gabrielle tucked the soft blanket around Xena’s body, and smoothed the edges down around her shoulders. Elaini had finished her task, and quietly left, after putting a sympathetic hand on the warrior’s shoulder. She apparently expected Gabrielle to be staying, because she also pulled out another set of bedding, and tossed it onto the closest pallet to the one Xena was lying on, then gave them both a nod, and padded out the nearer door into her private quarters.

Xena had been drifting in and out for a while, and now she blinked her eyes open and studied the bard’s face, giving her a weary half grin. "Rotten day." She murmured.

"We’re both here at the end of it. That’s all I need in a day." Gabrielle answered, uncapping a full waterskin. "Water?" She held the skin up to Xena’s lips, and gave her a hard stare until she finished at least half of the contents. "Good girl." And gave Xena an impish grin.

"Thanks mom." Xena whispered quirking an eyebrow at her. Then she closed her eyes, and swallowed, but opened them again and shook her head a little. Damn. Too close in here. Keep seeing that…OK, OK, Xena. Deep breaths now, you’re not there. You’re in a healer’s cot, in the middle of Jessan’s village. Gabrielle is here. She closed her eyes, but the feeling of being lost and alone didn’t fade. That would take time, she knew. Time she didn’t have right now. Damn.

The bard put the waterskin down, and laid a gentle hand on the warrior’s arm. "Xena?"

Blue eyes tracked to hers, and she saw Xena swallow again. "Yeah?"

"Are you OK? I mean.. other than.." her hand made a vague gesture towards her body. Something..something in her eyes isn’t right.

A long pause, then Xena’s eyes blinked and she took a deep breath. "No." Almost a whisper. "I’m not." She shifted and glanced around, then back to Gabrielle’s face, which had tensed with concern. "Every time I close my eyes…" she hesitated. "I’m back there .. and I can’t.."

"You need to get some sleep." The bard chewed her lip with a worried expression. "Is there.. can I get you anything, I mean…" What do I do here? I’m lost… now I know how she felt when we were in Potadeia. Gods.

Xena studied her for a long moment, then her gaze turned inward. "Yeah, there is something."

"Hmm? What?" She picked up Xena’s hand in hers and pressed it to her heart. "Anything, you know that."

Fingers tightened on hers, and tugged. "C’mere."

"Xena, you’re really hurt..I don’t.. " She hesitated, torn between what her common sense told her was ludicrous and what her heart wanted desperately to do.

"Please?" A quiet plea. "It would help."

"I won’t hurt you more?" The worried bard asked, but she was already moving.

Xena shook her head with surprising strength, and waited for the bard to cautiously nestle into her usual spot before wrapping a tired arm around her. It hurt like crazy. And it felt wonderful. "Need this." She whispered, and heard the bard’s breathing she tucked the blanket around Gabrielle’s body.

Gabrielle felt her partner’s body relax, and she looked up to see the blue eyes closing, and her breathing slowing to a deeper rhythm. Whatever works, Gabrielle. Her mind smiled, as she felt that peace between them sinking into her own consciousness, and gently washing away the horrors of the day. "I think I need this too. " she muttered softly, and felt the arm circling her body contract briefly. "Good rest, love. Let that magic in you start working."

"No magic." Xena breathed, feeling sleep stealing over her. "Just this."

Gabrielle thought about that, and as she let sleep take her as well, she smiled. "This is magic," she mumbled, giving in to the warmth with a contented sigh.

And silence fell, over a torch lit room, under the shadows of an old forest, and the light of a blanket of stars.

Wennid yawned, as she put the tall steaming mug on the table, and turned to greet her lifemate as he walked in the door. "So." She said, wrapping her arms around his body. "I take it you were successful?"

"Oh yeah." Lestan sighed, as he returned her hug, pulling her close and reveling in the intense connection between them. "We got her out."

Wennid released him, and pushed him down into the nearby chair. "Tell me what happened."

So he did, watching her eyebrows raise higher and higher as he proceeded,. "I know, it’s hard to believe. But she did..and…" He went on, watching her grin turn proud when he mentioned Jessan’s heroic attacks on the rock. "It was pretty amazing."

Wennid slid her arms around his neck and rested her chin on his head as he sipped the hot herbal tea. "Sounds it." She mused, floating in the golden light of their bond. "How is she?" Xena was a sore subject with Wennid. Half of her had a grudging admiration and liking for the woman, the other half had a hard time forgetting the razing of two nearby villages by Xena’s army.

Lestan was quiet for a moment, then half turned and pulled Wennid into his lap, and cradled her, bringing her golden eyes into contact with his own. "She’s going to be all right, I think.. but my love..what you sensed when they were last here, is real now."

"No." Wennid whispered, staring at him. "It’s not possible."

"It is." Lestan said, hugging her. ‘Look for yourself, Wenni" He rubbed his cheek against her. "It’s so strong.. I was afraid, love, very afraid we’d not be in time, and that poor lass.."

"The storyteller?" Wennid said, with a sigh.

"Aye." Her lifemate nuzzled her. "Do you hate it so very much, Wenni?"

She sighed, and nipped at his ear. "Them, no. I almost like them. Or..I do like the bard, and if I work at it, I might be able to like Xena." She turned brooding eyes on him. "Lesi, I don’t want to share this with their kind. It’s something that belongs to us, and damned if I want them to know it. They have so much.. we have so little.."

"Augh." He let out a trailing growl, standing up and cradling her with his one good arm. "Rabbits in a snare don’t’ have the choice of the killing, love. They have the behooves us to teach them about it."

‘I still don’t like it." Wennid grumbled. "But I suppose you’re right."

"I usually am." Lestan said, with a smug chuckle, as he carried her off to their quarters.

It was a long, disorienting moment before Gabrielle realized where she was the next morning. Then memory came flooding back, and she closed her eyes and let her head return to its resting place on Xena's shoulder.

A long sigh, and then she opened her eyes and studied her partner's face anxiously. Xena's breathing seemed better this morning, deeper, and some color had returned to her features, which encouraged the bard.

Along with the fact that the painful looking bruise on her face seemed to be fading already, a process which always caused Gabrielle to shake her head in amazement. I almost lost her. So close. A lump formed in her throat, which she swallowed with an effort. Thank the gods for that stubborn will of hers.

A tiny smile quirked on her lips, despite everything, and she let her hand relax against Xena's ribcage which was mostly unmarked, due to her armor. Felt the steady heartbeat against her palm, and the even motion of her breathing, whose rhythm matched Gabrielle’s own.

That's so.. weird. The bard mused, idly. But we always do that, now. Wonder if... She moved her other hand up to her neck, and felt for the pulse point. Oh. Wow. That’s an interesting discovery, especially since our bodies are so different. Our heartbeats match. How cool.

"What's wrong?" Came a soft voice just above her head.

"Oh..hi." Gabrielle answered, glancing up "How are you feeling?"

Xena briefly considered not answering, then sighed. "Not great." She moved slightly, and bit her lip to keep from yelling. Oh boy. This is not good. Grimly, she stretched out all her muscles, ignoring the shooting pains that accompanied the movement, until the pain subsided a little, and she felt a bit more optimistic.

"Mostly stiff." She commented, stretching again, this time with better results. "Teach me to lie still for that long."

"Really?" Gabrielle said, watching the process with interest. "I have an idea." She sat up, and carefully avoiding the still raw scrapes, gently started to knead her partner's neck and shoulders, then worked down from there.

Xena just closed her eyes, and surrendered herself to the bard's capable hands, a small grin playing about her lips.

"Better?" The bard inquired, when she was done, and had settled back down at Xena's side.

"Mmmm." Came the lazy answer. "You're really good at that."

"Really?" Gabrielle grinned at the unexpected compliment. "Well, I'll just have to keep practicing, then."

"Anytime you like. " Xena replied, idly combing her fingers through Gabrielle's hair., then lightly scratched the bard on the back of the neck.

Gabrielle’s eyes closed, and she dropped her head forward, humming with delight. "I love when you do that."

"I know." Xena smiled, and continued, causing the bard to collapse next to her in utter abandon. "Look at you…what a pleasure hound."

Gabrielle rolled over, and gently captured her hand, brushing the knuckles with her lips. "You bring that out in me." She commented, then blushed. "Uh.. I mean…"

Xena burst out laughing then immediately regretted it. "Damn," she cursed, holding her midsection.

Gabrielle took hold of her arms, and held her steady while she caught her breath. "Easy..easy.." She said, watching frustration and annoyance chase each other across her partner’s face. Eventually Xena took a breath, and cautiously let it out, and Gabrielle released her. "I know you hate this."

"Yeah." The warrior replied, carefully shifting, and closing her eyes against the agony as she tried to lift her body up.

"Hey..hey.." Gabrielle protested, putting a cautiously gentle hand against Xena's shoulder. "Take it easy, OK?"

Xena grimly kept at it, until she was leaning against the sloped edge of the pallet, raising her head above the level of her body. "Gotta." She gasped, slumping back against the padded surface and waiting for the rolling waves of pain to subside. "Gods." But she'd achieved her objective, which was to avoid lying down flat. "Bad idea." She blew out a long breath, and opened her eyes to see a very concerned look on Gabrielle's face.

"No.. bad idea to stay flat for long." She explained "Lungs fill up, especially with this kind of injury.

"Oh." The bard swallowed. "I"m glad you know what you're doing." She tucked the blanket around Xena's now half reclined form. "I just wish I could..." She broke off ."Anyway, you thirsty? How about trying some broth, or something?" She looked up as Xena's fingers twined with hers. "Hmm?"

"Can't risk it yet." The warrior answered, with a grimace. "Not sure exactly what's broken in there." Besides..this hurts so much I think I'd throw up if I tried..and that would hurt worse. "Just water, thanks." she shrugged. "Maybe if that's ok, tonight I'll give the broth a try."

Gabrielle got up, and retrieved the waterskin, walking over to the deep basin at the back of the cot and refilling it. She glanced out the window at the early dawn lit village, and noted the starting of the morning's activity. Like most villages, she mused, but this one has a slightly different look to it. She turned and looked at Xena, and felt her heart clench at the set look of agony on her face. Walking back over, she settled on the edge of the pallet, and slid an arm around Xena's shoulders, rubbing her back lightly. "It's pretty bad, isn't it?"

Xena took a long drink of water before answering. "Yeah." She finally admitted, letting her guard down as she would only with Gabrielle. "Very bad." And allowed her head to drop and rest briefly on the bard's shoulder, absorbing the compassionate touch of Gabrielle’s hand against her cheek, and the murmured words of encouragement with quiet gratitude.

Then took a deep breath, and settled back against the head of the pallet, and gave Gabrielle a look. "You, on the other hand, need to get something to eat." And raised an eyebrow at her. "You never had anything last night, did you?"

"Uhm..." Came the hesitant response She was unconscious. How in Hades does she know that? "No, well, I got… you were… uh.. no."

"Thought so." Xena remarked. "G'wan. I"ll be fine. Our friendly healer will be up and puttering around in here any minute."

"Trying to get rid of me?" Gabrielle teased, knowing what she was doing. "Won't work, Xena. I have a signed contract that says I'm allowed to worry my head off about you, and it has a special clause that gives me the right to bleed when you're cut."

"Oh really?" Xena chuckled, then winced. "Ouch." She sighed. "Thanks for staying close last night." The darkness has no chance against the light you bring, Gabrielle.. wonder if you know that? "You chased away the gremlins."

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh, like that was such a hardship." She shook her head in amusement. "Did it help?"

"Oh yeah." The warrior nodded, and grinned. "Slept like a baby all night."

"Hmm." Gabrielle mused. "So did I... you think we do that to each other?"

Xena shrugged, and thought about that for a minute. "Maybe. Yeah... I think so... I know it was a lot harder for me to sleep when you were with the Amazons." Her lips twitched. "The other reason I spent half the night doing drills. Got myself so tired I just... Anyway. I'll have to ask Lestan about it."

The bard eased over and snuggled up against Xena's side, linking arms with her and sighing. "Same here. Wish I'd thought of working out.. but I was just so.. I don't know.. mentally tired, I guess. I'd lie down and just start thinking."

"Yeah." Xena agreed softly.

"Then I couldn't stop thinking." Gabrielle continued.

"Yeah." Another thoughtful agreement from the warrior.

"Mostly about you." The bard sighed, gazing up at her with what she was sure was a very dumb grin.

Got the grin right back at her. "Glad I wasn't the only one, then." She blushed a little. "I was always kind of wondering what you were up to."

Gabrielle nodded. "Uh huh." She smiled a little. "I missed you so much it.. Gods, it hurt… I wanted to.. just see you. Hear you." Her fingers trailed down Xena’s arm. "Feel your hand on my shoulder."

Xena nodded, and sighed. "Yeah."

"Then, it was all so ratty.. and when you just.. you showed up right at the very second I was thinking that the worst part of the whole thing was that I wasn’t ever going to get a chance to..I mean, we never really talked about it before then, Xena." She laid her cheek against the warrior’s arm. "About, well, us. I think we both knew there was something…" She glanced over at her partner, who nodded and smiled. "Right..but we never.. so, here I was, about to get shot to death, and that’s what I was thinking."

"I wasn’t thinking." Xena commented, taking a careful deep breath. "All I could see was that arrow. And you. And I still don’t know how I managed to get there in time."

"Cait said you were just like an unstoppable force. She said she couldn’t hardly see you, because you were moving so fast, it was a blur to her." Gabrielle replied, watching Xena blink in surprise. "And that’s what it was like for me – just a blur. But I knew it was you."

"I heard you." Xena muttered, thoughtfully. "You called my name."

"And then..after.." Her face flushed. "I don’t know what I was thinking.. I don’t..I should have asked you.. I just was so damned glad to see you, and I stopped thinking and just.."

"I know." Xena smiled. "Right place, right time. End of story, Gabrielle."

"Really?" Gabrielle asked, with a shy look.

"Really." Xena confirmed. "I loved every minute of it." And I can still feel the rain coming down on top of me, and the wind howling, and the thunder, and her in my arms, and that kiss... "It’s one of my favorite memories."

"Oh." Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "Good, because it’s one of mine, too."

"Really?" Xena drawled, with the barest hint of a mischievous grin .

"Mmm hmm." Gabrielle replied, nodding. "I wish..oh." The touch of Xena’s lips on hers sent a tingle through her body like nothing else on earth. "Gotta make sure my memory is accurate.." she muttered, and slid her arms around Xena’s neck, being careful not to pull the injured warrior too hard.

A sound at the door made them break apart, but not until both sets of breathing had gone ragged. Gabrielle ran her finger across Xena’s cheekbone and smiled lazily. "Hold that thought for while.. huh?"

Xena captured her waywardly tracing finger in her flashing white teeth, and bit down gently, running her tongue over the sensitive tip, and watching the deep flush creep up Gabrielle’s neck to her fair face. She released the bard’s hand as the noise at the door got louder, and enjoyed her partner’s struggle to maintain a dignified expression.

‘You, are bad." Gabrielle released a held breath.

"That’s what I hear." Xena drawled, with a smirk.

They both looked up as Elaini ambled in, giving them both a nod. "Morning." Then stopped and blinked at them. "Oh, sorry.." she started then stopped, then blinked again.

Xena just calmly raised an eyebrow at her, and tried to ignore the silent giggles from her partner. "Problem?" She asked, coolly.

Elaini took a breath, then a second. "Uhm. No, I just didn’t.. damn that Jessan, I’m going to kill him. He…nevermind." She cleared her throat. "Let’s start again, ok? Good morning."

"Same to you." Xena replied, giving the bard a nudge with her elbow. "Go get breakfast, you."

For a minute, it looked like Gabrielle would rebel, but then her stomach betrayed her by growling, which got a laugh from Elaini and a knowing smirk from Xena.

"All right..all right.. I’m going." The bard sighed, rolling off the pallet, and attracting Ares attention, as he followed her into the small bathing area. She splashed water on her face, and scrubbed her arms, drying off on a scrap of linen from their kit. Then she glanced down and realized she’d better change – the blood was probably going to be distracting to anyone she met up with.

Elaini settled herself on the stool next to the pallet, and took out her supplies. "Better get those scrapes taken care of. " She commented, then paused. "OK?"

Got a quirky grin from Xena, who decided she liked this bluntly honest healer. "Sure."

"You look a lot better this morning." Elaini mentioned. "How’s the stomach?"

Xena considered her answer. "Better than I had any reasonable expectation of it being."

The forest dweller glanced up. "Must be killing you."

The warrior grinned. "More or less." She glanced over at where Gabrielle was fastening her tunic. "I try to keep that quiet, though."

Elani followed her glance, and nodded., then paused, and a strange expression came over her fierce face. No..that can’t be… But this close to Xena, and wide awake now, she could feel… Her eyes slid shut, as she extended her Sight..and almost stopped breathing. No..that’s not possible. Her eyes popped open, and she stared at the warrior, who returned the look in puzzled silence.

"You guys ok?" Gabrielle stepped to the other side of the pallet, and glanced at the healer in some concern. "Hello??" What’s up with her? She looks like she’s seen a ghost. "Elaini?"

" you…" The healer started, then stopped. "Has Jessan…"

"Has Jessan what?" Came a deep male voice from behind her.

Elaini stood up, and gave them a tight smile. "Excuse me a minute." And turned, grabbing Jessan by the chest fur and pulling him back into her quarters.

"Hey! Cut that out! You could just ask." Jessan muttered, as he let her pull him into her room and close the door.

"They’re lifebonded!!!!" She hissed, not letting go of his fur.

"Yeah, I know." Jessan answered, with a calm look. "Now let go of me."

Elaini shook him. "You knew??? And you didn’t tell me? Ares’ blood, Jessan! What if she hadn’t survived the night? " She was seething. "How was I supposed to know? I didn’t know humans even had the ability… are you an idiot???" She slapped him hard. "You know there are things I gotta do, to prepare for that, damn you!!"

Jessan put his hands on his hips, and stared her down. "How was I supposed to know you wouldn’t even bother to Look at them? What’s the matter, didn’t think humans are worth the time to Look?" His voice raised. "Yeah, I knew, and father knew, and my mother knows now, and everyone who was at that mountain knows because when we finally got her out of there, and the two of them got ahold of each other, anyone with a single speck of sensitivity nearly had their senses blinded." He threw up his hands. "So get off my back, all right?"

A polite tap on the door.

"What?" They both yelled.

The door opened, and Gabrielle stuck her fair head in, surveying them with cool interest. "I’ve been instructed to tell you that if the screaming doesn’t stop, we’re going to find out if someone with internal bleeding going on can still .." She turned and looked at Jessan "And I quote here, ‘beat your behind’." She paused. "Unquote."


They looked at each other, then at Gabrielle.

"Sorry." In unison.

"Mmm.. Gabrielle.. interested in breakfast? " Jessan said, edging around Elaini’s glowering form.

"I’d love some, thanks." The bard smiled, and took his arm. "Now would be great." As she steered him towards the door.

Elaini watched them go, and snorted in irritation as she crossed back into the main room. Xena had her eyes half closed, but they slid open at her approach with a slightly amused look.

"Can you really?" Elaini asked, as she resumed her seat on the stool.

"What do you think?" Xena countered, giving her a crooked grin.

Elaini studied her intently. "I think I want to get you healed, Xena the Warrior Princess, because I would pay good dinars for the privilege of a watching you, as you said, beat his behind."

Got both dark eyebrows raised on that one. "I’ll see what I can do."

The healer nodded, and got on with her task, stealing occasional glances at Xena’s quiet face. "Sorry I gave your lifebond a hard time yesterday."

Xena stared at her, startled.

"What?" Elaini said, noticing the look. "You did… I mean… good gracious…you did know, right?" And if she didn’t.. I’m going to go find Jessan, and stuff him in a hollow log. "Tell me you did. "

"Oh.. well, yeah." Xena muttered her brow creasing. "I just never…" Heard her.. thought of her.. by that name before. But it’s what they call it, I guess. If it is the same thing at all, which I still kind of doubt. I know.. there’s something there. But what it is…maybe it’s just the love two people have for each other. Shouldn’t that be enough? She sighed inwardly. All right, I’ll stop lying. She’s gotten to places so deep inside my soul that I know I couldn’t survive without her. I'd drown in the darkness.. Without her light. So.. could it be mutual? What does she need from me, other than a strong hand to protect her, and a willing ear for her stories?

The healer stopped what she was doing, and regarded her patient. "You really don’t know what it’s all about, do you?"

Xena sighed. "No." A light shrug. "That’s why we were headed back here." She shifted slightly, and held her breath against the wave of pain. Starting to get on my nerves. Not a good sign.

Felt a hand on her shoulder, and lifted her gaze to meet Elaini’s. "I know." She forestalled the healer’s words, as the woman took a breath to speak. "I shouldn’t move. I shouldn’t even take a deep breath. But Gabrielle will tell you I’m the worlds worst patient."

Remembering, suddenly, vividly, the last time she’d had to succumb to an illness, a fever which had been building for days, and finally got too bad for her to ignore at dusk, in camp.

Gabrielle had been annoyed with her all day, attributing her shortness and lack of humor to some kind of bad mood, and she’d been trying without success to needle her out of it. Why she hadn’t just told Gabrielle she was sick.. Xena sighed. Sometimes she got carried away with that stoic warrior routine, she knew, This had been one of those times.

Camp was set up, and Gabrielle had some soup or other going for dinner, but the simple smell of the cooking was making her stomach queasy, and she realized her fever was getting worse by the cascading chills that were making her hands shake, and nearly took her to her knees. She’d slid down the trunk of a nearby tree, and sat with her back pressed against it, watching Gabrielle walk towards her, knowing the bard was saying something, but not able to make her mind wrap itself around the words.

"Xena?!" The bard had finally spoken very sharply, putting her hands on her hips. "Are you ignoring me for a reason, or just on general principals?" Her brows drawn in anger. "You’ve been doing it all day, and I’d like to know just what little infraction of the Warrior Princess code I’ve broken this time, so I can write it down.."

"Gabrielle." She’d hardly heard herself speak, and her voice seemed to be coming from a pretty distant place. It stopped the bard in mid sentence. "Stop.. yelling.. please." She drew breath. "My head hurts."

And the next thing she knew was Gabrielle’s hand on her forehead, and the bard’s muttered curse. "Damn, Xena.. why didn’t you say something? You’re on fire, for Zeus’s sake."

She’d mumbled something back, and the bard had just sighed. Then she left, and came back in a very short while, and Xena was aware of the comforting texture of her woolen cloak being tucked around her gently. But she wasn’t sure if she liked the feel of the cloak or of Gabrielle’s hands on her better.. and in the feverish fog, she knew she’d also said something that caused those hands to still for a very long moment before they continued their task. She wished she could remember what that something was.

Whatever. Gabrielle had finished tucking her in, and gone to the fire, then returned, and settled herself right against Xena’s shivering form. Wrapped her arms around the warrior’s body and held her as the fever took her in alternating fits of icy chills and drenching sweats. It had been a nightmare of a night, but the only thing Xena had really remembered was how wonderful it had felt to have the bard holding her. She’d let her guard down, and just abandoned herself to Gabrielle’s gentle support, waking in her right senses still cradled in the sleeping bard’s arms.

And had grabbed all her yelling instincts that demanded distance and stuffed them down deep, and had stayed there until Gabrielle’s eyes had sleepily blinked open and looked down into hers.

"Thanks." Xena had said, with a tired smile. Another barrier down. And had started to get up, saying she must be crushing the life out of her poor friend.

Gabrielle had merely tightened her hold, and Xena had felt the sudden rapid increase in her heartbeat. "Are you uncomfortable there?"

Blue eyes had met green ones, in the rosy dawn light. "No." The answer had slipped out from her rebellious heart.

Gabrielle had closed her eyes and wrapped her arms tighter, until she felt Xena’s body give in and relax again. "Neither am I. So go back to sleep."

Against all her better judgement, she had, giving in to her body’s insidious craving with a distinct sense of losing control of something. And as the warm wash of contentment curled around her, she realized she really didn’t care if she did.


Xena felt a smile tugging at her lips at the memory, and with a glance at Elaini, she very deliberately put both hands down on the pallet, and pushed herself up higher, ignoring the shooting daggers and settling back more comfortably against the back of the pallet.

Elaini watched this with a curious expression. "You’re not at all what I expected."

Xena gave her a wearily amused look. "If I had a dinar for every time I heard that, I’d be able to buy Athens." She swallowed, and let her eyes close.

A fur covered hand moved to her head and gently felt it. "You’re in a fever." Feeling a totally unexpected surge of compassion for this human whose strangeness was beginning to feel more and more familiar.

Now Xena’s face went serious. "I know." She’d felt the beginnings of a chill before Gabrielle had left. Damn. Was hoping to avoid that..

"I can do a infusion of…" Elaini began, turning to her supplies.

"No." The warrior responded, quietly. "Fever has a purpose. In this case…probably a good one." Knowing whatever damaged she’d taken was causing her body’s defenses to react, and she had a lot of respect for those. "I’ll be all right." I hope. If the fever doesn’t get out of control.

The healer studied her, noticing the tense lines of pain in her face, and the faint glazing of her bright blue eyes. "I hope so. Do you have any idea what would happen if you weren’t?" Elaini’s voice was very gentle.

The usual answer came to her lips, that Gabrielle would be upset, of course, but she’d survive, she was a strong woman. Stronger than Xena herself. It was a thought that had consoled her many a dangerous time, when she was throwing her life on the line for a thousand different reasons. Came to her lips, yes, and stopped there.

Was that really true anymore? Xena blinked at the healer. "I don’t know.. what you mean. We face danger all the time. Both of us."

Elaini dropped her gaze to the floor, then studied her stilled hands, resting quietly in each other, stained with the golden pale cleaning fluid. How can she not know? Can she be so adept at lying to herself? Or is she just lying to me…. "I think you know better." And swept her red toned golden eyes up to meet Xena’s.

And saw, in those strangely colored portals of the soul a truth that the warrior hesitated to utter. She knew. It was the knowledge that let her, if Jessan had told the truth about what he’d Seen, hold death itself at bay, and would keep her, with all the strength of her seemingly very powerful will holding to this life regardless of the obstacles before her. "I know you do." She added, finding herself caught and held by those eyes. "You should try to get some rest."

Xena nodded a little, drawing the soft blanket closer around her shoulders in reflex, as a cold chill went through her. "Probably a good idea."

Elaini patted her shoulder, then got up and walked softly out the door, turning to watch her patient as she paused in the doorway. Saw her take a deep breath, and let her head fall back against the padded edge of the pallet, as an expression of resigned patience crossed her face. Not so different at all. The healer mused, shaking her head and walking out of the door and into the sunlight.

Xena heard her leave, and realized she was alone for the first time since.. her mind shied away from the thought. Oh oh. Not good. Stubbornly, she refocused her thoughts on what had happened the day before, putting aside the uneasy wash of dark fear that came with them.

Ok..ok. I almost died. The blunt shock trembled over her, and she let it pass. I should have died. There was no more air in that tiny little.. Whoa. Better back off that for a while. Sweat broke out on her brow, and she felt the walls coming closer to her. She closed her eyes and took several breaths, not letting the old terror take control I can master this. I have before. Come on now.

It subsided a moment later, and she sighed in relief. So I should have died. Why didn’t I? The last few minutes she’d been trapped were too foggy for her to see clearly in memory.. but she did remember getting angry. Angry that death seemed determined to separate her from Gabrielle. A permanent separation, and now she had her finger on the part that really bothered her.

The room seemed small, of a sudden, and she focused her eyes on the window, as a spasm of shivers took her. The morning sun was now pouring in the window, and as if hypnotized, she watched it’s slow progress across the wooden floor. The pallet she was lying in was in deep shadow, and that combined with her fever made her feel cold to her very core, and she wistfully gazed at the warm light, craving its touch.

Funny. I used to like the nighttime. Shadows… it matched the darkness inside of me perfectly, and suited my dreams. Before they became nightmares. Now.. now I love the light.. because the light is what she is. But all I can do is marvel at all that light that she brings to my life.. I can’t ever know it like she does. I watch..and I watch her standing in the sun.. and feel like a little kid sometimes, who’s looking into a window of a building that they can’t ever.. ever enter.

She felt the moisture gather at the corner of her eyes, and focused her gaze on the ceiling. Blinked. Waited. Took a breath and the surge of emotion passed. I’ve done too much evil. And they’re not going to forgive me, even if she does. I’ve made too many enemies, hurt too many people. I’m too much a part of the darkness, and she’s too much a part of the light, so that I know when our time here is done, she’ll go one way.. and I’ll go.. where I belong. This time the tears came, and she couldn’t stop them.

Irritatedly, she used a corner of the soft blanket to wipe them away. Must be the fever. I’ve known that for a long time.. so come on, Xena. Why is it different now?

The solid wedge of sunlight had reached the edge of the pallet, and was dancing across the bottom surface, causing dust to float it it’s golden mist. Xena eyed it longingly, and huddled closer in the coverings. Damn. Fever must be getting worse.

It’s different because I went and did a stupid thing. I broke all my own rules, and gave up my ability to control my own destiny, that’s what I did.

She’s taken custody of my soul, though why she’d want that nasty old thing, I’ll never know. And she’s given me the gift of hers, and therein lies the problem. I don’t want to hurt her. Ever.

Dying would do that. And doing what I do requires me to throw myself into situations where that becomes a possibility. And the older I get, the bigger a possibility it is.

So what do I do? Can I stop being what I’ve spent most of my life becoming? Can I stop fighting, settle down in some small place… maybe at home.. and just be an ordinary person, living my life out. Giving up any chance at a possible redemption in return for time. Time with her?

I’ll have to think about that. About if she’d even want something .. along those lines. That fortnight with her at Amphipolis… Xena sighed. Time spent sunning and swimming. Taking long twilight walks in a familiar wood. Laughing with her family. Gabrielle’s head on her shoulder, and her voice saying, "I could live here.". The memories called to her, triggering a totally unexpected longing that left her almost breathless. Oh Hades, Xena, save this for after you’re not in a feverish, pain-ridden stupor, ok? She finally decided.

And to her surprise, the whirlwind of thoughts obediently subsided, and she was left in relative peace.

The sunlight now curled around her legs, bringing blessed warmth, and she cautiously stretched towards it. The agony in her arms and legs had subsided to a very dull ache, and for that she was grateful. At least I can move around a little.. As long as I don’t.. Augh.

A wave of pain passed through her, when she accidentally tried to move her upper body. Oh gods.. she moaned silently, then blew out a held breath as the spasms subsided. This is gonna kill me.

A whine distracted her, and she glance to her left, to see Ares’ dark head poking up over the pallet edge, eliciting an unexpected smile. "Hello, boy." She looked up, and cocked her head to listen. "You run off from Gabrielle and Jess? What’s the matter.. they don’t cough up goodies like I do?"

"Roo!" Ares demanded, scrabbling with his paws on the pallet edge, trying to lift his uncoordinated body up to be with her.

Xena smiled, and carefully extended her left arm, and grasped him by his heavy scruff fur. "Come on, jump." She directed, and as the puppy did, she lifted, and he tumbled across the bedding and collided with her shoulder. "Whoa.. take it easy."

He turned around a few times before curling up in the crook of her elbow, and putting his head on her chest, gazing up at her with his yellow eyes, and giving up a little puppy sigh. Xena carefully looked around, and, satisfied she was quite alone, kissed him on the nose. He raised his head, and licked her face enthusiastically in response, and she smiled.

"You don’t care about who I am, either, do you, boy?" she mused idly, stroking his soft fur. "I’m just a big, funny looking wolf who feeds you goodies, huh?"

"Roo!" Ares agreed, snuggling closer, and licking his chops with a satisfied sound. His warm body felt very good pressed against hers, as a spasm of shivers shook her again. "Thanks, Ares." She whispered, laying her head back against the padding, and trying to relax a little. It was hard, the fever chills kept causing her muscles to stiffen up, and that really hurt. But the sunlight was spreading like a blanket over her body now, and she welcomed every dust-strewn mote, as the warmth of it penetrated the blanket, and bathed her in golden wave of relief.

"Should try to get some sleep, Ares." She mumbled to the wolf, who was already drowsing. "Maybe it’ll be better when I wake up, huh?" She let her eyes drift shut, and felt the light touch her face as she slid back into the twilight world of dreams.

Gabrielle kept hold of Jessan’s arm as they left the healers cot, and started across the central square of the village towards his home compound. "So.. what was that?" The bard asked, giving him a sidelong glance.

"What?" Jessan asked, dredging up an innocent look from somewhere, and not meeting her eyes, instead watching curiously as Ares stumbled ahead of them, sniffing every blade of grass.

"Don’t try that with me." Gabrielle answered, catching his eye. "Remember who I travel around with, OK? The Champion of Evasiveness herself."

Jessan smiled, and ducked his head in acknowledgement. "Ok..Ok.. can we get something to eat first, because I need to talk to you before I explain why we were arguing."

The bard nodded. "Sure." And gazed around the village with interest. "Didn’t really get a chance to see this place the last time." She remarked.

It was an odd place, a roughly symmetrical circle of cots, surrounded by an old growth forest so deep the canopy extended over the cots in some places, and broke the sunlight up into green tinged explosions of dappled light. The cots were round, and in fact, most of the geometry of the village was rounded, making the structures blend into the trees more than the usual squared off dwellings of humans would.

It felt.. peaceful to her. Gabrielle noted. She could hear the sound of rushing water off to her left, and supposed that was where the stream that provided the village’s water was located. Right now, a gentle morning breeze was blowing through the trees, rattling the leaves in a pleasant rhythm, and blowing her hair back off her forehead with cool gentleness. "Nice morning." She smiled up at Jessan.

"Nice to see you smiling." The forest dweller responded, giving her a warn look. "Look.. I know yesterday was a really bad day for you. I’m glad.. " he hesitated, then put a hand on her shoulder. "it ended much better."

Gabrielle sighed, and closed her eyes for a moment. "Yeah, me too." She finally answered. "Thanks to you." She rubbed his back, and he blushed, seen as a flow of color across his muzzle and lips.

They walked up onto the porch, and were greeted by Wennid, who had seen them approaching through the window.

"Roo!" Ares said, sitting down on his haunches in front of her, and cocking his head to one side.

Wennid blinked at him. "Goodness." She muttered, glancing up at Jessan, but making no further comment on the wolf. She turned to Gabrielle, and smiled. "Hello, Gabrielle." Clasping her shoulders. "Sorry am I that your return visit to us had to be on such horrible circumstances." She gazed into Gabrielle’s eyes, then blinked and looked away. "I’m glad everything worked out all right." Damn.. he’s right. Her Sight barely needed to be used at this point.. she could feel the energy of this human’s bond as almost a physical force.

"Thanks." Gabrielle said, watching her face. "I have your son and your lifebond to thank for that" She smiled at Wennid. Lifebond… that’s what they called each other, right? Wonder what they’d call me. Would I be that, too? Guess I’ll find out.

"So I hear." Wennid replied, then glanced at her son, waiting quietly to one side. "Come.. I have some breakfast inside . She steered them both into the cot, and shut the door, gesturing them to places at the table. "Sit. I’ll be right back."

"So." Jessan said, with a slight grin. "Mind filling me in on what’s been going on with you guys?"

Gabrielle let out a light laugh. "Where do I start?" But she knew what he was talking about. "Uhnm…I guess it sort of started to change after we left you off here." She paused, and composed her thoughts. "Sorry.. this is a little embarrassing for me. I don’t usually discuss.."

"I know." Jessan said, putting his hand out and capturing hers. "But this is different.. because what you two share is something very special to us."

"Then it is the same." The bard breathed, staring at him. "I.. we.. " She broke off at his slow nod. "You knew." Another nod. "How?" She felt Ares press up against her leg, and dropped a hand down to stroke his head. Felt his tongue tickle her fingers in response.

"We can see it." Wennid replied in a quiet voice, putting plates down in front of them. " And as much as I wanted not to believe it, my son is right. It is the same."

Her blunt honesty kept the bard quiet for a moment. Then.. "Why didn’t you want to believe it?" A soft question from Gabrielle. "Do you still think Xena is the same horrible monster you remembered from a long time ago?"

Wennid studied her. Had always liked her. "No." She shook her head wearily. "I have nothing against you. Or your lifebond."

So. Gabrielle thought. That is what I am. What we are. It felt.. funny. Like it hadn’t been real before that.. something they sort of hedged around with each other, and found excuses for. "What then?"

Jessan’s mother just shook her head. "Nothing you’d understand, Gabrielle. Don’t worry about it. Eat.. it’s getting cold."

After breakfast, Jessan stood, and gave her a quirky grin. "Want to go for the tour?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Sure." And got up, taking her plate and Jessan’s and carrying them back to the small kitchen, where Wennid was standing over the deep fireplace. "Thank you." She said, quietly, to the woman’s back, as she cleaned off the plates.

Heard Wennid step up behind her, and consciously relaxed her posture, turning with an inquiring look as the forest dweller towered over her. Never back down.. the voice calmly said in her mind. So she stood her ground, and just let a half smile come on to her face. And met Wennid’s level gaze with one of her own.

Ares growled, and they both looked down, to see the puppy, who had put himself between them, staring up at Wennid with unblinking yellow eyes. The forest dweller raised her eyebrows, but took a step back, then returned her gaze to Gabrielle’s face.

Looks like he takes after his mommy. Gabrielle couldn’t help thinking, biting the inside of her lip to keep from smiling, because she knew Wennid to be very, very serious right now.

"Tell me, child." Wennid drawled, keeping their eyes locked. "What does it feel like, to you?" The kitchen was cast in deep shadows from the forest canopy, and the flashes of green light only served to highlight the pale tints in Wennid’s coat, and cast her face in a half darkness, masking her expressions from Gabrielle’s searching gaze.

"What does what feel like?" the bard asked, in an ordinary voice.

Silence from Wennid.

"Oh. That." Gabrielle chewed her lip in thought. How do you describe what… She imagined in her mind the wonderful feeling of.. wholeness she felt when she was in Xena’s arms. And the effect that dazzling grin had on her. Was there a way to put that in words? Put into words the feeling she had everytime she looked into those eyes? It filled her heart now with a golden fire, and as she looked back up into Wennid’s eyes, hoping to find the words on her lips, the forest dweller’s expression changed, and gentled, and she put a hand up.

"Hush. No need." Her golden eyes softened. "Sorry I am, child, to have doubted you."

"But I didn’t say anything." Gabrielle replied, bewildered.

Wennid gazed at her with a mixture of sadness and understanding on her face. "Your face did." And what I saw there, that light from within, was as familiar to me as this cot. It’s not fair. "Go on with you now. We’ll talk later." Let Jessan tell her a few things, first. The good, and the bad. And then there would have to be a decision made.

"All right." Gabrielle replied. "Later, then." She slipped past Wennid, and rejoined Jessan . "You said a tour?" She asked, daring him to make a comment on her long trip to the kitchen.

"Uh. Yeah." The tall forest dweller affirmed, and held the door for her and Ares.

They circled the village, and ended up near the stream, where Jessan took a seat on the soft rich grasses and patted a place by his side. She joined him, and plucked a long grass stem, chewing on it thoughtfully.

"You were saying it started after you dropped me off." Jessan started, giving her a shy look under his thick eyebrows. "If you don’t mind me asking. I… "

The bard sighed, and leaned back on her elbows, regarding the chuckling stream, and enjoying the softly cool breeze that stirred her hair and his thicker fur. "No.. I mean… I need to know more about this. So I’ll tell you. .but this is hard for me Jessan. Hard because it… it’s a very intense, very personal thing, you know?"

"No, I don’t." Jessan replied quietly. "I wish to all the gods I did."

Gabrielle paused, disturbed by the uneasy feeling deep in her gut. The feeling that she’d come to associate, recently, with things being not all right with her partner. It wasn’t a strong feeling, but.. "Ares, come here."

The wolf looked up, from his investigation of a rabbit hole, and trotted over, to sniff at her outheld fingers. "Go find Xena, ok? Stay with her." She rubbed the puppy’s head. "Tell her I'll be right there."

Ares blinked at her, then apparently focused on the familiar name, because he sneezed, then turned and trotted clumsily off towards the healer’s cot.

"Trouble?" Jessan asked, quietly.

Gabrielle gave a half shrug. "It may be just because she’s in a lot of pain, I don’t know.. but.. we’ll have to cut this sort of short. I get…" She looked up at him. "Sort of this feeling.."

Jessan smiled. "It’s ok. I’ve heard my mother say that a thousand times. Just give me the short version, so at least I know where to start explaining."

She looked at him in silence for a long moment. "It really started after Cirron, yeah.. but we’d been kind of.." Her mind searched for an appropriate word. "It actually started when she died."

"What?" Jessan started, blinking hard at her. "Excus..what.. I.."

"Shh." Gabrielle waved him off. "I’ll tell you." And she did, that whole story, from beginning to end, because she had an idea that something had changed during that time that led to where they were now.

"Oh." Jessan breathed, his big chin propped up on a fist, now that he was lying in the grass next to her. "Wow."

"Yeah, wow." The bard agreed. "So, after we left you off, things just.." Accidental touches had became deliberate, hugs had gotten longer and more frequent. She stopped not liking riding Argo. Then the night she’d had nightmares for the last time.

They had suffered through a pretty rough day, dodging a flooding river in the morning, and helping three villages to evacuate ahead of the roaring wall of water. Xena had pulled her out of the racing stream more times than she could count, and she had been totally exhausted. Too tired even to eat, which got a worried look from her companion.

"Just let me go to sleep." She’d begged Xena. "I’ll have something in the morning. I can’t go another step."

"Sure." Xena had said, steering her by the shoulders towards her bedroll. "Out you go, my bard."

And she had clutched that endearment to her like she always did, and rolled herself into her blankets and dropped off.

Only to jerk awake not long after, heart pounding, head pounding, with a concerned Xena crouched over her, one hand on her arm. "Hey.. take it easy.. must have been some dream. "

She’d sat up, and felt tears rolling down her face. "Gods." And couldn’t for the life of her even remember what the dream was about. "Just it was.. you were there.. I was there.. and then you were gone, and it was…"

Xena had taken her into her arms, and when she did, Gabrielle had felt such an overwhelming flood of relief that she’d tangled her hands in Xena’s shirt and buried her face in the friendly shoulder with quiet desperation. Hadn’t wanted to let go.

And Xena, instead of putting her gently back to bed, as she had every time before when the bard had woken in a sweat from nightmares, had kept hold of her, lying down on the bedroll, and pulling Gabrielle close with her head tucked securely in the hollow of one broad shoulder, and her arm wrapped around her.

Had rubbed her back gently until Gabrielle had slipped half unaware back into sleep. And this time no nightmares happened. She’d woken up still wrapped around Xena’s muscular form, and looked up, startled, into gently smiling blue eyes.

"If that’s what it takes to get rid of those nightmares, Gabrielle." Xena had drawled, "Then I guess we’ll have to share a bedroll from now on."

Very matter of fact. Very.. logical. Reasonable. And it had made her heart almost come out of her chest. A dozen different protests jumped to her lips. But what came out was "Sure."

Now she glanced at Jessan, and smiled. "It just sort of progressed from there, until I got recalled by the Amazons."

"The Amazons?" Jessan queried. "What did you have to do with them?"

"Oh." Gabrielle laughed. "I guess I forgot to mention I’m.. well, their queen, actually."

Jessan just stared at her in wonder, eyes blinking. "Really?"

"Yeah. So, they wanted me to come in as a mediator against a particularly warlike faction in the Amazons. Xena decided, and I agreed, that her presence would be more of a hurt than a help. So she went on to Amphipolis and I went to the Amazons."

Jessan leaned back and regarded her. "How long were you separated?" A curious question.

"A month." The bard answered, with a quiet inward smile.

"Bet that was hard." Jessan guessed, watching her with fascinated eyes.

"Oh..gods. It was impossible." Gabrielle laughed. ‘You have no idea." She sighed. "So anyway, at the end of that.. something happened, that made Xena come to the Amazons.. she’d felt there was something wrong. And she was right. She got there… just in time.

Jessan sat up, intrigued. "So.. she could sense you were in trouble?" He put his finger right on the issue.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes.. and we.. well, afterward, we got to talking, and she told me what you’d said.. and we just…we figured that we might be like your parents. "

"You are." Jessan affirmed, giving her hair a tweak. "You have a really strong, really distinctive connection. "

Gabrielle swallowed hard, and lifted her head towards the healer’s cot. "I know. And right now, that connection is telling me I gotta go." Should have before.. she berated herself. Don’t you realized by now this stuff is real. Gabrielle? She stood up, and brushed herself off, as Jessan joined her.

"Do you want.. uhm.." He hesitated, glancing at her.

She put a hand on his arm. "Don’t get mad, but not right now. If you’re there.. she’ll feel the need to put on that Warrior Princess routine, and, Jess.. I don’t think she’s up to it. Give her a day or so, huh?" She started walking, and he joined her. "It’s going to be bad enough just getting her to stay still long enough to heal right." She sighed. "She is the worst when it comes to that."

Jessan chuckled. "I can imagine. My father’s the same way." He glanced at her, and smiled. "Aside from all that other stuff, you look great, by the way." Healthy, stronger, more self-assured.. his mind mused. Looks like that’s been good for both of them.

Gabrielle shrugged, and blushed a little. "Thanks." She returned the glance. "You been getting lazy?" She teased gently, patting his stomach. "What’s up with that?"

He sighed, and for a moment his face lost its usual humor. "Been slacking off, I guess" He glanced around the compound. "Sometimes I need a challenge to get me going again. Hasn’t been much of that around lately."

Gabrielle laughed. "Give me a few days, and you’ll have one."

But Jessan shook his maned head. "No.. I’m not in any kind of condition to go against her. Even injured." His face flushed with embarrassment.

"That’s not a bad thing." The bard mused, thoughtfully. "Because whenever she gets hurt, she drives herself three times harder just to get over it.. maybe if she has to slow down for you, I can get her to take it easier ." Her face went serious. "One of these times, she’s just going to push too hard." She mounted the steps to the cot, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Would that be OK with you?"

The forest dweller paused, and then nodded sheepishly. "Yeah. It would. I know I need it, too." He admitted, giving her a wink. "Go on." His head motioned towards the door. "I’ll drop by later."

Gabrielle was still chuckling softly as she entered the inner room of the healer’s cot, and she stopped, with one hand on the doorframe, and just looked for a very long moment.

The inside of the cot was quiet enough for her to hear clearly the rustling of the leaves outside, and the occasional bird call which floated in the window along with the muted sounds of village life going on outside. Most of the inside was bathed in the pale green light reflected off the trees, but one large window let in a bar of sunlight which flowed lazily across the floor and onto the pallet her partner was lying on.

And lit her like some kind of mythical hero from a story Gabrielle hadn’t heard yet. The light burnished her skin to a golden glow, and brought out the deep highlights in her dark hair, bringing a quiet smile of wonder to the bard’s watching face. Bathed in the light.. it looks so natural for her. Her mind mused delightedly. Wish she could see this. She never sees herself like I do. Maybe that’s half her problem.

Shaking her head, she walked forward, and sat on the edge of the pallet, giving the sleepily alert Ares a pat. After a moment, the blue eyes opened, and Xena turned her head, focusing her sleep blurred gaze on Gabrielle’s face.

"Hey." The warrior said, managing a grin, which faded when the bard put a cool hand on her forehead. "Pretty hot, huh?" Seeing the concerned look on her partner’s face and inwardly sighing.

"You must be miserable." Gabrielle said softly, "I'd trade places with you if I could."

Xena looked up at her and a smile twitched her lips again. "That would make me a lot more miserable, my bard." She laid a hand on Gabrielle’s knee. "I’ll live." She glanced down at Ares. "Didn’t you guys entertain him enough?"

Gabrielle accepted the change of subject momentarily. "No.. I sent him back here. I thought. I felt there was something wrong, and it looks like I was right, huh?" Bringing the subject right back to Xena, who quirked an eyebrow in acknowledgment. "What’s up with you?"

The warrior dropped her gaze, and let her head relax back against the padding. "My body’s reacting to whatever the damage was inside." Her eyes flicked back to Gabrielle’s. "That’s a good thing, love." She sighed. "Just damned uncomfortable for me." A rakish grin at Gabrielle. "Gotta let it run its course."

Gabrielle looked relieved. "Well, that’s a mess, but…" She brushed the dark hair out of Xena’s eyes. "I guess I’ll let you get back to sleep then." But she really didn’t want to leave. And, looking deep into the silent blue eyes facing her, she saw the quiet plea that Xena would never verbally make. "But I’m not moving, so you’ll just have to get over me hanging around here."

A sparkle of gratitude in there. "You don’t have to do that, Gabrielle. I’ll be fine."

"Too bad." The bard replied, cheerfully. "If you think I’m gonna pass up an opportunity to laze around in bed with you all day, you are fevered."

Xena couldn’t help it. She grinned, unable to stop the surge of warmth that started in her heart and spread out all over her, pushing away the pain and the fever for a long moment. " I guess I’ll just have to get over it then."

Gabrielle grinned back, and shifted Ares to the other side of the warrior, sliding carefully onto the pallet, and easing her right arm around Xena’s shoulders, and her left across her chest, hugging her close, resting her head against Xena’s. And gave a contented sigh as she felt the now familiar warmth stealing over her.

Xena looked up into the sunlight, and let it fill her soul, mingling with the light that Gabrielle had already brought there. And felt her hand on the doorknob of that place that Gabrielle lived in, where she had only ever been able to look into from outside before.

I am fevered. She told herself. That’s not possible.

Gabrielle’s arms tightened, and she playfully nibbled the ear so close to her. "Gods, I love you." She breathed, feeling the shiver run down Xena’s neck.

And with that, anything was possible. Xena took that thought with her, as she surrendered to the light, and to her body’s healing.

Xena opened her eyes, and glanced around, startled. The unmistakable peach glow of dawn was coloring the window, and she realized she'd been sleeping almost an entire day. Damn! She glanced to her left, where Gabrielle was deeply asleep, with her head pillowed on Xena's shoulder and her arms clasped around her in a snug hold. With the cutest little smile on her face. Doesn't look like she's moved either.. that's unbelievable.

Cautiously, she flexed her arm, and a grin split her face. Oh.. that's much better. Let's see how everything else is doing. Her head felt clearer, she noticed, and the headache that had plagued her all day yesterday was also gone. She took a deep breath, and felt a dull ache, but no sharp pains. I like this better and better. Her mind chuckled.

She carefully indulged herself in a long stretch and, though annoyingly stiff, her body responded with something close to it's normal range of motion, and she sighed happily. Looks like the fever did its job. And my body did its usual bag of tricks. One of these days, that’s not going to work. But.. I’m glad it did this time.

Gabrielle chose that moment to stir, flexing her hands and opening her eyes, to blink in confusion at Xena's amused expression. Her eyes slid to the window, and her brow creased, then she looked back at Xena. "Wh... How.. " She rubbed her eyes and arched her neck. "Whoa. That's stiff." She swallowed, still obviously half out of it. "What time.. did I sleep..oh gods." She finally groaned, and let her head drop back on Xena's shoulder. "How could I have done that? I was supposed to be keeping an eye on you."

Xena grinned, and slid an arm under her, reaching up around her back and kneading her neck with practiced fingers. "Better?"

"Ughh." Came the response. "Waitaminute." The fair head popped up, and she regarded Xena intently. "You're feeling better." She accused, lifting a hand up and resting it on Xena's forehead. "No fever, right?"

"Looks like it." The warrior smiled. And to prove it, she wrapped both arms around the surprised bard, and squeezed her thoroughly, feeling Gabrielle’s back pop all the way down her spine, and suffered only a twinge of pain herself as a result. And that felt so good, she did it again, this time lifting Gabrielle half off the pallet, which hurt a little more, but still nothing like it would have yesterday. "Gods, that feels so good." She breathed. "Been wanting to do that for two days."

Pausing when Gabrielle didn't answer, and lifting her head up to gaze at the bard'. "Hey... hey.." She said softly, seeing the tears streaming down her partner's face. And she wonders why I never tell her when I’m hurting.

Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's shirt, and tried to stop her tears, but the overwhelming relief she felt just kept them coming. "Ssss sorrry. " She stuttered, trying to take a deep breath, and hiccuping. "Being an idiot. Give me a minute."

"Shh." Xena said. "It's all right." She used her sleeve to gently wipe the tears from under Gabrielle's eyes. "Been a rough couple of days, huh?"

The bard nodded, sniffing. Rough. The Princess of Understatement. "Yeah."

"Sorry I gave you such a hard time." The warrior apologized, with a rueful grin. "I'll try not to do that again."

"Better not." Gabrielle responded, a grin tugging reluctantly at her lips. "Or you'll be in big trouble."

"Oh yeah?" Came the mock growling response.

"Yeah." The bard responded, with a smirk. Then, quietly. "You must feel better."

Xena's eyebrow rose. "Why?"

"Because I do." Gabrielle replied. "Except.. gods.. does my back hurt from sleeping in one position for.. how long? I don't believe I did that." What was up with me? How long was I out… almost a whole day???? She had an excuse..what was I doing?

"Yeah, mine too." Xena admitted, stretching her body out again. "Gotta stand up."

Gabrielle watched her face closely, and was satisfied when all that movement didn't even cause a flinch.. "You hungry?" She hasn’t eaten anything for two days. She’d better be.

Xena thought about that. "Yeah." She decided. "Very, in fact." She grinned at the bard. "Bet you are, too, huh?"

"You bet." Gabrielle replied, sliding a hand inside her partner's shirt, and letting her fingers trace the outline of Xena's stomach. "Gods, you're all hollow there, love." But the skin was cool to her touch, not the unhealthy heat of the day before.

"I bet." Xena laughed. "I don’t have much reserves, unfortunately." No.. they burned off as fast as she acquired them, with her energy level.

Gabrielle gazed up at her. "It's nice to hear you laughing." She let her hand drift further, and slide up the side of Xena's ribcage. "How's everything else?"

The warrior chewed her lip for a minute. "Fine..I think." She finally answered. "No headache, fever's gone.. I'm a little sore here.." She indicated her midsection. "But nothing like I was."

The bard gazed at her. "Uh huh. And you still don't think that's magic, right?"

Xena hesitated, then shrugged. "I really don't..." Be honest, Xena - you know damn well you heal much faster and lots easier than you should. "I try not to think about it." She sighed. "I'm not sure I wanna know the answer to that."

And that, Gabrielle thought, was far and away more than she had ever gotten out of Xena on that subject. Time to drop it. "Well, whatever it is, I'm really glad you have it." she finished cheerfully, giving her ribs a tickle, which elicited a chuckle, and return poke.

"Watch it.." Xena warned, a mischievous sparking appearing in her eyes.

Gabrielle saw the look, and chewed her lip, tempted. "OK..OK.." She sighed, giving up on a tickle fight for now. "Let’s see.. too early to bother anyone .. I think we have some travel stuff left in our packs. Interested?"

"Anything." Xena replied, rolling over on her side, and reveling in the fact that she could do so without doubling over. "Though.." she slid her head forward, and nipped Gabrielle in the arm. "There’s some tasty bard here."

"Xena!!" Gabrielle blurted, rolling away from the warrior, and off the edge of the pallet. "Whoa!" She yelled. "Urk." As Xena reached out an arm and grabbed her, pulling her back onto the pallet with a laugh.

"Take it easy!! I won’t take much.. just a bite.." A flash of white teeth, and then Xena relented, and just pulled the bard into a warm hug. "Sorry about that."

"Don’t’ be." Gabrielle mumbled into her chest, then looked up. "I’ve missed playing with you."

Xena gazed at her affectionately. "You make us sound like a couple of kids." She protested, but with a big smile.

"Problem with that?" The bard asked, with an insolent smirk.

The warrior’s face softened. "No." She reached out and cupped Gabrielle’s face gently. "Don’t think either of us had much of a childhood the first time around." She paused as she felt the bard swallow a few times. "I’m really enjoying my second chance at it."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, then opened them again, as an incredible smile formed on her face. "Oh.. so am I." She answered, then laughed, and darted a hand down to catch Xena behind the knees. "Gotcha!"

"Argh." Xena growled, and rolled onto her back.

"Roo!" Ares answered, bounding over from his spot on the end of the pallet and blinking sleepy eyes. He climbed clumsily onto Xena’s chest, and stood looking down at her, tail gently waving. "Roo!" He repeated, then flopped down, and started licking her face.

Gabrielle giggled.

Xena sighed. "Ares.." She closed her eyes as the puppy licked harder. "Come on.."

"Aww.." The bard snickered. "He loves you!." Then her eyes glinted, and she rolled closer, snuggling up against the warrior’s side, and licking her ear. "So do I."

"Gabrielle!!" Xena laughed helplessly, as the bard continued to lick the edge of her ear, and the puppy started working on her now closed eyelids. "Ares! Come on now!"

Gabrielle started to giggle, but kept up her attack, now nibbling on the edge of her ear.

"All right." Xena said finally, in her best warlord’s tone. "Now cut it out, both of you."

She was ignored. I tried talking. Really, I did. She mused to herself. I promised Gabrielle I would try talking first, right? Right. So, I tried. Everyone saw that.. no way to say I didn’t. Besides, she was starting to like what Gabrielle was doing.

I used to run half of Greece, and here I am, bested by a laughing bard and a half-grown wolf puppy. For shame, Xena. All right. Gotta do something about this.

She reached up and grabbed Ares firmly by his scruff, and moved him off her chest. Then she slid an arm around Gabrielle’s still giggling body.

"Whoa..ok.. ok.. I was just.. whoa.. Xena!!! What..uh.." The bard found herself being swung through the air, and ended up half sprawled across Xena’s chest, with her eyes inches from the warrior’s own. "Uh oh." When she saw Xena’s feral smile. "Oh boy."

"Now." Xena drawled, giving her a very private version of the look, as she nibbled at the bard’s nearby shoulder, and watched the goosebumps run up her arm. "I wonder…" She moved across to Gabrielle’s collarbone, and felt the pulse flutter under her lips. "what would happen…" Now she traveled up her partner’s neck, and felt the sudden sharp intake of breath as she reached the point of her jaw. "if we kissed."

And did just that, as she felt Gabrielle’s hands begin a gentle exploration, and hers did the same, moving with knowing sureness of each other.

"I’d be really mad if we stopped." The bard breathed, in a husky tone, as they parted for an instant, then resumed. "Thought you were hungry." She murmured, as she took another breath.

"Oh yeah." Xena answered, with a long low chuckle deep in her chest. "C’mere."

Continued in Part 3

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