Bound – Part 3

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Jessan rolled over, blinking sleep out of his eyes, and regarding the pre dawn sky outside with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Damn. He sighed to himself. Gotta get out of this hole I’m in. Wish I knew what was up with me. He heaved himself up out of his seductively warm blankets, and padded to the washing room, splashing cold water on his face and drenching his fur in an effort to wake himself up. Didn’t used to have to do this. He raked his fingers through the hair on his head and neck, and blinked at himself in the small mirror there.

And sighed, again, as he took in the weary look in his golden eyes. I need someone to kick me in the pants. He mused, then a half smile quirked his lips, and he Looked towards the healer’s cot. Ahh.. Awake. Now his lips curled into a full grin. Elaini had been cautiously optimistic when she’d checked on her patient.. he paused, then chuckled. Patients, last evening, estimating that morning would bring them both back out of their healing sleep. It had, he noted, and what he could sense of both of them indicated things were well, very well, indeed.

Well, he chuckled quietly. If you wanted a challenge, you got one, you pudgy has been. But he felt an excited chill travel up his spine all the same. Something about Xena just…maybe it was the air of danger that usually surrounded her. Or the way things happened in her vicinity that stretched the bounds of the possible. Or maybe it was that smile.

Or whatever. He was glad he’d been the one to break those rocks – but she’d kept herself alive by the force of her own will, and those rocks got moved at the end by her own momentum. I’d never seen that strong a life force before. It was scary. He mused, as he finished his washing up, and trudged back into his room, where he pulled on a pair of dark green trousers, wincing at the snug fit. Gotta do something about that, too. He sighed. Getting out of hand. Maybe he could start his morning runs again.

He heard the faint sounds of stirring in the rest of the cothold, and cocked his head. Mother was up, and.. Lestan as well, and in the conference room. Wonder what’s up so early?" He slid out of his room, and ambled down the hallway, shoulders brushing the woven mat walls on either side of him.

He turned the corner and poked his head into the conference room, and stilled – as he recognized whom his father was talking to.

Uncle Warrin.

The tall scarred forest dweller was slumped into the chair at the end of the conference room, and was watching Lestan as he examined a set of parchments.

"Ah. Jessan." Lestan muttered, glancing up. "Come in." He waved Jessan towards a seat across from him.

"Morning." Jessan muttered, reading the tension in the room. "Uncle Warrin." He gave the older man a nod.

"Jess." Warrin rumbled, propping his head against one hand, which was braced on the table. His shadowed eyes gazed at his nephew. "Hear you have a visitor."

He couldn’t suppress the quick grin. "Yeah." He answered, quietly.

Warrin nodded. "Heard she and the storyteller.." He hesitated, as he always did. On this subject.

"Yes." Jessan’s voice was very gentle. Warrin was that rare thing, a surviving member of a broken lifebond. His bondmate had died during a hunting accident – a freak chance – but there had been their tiny son to raise. A compelling reason, it was said, was needed for one bondmate to survive the other’s passing. That was.. for Warrin, compelling enough.

But it didn’t make him whole. Only death would do that, now. And he walked in darkness, for all his days, as an infiltrator, a scout, and an assassin.. Even Lestan didn’t know how many people had fallen to Warrin’s blade, and he probably didn’t want to. It was whispered about Warrin that he enjoyed the killing.. that he used the fierce emotion of the hunt to replace the gentler fire of his lost partner.

His son, Jessan’s cousin Alainis was a quiet boy, who had a touch of his father’s dark nature, but had a gentle humor about him that Warrin totally lacked. Alainis had tried, on any number of occasions, to break through his father’s bleak reserve, but he was always brushed off, kindly, but nevertheless.

"Odd." Warrin said, as s a shadow passed over his eyes. "Never heard of that in a human."

"None of us had." Lestan said, absently. "Well, we’re in for it." He sighed, and pushed the documents over to his son. "Secan’s scouting parties have pushed in again into our territory."

Jessan studied the maps, drawn in Warrin’s careful, precise hand. It was their territory, with the main village, and the six scattered outposts surrounding it. The river marked one boundary, the mountains another, and the coastal ridge the third. Warrin had marked in places where he’d spotted patrols from their neighbors to the north encroaching. Again.

Lestan sighed. "Secan has a real problem with my treaty with Hectator. Thinks I’m a traitor to our people, you know." He stretched, and showed his canines in a broad yawn. "I’ll have to send patrols out to watch for his patrols. Damn. We get things all settled with the humans, and now we have problems with our own people." Lestan scowled, and turned his eyes to his son. "Not a word about this to our guests, by the way. They don’t need to know we prey on each other just like they do."

Jessan glanced up from the map, and gave them both a strange look. "Waitaminute." He put the parchment down, and waved his hands. "Wait. You have.. oh.. only the warlord that conquered half of Greece right here, in this village, and you don’t want to ask her for strategic ideas?"

"Jessan, you don’t understand." Lestan growled, letting one fist down on the table with a thump.

"Sure I do." His son answered, not intimidated. "But what part of our nature do you think Xena doesn’t understand?" Those eyes, father, have seen more of death, and of darkness, and of evil that you, and I together will in all our lives. And still she smiles. And puts out her hand to help those in need. "She looked at me and saw a man, father, and I was never anything other in her eyes."

"You’re a fool, boy." Warrin sighed. "You can’t trust humans. I’ll tell you that, out of all my years of watching them. Tracking them. Killing them. Honor is not generally their strong suit. They have no grace in battle, no pride in fairness, no joy in the exercise of their art of war."

Lestan hesitated, then put a hand on Warrin’s arm. "You know I am no friend of humankind, Warrin, but not all of them are like that. Hectator is an honorable man. " He glanced at Jessan, whose eyes were snapping with flashes of anger, and whose body was tense with it. "And.. my son is right about one thing. Xena knows us, knows our hearts. She is an honorable person also."

Warrin shook his heavy head. "Fools." He shrugged. "Tell who you like." He continued, then stood, stretching his sinewy body. "I'll be gone after sundown tonight."

And he was gone, disappearing out the door into the growing light of dawn.

Lestan and Jessan looked at each other. Lestan shrugged. "He hates them, Jess.. they took his lifebond from him.. even though it was an accident, he’s never forgiven. Never forgotten." Lestan gazed out of the half open door. "I remember him before.. he was light, and laughter, and gentle good nature. Now.."

His son got up and walked around the table, stopping in front of the window and looking out. "It’s terrible, the breaking."

"Aye." Lestan whispered, then turned, as Wennid entered and put a plate down in front of him. "So, how are our guests this early morning?"

"Fine." Jessan replied, absently, then turned and greeted his mother with a hug. "Morning, mother." He sat down again, and rested his forearms against the table. "Elaini was right, I think."

Wennid walked over to him and brushed the fur off his forehead. "Are they doing well, then?"

Jessan turned his Sight towards the healer’s cot.

And blushed a shade of red more common to the rose bushes his mother cultivated in her small garden. "Uh. Fine." He squeaked. "Just fine. Yep. Uh.. they’re great."

Lestan and Wennid exchanged puzzled glances, then burst out laughing. "Oh…" Lestan roared, and tumbled back off his chair, hitting the floor without a pause in his laughter. "Better watch where you’re Looking now, Jess."

Even Wennid was giggling, pointing at her son’s still crimson face. "Oh dear. I’ve never seen that color before."

"Stop it."Jessan muttered, covering his face. He’d forgotten.. a cardinal sin in a people as sensitive as his own, that certain times of the day, dawn, twilight, moonrise.. it was better to keep one’s Sight to oneself. Or risk being embarrassed. "Come on..cut it out."

Wennid kissed his head affectionately. "It’s all right, dear. We’ve all done it on occasion." She patted his shoulder. "Let me get you some breakfast."

"Uh.." Jessan said, standing up. " .. I think..I have something to do. Bye." Maybe a run. Yeah. His mind raised an amused eyebrow at him. Try a dunk in the lake, better. Ares.. I can’t believe I did that. He shook his head, and broke into a trot, headed out past the village boundaries.

But the taste of it was still with him. It had been a very brief touch.. but the golden texture of what he’d Seen had been so powerful it had overwhelmed his senses for a timeless instant, and made him understand, for the first time, what his father and mother knew. And what Warrin had lost.

Warrin silently crossed the still quiet courtyard, and went down the leaf-covered path that led to his seldom-used cot. He entered the door, closing it behind him, and glanced around with idle curiosity. Never changed. The round cot had woven mat walls, and a wooden floor, a small room with ready water for bathing, a table, a chair, and in the room beyond, his bed. No personal items, no hangings on the wall.. it was a very impersonal space.

And I like it that way. He thought to himself. No strings. No emotional attachments. He'd learned, over the years, to cut off that part of himself, to keep from triggering his memories of what it was like before. He existed in a constant state of now.. going from situation to situation, battle to battle, keeping himself almost obsessively busy. Anything to avoid thinking. Or remembering.

Like now. He sat quietly, gazing out the lightening window at the dawn, and just went.. nowhere for a while, letting the beauty of the day just flow through him. Then he remembered why he was upset, and the peace shattered.

Humans. Knowing that gift.

He had nothing against them personally, he reasoned with himself. Had only met the storyteller for bare seconds, at Cirron, and not met Xena at all. But he felt as Wennid did - this was something that should be reserved for their kind only - to have humans know it degraded the gift. Degraded his memories.

For one long, aching moment, he allowed himself to remember what it felt like, suffering the emptiness that followed without complaint. Even after all this time, he missed it, and spending time around his own kind only made it worse, especially his sister, which hurt them both.

But.. he mused, leaning back and regarding the sunrise. They can't be right. Humans can't know this, can't sense it. They're Blind, and always have been. So.. either Lestan is mistaken, or these two are lying, or maybe they just don't know what's going on. Think I'd better go check it out.

He stood and stretched, giving himself a little shake to settle his fur, then strolled out onto the porch and into the sunlight now pouring down through the high canopy of leaves.

"That certainly got the kinks out." Gabrielle commented, with a sly grin, as she settled flat on her back and stretched her body out across the length of the pallet.

Xena just chuckled, and offered her a slice of apple, which she took and chewed thoughtfully. They had finished off a large piece of travelers bread and a couple of wedges of cheese between them, with Gabrielle watching closely to make sure Xena didn't give her the lion's share of the edibles, as was her habit.

"Hey, you get some of that too." She growled, poking the warrior in the arm.

"I am." Xena protested, holding up a slice in self-defense, and popping it in her mouth.

"Grr." Ares poked his nose under her elbow and sniffed at the apple. He blinked at them, then sighed. "Roo?"

Gabrielle laughed. "No.. no apples for you, piglet. I saw your mommy give you that big piece of bread and cheese." She gave Xena a mock glare. "When she thought I wasn't looking."

Xena raised an eyebrow at her, and took another slice of apple, cutting it in half and extending it. . "Relax. I've had plenty.. more than I should have, really, since I hadn’t had anything in there for two days" Her gaze softened. "But thanks.. for watching out for me."

Gabrielle grinned. "If I don’t, who will? " She got up off the bed, and crossed to their packs, pulling a towel out of hers. "The bathing room here has a really cool reservoir, gets warmed by the sun, then you let it trickle over you. I’m gonna try it."

"I’ll join you." Xena answered, swinging her legs off the pallet and onto the floor a trifle stiffly.

The bard got in front of her and held up a cautious hand. "You sure? You know, there’s nothing that says you have to hop right out of bed.." Like that’s gonna stop her. Right. Well, I have to try. "I'll be glad to give you a bath." This with a very wicked twinkle.

Raised eyebrow from Xena, who just shook her head and grinned. "Would you please relax? Gabrielle, I really am fine, OK?" And to prove it, she rose smoothly to her feet, feeling a good deal of nagging soreness, but nothing she hadn’t had to deal with a thousand times before. "Shall we?" A chuckle. "And besides, I still have granite dust stuck all over me. So c’mon."

Saw the look in Gabrielle’s eyes, and gentled her voice. "Come here." Extending an arm towards the bard, and letting it rest on Gabrielle’s shoulders when she drew near. "I am a little light headed after all that time lying down.. " she admitted. "Could use some support." Sometimes, sometimes, Xena, you need to cut the self-sufficient attitude back a little. She needs that.

"Sure." The bard smiled, winding an arm firmly around her partner’s waist. "I can do that."

They walked slowly into the bathing room, and Xena very quickly gave her approval to the water setup, as they stood under the reservoir.

"I like this." The warrior chuckled, letting the lukewarm water wash down her body. She picked up a piece of their soap, but Gabrielle forestalled her, and plucked it out of her fingers with a grin.

"Hey… you’re not supposed to be straining yourself. Here." And she set to work, scrubbing gently, then moving closer to get her arms around to Xena’s back. And found herself trapped in a pair of welcoming arms. She glanced up, and saw the smile. "What?"

"It’s almost like it’s raining." Xena teased, pulling her close.

"Mmm…yeah." Gabrielle agreed, circling her arms around the warrior’s neck, and pulling lightly. "Lemme make sure I remember what that felt like." Xena’s lips touched hers, and she was transported, for a brief disorienting moment, back to the Centaur Village.

"Warmer water." She mumbled, as they paused.

"No Centaurs." Xena replied, giving her a playful nip on the ear.

Gabrielle chuckled. "You still hungry?"

Got a low, deep laugh in return. "Don’t get me started."

Gabrielle let her eyes wander over her partner's body and sighed. "I guess we'd better go and be social, huh?" She put her head down on Xena's shoulder for a long moment, then glanced up. "I think I'm addicted to you." As though this was a new discovery to her. "Did you know that?"

"Yep." Xena said, her hands starting a slow massage of the muscles on Gabrielle's back. "Did you know it's mutual?"

"Unngh." The bard closed her eyes and went limp. "Thank the gods it is." She yawned. "I could do this forever." she mumbled happily. And heard, under her ear, Xena's heart stop for just a second, then restart at a faster rate. She picked up her head, and searched the quiet face above her. "What's wrong?"

I should say nothing. Right? It's been a really good morning, I feel a lot better, and it’s a nice day out.. don't ruin it. Xena quietly mused. Then she looked down into Gabrielle's eyes and somehow got lost there. "Just thinking." She finally said. "Come on.. " Picking up their towels, she slung one over Gabrielle's shoulders and started drying herself off.

Gabrielle hesitated, studying her. Come on, Gabrielle - back off a little for a while. She's been through Hades the last couple of days.. give her some space. "OK - it's about time for everyone to start waking up anyway." She managed a smile, and popped her lightly with the towel.

"Hey!" Xena barked, and snapped her back, causing the bard to yelp, and attracting Ares' attention. The puppy scrambled toward them, and grabbed the edge of Gabrielle's towel as she was preparing to retaliate.

"No fair!" The bard protested, tugging the fabric. "He's on your side!" She gave Xena a mock glare. "And you sure have enough of an advantage already."

"Grrr." Ares pulled enthusiastically, shaking his head back and forth and digging in his paws.

Xena laughed. "Good boy, Ares." She encouraged the puppy, who glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes and wagged his tail. The warrior wrapped her towel around her body and tucked the ends in, and strolled past the bard, leaning over and nipping her lightly on the back of the neck.

"Yow!" Gabrielle yelled, and dropped the towel, causing Ares to tumble backwards, and tangle himself in the suddenly loose fabric. She turned around and glared at Xena. "I'll get you for that."

She gestured at the puppy linen ball on the floor. Ares had a length of the cloth wrapped around his head, and was chewing contentedly on the end of it. "Now look!!" She put her hands on her hips and scowled.

Xena crossed back over, and removed her towel, settling it around Gabrielle's shoulders and using the ends to gently dry off her face. "There." She said, smoothing the damp hair out of the bard's eyes. "OK?"

Gabrielle felt her irritation dissolve away, and a smile edged her lips. She lifted a hand and lightly touched the still vivid bruise that covered her partner's midsection. "That looks like it still hurts." Eyes went to Xena's, to judge the reaction, and saw reluctant agreement there. "Thought so." She raised a stern eyebrow. "I want you to promise me you'll take it easy until that's healed."

"It's not.." Xena hesitated Would it hurt to promise? There wasn't any law that said I have to spend days in pain pushing through this, is there? Other than my own law, that is. Besides.. She sighed inwardly. I think I need some time to consider.. whether or not I want to keep doing.. this. "All right. I promise." She said finally, quietly.

That was too easy. Gabrielle's alarm bells started going off, but she put a lid on them, and smiled at Xena. "Anyway, if you start off slow, you can nudge Jessan along with you. He's..umm..."

Xena's eyebrow quirked, and she resumed her grin. "I noticed."

The bard put laid her hand flat on Xena's stomach. "Don't tease him." She gave her partner a knowing look. "He promised he wouldn't tease you about us."

The warrior laughed. "Deal." she replied, moving into the main area of the healer's cot and pulling out a fresh tunic. "In fact, I'll just relax out on the porch and restitch those leathers." She fastened her tunic, settling the fabric folds neatly around her long body. "Will that satisfy you, my bard?" And maybe take out my armoring tools and give a go at straightening out that armor..must be banged up to Hades. She sighed..

"Sounds like a good idea." Gabrielle agreed, slipping into a spare skirt and top. "I gotta get these washed.. " She indicated her usual set, and Xena's eyebrow rose as she recognized the stains.

"Blood?" She queried, moving closer.

"Nosebleed." The bard shrugged. "Banged my face on Argo's neck."

"Doing...?" Came the softly spoken question, as Xena gently grasped her jaw and tilted her face to the light, studying her intently.

Oh Gods..I forgot I haven't told her about any of that yet... "Uhm...well, there were these raiders."

Both eyebrows jerked up. "Raiders?"

"In the valley pass, yeah.. and I uh.. well, Argo really did it, I just sort of hung on, you know, and then when she landed, I banged my head."

Xena bit her lip to keep from smiling. "You jumped Argo. Over guys with swords?"

"Yeah." A long silence, as they regarded each other.

The warrior sighed. "You could have been......" Hurt. Killed. Damn.

"If I'd let them stop me, that's what I would have wanted to happen." Gabrielle blurted.

A long, intent stare from those blue eyes. "You don't mean that." Flatly. But I think she does.

Gabrielle's eyes snapped with anger. "Don't you treat me a like a child." She said, returning that stare intent for intent. "Yes I do mean that." she took a breath and released it. "I mean exactly that."

Emotions held in check for days were now bubbling to the surface, and she knew she wasn't going to be able to hold them back. "I know what it feels like when you die, Xena. " She paused. "I can't go through that again. I can't." Her voice broke. "I can't." she repeated softly, aware of Xena's tense, still form, one hand still cupping her jaw. "I don’t want to be here without you." That, in a whisper, as Xena’s hand left her face, and slid around her body, and pulled her tightly close.

"Gabrielle." Only her name, but it sang with an aching sadness that circled her heart and held it firmly.

"It hurt so much." In a hoarse whisper. "It was tearing me apart." Gabrielle let herself sink into the warmth and love that had become an essential part of her life, and floated in a haze of green tinged sunlight, and the scent of their soap, and the warm sun dried fragrance of Xena’s linen tunic, soft against her cheek. And spoke the poignant truth in her heart. "I can’t live without this anymore, Xena." And against her ear, she felt the strong pounding of Xena's heart, much faster than normal.

Xena stared sightlessly over Gabrielle's shoulder. I can't do that to her. I just… I can't. I close my eyes, and I hear that gods be damned sound that came out of her when she thought I was… And I remember what I felt in her after I died. How empty that was. No more. I need to stop this useless, dangerous attempt at making amends, and just.. keep her safe. That means keeping myself safe.

"Then we have to make sure that you don’t ever have to.." Came the unexpected answer, and when the bard looked up, she saw an unexpectedly lost look in her partner's eyes.

"What do you mean?" She asked, softly, trying to study pale blue eyes that wouldn’t meet hers, of a sudden. "Xena?" No answer. Gods.. what’s going on in there?

Finally, the warrior took a very deep breath, and let it out, and met Gabrielle’s gaze with quiet intensity. "Means I’ll have to find a way to keep us both safe, right?"

Gabrielle stared at her, warning bells going off again. "Mmm…right. But don’t you usually?"

Xena’s lips twitched with a faint regretful smile. "No.. I find a way to keep you safe. I never much thought about myself." She paused. "I can’t really – not and do some of the things I do."

"But.." the bard started, confused. "I don’t.."

Xena gave her a smile, and a squeeze. "Don’t worry about it for now, Gabrielle. Just something to think about. " She rubbed the bard’s back briskly. "Come on.. "

Gabrielle held her out at arms distance. "Talk to me." Green eyes as direct and clear as sunlight on a still pond. "What’s going on with you?" What’s going on that’s making your heart beat that fast, that hard? What’s making you shiver, you who fears nothing, and no one, and who stares death down with regularity?

Xena hesitated, torn between opening her heart, and the knowledge that Gabrielle wasn’t ready to hear this right now. That she wasn't ready to say it, yet. And knew one thing that would temporarily distract her partner. She let her eyes close, and swayed a little, grasping the bard’s shoulder for support.

Instantly, Gabrielle came in close, and wrapped a concerned arm around her. "Hey.."

"Sorry.." the warrior sighed. "Little light headed after all that enforced rest." She gave Gabrielle a tentative smile, and laid an arm across her shoulders. "It’s good to know you’re here."

A smile from the bard. "Always." She promised, with a squeeze. "Do you want to lie down?"

Xena took a deep breath, and shook her head. "No.. no..I’d really like to just go outside. It’s.." She glanced around. "I’d just like that."

Gabrielle understood. "Sure."

Xena stopped and picked up her battered leathers, and her repair kit, and they walked outside into the very early morning light, watching the sun creep through the village like silent hunter, burning off the pale gray mist, and waking the colors from dim blues and greens to vibrant life.

Across the central area they could see the morning movements of the watch, striding across the grass with loose limbed strides, and hear the nickers from the stableyard. Xena’s ears cocked, and she let out one low, vibrant signal. Was rewarded by a familiar neigh that brought smiles to both of their faces. "Gotta go visit." Xena commented.

"Sit down for a little bit, first." Gabrielle coaxed, getting an eyebrow raised in response, but watching in contentment as her partner did as she was requested, and settled back into the hewn wooden chair, slinging one leg casually over the arm and relaxing. "That’s better." And gave Xena a quiet smile.

"Yes mom." The warrior teased, "But do me a favor, and just check on her, OK?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "Sure.. I’ll be right back." She trotted down the steps from the high porch, and headed in the direction of the stables.

Xena watched her until she vanished into the structure, then sighed.

And stilled, as she sensed, in the edges of her peripheral senses, that she was being stalked

Warrin stood in the dappled shadows, his dark furred body blending in with the trunk of the tree he was leaning against. His eyes flicked over the compound, and noticed tiny details. A bird was making a messy nest in the roof of the healer's cot. The morning pit fire had too much green wood and was lifting fragrant smoke into the air. The ground under his bare feet was damp from the dew, which also glistened in the grass and beaded gently on the leaves surrounding his face.

Curiously, he licked one, and tasted the green tang of the leaf, scratchy against his tongue, and the faintly sweet taste of the dew. Then his eyes returned to the healer's cot, spotting movement in the doorway.

Ah. His eyes absorbed the sight of the two humans, as they walked together out onto the wooden porch, and into the sunlight. The smaller was familiar to his sight, and he remembered leaning over an assassin on the cool stone floor across from a pair of sea green eyes that had seemed to him to be uncommonly penetrating for one of her kind. A bard, she was, he remembered, but carried a quarterstaff as though she knew well how to use it.

And her body had backed up that impression, being slim, but muscular, and when she had moved, it had been with the calm assurance of one comfortable with handling themselves.

So here was the bard, again, looking out over the grass, the cool morning breeze blowing her fair hair over her shoulders as she glanced out, then glanced up at her companion.

So that was Xena. Warrin mused, studying her intently. Tall, for a human female, and well built, with long arms and legs and a way of moving even when injured that spoke to him.. His lip curled up slightly. Oh yes. She was one of Ares' children, no question there.

He heard her low whistle, and the responding answer from her mare, and the quiet speech between them, as the bard watched her seat herself, then strode off towards the stable.

I want a closer look at this human. He decided. I want to see if she lives up to the stories I've heard.. the legends they tell, though I know that can't really be possible.

He slipped from behind the tree, and moved silently forward, reaching the edge of the healer's cot and gaining a position where he could observe her unaware, pressing himself against the large oak tree in front of the building, and going very still.

Xena felt the eyes on her and consciously relaxed her body, laying the leathers out along her thighs, and removing the patching needle from her kit. Tuning her hearing in the direction she knew her watcher to be, she pulled out a length of fine gut from the small bag, and threaded the needle, then started to work on the tough leather.

Her senses focused tight, absorbing the sounds around her, and slowly eliminating the harmless ones. The soft rush of the wind, the rattle of the leaves in movement, calling voices from across the courtyard, all faded. She focused further. The faint creaking of the wooden building at her back, muffled sounds inside as Elaini woke and began her daily tasks, a bird rattling on the porch roof.. she let them dissipate, leaving the almost soundless pressure of her watcher's breathing, and the sense of him shifting, moving, the scratch of bark against hair.. she had him pinpointed as closely as if she'd turned around and looked, and she let a reluctant grin tug at her lips.

The skills.. I'll keep. For a while, at least, until people forget who I am, and I don't have to worry about them showing up on Amphipolis' doorstep. She glanced up, and regarded the peaceful scene in front of her. Besides, be honest, you cantankerous old goat, you enjoy showing off what all that hard work accomplished. She mocked herself, but knew it for the truth. Now I just have to figure out a way to broach the subject to Gabrielle.. wonder if she'll like the idea? Maybe she'll choose to... A smile tightened her lips momentarily. No.. whatever else, that choice is long past, and you know it. For you as well as her. But you know.. she just might.... She let her thoughts drift back to a quiet patch of grass under a fading sunset just outside of a place she could once again call home.

It had been a long, long walk after dinner through the fragrant woods, she'd mostly listened, as usual, as Gabrielle practiced one of the stories she was working on.

"That happened a while ago, though." Xena had commented.

"Yeah.." Gabrielle replied. "But I'm so backlogged - I could take off 10 years and not get caught up on all the stuff that's happened to us." She'd glanced up, and tucked her arm in Xena's. "No chance of that, right?" Half jokingly.

"You'd get bored." Xena had laughed. but wondered, since Gabrielle had slipped into the daily routine with an almost wistful ease, and went about her day with a relaxed smile that occasionally looked like relief to the watching warrior.

"Hmm... I guess you're right." The bard had replied, but her eyes had been thoughtful.

They'd ended up by the embankment over the small river to the west of Amphipolis, and settled down in the grass to watch the sunset, Xena leaning back against a convenient rock, with her arms clasped loosely around Gabrielle, who was tucked comfortably up against her chest.

Watching the light turn from deep golden to crimson, to purple, and change the landscape from brilliant colors to a dim blue haziness in which the night noises suddenly erupted and displaced the gentler sounds of day.

"Ugh." The bard had yawned, rubbing her stomach. "Your mother is going to be my downfall, you realize." Giving Xena a sheepish look. "I know I've more than made up for losing all that weight with the Amazons." she chuckled ruefully and plucked at her loose fitting tunic. "I'm afraid to try getting back into that skirt."

Xena had laughed, and reassured her. "You look healthy. Don't worry about it." And had given her a warm hug to back the statement up. Gotten a grin in response, as she felt Gabrielle's body relax against her contentedly.

"Pretty." Gabrielle murmured, wrapping her hands around Xena's. "This is a nice place to watch sunsets from."

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "I always used to come up here when I was little." She had looked down at her quiet partner. "You like it here?" Meaning Amphipolis, actually, and not the riverbank.

Gabrielle had understood the question. "Very much so." Her eyes had lifted to Xena's as she half turned in her arms. "Your family's made me feel part of them, Xena. I really like that. And I really like being here with you." She'd paused. "I've never seen you so.." She glanced up and smiled at the warm, dreamy look in those blue eyes. " Relaxed. It's really nice."

"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself." Xena had quietly answered. Then - Gods..I am at peace with myself. .. just when did that happen? "It's been a quick fortnight, huh?"

And Gabrielle had gazed at her for a very long moment, seemingly about to say something, but ended up just smiling and nodding agreement.

"Too short?" Xena had hazarded a guess.

The bard had swallowed, and quietly nodded again.

"We'll have to do it again sometime, then." The warrior had promised, with a tiny grin.

Gabrielle had let her head fall back against Xena's chest, and let her fingers idly play with a fold of her tunic. "I'd really like that." She replied, in a wistful voice.

"So would I." Xena had responded, and realized right then that it was the truth.

She tracked her watcher as he moved away from the large tree at her back, and slid silently closer. Not bad.. she admitted, detecting the soft scrape of his hand against the wood of the cot. Let's see.. foot up on the porch next. Bet it creaks.

But would Gabrielle agree with why she wanted to stop traveling, stop.. this never-ending series of fighting and struggling towards a far off dim possibility of redemption? Should she even tell her.. maybe she could just say this last injury did.. something. No. She didn't want there to be any secrets, not ones this important, between them. She'd tell Gabrielle exactly why, and then just see what the bard said. At least.. she mused sardonically I'm secure enough in what we have between us to assume she's going to care about where I end up after I have one fight too many.

Creak. Xena rolled her eyes. Amateur. Should have found the supports under the porch, and made sure he landed right on top of one. Her senses told her it wasn't Jessan, but they also told her that whoever it was wasn't attacking. Guess I'll just have to force the issue. She sighed, and spoke "Might as well sit down."

And turned her head, finally, to see him with her sight instead of her hearing. A scarred, dark furred face blinked quietly back at her. "Don’t' think we've met." She paused. "You'd have been better off staying by the tree."

Warrin was stunned. He'd sworn she hadn't detected him, not with the completely relaxed posture she'd kept, and the distracted, almost unseeing look to her gaze. He studied her face in silence, drinking in the sharp, angled planes and the chillingly ice blue eyes. So.

He seated himself next to her, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "My name is Warrin." He finally grunted, and waited.

Xena raised an eyebrow at him, not pausing in her mending. "Jessan's uncle."

Warrin nodded. They sat in silence, and he realized that was a natural state for her, as it was for himself.

Blue eyes flicking to his. "Did you get Ansteles?" Xena's voice was mildly curious. Knowing he had been sent to assassinate Hectator’s rival after the battle at Cirron.

The forest dweller peered at her, feeling a tickling interest poking its head up, despite his firm intentions. "Yes." He answered, then cleared his throat. "Didn't know you knew." He paused. "Nice work on Stevanos." The assassin that Xena had taken apart in her quarters that night. Whose jaw, and arm, and skull were fractured to a degree he thought only his kind were capable of, that showed a savage, brutal strength that had surprised him, coming from a human.

Xena just raised an eyebrow at him, and grinned.

That grin surprised him, in its feral familiarity. Then her gaze drifted across the village center, and he saw the sharp lines soften almost imperceptibly, and a certain warmth kindle in her eyes. He followed her glance and was not surprised to see the fair-haired bard approaching. So. But love between them did not a lifebond make, he reminded himself.

"Hi." Gabrielle turned her eyes to him as she climbed up the step onto the porch. "Warrin, isn't it? Jessan's uncle?"

He nodded, and watched her closely. Her attention was on him, but her steps drew her unerringly to Xena's side, and she rested a hand on the warrior's casually propped knee in unconscious possession, her fingers idly tracing smooth patterns on the tanned skin.

And now, with them together, he could See it without a doubt. His heart darkened. "Well, just saying hello." He said, shortly, and got up, leaving the porch without another word.

They looked at each other. Xena shrugged. "Don't ask me. He tried to sneak up here without me seeing him, then sat down and made small talk, then you showed up, and he left."

"Hmm." The bard mused. "Well, anyway, Argo's fine, but she misses you." She started to go to the other chair, but Xena patted the arm of hers, which was wide enough for a seat, and she settled down on the smooth worn wood slipping her arm around the warrior's shoulders and leaning her head against the high chair back.

The door to the healer's cot opened, and Elaini stuck her head out, peering around the doorframe with an inquiring expression. "Oh. There you are." She sighed, and edged the rest of her big body out the opening. "I’m going to stick my neck out, and assume you're pretty much OK. Right?" Her eyes scanned Xena from head to foot, and apparently were satisfied with what they saw.

"Pretty much." the warrior agreed. "Thanks, by the way." She leaned back, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle's arm against her neck. "Sorry I knocked you over that first night."

Elaini laughed and ambled over, settling herself in the other chair. "Thanks..for..what?" She propped an elbow on the chair arm, and gazed at them. "You diagnosed yourself, healed yourself, and even, it seems, fed and bathed yourself without any assistance from me. I wish all my patients were as considerate. Usually they hang about complaining of ingrown claws until I throw them out of the place." She yawned, showing her canines. "And I get tossed around occasionally, too - just wasn't expecting it, anyway. No problem."

Xena gave her a look, and shook her head. "I did have help." She elbowed Gabrielle, who tugged her hair in response.

"I realize that." Elaini grinned. "You both were out cold all day yesterday... bet you..." She winked at Gabrielle "Had some kind of backache, with that position you were in."

The bard's mouth quirked. "I did.. but Xena fixed that." Then she sobered, and cocked her head. "Was that because of this... connection thing?"

Elaini nodded. "Uh huh. But surely you noticed..." She blinked at them. "You sleep and wake together, right?"

They both looked at each other. "Well." Xena finally said, with a light laugh. "That explains a lot." Suddenly little things she'd been noticing made more sense. Like her sudden inexplicable inability to get up in the morning, after how many gods be blasted years? She shook her head, but saw that Elaini's attention was distracted, and curiously followed the forest dweller's gaze.

Jessan was making his way across the center ground, headed in their direction. Xena looked at Elaini watching him, then glanced at Gabrielle, who quirked an eyebrow at her.

The warrior looked at Elaini, then at Jessan, and now the bard's eyes followed hers, first curiosity, and then comprehension dawning as she interpreted the strange expression on Elaini's face.

They looked at each other, and grinned, needing no bond to share each other's thoughts.

"Morning, Jess." Xena drawled, as the forest dweller drew near, and returned his smile.

"Feeling better, I guess, huh?" Jessan asked, as he climbed up onto the porch and settled cross-legged at her side. He glanced up." Hey guys." Grinning at Elaini and Gabrielle.

"Hey yourself." Gabrielle responded, with a twinkle in her eyes. "Listen.. I have a really great idea." Now.. just go along with me here, Xena.. come on.. "I’ve gotten my friend here.. " A poke at the warrior, who gave her a look. "to agree to take it easy for a few days.. I was wondering if you guys would like to join us for a… picnic, this afternoon."

She felt the silent chuckle run through Xena’s frame, but not a twitch showed on her face. "Sounds good to me." Xena replied gravely, crossing her arms over her chest and the now finished leathers. "You should go. Gabrielle does great picnics."

Jessan looked at her, and then at Gabrielle, and hesitated. They’re up to something. Wish I knew what.. but they are definitely up to something. Oh well. No harm in a picnic, I guess. "Sure." He agreed with his sunny grin. "I love a picnic." His eyes traveled over to Elaini. "Come on.. you can take the afternoon off."

The healer raised both shaggy eyebrows. "Well, since my patient here seems to have recovered with no help from me, I guess I can." She chuckled. "And I suppose we’ll need some food to go with it. " She nodded at Gabrielle. "Can I introduce you to the community kitchen?"

Gabrielle grinned. "Absolutely." She got up, giving Xena’s arm a quick squeeze. "Be back."

Xena nodded at her, and watched them cross the central space, heading for a low, wide building near the stream. Then she turned her head, and she and Jessan regarded each other quietly.

"Think we’re about even now, my friend." Xena said at last, prodding him with the toe of her boot.

Jessan shook his head, and leaned forward, catching her boot. "We both know I didn’t get you out of there. How did you do that?"

"Do what?" Xena asked, gazing at him, arms still crossed. Then – "Don’t ask me that, Jessan. We both know I don’t know the answer, other than to just say I did what I did because I had to do it."

The tall forest dweller nodded slowly. "Know that." He patted her foot absently. "I thought.. " He swallowed. "I didn’t see how.. Xena, if it wasn’t for Gabrielle being convinced you were…" He stopped, and sighed. "I was so afraid you weren’t."

"Afraid?" Came the quiet question.

"For her." The honest answer.

Xena closed her eyes in acknowledgment. "I know.’ She drew breath and released it. "I couldn’t let that happen." She paused. "You were right, damn you." But she smiled as she said it. Right about what he’d seen between them, and the inevitability of it all.

Jessan’s eyes shadowed, and he put a hesitant hand on her leg. "Are you sorry I was?" Please.. Xena.. I have to know.. but Ares, I hope…

Her smile forestalled his thoughts. "No." A simple answer, to a hard question. "Not at all."

He felt relief cascade down him, lifting his fur in a happy shiver. "I’m glad." He grinned suddenly. "I promised Gabrielle I wouldn’t tease you about that." His golden eyes lifted to hers, and saw the twinkle there.

"Yeah… " She drawled, giving him a look. "I got that lecture too."

Watching him blush and roll his eyes. "I know.. I know.. I’m a little piglet." He patted his belly. "Not enough things to challenge me around here. I get lazy." He lifted his broad shoulders in a rueful shrug. And found unexpected sympathy in her eyes.

"Been there, done that." Xena chuckled. "I can be pretty bad if I don’t keep the pressure on."

"Really?" He asked, intrigued. "Never would have guessed."

"Yeah." She admitted. "But don’t tell anyone. It’s bad enough Gabrielle brings out that part of me in the worst way."

Jessan grinned, and slapped her boot. "Not a word" He promised.

They looked at each other in silence.

"It’s changed you." Jessan said, quietly.

A long expelled breath from Xena. "Yeah." But her face broke into a sudden dazzling smile.

Jessan held his breath, charmed by her response. Knowing that, whatever else this joining brought, it had brought her a measure of peace, and of happiness, and that soothed his soul with a wonderful warmth. "Ares, I’m glad." He breathed, returning her smile with one of his own.

They both glanced away, then back. "Me too." Xena chuckled, then unfolded her arms and patted his head. "Listen, I did promise her I’d take it easy for a few days.. wanna do some light drills?"

Jessan grinned, and showed every tooth in his mouth. "You bet." He sighed happily. "After this.. picnic." And now his gaze turned suspicious. "What are you two up to?"

"Us?" Xena hiked both eyebrows up in injured innocence. "Don’t know what you mean."

"Uh huh." The forest dweller nodded, not buying it.

"Really." Xena assured him. "It’s just a picnic. Gabrielle likes them. A lot."

"Uh huh." Jessan said again.

Xena just looked at him with a slight smile on her lips.

"Not going to tell me, huh?" Jessan sighed.

Silence from the warrior.

Jessan sighed again. "OK" He finally capitulated. "But it better be good."

A grin from Xena. It will be if Gabrielle does her part.. and if I know my bard… she already has.

Gabrielle strode along silently, stretching her steps a bit to keep up with the much taller Elaini, and casting her eyes around the compound. "Nice day." She commented, glancing up in appreciation at the cloudless sky. The warm sun drenched the grassy central area, and a gentle cool breeze stirred the leaves on the surrounding trees.

"Hmm.. uh huh." Elaini answered absently, then turned her golden head and looked at Gabrielle. "Sorry.. my minds a thousand leagues away from here… you’re right – it is a nice day." She smiled, showing her canines. "I’m glad your partner is doing better. I was.. " She glanced around, then back to Gabrielle, softening her tone. "I was a little worried about her yesterday.. that was a pretty high fever."

The bard nodded and chewed her lip. "I know. I was too." She took in a breath. "But she’s pretty tough."

"So I found out." Elaini chuckled good-naturedly. "Boy was I surprised. the way, for not listening to you." She gestured towards the larger cot that held the village’s communal kitchen. "Come on."

"Thanks." The bard responded. "And, no problem – I just try to make things easier for people around her.. especially when she’s not really sure of what’s going on. She reacts really, really fast."

Elaini nodded, as she pushed the door to the cot open. "Now I know." A curious glance down at the fair-haired human. "How did the two of you… I mean… it’s an odd…"

Gabrielle laughed. "That’s a long story, so I’ll tell you at lunch." She gave the forest dweller a sideways look. "I’m glad Jess said he’d come.. he looks like he could use a little cheering up."

Elaini sighed. "That’s true.. I’m not sure what’s bugging him lately." Her ears perked up and she put a hand on Gabrielle’s back to guide the bard into the cool storage area. "What do you bring for a picnic? I’ve never been to one." She glanced around, nodding a little at the well-organized room. The storage cot was dug down below the ground level, and held a coldness even in the hottest weather, keeping the provisions well stored on rough shelves around the packed earthen walls.

Gabrielle browsed around the supplies, and selected, first, a large basket. "Well, this is important – something to carry everything in." She grinned. "And.. let’s see.. " She selected a few items with a knowing hand. "These are good. You can put them together and make little snack rolls with them."

"Really?" Elaini replied, coming closer and looking over her shoulder. "Oh.. yeah, I see what you mean. Do you like those?"

"I do.. and so does Xena." The bard chuckled. "We’re lucky that way.. we mostly like the same things."

"Oh." The forest dweller mused. "Is she picky?" Her face creased into a mischievous grin.

Gabrielle snorted. "Gods no." She picked up several other items "She’d actually just swallow anything edible if she had to.. but I can always tell when she really likes something, and I try to work with that, because if she likes something, then I can sometimes get her to slow down and actually chew it before she swallows." She winked. "Getting her to relax and enjoy herself a little is a hobby of mine."

Elaini let out a low, rumbling chuckle. "Sounds like quite a hobby." Offhandedly, she picked up a piece of dried venison from the shelf and examined it. "So.. how do you tell if she likes something?"

Gabrielle hid a grin, and studied the selection of fruits stacked in small baskets against the back wall of the cot. "Well.." She reflected. "She’s a tough read, I’ll give you that. It’s that warrior know? That stoic, never admit to pain, never admit to having an emotion about anything kind of walnut shell they all have?"

"Oh yeah." Elaini nodded, and rolled her eyes. "Tell me all about it. Like if they let up for a candlemark the world would stop spinning."

The bard nodded. "Uh huh." She sat down on a convenient box and assumed a thoughtful expression. "Let’s see.. how do I know when she likes something.. well, she gets kind of this.. " her mouth quirked into a grin. "sparkle in her eyes." She paused. "Not that those eyes don’t sparkle all the time, all by themselves, mind you.. but this is different."

"Really." Elaini breathed, seating herself on a cask of cider.

"Yeah." Gabrielle confirmed. "And.. she kind of smiles, just a little bit, but almost like she can’t help it. " If she closed her eyes, she could picture the look. "She has a sweet tooth she won’t admit to, but I catch her with that sometimes." With a twinkle, she added a handful of honey and nut clusters rolled in powdered sugar to the basket. "You watch."

The forest dweller sighed. "You sound like you really enjoy doing that."

"I do." The bard responded. "Those walnut shells are tough.. but once you get them cracked.. " Her face relaxed into a smile. " Underneath all that, she’s the nicest, most gentle person you could imagine knowing. " She paused. "It’s worth the effort." Get my drift? Maybe…

Elaini studied her for a long moment, then gave her a wistful smile. "You’re in love with her."

Gabrielle smiled. "That’s pretty obvious, I thought." As obvious as you’re being.. but we won’t mention that, right? Right.

"Even without the bond you share, I think you would be." The healer mused.

"I was, a long time before we knew about that." Came the honest answer.

Elaini ducked her head closer. "How did you know?" Her eyes glinted "When did you realize?"

Ah. Good question. Gabrielle reflected. Now, how can I answer this so that I give her the information she’s asking for.. "Well, I’d known for a long time we were really close - I mean, when you go around the way we do, you kind of… come to depend on that other person. And I did. " She stopped then smiled a little. "I do. Anyway, but there are always things that drive you nuts, and she has a bunch of those things, too." She handed Elaini a pear, and took one herself, biting into it and chewing thoughtfully. "So, we’d had this fight."

And it had been a big one, Gabrielle reflected, looking back. She hadn’t spoken to Xena since that morning, when they’d had yet another in a series of arguments about why Xena never bothered to tell her what was going on, or where they were going, or…

Same old, same old. Gabrielle had thought, trying to come up with something to put down on the scroll that had been sitting before her blank since they’d stopped and made camp. I get treated like a child, I get mad, and she just pulls into her shell and stops communicating. Not that she communicates really well even on a good day. But this is like.. She glanced over at the closed, silent visage across the fire from her. I used to just get mad. Now I get mad, but it also hurts.. and it’s been hurting more and more lately. That’s weird. It’s like I don’t want us to fight.

A motion had attracted her eye, and she realized the warrior was no longer there. Great. She thought in disgust. Just run off, like usual. She’d known that Xena would probably just go work off her anger doing those never-ending drills of hers, and come back, like she did sometimes, tired and just kind of quiet.

Guess it’s cold stuff again for dinner. Not that Xena ever cared. The bard had sighed. Or complained, be fair - she would eat whatever you put in front of her, and never say a word. Though I wish sometimes… Gabrielle had felt the anger leaking out of her like water in a sand pile, being replaced by a wistful sadness that had become more and more common to her lately. I wish she’d notice when I really try to make something nice.

And realized with a funny kind of shiver that lately.. smiles, and kind looks, and the odd positive word from her traveling companion had become more important to her. Had become.. something she needed, something that filled a spot in her that was otherwise dark and empty. That felt very dark and very empty right now.

She had stared down at the parchment in somber reflection, trying to sort out her feelings, and using the end of her recently useless quill to brush the tears off the surface as they fell. She’d had no idea why she was even crying, and rubbed her face in irritation as she lifted her head.

To see Xena standing there, leathers damp with the water that was also dripping off her bare legs and lower arms, and off the shining fins of two large fish she had by the gills. Yellow tails, which Xena knew were Gabrielle’s favorite kind.

The bard had looked up, startled, into those deep blue eyes, and seen the slight tilt of that dark head, and the quirked eyebrow that was Xena asking for a truce. And the fish were a peace offering, if Gabrielle had a mind to accept them.

And suddenly, desperately, she wanted to accept them. Wanted things to be all right between them with a fierce longing that shocked her to the core. She had stood up, and walked over to the waiting warrior, and slipped her hands into the gills to take the fish, feeling her heart jump as their fingers touched, and listening at last to her body’s reaction to her nearness, and the warm, spicy scent of her leathers, and the look in Xena’s eyes as their glances met.

Realizing in that timeless moment that ‘best friend’ just didn’t quite encompass her feelings any more. And wondered what in Hades was the point in that?

Wondered until Xena, now relieved of her burden, dried her hands off, hesitated, and then lifted a hand up, and so, so gently brushed one of the recently fallen tears off her cheek. And let her fingertips linger a heartbeat longer than she needed to. "Thought you’d appreciate something other than bread and cheese." Was the offhand comment.

Thanks." She’d said, hearing the touch of strain in her voice. "Thought we’d be stuck with trail bars tonight." But her tone had been warm, and she’d seen the reflection of that in the grin that quirked unevenly across the warrior’s lips.

But she wanted more than that, so she let her feelings show, just a little, and braved the danger of their glances meeting. And was rewarded with a softening in those ice blue eyes, and a real smile, which she tucked into that lonely place inside her, letting the warmth spread out slowly. "Uhm… sorry I yelled, before." She apologized, letting out a long sigh.

"My fault." Xena had replied, putting a hand on her shoulder, and squeezing gently. "Sorry.. I.." She’d hesitated. "I hate when we fight." She’d finally admitted.

"Me too." Gabrielle had agreed, as she felt the tension drain out of her. She’d glanced at her hands. "These are my favorites." With a shy glance up, and reveling in the feel of the warm hand still clasped on her neck.

"Yeah. I know." Had come the quiet answer. "Mine too."

Gabrielle had felt a slow smile crossing her face. "Didn’t know you had a favorite." The words slipped out before she could stop them, and she blushed slightly.

Xena had just chuckled, though, and patted the side of her face gently. "I do." She’d drawled. "Just took me a while to get around to mentioning it."

Gabrielle grinned, remembering. She’d lain awake half the night, just looking up at the stars, and trying to figure out where her head was at. And finally, had lit a tiny candle stub, and settled down at her parchment, and wrote a poem that came as close as she could to painting a picture in words of what she saw when she looked across the dim, barely glowing embers of her campfire towards her companion. At last, satisfied, she’d sanded and blown off the scroll, and reread it, then rolled it up and tied it neatly, and stowed it away in her carry bag. Where it still was, a bit tattered but whole.

"I don’t.. " She glanced at Elaini, who was patiently waiting for an answer. "Well.. for me, I knew, when I realized that for all the danger, and all the bad things that happen to us.. " Here she smiled. "And all the times we fight about stuff, I’d still rather be with her than be anywhere else in the world."

Elaini sighed. "Wow."

"So." Gabrielle said, crisply. "What does Jessan like?" Ooo… Gabrielle, you are an bad bard. Bad Bard. Bad to the bone. Her eyes took on a mischievous sparkle. "Come on.. come on.."

Elaini blushed a deep crimson "How would I know??" She blurted, scowling at the bard.

Gabrielle summoned up her best Xena style raised eyebrow look, and dumped in on the hapless forest dweller.

It worked. The healer let her shoulders slump and put her chin in her big hands. "He doesn’t even know I’m alive." She sighed deeply. "He’s so cute."

Gabrielle bit her lip hard to keep from giggling. "I always thought so." She gravely agreed. "Now we just have to get him out of his shell." A quick grin. "So to speak." Oh..I’m gonna enjoy this.. and so is my ever so cynical, I’m too tough for my leathers partner. "Relax. We’ll think of something."

Elaini bit a section out of her pear, and looked up with embarrassed gratitude. "Nice to have an ally, anyway."

Gabrielle grinned. "Two of them." She picked up the basket, and swung it over her arm. "Come on.. we’ve got a picnic to go to."

"You mean.. she.. uhm…" Elaini spluttered. "I thought.. but.. she’s.."

The bard stopped at the flight of steps leading up from the earthen floor, and put her free hand on her hip. "When it comes to plans… " The green eyes glinted. "Nobody even comes close. "

Xena studied Jessan’s profile as he looked out over the grassy area, small wisps of fur whipping back against his ears in the wind. "So.. what’s up?" She drawled casually. "What was that fighting I heard yesterday.. you and that healer got problems?"

Jessan turned his head, and regarded her. "Uhm… problems.. no." He said, then sighed. "Just a difference of opinion." A wry look crossed his face. "We have a lot of them."

"Mmmm." Xena murmured. "Bout what?" Keeping her voice light and only casually interested, as she watched a hummingbird on a bush limb near by.

The forest dweller shrugged. "Nothing.. really.. oh, yeah. She was mad I didn’t tell her about you guys the night before." He saw the raised eyebrow. "About you being.. well, you know."

Xena nodded. "Seems nice." A glance at Jess "Little young for this job, huh?"

Jessan straightened, and half turned to face her. "She’s qualified." The defensive tone in his voice brought a faint twitch to the warrior’s lips. "She’s very nice.. sorry she had that little problem with Gabrielle. She just didn’t.. Xena, you’re not her usual kind of patient. " He patted her muscular leg. "Don’t sell her short."

Blue eyes gazed down at him in mild bemusement. "Me? I was just commenting that she’s a bit young to have finished healer’s training. That’s all.. no complaints."

"Oh." Jessan blushed. "Sorry.. I was just… " A peek at Xena’s face, which had maintained it’s amiable good nature. He shrugged. "She gets a lot of grief from the clan about being so young.. so I…"

"Sokay." Xena patted his head. "I understand." Boy.. do I ever. She grinned at herself. Remembering her own heated defenses of Gabrielle, usually not in the young bard’s hearing. "You’re a good friend."

Jessan stared off into the distance, and snorted. "Yeah." Then he looked up. "Just got back from a run." He absorbed her sympathetic grin and returned one of his own. "Going to go wash off, then I’ll be right back."

"Sure." Xena nodded at him, prodding him with her boot again. "Like those water arrangements, by the way."

He chuckled, and got to his feet, feeling the beginning of what was, he knew, going to be a lack of use soreness in his legs, and padded down the stairs and off towards his family cot, giving the returning Gabrielle a wave as he passed her.

"So." Xena asked, as Gabrielle seated herself back on the deck with a large basket. "What do you have there?"

The bard looked back and smirked. "Guess you'll find out." she teased. "Thanks for going along with my plan, by the way." She leaned back against Xena's leg and felt the warrior’s fingers tangle themselves in her hair. "She likes him."

Xena chuckled. "Uh huh."

"You think he likes her?" The bard mused, glancing up and over her shoulder.

"Uh huh. " Xena repeated, with a grin.

"We’re bad." Gabrielle chuckled, crossing her arms and smirking.

"Yeah." Xena sighed, letting her head drop back against the chair's wooden surface, and closing her eyes for a minute as a small wave of dizziness hit her. Damn.. still a little wiped out, I guess.

Felt a hand reach up and clasp hers, and opened her eyes to see Gabrielle's concerned gaze on her. "Hey." The bard rested her chin on Xena's knee and studied her face. "Everything OK?"

"Yeah." The warrior sighed. "Must have lost a lot of blood in there.. just a little lightheaded." Her mouth quirked. "Old news."

Which got a smile from her partner. "Not." She snorted, and squeezed Xena's hand. "Can I get you anything? Water?"

And that got an amused look from her partner.

"You're going to kill me for clucking over you like an worried hen, right?" Gabrielle sighed.

Xena gave her a little grin. "Nah." She glanced across the village center, then looked back into the bard's eyes. "Really.. I haven't had anyone do that to me for.. " Her gaze went inward for a long moment. "Since mother, actually. A long time ago." Very long time ago, she realized, remembering peering up fuzzily at Cyrene's worried face, as her mother changed bandages on.. yeah, that's right. She'd been thrown, and then kicked in the head by that bad tempered stallion of their neighbors. Just before Cortese, and after that... she hadn't ever let anyone close enough.. trusted anyone enough to expose that kind of vulnerability to them. Until now. "You can cluck over me anytime."

Gabrielle's eyes took on a quiet sparkle, and she blushed a little. "I haven't had much practice at it.. " Her brow creased. "And I hope I don't get much." She gave Xena a severe look. "You should be more careful.. how did you let yourself get caught in a rockslide anyway?"

Xena took a breath, and held it, letting it out slowly. "Well.. " She glanced down to where Ares had stumbled out next to her, and was yawning sleepily. "There wasn't a lot of time to think."

Gabrielle hauled herself up off the floorboards and settled back on the arm of the chair. "Since when do you require a lot of time for that?" She rested a hand on Xena's shoulder. "I’ve spent two years being amazed at how fast you move, you know."

"Yeah.. well, " The warrior reached down a hand and scooped Ares up, depositing him on her lap and scratching his ears. Not looking at the bard. " I could have jumped clear." She paused. "But he couldn't have." A half apologetic glance in Gabrielle's direction. "He was there, and I saw him, and I just didn't think.. I just. .it was..." She sighed. "It was stupid."

"No it wasn't..." The bard interjected, but Xena cut her off.

"It was.. is his life worth the amount of.. " She stopped. "I didn't want to put you through that."

A long silence stretched between them, punctuated only by the soft sounds of the returning hunters, and the rustling of grass and leaves in the wind.

Finally, Gabrielle sighed. "Look, we know... I know.. that's always a possibility." She stroked Xena's cheek gently with her knuckles. "It's the price we pay.."

"For me trying to make up for being a bastard most of my life." Xena finished quietly. "I know." She looked up right into the bard's eyes. "But I don't know if I want to pay that price anymore."

Gabrielle took a very deep breath. "Any life's dangerous, Xena." she began, tentatively. "I mean, look - you were just chasing after a runaway horse, here." What's she thinking?...

"You're right." The warrior answered softly. "But I deliberately go out and make it a lot more dangerous, Gabrielle, by putting myself, and you, in to situations that require me to use every skill I have full out just to survive." Her shoulders slumped. "And one of these days, I'm afraid those skills just aren't going to measure up."

Gabrielle gazed at her in consternation. "But you always.." she started, then stopped, watching the tension knot her shoulders. She's talking about quitting, Gabrielle. About settling down somewhere, isn't she? A sudden jolt of wistful longing hit her, but she ruthlessly wrestled it down. This is the price of her redemption. And even if she's not willing to pay it, I am. "Listen.. " she continued, softly. "Even if something happens, it's not forever, Xena. You know that."

"Isn't it?" Came the quiet reply.

Silence from Gabrielle for a long instant. "What.. I mean... " She stopped and took a breath, and swiveled around until she was facing Xena, putting her hands on both shoulders, and locking her gaze with the warrior's. "What's up with you?" And saw a quiet anguish in those blue eyes that made her breath catch in her throat with an audible sound. "What's wrong? Xena, talk to me, please?" There’s been something stirring around back there since it happened. I knew it.. thought it was just.. Damn, I should have dug this out before.

Xena let her eyes close wearily. "I had a lot of time to think, stuck in that cave in, Gabrielle." She looked up at the bard's worried face. "Not much else to do." and let a tiny smile tug at her lips, which Gabrielle reluctantly answered. "And.. well, I realized it wasn't the dying I minded so much.. after all.." She shrugged. "that's a certainty for us all, and for someone like me..." She left the sentence unfinished. "But the thought that was killing me a lot faster than those rocks was that.." She paused and swallowed. "I really didn't want to not ever see you again."

"But... " Gabrielle frowned. "We'll...I mean.. I know not here... but.."

"We're not going to the same place." Xena's voice was quiet and final.

The bard froze, and felt a solid chill take her, sending a shiver down her spine. "You don't know that." Her voice was shaking, she could feel the vibration in it.

Xena's eyes held a remote sadness in them that was it's own answer. "Unfortunately, Gabrielle, yes I do."

"No." Gabrielle whispered, her voice breaking. "Is that.." Where you were when you died? "But that doesn't mean.. it's only been... "

"I've always accepted that eventuality for myself, Gabrielle." Xena said gently, with a faint rueful smile. "Thought I'd have a lot of friends.. and enemies.. there to keep me occupied." She reached out and took the bard's chilled hands in hers, and felt the tremors in them. "That wasn't so bad. But.." She took a breath. "If I only have one lifetime to spend with you.. I'd kind of like it to be a long as possible."

Spotted the gleam of tears in the green eyes facing her and squeezed the hands still clasped in her own. "So.. I'm thinking about.. putting down the sword and going home for a while." She paused, and watched Gabrielle's eyes closely "And I'd really like you to come home with me." And saw the sudden look of intense longing that the bard tried to disguise but couldn't. I saw that, love. You stay out here for my sake, but you want that.. and on some level, so do I.

Gabrielle studied her quietly. "Where you go, I go." A simple truth.

Then she looked inside, and asked herself a question. And got back an answer. And realized that if she were to ask herself that question a thousand times, she'd get back the same answer. A thousand times.

Peacefully, she took in a breath, and gave her partner a smile. "That includes this life, and everything after."

Xena stared at her, with a stunned expression. "What are you saying?" She asked, her voice taking on a hoarse roughness.

The bard managed a shrug. "Simple. I'm not leaving you. No matter what, no matter where, no matter how long.. in this life, in Tartares, it just doesn't matter." She leaned forward and rested her forearms on either side of Xena's neck, so they were nose to nose. "You are stuck with me." She paused, and did her best rendition of the look. "Got it?"

Xena regarded her for a very long moment, in silence. "You don't belong where I'm going." But there were equal parts sadness and joy in the tone.

"Neither do you. But you're missing the point... " Gabrielle rested her forehead against the warrior's. "An eternity in the Elysian Fields without you would be far more torture than anything Tartarus could come up with. As long as I'm with you, nothing else matters."

"Just that simple?" Xena asked, in a wondering tone.

"Yep." The bard answered, kissing her on the nose. "Just that simple. So.. don't get me wrong, there's nothing I'd like better than to settle in at home and spend the rest of my life lazing around in the sun with you and running a village inn. But don't let your decision rest on what's going to happen after this life." She paused, and grinned. "Because that's a done deal."

"It is, huh?" Xena couldn't control the grin that kept twitching at her lips.

"You bet." Came the cheerful answer.

The warrior nodded, in resigned acceptance. "All right." She took a deep breath, and looked up. "Here come our lunch partners."

Then she looked back into Gabrielle's eyes. "We'll talk more about it later." She grinned a little. "You wouldn't mind hanging around a backwater like Amphipolis?"

"Nuh Uh." Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "Like I said when we were there.. I’ve got 10 years of work to do just to document what I've seen so far." She relaxed back on the arm of the chair, leaning against the tall wooden slats behind her. "Besides.. " her grin turned teasing. "Subject myself to your mother's cooking again? No arm twisting required."

"It’s an ultimatum." Lestan sighed tossing the scroll down on the large conference table in his cot, glancing at Wennid and Warrin, who were seated at the table, and then let his gaze travel around the roughly circular room at the scarred, older warriors who were present. "We either capitulate, which means reneging on our treaty with Cirron, and pay them tribute, or they attack."

"Let em." Brennan snorted, pushing himself away from the wall, and uncrossing his burly arms. "He’s not that good."

Warrin regarded him out of his pale eyes. "Not correct." The tracker stated, in a quiet voice. "He is, in fact, that good, and his threat is a serious one." He glanced around. "We have no one that can take him, one on one."

Wennid let a small sigh of relief pass her lips. At one time, it would have been Lestan who answered that challenge. Nowadays, it might be Jessan.. but even she realized he’d let his skills slip recently and wasn’t up to it. "So.." she said, glancing up at her bondmate. "Even though we can’t take him individually, can his clan take on all of us?" The us was her concession to joining the debate – she was no warrior.

Lestan walked slowly around in a small circle, pacing thoughtfully. "Maybe. I don’t know." He looked around the room. "We try to be a peaceful clan, he doesn’t pretend to that. He trains and drills his fighters year round, all the time. They have an edge."

Warrin grunted. "A big one. We can’t win." Not pessimistic, but just truthful, as they all had come to depend on his advice being. His shadowed eyes scanned them. "My vote goes to backing down."

A terrible thing, to hear from one of their kind. But from Warrin, they heard it, knowing it wasn’t fear that drove him. Fear of death was the least of his worries, bringing him one step closer to reuniting with his long lost lifebond.

Lestan winced. He knew Warrin was probably right.. but it galled the tall forest dweller, and started a sick feeling down deep in the pit of his stomach. "I’ll think about all the options." He finally said, with a heavy sigh. "We have a few days yet."

Brennan gave him a dour look. "Why don’t you ask our guest for advice." He spoke up, bluntly. "I’m sure her thoughts would be worth having."

Warrin slammed a hand against the table. "We don’t involve humans in our affairs, Brennan."

Lestan chewed his lip. He really wanted to ask Xena for her advice, especially now, but… if he had to break his treaty with Hectator, where would she see her duty lying? She was a fair person.. he believed that, but.. "No, it’s too delicate to involve her." He commented, giving Warrin a nod. "But if it comes down to the fighting, I’ll be glad of her sword at my side."

"Are you sure that’s where it would be?" Warrin asked, raising one pale eyebrow at him.

Lestan and Wennid looked at him, and spoke in unison. "Yes." And looked at each other in some surprise. Then Lestan’s mind presented him with a sudden image of himself, down and hurt on the battlefield, and a tall, dark haired woman fighter standing over him, holding off uncounted numbers of crack troops with a skill he’d never seen matched. Nor, he suspected, ever would.

I can’t even ask her.. His mind whirled. And yet.. and yet..Could she? No.. he sighed to himself. She’s injured, and it’s not her fight. Mores the pity.. it’s not the first time I wished her born into my clan. "Warrin, I know you hate the humans – but just as we damn them for judging us for what we seem to be, don’t judge all of them based on past experience." He gazed thoughtfully at the rough hewn table surface. "She’s an honorable person. I like her. "

Brennan rolled his eyes. "Lestan, in case it escaped your notice, most of us also like her." Boyo.. his mind chortled. Most of us would gladly lay our swords at her feet, including me. "I think you’re wrong in not asking her. I don’t’ know what you’re so ashamed of – you think the warlord who ran half of Greece is going to be surprised at interclan squabbling?"

Lestan felt Wennid’s hand on his own, and looked down at her. "What do you think, love?" He asked quietly, gazing deep into her burnished eyes with his own, and feeling their link as a low, deep river of emotion lying just beneath their golden furred exteriors.

Wennid sighed. "You know I am not enamored of her. " Her eyes flicked over the room. "And I know you’re concerned with whose side she’ll take if our treaty with Hectator is broken." She stood, and stretched her body, and shrugged. "But, my heart tells me that she will be a part of this before we’re through, and it behooves us to get the best advice we can." She dusted her hands off. "She’s an expert. Get her expert advice." Not looking at Warrin, who she’d had this argument with a short while earlier.

Lestan grunted. "As I said, I’ll consider all the options. We’re done here. Keep the guard up, and pass the word to the northern outposts to keep their eyes open. "

He waited until they’d all filed out, then regarded Warrin with a gentle wistfulness. "Listen.. I know.."

"No, you don’t." Warrin replied, in a remote voice. "No one does. And I don’t want those humans knowing our gift. I don’t care how much you like them. It dishonors the memory of all of us that have gone before." He stood up, and left the room without a backward glance.

"Well." Lestan sighed. "So much for that." He circled his big arms around Wennid. "And thank you for speaking what was in my heart, love."

Wennid smiled, and relaxed her body, melding into his in a warm cloud of tangled fur. "I hope she gives you good advice, Lesi."

He sighed. "I hope so too. She’s having a lunch with Jessan.. I’ll search her out after that. "

The four of them walked slowly down a shaded path towards the stream, away from the quiet bustle of the village. The path sloped down slightly, and was overgrown with tall trees, providing a canopy that blocked the sun from penetrating, and made the walk a cool journey.

"Nice." Gabrielle sighed, giving Xena a sideways glance. "You doing OK?" Her eyes took in the preoccupied look in her partner’s eyes with some concern.

Xena tilted her head down and smiled. "Yep." She reassured the bard. "Just thinking." She glanced ahead to where Jessan and Elaini were padding along next to each other in relative silence. "Got any ideas for that, yet?" Her head nodded towards the two forest dwellers.

Gabrielle chuckled, and linked her arm through the warrior’s. "Actually, I was hoping you did.. you’re better at that sort of thing than I am."

Got a two raised eyebrow look for that. "What?" Xena snorted. "I don’t think so, my meddling bardic friend."

"Right." Gabrielle retorted. "This from the woman who managed to single handedly solve all of Potadeia’s problems in less than a week. Uh huh." She glanced at Xena’s face, and saw the twinkle in her eyes. "Busted." She chortled, and bumped against her gently.

"See what I can do." The warrior relented, and freed her arm, settling it over Gabrielle’s shoulders and pulling her closer. For someone who doesn’t like public displays of affection.. Her mind teased her. You’ve become quite a mushball, know that? But her body craved the contact, and she was in no mood to argue with herself today.

Gabrielle wound a supportive arm around her, and returned the hug, smiling quietly to herself. Boy, has that ever changed, she reflected. When they’d first started travelling together, she’d had to be really careful about touching Xena. The warrior was as jumpy as a cat in the rain, and even the few times she’d slipped and grabbed an arm, she’d plainly seen the effort it had taken for Xena not to react by slamming her against something

And she could hardly help herself.. she remembered with a rueful smile. Touching was an important part of how she related to other people. She’d practically had to sit on her hands not to reach out with a friendly pat, a hug, a squeeze.. especially when things weren’t going so good, and she’d learned enough about her traveling companion to see when pain, or exhaustion was weighing heavily on those broad shoulders.

Then, one night around the fire, it had become unbearable. It had been one of the longest, worst days they’d had in a long time. Two villages burned to the ground, and a third half destroyed before they had caught up with the warlord’s pillaging troops, and had stopped them, but gods, there had been a lot of them, and they had been good, and it had taken just about all of Xena’s strength, and ferocity to defeat them.

They’d hurt her, Gabrielle knew. She could see it in the warrior’s stiff movements, and in the shadowed eyes she kept focused on the dimly moving fire after they’d eaten a mostly silent dinner and the bard had settled down with her scrolls on her bedroll.

But the scrolls remained empty, as she watched Xena’s tense face in profile instead. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, she quietly rose and walked up behind the warrior, forgetting the warning, forgetting… everything.. and dropped her hands to the knotted shoulders, feeling muscles like iron bands under her probing fingers.

Expecting.. she didn’t know what. To be thrown across the campsite, probably. To be yelled at, definitely. Probably not to even have an effect, since her hands weren’t that strong.

She never was sure, afterward, which one of them was more surprised when not only didn’t she get tossed on her rear, but Xena hadn’t reacted at all. Not a twitch, when Gabrielle had always seen the flinch on contact when she’d touched her before. The tanned skin had felt smooth and warm under her hands, and she’d felt the tension melt out of the stiff muscles, as Xena submitted to the gentle pressure and let her head drop forward and rest against her forearm, which was propped against her raised knee.

Gabrielle had let her hands lay in stillness for a long moment after she’d finished, quietly absorbing the warm feeling the contact was stirring in her. Xena had taken and released a deep breath, and tilted her dark head to regard her companion with a half grin. "Guess I was more tired that I thought. You got lucky."

"Sorry.. I just…" The bard had shrugged helplessly, and given Xena a sheepish grin. "You looked so.. " She stopped and just shook her head. "Sorry."

And Xena had regarded her with a quietly grateful expression. "Don’t be. That felt really good. Thanks."

Gabrielle wondered, after, if that wasn’t the start of everything.. really. Because after that, the warrior never flinched at her touch, and the bard had started to relax her constant need to make sure she didn’t just reach out and put a hand on the woman. Now look at us. Gabrielle giggled to herself, as she tightened her hold.

"Here’s the place." Jessan’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and Gabrielle looked up in surprised pleasure at the pretty little glade he’d led them to. It was surrounded on three sides by towering trees, and bordered on its fourth side by a chuckling tributary to the main stream that provided water to the village.

The mossy ground beneath their feet was soft and springy, and Elaini flopped down with a grin of evident delight. "Nice choice, Jess." She nodded approvingly at him, as he seated himself more decorously nearby.

Gabrielle plunked the basket down and knelt, running her fingers through the soft mossy turf. "This is great." She grinned, giving Xena a sideways glance. "Right?"

"Right." The warrior agreed amiably, as she lowered herself to the ground and relaxed into a reclining position propped on one elbow.

They unpacked the basket, and settled down to lunch, making idle small talk until they’d each gotten a trencher full of food, and leaned back against the warm rocks clustered in the glade.

"So." Elaini mumbled, around a mouthful of food. " Tell me about the 200 people you fought off to save Lestan." Her eyes focused with interest on Xena, who snorted and shook her head.

But Gabrielle just grinned, and was off, telling the entire story of their meeting with Jessan and the events that followed with cheerful enthusiasm, pausing frequently to assemble and chew her food, and make sure Xena was doing the same.

"Here." She handed the warrior a large pear, glaring at her until she took it and started nibbling. "Anyway, where was I?? Oh yeah.. so, we get to Cirron, and.."

Xena leaned back, and let the words run over her, focusing instead on the warmth of the sun that was laying on her like a blanket, and whose rich light was bringing out the golden highlights in Gabrielle’s hair, and the forest dweller’s layered coats.

The lunch had made her feel a lot better, which really wasn’t surprising considering that her body had a lot of rebuilding to do, and needed fuel to do it with. Gabrielle had determinedly chosen items she knew Xena really liked and had badgered her until she’d consumed what the bard thought was sufficient.

So the warrior was pleasantly stuffed, to he point where it was making her a touch sleepy, and she stretched out at full length on the turf, one hand resting on the drowsing Ares, the other propping her head up. Imp. She thought, watching the bard’s graceful hands describing the battle at Cirron. Her mind drifted lazily back to their conversation on the porch, and she mentally shook her head. Gabrielle… do you know what you’re saying? To spend an eternity in torment just.. to be with this beat up ex warlord. Her eyes traced the bard’s profile in loving detail. I’m not sure I can let you do that, love.. but the thought that you’re willing to.. oh Gods, Gabrielle.

Question is.. do I keep going, and hope I can do this as well as I do, for long enough to make up for the last 10 years? What are the chances of that, I wonder? I’ve died once already this year, and came close.. I don’t want to think about how many times. And she’s come close, too. The guilt of that thought settled over her as it always did. What happens the one time I’m just not fast enough to stop that? We’ve been lucky.. don’t know if I want to trust our luck much more.

"No way!’ Elaini laughed, slapping her furred thigh. "I don’t believe it."

Xena realized all eyes were on her. "What?" She inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"You catch fish with your bare hands?" Elaini demanded, crossing her arms. "Sorry, Xena, I know you’re amazing and all that, but…"

The warrior sighed, and gave Ares a pat. "OK.. OK.." She put both hands on the grass, and pushed up, getting her feet under her and standing with a lazy stretch. "I can see I’m going to have to prove this." She slipped out of her soft indoor boots and padded towards the creek before they could say a word.

"Wait.. " Gabrielle laughed, getting to her feet and trotting after the warrior. "Xena…"

The creek was fairly narrow, and fairly fast running, and the vibrant chill contrasted strongly with the warm sun on her shoulders as Xena waded into the water, cheerfully ignoring Gabrielle’s protests. "Shh." She gave the bard a look, then waded deeper, and tilted her head, listening.

Turning out the sound of the wind in the trees, and the bird sounds, and the rustling of the river grass on the bank. Listening to the rhythm of the water, as the fast running stream flowed past her, and detecting its pattern. Finding the out of pattern watery chuckles, and concentrating, hearing them closer, and closer, and now, only, looking down into the dappled water.

Saw the reflection of the sun’s rays against something that wasn’t rock, and wasn’t leaves, and she went very still, letting her stance deepen into a crouch, and becoming part of the stream, her body creating a shadow that the fish found intriguing. So he lazily swam into the shadow, and peered around, looking for his next meal.

And found himself grabbed by the gills, in a movement faster than his eyes could detect, and lifted out of his world and into the sunlight.

"There." Xena said, raising her hand, and displaying her catch, a very large fresh water trout, to both forest dwellers, who were now standing on the creek bank watching in fascination.

"All right.. all right. "Jessan said, glancing at Elaini’s markedly interested face. "Show me how to do that." He waded in the creek, hearing Elaini’s gasp and grinning. He could swim, unlike the balance of his clan, having been taught by the dark haired woman standing in thigh deep water in front of him. "Well?"

"With all the noise you just made, you expect the fish to hang around?" Xena asked, arching an eyebrow. Her eyes glinted. "Here." She said, casually flipping the fish towards him.

"Hey!" The forest dweller yelped, catching the struggling fish, and trying to control it’s erratic movements. "Whoa!" He hollered, as the fish got partially loose, and smacked him the face. "Yow!" His feet slid out from under him on the slick creek floor, and he landed on his back in the cold water.

Came up spitting riverweed, with one long stalk poking from behind one draggled ear, trying manfully to ignore the wild giggles from Gabrielle and the corresponding deeper laughter from Elaini.

"You said you wanted to catch a fish." Xena commented, a devilish look in her blue eyes.
"Didn’t say it had to be in the water."

Jessan narrowed his golden eyes, and, forgetting her recent injuries, lunged at her from his sitting position, wrapping his long arms around her linen clad body and taking them both into deeper water, holding on until she started tickling his ribs, and he let go with a high pitched howl. "Hey! Cut that out!!" He gasped, as they surfaced, and Xena tossed her head to get the dark hair out of her eyes.

Then he remembered. "Gods.. are you OK? I forgot…" He moved towards her clumsily, relaxing when she waved him off.

"Yeah.. fine. Don’t worry about it." Xena laughed, and laid back in the cold clear water, attempting to float. And failing miserably, as usual. She glanced up at Jessan, who was practicing his swimming. "Not bad." She cast her eyes over to the shore, where Elani was anxiously watching, up to her ankles in water. "Why not show your healer friend how to swim?"

Jessan gazed at her, golden head cocked to one side. "Swim. Teach. Elaini?"

"Got the essentials." Xena muttered, flipping over and swimming towards him with lazy overhand strokes. "Sure.. why not?" She reached Jessan’s side, and poked him. "G’wan."

"But.." The forest dweller hesitated. "I mean.."

Got him another poke.

"She doesn’t want to." He hissed at her, darting a glance towards the shore.

A raised eyebrow, and a slow, feral grin. "You didn’t want to either."

He sighed. "All right, I’ll try." Shaking his head, he sloshed towards the shore.

"Uh.." Elaini said, tiptoeing back out of the water. "No.. really.. uhm… I have… things.. no, really.."

Bumping into Gabrielle who suddenly was standing in back of her. "Hi." The bard said, putting a firm hand on her shoulder. "You should try it. Really.. it’s a lot of fun."

"Well.. uh no, no thanks, Gabrielle, really." Elaini stammered, but didn’t retreat any further. "I don’t.. Jessan, what are you doing?" The tall forest dweller had climbed out of the water, and was approaching her.

"It’s not hard." Jessan said, soothingly. "it’s really nice.. you can feel the life in the water all around you, Elaini."

They looked at each other, with an understanding common only to their kind.

"Xena taught me.. just like she taught me lots of other things" Jessan’s eyes softened. "I’d like to teach you."

Elaini gazed at him, noticing for the first time just how the light sparkled in his eyes. "Oh." She breathed. "I guess I could try. A little."

Xena pulled herself through the water, until she reached the side, where Gabrielle was seated on a rock dabbling her feet in the water. They both watched as Jessan carefully took Elaini’s hand, and led her into the stream, grinning a little at her gasp of surprise at the coldness of the water.

"Nice plan." Gabrielle whispered, giving the dark hair close at hand a gentle tug.

‘Thanks. I thought so." Xena deadpanned, splashing her with a handful of water.

"Cut that out." The bard warned. "Or else."

Xena reached one hand out of the water, and closed her fingers around Gabrielle’s arm. "Or else what." She asked, letting a slow grin cross her face.

"Uh… well, let’s see.. " Gabrielle thought furiously. "Why can’t I ever come up with some clever thing to say to keep you from throwing me in the water?" she finally finished, exasperation coloring her tone.

"Try ‘please don’t’.’’ Xena replied, taking her hand away and letting her body sink into the cool running water. She watched Jessan coaxing Elaini step by step into the deeper water, and smiled.

Felt a gentle hand run its fingers through her damp hair, and turned her head, to gaze up at the bard’s face. "What’s up?"

"I love you." Gabrielle responded unexpectedly, tracing one finger across the warrior’s cheekbone, and down the sharp line of her jaw. "That's all."

That got a grin from Xena. "And look. I’m already all wet. " Gabrielle blushed. "So it’s safe for me to say I love you right back, right?"

"Right." The bard sighed happily.

Xena stood up, and let the water drain off her body. "Think I need to dry off." She said, with a rueful grin. "Care to join me?"

They walked up the bank, to a sunny spot overlooking the creek, and settled down, watching the swimming lesson with mutually amused eyes.

"Think we did our job?" Gabrielle asked, reclining next to her partner.

"Mmm." Xena mumbled, soaking in the sun, which was rapidly drying her tunic and warming her through. "Sure." She opened one eye. "Right."

Gabrielle chuckled, and pulled the basket closer, reaching inside and removing a few of the nut and honey balls. "Open wide." She teased, and got the expected look in return. With a grin, she popped a morsel into the warrior’s mouth, and watched her chew and swallow. "Like?"

Xena let the stuff slide down her throat and made a humming noise. "Mmm..hmmm.." Her eyes twinkled, and Gabrielle produced a second confection, then more, until she’d finished them all.

This is a bad idea. She tried to tell herself. If I do go home, between her and mother, I’m gonna be in a world of trouble. And she tried to feel concerned about that, but the concern kept sliding away from her, washed away by the warm sun, and the cool breeze stirring her now drying hair, and Gabrielle’s nearby presence.

"Pretty day." Gabrielle sighed, as she resumed her relaxed position at Xena’s side, idly pulling out the folds of the warrior’s damp tunic to better catch the sun. She grinned as she saw Xena’s eyes drifting shut, and watched her partner try to fight it. No no.. my friend. That’s your body telling you it needs rest to heal, even this bard knows that. She moved a little closer, and slid a hand through the loosened openings in the fabric covering Xena’s chest, finding her skin cool to the touch from the water. "Nice breeze." She commented softly, letting her fingers move across the ribbed abdominal muscles in a gentle pattern. That’s it.. she mentally chuckled, as the blue eyes blinked sleepily, then slid closed.

Xena felt her awareness slip as an insidious drowsiness crept up on her, weighing her eyelids down with an almost irresistible force. The sounds of the meadow sharpened as her other senses relaxed, and she spent a long moment listening to the combination of sounds that made up the area.

A gentle thump as a rabbit sensed their presence. The rolling crack of the wood bird making its nest.

I shouldn’t drift off like this. A token protest, but Gabrielle’s warm body was now nestling closer, and the bards fingers were tracing gentle patterns under the fabric of her tunic, that were pulling the warrior deeper and deeper into sleep. Guess I was more tired than I thought..

And a sound penetrated her warm golden haze. A sound that sharpened her senses, and brought her sitting upright so quickly, she nearly bowled over Gabrielle.

"What is it?" The bard whispered, seeing the tense, listening attitude.

"Someone’s calling for help." Xena breathed, and hauled herself up, moving Ares out of the way with a gentle nudge, and turning her head to determine what direction the call was coming from.

"You hear that?" She called to Jessan, who paused in his instruction, and cocked his head. "Sounds like someone calling for help."

Both forest dwellers strained their ears, but it was long minutes before the voice came again, and it was closer, and more desperate.

"Please.. someone .. anyone. Help us.." The voice called, from the woods to their north.

"Damn. " Xena cursed, leaning forward and breaking into a run down the near side of the creek. A wave of dizziness momentarily blurred her vision. No time for that now. She grimly told herself, shaking her head to clear it, and kept moving, aware of Gabrielle’s following steps, and the splashing as Jessan and Elaini pulled themselves up out of the water and started in pursuit.

The warrior headed up the well-beaten path next to the creek, listening hard for the cries, and heard them. Heard panic now in the tone, and felt her body responding with an additional burst of speed as she rounded a bend of the stream and spotted the source.

Two forest dwellers, on the other side of the creek. One supporting the other, and even from here, Xena could see the crimson stain of blood stiffening their coats. She slowed momentarily, looking for a way across the water, then sighed, and headed diagonally across the path, straight for the edge of the bank.

Three long steps and she was airborne, diving into the water in a clean slice, and starting a strong pull towards the opposite shore, moving across the current with skillful strokes.

Heard the splash as her companions followed, and put her head down to clear the last fast moving current, spotting a long branch extending out over the stream and, getting her feet firmly under her and on the shallow bottom, kicked off and launched herself towards it.

Felt her hands wrap automatically around the branch, and realized too late that her injuries were going to make this little trick particularly painful. The momentum saved her, and enabled her to use a twist of her shoulders to bring her body up and over the bank, and she let go of the branch, twisting in mid air and coming down jarringly hard with a jolt that sent a shock of pain all through her. Boy. That was stupid. Her mind spat in disgust, as she shook herself off, and started running towards the two forest dwellers again.

They were both very young, she realized, as she came up on them, and they stared at her with rounded golden eyes. "It’s all right. " she said, holding both hands out. "What happened?"

The paler of the two glanced nervously behind him, and dropped to the ground, easing his companion to the leaf littered floor gently. "It was a patrol.." He said, softly, cradling the other forest dweller’s head against his chest. "Just a little scrap, nothing.. but Ereth got cut.’

Xena knelt down next to the injured boy, and parted the fur with gentle fingers. Her eyes closed in reaction, and she took a deep breath. Cut. This wasn’t a cut, it was a mortal wound. Her mind supplied wearily. The gash had severed some of the arteries that carried blood around the boy’s body, and with each beat of his heart, a red gush pulsed out from the wound.

Damn. Her mind cursed, and she glanced over her shoulder, seeing Gabrielle about to make the swim over. "Hold on!" She yelled, wincing as her stomach muscles protested the effort needed to project her voice.

Gabrielle glanced up, and waited. "Need my kit!"

The bard nodded in understanding.

"Gabrielle.." She added, pausing as her partner hesitated. "Run!"

And the bard took off, balling her hands into fists, and starting back up the path as fast as she was able.

Reflexively, Xena’s hands went to the cut, and pressed, temporarily slowing the flow of blood, but Xena could see the paleness already etching a path around the forest dweller’s muzzle, and she knew his time was limited. Heavy breathing and footsteps told her of Jessan and Elaini’s arrival, and she looked over her shoulder as they came up on either side of her, and Elaini knelt down.

Pulled aside one of Xena’s hands, and saw the blood flow. Blue eyes and golden met, and Elani’s shoulders slumped in acknowledgment. She moved around to the injured boy’s companion, and took him by the arms.

"Gennen.." The boy looked up at her, and swallowed. "That’s a very bad cut." Her voice was gentle, and she held onto him like a child.

"No." He said softly, searching her face, then turning his pleading eyes to Xena. "No. please…" His arms tightened around Ereth.

Xena’s heart hurt looking at him. She glanced down at the injured boy, who blinked up at her slowly, with a quiet knowledge in his eyes. A faint smile twitched the blood stained lips, and he lifted a shaking hand and touched hers.

Jessan knelt down at her side, and put a hand on her leg. "Who did this, Gennen?" His golden eyes gently searched the boy’s face. "Was it one of Secan’s guard?"

The pale golden furred Gennen nodded, clasping his arms tighter around his companion. "Jessie, can you.." He looked down at Ereth, whose eyes were fluttering closed.

Jessan turned his head, and studied Xena’s profile, which was frozen in concentration as she tried to stem the flow of Ereth’s lifeblood from his body. "They’re lifemates." He said, quietly, in a voice so soft only her ears could hear it.

Knew she heard, from the sudden clamping of her jaw that made the muscles stand out sharply against her tanned skin.

They sat in an unnatural stillness, not speaking, until they finally heard pounding footsteps, and ragged breathing as Gabrielle flung her dripping wet form down at Xena’s side, and started pulling things out of the kit she’d brought.

"Gut, thin needle, hurry." The warrior murmured, watching as the bard focused her concentration on threading the needle, and then handed it to her. "Put your hands here."

Gabrielle put her hands where she was told, and held them, feeling the warm blood seep through her fingers. Watching Xena’s emotionless face as she worked with a speed she seldom had to employ, and working mostly by touch, managed to get the broken arteries tied off.

She took a breath, and closed her eyes, fighting off another dizzy spell. Damn.. where are those coming from, anyway? No time, Xena… no time. She reached down deep and went for her reserves, and her vision cleared. "Not much chance." She said, glancing at Elaini.

"Wouldn’t have even tried what you did so far." The healer answered honestly.

Xena nodded, and took a deep breath again, then willed her hands not to shake, and continued to work, sealing the gaping cut with agonizing precision.

Pausing for a moment, and watched in grateful approval as Gabrielle sprinkled the wound with healing herbs, and wiped the area down with a bit of linen dipped in cleanser. "Thanks." She said softly.

Gabrielle smiled grimly, and finished her work, then sat back on her heels and looked at Xena.

They were all looking at her, she realized, as she took the last stitch, and trimmed the raw skin and fur back away from the wound with her small knife. "OK." She sighed, resting her hands on her knees. "All I can do. Rest is up to him."

"Let’s wait a bit and see what happens." Elaini responded calmly, settling down next to Gennen and putting a comforting arm around him. Jessan sat down on the other side of the injured forest dweller, and put a hand on his shoulder, watching the shallow breathing.

"I think you need to sit down." Gabrielle’s voice uttered, near Xena’s left ear. "Come on."

"Hmm?" The warrior replied, looking at her. "Oh.. no, I’m OK." Liar. And she knows it. "On the other hand, we might have a long wait. So.. " She started to stand and realized that was a bad idea when her vision tunneled, and she felt a queasy buzzing in her ears. Then a pair of warm hands gripped her arm, and with a determined effort, she forced away the swimming darkness, and took several deep breaths. She blinked a few times, and Gabrielle’s concerned face came in to focus. "Sorry about that." She gave the bard a half grin.

"You’re scaring me." Gabrielle said quietly.

"It’s.. OK. " Xena sighed. "Not unexpected, given what happened, and the fact that I just did some things I probably shouldn’t have." She allowed Gabrielle to lead her over to a fallen log, and they both sat down and leaned back against it, watching the silent tableau in front of them.

"Are they.." Gabrielle whispered, tucking her arm through Xena’s.

Xena nodded, watching Gennen’s agonized face.

"No.. " The pale furred forest dweller was moaning softly. "Don’t leave me.. please.." He pleaded, as he rocked his lifemate gently. "You can't leave me all alone, Ereth, please.."

And the words catapulted Xena back to a memory she shied from always, which visited her in her dreams and made the worst of her nightmares. A healing temple in Thessaly, with war cascading around them and the smell of blood and death that soaked through the place like fog on a damp, cold morning.

Her lack of good judgment had led them there. Her damned sure knowledge that she always knew the right thing to do.

And at first, it seemed right - because her skills had saved lives, and taught lessons to healers more used to the odd farming accident and skin rash than to the savageries of war. And then one more in a long line of stretchers had come in, but the body on it had been achingly familiar.

Damn you, Gabrielle.. what were you thinking of, to run out there under fire, in the middle of a war? Thinking of someone else, as usual. But not yourself, and the blood on that pale face had almost taken Xena to her knees in disbelief. No… she hadn’t been prepared for that. She’d lifted the bard off the stretcher and taken care of her with hands that would have shook like a leaf, if she’d allowed them to.

And the bard had faced up to the horrible pain, and what she felt was coming with the clear eyed bravery that was so, so typical of her.

She had been dying, and that knowledge had ripped a hole inside Xena so large she could hardly stand to think about it. My fault. Kept running through her head, and made her so sick to her stomach that she couldn't bring herself to eat or drink, or even think straight.

Ephiny. Her face when Gabrielle called her over, and gave her rite of caste. "I won’t be needing it." She’d said, with sad sureness. And then, after Ephiny had left, their eyes had met, and she’d known her heart was there, wide open, for Gabrielle to see if she had a mind to.

They hadn’t said a word to each other, but what passed between them left Xena exhausted, and the bard with tears tracking down her face.

Two moments.. one bright, one dark - the birth of Ephiny’s centaur son, all limbs and squalling vigor, which brought a faint glad spark to her heart.

Then the sounds of choking, as Gabrielle went into convulsions and Xena felt, in a real sense, the better part of her world toppling.

She had grabbed the bard, and tried to stop the convulsions, and felt the horrible sinking drop of her stomach as she felt Gabrielle's breathing stop.

Then her heartbeat stop.

And an ex warlord, who had seen the deaths of thousands, and watched without emotion acts of war that would chill Ares himself, found that her heart could not withstand the death of a friend.

It shattered her composure, and she found herself babbling in panic at the healers, seeing the pity in their eyes at her useless attempts to regain a loss that was beginning to fill her with a roaring, unending darkness.

And in a lone single moment in the quiet of her soul, a silent plea had gone out that was powered with all the strength of her will, towards someone she’d just begun to know, and was stunned to realize she wasn’t capable of living without.

The plea was answered, and Gabrielle had turned willingly from the Elysian Fields and returned to a painful, anguished present, gasping for air, and clasping the shaking arms of that desperately relieved ex warlord, who had let tears fall unashamedly down her face, and cradled the dazed bard in her arms for what seemed like forever.

And afterward, she’d sat braced against the crumbling wall, in the semi darkness of the half-abandoned temple, just watching Gabrielle sleep. Not taking her eyes off that pale face for an instant, not even to trim the wick on the guttering candle by her side.

Thinking about all the things that had happened to them in the past year. About the good times, and the people they’d helped. About the bad times, and the sadness, and the pain they’d both gone through.

About how her feelings for Gabrielle had progressed from tolerance, to amused affection, to the warmth of friendship.

And now? She’d closed her eyes for a brief instant, then popped them open and focused them again on the bard’s face. And knowingly, consciously, took the long closed locks off her heart, and admitted to herself that she’d broken one of her most strongly held rules.

She’d fallen in love.

With someone who, for her own good, she hoped would never find that out.

But that night she had just sat there, in the gathering darkness, and had been glad that their friendship had been strong enough to draw the bard back. The shadowy emptiness she knew was coming when Gabrielle tired of her life on the road and left to settle somewhere had been postponed. And for right now, that was enough.

She felt a hand on her forehead, and opened her eyes, gazing at Gabrielle’s face with grateful appreciation. "Hey."

"Oh.. OK." Gabrielle said, removing her hand, and brushing the warrior’s cheek with her knuckles. "You looked a little out of it there." A shiver passed through her, as the cool wind dried the damp fabric around her body, and she huddled a little closer to Xena.

"No cold bards." Xena said, shifting and putting both arms around her. "I was just thinking, that’s all." She hugged Gabrielle hard, and didn’t let go for a long, long moment, which she spent with her face buried in the bard’s hair, just breathing in her familiar scent. Finally she raised her head and whispered in the nearby ear. "Thanks."

"For what?" Gabrielle asked, as she snuggled closer. Wonder what that was all about

"Just for being here." Came the surprising answer, as Xena let her chin rest on the bard’s damp head, and watched the forest dwellers in their vigil.

"No place else I’d wanna be." Gabrielle sighed, feeling the warmth of the hug begin to penetrate her chilled body. "Mmm.. that feels really good." She laid her head down on Xena’s shoulder.

The late afternoon sunlight cleared the surrounding treetops on it’s journey to sunset, sending rich yellow stripes of warmth over them, and bathing the forest dwellers in a golden pool. Jessan and Elaini sat motionless, supporting the traumatized Gellen, and watching the unconscious Ereth’s faintly moving chest. The injured boy seemed on the edge of leaving this life, with his shallow breathing and bloodless features. But the will to live still held him, and the breathing, though slight, was steady.

They waited a long time, until finally Elaini reached down, and checked the faint thready pulse, and looked up at Jessan. "We’ll need a stretcher." She said calmly, and the tension seemed to flow out of him like water.

Jessan rose, and dusted his trousers off, laying his hand on Gellen’s bowed head. "Steady, my friend. We’ll bring you both home." He turned and padded over to where Xena and Gabrielle were quietly waiting, and crouched down by them. "Xena… you’ve given him a chance." His lips curled into a smile, and he laid his hand on her arm. "Thank you." Thank you, my human friend, who teaches me again, and again how few differences there really are between us. ‘I’m going to get some help to get him home." His eyes searched hers. "Do you need.." Help? And she’ll say no. Just like one of us.

Xena shook her head. "Nope. I’ll be fine." She kept up her steady stare, and dared him to disagree. I got here on my own, I’ll get back. But she had to chuckle at herself. Stubborn old mule.

Gabrielle studied her face, noting the returned color, and the more normal alert look about her eyes, and decided not to call her on it. She gave Jessan a wink, and noted the twitch of his lips in reply. "We’ll wait for you to get back, Jess."

Xena nodded. "Don’t want to leave these guys unprotected." A matter-of-fact statement that obliquely reminded Jessan, again, of what she was. Even now, even injured, and at reduced capacity, she was dangerous. More so than most of his kind would be.

"I feel better knowing that." He said, and meant it. "Take care." And with a pat on the arm, he stood and loped down the path next to the creek, moving in and out of the patterned bars of sunlight filtering through the trees.

Continued in Part 4

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