Bound – Part 8

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Gabrielle had slid closer, until she had a good view of the field of battle. Her heart was pounding hard, as she watched Xena make her challenge to Secan.. Probably pounding harder than hers is. She concluded, as her eyes followed the easy, graceful movements of her partner. C’mon, can take this guy. I know you can.

A sound to her left snapped her head around, and there was Warrin, his pale eyes hooded, looking back at her. Her hand tightened around the staff, and she tensed, but his put a hand up, and gave her a little shake of the head.

"No need, human." His eyes went out over the field, and fastened on the two antagonists. "I didn’t expect her to do that." He regarded her emotionlessly. "He’ll kill her, you know."

"No he won’t." The bard replied, then grinned as Xena hauled off and slugged the much larger forest dweller, giving him a bloody nose. "Oh.. good one, Xena.!"

Warrin blinked. "You don’t understand." He said, unaware of the softening of his tone. "Secan is the best there is."

"Second best." Gabrielle answered, not even looking at him. "And you’re the one who doesn’t’ understand."

"What makes you so sure?" The pale forest dweller growled, as the first hissing clash of steel rolled over the battlefield.

"Because I said so." The bard replied, eyes glued to the fighters. That’s it.. gods.. watch it! Oh.. good one.. good one… whoa!

"And you think that makes it so?" Warrin breathed, shaking his head in sorrow.

Gabrielle turned her head, and stared right into his eyes. "That’s the secret, Warrin. You gotta believe in something so much, you make it happen." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "And I believe in her like nothing else on earth." Her eyes flicked to the bow slung across his back. "What’s that for?"

Warrin smiled. "I have my own agenda." He replied, in a silky smooth voice.

Gabrielle risked a glance away from him. Xena seemed to be holding her own, she turned back. "You’d better not aim a single one of them towards her."

Warrin laughed gently. "You’re no warrior."

The bard met his eyes. "For that, I'll become one."

And, curiously, looking into those sea green eyes, he believed her.

Xena knew, from his first stroke, which she parried, that it was going to be a long morning. Secan was almost two feet taller than she was, and more than double her weight. His strength almost did her in, until she could figure the angles, and knew how to deflect his momentum off.

Then it became a battle of her skills and superior speed against his strength, and he found out very quickly that he needed to watch the violence of his strokes, an overshoot past her meant a painful buffet, and once when he was very unlucky a sharp slash along his ribs.

He stepped back, and took a breather, then stepped back in and slammed his hilts against hers, trying to drive her back.

Oh no.. not that trick. Xena mentally rolled her eyes, and slid underneath the thrust of his blow, letting him go past her and getting in her own solid hit on his side. She parried his return backslash, and jumped over his outstretched arm, kicking back and connecting one booted foot against his kneecap. He howled, and slammed his fists against her back, but she was already moving, and the blow just pushed her into an already begun flip.

Which she completed, and slashed inward, surprising him and putting another crease on his ribcage. "You’re too slow for me, Secan. " She laughed, taking one deep step towards him, and pushing herself skyward, lashing out with powerful leg and hitting his collarbone. He staggered back, and didn’t swing, as she landed the jump, and twirled her sword around her wrist, then advanced towards him.

His chest was heaving, and he couldn’t help but notice that hers wasn’t. Damn her.. every stroke she parried, every lunge she diverted.. it was as though she could read his mind, and knew exactly what he was going to do. He took a breath, and settled down. No matter…

And he was on the attack again, probing for weak spots in her defense, no longer seeing her as human, but as a hated opponent whose skills he now took for granted. He used his height and reach advantage to gain a higher angle against her, slamming his weapon down against hers amid a shower of brilliant sparks.

She took the force of the blow, and allowed it to continue through to the bottom of the stroke, and then pulled the weapons towards her, and up into a circular motion.

Ah. His mind smiled. I’ve got her. Almost directly under him, and well within his stroke range. Fast, she was, but he was stronger, and a direct downward slice… she’d no more be able to block than she would be to fly off like a bird. He let his blow slide off hers, and swung the weapon up again, then with a striking speed, brought it directly down towards her head.

Oh Hades. Xena sighed, realizing the position she’d put herself in. I’m in for it. She saw his swing up, and the start of the descending blade, then her body was reacting with automatic precision and she was lifting her own weapon to block his downstroke.

Time slowed, and the memory of Gabrielle’s words echoed through her consciousness. You do things because you convince yourself you can. All right. Xena blanked her mind, and thought about only one thing. I can block this stroke. And set her will into motion, as the his steel blade impacted hers, and the shock of the blow jarred through her shoulders and knees, which flexed to take the weight of it.

She willed herself to hold, willed her arms not to collapse under the stress, willed herself to keep that heavy blade from cleaving her unprotected skull, and felt the dark energy respond with a powerful surge. Sorry Secan… you’re not nearly enough to make me break that promise.

Saw his look of triumph shift to startlement, then disbelief as his downward momentum wasn’t shifted, wasn’t redirected, it was simply stopped, as though he’d tried to cut into a mountain. They stood locked for an endless moment, before Xena leaned forward slightly, and straightened her crouch, throwing him back and flinging his sword to one side.

She was right. Xena’s mind chuckled in delight. It is all in my head. She moved forward a step, and felt that part of her that was part of Ares surge up, excited by this new revelation. "What’s the matter, Secan? Having problems?" She laughed softly. He was wrong about this lifebond stuff.. and so was I. Xena realized suddenly, as she slammed her weapon against his, and drove him back another pace.

It doesn’t make you weaker. The fire in her rose now, and she slashed again, and again, making the forest dweller frantic in his attempts to block the blows, which crashed through his defenses, and shocked him with their power.

It makes you… want to live so much, you just refuse to be defeated. She would have laughed if she hadn’t been in the middle of a fight to the death. What an idiot he was. She shoved him back with another overhand blow, locking their swords together, and saw his other hand fling out in a gesture that caused warning bells to explode in her head.

Warrin slid around to the side, blending his dappled pale coat in with the grey bark on a tree just to one side of the battlefield. He had a good view - and found himself pausing just to watch the combat.

She was… he was forced to admit, everything Jessan claimed her to be. He removed his bow from his shoulder, and strung it quickly, then settled both hands on the top of it, and watched a moment longer.

Secan was having troubles, he noted, his movements were getting a touch more frantic, and he was no longer smiling. All his strokes, his efforts.. were turned aside as though he were a rank cub against a master. Warrin could see her sharp, steady gaze focused in concentration, eyes shifting, body making automatic movements that seemed to flow without pause.

When she launched up, and kicked him, Warrin even laughed a little, at the look on Secan's face. So. The storyteller was right after all, it seemed..but wait…

Now he moved, sliding to one side of the tree, and nocking shaft to bowstring in one fluid motion. Saw her steel meet his over her head, and let a breath trickle out in a soft chuckle when it went no further. He drew his arm to full extention, and focused his long sight on his target. There. The angle was right, and he was so close….

Xena heard the arrow release, and knew, with her hands locked on her blade hilt, she had no chance of stopping it. Hope it hits something non vital. Her mind grimly wished. Or at least gives me time to finish this bastard off.

She heard a rushing sound behind her, and the sickening impact of a heavy shaft, but felt nothing, and couldn’t turn to see what had happened. Instead, she focused on him, and saw his eyes looking over her shoulder in disbelief.

Only for a minute, though, because her next blow, driven as much by will as by muscle, disarmed him, and sent his long sword flying through the air.

Time stopped, and she saw the rage take over his face, as he let out a blood-chilling roar and came at her, powerful arms sweeping towards her with deadly claws extended.

She waited, with patience honed from a lifetime on the battlefield, until his leap was committed, and he had no way to stop himself.

Then she shifted her grip on her sword, crouched, and let him come down, feeling the claws tear at her, until it was almost too late, and then she uncoiled her legs and brought the sword point straight up driven with all the power her body could muster.

Shoving the razor sharp blade up through his battlecoat, and past his wildly heaving ribcage, and into his heart, showering her with a rich, red explosion of hot blood.

He went right over her, and landed on his back, hands twitching in shock towards the length of steel protruding from his body

Then she looked up. To see Lestan’s forces lined up in full array, the archers foremost with quarrels nocked and ready, pointed past her, at Secan’s fighters.

And not two body lengths behind her, lay huddled a limp, pale yellow form, curled up and still. Silence fell as Xena turned her back on the dying Secan, and walked over to the form, kneeling down and putting a hand on the shuddering shoulder. Turned him over gently, as saw Warrin’s face contorted in pain, as his hands clutched the long, heavy shaft he’d intercepted.

His eyes opened, and he looked up, relief showing there. "Ssso. It.. was to good ef..fect." He stuttered, hardly breathing.

"Don’t talk, don’t move." Xena said, reaching for the arrow. "Let me see what I can do with this."

The head jerked, and his eyes found hers. "Nno." His hand grabbed her wrist. "Paid my dues to Ares, just now.. Chosen." He blinked at her. "Don’t.. deny me.. this."

Xena looked at him for a very long moment. Then she let her free hand rest on his shoulder, and gave a jab and a twist, and saw his face change. "Just stops the pain." She said quietly, watching him.

He nodded. "I was wrong… about you. Sorry." His eyes drifted over her shoulder. "Wrong about her.. sorry I … tried…"

The warrior just shook her head. "It’s past, Warrin." Her fingertips touched the feathered shaft. "I understand why you did it."

They looked at each other in silence, then his eyes unfocused a little. "She said.. she’d wait." His gaze flicked dreamily to hers. "Wonder if that’s true." He glanced down at the arrow and grimaced. "Wonder how long…"

Xena felt a lump rising in her throat, but she caught his eyes, and put her hand on the shaft, an unspoken question in her gaze. He nodded in understanding, and a look of profound relief flooded into his face.

One quick twist, was all. And the point punctured his heart. His eyes widened as he felt it, then fixed over her left shoulder, as he let out several shallow breaths, not seeing her anymore.

Then his expression softened, and his eyes lit up like stars, and a smile spread across his features, and his lips moved their last. "She did."

His body went limp under her hands, and Xena bit her lip hard, swallowing down the heaviness in her throat that threatened to choke her. "Hope I get as lucky, Warrin." She whispered, reaching out one blood covered hand and gently closing his sightless eyes. A touch fell on her shoulder, and she looked up to see Wennid there.

"He’s at peace." The forest dweller murmured softly. "At last." She looked up as Jessan joined her, and the forest dweller put a gentle hand on Xena’s arm as he crouched next to her.

"You all right?" He said softly, glancing over his shoulder. "They’re holding Gabrielle back.. didn’t want her to get hurt… not with all these bows drawn."

Xena bit back a smile. "Better let her go, before she hurts someone." She patted his leg. "I’m fine, but tell her to wait until we get things settled here."

Jessan nodded, and gave her shoulders a squeeze. "That was… incredible." Then he stood, and loped back to the treeline

"Let me go." Gabrielle's voice hit a low growl, as she twisted in the grasp of an uneasy and upset Deggis. "I said."

Jessan came trotting back, and gave Deggis a signal. "Whoa.." he put a hand up, as the bard started in the direction of the battle. "Gabrielle.. please.. hold on a minute. She said.."

The bard stopped, and gave him a look. "Jess…"

"Not my fault." Jessan sighed. "She said to wait a minute, till she was done out there. Please."

Gabrielle glanced past his shoulder, and winced. "All right." She said softly, as she watched what her partner was doing. Oh gods… She closed her eyes and swallowed hard to quell the sudden nausea. No way, Gabrielle - you told her to do this. Now you watch, damn you, because this is what she is.

So she forced her eyes open, forced herself to see the blood, and the violence, and the savage primal stregnth that was part and parcel of who her partner was. Gods.

The enemy force parted before her like a school of fish around a predator. She walked into their midst, her sword still dripping with Secan's blood, and they backed away from her menace with universal unease. A few moments only, and then she was turning her back on them, and walking back towards Gabrielle, her face a cold, silent mask.

The bard took a deep, shaky breath. This side of her scares me so much.. I see it, and I know It's there, and not too deep down, either. She crossed her arms and looked down at the ground. But you have to take all of it or none, right? The good, and the bad, the dark and the light. Because she's both. Trick is.. put the good side of her so firmly in charge, that even when she does bad things, she does them for the right reasons. That's.. horrible.

But loving her.. means loving all that she is. Not just the parts I like. Gabrielle watched the steadily moving form coming closer, walking through the high pale grasses. To anyone else watching, the bard knew, she was the picture of a victorious, barbaric fighter.

But Gabrielle saw her armor shift, as she took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders, raising her eyes to idly scan the treeline. And knew what those eyes were looking for.

Yeah. Incredible. Xena bowed her head for a moment, then stood, and turned towards Secan’s forces. They were dead still, eyes watching her, and the motionless body of their leader. She walked slowly over to him, and stared down, feeling a wave of exhaustion crash over her. Well, that’s to be expected. She sighed, glancing up at the sun. But I had time enough. She looked around, taking in the hundreds of forest dwellers poised on either side of the clearing. The grass would have run red with blood.. what was I thinking of? If Gabrielle hadn’t.. would I have let this go on? She looked inside herself for a long moment, then allowed a tiny smile to cross her lips. No. That was plan A all the time, wasn’t it, you old fraud. You just needed Gabrielle to give you a kick in the pants. Perversely, it made her feel better to know that.

Now.. how do I prevent this from happening again in the near future, for the next Secan who comes along? She stared thoughtfully down at the cooling body. Well, first things first. She put a booted foot on his chest, and grabbed her sword hilt, giving it a powerful tug and pulling it loose from his body. Then she sniffed reflectively, and wiped the blade down on one fur-covered leg.

Well, this will at least catch their attention. She decided, then grabbed the dead forest dweller’s battlecoat, and heaved him up, straining hard against the weight. You’ve only got one chance at this, Xena. Better make it good, because it’s going to look extremely stupid if you don’t.

Taking a deep breath, she got herself ready, then released her grasp, and drew her sword, putting all her remaining energy into three savage cuts that sliced through the russet body with a wrenching, grating sound.

Five parts. She noted, trying to catch her breath. Not bad, Xena, not bad. You haven’t quite lost that macabre touch after all. Walking forward, she grabbed the severed head, and picked it up, continuing to walk towards Secan’s forces. Saw the uneasy fear in their eyes, and smiled. When she was in range, she drew her arm back, and let fly, sending the head into their midst, and striking the tall silver lieutenant squarely in the chest with it.

He flinched, and gasped, and jumped back, as the heavy round object thumped to the ground, scattering a fine spray of blood everywhere. His eyes bulged, and he looked up at her with a sickened expression.

She swaggered into their midst, and let her blade rest casually on her shoulder, ignoring the blood still dripping off it. "Which one of you fired that arrow?" She asked, in a low growl.

Eyes flickered back and forth, and then a smaller archer stepped forward. "I did." His voice cracked slightly, and he flushed. Xena noted the angry red brand welt on his arm, and grimaced. So.. this was his shot at redemption, huh? Her sword flicked forward and pressed against his neck, driving him back against a tree.

Silence fell, as they all watched her. She stepped closer, and ran the edge of the sword around his neck, and down the front of his battlecoat. "Said I’d skin the next person who shot an arrow at me." She let her eyes narrow. "Maybe I’ll do it with you still alive." Feeling the shudder run through them but keeping her eyes pinned on the archer. "How would that feel, I wonder?"

He swallowed hard, and she could see his chest heaving. She moved up right next to him, and smelled the fear rising from his furred body. "You like this feeling?"

He shook his head, unable to speak, unable to look away from those bizarrely pale eyes.

"No one else does either." Xena remarked, tapping him on the head with her sword blade. "Think about that, ok?" She turned away from him, and affected not to notice when he slid down the trunk of the tree in a huddled mass. Now her eyes were on Kelten. "Blood debt’s paid." She said, now letting the point of her sword rest on his chest, just tickling the skin through his battlecoat.

His nostrils flared, and he managed a slight nod.

"Get out of here." Her voice hit its lowest register. "Don’t come back." She flipped the sword back and pointed it towards Lestan’s waiting group. "That’s my clan. If I hear of you so much as picking flowers on their territory… I might get mad." She smiled at him. "You really don’t want that, right?"

"No, Chosen." His voice was hoarse.

"Good." She smiled again, not refuting his title for her. That always brought nothing but trouble.. maybe it’ll help for a change. It’s what they respect, I guess. Bet Ares is up there laughing his head off. She rolled her eyes mentally. "Now, get out." She paused. "And take what’s left of your… leader… " She spat in the grass in disgust. "We don’t want any scavengers getting sick around here."

And so they did, two of them trudging forward to the beaten circle in the grass where they had fought, and gingerly collecting the pieces Xena had left them. The rest melted into the forest, leaving Lestan’s fighters to slowly put down their weapons, and look at each other in delighted disbelief.

Xena walked slowly back across the clearing, letting the thigh high grasses slap against her legs, idly sweeping her blade across them and shearing off the tips. The sun overhead felt good on her shoulders, and she rolled her head forward to release the tension that had built during the fight, letting the welcome warmth tickle the back of her neck. Well, that’s that, I guess. Her mind mused quietly. Wonder what Gabrielle thought of it. I know she said to do what I had to but… maybe it’s more of my dark side than she wants to deal with. Wouldn’t blame her.

Footsteps brought her head back up, and she saw Gabrielle’s trotting form heading towards her. Seconds later, she was being wrapped in a pair of enthusiastic arms. "Hey.. wait.. Gabrielle, don’t.. I’m all covered in.."

"Blood." The bard acknowledged, hugging her harder. "No kidding. But it’ll wash off."

"But you’ll get it all over yourself." Xena said, gently, aware of just how gory she was.

Gabrielle looked up and studied her with loving attention. "I don’t care." She wrapped her arms around Xena's neck. "So I'll have to take a bath too. " She hesitated. "That was awesome."

Xena’s lips twitched and she let her sword drop, returning the bard’s hug and feeling the cough as she squeezed the breath out of her. "Think so?"

The bard nodded.

"I just killed someone, and cut them into pieces, Gabrielle. " The warrior said softly.

Gabrielle pulled back, and tugged the edge of her breastplate. "You just saved hundreds of lives, and the existence of Lestan’s people, Xena." Her eyes were serious. "And you did it by risking your own life, and destroying someone who made a lifelong habit of hurting people." She paused. "Did you know Tody was his son?"

Xena’s eyebrows rose, and she knelt to pick up her sword. "Really?"

The bard nodded, and waited for her to stand, then wrapped an arm around her waist and started walking back to where their forest dwellers were collecting. "He left him out to die after he was blinded."

"Really?" Xena asked again. When Gabrielle nodded, the warrior shook her head. "Maybe I should have skinned him."

"Err… Ewwww." Gabrielle poked her tongue out. "Xena, that’s gross."

"Why not? He was a pretty red color. Would have made a nice rug." Xena went on, with a glint in her eyes.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up." Then she slapped Xena on the belly. "You didn’t tell me you were going to do that to Lestan, you fink." She laughed a little. "Jessan about croaked."

Xena shrugged, and cut some more grass tips off. "Had to make it within their traditions, so.." she grinned. "Now I have to give it back to him."

"If he’ll let you." The bard grinned slyly. "He had just the biggest smirk on his face when you punched that guy." Her brows creased. "Hey.. that would be kind of cool – I have the Amazons, you have these guys… we could have some great parties."

"Gabrielle." Came the warning laugh.

"No, really…" The bard persisted, enjoying herself. "At least you don’t have to wear one of those damn masks."

"Gabrielle!" Xena protested, as they drew close to the group of forest dwellers.

"Do you know how hot they are?" Gabrielle snorted. "Hey..would you have to walk around without your shirt on like they do? How cool would that be!"

"I’m going to get you for this." Xena growled softly, as Lestan stepped towards them, arm outstretched.

"Ohh.. I hope so." Came the teasing response.

Xena found herself surrounded by a warm moving sea of fur, as the forest dwellers all clustered around her, murmuring in happy voices. Hesitant hands reached out and patted her shoulders, until she reached Jessan, and he just wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet.

"Jessan.." She growled, right into his ear, but returned the hug.

He smiled and released her. "That was great." He sighed, as they all started to walk back towards the village. Then he paused. "Except Uncle Warrin." His golden eyes were sad.

Xena glanced at him. "He got what he wanted, Jessan." She said quietly, glancing ahead to where two forest dwellers bore a pallet holding the still, huddled form. And remembered his last words. She waited for him… even after all this time. And she thought about Warrin, her eyes idly searching the path before her. Warrin.. was certainly no pure soul. A quietly happy glow started in the pit of her stomach, and spread outward, chasing away the weary residue of the battle.

"Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice sounded to her left, and she turned towards the bard.

"Yeah?" She answered, sliding an arm around her partner and pulling her closer.

"What’s that smug look for?" The bard inquired, bantering lightly. "You look like you won a prize at the Athenian battle competition."

Xena looked at her, then grinned and shook her head. "No particular reason, Gabrielle." She shrugged and waved an arm at the exultant group surrounding them. "Except I’m glad things turned out.. the way they did." A prize… yeah.. unlooked for, undeserved… She hugged the bard tighter and took a happy breath.

Gabrielle gave her a wondering look. What’s that for? It’s like she sees something the rest of us don’t.. not that it would surprise me.. no.. but… "Well, yeah, sure.. I am too, not that I had any doubts." She backslapped her lightly in the gut. "After all that worrying.. you had control of that from start to finish. " She paused, and lowered her voice. "Once you started were you.."

"No." Xena replied peacefully. "Like riding a horse, I guess.. you gotta get right back on if you get thrown." She bit back another grin, and glanced to her right. "Hello, Lestan. "

Their eyes met. "Sorry about that." Xena apologized. "Didn’t really have time to discuss that plan with you."

The forest dweller chuckled ruefully. "Better that you didn’t. I don’t think I could have played it out.." His eyes covertly studied her. "I don’t blame you for taking that route. It was.. the fastest, least complicated way."

The warrior nodded slowly in acceptance. "Thanks for going along with me." Her voice was low, but carried force, and it echoed over the suddenly quieter crowd. "That did the trick in getting Secan to buy into it." And felt the sudden shift in tension around her, as the meaning behind her words penetrated.

He shot her an admiring, appreciative glance. "Well, a little playacting was worth it.." He drawled, sharing her grin. "Getting most of us home safe. And a great show to watch." He winked. "Gods, Xena.. that will be one of for the storytellers." You give me my village intact, my worst enemy destroyed, and hand back to me my dignity in one smooth natural motion. He laughed to himself. Remind me to give thanks to that damn mountain some time.

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle smirked, bumping her partner with an elbow. "I loved it when you punched him." But her eyes didn’t miss the more than one glance of masked disappointment as her partner neatly returned authority to its rightful owner

"Too right." Jessan piped up from next to the bard. "That was awesome." He grinned at Xena’s rolled eyes. "You should have seen Kelten’s face… it was priceless."

A discussion of the battle followed. Xena contrived, through her many years of self discipline, to avoid blushing too badly, but she wasn’t really used to having her fighting skills analyzed in depth with her present.

"Oh, and Ares’ boots, Xena.. when you stopped that downstroke of his… he about swallowed his tongue." Jessan waxed enthusiastic. "It was great… "

"No no… Lestan added, waving at him. "My favorite part was Kelten’s face when you hit him with that damn head. " He slapped Xena’s arm. "That.. was so choice."

Gabrielle had to bite her lip to keep from giggling at the look on Xena’s face. The warrior felt her body shaking, and glared down at her.

"Stop that." Xena growled, trying to ignore Lestan’s chuckles.

Gabrielle just giggled harder, and hid her face against her partner’s armor. "I can’t help it." She muttered. "You look so cute when you’re blushing."

"Gabrielle…" Xena sighed, then just started laughing. "Well, I’m glad that’s over with." She glanced up, at the gathering clouds overhead. "Weather’s been bad.. I hear it’s going to be a rough winter." She looked sideways at her partner. "I’m glad we’ll be home."

Felt fingers tangle with hers, and saw the contented smile on Gabrielle’s face. Right answer, Xena. "It’s mom’s busiest season. Hardest.. because there’s lots of transients going through, and food’s shorter." The warrior commented

"So.. she can use the help, huh?" The bard commented with a grin. "Good." Even though I know it won’t be forever… I’ll take what I can get.. Gods, if I can keep her there over the winter.. her mind chuckled. And I sure won’t mind either. "Bet she’s going to be glad you see you."

"Us." Xena corrected quietly, rolling the feel of the word around her mouth. ‘It wasn’t me she sent Johan to check up on in Potadeia." She gently bumped the bard with an elbow.

"Yeah.. I know." Gabrielle sighed happily, then gave Xena a sly look. "But I’m not the one she made all those batches of sweet cakes for." She nudged the warrior with her shoulder.

Got a nudge back. "Yeah, but you’re the one who ate them all."

"Oh yeah, right." The bard snorted, secretly reveling in the banter. "Don’t even go there, my ‘let me hold the plate above my head so you can’t reach them’ friend. She poked her hard in the ribs. "You got your share, and more."

They grinned at each other, and kept walking. Ahead, Xena could see the vague outlines of the village beginning to appear, and Lestan sent a pack of the younger fighters ahead to warn the remaining forest dwellers of their return.

Elaini had watched the fighters silently leave the village, and went back to packing up her medical kit. I know I’ll need it. She quietly reminded herself, trying to keep busy with putting together enough supplies to last.. however long.. in however long they were going to be running. She’d already packed her personal kit, which was standing by the door, and paused as she heard footsteps on the outer porch.

The door creaked open, and a familiar russet head poked in. "Elaini?"

"Hey, Tody." She sighed. "Come on in."

He trudged in, and hopped up on a pallet, swinging his feet in annoyance. "They wouldn’t let me go with them, Lani." He scowled.

"Of course not." His sister replied, rolling her eyes. "You’re too young." She sat down on the pallet next to him and patted his back. "And.. it’s not a game, Tody. You know that."

"Yeah, I know." He sighed. "I just wanna be there." His ears swiveled towards her "You think it’ll take long?"

Elaini scowled. "Well, I don’t know… these things take time, you know." She stood, and paced near the window, hugging herself. Ares.. keep him safe, please. This isn’t his war.

"Well, I don’t think it’ll take long." Tody said, hopping off the pallet and roaming around the room. "I think we’re going to have a great party tonight."

Elaini sighed, and walked over to him, kneeling down and putting a gentle arm around his furred shoulders. "Tody.. I’m glad you’re thinking good things. But.. we’re up against a very strong force, and we’re planning for.. any outcome."

The blind forest dweller cocked his head. "Nothin’s going to happen, Lani." His mouth curved into a smile. "Xena’s there."

The older forest dweller rolled her eyes. "What is with all of you? I mean.. I like the woman, but I don’t think for a minute she’s anything more than one very skilled, very knowledgeable human fighter. Why do you all talk about her like she’s some kind of envoy from Mount Olympus?"

Tody smiled, and kicked the floor with one clawed foot. "Did you ever Look at her, Lani?"

His sister shrugged. "Not really, no.. I know she’s lifebonded, but.."

"Ohh…" The boy sighed happily, rocking back and forth absently. "No… she’s all warm, and strong, and wonderful… not like anyone else."

"Whatever." Elaini rubbed his back. "I’m sure she’ll be a big help." No convincing these guys, is there? Gods.

She finished packing, and was just going to fix her and Tody some lunch when a sound outside brought them both standing. She rushed to the window, with Tody right behind her, and rested her hands on the sill, looking out.

The morning fog had burned off, and all the preparations had been made for moving.. the village was mostly silent, save the odd bird clacking, and the ever-present sigh of the wind.

From the north path, came the sound of rapid footsteps.

"Damn… " Elaini cursed, grabbing her brother. "All right… listen.. " Took less time than we expected…

Then saw the body attached to the footsteps was familiar, was Deggis, and the look on his face was anything but grim. He ran towards the infirmary first… and Elaini threw the door open, and rushed out onto the porch. "What news, Deggis?" She called.

"The day is ours!" Came his booming, happy, unexpected reply.

The remaining forest dwellers came running, all talking at once.

"Wait… what about injuries, Deggis." Elaini stepped down off her porch and grabbed his shoulders.

"None." The pale forest dweller grinned, and bounced up and down on his toes, then sobered. "Ah.. but Warrin took a shaft, and passed over."

Silence fell, and they all looked at each other. "That’s impossible, Deggis." One of the provisioners objected. "What happened?"

Deggis stuck his thumbs in his battlecoat, and leaned back. "To quote my friend Jessan, what happened? Xena happened."

"Told ya." Tody chortled, poking his sister in the ribs. "Told ya told ya!!!!"

"And Secan?’ An older forest dweller quietly questioned, stepping nearer. "Dead?"

Deggis raised one bushy eyebrow. "Very." He said, his grin returning. "And his mangy lot sent home packing."

"How?" Cane the question from several throats.

Deggis shook his head vigorously. "That’s for the storytellers. My mission was just to run ahead, and tell you all’s well."

Louder sounds, now – from the northern path, and Elaini could see the bobbing heads of the first returning fighters. She watched as they melted out of the forest, fuzzy blurs resolving into solid forms, rank upon rank of them, all laughing, gesturing, their voices ringing above the rising hum of the people around her.

She kept watching, and there… half a head above those around him was Jessan, head tipped back to catch the dappling sunlight, fangs showing in laughter. He walked next to his father, and now they were close enough for her to see the distinctive forms of the two humans striding along next to them.

Her eyes blinked, then focused again, and she realized that Xena wasn’t a little fuzzy, she was covered with blood almost from head to foot, obscuring the bronze of her armor, and staining her skin to a rusty hue. But the ex warlord seemed uninjured, though Elaini knew those looks could be deceiving . Must be Secan’s blood, then. She mused. I don’t believe it.

"C’mon!!" Tody yelled, and grabbed her hand. "Let’s go meet em!"

"That was very slick, by the way." Gabrielle murmured, as they were left, at last, to make their way to the cot and a very much wanted cleaning off.

"Huh?" Xena said, cocking her head. "What was?"

"Playing that Lestan was in on the whole plan the whole time." The bard gave her a look, and poked her in the side. "Very slick."

Xena waggled her eyebrows and chuckled, as they mounted the steps and opened the door.

"ROOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!" Ares collided with their legs, bouncing off and sitting down on the floor. He gave them a reproachful look. "Roo!" Then his head cocked, and he stood up and put his paws on Xena's knee, and started sniffing.

"Yeah, bet that smells strange, huh?" Xena said, as the wolf sneezed over one largish patch of dried crimson. "Gods, I am a mess." She gave a rueful laugh as she gingerly put down her still unsheathed sword, and started unlacing her bracers.

"No kidding." Gabrielle stuck her tongue out. "Gross. Here... let me get those." She worked the stiffened laces with strong fingers for a minute. "There." She grunted, and pulled them off, then started on the buckles, which held on her breastplate. "Gods... did you managed to get enough blood caked fur in here?"

"Sorry." Xena chuckled, working on the other fastening. "Guess I don't get points for neatness, huh?" She undid the buckle, and lifted the armor off over her head. "Wait.."

Gabrielle took the metal pieces out of her hands, and set them down. "Later for them. You first." She cheerfully announced, as she worked the upper armbands off.

"Uh huh." Xena sighed, and knelt in place, trying to avoid Ares' energetic tongue. "Ares..c ut that out."

"Hey.. he's helping the washing effort." The bard teased, taking one set of the leg armor from Xena's hands and leaning it against the wall. "I"ll take all the help I can get."

"Gee thanks." Xena muttered, getting her other boot off and standing up. "I'd forgotten drawing and quartering was so... messy."

Gabrielle took her by the hand, and led the way towards the bathing room in silence, and once there, she turned to Xena and undid the straps on her leathers. "Out."

The warrior grinned, and removed the blood stained leathers, and tossed them into the washing tub, followed by her undergarment. She let Gabrielle tug her over to the reservoir, and just stood, while the sun warmed water washed over her. "Gods.. that feels good." she admitted, closing her eyes.

Opened them at the touch of the bard's hands on her, as her partner joined her under the water. "Oh.. I like this, too." She grinned, as Gabrielle set to work on her with a handful of soap.

"He didn't touch you, did he." The bard said softly, as she worked to get all the blood out of the hollows and smooth dips her muscles created. She looked up to see Xena's shake of the head. "Didn't think so." She worked a while more in silence. "You know, I wasn't even scared for you this time.. it was like…I knew."

"Gabrielle.." Xena spoke quietly. "You don't have to do this.. I mean, I can.."

Green eyes lifted to hers. "I know I don't. But you're always taking care of other people. Of me, people we meet... so when I get a chance to, I’d like to take care of you. Is that OK?"

That got the bard a smile. "Sure." The warrior replied, relaxing. "Sorry.. I just.. " she paused. "No one's ever..."

"Taken care of you?" Gabrielle finished quietly. "Not since Cyrene, huh?"

"No." Her partner answered. "It just wasn't.. I mean, the people I was involved with .. they all wanted something.. from me, from my army.. it was almost like a little battle between me, and them. We were always worried about who would get the upper hand, I guess." Even Marcus. Especially Marcus.

Gabrielle almost held her breath at this sudden, and unlooked for revelation. "Competitive?"

"Yeah." Xena admitted, staring down at her hands, which Gabrielle was patiently cleaning. "Something like that." A touch of hoarseness entered her voice. " I couldn't really ever..." She searched for words. "Trust.. them completely. Because I always knew there were reasons behind why we were getting involved with each other."

Gabrielle thought about that for a while. "But you trust me?" She finally asked, finishing her task, and glancing up. "Completely?"

"Do you really have to ask that, Gabrielle?" Came the wistful reply. "Yes."

The bard remained quiet for a minute, then laughed a little. "You know.. it’s funny you say that.. because I was just thinking, before.. about how everyone I’ve ever known in my life.. my parents.. Lila.. even Perdicus, wanted something from me." She paused, and scrubbed Xena’s forearms, which had gone very still. "It was… what could I do for them. What could I.. be.. for them. My mother… never really had time for us.. my father.. well, you know." She swallowed, and felt Xena’s fingertips gently brush her face. "Lila.. needed me to take care of her. " She looked up. "And Perdicus… he was looking for someone to take care of him, too."

"I think you know.. I’m pretty good at taking care of myself, Gabrielle." Xena said softly.

The bard smiled, and let her fingers trace the pattern of muscles just under the skin of Xena’s arm. "Oh, I know that, because you’re the first person in my life who never asked anything of me,.. never expected anything from me… who just let me be who I was. " A pause. "Or who I wanted to be, anyway." She rubbed her temple a little. "And… you’re the first person I ever really wanted to take care of. " A glance up. "That’s kind of silly, isn’t it?" She went back to her scrubbing. "Gods… you did get that stuff all over you."

Xena examined her hands thoughtfully. 'Yeah.. but then you could wash these for a lifetime, and there would still be blood on them." It was barely a whisper, but the bard heard it.

"Then I guess I'll just have to stick around with you for enough lifetimes to convince you otherwise, huh?" Gabrielle took the long powerful fingers in hers, and lifted them to her lips, covering first one, then the other with gentle kisses. And looked up to see a wide-eyed, open stare that let her look straight through to the depths of her partner's soul. So she looked, and decided she liked what she saw there. "Do me a favor?"

"Anything." Came the instant answer, as Xena struggled to regain a shred of composure.

Gotta take the intensity down here or we're both going to go crazy. The bard realized. "Can you kneel down? You're way too tall for me to reach your hair all the way up there."

That got a smile, and Xena complied, dropping smoothly to one knee, and resting her elbows on it. "Sorry." she chuckled, as the bard worked on getting the blood and gore out of her dark mane.

Gabrielle rinsed the soap off, gazing thoughtfully at the bent head in front of her, caught as they were in gentle light from the opening in the roof. "OK." She said. "All done."

Xena looked up, and smiled into the light. "Right.. your turn." She said, in an ordinary voice, as she stood and held out her hand for the soap.

Gabrielle relinquished the bar, but shook her head in protest. "Xena, I didn’t get…" She stopped speaking and swallowed as the warrior stepped closer, and working up a lather between her hands, started at the bard’s neck and worked downward. "Uhm… on the other hand.." She breathed, leaning forward and letting their bodies touch. "A good wash never hurts."

Xena paid close attention to her task, sliding her hands around the bard’s back, and scrubbing industriously, smirking when Gabrielle’s own hands began to wander. "Thought I was all done?" She whispered, watching the flush climb up the bard’s neck and tinge her ears.

"Think I missed a few spots." Gabrielle muttered, experimentally tasting a few drops of water beading on her partner’s chest. "Can’t be too careful."

"Ah. I see. You thirsty?" Xena asked, all innocence.

Gabrielle acquired a few more droplets. "Yeah." She glanced up. "Watching you is thirsty work."

That got a low, lazy chuckle, and Xena tilted her head back, opening her mouth and capturing some of the water from the reservoir. She straightened back up, then bent her neck, lightly opening Gabrielle’s lips and depositing a portion of the water in there. The bard swallowed, then opened her mouth like a bird waiting for more.

She got the rest, and a kiss on top of it. "Mm." She hummed approvingly.

"Glad you approve." The warrior grinned, in a completely good mood for the first time in days. She finished washing her partner, and rinsed the soap out of her hair, as they exchanged kisses and let their hands roam over each other. One last pleasant splash of water, and Xena reached out one long arm, grabbing the large piece of linen she’d left there that morning to dry, and wound it around both of them.

"Gonna make it awful hard to walk." Gabrielle chuckled, as she found herself being roughly toweled dry. "Ohh.. that feels great… whoa!"

"Who said you were going to walk?" Xena inquired, lifting her up, still swaddled in the linen, and walking out into the cot’s open space, then just collapsing on the bed with the bard in her arms.

Gabrielle rested quietly there for a long moment, then snuggled closer, and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "I guess we gotta go and join in the festivities, huh?"

Xena wrapped her arms tighter and chuckled. "What would they do to us if we didn’t?’ Her brow arched wickedly. "Think anyone out there’s going to challenge me?"

The bard laughed softly. "Nope.. not a one. And it was nice seeing you get your swagger back." Her eyes twinkled with mischief.

"My what?" The warrior’s brows contracted. "I don’t have a swagger."

This got a helpless burst of laughter from Gabrielle. "You most certainly do."

"Do not." Xena growled, giving her a look.

Gabrielle put up one finger and tapped Xena’s chin for emphasis. "Yes, you do. But don’t worry. It looks really good on you."

The blue eyes blinked at her. "I do?" A pause. "It does?"

The bard nodded. "Uh huh."

"Hmm." A quirked eyebrow. "So.. how come you’re the first person to notice that?"

That got a giggle from her partner. "Probly because I’m the first person could say that without getting my jaw broken." She idly traced the rosy color tracing up Xena’s neck. "Gods, what a blush."

"Hmph." Xena mulled that over for a bit. "Well, one thing." She drawled, with a quirky grin.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered, still chuckling a little to herself.

"Least I don’t squeal when I’m tickled." Came the sly answer, and Gabrielle realized suddenly that she was trapped in a wad of linen, stark naked, within reach of her partner’s devilish fingers.

"Whoaa…oh no…. no … Xena, don’t you dare… ahh..AUGH!!!!!"

She squealed, proving Xena’s point admirably.

Ares, alarmed at the noise, scrambled over and hurdled himself onto the bed, stopping short with yip when he saw the writhing mass of off white linen that seemed bound and determined to flip itself off the bed. "GRRRRRR" He growled with all his strength.

Motion stopped, and Xena’s arched eyebrow, followed by a grin appeared. "Hey.. is he on your side now?" She asked the breathless Gabrielle.

"Ugghh." Gabrielle disentangled herself from the linen, and rolled onto her back, throwing her hands out and letting out a huge breath. "I’ll get you for that."

Xena stretched out on her side, and propped her hand on her head. "Oh yeah? When?"

Gabrielle let her eyes half close, and she lifted a hand and tickled Xena’s chin. "On your birthday."

A deep sigh. "She told you." Mother, I’m going to kill you. So much for promises.

"Oh.. you better believe she did." The bard chuckled wickedly. She watched Ares stumble across the bed, and curl up against Xena’s belly, tucking his nose under his tail and sighing. "Aww… he loves his mommy."

Xena shook her head in amused disbelief. "I don’t understand what the attraction is here."

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and let her eyes travel down the warrior’s sleek form, then back up until their eyes met. "I do." She smirked, getting a wry look in return. "Ok.. ok. We’d better stop making excuses and go join the crowd." She yawned, and rubbed her stomach. "Besides, I’m hungry."

"There’s a surprise." Xena commented, as she rolled off the bed and stood, stretching her arms and shoulders, and hearing the pop as joints settled back into place. "Oof… " She extended a hand to the bard, and hauled her to her feet. "I’m getting too old for this." She sighed.

Gabrielle slid in close, and patted her on the belly. "I’d sympathize with you, but it sure would sound more convincing if you hadn’t just wiped the field with an 8 foot tall fanged monster. With a sword." She glanced up, to see a glint in her partner’s eyes. "Right after you spent the previous morning whaling all over a hundred or so equally large, equally fanged forest dwellers. "

"Uhm." Xena bit her lip.

"Right after you got out of a infirmary pallet after being stuck under a pile of rocks all day. " The bard continued, enjoying the chagrined look on Xena’s face. "And, of course, saving my life."

"You made your point, Gabrielle." Xena smiled, running her fingers through the bard’s red gold hair, and fluffing it out to dry.

The bard nodded quietly. "Good." Her face went serious. "I feel bad about Warrin." She sighed. "I know.. he was really hurting."

"He found his peace" Xena replied quietly, but a smile etched itself onto her face. "He found what he was looking for.. at the end there. "

Gabrielle pulled a tunic over her head, and settled the folds absently about her body, giving the belt a little scowl as she fastened it. "Did he say anything to you?" She asked curiously, looking up from her task.

Caught in the act of donning her own garment, Xena slowly finished the motion, and fiddled with the hem for a second. "Yeah." She finally said. "He said… " she stopped and paused for a beat. "Uhm. He said his lifemate had promised him she’d wait.. for him. On the other side. And.. he was wondering if she had." Xena felt the lump form in her throat again, as the simple wrenching need of that thought hit her in the gut. Wouldn’t I have been wondering the same thing? I wanted to hate him.. but Gods… what he must have felt.

"Oh." The bard laid a tentative hand on Xena’s arm, frozen in motion on her belt. "I’m sure… I mean.." What if he’d promised too? And he’d broken that promise.. "I hope.."

"I couped him." Xena said, quietly. "As he was dying, he looked over my shoulder, and… smiled.. he looked just like a kid again. "

"You think.." Gabriele said, very softly, watching her closely.

"His last words were ‘she did.’" Xena replied, with a sudden, brilliant smile.

"Oh!" Gabrielle sucked in breath with a gasp. "How awesome." Impulsively, she flung her arms around the warrior, and hugged her with all the strength in her arms. "I’m glad for him."

Xena’s eyes glistened, as she returned the hug, and buried her face in Gabrielle’s hair for a long moment. "So am I, Gabrielle.." Because it means a door I’ve always known was locked to me… just might not be. And damn it – I know better than to believe that. I know better than to even start considering the remotest possibility that I could…no.. "

But… oh gods help me. I think I am starting to believe just that.

She closed her eyes, and felt an unaccustomed wetness trail down her cheeks A wave of emotion crashed over her, and she just let it, feeling Gabrielle’s gentle, reassuring touch rubbing her back. "He went to a better place.. " She whispered, feeling the sudden intake of breath in the bard’s body. "With everything he did…"

Gabrielle just stood there, unmoving, breathing in air that was suddenly perfumed with a hope unimagined. Realizing what those words meant. "I’m glad you finally see.. something.. that I never, ever had any doubt about." She breathed, burying herself in a haze of warm happiness. Sometimes, Gabrielle … sometimes, things happen for a reason.

Another moment to memorize, immortalize in a memory so clear, and so vivid she could later imagine with precision the exact points at which their bodies touched, smell the familiarity of the warm linen enclosing them, hear the first rumblings of the approaching storm, that sent uneven vibrations through the soles of her bare feet.

After a timeless stretch of closeness, Xena finally took a settling breath, and gave the bard’s back a little rub. "Well, guess we’d really better go and join the rest of the village – before we get soaked on the way over there."

And so they did – but the rain caught them anyway, just before the entrance of the gathering hall, and Gabrielle felt the sudden, terrifying feeling of being airborne as she was scooped up in a pair of powerful arms and catapulted forward, beating the leading edge of the thick drops by the laces of Xena’s boots.

Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, wrapping her hands around her cup and taking a long swallow, as she surveyed the darkening room. Outside, the storm raged, and she had to strain to tell the sun was setting, It was a happy crowd – knots of forest dwellers clustered all over the room, sharing two large casks of very fragrant ale that Lestan had tapped, and waiting for the appearance of dinner, the scent of which kept drifting tantalizingly in the window just to her right.

The largest cluster, of course, was gathered around Xena, who was sprawled in a large armchair, her own cup clasped casually in one hand. The warrior was allowing herself to be pumped for old war stories, which she delivered with her usual sparse economy of words, and the forest dwellers were eating it up. Gabrielle herself had been tapped for several hours worth of tales, and now she was content to sit, and rest her throat, and watch her partner effortlessly capture the attention of the bright-eyed circle around her.

Gods.. I’m glad this is over. She felt a wave of relief flood through her, helped, she realized, by the two cups plus of ale she’d drunk so far. Gotta watch that… I know I get silly.. Her eyes drifted over Xena’s casually draped form. And romantic. She giggled at herself. But then.. that’s her fourth cup.. no wonder she looks so relaxed.

Not nearly enough, she knew, to get Xena drunk – she’d seen her partner consume far more than that and still be able to function almost normally, but she often wondered how much of that was capacity, and how much was sheer willpower – with Xena one never knew. The line got very fuzzy at times.

The amount would account for the relaxed expression, though, and the lack of tension in the long lines of her body, as the ale took the edge off her twitchy emotional defenses, and let her talk about her past without apologizing for it. It wasn’t something she allowed herself to do very often, the bard knew, and she had decided a while back not to push the issue. It was enough that Xena felt safe enough amongst the forest dwellers to relax her guard a bit, something she had last done at home, months back.

Tody was seated cross-legged on the floor, his head almost touching the leg Xena had draped over the arm of her chair, and now his head tilted, and his child’s voice piped a question. The warrior ducked her head to listen, then gave him an easy smile, and ruffled his hair. Gabrielle couldn’t hear the answer, but the circle of listeners chuckled in response, and she smiled along with them, content to just sit back and watch.

A gentle hand on her wrist startled her, and she jumped a little, then turned her head to see Jessan seating himself next to her with an apologetic look. "Sorry.. didn’t mean to scare you." He commented.

"No.. um.. I was just.. " She let her voice trail off, and gave a little shrug, and an impish grin. I must have the stupidest look on my face, if that smirk is any indication. "My mind was…"

"Yeah, I can tell." Jessan’s eyes sparkled with mischief, then his gaze gentled. "Don’t blush, but the look on your face when you watch her is priceless."

So of course she did blush, and glanced down at her hands, trying to get her fuzzy around the edge reactions under control. Finally she looked up with a gentle grin. "I can’t help it." She laughed quietly. "I just melt inside when I see her. "

Jessan patted her hand. "Would you relax? It’s a wonderful thing, Gabrielle… it makes me feel good when I see that." He chewed his lip and giggled a little. "Besides.. I’m kind of getting to know that myself." His eyes dropped to her hand, and he lifted it, and tilted it towards the torchlight a bit. "Gosh.. that’s awful pretty." He murmured, tracing the delicate serpentine design of her ring with his eyes. "That’s beautiful, Gabrielle."

The bard rubbed the inner surface of the band with her thumb, and smiled. "Yeah, it is." She agreed. The metal was warm from her hand, and reflected the flickering illumination unevenly from the engraved crest. "It’s her personal seal." Her eyes met Jessan’s, with a twinkle. "And boy, was that ever a surprise."

He grinned. "I bet." A pause. "Do humans.. I mean, do you have ceremonies… uhm… well, is there a formal.." He stopped, not sure of how to ask the question.

But Gabrielle understood. "Well, kind of. " She glanced at her hand. "She gave me this just before we went to watch my sister get married." Her eyes lifted. "That’s a legal ceremony that joins two people.. making one of them responsible for the other." She took a breath. "And then, the Amazons have a kind of ceremony.. that does sort of the same thing, but for social reasons, to raise children, and that kind of thing."

"I see." Jessan mused. "Did you..uhm…"

A quick grin. "Well.. it’s like Xena said.. neither one of those kinds of ceremonies really.." She sighed, and shook her head a little. "Really covers what our relationship is… I mean.. law or not, we’ve kind of.. taken responsibility for each other."

"Oh yeah. I’d say so." Jessan chuckled. "Did you.. I mean, have you thought about doing anything more.. uhm… formal?"

The bard shrugged. "Not.. like my sister, no. It wouldn’t mean the same thing." She paused reflectively. "And I’m not sure Xena would go for an Amazon ceremony…" Her lips quirked. "It’s all right, though. I don’t really care."

Jessan nodded slowly. "Well, what I came to talk to you about is.. Elaini and I, we’re going to.. uhm… participate in our version of that kind of ceremony.. in a few days. And.. I’d really like for you guys to be there. I know that you’re probably anxious to get going and…" He stopped. "Where are you headed next, by the way?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Home." She quietly answered. "I’ll talk to Xena, but I know she won’t mind sticking around a few days to see you both joined."

Jessan studied her. "Home?" His brow creased. "I thought.. "

"Probably not for a real long time.. " The bard explained. "But.. it’s going to be a bad winter, and after what just happened.. and us, and all.. yeah. We’re going to spend a little while just.. " She chewed her lip. "Just regrouping, I guess."

Golden eyes thoughtfully searched her face. "Didn’t think you could get her to stand still that long." He attempted a smile. "She’s so.. can she take that?"

Gabrielle sat up, and put the cup down with slow and precise movements. Then she turned, and rested her forearms on her knees, making serious eye contact with him. "Look." She said, in a quiet voice. "I’m not stupid"

"Gabrielle!" Jessan protested, raising a hand.

"Let me finish." She continued, and he subsided. "She’s known death, and fighting, and war, and bloodshed the better part of her life, Jessan. " An audible swallow. "I know it’s a big part of what she is. " A pause. "Of who she is." She looked away, then back. "And I know.. Jessan, I know.. that it’s pretty damn likely.. that we’re not going to.. to grow old together, all right?"

She felt his shock, and took several deep breaths to keep the heaviness in her chest from blocking her speech. "So.. knowing that.. makes me really, really want to be damn sure that death, and blood, and anger isn’t the only thing that made up her life. " She rubbed her eyes, and fell silent a moment. "I want her to know peace, and family, and love.. and I can’t do that when we’re out there fighting every day."

Jessan put a hand on her arm, and squeezed. "Gabrielle, please – I didn’t’ mean to question that. I don’t… "

"I know." She sighed. "But if it’s only a little while, then it will be a little while that I have to give her something she hasn’t had since she was a little girl.. and Jess, I want that so bad."

"I didn’t understand." The forest dweller whispered. "Now I do… and you’re right, Gabrielle. She deserves that." He glanced down at his hands, which flexed gently, then looked up. "What I really wanted to ask you.. with all this roundabout babbling of mine.. is would you like to join Elani and I in participating in our ceremony of joining… it’s something that is part of our tradition, but it’s something that’s specific to what we are. Elaini and I, and you and Xena."

"Oh." Gabrielle replied softly. "I said there was nothing written that covered the joining of two souls.. but in your tradition there must be, right?" Her eyes took on a subtle sparkle.

Jessan nodded. "Exactly so."

"Jessan, I would very much like that." The bard smiled. "Have you mentioned it to Xena?"

He shook his head. "No."

"I will." Gabrielle patted his arm, then stopped, as his head continued to shake. "What?"

Jessan cleared his throat, and leveled a stare at her. "The ceremony is held in a place sacred to our kind, deep in a cavern, inside the northern mountains." His jaw muscles moved jerkily. "I noticed she was having problems in the crowded hall last night."

Gabrielle let out a long breath. "Might be a problem for both of us, actually." She gave him a look, and a little shrug. "Well, I can ask… but I gotta be careful how, because I know her.. she’ll try to force herself if she thinks it’s important to me."

Jessan smiled, and squeezed her hand. "Do what you think is right, Gabrielle." He rubbed his temples. "I can’t believe I’m going to do it.. I never thought I’d be.. " He looked up with a helplessly happy grin. "It’s great, isn’t it?"

Gabrielle grinned back. "It’s better than great." She stretched, and looked up as the back doors opened, and the feast began to arrive. "I’ll let you know what she says."

A nod. "Good enough." Jessan sniffed appreciatively. "Wow.. that smells great. Shall we?"

She took his arm, and tugged. "Yeah.. come on, you’ve got longer arms."

Gabrielle gasped, and shivered as she stepped out into the cold wet air much later that late evening. "Gods." She muttered, hugging herself. "Should have brought my cloak."

A long arm slid around her, and brought friendly warmth as Xena pulled her closer. "C’mere." The warrior yawned. "This is nasty." She muttered, glancing up. A gust of wind slammed into them, bringing a stinging lash of freezing rain that made even Xena shudder. "Damn." The icy cold cut through the ale induced fuzziness momentarily, and brought her to sharp attention. "Let’s go."

They made their way quickly towards their cot, surrounded by equally huddled forest dwellers, who at least had the advantage of their thick, furry pelts. Xena bundled them both through the door, and closed it hastily after her, grimacing.

Ares bounded over, setting fangs to boot, and tugging at Xena’s laces with vigor. "Grrr." He shook his head back and forth, almost shaking himself off his paws. The warrior dropped to one knee, and ruffled his fur. "Hey, boy."

"Brrrr." The bard sighed, rubbing her arms. "At this rate, I’m going to need thicker tunics before we get home." She sighed, giving her partner an amused look. "What’s up with this weather? I don’t’ remember it ever being like this." She studied the kneeling form, noting the faint hesitation in her movements that were practically, along with the more than normal casualness of her speech, the only indications of the amount she’d drunk that night.

Xena stood up from her petting session with Ares, and walked over, enveloping Gabrielle in a hug. After a minute, she felt the bard’s body stop shivering, and slump against her own without resistance. "Better?" She whispered, gently rubbing the bard’s chilled arms.

Gabrielle just stood there, letting her senses absorb the warmth, and the nutty smell of woodsmoke the clung to Xena’s tunic, and the sweetness of their connection. "Perfect." She mumbled, feeling the smile shape her lips. Then she tilted her head back, regarding her partner with quiet affection. "But you can’t do this the entire way home."

"Oh yeah?" Xena laughed softly. "Watch me." She drawled, then chuckled as she felt the giggles go through her partner. "But you do have a point." She admitted, as she reluctantly released Gabrielle. "And I think… hang on a minute." She crossed to their packs, and sat down cross-legged in front of them, digging through one. "I think.. did I keep.. yeah."

Pulled out a neatly folded bundle of thick cloth, and stared at it for a minute. "Yeah." She repeated softly, running fingertips over the colorful surface. Turning around, she held it out to Gabrielle. "Here. Think that’ll fit you. Bout the right size."

The bard walked over and crouched down, putting a hand on Xena’s shoulder to steady herself. "Oh… Xena, this is really nice… I can’t.."

A hand raised, fingertips stilled her lips. "Shh.. it’s way too small for me. Always was. " A pause, and their eyes met. "Please?" About time someone wore that thing…and those colors… might have been made for her.

It had been a brutal winter, and she’d had to have her army raid more and more frequently to support the increased need for food, and firewood, and clothing. And had found less and less there to confiscate, as the villagers ran low on even the most basic necessities.

She’d tried to tell herself that it was for the greater good. That the security provided by her army would eventually allow these same villagers a more peaceful future. But she was lying to herself, and knew it. She did a lot of that in those days.

The hard weather had led to a rash of stragglers trying to attach themselves to her band, some good, some useless, some just pitiful. She’d tossed out most, kept a few – one of them a young kid from the last village she’d raided, who had a good hand with horses, and a shy, if pleasant personality. He kept his mouth shut, and kept out of the way, mostly, and she’d found herself getting used to his bright-eyed presence. It was a diversion, of sorts, in a season with very few of them. Davi, his name was, and he had pale hair, and eyes almost as blue as her own. He sat silent, in the evenings around the fire, skinny arms wrapped around his knees, listening to the rough tales and jokes, his gaze never far from her face.

He’d eaten their basest scraps… and it wasn’t long before she’d realized she was deliberately leaving part of her own meals uneaten, and making sure he was the one who cleared away her plate.

And then, another warlord’s band, desperate from starvation themselves, came howling down out of the cold night towards their camp in the forest, and they’d found themselves, half wakened, fighting for their lives in the pre dawn chill.

A wad of freezing mud thrown in her eyes had almost ended her career right then – a tall, rawboned raider, sensing her weakness, had jumped over the fire and taken her down, missing a killing blow in his haste, but opening a gash in her side the sent a shock wave of pain all down through her. She’d stopped in dazed confusion, sensing rather than seeing his next blow, and unable to move out of the way in time.

A ragged, high voice screamed something unknown, and then she heard the blow but didn’t feel it. And looked up at a shower of blood to see Davi’s body cut almost in half by the raider’s blade.

She’d never remembered what happened next, though her men had told stories about it quietly around the fire for a long time after. She had no recollection of getting up, or lifting her sword, or what she did to that raider, she only remembered waking up days later, in a foggy haze of pain from her injury, and being told they were safe.

Because of her, they said. Because she’d taken down the rest of the attacking warband, and then passed out from the pain, and the lack of blood. And as she lay there, staring up through the rough interlace of branches over her head that made up their makeshift shelter, she remembered the boy. That had hurt more than the sword cut, and she’d decided, right then, that she’d not get caught in that trap ever again. No one would get inside her emotional defenses. Ever. It wasn’t worth the pain.

She’d healed fast, as always, and they’d moved on, aiming for richer villages, and greener pastures in the south. Before she went, though, she shed her armor and weapons, and donned peasants clothes and a shawl, and wandered through the boy’s muddy collection of cots. Had found a few merchants listlessly trying to put out meager wares, and stopped in front of the weaver’s cot, where a young woman was seated, idly turning a spool of deep blue lambs wool in her hands.

She’d looked up at Xena’s approach, and apparently found nothing threatening there, because she merely nodded, and went back to studying her tools.

Xena nodded back, and let her eyes travel over the few pieces of finished clothing the weaver had displayed. Her gaze stopped on a thick, beautifully embroidered woolen tunic, of a deep forest green, with interwoven yellow and red trim, and an intricate design sewn painstakingly across both shoulders. "This is really nice." She commented, running sensitive fingertips over the garment, feeling the heaviness of the fabric, and noting the well made seams. It was small though, for a girl. And her mind roiled queasily. Or for a young boy.

"Aye." The woman nodded briefly. "I thank you for the compliment. It was made for my son."

Xena had tilted her head in question. "He didn’t like it?"

The woman had shrugged, uncaring. "Ran off, he did. To join one of those cursed lawless bands of vagrants. " She looked up, an expression of weary anger on her face. "Damn them." She’d sighed. "They take everything including hope, don’t’ they."

"Yeah." Had come the answer, in a hoarse tone. Then Xena had closed her eyes, and let herself feel the shame of what she’d become. After a minute, she looked up. "How much?" She’d quietly asked, folding her arms across her suddenly aching chest.

"Won’t fit you." The woman said, running her eyes over the tall form in a professional manner.

"I know." Xena replied. "But I have a friend it will."

Coins had changed hands, and the woman had handed the garment over, letting her fingers linger lovingly on it. "Hope your friend has better luck in life than my son did."

"I hope so too." The warrior had answered, tucking the fabric under one arm. That coin had come dearly, and couldn’t really be spared, but she’d had a debt here, and whatever else she’d done, and whoever else she’d become, she paid what she owed.

"All right.’ Gabrielle quietly agreed, seeing the look in those eyes, and took the garment, running her hands appreciatively over it. "It’s gorgeous."

Xena leaned back against the hearth, and put her hands into her lap. "Try it on." She requested.

Gabrielle smiled shyly. "OK." She stepped closer to the fire, and removed the clothing she was wearing, folding her shirt up and looking down in startlement as Xena took it from her. "Oh.. thanks." She acknowledged. "This is so soft.. " She grinned, as she pulled the garment over her head, and smoothed it over her body. "Oh, wow. "

Xena leaned her head back against the rough stone, and regarded her thoughtfully. "Looks good on you." She finally said, with a smile. Looks like I told the truth.. just took me a long time to find that friend.

"Thanks." A soft blush. "You spoil me." She sat down next to Xena on the hearthrug and leaned against her, then looked up with an impish grin. "Not that I’m complaining, mind you."

That got her a full smile in return. Then Xena’s expression went serious and quiet. "You going to ask me about the ceremony?" Her voice was low and a touch hoarse.

Stay casual, Gabrielle. Just relax. She shrugged. "Well, I was tomorrow morning… it’s not something that I was really thinking about. Why?" She paused. "I guess you heard.."

"I heard." Came the soft response. Xena looked down at the rug, and idly riffled her fingers through it. Thought about going into that small, rocky place she’d heard Lestan describing, and felt her heart start to pound. Damn. I am not going to let this beat me. Again.

Fingertips brushing her jaw made her eyes lift, and find Gabrielle’s starkly concerned gaze meeting hers. "Xena, it’s not important."

"It is to me." Xena replied quietly. "That’s… too big a weak spot." She took a breath, then a second, before she went on. "I need to fix that." Then something occurred to her. "Unless.. I mean, you don’t have to.. " she hesitated. "If you don’t want.. to go through with something like that.. it’s all right." She returned her gaze to the fur, but shrugged. "Whatever." Now.. Gabrielle.. you tell me if this means something to you or not. Because if it does, I’ll do whatever it takes. If not..

Gabrielle sighed inwardly. Busted. She laid her head against Xena’s arm, and slid her hand down one tanned forearm until their hands were joined. "You know me better than that." She accused gently. She felt the fingers twined with hers tighten in response. "Don’t want to go through with it? Give me a break, Xena… but not if it’s going to make you crazy. Or me, for that matter." She rubbed her cheek along her silent partner’s upper arm. "How could you think… " Her brows creased and she lifted her head. "Do you still think I’m just this dumb kid who has no clue?"

That got a response. "No." Xena used her free hand to rub her eyes. "Sorry. Now you know why I don’t let myself drink this much, all right? I get…" Depressed.. insecure.. "Stupid." She let out a -short, mirthless laugh. "Just dump a bucket of water on my head. I’ll be fine."

Gods. I should have realized. Gabrielle mentally hit herself. "No way, that would be too messy." She joked, reaching up and gently rubbing the back of Xena’s neck. The warrior let her head drop forward against the forearm she had propped on one raised knee. "C’mon. We’ll talk about it in the morning, OK?"

"Sure." Xena muttered, closing her eyes. "Tired." She admitted. "Long day."

"I know, love." Gabrielle sighed, glad it was over. "Me too." Yeah, and what did I do, other than watch and worry? She stood, tugging on their still joined hands, and was pleasantly surprised when Xena rose with no further prompting, and shook herself a little. "You know, " She let her eyes run lazily over her partner’s form. "You’re really cute."

This cut through the fog surrounding Xena, and her blue eyes sharpened and bored into the bard’s. "What?" One eyebrow curled upward.

"Cute." The bard enunciated carefully. " You know, good looking, gorgeous, easy on the eyes… get the idea?"

The warrior cocked her head, smiling a little. "What brought that on?" Then the eyebrow quirked again. "Trying to cheer me up?" And, against the odds, it did, not because of what she said, but the fact that she said it. The depression lifted as if by magic, blown to tatters by the brisk wind that was the bard’s irrepressible good nature.

She realized that the problem would still be there tomorrow, but tonight she needed to stop thinking, and sleep off this fuzziness with the warmth and security of her soulmate’s presence wrapped around her.

"Busted, huh?" The bard confirmed, cheerfully. "But I meant it."

Xena reached up and straightened the collar on the heavy tunic and gave the shoulders a tug. Then she caught the bard’s face in both hands and spent a long moment just looking at her, memorizing the way the gentle firelight darkened her green eyes to a deep hazel, and tinted her clear skin to a ruddy tan. "In your eyes, Gabrielle." She acknowledged, smiling gently.

The bard took several breaths before answering. "Then maybe you should look through them and see what I see." She whispered, aware of the warm, powerful hands that still clasped her.

A silence fell between them.

"On one condition." Xena finally answered, stepping closer, and feeling the welcome touch of the bard’s hands against her ribcage.

"What?" Gabrielle’s lips parted on that ghost of a sound, her eyes drinking in the shadowed, angular face above hers, her body suddenly aware of the slightest touch of the soft heavy fabric that draped it, and of the warmth of her partner’s skin under her fingertips.

"You look through mine." The warrior responded, her voice a low rumble that tingled in Gabrielle’s ears. "And see.. what I see.. when I look at you."

The bard studied those clear eyes, dimmed to almost purple in the firelight, and noticed with loving detail how her long lashes neatly framed them, and how her expressive eyebrows arched with just so perfection, the same deep shade as her sometimes unruly hair. "All right." She answered dreamily. "It’s a deal." And just which one of us will benefit more from that bargain… I think it’s a toss up. We both need it. We both need each other.

She didn’t remember getting undressed, after that – she only remembered those endless blue depths, and a warm tickly feeling, exchanging the heavy softness of wool for the lighter comfort of her sleeping shirt, and the next thing she knew she was cuddled in the middle of that large, round bed, letting a blanket of well being surround her.

Xena slid into bed next to her, pulling the covers up over both of them, and settling her arms around Gabrielle, pulling her closer. The bard rolled over, winding her arms around Xena’s body, and burrowing her head into the warrior’s shoulder. "Ummmm." She mumbled happily, taking a deep breath, and letting it out slowly. "Mine."

"Uh huh." Xena grinned, feeling the warm tickle of air through the fabric of her shirt, and snuggled closer, abandoning all restraint, and just allowing herself to wallow in the sensation of being surrounded by the love Gabrielle was giving off. I shouldn’t like this so much She mused sleepily. I’m letting myself become dependent on it… that’s stupid. But after a few minutes of half hearted resistence, she gave up, and let the warm, golden light take her over, and wash her gently into sleep.

Ugh. Xena forced one eye opened reluctantly, and was relieved that it was the pale gray light of dawn that greeted her and not the bright sunlight of late morning. In a reflex motion, she grabbed the waterskin she’d remembered to sling over the edge of the bed frame, and pulled the stopper with her teeth, drinking until most of the contents were inside her.

The dull ache in her head started fading immediately, and she allowed the other eye to blink open as she cautiously rotated her neck to ease its stiffness. Not… too bad. She decided, glancing down with a gentle smile at her partner’s possessive embrace. Gods, she looks so… like a kid when she’s sleeping. She let her eyes trace the faint smile crossing the bard’s lips, and the relaxed openness of her face. One ear was pressed firmly against Xena’s chest right above her heart, an arm was wrapped firmly around her middle; and the other was curled up under the warrior’s shoulder, with the hand resting over the top of it.

From the corner of her eye, Xena could see the glint as the light caught the ring she wore always, waking and sleeping, and sighed as her thoughts returned to the problem of the ceremony.

Because, try as she would to hide it, Xena knew full well how much Gabrielle wanted to experience that. Knew it when she’d seen her face at Lila’s marriage ceremony, and had it reinforced when she would catch the bard, unknowing, tracing the intricate lines of the ring with a look of wonder on her face.

Would a ceremony change the way either of them felt? No. Xena moved her hand, resting o Gabrielle’s back, a little, and felt the soft hair slide over her skin. A thousand ceremonies couldn’t make me love her more. The ring, had been her expression of that. A promise, from someone who didn’t take them lightly, of protection, and support, and love for as long as the bard chose to wear it.

And Gabrielle chose to wear it constantly, though occasionally, Xena would catch her looking at it, and running a fingertip over it as though.. she couldn’t believe it was there. Or was afraid it might vanish someday. Not as long as I live, my bard. She thought in silence. But maybe what Gabrielle needed was to hear that.. in the kind of formal setting Lestan had been describing. Because the forest dwellers had no written form of ceremony – the participants gave their vows to each other from their own hearts, and minds. And souls.

I want to give that to her. Xena decided. To Hades with what it takes out of me. Her eyes focused on the sturdy timbers of the ceiling. Guess I need to find out what that’s going to be first, but I don’t want… Her gaze flicked down to Gabrielle, who stirred a little, tightening her grip with a tiny furrow in her brow. She rubbed the bard’s back gently, and slowed her breathing, shaking her head a little as her partner’s grip relaxed, and her face cleared of worry. Gods… she’s so sensitive to me. I wonder if she was always like that.. just never.. I was never that aware of her.. Or was I, and just never let on? She was always surprised when I paid attention to her. How lonely that must have been for her, at the beginning.. I’m surprised she stayed.. I was really surprised when she came back, that first time.

"I’m going home." Gabrielle had said, quietly, seriously, packing her things with steady deliberation. "I need to figure out who I am, and..get some questions answered."

Xena hadn’t expected the painful jolt that had sent through her. After all, the girl babbled, and got into unbelievable amounts of trouble, and had a knack for being in the wrong place just at the wrong time. But that night around the campfire, alone for the first time in months, the once friendly silence had settled around her like a damp cloak.

And without anything to distract her, dark memories oozed in, reminding her again of who she was. What she was. Reminding her again that the frivolous intent she had of somehow making up for all that darkness, and all that destruction was really kind of… na´ve.

She spent a few hours tossing pebbles into the inoffensive fire, trying to convince herself she was better off. That Gabrielle was much better off, which was easier to imagine. The girl would go back to her home, having seen a bit of the world, and settle down contentedly, with a bunch of great stories to tell her kids.

She knew Gabrielle would have kids.. she was just that kind of person. And she comforted herself with a fanciful vision of her young friend, surrounded by tiny faces as she told some outlandish tale of some giant. Xena’s lips compressed into a tight smile. If she concentrated hard, she could almost hear the girl’s voice.

And realized, with a sense of shock, that she wanted to be able to hear it. That she’d gotten gradually used to having that piping sound raised in question, in argument, in laughter.. and had found herself lately just lifting her eyes from what she was doing for no reason, other than to find Gabrielle’s face, usually smiling, sometimes scowling, almost always in motion as she reacted to this very strange world she’d found herself in.

Damn it. Xena stabbed viciously at the ground with the point of her dagger. I swore I wasn’t going to do that any more. No more friends, no more getting inside her defenses. That only lead to trouble, because people like her couldn’t have friends, they became a horrible weakness, one she couldn’t afford. And yet… the young girl so badly wanted to be a friend. Her insistent attempts battered away at the warrior’s emotional shields day after day, almost instinctively finding the cracks there. The flaws, where the dark cruel memories had gaps, and let through the scared, insecure village girl who was still hiding away down there.

Gabrielle touched that side of her, and that sunny good nature pulled so hard at those fragments it was sometimes all she could do not to unlock that deeply sealed away section of her heart, and play with the girl like a colt in a field. She had a funny feeling that if Gabrielle stuck around long enough…

But that was a moot point now. Which was probably a really good thing, she’d mused, as she quietly put those little mental toys back into their sad box, and closed the lid. I lost the ability to have that when I decided to become what I am. So it’s better she left, because otherwise she’d just have kept trying to break through.

She’d drawn little circles in the hard packed dirt, and finally admitted the truth to herself. And she would have broken through. She’d looked up, suddenly seeing the fire through a fuzzy halo. She would have been my first real friend since Lyceus. Lucky for her she left. She certainly doesn't need the kind of friend I would be.

Lucky thing. She leaned back against the rock she was seated next to, and let her head rest against the warm stone, gazing up at the dark sky, and the thousands of tiny lights overhead. Goodbye, my young friend. Unlikely as it seems, I’ll miss you. Be safe. Be well. Maybe someday I’ll happen past, and take a peek in your window. Wonder if you’ll remember me.

So lost in thought was she that it took an endlessly long time before the sounds of carnage penetrated her consciousness. She’d raised her head, and cocked her hearing, identifying the thunder of running horses, the yells of fighters. The screams of victims. She thoughtfully regarded the dagger still locked in the fingers of one hand. Why should I get involved? What’s the point? Is there any reason for me to stop them… or maybe.. join them?

A clear voice echoed in her ears, and closing her eyes didn’t stop a vivid mental image of laughing green eyes to form in her mind. Aren’t you going to help them? She could imagine the girl’s indignant voice.

Ah Gabrielle. She sighed, and pushed herself up to her feet. Just this one last time.. for you. "Come on, Argo." She growled, reaching for weapons, and slipping the mare’s saddle cinch with expert skill. A moment to mount, and they were headed northeast, towards the sounds, and the dawn.

But they had been too far, and she’d arrived as the raiders were torching the village. And seeing those defenseless huddled bodies had let loose the wolf in her to a degree she hadn’t expected. The raiders had fallen under her sword, and she’d spent a short, sickening time searching the ruins for survivors.

Had found one, a tiny girl, who had stared at her with huge, frightened eyes, and had lurched away from her blood covered, outstretched hand for an achingly long time, until she finally tottered forward in exhausted grief and collapsed against Xena’s battered armor, sobbing uncontrollably.

Xena had carried the tot aboard Argo until she’d reached a village in the next valley, and found the reeve, standing warily in front of his homestead. "I need a favor." She’d said.

He’d just jerked his head in acknowledgement. She dismounted, and walked over to him, carrying the child, who had fallen asleep with her arms clutched tight around the warrior’s gore encrusted neck. "Village in the next valley’s been torched. She’s the only one left."

The man had stared at her. "Why not just finish the job? " He’d asked, with a glint in his eyes.

"She needs a home." Xena had ignored the question. "Yes, or no – because if not, I gotta long ride to the next village."

A long silence, then he’d held out his hands, and she surrendered the sleepy tyke, who protested leaving her warm, if bloody, sanctuary, clutching Xena’s armor in desperation, her dark eyes searching the warrior’s with almost heartbreaking pleading. "It’s OK, little one." Xena had said softly. "This is a better place for you to be, all right?"

The tiny shoulders had slumped in disappointment, and she turned her dark gaze to the reeve, blinking tears down her face. "Wants you." The man had said, eyeing the tall warrior.

"I’m not the mothering kind." Xena had answered, spreading her arms out and indicating her battlestained form. "Take care of her." She turned and walked back to the patiently waiting Argo, and gathered her reins up, preparing to mount.

"Wait." The reeve said, holding a hand up. "Please.. just a minute."

Xena had hauled herself up into the saddle, but sat quietly, until the reeve went into the cot, and returned a few minutes later, holding a bag, which he held up to her once he came to the mare’s high shoulder. "Here." He said quietly. "It’s just a little something my wife had extra for dinner. You look like you could use it." And he’d put the bag in her hand, and let his own hand drop to her leg armor, giving it a pat. "Fair winds to you, warrior. I’ll care for the girl."

"Thanks." Xena had answered. "Wish I could have gotten there sooner."

A moments silence. Then ."You’re Xena, aren’t you."

She nodded.

"Someday, that girl will find you. And thank you." The reeve said. "And my name’s Eldren." He glanced behind him to where his wife was holding the child, rocking her gently. "She have a name?"

Xena had glanced down and played with Argo’s mane for a minute, before looking back up at Eldren. "Call her Gabrielle." She’d answered quietly.

He’d nodded. "Pretty name."

"Yeah." Had come the answer, before Xena had turned Argo, and ridden off, to find a small pool high in the mountains, where she’d spent the morning cleaning herself, and her armor. And thinking. Finally she’d dressed in her now dry leathers, and settled her armor on, and finished the pie the reeve had given her. "Roads are dangerous round here, Argo."

Argo had lifted her head, and whuffled.

"We’d better make sure Gabrielle made it home safely, huh?" She’d added, stroking the mare’s bright neck. "Maybe we can just say hello, and move on after that." Not fooling herself or the mare for a second, but not caring, either. "Come on."

So they’d come to the rock trap, and seen the enhancements, and the excited gathering that meant they had a new victim approaching. So she’d perched above their heads, just waiting..

Until their victim rounded the bend, and as her eyes registered the identity, and the direction of travel, she’d felt a flood of emotion that froze her in place just long enough for Gabrielle to get herself in trouble. As usual. But as the warrior watched, she got herself out of it, with a move that earned her an unseen raised eyebrow. And then of course, got herself in even more trouble.

But the chakram took care of that, and Xena found herself almost overwhelmed with a feeling of what she told herself was relief at seeing the girl again, that had to be expressed some how – so she channeled the emotion into an exuberant flip, which let her greet Gabrielle with something like her usual gruff manner.

But only something like, and the girl knew the difference, and their eyes had met in a warm give and take that said more than the words ever could.

Guess I should probably tell her she has a namesake out there somewhere. Xena mused idly, Huh.. two of them now, I guess. She shifted her body slightly, and felt Gabrielle stir again, this time shifting her head to gaze up at Xena with sleepy eyes.

"Where d’you think you’re going?" The bard muttered, still half asleep. "S’not even dawn yet, and you were up real late last night." Then she blinked a few times, and a grin tugged at her mouth. "And how’s your head?" With a wicked twinkle in her eyes.

Got a raised eyebrow back. "Fine." Xena responded coolly. "In fact, I feel great – so I’m going for a little run. Interested?" That’ll get her.

Gabrielle scowled. "Not on your life." She mumbled, rolling over and stretching. "Though I would appreciate a little sparring later. I haven’t done any in a while, and I think I’m starting to feel it."

Xena chuckled. "Getting lazy, my bard?"

Green eyes glanced at her in rueful agreement. "Yeah." She stretched again. "And it’s hard enough keeping up with you as it is."

"Sure." The warrior replied amiably. "Anytime, you know that. How about after lunch?"

The bard rolled back over, and settled an arm on Xena’s stomach. "So.. we’re sticking around?" She asked curiously.

Xena studied her face intently, noting the glimmer of hope lurking in the back of those mist green eyes which hardened the determination in her heart to burnished steel. "Yes."

Gabrielle drew a breath, then put a hand on her partner’s arm. "Xena.. " A warning tone in her voice.

The warrior shook her dark head. "Don’t start." I’ve got something I want to say to you, and I’ll go through with it if they have to knock me out cold and carry me in there unconscious to do it."

She watched storm clouds gather at her partner’s brow, and watched the bard take breath to argue. "Gabrielle." A quiet word. "I mean it." Letting the reins loose for a moment on her personality, which she seldom ever did with the bard.

A moment’s fencing of sharp gazes, then Gabrielle let her eyes drop, and gave a slight nod. "All right." She said reluctantly, then her glance darted again to Xena’s. "But you promise me.. promise me.. Xena, if it gets too bad, you’ll stop. I care a lot more about what’s going on with you than any dumb ceremony."

"I promise." Came the soft reassurance, as Xena hooked an arm under the bard’s body, and pulled her into a hug.

They stayed like that for a while. "Thought you were going for a run." Gabrielle finally mumbled, as the first rays of the sun crept through the window, and painted faint golden dapples across her partner’s shoulders.

"Yeah." Xena replied, her fingertips moving in slow circles on the bard’s back. "In a minute." Not wanting to face the ordeal she knew was waiting out there. Finally, she sighed, and dropped her arms to her sides, waiting for Gabrielle to roll off her, which the bard very reluctantly did. She pulled the covers off, and slid out of bed, turning and tucking the edges of the blanket carefully around her partner’s shoulders, then smoothed the hair out of her eyes. "It’s chilly out, love. Stay here.. no need for you to get up yet."

"I should." Gabrielle protested. "Sides, it’s not the same without you here." She gave Xena an impish look.

Xena grinned back. "I’ll be quick. And I’ll bring breakfast back, how’s that? Saw a big bramble of blackberries when I was out there the other day."

That got an enthusiastic grin back from the bard. "Deal." She said, snuggling into her blankets. "But they’d better be good.. to make up for giving you up."

The warrior laughed. "I’ll taste test them." She stood, and padded over to their gear, slipping into her boots and leathers, and slipping out the door.

It was more than chilly, Xena realized, the minute she dropped down off the porch and headed towards the path. It was downright cold, and she unconsciously picked up her pace to get her blood moving. Damn. Frost formed on her breath, as she adjusted to the exertion, then her muscles warmed up and she stopped shivering.

Across the grass, which crunched with frosty clarity under her boots, and onto the hard beaten path to the river as the sharp scent of burning wood cut the air and the sun vainly tried to dispel the foggy mist. What is up with this weather? She mused as she ran with loose, bouncing strides over the ground. I am glad we’re headed home – I don’t want Gabrielle out in this. Not with her tending to that coughing sickness. She glanced around, and saw the path branch, the lower heading down towards the river, the upper.. towards the cliffs. With quiet determination, she took the upper.

And after a while, she was glad she did – the steeply inclined path was giving her a good workout, and she could feel the steady pounding of her heart clearing out the last of her body’s reaction to the ale, as she drew the cold air deep into her lungs. By the time the path crested out to a small rocky plateau, she’d managed to break a sweat, and was starting to feel a little strain in her breathing.

She slowed to a gentle lope, and studied the rocks quietly, spotting what she was looking for and dropping her pace to a walk, then halting, as she stood easily, hands on hips, regarding a crack in the rock face a little wider that she was.

Even at this distance, thinking about going closer.. she felt her heart rate pick up, and a queasy feeling start in her stomach. Bad sign. I hate this. Gods.. how I hate this.

Resolutely, she took a step closer, then another, eyes glued on that dark slit as her breathing came harder, and a tightening band grabbed her chest.

A sudden flash, and a vivid memory of the rockslide oozed into her mind, bringing her to a halt. NO. The panic started, as she felt the rock walls around her closing in again and she started to shiver. "NO." This time audibly, but it didn’t’ help. She felt her heartbeat speed up, and that, along with her breathing, was starting to get her dizzy. "Calm down." She whispered, putting out a hand and touching the rockface. Damn.. damn… I can’t do this. Slowly, she backed away, until her boots hit a rock outcropping, and she sank down onto it, bracing her elbows on her knees, and clasping her hands together.

Waiting for the shaking to stop, and her breathing to return to normal. And her heart to stop hammering rapidly under her breastbone.

She stared at her clenched hands for a long time, before glancing back up at the opening in the rock. Damn. She sighed inwardly. Even the sight bothered her. She glanced away, then took a deep breath, and stood up, moving towards the cliff face again.

This time, she made it all the way to the opening, and put her hands on either side, before her knees gave out, and she found herself sliding down the rough rock surface, and rolled away from the dark hole, ending up short of breath and seeing flashes of light in her peripheral vision that timed with her wildly beating heart.

She let her cheek rest against the cool stone, feeling the rough chips of rock bite her skin as she just lay quietly for a bit, raising one hand to wipe the cold sweat off her brow, then letting that hand fall listlessly to the dusty ground, idly watching the small cloud of granite dust kick up under the impact. I’d forgotten just how much I hated this feeling.

Slowly, she pushed herself back up to a sitting position, and swiveled around so that her back was against the granite wall, and her legs were stretched out in front of her. She rested her hands on her thighs and studied them reflectively. This, was bad. Worse than she’d been expecting. She raked her fingers through her dark hair, and let her head fall back against the rock, thinking hard.

I could just say forget it. I know.. that Gabrielle would understand but… and I could make it up to her. That thought turned over in her mind a few times. But this really isn’t about the ceremony, and I know it. A sigh. This is about me being ornery and stubborn, and refusing to admit when something gets the better of me.

For a long time, she let her eyes roam the cliff side, considering. I’m gonna have to learn to back down, one of these days. Her gaze slid sideways, to the crack in the wall, and stayed there for a bit. She reached out, hesitantly, and curled the fingers of one hand around the edge of the opening, feeling the sharp granite press against her skin.

And with a long, powerful lunge, pulled herself inside the opening. Not today, I guess. Was her last thought, before the darkness closed over her and she lost the ability to think for a very long, and very frightening moment.

The dark, and the closeness pressed down on her with an intolerable weight, bringing a roaring to her ears, and a sharp flashes to her vision as her body panicked and she gasped for air that seemed suddenly faint, and lacking in substance. Stop it. She commanded herself, but for once it didn’t work, as her body remembered what it felt like to be trapped in the close darkness of cold stone, and struggled wildly to escape. She was able to stand it for another few seconds, before she let herself bow to her panicked reflexes, and rolled back outside the entrance, into the hazy light and misty rain.

She rolled over onto her back, and just lay there, until the pounding in her head slowed, and her breathing returned to something approaching normal. The light, cold rain dampened the rock around her, and she closed her eyes against the moisture, trying to ignore the chills, and the sharp scent of wet stone that rose to her senses.

The rattling sound of tiny rocks falling brought her back to herself, and she struggled up, getting to a seated posture in time to see a small, dark, determined head crest the path’s top.

"Roo!" Ares spotted her, and galloped over, tail high. He stumbled into her arms, and she scooped him up and hugged him in pure reflex, burying her face in his mist damp coat as he squirmed around and started licking her shoulder. "Arrrr.." He warbled softly.

"Hey there boy." Xena whispered, shifting to lean back against the rock wall again, and rubbing his ears. "Did you follow me? You’re a bad boy." The ears drooped, and he cocked his head at her, batting his eyelashes over his pale yellow eyes. Her lips quirked a little. "Hey.. you taking lessons or something?"

"Grrrr.. " The wolf answered, batting at her hand with a big paw.

She petted him a moment more, then shook the damp hair out of her eyes, and hauled herself to her feet, giving the crack in the rock one last glance.

Found she could actually look at it now without a reaction. "Hey.. that’s progress. " She whispered to the wolf, but sighed. Not enough… not with only another day till the ceremony. She put Ares down, and gave his ears a tug. "C’mon, I promised someone blackberries for breakfast. You gotta keep up."


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