Bound – Part 9

By Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Gabrielle jerked out of sleep for the second time that morning, her head pounding from the dark nightmare that had invaded her peace. Disoriented, she glanced around for a minute before she realized where she was.

Gods in Olympus, I’d forgotten how much I hate waking up like that. She yawned, and rubbed her eyes, noting the still gray skies outside, and the damply cold wind creeping in the window. Brrr. She drew the covers tightly around her, and wistfully wished Xena were back already. Then she rolled her eyes at herself. Cut that out, Gabrielle. Give the woman a break- you know she needs time alone.

It didn’t work. She still wished Xena were there, mostly because the warrior had an uncanny knack of being able to chase away the dark cobwebs her dreams caused, especially the kind she’d just had, which was mostly bleakness and horror, but not much detail. A touch of her hand, the warmth of her glance, a hug… Gabrielle snuggled back down with a sigh, noting that Ares was also missing. Following in his mama’s footsteps, I guess. She mused. Guess I’d better get up… it’ll be warmer by the fire anyway. She rolled over, and slid out from under the covers, noting with a fond smile that the fire had been built up, and was crackling cheerfully.

She wrapped her cloak around her, and padded over to the fire, pushing her hair out of her eyes, and moving the water pot over the heat. Might as well get washed up. She decided, and dug out a fresh set of clothes, washing quickly and changing, and resettling herself on the hearthrug in front of the fire.

A knock surprised her. "Come." She called, half turning to watch the doorway, her hand almost unconsciously sliding to touch her staff.

The door creaked open, and Tody poked a fiery head in. "Hullo?"

"Hey Tody!" The bard grinned. "Come on in…."

The boy edged in the door, and carefully closed it after him, moving cautiously across the room "Hold on.." He stopped a good distance from her, and shook himself vigorously, sending misty droplets across the floor. "Wow, it’s wet." He cocked his ears around the room, and then refocused on her, tilting his head in question

"Out running." Gabrielle correctly interpreted the posture, grinning at his facial response. "I know.. I know.. it’s a crazy compulsion of hers." I didn’t realize it was raining out, though… wish she’d get back here before she catches her… And the thought just stopped right there. "Come over here and sit down, Tody. Want some tea?"

"Sure." He smiled, and sat down cross-legged near her, fluffing his fur to help it dry. "Is that why she’s so strong?"

"Mmm…" Gabrielle chuckled a little, as she measured herbs in two cups, and poured the now hot water over them. "She works pretty hard at it, yeah." Too hard, sometimes.

"Wow." Tody responded, wriggling closer. "I knew she’d beat those guys yesterday. " He beamed, then scowled. "They wouldn’t let me go."

"Well.." Gabrielle reached out, and folded his small hands around one cup. "They probably wanted to make sure you didn’t get hurt."

His ears swiveled. "You went."

She took a sip of the sweet tea. "Yep. Where Xena goes, I go."

He sighed. "Wow." A pause. "But you could have gotten hurt."

Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "That’s true. But I can fight, and we do this kind of thing all the time." She took another sip. "We know it’s a risk."

Tody stayed silent for a bit. "No one will tell me about the fight. Will you ?"

The bard regarded him cautiously. "Do they say why they wont’ tell you?"

The boy shifted, and took a sip of his tea. "Nice." He indicated the cup. "They say I’m too young."

Gabrielle pulled her cloak closer around her shoulders as a damp draft whistled through the window. "You don’t think so."

Tody sighed. "I think it’s because they think I don’t know who my father was."

Oh. Gabrielle’s eyebrows contracted. Was. I see. "Well… that’s probably true, too." She paused. "I guess they feel funny."

He nodded. "Uh huh. But I don’t.. cause I don’t remember him, or anything. I just… he was a very bad person." His hands tightened around the cup. "I hope I’m not like him."

Ah.. The bard took a breath, and remembered a scene not long ago in her own life. She scooted around next to him, and put an arm around his still damp shoulders. "Don’t worry about that."

"No?" He asked, cocking his head towards her. "How come?"

"Nope." She confirmed. "There’s two things you gotta remember, Tody. " She paused, and smiled to herself. "One, you’re just a kid. You didn’t do anything to make Secan hate you, OK?"

"But he did." The boy whispered. "Papas aren’t supposed to do that."

Gabrielle felt a wave of compassion rise and take her. "Tody, when someone does something like that.. to an innocent little child like you.. they don’t hate you."

"They don’t?" Came the soft answer.

"No. They hate something in themselves. And that something causes them to strike out at everyone, so that everyone feels just as bad as they do. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t ever anything you did, OK?"

"Really?" Tody breathed, laying his head against her arm, absorbing every word. "You believe that, Gabrielle?"

The bard was quiet for a second, and looked deep inside her heart. "Yeah. I do believe that, Tody." Now. "And the second thing, is that.. you are your own person. Just because your papa, or your mama was good, or bad – that doesn’t mean you get to be that automatically. You have to be who you are. That doesn’t come from them, it comes from you." Gods bless you, Xena.. for giving me that gift.

The boy sighed, and burrowed further into Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Maybe I got a chance then."

Gabrielle glanced down at him. "For what?"

Tody picked his head up, and focused his ears intently on her. "For what you have… of course."

Huh? The bard’s head swam. What was he.. "Tody.. I don’t understand. What does that have to do with what we were talking about? "

His blind eyes blinked in reflex astonishment. "Gosh.. didn’t they ever talk to you about this? " He took a sip of his tea. "Bad people don’t get the gift."

Good thing he couldn’t see her face. "They don’t?"

"No way." He shook his head vigorously. "You gotta be super good.. super nice.. or no chance." He tapped her knee. "Even Warrin.. he was good inside, I could See it. All nice, and warm, and gold.. like… like Wennid.. and you."

Could the forest people actually see good and bad? She wondered. "What about Secan, and his people.. how do you see them?"

Tody made a face. "Ugh. Don’t like looking. They’re all nasty and ugly." He edged closer. "Gabrielle.. will you tell me.. what does Xena look like? I was wondering?"

Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "What does she look like to you? " And held her breath for the answer.

He beamed. "Oh.. well, she’s different. All kind of…solid.. and warm.." He paused thoughtfully. "Strong, mostly. Nice." He tapped her arm. .. "but what does she really look like?"

I knew that. I always have. A laugh bubbled up from Gabrielle’s chest. "What does she look like. Hmm. Ok.. well, she’s tall."

Tody snorted. "I knew that."

"Right. And she has really dark hair, with these mahogany highlights when the sun catches it just right." She thought about that for a minute, thought of how Xena had used sound, and smell to describe her. "Uhm… you know in the forest, in the dark parts, if you dig for roots, you get this rich, beautiful, dark kind of moist soil?’

Tody nodded. "Yeah – I know exactly what you mean. Wennid brings it back for her roses."

Gabrielle smiled. "That smell.. that reminds me of the color of her hair."

"Oh." The boy sighed.

The bard took a breath. "And she has the most beautiful eyes." She added softly. "They’re so blue… they’re like a what a stream sounds like on a sunny day. Little lights dance in the back of them."

Tody smiled gently., listening to the music in her voice as she described her partner. The words themselves were coated with a warm affection that charmed him. He could have laughed – he’d heard the fighters describe Xena – and their words were all of her strength, and power, and ferocity in battle. Somehow he knew, if he asked further, all of Gabrielle’s descriptions would be gentle, and loving. He didn’t lose sight of his original request, though. "Gabrielle…" He coaxed. "Please? Will you tell me about the battle?"

The bard tousled his hair. "Sure." She took a breath, and composed the events in her mind. "It’s a little rough, because I haven’t really got the story together yet, but…" And she told him, starting with the predawn march in the fog.

"Wow." He breathed, "She made Lestan yield?" He propped his chin in his hands.

"Mmm hmm." Gabrielle affirmed. "Because she knew that way, Secan would accept her challenge." She drained her cup, and glanced at it. "Mmm." I"d get teased about this if Xena was here, but she’s not, so.. "Hang on, I’m going to make another cup of tea." Efficiently, she fixed it, then returned to the tale.

Tody’s head cocked, as she described the fight, and Warrin’s heroic sacrifice." Oh…." The boy sighed. Then he regarded her thoughtfully. "Were you scared?"

"No." The bard replied. "Not… " She hesitated. "When she fights… it’s like…" A search for words. "watching something like a waterfall.. she just flows, and… that strength.. it’s like nothing can stop her." She laughed lightly. "I mean… I know she’s human.. and she does dumb things sometimes, you know?" She shook her head. "She trips, and gets hurt, and falls in mud puddles, and does really awful things trying to cook sometimes."

"No way." Tody snorted.

"Oh yeah. I’ve knocked her into a lake more than once." The bard chuckled, then sighed. "But.. the fighting.. that’s like an art… I love watching her. It’s… " Sexy. Admit it. It’s primal, Gabrielle." Um.. very… exciting." All that power.. Gabrielle admitted to herself. Yeah.. that touches a part of me that… gods… I"d never really thought about before. Primitive. She smiled quietly. In a good sort of way.

Tody was fascinated, and started to probe, but he had no further chance, because first Gabrielle’s voice stopped, then his ears picked up the sound of footsteps approaching. Bootsteps, actually, that mounted the stairs and rang across the sodden boards of the porch. He heard a slight chuckle from Gabrielle that confirmed his suspicions neatly. "Oh, cool." He warbled happily.

Gabrielle looked up as the door opened, then cursed and scrambled to her feet. "Xena!" Her voice rose, as she headed towards the tall warrior dripping beads of icy rain on the dusty wooden floor. grabbing the blanket off the bed as she passed. "What am I gong to do with you?" She muttered, as she reached her partner’s side, and threw the blanket over her drenched shoulders. "’re like ice. Get over here by the fire." Xena’s dark hair was plastered to her head and shoulders, and her lips had more than a tinge of blue to them.

Xena smiled at her. "Yes mom." She teased, but Gabrielle noticed she also wrapped the blanket around herself, after roughly toweling Ares’ dry and setting him on the ground. "Got a little wet out there." The warrior mumbled, allowing herself to be led to the fire. "Hello, Tody."

"Sit." Gabrielle gave one shoulder a push down, gratified when Xena didn’t argue, but settled next to the hearth, leaning back against the wall and letting out a sigh of relief. She studied the warrior’s face, then reached up a hand and pushed her damp hair back off her forehead. "Damn.. you are like ice." She handed Xena her mug, and grabbed another off the hearth. "Here… drink that. I’ll make more."

No argument from her usually stubborn partner, who took a long swallow of the hot tea, then raised an eyebrow at it and then her. "And you say I have a sweet tooth?" She reached over and tickled Gabrielle’s ribs. "Why not have some tea with your honey, my bard?"

"Gahhh..stop that." The bard slapped at her hand. "You’re going to make me spill this." She shot Xena a look. "It’s not that sweet." She paused. "Is it?"

Got a very raised eyebrow in return.

"Oh. Well…’ Gabrielle shrugged, then gave her a sheepish grin. "Sorry about that." She ignored Tody’s giggle.

Xena chuckled. "It’s all right." She took another long swallow, and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. Then her eyes took on a mischievous glint. "Truth is.. I’d make it this way all the time too.. if I let myself."

Gabrielle stopped in the middle of her task, and shot her partner a look. "Really?" She bit her lip, and grinned. "I"ll have to remember that the next time I make yours."

Xena gave her a rueful shrug, then shifted her mug to her left hand, and extended her right arm out, motioning the bard closer with a jerk of her chin.

Gabrielle slid back, until she was leaning against Xena’s blanket swathed chest, and felt the warrior’s arm encircle her waist in a secure hold. "Mmm…" She sighed contentedly, and settled her head against her partner’s shoulder. "Tody here was just asking me what you look like." She commented.

"Pretty scary right now." Xena joked. "Right Ares?" The wolf had curled up on the hearthrug, and he raised his head and sneezed at her. "OH.. right.." Xena said, reaching under the blanket and pulling out a cloth bag, which she deposited in Gabrielle’s lap. "Your berries, as promised."

Gabrielle opened the sack, and selected a specimen, which was nearly as large as her thumb, and glistening with moisture. "You stayed out there in this nasty weather to get me berries?" She gave Xena an over the eyebrows glare. "Xena, what AM I going to do with you?"

"I keep my promises, Gabrielle." In a quiet, serious voice. "Besides, have you had breakfast?"

"I know you do" Equally quiet, equally serious. "And I could afford to skip breakfast." She growled. "Here." She offered the berry, which Xena took neatly in her teeth, and then chewed in evident enjoyment. "Oh.. wow." The bard mumbled around a second. "Tody, hold out your hands."

"Sure." The boy grinned. "I love berries." Then he glanced around. "But don’t’ tell no one, OK?" He pulled his hands back in with their burden, and ate one off the top of the pile Gabrielle had given him. "Oh.. boy. These are great."

Gabrielle popped another berry in her mouth, and savored it as she bit down, making the sweet juice explode. "Mmm." She offered Xena one, surprised when the warrior shook her head. "Hey…" A warning scowl. "Did YOU have breakfast??"

"Had some. " Xena waved her off. "Had lots, in fact." Her eyes twinkled, as she poked out the tip of a blue stained tongue. "See?"

A light knock at the door interrupted the banter. "Come." Xena called.

The door swung open, and Elaini popped her head in. "Morning!" She called, ducking inside and holding out a covered tray. "I was dispatched to make sure our hero had breakfast."

Xena’s eyes rolled. "Gods." She groaned. "Give me a break."

"You’re wet." Elaini sniffed, moving closer and setting the tray down. "Hey Tody." She greeted her brother. "Actually.." She turned to Gabrielle. "I’ve been looking for you."

Gabrielle held out her hand for the tray, which Elaini passed to her, and offered the healer some berries in return. She put the tray on her lap, and uncovered it, nodding in approval, and assembling some of the ingredients into a pocket sandwich, which she then half turned and handed to her partner.

Got a scowl in return. "Thanks, Gabrielle.. but.. "

She cocked her head slightly, and gave Xena her best pleading look. The one the warrior was usually unable to resist.

A sigh. "All right." Xena took the sandwich, and nibbled a corner, then met the bard’s steady stare, and quirked a grin at her. "Ok..Ok…" She relented, and took a healthy size bite, chewing steadily, and raising both eyebrows.

Gabrielle smiled at her, then turned back towards Elaini, and leaned back against Xena’s chest. "Thanks, Elaini… what’s up?"

The healer settled down, examining a berry with interest, then popping it in her mouth. "Well.." She stopped. "Wow.. these are great.. where did you get them?"

"Great Berry Hunter of Amphipolis, here." Gabrielle cocked her head in Xena’s direction, and got a tickle for her joke. "Augh. Stop it."

Elaini looked from one to the other, and just laughed. "Anyway.. here’s the thing. We’ve found out that there’s a fairly large cave just to the south of here, that they moved some granite blocks from for the new firepit. When they did… " She coughed gently. "They dislodged some remains.. and some pretty old artifacts."

Gabrielle’s brow creased. "Remains.. of your people?"

"Mmm.. we’re not sure." Elaini admitted. "But here’s the thing.. they’re ever so old. And there’s a tablet there with some inscriptions that indicate there’s a cache of scrolls somewhere in that cave.. and those scrolls are supposed to be ancient healing texts."

"O.. K…. " Gabrielle drew the word out. "So.. where do I come into this?"

"Ah.." Elaini grinned. "A little.. " She chuckled at Xena’s quirked eyebrow. "birdie told me that you’re pretty good at reading most ancient translations."

Gabrielle smiled quietly, feeling Xena’s arm tighten around her. "I can try." She acknowledged. "When are you going to look for them? "

"Tomorrow morning." Elaini smiled. "Interested?"

Caves. Hmm. Was that a good idea? Maybe a big cave wouldn’t be too bad.. Gabrielle mused, then felt the tension in Xena’s arm . A half turn, and she saw the look in those eyes. "I’ll be there." She said, glancing over at Elaini. "Because I know my partner here will be dragged out to that practice yard again." Caught the quirky grin as she looked back up, and got a healthy squeeze in acknowledgement. I know love… not yet. But you’ll get there. I know you will.

"Great." Elaini nodded. She stood, and wiped a grin off her face. "Hey Tody.. C’mon. I need some help over at the infirmary. "

The boy looked like he was going to protest for a minute, then cocked his head and grinned. "Ok." He got up and took her hand. "Bye guys…"

They walked out, closing the door behind them.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other.

"Subtle." They both said in unison. And burst out laughing.

"Gods." Gabrielle finally sighed, and plucked at the blanket wrapping her partner. "Need to get you into dry clothes, love." She gave Xena an exasperated look. "Was that really necessary?"

Got a shrug back. "No." Xena grinned reluctantly. "Didn’t realize it was that wet outside, but I was too stubborn to turn back." She glanced down. "You know me."

"Ahh.. the truth comes out." The bard smirked, then rubbed her neck. "Next time, drop the tough warrior princess routine, and stay tucked in your nice warm bed, ok? You could have saved me a rude awakening."

Xena lifted her free hand, and stroked the backs of her fingers against Gabrielle’s cheek. "Bad dream?" She asked sympathetically. Damn… I know she hates those.. I should have been here. .

"Yeah." The bard sighed, letting her head drop back against her partner’s shoulder. "Wasn’t even about anything. Just dark, and scary."

Xena could have smacked herself. Idiot. Like she doesn’t have enough nightmares without you adding to them? "Sorry." She sighed. Forgot about that. Again. Wake up, Xena.

The bard shrugged. "Not your fault." She idly let her fingers trace the pattern of hair on Xena’s arm, which still encircled her. "Did you have a nice run?"

The warrior remained silent for a moment. Truth, or evasions? Does she need to know what I was out there doing this morning? She’s not going to like it, and it doesn’t really…no. No more lies between us. "It was my fault, and no, not really." She answered quietly.

Gabrielle half turned, so that she could look up and search Xena’s face with confused eyes. She put one hand flat on the warrior’s chest. "What…are you talking ab…." Remembered the fragments of her dream and realized. "Oh.. Xena." She went and found some small place and tried to… oh Gods in Olympus. I should be furious. No, I am furious.

She let her hands clench in the fabric that covered Xena’s body, and shook her a little. "I thought I told you it didn’t matter. You promised, PROMISED." This last at almost a yell, as she rolled away, and stood up, walking across to the small table, and leaning her arms against it

Turned around and spat the words. "What good is a promise if you just go out and do what you want anyway? "

"Gabrielle.." Xena started, then fell silent. She’s right. When am I gonna learn to think about something other than myself? I have no business being.. part.. of anyone.

"I trusted you." Gabrielle snapped, in a frustrated tone, "But I guess that doesn’t mean anything."

They’re just words. She doesn’t really mean that. Xena whispered to herself. Does she?’ Looked into the coldness of the green eyes facing her, and saw the shattered confidence. In her. She felt an icy finger steal through her soul.

The bard blew out a breath in disgust, and turned her back to the silent warrior. Then realized what she’d been saying. Oh ..Hades. I shouldn’t have said that. . A sound made her turn, and she looked back to see Xena standing up, quietly folding the blanket she’d been wrapped in, her face a still mask.

The warrior finished her folding, then laid the fabric over the back of the chair she was standing near, and glanced up. "You’re right." Came the quiet response. "Maybe you were crazy to ever trust me." Blue eyes met hers in gentle regret. Then her gaze dropped, and she gave the blanket a last pat, turning and walking toward the door to the cot.

"W.. where are you going?" Gabrielle stammered, brain working furiously to try and figure out how to fix what she’d just done.

Xena paused, with her hand on the doorlatch. "I don’t know." She finally answered, in a voice so quiet and so tired the bard had to strain to hear it. Then she took a breath, and started to open the door. Anywhere but here. I can’t face that look in her eyes.

If you let her go, there’s no coming back from this. The voice rolled coldly through Gabrielle’s mind like a bell tolling a warning. She panicked, and reacted in total blind instinct, throwing herself across the room and at Xena without regard for the safety of either of them.

Her hands hit cloth, and she just grabbed on, and held with everything she had in her. Knowing that Xena could break her grasp with little effort, and toss her across the room without any trouble. And half expecting just that. "No.. please… gods no. " She knew the whisper was hers.

Felt hands clamp her wrists, and her heart dropped into her stomach knowing she was about to be thrown back. "Stop.. no.. please…" And the pressure lessened. "Don’t go."

Xena was caught on a knife’s edge of decision. The half of her that wanted to just walk out, and keep on walking fought viciously with the part of her that wanted to stay, and try to heal the raw gashes the bard’s words had caused. Her defensive instincts were telling her to run. To get out, get away from this source of infinite pain that she had no shields against. That she was so open to mere words could bring her to her knees and were daggers that sliced her apart so easily it took her breath away.

But those fingers clenched in her tunic with such desperation reminded her starkly that the decision wasn’t wholly hers to make. Not anymore. So she let the door go, and pushed it gently closed, and felt the frantic grip relax a bit.

Gabrielle heard the door close, and slowly unclenched her fingers, staring at the wrinkled cloth they released as though she’d never seen anything like it before. Studying it as it relaxed, and resumed is damp draping over Xena’s very still, very quiet body. Giving herself a minute before she’d have to straighten up, and raise her eyes, and look the warrior in the face. "I’m sorry." She cleared her throat, still not looking up. "I didn’t mean what I said." Heard the intake of breath. "I know.. I … you’re going to .. I didn’t.. I was just…"

She has no reason to apologize. Xena thought in quiet anguish. But the words rolled down her heart, and put gentle patches on the raw spots. "It’s not your.."

"I shoudn’t have said that." Gabrielle sighed. A hand touched her cheek, and she closed her eyes and leaned into the pressure. "I asked you to promise me something I shouldn’t have." She whispered, and knew it for the truth.

"Doesn’t excuse me from doing it." Came the soft, regretful response.

And now, finally, she opened her eyes and looked up, seeing the quiet agony, and knowing she was the source of it. "I excuse you." Gabrielle replied. ‘If you forgive me for caring so much about you that I asked you not to do something.. that you had to do."

"You were right to ask that." Xena took a shaky breath. "Because I shouldn't have tried." She closed her eyes against the memories of the morning.

Gabrielle’s sudden, warm touch, felt through the cold dampness of her tunic was enough to make her eyes open again, and she gazed down at the bard sadly.

"Was it really bad?" Gabrielle asked quietly. "What you did?"

Xena took a long breath, and let it out. "Yeah." She admitted. "I couldn’t… do it." Her eyes closed again. "It’s going to.. take time."

Gabrielle nodded firmly. "OK.. we’ve got that. So.. we’re not going to go through this now." Her eyes fastened on Xena’s, and she put her fingers up to still the warrior’s protest. "No.. listen. I want to do this… you know I do.. but not at that price. This place isn’t going anywhere, Xena.. not now, thanks to you." A quirk of an eyebrow, and a tilt of her dark head conceded the point. "We’ll come back here when you’re ready."

A long silence. "What if I never am?" Xena finally asked.

Gabrielle laughed softly, and tapped her fingers on the damp fabric. "I know you better than that, my friend." Then her voice faltered, and she dropped her hands. "I.. what I said…" She swallowed. "That really hurt you. I didn’t…mean that.. mean to…"

"Shh. It’s all right." Xena responded, touching her fingertips to the bard’s mouth. "We’ve.. got a lot to learn about this.. whole thing. I forgot.. you’d feel what I did… that wasn’t fair."

Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "You could have let me think it was a dream, Xena. You didn’t have to tell me."

"I know that." The warrior replied, with a rueful smile. "But I wanted to."

"Even though you knew I’d get mad?" Green eyes searched her face intently.

"Yeah. I thought the truth was more important.. I hoped.. what we have between us was strong enough to weather that." Came the startlingly honest answer. And what would I have done if it wasn’t? That close..and I’m shaking like a leaf here.

The bard smiled. "You were right." She replied, simply. "And you were right to tell me." Gabrielle looked up into those shadowed eyes and felt their anguished pull. "Thank you for that." Then she put a hand out and jerked in surprise. "You’re shivering." Now a scowl. "Would you please put on some dry clothes? Were you intending on marching back out there in this?"

Xena tapped her head with her knuckles. "Been hit in the head a lot, I guess." She tugged at the buckle fastening her belt. "I think this is frozen closed." She joked faintly, trying to will her hands to stop shaking long enough to get the damn thing unclasped.

The bard’s gently covered hers. "I’ve got this." Gabrielle got her fingers under the belt, and tugged until they were both back over by the fire. A small silence fell as she worked at the buckle, becoming slowly aware of the warming skin against her knuckles, and the steady movement of Xena’s breathing. "There." The fastening came free in her hands, and she let the ends fall, pulling the damp fabric away from her partner’s body, and putting her palm against Xena’s skin. "You’re really cold, love." Tasting the word in her mouth as though it was the first time.

"Yeah. I know." Xena sighed, stripping off the damp linen, and sliding into a warm dry shirt with a feeling of almost sensual relief. Gabrielle wrapped the fabric around her, and tied it shut, then looked up intently. Xena’s face was tense, and quiet, the eyes still shadowed.

"You look like you could use a hug." The bard offered, and saw her jaw clench, and the muscles of her throat work as she swallowed. Enough of an answer for me. She slid her arms around her partner and pulled her close, feeling Xena’s shaky intake of breath. Then her hug was being returned, and she let herself collapse into the warmth growing between them with a sense of utter relief. Which one of us needed a hug?

Disorientation for a minute, as Xena dropped back down on the hearthrug and took Gabrielle with her, and she found herself snuggled into a very comfortable spot she had no intentions of leaving.


They sat quietly for a little while. Then Gabrielle idly picked up a remaining blackberry and examined it. "You know something?"

"Hmmm?" Xena responded, opening one eye and regarding her inquiringly.

"Fighting with each other hurts too much. Don’t wanna do that any more." The bard sighed.

"Mmm." Xena agreed, nodding her head. "Know what else?" The warrior murmured.

"What?" Gabrielle asked, placing the berry between her teeth and glancing up.

"You have a worse temper than I do." Xena observed, ducking her head around and biting the berry in half.

The bard snorted, and swallowed hastily. "NO I don’t!" She swiveled around and tugged on the front of her partner’s shirt. "You go around all day intimidating everything that walks, talks and quacks like a duck, and you have the gall to say I have a bad temper??" She threw her hands up and rolled her eyes. " I can’t believe I heard you say that. I can’t…."

Long pause. Gabrielle sat back, and crossed her arms, and looked inside herself hard. Then she let out a soft sigh. "I do, don’t I." I get madder, faster than she does. And I stay madder longer. Gods.. she’s right.

Xena angled her head so that her lips brushed the bard’s ear. "Quack." She uttered.

Gabrielle grinned, and let her head drop gently back on Xena’s shoulder. "Ok.. you win that one." She played with the edge of Xena’s tunic absently, then reached down for the sack of berries. "Help me finish these?"

They did, while discussing the scrolls Elaini mentioned. "That should be an interesting find." Xena commented, as she watched Gabrielle also finish their breakfast tray, giving the bard an amused grin. "Had enough there?" She teased very gently, giving the bard a pat on the belly. "Still wish knew where you put all that."

Gabrielle chuckled, and offered her half of the last dark, chewy biscuit she’d smothered with honey. "Here." She popped it in the warrior’s mouth, and watched as she chewed appreciatively.

"Nice." Xena commented, after swallowing. "I figured we’d get moving towards home day after tomorrow." She dusted her fingers off. "I spent a little time with Argo this morning… she’s having a great time with the forest dweller’s herd."

The bard nodded in agreement. "Sounds good."

Xena hesitated, then went on. "She’s coming into season. I might.. go ahead and let her breed to one of them. This time." A light shrug. "Never did before.. thought it wouldn’t be fair to her.. I traveled around so much. "

Gabrielle slid closer, and put a hand on her partner’s knee. "I think that’s a great idea."

The warrior nodded slowly. "She’s from a good line. I’d like to see a little filly, or a colt from her. " She studied her hands, then looked up at Gabrielle. "Before it’s too late."

"That’ll be fun." The bard smiled. Then a thought that had been lurking around in her mind surfaced. Oh.. boy. This is a touchy subject but… "You know.. Xena.. Uhm…"

Fingers touching her lips, stilling her voice. Blue eyes boring into hers. "No."

"But…" A gentle protest. "It’s not just you now… he has a grandmother, and an uncle.."

"And an aunt." Xena gave her a wistful smile, then sighed. "And a lot of enemies, who would love to know who he was." Xena finished, letting her head rest against the hearth. "I’m not… what he needs, Gabrielle." She scooped up Ares, who had wandered over, and scratched him under his chin. The puppy wriggled happily, and flopped down on her lap, resting his head along her arm as she rubbed his back. "I’m not the mothering type."

Gabrielle watched her in some amusement, then crawled over, and snuggled up against the warrior’s left side, wrapping an arm around her, and feeling the friendly weight as Xena settled her own arm around the bard’s shoulders.

"Hey, boy.. you like that?" Xena smiled, listening to the wolf’s pleased rumblings. She felt Gabrielle nestle closer, and squeezed her shoulders in response, brushing her lips against the bard’s fair head. Luxuriating in the feeling of her loving warmth, something she admitted she was becoming.. dependent.. on. And decided, right then that she didn’t’ give a damn that she was.

Then looked down in time to catch the bard’s impish grin, as she let her mist green eyes travel over the both of them, and the puppy, then back up to Xena’s face. And she realized exactly what she was doing.

"That was very sneaky, Gabrielle." But she couldn’t keep a rueful smile from appearing.

"Busted." The bard laughed, rubbing her belly gently. "You can’t help it." Then she went serious. "Maybe someday?"

Long silence from Xena, as she sat, deep in her own thoughts, idly petting Ares. Finally she looked up, and met the bard’s patient gaze. "Maybe." She paused. "Are kids important to you, Gabrielle?" My bard, who is not so long from being a child herself?

Gabrielle’s turn to consider in silence. "I always.. thought I’d end up being a teacher.. you know, the writing, and the stories and all." She mused. "And.. I guess, I assumed I’d probably have kids someday. But… it wasn’t something I really thought about." She shrugged a little. "And I can be a teacher in Amphipolis."

"Mph." Xena grunted a short reply. "It wouldn’t bother you not to have kids of your own?"

Gabrielle suddenly realized what she was getting at. "Don’t be dumb. Xena. I’ve thought of that."

"You have, huh?" The warrior wrapped her other arm around Gabrielle, and squeezed.

"Mmmm.." The bard squeezed back. "Sure." She answered. "If I absolutely can’t stand not having one, I’ll just work a deal with Toris." And waited for the reaction, which was an explosive burst of laughter. She grinned mischievously. "And your looks run in your family. What a cute kid that’d be." In her mind, she called up an image of a dark haired tyke, with nice, big blue eyes. Her lips twitched. And an attitude. And, boy did that ever run in that family too.

Xena chuckled. "Gods… I never thought of that… but.." Her eyes twinkled. "Gabrielle, I wanna be there when you ask him." She settled back against the hearth, listening to the dull rhythmic pattern of the rain on the thatched roof of the cot. Gabrielle fell silent after her last joke, and let her eyes drift closed. "Hey." The warrior poked her gently. "You falling asleep on me?" Literally, she realized.

"Mmm." The bard replied, "Few minutes." She flexed her hands slowly. "Comfy."

One dark eyebrow curved up. Xena, Warrior Pillow. Her mind chuckled ruefully, then she settled back and let the last of the tension from their argument drain off. We’ve got so much to learn.. about this, about each other.. gods it scares me sometimes. She mused, feeling Gabrielle’s breathing deepen under her slowly moving fingertips. Must be this weather… makes you sleepy, I guess. She idly watched the still misting rain fall outside, and listened to the muted sounds of activity around the village. Today would be very quiet – everyone seemed to be sleeping off the party last night.

She sighed, and glanced down at Gabrielle’s now peaceful face. I know what she said. A slow nod. I also know this is something she needs. She raised her hand and rubbed her eyes in irritation. I just can’t believe I’m gonna let something that’s not real.. that’s just in my head, for Ares’ sake, keep me from giving her that. She let her head fall back against the rock in frustration.

A joining ceremony.. that was never a problem. Xena considered. In fact, she’d seen that little glint in her mother’s eye after Lila’s wedding, that meant nothing but trouble on that front.

"So.." Cyrene had said, as they casually stood, sipping spiced wine and watching the dancing at Lila’s reception. "Enjoying yourself?"

Xena had glanced sideways at her, and quirked an eyebrow. "It’s.. nice. "

"Mm." Her mother hummed. "I’m very upset with you, Xena."

Both eyebrows had jerked up. "Me? Why?"

Cyrene had tapped her on the chest with one strong finger. "I’m your mother. I deserve to know when my only daughter is going to be throwing rings around."

"Ah." The warrior had said, burying her attention in her cup. "Sorry.. it was.."

"Ah ah ah.." Cyrene wagged the finger. "Don’t tell me it was last minute, dear. That ring didn’t get created overnight."

"Yeah, well… " Xena had laughed a bit. "I’d been carrying it for a little while.. just hadn’t.. I mean… " She stopped and shrugged. "Right time, I guess."

"MmHmm." Cyrene agreed. "So." She moved closer to Xena, and bumped shoulders with her, or more strictly speaking, bumped her shoulder with the warrior’s elbow. "Can I start planning for yours?"

Xena’s head had shot up, and she’d stared at Cyrene for a long, steady moment. "Mother… no." Then realized how that sounded. "I mean.. it’s not something we’re… I don’t think it’s something we want to do."

Cyrene had studied her in silence. "Have you asked Gabrielle what she wants? I saw her face during that ceremony, dear. " She paused. "Unless.. you don’t think you two.. I mean, you seem very committed to each other."

"We are." Xena had quietly admitted. "I guess it’s just that I’m not comfortable with the idea of publicly making her part of who I am. " There.. it had finally come out, and she’d seen the pained look of comprehension on her mother’s face. "I don’t want her to get hurt by that."

They’d stood in silence for a while, sipping their wine, and just watching. Finally, Xena noticed her mother’s gaze fixed quietly on something to her left. "What’s so interesting?" She asked softly.

Cyrene had looked up at her with a gently compassionate expression. "I’m just watching Gabrielle watch you." She smiled a little. "The look in her eyes… you’re her whole world, you do know that, right?"

Xena had taken a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "It’s mutual." She whispered, looking intently at the ground. A silence fell. Then Cyrene put an arm around her, and gave her a hug.

"Think about it." She said gently. "I think it would make her really happy, and you know we’d love to do it at home."

"I’ll think about it." Xena had promised, and had tucked that idea away deep inside her thoughts, where it hadn’t surfaced until now

That was a possible solution, wasn’t it? Gods, it certainly would make my mother happy. Xena smiled to herself. And..I think it would make Gabrielle happy, too.

What about herself? Xena considered this seriously, tipping her head back, and thinking about how it would feel to stand in front of a temple altar, and make public what she knew to be a lifelong, irrevocable commitment. Was she ready for that? She closed her eyes and analyzed herself ruthlessly.

I am self destructive, unstable, and inherently violent. Do I have a right to take responsibility for someone else.. when I can’t even take responsibility for myself half the time?

No. The answer was stark, and honest. I don’t have that right.

Can I live without her?

No. Equally stark, equally honest. So what do I do?

A long silence fell over the room, as the gentle sounds of the rain sodden leaves giving up their burden on the wooden planks of the porch made sporadic tattoos, and the quietly snapping fire echoed loud, masking the soft whisper of breathing from two humans and one wolf puppy.

"So." Elaini said, as she coiled a rope neatly in one hand. "Did you guys have a nice quiet day yesterday? Didn’t see you at all." She smothered a grin.

Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from smiling. "Oh.. yeah. We had a great day." She assured the forest dweller. "Well… we had a kind of fight in the morning, but after that it was great."

Oh yeah.. she’d been chagrined to wake up to the very late afternoon light, chagrined, that is, until she glanced up and found her partner deeply fast asleep, one arm cradled around the dozing Ares, the other wrapped protectively around Gabrielle.

Not that I gave her much choice.. the bard had giggled. Since I was practically sleeping on top of her. But still. She’d briefly debated surprising Xena with a sudden wake up, then reflected that surprising Xena was never a really good idea, because her reactions were really almost too fast.. and watching her trying to stop herself from doing something was actually kind of painful.

So she’d curled her self around, and started planting feather soft kisses on the skin of the arm cradling her, and by the time she got to the elbow, a nibble at the very base of her neck was sending chills up and down her spine. Much nicer.

She’d refused to allow her partner to go back out into the rain, so dinner had been whatever they could scrounge from supplies, which had actually turned out to be kind of fun, and the rest of the evening had just been spent immersed in each other. It had felt very .. Gabrielle grinned to herself. Very decadent. And she’d loved every minute of it, and so had Xena, once she’d gotten over her embarrassed disbelief at having slept the day away.

"Oh.. I love a good fight." Elaini showed her canines. "Who won?"

The bard shoved a set of leather gloves in her bag and looked up with a grin. "We did." She answered, with a chuckle. And in a strange way, they had, because though that fight had hurt.. gods…did it ever.. it had also moved them another tiny step along their path together.

It had brought them closer yet, and at the end of a long, wonderful evening, she’d looked up into Xena’s eyes and the words had just come tumbling out of her unplanned. "You make my life.. worth the living, Xena."

A dozen things had flashed across her partner’s face as the words trickled down her understanding. The blue eyes had closed for an instant, then reopened, and she’d taken a long breath, before lifting Gabrielle’s hand, with it’s ring, up between their eyes.

"I want to make this official, Gabrielle." Had come the totally unexpected, totally serious response. "I want to register it with the reeve in Amphipolis.. you deserve rights under the law.. gods know I don’t have much but…" She’d stopped, and collected herself for a minute. "But.." and the quietly haunted look had crept back into her eyes. "I’ve got a lot of enemies, Gabrielle.. and I’m not.. " She’d swallowed, and Gabrielle had kept deathly quiet, fearing a single sound would make her fall silent. "I’m not an.. easy.. person to want to be around.. I can understand if you don’t.."

"Yes." Gabrielle had whispered at last, stopping the halting flow of doubts. She’d folded their hands together, and pressed them to her lips, leaning forward until they were breathing the same air. "You are MY chosen." She felt the intensity build between them. "And anyone who wants to get to you has to go through me first." It had been ludicrous. Here she’d been, offering protective services to the unquestioned, hands down best fighter in all of Greece.

Elaini laughed at the expression on her face. "Must have been some fight." She teased, picking up a full waterskin. "Well, let’s get going, shall we?"

"Yep.. I wanna see this place." Gabrielle sighed happily. "Besides, it’s either that, or watch them beat up on each other all day." She smirked, and jerked her head towards the window, where the sounds of sword practice were floating in.

" mean watch Xena beat up on them." Elaini grinned, hoisting her pack to her shoulder. "They worship her, you know." She snorted. "Fighters."

Gabrielle smiled broadly. "Weeeelll.. I think today they’re lucky. She’s in a pretty good mood."

They walked outside, and were about to leave the porch when a familiar, small red form trotted up, trailing one hand on the railing to keep his place. "Hi guys."

"Hey Tody." Elaini replied, stopping and waiting for him. "What’s up?"

The boy swiveled his ears towards her. "Can I go with you?" He cocked his head wistfully. "Please? That cave’s supposed to have real cool echoes."

Elaini and Gabrielle glanced at each other. Gabrielle shrugged.

"Sure." Elaini decided. "Come here."

Tody padded over, putting a hand out to stop himself when he was up next to her.

"Here." His sister grasped his hand, and put a bag in it. "You can help carry." She hoisted her pack again. " Stay behind me, OK? And in front of Gabrielle."

They started off, crossing the village center, and passing by the fighters. Gabrielle let her eyes settle on her soulmate, who was leaning against a tree, arms crossed, watching two young forest dwellers go at it, and calling out advice. Jessan was on the opposite side of the field, also watching, but shaking his head in amusement when the two swung awkwardly, and managed to hit each other in the head.

Xena snorted, and pushed off her tree, striding to the center of the field, and motioning Jessan to join her.

Elaini just shook her head, and quickened her pace. "Hurry. If they see us watching, that’ll become a show off fest."

Gabrielle smirked, knowing it for the truth. She followed Elaini and Tody up the path, towards the steep upward climb to the caves.

Not that they went unnoticed. They were captured in two sets of peripheral visions until they’d disappeared up the path and into the trees.

Xena forced her attention back to her opponent, parrying his lunge with absent-minded ease. The sun had finally made a reappearance, and she found her thoughts drifting idly, aware of the pleasant warmth on her back, and the sweet, cool scent of the grass they fought in.

C’mon, Xena. Snap out of it… you’re fighting some seven-foot tall fanged guy with a very sharp sword.

It didn’t help. Her body, well used to this kind of thing, went about it’s business, turning aside the panting forest dweller’s strokes without much conscious thought on her part. Good thing.. she mused.. my concentration’s shot all to Hades this morning.

She felt like laughing, or lying down in the heavy grass and just gazing up at the clouds moving overhead. Dunno why.. nothing changed.. really. It’s not like just making this whole thing official really makes a difference.

Right. Uh huh… so why are you acting like a child in the market with a 10 dinar piece then? Whoops. Xena caught her opponents backstroke with a neat hilt parry, and took a step forward, forcing him back and throwing him off balance. This is ridiculous. I was a warlord for 10 years, I’ve led armies, and I’ve conquered princes.. and I am NOT acting like some damn giddy love struck backwater village kid.

"Xena?" Jessan’s voice interrupted her mental self lashing.

"Huh?" She stepped back from her opponent, and focused on him. "What?"

His golden head cocked at her. "Is that.. um…. Are you smiling for some particular reason?"

"Uh… no." The warrior cleared her throat, and glanced at the grass, idly slicing through several stalks of it with the sword. "No particular reason." She shrugged lightly. "Nice day, sun’s out… doing something I like to do.. any reason not to smile?" She opened her blue eyes wide and gazed at him in all innocence.

And sent quiet thanks to the gods for her dark tan, because his gently teasing grin brought on a blush that she could feel edging up her neck. She ignored it, and just raised an eyebrow at him in question.

"Oh.. ok. You just seem a little distracted, that’s all." Jessan chuckled, then yelped as his sword was flicked out of his hands in a movement too fast for him to follow.

"Really?" Xena drawled.

"Uh. Maybe not." Came the sheepish answer.

Xena gave him a flashing grin. "Good answer." That’s it.. let’s keep that mean, nasty ex warlord reputation intact here.

He raised his hands, and smiled. "Mind if I get some practice in with the master?"

She smiled in return, taking a step to her right, and hooking the hilt of his sword on the tip of her boot, and flipping it upward, catching it in her free hand. "Here." She said quietly, laying the blade along her arm and extending the hilt to him. As he stepped forward to take it, she bit back a smile.

"You know where Amphipolis is, Jess?"

His eyes widened slightly, and his brows drew close. "I think so.. yeah. I do." He took the hilt of his sword, and hefted the weapon. "Why?"

She inspected her sword blade, blowing a bit of nonexistent dirt off of it. "If you’re in the neighborhood around winter solstice, drop in." Their eyes met, and she saw the glint of understanding in his.

Then she stepped back, and twirled the sword around her hand with a casual flourish. "Come on… we gonna fight, or just stand here?"

"Whew." Gabrielle paused a moment, and took a sip from the waterskin she was carrying, mentally giving thanks for all the months spent walking all over half of Greece. Her pulse was up, and she knew she was breathing pretty hard.. but not as hard as Elaini was, she noted with some pride. But then.. Elaini didn’t have to keep up with Xena, either.

They were almost to the top of the path, though, just a little bit longer and they’d be up there. Taking and releasing a long breath, she started upward again, using her staff to pull herself up the steep path. Her body was used to this though.. not like when they first started off. Gods…it had taken forever until she’d finally stopped dropping in exhaustion at the end of every day.

And she remembered a day that had been a long, long one. Starting very early, when a wild storm had forced them to break camp before dawn, and travel ahead of it throughout the day. Up a mountain road that sloped steeper and steeper up into the heights.

She’d forced herself to keep up with the steadily pacing Xena, whose long stride never seemed to falter, just moved ahead with that easy, powerfully flexing motion that Gabrielle envied heartily. In the few month’s they’d been travelling together, she’d discovered some interesting things about her taciturn companion, like the fact that she could fall asleep standing up, if she had to. And the fact that she could go without food, and without sleeping for longer than Gabrielle thought a person really should be able to.

That she had an amazingly retentive memory, and unbelievable hearing, could catch fish barehanded, could jump right over Gabrielle’s head, and could ride and control Argo without the slightest use of her hands.

She was, Gabrielle sighed, also in the most amazing physical condition, which made keeping up with her a tough job for a village girl who’d spent most of her life so far not doing anything more strenuous than going to the river for water. Though, she’d been getting a little better lately – and Xena, to be fair, never chastised her for needing to stop and rest, just patiently stood and waited for her to catch her breath, and go on.

But today was bad, because they really couldn’t stop, and she pushed herself harder and harder, feeling the breath starting to come tight in her chest as darkness began to fall and they still weren’t near shelter. The mountain path they were on was very narrow, and rocky, and the low overhanging branches ruled out riding, even if she’d had the guts to ask. Which, with Xena’s uncertain temper, she wasn’t about to do.

Her legs had started cramping right around dark, but she kept her mouth shut, and pushed through it, glad the fading light hid the tears of pain that tricked down her cheeks, and she bit her lip hard to keep from making a sound until the spasms eased a little. Then a root caught her foot, and she stumbled forward, her legs unable to move fast enough to keep her from crashing to the ground.

The sharp shards of brittle stone cut her hands as she threw them out in front of her to break her fall, and she landed in a heap, cringing when she heard Argo’s steady footfalls stop, and Xena’s voice softly telling the horse to stay put. Then muffled crunching footsteps as Xena traveled back along the path to where she was.

"’s all right..I’ll be right.." Gabrielle was aware she was babbling.

"Gabrielle." Xena had said, with a sigh. "Hold still."

"No, no. really… it’s all right." She’d protested, getting to her knees, then standing up.

And pitching forward as her legs cramped, sending her right into Xena’s arms. It hurt so bad, she couldn’t keep a whimper from escaping, and her hands clenched helplessly on Xena’s thick, soft leathers.

"Easy." A voice had whispered in her ear, filling her senses. "Easy.." And she’d taken a shuddering breath, and then another, and tried to stand, this time unable to even make it halfway up. "Can’t." she’d gasped, closing her eyes. "Just.. leave me.." And she’d half expected her companion to do just that. But then she’d felt an arm circle her shoulders, and the sudden pressure of a second under her knees, and she was being lifted up, and cradled like a child.

"Put your arms around my neck." Came the quiet command, and she was too.. well, she’d just done what she was asked, to, that’s all. It should have been a nightmare, with the wind rising, and Xena’s dour gruffness riding around them in silence. But Gabrielle found a quiet port in that storm, which consisted of a sense of warm security, and the scent of metal and leather that invaded her senses, and made her body, against all better judgement, relax completely.

She’d never remembered falling asleep at all, only waking in the shelter of a darkness shadowed cave, with the friendly licking sounds of a healthy fire not far away. Her hands felt stiff, and she glanced down to see bandages covering them, under a blanket that had been tucked neatly around her as she lay on top of her own sleeping roll.

Gabrielle had blinked her eyes to clear them, and glanced around, spotting Xena leaning against the far wall, one knee upraised, and both muscular arms wrapped around it. Her chin rested on the knee, and she was gazing into the fire with a far off look in her eyes. The bard moved a little, and found herself caught in that hawk’s sharp gaze now diverted from the fire to herself.

"Uhm. Thanks." She called softly, glancing down at her hands, her bedroll.. herself. "I didn’t mean to cause you so much trouble."

Xena had stood up, dusted herself off, and walked over, crouching down and settling herself cross legged next to the bard’s sleeping roll. She reached out and firmly grasped Gabrielle’s jaw, and looked directly into her eyes. "Don’t you ever do that again." The voice was low, and sent shivers down her spine. "If you’re hurting, you tell me."

"But.. I knew we had to get to shelter, Xena. And I’m not… I mean..I try not be a baby." She’d objected gently. "I know I slow you down..I’d be better off without me tagging along sometimes.."

The grip on her chin had moderated, then released, and settled on her shoulder instead. "It doesn’t’ matter." Xena had replied. "I don’t… you…" Uncharacteristically, Xena stopped, had seemed unsure of herself. "You tell me next time, OK?" She finally decided to say. And when her blue eyes raised, and fastened on Gabrielle’s, there had been a faint glimmer, a tiny window past that cold and frightening exterior.

Gabrielle had seen it, and recognized it for what it was, and grabbed the opportunity. She lifted her bandaged hand, and covered Xena’s with it, and let her eyes warm with the true affection she felt for the warrior. "Thanks. I will."

And the eyebrows had quirked a bit, and her lips had eased into that rare, uneven smile. She’d squeezed the bard’s shoulder. "Hungry?"

Gabrielle had rolled her eyes in knowing amusement. "Always." She sighed, a sort of running joke between them. She’d thought there was something wrong with her until Xena had taken a moment and explained to her how her body was adjusting to the constant need for energy to cope with their lifestyle. "Xena?"

"Yeah?" Gruff as always.

"Thanks for putting up with me." Daring, Gabrielle let her other hand fall on the tanned knee inches from her.

Xena shrugged. "That’s what friends are for." And this time, Gabrielle had gotten one of the real, flashing smiles that lit her eyes up.

So she responded with one of her own unrestrained, from the heart grins. "Guess I’m lucky to have you as one, then, huh?"

Gabrielle smiled as she pressed down on her staff, finally gaining the summit. She really had been getting stronger.. and the next time they’d bathed together, Xena had taken a little time out to show her the changes she hadn’t even noticed in her body. That… had been an interesting bath.. and she’d learned a lot about Xena, and more about herself than she had anticipated. Like how the quiet, clinical touch of Xena’s fingertips on her newly muscular waistline made her knees strangely weak. And how she suddenly noticed, for the first time, how the warm sunset made interesting shadows on the dips and hollows of her companion’s tanned body

She leaned on her staff, and waited for Elaini to make the last few steps up to the plateau, carefully leading Tody by the hand. "Wow." She said softly, surveying the ridge she stood on. It was fairly narrow, with a number of jagged outcroppings poking through the flat surface. In the dark granite cliff face was a small opening, perhaps a little wider than Elaini’s tall form.

"There it is." Elaini sighed, as she stopped next to the quiet bard. She pulled a torch from her kit, and with a swift meeting of flint, lit it. "Come on." She ducked inside the opening, Tody firmly hanging on to her tunic.

Gabrielle paused an instant, with a hand on the edge of the opening, and licked her lips, feeling a roiling unease in her guts. But it wasn’t overwhelming, and after a few deep breaths, she forced herself inside, reassured by the warm flicker of the torchlight just ahead of her. If it had been total darkness… ugh. But this isn’t so bad. She had a momentarily guilty thought of her partner, but put that firmly aside for the time being, and looked around.

The chamber was pretty bare, with a fairly high ceiling, and darkly sloping walls that contained vivid streaks of color in their gray depths. "Wow.. " She grinned, pulling a torch from her own pack and lighting it.

"Back here." Elaini called, pointing towards a dim opening in the rock. "This is just the outer room. The remains are in there."

It was very quiet in there, Gabrielle realized. Just the soft popping of the torches, and the gentle crunch of their footsteps against the sandy floor. She cast a last look at the sunlight pouring into the opening in the cliff face, then squared her shoulders and followed Elaini and Tody into the darkness of the inner chamber.

"You look really sharp." Jessan commented, as they relaxed under a large tree, after several hours of sparring. "I mean.. " He stretched legs and winced. "Ares knows, I’m not in any position to judge, but.. " He let the thought trail off, and glanced at her, letting his eyes travel down her reclined form.

Xena rolled her head to one side, and opened an eye to look at him. She shrugged, and closed the eye again. "I was in lousy shape the last time you saw me." She admitted quietly.

Jessan blinked. "Huh. Well. You really know how to make a guy feel bad, you know? " He laughed a little. "Believe me, I never would have guessed."

That got a lazy grin. Then she sighed, and opened her eyes to look at him again. " It’s the truth, though. I never really got it back after my last injury."

"The log?" Jessan’s voice was very quiet.

A nod in response.

"Well.. you know.. Xena.. that was really pretty amazing to recover from at all." He replied hesitantly. "Gabrielle… told me what happened."

Xena’s brows creased. "Next time, just ask me, OK? That’s hard on her." A tinge of anger colored her voice. "She had a bad enough time with that without having to relive it."

Jessan’s eyes shifted, and stared at the ground. "I’m.. but.. she was.. Xena, she offered to" He lifted his hands helplessly. "She seemed all right with it.."

"Yeah, I bet." Xena hoisted herself up on her elbows and glared at him. "It’s just like her." Her voice took on a colder tone. "You remember me waking her up from a dream, when you were travelling with us?"

Jessan nodded, and gave her a tentative smile.

"That’s what the dream was about." Came the serious reply. "And she still has them. So do me a favor, Ok? Don’t ask her."

Jessan laid a hand on her arm, and sighed. "I’m sorry." His golden eyes met hers. "You know I’d never intentionally hurt her."

The warrior laid back down, and laced her hands behind her head. "I know that." She muttered. "At any rate, in answer to your question… it just got worse after Cirron. " But her lips quirked. Sure..I could try to blame it on the injury.. but…I know better….

She’d found herself losing track of things for no reason… forgetting what she’d just done… daydreaming at odd times… and night after night, had been unable to pry herself away from the campfire to go out for her solitary drills.

It was just .. easier.. to sit quietly after dinner, stretched out on her side, and listen to Gabrielle’s clear voice, as she practiced her stories, or read poems in progress.. or.. whatever. Though she wasn’t sure it was easier on the bard, because she lost count of the times Gabrielle would look up, across the dancing flames and meet her gaze, and lose her train of thought completely.

And then just laugh, and duck her head, and rub her temples until she could remember where to start off again. Sometimes she just gave up, and crossed over to their bedrolls, collapsing next to Xena, and leaning back against her. No longer needing permission, or an excuse.

They’d stare off into the fire, just enjoying the closeness, Xena’s fingers tangling themselves absently in Gabrielle’s hair, and the bard draping a casual arm over the warrior’s muscular thigh, tracing the taut lines just under the skin with gentle precision.

She was losing her edge, and she knew it. She could feel it in her body’s subtly slowing responses, and in the effort it took to do things that had once come without a second thought. But.. she just couldn’t summon up the sense of urgency she’d needed to get herself going again. It was… swallowed up in this insidious giddy warmth that had just poured over her without warning.

She’d tried, really hard, to worry about it, too, but.. then those green eyes would look up, and find hers, and..

Gods in Olympus.. she’d been in love before, but it had never been like this. This was overwhelming - she’d watched all her defenses eroding away.. and had seen signs that Gabrielle was, in a quiet and wondering way, responding to the attraction that was pulling them together with almost irresistible force.

The only thing that held her back was her dark conscience… and the knowledge that Gabrielle surely, surely deserved better. But it was hard. So hard not to give in. Especially when she looked down, and saw the incredulous little smile on Gabrielle’s face when they snuggled close at night, and that friendly warmth closed over them.

She’d been fighting a losing battle, and she knew it. Ephiny’s arrival in the woods that night had only postponed the inevitable.

"Anyway.." Xena yawned. " When Gabrielle was with the Amazons, and I was at home, I finally had the time to rest up a little, and get some decent food for a change, and it seems to have made the difference." There..that’s the short version. She shrugged casually. "I feel.." Wonderful.. happy… giddy.. "Pretty good."

Jessan stretched out on his side, and rested his head on his hand. His eyes twinkled. "Well, you know…" He leaned closer and whispered into her ear. "This feeling makes me want to just jump around all over the place like a little kid."

Xena half turned her face, and gave him a look, struggling to control the grin that was inching its way into existence despite her best intent. Finally she gave up, and just relaxed, shaking her head and turning her face into the sun. "Yeah." She sighed, taking a deep, satisfied breath of cool air. "I gotta keep a lid on that."

The forest dweller let a fond smile trace his own features. Ah.. my friend. It gives me such peace to see that look on your face. He sighed inwardly. I wish… His eyes traced Xena’s angular features regretfully, as he heard Gabrielle’s gentle voice echoing that morning.

"No." She’d said, putting a hand on his chest. "Not this time, Jess. And I’m not gonna let her try, either."

"But.." He’d started to say, then stopped when her fingers clenched hard in his fur.

"Jessan." Green eyes bored up into his. "No. And don’t you dare say anything to her about it, either. If she thinks someone expects her to do something, she will, just to prove she can, and damn it all, I don’t want her going through that right now." Then her eyes had softened. "Thank you.. for asking. "

"All right." He’d said, quietly. "But, Gabrielle.. take this from one of her kind… she can’t live with this hanging over her."

The bard had let her head lean forward against his shoulder. "I know." She’d replied softly. "I’ll take care of her."

Odd. Jessan mused, to think of Xena needing to be taken care of. The warrior lay sprawled in the grass, arms folded, legs crossed, that thin edge of tension that was always a part of her present in the sleek lines of her body. A breath, a sound, a movement from him would trigger a potentially deadly reaction. She was obviously, evidently, unquestionably, aggressively able to take care of herself.

And yet…Gabrielle was right. She was also extremely competitive by nature…the residual effects of her being trapped must be gnawing at her, and Jessan debated with himself as to just how long the dark haired warrior was willing, or able, to set that aside. He wondered if Gabrielle was truly doing her a service by not pushing the issue… in fact..

"So. Tell me about this ceremony, Jessan." Came the low, resonant voice, floating above the softly waving grasses.

In fact, I think she reads minds. The forest dweller concluded ruefully. He rolled over onto his stomach, and propped himself up on his elbows. He described it to her, then hesitated. "Uh… I thought.. um…"

"Relax." Xena gave a quiet sigh. "I’ve had to deal with this since I was six, Jess." She turned her head and looked at him. "Just one of those things."

"Must be killing you." He responded with gentle sympathy.

She gave a casual shrug. "Nah, I’m fine." Then her eyes found his, and held them. "That invitation still open?"

He blinked. "Wh.. uh.. sure.. I mean… but.. Gabrielle said.."

A smile twitched just the corner of her mouth. "Yeah..I know. " She rubbed her eyes with the fingers of one hand. "I think I’d like to surprise her." And myself.

A furred and clawed hand settled on her shoulder. "All right. Do it if you can." Came the response. And I’m not going to bet against her. Nope. Not this pudgy fuzzball. "You up for some lunch?"

Xena considered the question. "Yeah, I am." She decided, then smothered a grin. I’d better eat.. I get yelled at otherwise… that should drive me crazy. A warm feeling washed over her. But it doesn’t, not with her. She stretched, lazily, then flipped up backward into a handstand, and pushed that into a forward flip that brought her standing neatly at Jessan’s side, dusting herself off with casual ease. Gods… I love doing that. She chuckled, catching the startled look on Jessan’s face. She offered him a hand. "Come on."

He took her arm, and let her pull him up. "I get tired just watching you sometimes, you know that?" He dusted his breeches off, and picked up his sheathed sword, yawning as they started to walk through the thick grass back towards the village.

"Huh. Gabrielle says the same thing. " Xena commented idly, reaching down and grabbing a stalk of grass, and pulling it up out of the ground. She examined the end thoughtfully, then started to chew it, enjoying the dusty tang. The sun felt good on her back, and she let the brisk wind blow her hair back out of her eyes with a distinct sense of contentment. I think.. for just a little while here, I’m gonna just stop worrying. There’s darkness ahead.. I can feel it. But right now.. right now there’s this warm sun, and this sweet air, and this… feeling. And I’m gonna enjoy it while I can. She shot Jessan a sideways look ‘Hey."

His head turned and he raised a golden eyebrow in inquiry. "Huh?"

She poked him hard. "Race you." Then she grabbed his sword out of his hands, and broke into a lazy jog, watching him out of the corner of her eye.

"Hey!" Jessan blurted. "Oh got to be kidding.. Xena!!!!" He shook his head and bolted after her. "No fair!!!"


Gabrielle peered around the corner of the opening to the inner cavern, letting her eyes drift over the uneven walls, and the dusty floor with interest. These walls were of the same multi layered granite as the outer chambers – dark rock shot through with stripings of rust red, and dark blue, and tiny specks of gypsum scattered throughout.

Inside, the flickering torchlight exposed a dust layered set of artifacts, including what was apparently some kind of sleeping platform, graced by the half disintegrated outlines of two skeletons. "Ugh." The bard coughed, as Tody’s steps ahead of her raised a cloud of cloying dust. There was a faint breeze in the chamber, and, looking up at the wall, Gabrielle noticed two more passages leading down into the darkness. The breeze was coming from one of them, and she detected the faint hint of dampness on it that Xena had taught her meant running water. Underground stream? The air had a touch of coldness, and she shivered in reflex

Just then Tody barked, and she jumped.

"Sorry." He grinned, cocking his head towards the dark openings. "Echoes." He moved slowly across the floor towards the sounds, and settled himself at one of the openings. "Water, too." He called over his shoulder. "Hear it dripping."

Elaini crouched down next to the sleeping platform, and gently ran her fingers over a dusty piece of slate half buried under the rubble. "Here." She said, turning her head and looking at Gabrielle.

The bard crossed the few steps towards the slate, and knelt down next to it, holding her torch at an angle and blowing gently on the surface of the rock. Half formed letters came dimly to her eyes, and she waited patiently, until the shapes of the words started to mean something to her. "It’s old, all right." She murmured, sitting down cross-legged next to the spot, glad for the leggings and boots protecting her from the sharp shards of granite. The leggings had felt funny when she’d first put them on, but the warmth was very welcome, and Xena had insisted.

"I don’t see you wearing them." She’d said, putting her hands on her hips and giving Xena a look.

Got a raised eyebrow in return. "I’m not crawling around in some cold dark cave." Her partner had responded, touching her on the nose.

So she had worn them, and now was really glad. They were soft, and she kind of liked them, now that she’d gotten used to the feel. They were long, of course, being Xena’s, but they tucked down into her boots fine, and were only a little loose, being designed to wear close to the skin.

"This is.. a really old dialect but.." The bard sighed, her brow creasing. "it’s.. almost like it was written by someone who didn’t speak the language real well. The words are in the wrong order."

Elaini sniffed reflectively. "Well.. what does it say?"

Gabrielle concentrated on it. "I’ll try to move the words around so they make sense…its kind of a diary sort of thing."

The forest dweller snorted. "On a tablet???"

"They were out of things to write on." Gabrielle answered very quietly. "Except the stone." Taking a breath, she started to read, slowly, haltingly, but steadily.

We are at the cusp of the second moon, since our ship faltered along the shore, and cast we two up here adrift and alone. This cavern that has become our shelter closes in on Elevown, and makes her pace like a caged moorcat across these harsh floors.

I wish I had some answer for her pacings, for I do not, and can not – she is warrior bred, and alien to my eyes, and speaks to me only in harsh barks and angry curses. The snows tie down the passes, and even her stubborn strength is unequal to them. And she has tried, and failed, and come back here to this miserable little hole in the rock wild with fury. We cannot even have speech – for she is of the race of the northern sea lords, and I am Welsh to the core, and speak none of the northern speech, though I am well versed in my own language, and that of the tradesmen, and some small bit of this land’s that I picked up on the far coast.

She frightens me. I know she holds me in naught but ridicule, for I am but a villein, and unskilled at aught but some motherly traits that do us little good here in this wild, and uncouth land.

I write in the language of these parts, so that she might not know my thoughts, or see the fear I hold in my heart as she sits, sullen, and silent, in our dark retreat.

Elevown has managed, somehow, to find prey this evening, well into our third moon here, and we have warm things to eat for the first time in a fortnight. I am constantly cold, but say nothing, for she complains not, though I can see that hunger is taking it’s toll on her, and the bleak eyes she turns to the empty air tells me she knows that.

Knows that we two.. are coming closer to the Long Winter, and I pray, in silence, to our far off gods to hear us, and help us in this strange and foreign place.

Tonight, I am so cold I can barely but put my thoughts on the tablet, and my hand shakes before me, and cramps in the iciness. Finally, the soup is done, and I sit, in patience to wait for her to eat her fill before I dare approach the pot.

And.. Elevown fills the larger of the two makeshift bowls she has carved, and to my great disbelief, she leans over and hands it to me, those pale eyes expressionless as always,, and no words to go with it. I take the bowl, and she fills the other one, and goes to sit by the far wall, in solitude. It frightens me greatly – for I understand that Elevown knows, in her heart, that this cave will be our last resting place. And seeing her sunken eyes, and imagining my own, I know it for truth as well.

Gabrielle stopped reading, and glanced down, watching a few single tears wash the dust from the tablet. Tody and Elaini was deathly silent, and she could hear the faint sighing of the wind as it came inside the cavern opening, and the far off, sad, plinking of dripping water down the tunnels to her left.

"It’s so sad." Elaini finally broke the silence, shifting to find a better place for her body to relax. "Where were they from, do you know, Gabrielle?"

Silently, the bard shook her head. She took a long drink from her waterskin, then cleared her throat and kept reading.

Another tiny victory in a long string of defeats. We have food again tonight, but at what cost.. Elevown has had to fight off wolves for her kill, and her blood stains her garment and her eyes show her agony, though no sound of complaint passes her lips. She huddles in her corner, and I take the hard won meat and do my best with it.

My heart clenches – I bring Elevown her bowl, and with a look of quiet regret, she pulls aside her furs, and I see the hole the wolf has made in her. A grimace as she tries to smile at me, and pushes the bowl back towards my hands. Her meaning is clear. She has no use for food any longer.

I grieve. This strange, cold person has somehow entered my heart, and I do not wish to see her end her days here in this horrible place. I get bandages, clothes, hot water, and demand with gestures that she allow me to do what little I can for those terrible wounds.

At first, she pushes me off. Then, too tired, or maybe she had just given up, she lets me have my way and closes her eyes to my work. Her body has been hard used, and bears terrible scars that mark her pale skin. Paler than mine own, as her hair is the fairness of the Northlands, and her eyes the gray of a storm swept sky. She has the northerner’s height, and a seaman’s build, with strong arms, and the wide, rounded shoulders of a fighter.

I tend her wounds, and, at the end, when I have done what little I could to ease her, her eyes open, and find mine own, and she makes a small smile at me. I smile the best that I can back, and she lifts a hand and brushes my cheek.

Oh.. my mother… I have heard stories told of one’s losing of the heart.. Aye, I never thought to feel that in my own self. But this day I do, and it goes with out so much as a by your leave to this rude and uncouth foreigner with so little effort, and so little warning that I feel myself lightheaded.

Gabrielle stopped again, and leaned back., folding her hands in her lap, and just waiting for the emotions to subside. Too close to home, huh Gabrielle? I know.. what this writer felt.

"Gabrielle?" Came Elaini’s gentle voice. "Stop.. please. You look upset."

Tody crawled away from the tunnel, and snuggled up against her side quietly, wrapping one short arm around her waist. "You.. can See this." He said in a low voice.

"Yeah." The bard admitted. "I can." She took a deep breath, and shook her head. "In another time, another place…" She rubbed her temples lightly. "Ok.. well, let’s finish this up and see if there’s any mention of those scrolls, huh?"

Elaini put a hand on her arm. "No.. no further, my sister."

Gabrielle shook her head. "It’s all right. Really." She turned her attention back to the tablets.

She sleeps but fitfully this night, and her wounds pain her much, for I can see the stark whiteness of her knuckles as she clenches her hands. I do what I can, but ill humors ravage her with their sickly heat, and she knows not who she is, or who I am, but speaks softly, achingly in her harsh language words that mean nothing to me. I let her grip my hand, and try to trickle water down her lips when reason takes her, but I know I do little good.

Towards the dawn, she rests quietly for a time, and I look down to see those gray eyes gazing at me with a look of.. I can’t tell what. Sadness, perhaps. Regret, I ken that as well. She squeezes my hand with hers, though where that strength comes from I know not, and so gently, touches mine fingers to her lips before her eyes go closed once again.

I am lost. I have never felt a force so fierce, a need so intense as I do this pale, cold morning. I pray to the mother, to pass us by. I pray for her to not take this strange gift from me, but I know, from the paleness of her face, and the lightness of her breath, my prayers will go unanswered.

I feel mine self shattering, and I know, how well do I, that this cold winter will be both our ends, but I shudder to think mine will be last, and alone, bereft of even her silent presence. My heart cries out in agony, and I feel that I, and not she, have taken a mortal wound the pain is so great. What is this terrible thing? I hurt, just looking at her face. I pray she opens her eyes just one more time, I do not wish to bid her farewell just yet.

Now the end comes close, I feel the cold hands of the Taker hovering beyond her, and I do what all I can, which is gather her in my arms, and give her my life’s heat and what little strength I possess to add to that which fades in her. I pray, one last prayer to the mother to take me quickly, for I wish not to know the empty solitude of this forsaken place.

I close mine eyes, as her are, and commend myself to the Long Sleep, and hope the mother takes us gently into her arms.

I am Ardwyn. She is Elevown of the North.

"I can’t read the rest." Gabrielle sighed, scrubbing the tears off her face with the back of a dusty hand.

"Shhh.. It’s all right." Elaini soothed her, patting her leg in anxious comfort. "Later.’

Gabrielle looked up, pushing the hair from her eyes with a tired expression. "’s not that I don’t want to, I can’t. It’s in a different language.. a different hand."

The forest dweller scooted around beside her, and peered down. "Damn.. it is." She shot Gabrielle a look. "You don’t recognize the language? "

A shake of her head. "No."

"Maybe.. whoever found them..?" Elaini’s voice trailed off.

"Maybe." Gabrielle agreed softly. "No mention of any scrolls." She looked around. "But my guess is that they’d store them in a box, and probably wedged it somewhere under all this stuff. "

"OK.." Elaini glanced at her. "Is there.. can I get you something.. water.. are you.. I tell you what." She took a breath. "Let’s go outside and have some lunch, OK? " She stood up, and dusted herself off. "Then we can look for them."

"Yeah." The bard let her fingers trail along the surface of the tablet, and sighed.. Ardwyn. The syllables sounded very strange in her mind, and her tongue stumbled over them. She gave the silent Tody a pat. "You OK?"

He cocked his head and twitched his ears at her. "That’s so sad." He sighed. "They never even got a chance to…"

We came so close to that, Xena.. do you know I get down and send thanks to the gods every day for that second chance? "Yeah… sometimes you don’t realize how lucky you are until you hear a story like that, huh?:

Tody gave her a soft smile, and hugged her hard.

Gabrielle carefully picked a sunny spot to settle herself in, leaning back against the warmed rocks, and wrapping her arms around her knees. She absently nibbled at the pocket sandwich she'd unwrapped from her pack, and let her eyes wander over the tall spruce tree tops that lifted up from the slopes approaching her position.

What that must have felt like. Her mind mused, trading the sun drenched scene before her for one covered in silent, drifting snow, making her shiver in reflex. Gods. I've faced death.. we both have.. but to know it was coming like that.. Then she stopped chewing, and stared out over the mountain for a long moment. I wonder if that was what Xena felt, that whole day when she was trapped. Oh gods... how did she cope with that? What would I have done? Would I have fought as hard, as long as she did..? Or would I have done what Ardwyn did and just.. give up?

A memory came unbidden to her, of those last few seconds, hanging over a river of lava while two gods fought over her head. Of a voice saying.. 'Don't take your eyes off me."

But she had. She'd felt the top rope collapse, and seen two struggling forms plunge past her headed towards the unnerving heat she felt rising past her legs.

And her body had just given out. She'd let go of the rope with a whispered "Sorry." To herself.. to Xena, standing on the ridge above her. She had been so tired.. and having to deal with Callisto had drained her more than she'd believed possible. She had closed her eyes, and just let herself fall, with one last wistful thought of Xena. And heard a rush of air, and the sudden, shocking pull as her arms were grabbed and her body halted in it's descent And that same voice, calm, almost relaxed. "I got you." Xena hadn't given up, even if she had.. no, her sometimes frustrating, sometimes aggravating, always stubborn best friend had dove off a cliff, head first with no thought to her own safety to make a one in a thousand chance at grabbing her in mid air.

Of course, it worked.

But what if it hadn't? What would Xena have done? For a moment, when she had looked up, and their eyes had met, she'd seen a strange peacefulness in her companion's expression, as though Xena hadn't worried about the outcome at all. One way or the other.. and Gabrielle had a sudden feeling that both of them would have climbed up that rope..

Or neither of them would have.

A warm hand dropped on to her shoulder, and she looked up, startled. "Uh.. sorry. Hi."

Elaini sat down next to her, and studied her face. "You going to finish that, or just hold it for a while?"

"Sorry." Gabrielle laughed sheepishly, and took a large bite, chewing steadily. "Just thinking." She swallowed, then glanced at her sandwich. "Mmm." She examined it, then chuckled softly. Xena had tossed her the packet casually as she was leaving, making some smart comment about bards and food that Gabrielle had conveniently ignored. All the stuff I like. Gods.. just when I think she pays no attention to things like that, she surprises me. And for some reason, just that little offhand thoughtfulness snuggled down inside her and warmed her all over. She looked up at Elaini and smiled, for real this time. "So.. what makes you think there are any scrolls here, Elaini?"

The forest dweller relaxed a little, and settled back against the wall. "Well, it's a legend of ours, of course." She sighed. "We have one of the scrolls.. kept in a box in Wennid's store room. It was damaged in water.. but there are still parts that tell how to set fractures, and sew up wounds, and things like that. The scroll references others... and the story has it that there's a box of them somewhere up here."

"Where did it come from?" The bard asked, taking another huge bite and chewing with almost sensual enjoyment. Huh..didn't realize I was this hungry.

Elani shrugged. "A hunting party found it.. in a small lean to one day. " She gave Gabrielle's lunch packet a poke, and grinned. " do you luck out? All I got was bread and cheese."

The bard winked. "Gotta pick the right packer." She studied the additional goodies, and plucked a raspberry out, handing it to Elaini. "Mine's about the best there is."

"Thanks." The healer smirked with amusement. "Must be nice."

Gabrielle popped a sweet nut ball into her mouth, and nodded. "Uh huh." She shared her berries with Elaini and Tody, who had wandered over and was playing with a collection of pebbles he'd gathered.

"These are good." Elaini commented, turning her face towards the sun and yawning a little. "Didn't see any in the kitchen, though... Would have snagged them."

Gabrielle recalled Xena slipping into their cot while she was still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, and the warrior had tucked a small bundle away near her saddlebags while she pulled on her practice gear. "No.. I think the great berry hunter struck again." She leaned back, folding her hands over her stomach, and sighed contentedly, taking a moment to enjoy the feel of the sun on her face, counteracting the cold breeze. Then she rolled her head towards Elaini, and opened one eye. "Guess we'd better start looking again, huh?"

The healer groaned. "Yeah... Ares, that hike took it out of me." She complained good naturedly, watching Gabrielle stand and stretch. "I'm not used to this stuff like you are."

The bard smiled quietly to herself, and reached down a hand. "Here...need a hand up?"

The forest dweller snorted. "I'm not in *that* bad shape." She hoisted herself to her feet, and dusted her overalls off. She took Tody's hand, and started to walk towards the opening. "Though.. " She chuckled ruefully. "With Jess..I think we're going to just reinforce each other's lazy tendencies.. I could be in a lot of trouble, here." She lit her torch, and guided Tody ahead of her. "Not a problem for you, I know."

Mmmm.... Gabrielle mused to herself. "Well, actually, I get accused of being a bad influence all the time." She chuckled, as they ducked back into the outer cavern. "And I'll admit to an active campaign to get her to relax a little." A rueful grin "It ain't easy, though."

Elaini planted the torch firmly in a makeshift wall sconce, and lit a second, glancing over her shoulder at Gabrielle. "She seems.. really intense."

"That's one word for it." The bard muttered under her breath, as she lit her own torch. "Ok, let's go." She led the way, this time, into the inner cavern, and settled her torch snugly between two rocks. Half the inner cavern had been the victim of a slide of some kind, because a pile of slate chips covered a good portion of the artifacts, and Gabrielle realized they were in for some digging. "We might as well get started."

They set up a relay system, with Gabrielle and Elaini digging gingerly through the sharp slate chips, and piling them into a sack. Tody would then sturdily grab hold of the sack, and pull it into the outer chamber, emptying it in an out of the way corner. The sun was making it's way westward before they finally uncovered a large slab of stone, which rocked gently when Gabrielle rested her foot against it. "Looks like this moves." The bard commented, kneeling down and examining the surface.

"Yeah." Elaini sighed, wiping a tired hand across her brow, and running her fingers through her furry nape. She watched as the bard set her fingers under the sharp rock, and lifted up slightly, causing her arm muscles to stand out in relief against her dust darkened skin. .

"Ugh." She released the stone, and rested her forearms on her knees. "No way. Xena might be able to lift that, but not me."

Elaini's eyebrows lifted, and she tested the rock against her own strength. "Not in this lifetime, my friend. " She laughed. "We'll need a few strong backs to move that one." She glanced around. "And it's almost dark. We'd better put this off until tomorrow, when I can bring up some help."

Gabrielle tapped her fingers lightly on the surface, and nodded. "Sounds good to me." She studied her hands. "I need a bath." This with a grimace, which she shared with the healer. "Glad the return trip's downhill."

They both grinned, and Tody laughed, scooping up his pebble collection and stuffing it in a small sack he was carrying. "This was cool!" He grinned. "Can I come with you tomorrow?"

Elaini straightened up with a heartfelt groan, and stretched out her back. "If you promise to stay out of the way when they're moving around stuff here, OK?"

"OK." He readily agreed, standing up, and shaking himself vigorously.

Gabrielle let them precede her, and turned at the entrance to the inner cavern, to look back inside at the remains, and the tablets. The last bit of that story tickled her curiosity, and she briefly debated trying to copy it down for later study. Have time for that tomorrow, I guess. She decided, and ducked into the outer cavern, where Elaini and Tody were packing up their gear.

She joined them, hoisting her kit, and followed them out onto the plateau, where the setting sun was staining the dark granite a bloody shade of crimson.

"Brrrr." The bard shivered, as a cold draft sidled up the mountain path and brushed her hair back. She sighed, and opened her pack, digging the waterskin out. "Wish I'd..." And smiled in gentle reflex as her hand brushed the familiar texture of her lighter cloak, folded tightly, and packed with neat economy at the bottom of the bag. Oh.. you get a nice, big hug for that one, partner. I thought we'd be back well before the sun went down.. She shook the fabric out, and settled it around her shoulders with a chuckle, and started down the steep path.

"If she has twins, I want one." Jessan murmured into Xena's ear, as they stood watching a wary Argo as she flirted with a very interested Eris

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "You do, huh?" She let her eyes travel over Jessan's black stallion thoughtfully. "He tend to throw doubles?"

Jessan smirked. "Uh huh."

The warrior leaned against the corral fence, and sniffed speculatively. "What about you?"

Got a vivid blush back that colored his entire muzzle brick red, causing Xena to burst into laughter, and startling Ares, who was standing up on his hind legs, front paws hooked over the lower corral railing.

"Roo?" He turned his dark head towards the sound. "Grr."

Xena dropped a hand down and scratched his ears. "Sorry about that.. I couldn't resist." She chuckled, resting her chin on the arm draped over the railing.

Jessan sighed. "Sure.. sure.." He rubbed his face, willing the heat to fade. "Xena, I gotta ask you one question." He waited.

She gave him a look. "And that is...???"

"Oh. Right.. um... " His eyes dropped down. "Ares???"

Xena sighed, and reached down, lifting the wolf up and cradling him in her arms, causing the wolf to squirm around happily until he could reach her face with his tongue, and started kissing her. "Stop that." She growled.

He paused, then blinked his yellow eyes.

Then licked the tip of her nose and wagged his tail.

Her turn to blush, and his to laugh. Then she shifted the wolf, and pointed his muzzle towards Jessan. "Look." She pointed. " Dark hair, light eyes... " She grabbed the puppy's bristling beard. "Dark beard.. he looks just like him."

Jessan stepped back, and put his hands on his hips, and cocked his head at her. "NO way."

She raised her eyebrow and grinned in silence.

He swallowed audibly. "You really do know him, don't you." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah." She replied, softly. "Better than I want to."

A small silence fell between them. "Anyway.." Xena finally said, setting the wolf down. "When I found him... I wasn't.. " She stopped, and turned towards the corral, watching Argo slid her neck over Eris’ with a small smile. "I wasn't in the best frame of mind." She rested her chin on her fist, laid over the upper railing. "Just seemed to fit, that's all."

Jessan stepped closer, and laid a tentative hand on her arm. "Xena.. are you.. all right with this? I know.. it's not something you really.. wanted."

The warrior stayed quiet for a long time, eyes watching the two horses in their courtship. She let one finger trace the rough wood, then glanced up at him. "Yeah." And a quiet nod. "I fought it for so damn long.. when I finally let it start happening, it was like drowning.. " She paused, and her lips quirked. "In a good way." She added. "But I'm a pretty good swimmer." That in a drawl. "I'll be fine." Another pause. "But thanks for asking."

He nodded briskly. "Right. Um.. well, it looks like they’re doing just fine." He jerked his rounded jaw at the two horses, who were nuzzling each other.

Xena regarded her mare, and chuckled deep in her throat. "Yep." The sunset burnished Argo’s coat to a fiery hue, and brought out faint highlights in Eris’ dark hide. Idly her gaze scanned the horizon, then stopped when she got to the head of the path out from the village.

Movement, and now Jessan’s eyes caught it as well. They watched for a moment, then glanced at each other and grinned. "Guess we’d better go see if they found anything." The warrior commented.

"Yeah." Jessan agreed amiably.

The walk down gave Gabrielle time to think about the tablets. Way too much time, and she found herself letting the tale take her mind in directions she really didn’t need it to go. C’mon.. let’s not play that what if game, OK? Your story had a different ending, Gabrielle.

They reached the end of the path, and moved into the village proper, and Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the setting sun as she spotted two tall figures moving towards them out of it.

"Roo!!!" Ares yodeled, bounding through the grass and leaping up against her legs.

"Hey Ares." The bard smiled, ruffling his fur, then looking up. And, moved by a instinct she was too tired to fight, she walked right into Xena’s startled arms and buried her face in the warrior’s tunic, deliberately letting herself feel their connection, warm and solid and real as the cold wind, and the scent of pine around them.

"Hey there… " Xena said softly into her ear. "What’s wrong?" No answer from Gabrielle, who just held on tighter. "All right.. I’ve got you. Take it easy." Her blue eyes swept up and found Elaini’s with a cold, sharp look. "What happened?"

The forest dweller shook her head. "It .. I don’t know, Xena. There was a story on those tablets we told you about.. she read it.. it was.. really sad, but.. " she shrugged helplessly. "I don’t know." Her brow creased in concern as she regarded the silent bard.

Gabrielle lifted her head, and cleared her throat a little. "I’m fine." She looked at her worried partner. "Sorry.. I didn’t mean to… " She loosened her grip, and straightened the fabric of Xena’s tunic. "I wasn’t thinking. Really, I’m fine. Just a little chilled, that’s all."

Blue eyes locked intently with her green ones. A quirked eyebrow that told her she wasn’t being believed. She returned it with a quietly plaintive look, that meant later. Xena’s brows drew together for a long moment, before she relented, and let out a sigh. "Lestan’s invited us for dinner. You up for that?" Her direct stare let the bard know it was more than OK to say no.

"Sure." She smiled, giving her partner a pat. "I need to wash up though. I have granite dust in the worst places."

Xena nodded reluctantly. "All right. See you over there. " That to Jessan and Elaini, who were standing by quietly. Jessan nodded, and slipped his arm around Elaini’s with a little smile.

They watched the two humans walk towards their cot, then Jessan turned and studied his lifemate with serious eyes. "What the heck happened?"

Elaini gave him a bewildered look. "Really, Jess.. I have no idea. Yeah, the story was sad.. it was about two strangers who were shipwrecked and ended up wintering the cave. It was a rough winter, and they didn’t make it. I don’t.. she seemed ok when we left the cave.. I don’t understand."

Jessan shook his head. "We’ll find out later, I expect. " He bumped her lightly with his shoulder. "Come on.. mom’s doing some of those little meat pies.. wanna get some before dinner?"

Elaini struggled with her concionce and lost. "Sure." She grinned, tucking his arm in hers, and starting the short stroll to his parent’s house.

Gabrielle heard the door shut quietly behind her, as she made her way to the soft couch and collapsed on it. Dinner had been… pretty nice, actually. She’d been able to get away with only three stories before Xena intervened, laying a hand on her shoulder, and quietly telling the assembled forest dwellers she needed to rest. But she’d been distracted all night, and she knew her partner could tell, saw it in the studied intensity of her gaze, and the protective arm she’d kept draped across Gabrielle’s wool clad shoulders.

The bard let her head tip back and rest on the couch, staring up at the ceiling while listening to Xena stir the fire, and clatter around with whatever it was the warrior was doing. Then she felt a cool hand on her forehead, and she opened her eyes. "Hi."

Xena perched on the arm of the couch, and put two fingers under Gabrielle’s chin, tilting her face up to make eye contact. "Ready to tell me what’s going on with you?"

Blunt as always, Gabrielle thought, that’s my Xena. And she stopped and thought about that statement, and smiled. "Long day… "

Xena wasn’t buying that, and the sharply arched eyebrow emphasized the fact.

"I know… I know. " The bard laughed. "I’m lying. No.. really it was. And.. that damn story.." She closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples with one hand. "Just.. touched a nerve, I guess. " She finished quietly. She felt Xena’s hands run lightly across her neck, and heard the warrior sigh, then the fabric shifted as she got up, and walked back to the fire.

Gabrielle gazed at the ceiling timbers in weary tension. "It’s not like.. I mean, I’m used to sad stories, Xena..gods know we see enough of them, right?"

"Mmm." The warrior agreed, kneeling by the fire and working at something.

"Right… so.. I don’t know.. it’s.. I guess it’s just so sad to think about those poor people, alone there in the cold…" She shook her head. "And then not to be able to read the ending.. augh.. torture."

Xena returned, and settled on the other side of the couch, holding a cup out to the bard. "Here." She settled back with her own mug. "That’s got something to relax you a little in it."

Gabrielle sniffed suspiciously, then quirked a grin. "I get it. You figure if you dump enough mint and honey into anything, I’ll drink it, right?"

This got her a full out dazzling grin in return, that sent warm relaxing tendrils through her faster than any infusion could. But she sipped the tea anyway, since it was warm, and Xena was exactly right – stick enough mint and honey into anything and she’d probably drink it right down. "Thank you." Her eyes lifted to Xena’s. "And thank you for lunch, and for remembering to pack my cloak, when I didn’t."

"Hey.. ex warlords are useful for something, right? We’re big on details." Xena deadpanned, taking a sip of her own tea, and going serious. "Now.. tell me about this story, hmm?"

Gabrielle hesitated. "I don’t…"

Xena patted her chest, and cocked her head. "C’mere."

The bard obeyed, snuggling up against Xena’s right side, and feeling the solid weight of the warrior’s arm close over her.

"Better?" Came the soft question.

Gabrielle nodded, and took a breath. "Yeah.. now I think I can go with it."

And so she did, telling the story out slowly, and trying to remember the details of the oddly scripted language. It was all right now… the story seemed much more distant, now that she was in the security of Xena’s arms and telling it. She felt her body relaxing, a combination of whatever the Hades Xena had put in that cup, and the gentle ministrations of the warrior’s hands which were easing the tension out of her muscles. Eventually, she let her head drop onto Xena’s chest, and closed her eyes, feeling the waves of sleep wash over her.

"Feel better now?" The voice burred low into her hearing, and she nodded sleepily.

"Wanna know the ending.. Xe.. " She mumbled. "Damn language."

Xena raised an eyebrow, both at the diminutive, which Gabrielle never, ever used for her, and the language insult. Better check what I put in that cup. She mused, a touch startled.

"What if." Gabrielle whispered.

The warrior gently stroked her hair, and felt Gabrielle settled more firmly around her. "What if what, love?" she murmured.

The bard’s breathing started to level out. "Could have been them." She mumbled, then Xena felt her body lose it’s tension.

Which the warrior picked up in triple measure. Damn… as she caught that last whisper. No wonder it struck a nerve. Yeah, we could have, couldn’t we. Oh, Gabrielle. She pressed her cheek against the bard’s hair, and let out a long breath.

And her attention turned to the tablets, which had peaked her own curiosity. The Celts.. had a place in her heart… and this lone Welsh and her Viking companion fired Xena’s interest more than she’d let on to the bard.

A runic language , the bard said? No.. Gabrielle wouldn’t know it.. it came from far over the sea, and didn’t often grace the scrolls of this land. It would be very foreign to the bard.. but not to a certain ex warlord, who, as part of her hard gotten learning, knew the seafaring languages, in both spoken and written forms. She could, she mused, have probably communicated with both of them. A bit.

I could read it. The idea flirted across her consciousness. I could.. and.. NO, Xena.. damn it, wasn’t that spectacle you made of yourself enough yesterday?

But.. I could. I could be in and out.. and she’s sleeping.. the idea drilled insistently at her. I can’t. No.. it’s cold, it’s dark, for Ares’s sake, you idiot, cut this out!

Her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s peacefully sleeping face, the curve of her cheek gently reflecting the firelight. She wants to know what that said… it really means something to her.

I could, Xena considered. Wait until tomorrow, and just have her copy it down and bring it here. But the thought of the tablets, and the secrets up there… what if I could just.. it would just take a minute, once I was in there.

Once I was in there. That’s the real story right? Xena stroked the soft hair with the back of her fingers. You won’t even feel it, love.. you’re down so deep. Will you forgive me? I have to try. I promise you.. I’ll just go in, and read that part, and be back here in no time.. and when you wake up, I’ll tell you what it said..

The bard nestled closer, and her hands closed gently on Xena’s tunic, and the warrior spent a long moment just holding her close, and whispering softly to her. Then she stood, and crossed to the round bed, kneeling and laying her partner down, and drawing the covers around her protectively. She reached out and smoothed the hair out of Gabrielle’s eyes with infinite tenderness, then leaned over and touched her lips to the bard’s forehead. "Be right back." She promised.

She walked across the room, picking up her heavy cloak from where it was draped over the couch and settled it over her shoulders, then let her eyes rest once more on the sleeping form for quiet moment before slipping out the door and into the cold, dark night.

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