A Warrior by Any Other Name Part IV - Conclusion.
by Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Also - please note - this section does contain some rather descriptive violence.

Jessan blinked slowly, lazily, as the sun's rays moved into the room he was in, and spread warmth across his chest. His eyes roamed around the walls, so different than the ones he was used to, and he stretched to his full length on the large padded bed. Sore, but not too sore, he thought, vaguely satisfied. He squinted at the window. Overslept. He yawned, showing his massive canines, and wondered if the rest of the stronghold had done the same. He cocked his ears, and heard mostly silence. A grin. Probably they had. He closed his eyes and let his Sight drift - yep. Sleeping, mostly, even...he cast to his left, mildly surprised. Even Xena was still asleep. Not that she wasn't entitled, he mused. But...oh..isn't that interesting..Suddenly a grin crossed his face, and his eyes slid open. What kind of trouble can I get into....

Jessan spent a short but amusing time in the bathing area, splashing the water around in delight, and loving the feel of the soft linen as he dried himself off, being careful to miss the cuts and gashes liberally scattered all over his big body. He pulled on a tunic and trousers, and eased his door open, peeking down the hall with an impish grin. I'm way too big to be tiptoeing around but... Jessan slunk down the hall, and paused in front of the next door, gently gently, he pushed the door in, inch by inch, until he could poke his golden head in and peer around the door frame.

The morning sun was streaming gently across the bed, bringing out the fiery highlights in Gabrielle's hair where she lay sprawled on her side, one arm curled under her head, the other wrapped firmly around Xena. Both women were still deeply asleep, a rare thing for the warrior, as Jessan most assuredly knew. He watched them for a moment more, noting the more than usually peaceful look about them, then gently closed his eyes and let his Sight extend..ah. His snub nose wrinkled as he grinned in happy reaction. He silently shut the door, and continued down the hall, suppressing the urge to whistle out loud. . You have a choice, Xena? Ohhh...no. I don't think there's any choice involved...that bond's as strong as any I've seen...and I"m beginning to think you can feel it too. Am I right? Am I? Perhaps I am...hmmm...

Breakfast, I think. he decided, stifling a yawn. And a visit to father. Lestan had spent the night in the infirmary, after receiving a long series of stitches for the gash in his shoulder. He padded down the stairs, vaguely amazed that he, that they all had adjusted to this close contact with humans so fast. Too fast? Hmm. Possibly. He had already stopped thinking of some of them as humans, and begun to consider them just funny looking members of his kind..and that was very dangerous.

"Good morning." the young daughter of the Hectator's chief of household said, as she spotted him on the stairwell, giving him a nervous, but basically polite smile. "Uhm. We have some breakfast in there, if you want to, well, I mean eat."

Jessan looked at her with some interest. Pale blond, and very slight, and pretty eyes. "Thank you." His low voice startled her a bit. "Do you have a...a tray, or something that I can borrow?" She backed away as he came closer. Sighing, he stopped. "I have some friends I'd like to bring some breakfast too. It's ok..I'm not going to hurt you." Humans. He rolled his mental eyes.

"Well..." she hesitated, "My name is Sharra. And, yes, I can find you a tray." Sharra looked at him shyly. " You're the one they call Jessan, aren't you?" She studied him, playing with her hands in a distracted way.

"Yes." Jessan said, raising an eyebrow at her. "I am." He resumed his forward motion, albeit more slowly. "Thanks for offering to help me out, Sharra." He tried a small grin at her, and was relieved when she gave him a quick smile in return. "Did you say there was breakfast?" he asked, with a wistful look.

"In there." the blond gestured, keeping well back of him. Another nervous smile. "Do you need...something...raw? Or anything?"

Jessan stopped dead, and stared at her, giving her his best imitation of Xena's raised eyebrow 'look'. "Raw?" he answered, a touch gruffly. "The last raw thing I ate was honey, and I paid for it in stings." He put his fists on his hips, and cocked his maned head at her. "And there were those raw nuts Gabrielle found the other day, but that hardly counts." He snorted. "What makes you think I want something..ugh..raw?"

"Uhm..well..." Sharra stammered, confused.

"Because of these?" Jessan asked, baring his canines. "Maybe I'll have you for breakfast..."

Sharra shrieked, and turned to run.

"Whoa..whoa..whoa.." Jessan yelped, hurriedly. He waved his hands at her for quiet. "Relax! Relax! I was only joking!" His golden eyes caught hers. "Really...it's ok..please...I eat oatmeal for breakfast.Honest."

Sharra paused, giving him a hard stare. Then she moved a little closer, and sniffed. "That wasn't nice."

Jessan whoofed. "Neither was assuming I'd like raw meat for breakfast."

The blond studied him for a moment. "You're right." She shrugged. "I apologize."

Jessan gave her his best sheepish expression. "Me too. Mom always tells me not to scare the girls."

She giggled. "You're nice." Sharra pronounced, and turned to lead the way into the dining hall. "Come on. I;I'll show you where breakfast is. " She waited for him to catch up, and the walked in silence for a few paces before she turned to him in curiosity. "You're a friend of the Warrior Princess, aren't you?" She gave him a sideways glance, now more at ease with her strange charge.

"Xena, you mean?." Jessan answered, wondering where this interrogation was leading. A friend? unlooked for, unlikely, but thoroughly without question. "Yes. I am. Why?"

"She's scary." Sharra said, lowering her voice and glancing around. "She even scares my brother." She darted a glance at the forest dweller. "I bet she doesn't scare you, though, does she?" She arched a brow at him, taking in his size and tapered muscularity.

"Uh." Jessan mumbled, torn between honesty and ego. Honesty won out. "Well, to tell you the truth, yeah, she does." He paused. "Sometimes." he added, hastily. He shrugged his big shoulders at her. "But she can also be really kind, and very nice most of the time." A look of total disbelief from Sharra. "If you don't piss her off." Jessan amended, with a grin. He gestured towards the food laden table. "In fact, that's who the tray's for. "

Sharra considered him, tilting her blond head to one side. "Really?" She was intrigued. She couldn't imagine Xena doing anything as ordinary as eating. "I'd heard she just drinks blood, or something like that."

Jessan raised both eyebrows at once, and stopped walking. "What?" he sputtered. "Where did you get THAT idea from? Blood? Uck. Gross. " He stuck his tongue out in a comical expression. "No! That's not true at all. She eats what you, and I and, I guess, everyone else eats. Bread, cheese, meat, fruits...did you know she can catch fish with her bare hands?' He watched her jaw drop. "It's true! I've seen her. And she likes herbal tea." He cocked his head at her. "Where do you get these weird notions from? I mean, she's just a person. Like you.. Like me." Like no one else on earth. Like no one else I have ever known, nor ever will. But what would you know of that, little human child? Are you trapped here already in your narrow-mindedness? Perhaps we can broaden your horizons a little. Hmmm? As mine were?

"I've heard stories about her half my life." Sharra answered, matter-of-factly. "And my uncle fought in her army." She glanced up at him. "They're pretty bloody stories."

"Stories don't tell the whole tale." Jessan answered, in a more gentle voice. "And people change, and change again throughout their lives." He smiled at her. "Give her a chance. I didn't regret it."

Sharra moved closer to him, intrigued despite herself. "You?"

Jessan nodded, slowly. "Me. I knew her by tales, and imagined her pretty much as you do. Then we met, and I found out just how much those stories left out." He propped his chin up on one hand and gazed at her. "She saved this city, you know."

Sharra nodded thoughtfully. "I heard that." She glanced at him appraisingly. "I'll have to think about what you said."

"Good." Jessan answered, quietly. "Let me know what you decide."

Sharra smiled as she handed him a trencher, and passed him a slice of warm bread. "Here, eat this." Her eyes examined his face as he munched. "You're kind of sweet." She chuckled again at his blush. "I'll help you with your tray after you're done, if you promise to make sure I"I'll stay in one piece."

The coming dawn woke her, as usual. Xena lay quietly, watching the beginnings of the first hint of gray touch the eastern sky and thought, as she always did in this peaceful time before the morning.

Carefully, so as not to disturb the soundly sleeping bard still tucked snugly against her right side , she flexed her abused muscles, to determine the extent of yesterday's damage and was pleasantly surprised. Not too bad at all, barring the throbbing ache in her neck, to be expected, and a lingering soreness in her ribcage from several blocked pike blows. All in all, she didn't have much to complain about.

Neither did Hectator, she reflected, then winced. He was going to make a big deal over this, wasn't he. Xena wondered if she could escape the tributes and just leave, quietly...then she glanced at Gabrielle. Nope. She'd kill me. The warrior grinned at the ceiling. She'd absolutely kill me. I"d never hear the end of it. So, I"m stuck here for a few days.

Which, she admitted, wouldn't be so bad. She hadn't had a break in while, if you didn't count being dead for a week, and this wasn't such a terrible place to take a few days off. Hectator had a good marketplace, and she could get herself a new set of leathers, and turn Gabrielle loose on the merchants. Maybe even she could do a little shopping...

Xena glanced at the window, where the gray was slowly inching to deep pink. She knew she should get up and check Argo, finish the armor, do a dozen things that had to be done..but at the thought, she found her body in uncharacteristic rebellion, wanting very much to stay right where it was curled up in this ridiculously soft bed. That's a bad sign. she warned herself. I need to nip that in the bud right now and get moving.

But Gabrielle chose that moment to snuggle closer, sliding an arm across Xena and pinning her firmly in place. The warrior's eyebrows both rose, as she studied her companion, and felt the arm tighten then relax as the bard slipped back deeper into sleep with a contented sigh. . On the other hand...A quirky grin crossed the warrior's face as Xena wrestled with her seldom indulged and always well hidden lazy streak and decided one morning sleeping in probably wouldn't do her too much damage after all. She resettled her arm around her companion and drifted back into sleep..

The sunlight was streaming into the room when she opened her eyes again, and she blinked in surprise, then glanced down to meet the mischievously sparkling eyes of Gabrielle. The bard was still sprawled lazily at her side, and she made no move to get up now.

"I can't believe I actually woke up before you did. " The bard smirked. "I gotta get up and write this down." Actually, she had only been up herself for a few minutes, but she wasn't about to admit that now, no..not when she had an unparalleled opportunity for some first class teasing here. She had been really startled to wake and find Xena still soundly asleep, in fact, her first reaction was alarm until she was able to clear her sleep blurred eyesight and was reassured by the warrior's steady breathing and normal color.

Gabrielle had lain very still for quite some few minutes, since Xena still had one arm curled around her shoulders, and the bard knew if she moved much, it would wake her friend up. And she had so few opportunities to study the warrior this close unobserved.She made the most of it, noticing that even in sleep Xena wasn't completely relaxed - the arm curled around the bard's shoulders retained a springy tension, and Gabrielle could see faint twitches in her otherwise still face that were her so very sharp senses keeping track of the world around her while she slept.

I've seen her go from deep sleep to fighting full out in less than the time would take me to say it. How many times has that saved our necks? And I think I'm the only one who could wake her up without getting knocked across the room. The only one. So weird - she's completely dangerous, and even..even when she's mad at me, I always feel...safe. Even when we spar. Even when we play around and wrestle. I know she can break me in half. But I know.she won't, and sometimes I feel a little like a lion cub being carried in it's mother's jaws.

Wow..this is way too profound for before breakfast. I gotta stop that right now. But there's a story in that thought somewhere....

She was glad she had woken up in time to let loose her stranglehold on the poor woman - Gabrielle could imagine, without much effort, the raised eyebrow stare she would have gotten for that. She's been more than usually tolerant with me lately, but....

So now she just grinned at Xena, and smirked. "Another first....must be my week."

Xena gave her a lazy grin in response. "Well..." she drawled, rolling onto her side and propping her head on one hand. "I would have gotten up at dawn, but someone was holding me hostage, and I didn't have the heart to wake her." She watched the flush creep up Gabrielle's face and let out a soft laugh. "You're a bad influence, Gabrielle."

'Hah!" the bard snorted, recovering quickly. Busted. But she doesn't seem..mad..bothered? What am I looking for here? Whatever. '*I* am a bad influence." She rolled over onto her stomach, and waggled a finger at Xena. "This coming from the Terror of the Plains herself, the mighty Warrior Princess. *I* am a bad influence!!!" Getting into her subject, she flipped back over, and addressed the ceiling, "I ask you. "

Xena watched in amused toleration, until that last flip. Then she saw her opening, and took advantage of the bard's inattention by reaching over and getting in a good tickle, enough to cause her companion to squeal in outrage, and as she kept it up, to dissolve into a fit of giggling.

"That wasn't fair." Gabrielle gasped, when she finally caught her breath and stopped laughing.

"No." Xena agreed, laughing now herself. "But it certainly was funny."

"Oh yeah?" the bard asked, giving a mock scowl.

"Yeah." Xena answered, still chuckling.

"I'm warning you, Xena..one of these days...." Gabrielle rolled over, and got within inches of her companion's face. "I'll find that ticklish spot of yours."

"Oh really?" Xena answered, eyes dancing. "Well, it'll be interesting to see you try. " She smiled at the bard's returning blush. "Do me a favor, though...the trick is in the surprise..and if you intend to try surprising me..." She leaned close to Gabrielle's ear and whispered. "Remember to duck."

"I will." Gabrielle promised, grinning. "So." She continued, propping her head up on one had, mimicking her companion. "How many parades do you have to be in for this?" Subtle revenge. "One statue, or are they doing a series?" After all this time, she had a pretty good handle on Xena's tease points, and enjoyed the aggrieved scowl she got in return that meant she was right on target.

"Actually" Xena commented wryly. "I was contemplating knocking you over the head, and leaving early this morning before sunrise.'

"Oh." The bard murmured. "So...what happened?" She wondered if Xena was really serious. Sometimes even she had a hard time figuring that out, especially when it came to things like his. Xena hated fuss. And this promised to be a great deal of fuss, with her as the star attraction.

"I got over it." the warrior shrugged. "I'll survive, I guess. Besides, I did promise you some shopping, didn't I?" She teased, giving Gabrielle a poke in the shoulder. "And I want to do some myself."

Gabrielle snorted. "You?" Laughter bubbled up from her. "Oh yeah..right. I gotta see this."

Xena rolled up off the bed and padded over to where she had stored Argo's saddlebags, aware of Gabrielle's unwavering attention. She reached down deep inside the right one, and took out two linen sacks, grinning to herself before wiping the look off her face and turning around to walk back towards the bard. "Here." she said, tossing one of the bags to her companion. "One condition. You have to use all of it."

Gabrielle caught the bag, startled at it's heaviness, and the muted clink. She glanced briefly inside, then up at Xena, who was leaning against the bedpost, waiting for reaction. "But isn't this..' she stopped, as Xena nodded. "Xena, this is yours. I can't..."

"Yep. its mine." Xena agreed. "And that means I can do whatever I want with it." She tossed her own bag up and caught it again. "And what I want to do with it is give it to you. We're partners, right?" Her eyes went serious for a moment, and Gabrielle noted the change. "So, you'll please do what I ask, just this once, without arguing with me, OK?."

Gabrielle chewed on that for a while. "Ok." She looked up at Xena and smiled. Partners. I think I like the sound of that. "Thanks. This will be fun." She slid off the bed and tucked the bag away by her staff. "Breakfast?"

"Oh. Well, I don't think that will be much of a problem" Jessan assured her, finishing his bread. "Delicious, by the way. I'm sure you're in no danger from Xena."

"Yeah." came a low chuckle from what seemed like inches behind him. "I only sacrifice babies once a month." Xena drawled, more amused than anything else. She gave the petrified Sharra a mild glance, and stepped around Jessan, selecting a slice of bread from the basket on the table. Dressed in a simple belted linen tunic, she wasn't nearly as intimidating as when she sported leather and armor, but Sharra still backed away nervously. "Relax.. All I want is some breakfast." Xena said, taking a healthy bite of the bread, and chewing away.

"Well." Jessan drawled, giving her a deliciously evil look. "About time you woke up." He blithely ignored the dour glare he got in response. "And here I thought I was going to have to serve you breakfast in bed." His golden eyes sparkled and he poked the tip of his pink tongue out at her.

Xena couldn't resist a wry chuckle. "One of these days, Jessan." She warned him, with a sly grin and a devilish look in her eyes. "When you least expect it..."

The forest dweller crossed his arms on his muscular chest, and jutted his chin at her, thoroughly enjoying himself. "Ah..idle threats." he shot Sharra a superior glance. "I'm so scared." he stuck his tongue out at her again. Getting a barely suppressed giggle from the blond girl, which only inspired him further. He waggled his eyebrows at Xena, daring her to do her worst. "I think you're just bluffing" He finished, not seeing the sudden mischievous glint in those pale eyes, forgetting her unpredictability, forgetting the speed of her reactions.

And react she did, moving so fast he had no chance of blocking her, no hope of stopping her sudden assault, no thought of resisting as she captured his face, and kissed him soundly on the mouth. Shock and the blood rushing to his head made him momentarily lose track of his lower limbs, and he slid off the bench to the floor. He knew he was crimson from the neck up, and just sat there blinking at her. Coherent speech was beyond his scattered wits, not helped by the wild giggling of both Sharra and the newly arrived Gabrielle. "uhhh." he stuttered covering his eyes with one big hand.

"Ooo...Xena." Gabrielle called from the other side of the table. "that was slick." She reached over and patted Jessan on the head. "I told you she has many skills." She slid into a place next to Sharra. "Hi. I'm Gabrielle." she extended her hand, which Sharra took hesitatingly. "You work here in the stronghold, right?"

"I never bluff." Xena commented, smiling. then relented, extending a hand to Jessan. He grasped her arm, and she pulled him up off the floor. He brushed off his clothes, refusing to meet her eyes, his face still flushed. Finally, he peeked down at her and gave her a rueful grin.

"Payback, huh?" His eyes sparkled. "You're dangerous, Xena."

"So I've been told." Xena responded dryly. She steered him back to the table, and took a seat next to him, across from Gabrielle and Sharra, who were chattering together like old friends as Gabrielle was extracting information regarding the city's merchants.She ate in silence, listening until Gabrielle took a break to breathe. "Why don't you get Sharra to show you first hand, Gabrielle?" she suggested casually. "I have some business with the leather merchants and the armorers - I know you hate going in there."

Gabrielle glanced at her, but found nothing but mild interest in Xena's expression. "Uhm. Ok. That would be a great idea." she raised an eyebrow at Sharra, who nodded enthusiastically. "We'll see you all later, then." The bard continued, and she and the castle worker slid out from behind the table, and headed for the door.

Xena's eyes followed them until they were outside the room, then looked to her left, and saw Jessan gazing at her with a knowing look. "What?" she growled,

Jessan just smiled, and ducked his gaze back towards his plate, which was almost cleared.

Xena snorted, and rose from the table herself. "Well, I have things to take care of. See you later, Jessan." She left through the portcullis, and started towards the commerce squares. Armorer first, she mused, and turned towards where she could hear the distinctive rhythmic clatter of a well hit anvil. She stood and watched him work for a while, as a short sword took shape beneath his skilled hands. He was aware of her standing there, but she didn't ask his attention until the sword was being well cooled in a water bath nearby. Then he walked over, wiping hands darkened by decades of smith work on his apron.

"Nice piece of work." Xena commented, nodding her head towards the water bath.

"Thanks." the smith smiled crookedly. "What are you in the market for today? Not a sword, surely." His deep brown eyes glinted. "Saw yours yesterday. Nice."

Xena chuckled. "No, not today. Two boot daggers. I managed to hang on to everything else" She cast her eyes around his workshop idly as he went to a chest and brought out some daggers. Her eyes fastened on a set of working knives on a shelf at just eye level to her. Single edged, small tang, nicely wrapped hilts, she mused, then grinned. "And those, too." she jerked her chin at the set.

The smith looked up in surprise. "Those are working blades, m'lady. For butchering and the like."

Xena tilted her head towards him. "I know" She leaned closer. "And I"m no lady." A feral smile followed, and the smith stepped back a pace. She sauntered out a moment later, her package tucked under one arm, and headed for the leathercrafter, whose downwind buildings were bustling with soldiers getting repairs to their essential armor after the battle yesterday.

The mastercraftsman, an older man with grizzled ginger hair and soft gray eyes glanced up as she entered from where he was arguing with a battered soldier over a battle apron, concluded his argument hastily, and approached her with a smile. "Ah. Our heroine. " he smiled wider at her rolled eyes. "Hello, Xena. Long time no see." the leatherman added warmly, offering her his arm in greeting.

"Hello Teldan." Xena answered, with equal warmth. "Thought I'd come down and give you a little business, for old time's sake. " Her eyes twinkled. "Besides, you do good work." She clasped the offered arm and smiled at him, remembering the last time they had met. "Last set's done well till now."

"From you, that's a fine compliment, girl." the leatherman answered, all business now. "C'mon back here. I have some really well done new hides..you pick one." He guided her towards the curtained off area where his whole hides hung curing. Xena strolled between them, brushing each one with her sensitive fingertips until she found one she liked the texture and weight of

"Full set of leathers." She said, briefly. "This one is fine." She gave him a side glance. "Same pattern as last time."

The craftsman gave her a big grin. "Now there's a commission I like to hear. Come on - let's see if your measurements changed any before I start cutting." He grasped her elbow gently and guided her towards a back area. "And after all those hairy tallowheads, won't this be a pleasure, let me tell you."

Xena just sighed and rolled her eyes, as she stripped out of her tunic, and stood with negligent ease while he took what information he needed.

"Looks like you've been working hard." Teldan commented, scribbling notes on a piece of paper. His fingers brushed lightly over the bruises under her ribcage. "Get those yesterday?"

"Uh huh." the warrior answered. "You know how it is."

"Yeah." Teldan grunted. "I know." He moved around behind her, and measured the breadth of her shoulders, raising an eyebrow a little and making a note. "You been moving rocks or something?" He peered around and caught her bemused gaze. "You got about two inches more across here since last time."

Xena lifted both hands in a shrug. "Been fighting a lot, I guess." she answered. "It's not like I keep track." Two inches? What have I been doing?

Teldan grunted in amusement and continued his scribbling. 'I guess not. Those bruises and this cut all you walked off the battlefield with?" He watched the muscles move across her whole back as she turned to look at him.

"Got lucky." Xena shrugged.

Teldan walked around to face her, and let his eyes slowly travel across her form. He snorted a laugh and shook his head. "Lucky? C'mon Xena. You ain't lucky. You're just damn good. Don't sell yourself short, all right?" He bent a fond gaze at her. " I get to see all kinds, girl, and I do wish I got to see more like you." He tossed her the tunic. "Put that back on before you drive me to do something I'm likely to get a broken arm for." He chuckled and leaned on a nearby press, to complete his notes. "Be two, three days." He glanced up. "You are staying around for the festivities, aren't you? "

"Yeah," Xena nodded, as she crossed over and leaned on the same press. "that'll be fine." She smiled at him. "Thanks, Teldan."

"Anytime for you, girl." Teldan smiled back. "You be careful, huh? I'd like to go on making leathers for you for a long time to come."

Xena shook her head "No promises, Teldan." But she winked at him before she scooped up her package and exited the leathercrafter's workshop. That took care of the immediate needs...now Xena paused for a moment, trying to decide on her next course of action. Finally, she shrugged a little to herself, and headed towards the nearby cluster of merchants, no end target in mind.

Gabrielle and Sharra were hard at it, doing some hard core shopping. Gabrielle had already stopped at the clothmakers, and gotten not only new cloth, but a new pale green tunic in a shimmerly soft fabric to wear to the banquet that night, along with a cream colored short skirt to go with it. Sharra liked it a lot, and suggested a hair clasp that went with it perfectly. Both were tucked firmly underneath the bard's arm as they strolled towards the toolsmith's shop. "I need a frying pan.' Gabrielle had said, not explaining the sardonic grin that crossed her face.

She was also in something of dilemma - wanting very much to get Xena something, but...what? It's not like I can get her just anything..the bard mused. Weapons, out. Frilly things, out. dangling jewelry, out. An extra pair of armored bracers? Gabrielle sighed. Not.

'What's wrong?" Sharra asked, seeing her expression. "Why are you shaking your head?" She had decided she liked the young bard, despite her choice of traveling companions.

"No reason, really." Gabrielle answered, with a sigh. "Just trying to figure something out." She glanced across the lane, and spotted a silversmith. "Hey..lets take a look in there." They ducked inside. "Wow!" Gabrielle grinned. "I could get in real trouble in here." Her eyes scanned the jewelry with interest. She made several circuits of the interior, under the amused glance of the silversmith, before her eyes fell on a pair of matched wrought silver bracelets, with a beautifully intricate knotwork design woven into them. Gabrielle's breath caught. "Oh." The pattern's familiarity tickled her memory insistently. "They're beautiful."

Sharra craned her neck to peer over Gabrielle's shoulder. "Mmm..." she whistled under her breath.

"How much?" the bard asked, glancing over at the smith, who strolled over and cocked his head at her, suddenly peering at her face intently.

"Would you come over to the light for a moment, m'lady?" The smith asked, his voice a low quiet rumble. He steered Gabrielle towards the window, and looked intently at her eyes. Then, for no apparent reason, he smiled a sweet smile. "You would do me a very great honor by accepting those bracelets as a gift."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. The entire scene was incomprehensible. "What? Why? I mean...I don't understand."

The smith just looked at her with a gaze that was impossible to interpret. "Let's just say I would like to make a gift of them. Please. Don't say no." His eyes twinkled at her, as he removed the bracelets from the case and wrapped them in a fine cloth, and pressed them into her unresisting hands.

"O..OK..." Gabrielle breathed, shaking her head in confusion. "Thank you." She and Sharra walked out, then paused and looked at each other. "What was up with that?" Gabrielle wondered, "I don't get it." She unwrapped the linen and let the sun reflect off the metal.

Sharra just shook her head, and peered at them. "Too big for you, though Gabrielle." She measured the bard's wrists. "Too bad." she shrugged.

Gabrielle remained silent for a moment, then replied almost absently. "Oh. They're not for me." Her lips curled into a smile. She closed her hand around one gently, and closed her eyes in thought. "They'll be a perfect fit." She opened her eyes and blinked at Sharra, who was staring at her with an odd expression on her face.

But Sharra stayed silent, and after a pause, they continued to walk down the lane. "So." Sharra finally spoke. "You travel around with Xena. What's that like?" She darted a curious glance at the bard. They were about the same age, she realized, Gabrielle perhaps a bit older, but there were lines of experience traced on the red haired girls face that hers lacked entirely.

"What's that like." Gabrielle repeated, considering. "Well, we're best friends." She glanced down and smiled to herself. "We get involved in a lot of stuff. Like here."

"That's so weird. I can't imagine being friends with someone like that." Sharra asked, looking quickly at her. " Aren't you scared?"

"Of what?" Gabrielle laughed. "Of Xena?? That's silly" She paused for a moment. "Well, not silly..I mean, yeah - she can be very scary to people she doesn't like." She smiled at Sharra. "But I guess I"m not one of those people, so I get to see a different side of her." They walked along in silence for a few strides. "Hungry?"

"A little." Sharra admitted. "Are the bracelets for her?" She knew the answer before the bard nodded, and filed that information away. "I"m sure she'll like them." She gave Gabrielle a brief smile. "Let's get some pastries. Eften makes really good ones, stuffed with nuts and honey" She led the way towards the shop.

Xena smiled as she headed back towards the stronghold. Not bad, not bad at all, she mused in a satisfied way. Leathers, daggers, a new bit of something to wear tonight, boots, and a few..extras. Very successful, and didn't even take that long. She crossed into the courtyard, and met Hectator as he was going in the opposite direction. "How's the head?" she asked, slowing down to talk to him.

"Aches like Hades' itself" Hectator replied, cheerfully. "I hear you've been out supporting my local economy." He took her arm and walked with her back towards the portcullis. "I was just coming out there to find you." He paused. "I haven't properly thanked you yet. That half conscious mumbling last night hardly counts."

Xena shrugged amiably. "All in a day's work, Hectator."

"Not." The prince snorted. "Can I convince you to stick around for a few days? We've got a big banquet planned for tonight, and a festival for the next two days. I think you'd' like it..we're having war competitions." His dark gray eyes searched blue ones. "And I"m inviting Lestan and his people, too."

Xena chuckled. "Yeah, sure. Why not?" She glanced at him. "I was planning on taking a few days off anyway."

"Good." Hectator answered, well pleased. "Do you think I could get Gabrielle to do bard's service tonight for a little while? They really liked her the other day, and I bet she knows some great stories."

"You have to ask Gabrielle that." Xena replied, but grinned. "But I think she probably would be glad to."

"Great." Hectator sighed happily. "Can I carry some of that stuff for you?" He gestured to Xena's packages. She turned her head and gave him a long raised eyebrow stare. "Ok..ok..just habit..sorry." He laughed. "Let me get out of here before you decide to carry ME up the stairs." He darted off down a corridor, leaving Xena to take the stairs up to her room, which she did two at a time.

I"m in a good mood. The warrior mused thoughtfully. And I think I like that feeling. I"I'll have to try it again sometime. Sure enough, back before the bard. Xena deposited her packages on the press near Argo's saddlebags, and sorted through them, setting aside the package of knives, and several smaller bundles. Sensitive hearing, however, picked up familiar footsteps heading up the stairs, and she quickly stuffed most of the packages into the saddlebags, leaving out the knives and one other small package. A final one she hefted in her hand, then slid it after the rest. "That one...that's going to get me in trouble." Xena muttered to herself, looking up as the door pushed open, and Gabrielle staggered in, arms full of packages.

Cursing, Xena pelted across the floor to grab some of them before the bard lost her balance completely and went flying. She ended up grabbing packages and bard, and managed to get both settled without dropping either. "Gabrielle!" she choked out, laughing. "did you buy out the entire marketplace?"

Gabrielle grinned, out of breath. "Whew. Mostly." she pushed the hair back out of her eyes. "We needed a lot of stuff." She gave Xena sly glance. "And I got a frying pan." This got her a look. "I had them make it with a spike on the end, just in case." she added, with a wicked grin.

"Did you really?" Xena chuckled in surprise.

"Yep." the bard answered cheerfully. "I got some new sleeping furs, too. You did say I had to spend it all, remember?" She stood up and started sorting the packages. "Got something to wear for tonight."

"Yeah, me too." Xena commented, stopping Gabrielle short in surprise. "Don't give me that look. I"m having new leathers made, because this set got all slashed up yesterday."

"Hey!" Gabrielle put her hands up in mock surrender. "Not a word from me!" She turned back to her sorting. "I got some supplies, and soaps, and extra scrolls, and ink, and..." she debated very quickly with herself. "And this. " she turned with the linen package in her hands and dropped it into Xena's startled palms. "For you."

Funny, how our minds run on similar lines. Xena mused, as she unwrapped the bundle. "You did not have to do that, Gabrielle." she admonished her companion, then glanced down at the contents, and felt her eyes widen in wonder. 'Oh Gabrielle...." she glanced up, and caught the bard's gaze with her own, then gently traced the knotwork with one finger. "They're beautiful."

Gabrielle grinned. "I guess you like them then huh. I thought you would." She racked up a mental point.

"Very much." Xena answered, smiling at her. Then she reached behind her and tossed a package back at Gabrielle. "My turn."

"But.." Gabrielle stopped, and just laughed, then picked up the bundle and peeked under the wrapping. "Wow!" she crowed in delight. "Where did you find these? I went to every shop in the place looking for some and didn't find any!" She lifted the working knives up, and turned their burnished razor's edging to the light.

"Glad you like them." Xena replied. "Look..I picked this pin up for Jessan. What do you think?" She showed the bard the laughing lion brooch she'd spotted at a small shop just outside the castle walls."

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh..it's perfect." She touched the pin with one finger. "It even sort of looks like his expression..you know the one."

"Uh huh." Xena agreed. "Think we'd better get started on getting ready for this banquet. " She glanced outside, where the sun was setting. "I"m going to go wash up." She pushed off the bedpost, and got two steps towards the bathing room when Gabrielle intercepted her with a hug. "Hey..hey.." she laughed softly at the bard's fierce grasp. "Take it easy. I'll end up going to the banquet with broken ribs."

Full dark. Xena trod around the room, and lit candles, supplementing the glow from the fireplace. The open balcony doors let in a cool sweet breeze, fluttering the candle flames, but not strong enough to blow them out. Xena, already dressed, went over to the saddlebags and pulled out two more very small packages. One she left on the press, the other she unwrapped gently, and laid into the palm of her hand before walking to where Gabrielle had just emerged from the bathing room, and stood fussing in the room's mirror.

"Very nice" The warrior commented, taking in the bard's new garb. "Suits you."

"Thanks." Gabrielle muttered, glancing up at Xena, then turning around fully to stare. "Wow." She viewed Xena's crimson silk embroidered outfit with a little blink. Slashed sleeves lined with pure white, which matched the tight white leggings, and finished with soft black indoor boots. "You look great." The bard grinned.

"Glad you approve." Xena answered dryly, but quirked a grin at her. "You look pretty good yourself." she reached one had out and felt the soft, rich green fabric.

Gabrielle grinned, and turned back to the mirror, "I kind of liked it." She admitted, tugging a sleeve into place. "We don't get to do this very often." She gave her reflection a little smirk. "And I certainly didn't get to do this back home." She turned and ran her eyes over Xena again." Is the knife necessary? I thought this was a celebration...among friends. Did I miss part of the agenda, or something?"

Xena leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. "It's like this." she explained. "It's a party. A big party. Where they'll be mixing good spirits with another kind of sprits."

"And...???" Gabrielle questioned, lifting her hands a little in a shrug.

"And, when you get happy fighters drunk, the first thing they do is pick a fight with the toughest guy in the tavern." Xena drawled, spreading both arms wide and indicating herself. "And that would be me." Her tone was resigned, but moderately good natured. "I'll leave the sword here, but I'm not going in there totally unarmed."

Gabrielle giggled. "Xena, they'd have to be suicidal." she said. "Even stark naked and half asleep you could take on most of them, and they know it." She gave her friend a knowing grin. "All you have to do is give them one of those looks." she dodged Xena's playful cuff, and went back to arranging her troublesome sleeve. "Try not to be too hard on them, OK?"

"I'll try" Xena's lightly sarcastic response. "And please be careful yourself of Hectator's mead. It's pretty potent stuff, and you're not used to drinking."

"I'll be careful." the bard chuckled. "but you'll keep an eye on me, right?" she glanced sideways at her companion. "Like I have to ask ."

"Mmm." Xena agreed, then tilted her head to one side, and studied Gabrielle attentively.. "That's a really nice tunic." she mused. "I like the color." A grin quirked her lips. "But I think there's just something missing."

"What?" Gabrielle asked, staring at her reflection, perplexed.

"Oh...I don't know. This maybe." Xena responded, offhandedly, as she reached around Gabrielle's neck and fastened a necklace around her, then let her hands drop, and backed away.

Gabrielle froze, staring at her reflection, at a filigreed setting delicately wrought, surrounding a stone of shifting misty green. She felt her heart lurch, having stopped for a long minute and she tried to come up with a response but found none. So she just turned around, and looked at Xena, and didn't say anything at all.

"Matches your eyes." Xena commented, with a slight smile.

"Does it?" Gabrielle blurted out, finally finding her tongue.

Xena stepped closer and studied the stone, then lifted her piercing gaze to the eyes in question. "Uh huh." She clapped the bard on the shoulder. "C'mon. We'd better get down there before they start looking for us."

Of all the things... Gabrielle glanced at her reflection in the mirror a final time, bringing one hand up to trace the necklace.Slowly, she lifted it and glanced down, then up her eyes in the mirror. She's right..they are the same color..did she pick it out because of that or...what? A not unpleasant prickly feeling skittered up and down her spine. Laughing a little, and shaking her head, she took a last look in the glass, and headed for the door.

Xena was standing outside in the hallway, talking to Jessan, and both turned when she moved towards them. Jessan was dressed in a bright blue high collar belted tunic, with dark trousers and his usual bare feet. He smiled at her. "Gabrielle. You look great." he warbled cheerfully, capturing her arm to start the walk downstairs, neatly managing to capture Xena's as well, blithely ignoring her mock scowl.

"You look very nice, too, Jessan." Gabrielle commented, giving him a little poke in the ribs. He smiled down at her, then arched his neck and peered closer.

"Wow." Jessan grinned. "That's real pretty." He glanced up, noticing her slight flush, and making a fairly good guess as to where she got the sparklie. He put his most knowing, smuggest smirk on his face before turning his head to glance at Xena, who managed to return the look with a cool, mild interest. She's good. I have to give that to her. Not a twitch. He winked at her, and was rewarded by the faintest hint of a grin crossing her face. Ahhh.....his romantic spirit chortled. Can't you feel this bond even yet? I can...standing here between you both I can feel it flowing through me like water..and though you are both of humankind and not my People...you have to feel something. You must...or by all the signs of the Sun, I, too, am blind.

"I don't' know, Gabrielle. He looks al little.." Xena drawled, glancing at the bard., pulling Jessan to a stop, and appraising him.

"Drab." Gabrielle finished, right on cue. "Very drab."

Xena nodded, then, keeping a bewildered Jessan's eyes locked with hers, she pinned the lion brooch on his tunic."There. Much better." she turned to the bard. "don't' you think?"

"Definitely." Gabrielle nodded briskly. She brushed some imaginary dust off his sleeve."Ready?"

Jessan's eyes grew round, as he looked down at himself, then back up at Xena. "You didn't..."

"I did." Xena answered, crisply. "You got a problem with that?" She arched an eyebrow at him. "Well?"

"Thank you." the forest dweller answered gently, giving her a heartfelt look, and unable to resist, wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet.

Gabrielle giggled as he let her down, and they prepared to go down the stairs. "You do realize you are the only person outside maybe Hercules that she'd let get away with that, right?" the bard asked him with a grin.

"Yeah." Jessan crooned. "I know." He gave Xena a bright smile, then flexed the muscles in his arms. "Hey, they have to be good for something, right? It's a guy thing."

Xena and Gabrielle both rolled their eyes in concert.

"Hey, that was pretty good. Do you guys practice that or something?" Jessan asked, teasingly.

"C'mon." Xena snorted, heading for the stairs. "Before they send an armed guard after us."

A devilish gleam showed in Jessan's golden eyes, as they reached the foot of the stairs, and he became aware of hundreds of eyes turned their way. What a picture this must make...

Hectator was speaking in a low tone to one of his lieutenants when Lestan leaned over and nudged him in the ribs. The prince glanced up at his new ally, startled. Lestan just grinned, and jerked his furry chin in the direction of the door. "Hmm?" Hectator replied, glancing that way, then laughed gently. "Now isn't that a sight." he commented, winking at Lestan as his son entered the room, escorting Xena and Gabrielle in fine fashion. "I can't believe she's letting him get away with that." Hectator commented, catching the amused expression on the dark haired woman's face.

Lestan chuckled. "I can't either." He traded glances with the prince, finding more and more to like in this human ally. He turned back towards Wennid, seated at his left, and lifted the hand she had tucked in his and kissed her lightly on the fingers. "Our son looks quite handsome, don't you agree, my love?"

Wennid, bemused, glanced in Jessan's direction, and cocked her head, considering. "Leave it to Jessan." She smirked. She watched as her son neatly bowed Xena towards her spot at the high table before continuing on down the hall with Gabrielle, whose head was tilted towards him, evidently relating something to him that was making him laugh.

Xena made her way towards the prince's table, where there was a spot laid out between him and Lestan that she was obligated to fill. I'd rather be down the hall with Jessan and Gab. she sighed mentally. Oh well...time for the show to start, I guess. The table extended far down the hall, and she was approaching it from the front instead of the rear, and had the table between herself and the chairs behind. A grin threatened to break out as she continued to approach the table. Well, I was a barbarian warlord, and I'll be damned if I'm going to walk around that table, not with every eye in the room watching me. Eyes sparkling, she waited until she was within two strides of the table, then launched up and forward into a flip high over the table, half twisting in mid air to end up landing neatly in front of her chair. The expression on Hectator's face almost, almost made her burst into laughter, but she brushed an imaginary dust fleck off her sleeve instead and seated herself. "Evening, Hectator." Managing to keep from laughing.

Lestan just roared. Even Wennid smothered a grin. Hectator placed one elbow carefully on the table,and propped his chin up on it, shaking his handsome head at her. "Evening Xena." He drawled, finally. "Nice of you to..er..drop in." This brought another round of laughter from Lestan, as the feast servers began to pass the meal, and the first entertainers took their bows.

The banqueting hall was rush lit and noisy, the din of many voices and a mixture of footsteps and serving clatter made even close conversation difficult. Xena, seated between Hectator and Lestan, managed to avoid outright violence only by reminding herself that she would eventually get to leave the hall and go somewhere quiet. She hated crowds. She hated noise. She hated crowded noisy feasthalls.

The entertainment was nice, and Gabrielle had taken the hall by storm with a couple of really good stories, telling the first two, then flashing Xena a look before she started the third, warning her that this one was probably a little more personally known to the warrior. Sure enough, the Centaur/Amazon war. She met Gab's eyes and gave her a real grin, so the bard would know she wasn't mad. Two cups of Hectator's mead had taken the edge off her annoyance, though that hadn't been nearly enough to take even the slightest edge off her reflexes. The crowded hall hadn't had her restraint, though, and now that the evening was lengthening, she could spot glazed eyes and unsteady steps around the large room.

Gabrielle took a another sip of the mead, enjoying it's sweet potent fire. She glanced up at the high table, and suppressed a giggle. Reading Xena's expressions had certainly gotten easier over time, and the bard could interpret that outwardly calm disinterested look as Xena getting twitchier about the noise, the crowds...the relaxed posture in that chair that hid finely strung tension betrayed by the rhythmic flexing of long fingers. ..Gabrielle sighed, and glanced at her cup. I think I know a better recipient than me for this. She excused herself, and slipped from behind the table, heading towards the front of the room.

Halfway across. someone grasped her arm. "Hey there, pretty girl." A fighter, clothes vaguely askew, kept a grip on his quarry. "Liked those stories. Want to hear more. In private." He leered good naturedlty at her.

"Thanks." Gabrielle sighed. "But you really don't want me leave the party, do you?." Talk my way out, or use threats. Hmm.

"Sure I do." The man laughed, and gripped her arm tighter. "Don't get to see a pretty thing like you often. C'mon. I have a nice room in the barracks..we can get comfortable." He started walking, not expecting resistance, but stopped short when the object of his attention refused to cooperate."Don't you give me a hard time, now, lassie. I had a tough day yesterday."

"Yes, well, so did I." Gabrielle answered, "And I have other things I need to be doing, so...why don't you just let me go on my way?"

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just pick you up and carry you out of here, then? I know what I want." The man was getting angry now, and he grabbed her other shoulder with his free hand.

"A good reason." Gabrielle nodded to herself.A good reason. OK, we tried talking. Time for plan B. as Xena would say. "Look over my right shoulder."

Yeah, and I'm the one who always tells her to let me fight my own battles. Uh huh. Sure, Gabrielle, tell me again how much you get annoyed with that, hmmm?

"What?" The man turned his head, and Gabrielle saw him freeze, a look of sodden comprehension crossing his somewhat ugly features. His hands fell from her as though she was red hot, and he started backing away, arms held away from any possible thought of weapons. The bard smiled, and turned her own head to glance back, meeting an ice blue gaze that softened as their eyes touched. Xena was standing behind the table, arms crossed, radiating an edgy menace that slowly abated as Gabrielle made her way up to the table.

"You OK?" Xena asked, glancing her up and down.

"Sure." Gabrielle chuckled. "One look from you was all I needed." she smirked. "You should find a way to package and sell that."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Are you giving that away?" She nodded at the cup. "You don't like it?"

Gabrielle pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Actually, I like it too much." she admitted, taking another sip. "I don't want to pick this as my first time to get falling down drunk." She paused. "This is my fourth cup." An apologetic glance at Xena, who laughed. "I thought maybe you could use it...you look a little tense."

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "Big parties are not my style." She studied the bard's face and grinned. "You've had more than I have, then." the warrior warned, brushing her hand past Gabrielle's eyes, and noting the slowed reaction. "You'd better stop." She glanced around the room. "This is pretty much winding down anyway - I think we can slip away without offending anyone."

"You don't have to.." the bard protested. "You can stay and have fun...." She stopped at Xena's raised eyebrow stare. "Maybe not." she finished, giggling.

"Come on." Xena answered, vaulting the table again, and nodding a good night to Hectator, Lestan and Wennid, who were clustered around a small map, spilling mead over it and each other. "Oh yeah." The warrior muttered. "I'll miss out on this." She put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and steered her towards the door.

Halfway up the stairs, Gabrielle suddenly stopped, and grasped the handrail in confusion. "Whoa." she muttered softly, getting Xena's attention. "That's not funny."

Xena crossed over to her, and took a gentle grasp on her arm."What is it?" watching in concern as the bard closed her eyes and a leaned against the wall.

"Spinning" Gabrielle answered, indistinctly, opening her eyes and blinking. "Ow."

Xena grabbed her wrist, and slung one arm over her shoulders. "Here. Take it easy - just lean on me, and we'll get you upstairs."

Gabrielle tried to comply, but her legs were not obeying her will, and she reached for her suddenly pounding head with her other hand. "Can't.. Hang on a minute..let me sit down."

Xena chewed her lip for a moment. "No, not here, Just hold on." She wrapped one am around the bard's shoulders, and grabbed her behind the knees with the other arm, lifting her and cradling her like a child. "Just hang on to my neck. It's not far."

"Sure." Gabrielle murmured, complying. I should argue, her mind fuzzily objected. I shouldn't let her carry me up the stairs...I should..I should.....Gabrielle, you should just put your head down on her shoulder and shut up. Which she did, allowing her muzzy mind to sink into a warm golden haze.

Xena ascended the last few steps to the upper landing,and used her elbow to push the door to their room open, kicking the door shut behind her and crossing to the low couch across from the fireplace. Once there, she dropped to one knee and settled Gabrielle on the cushions. "Ok..take it easy. Let me get some cold water."

The bard blinked at her, and raised a hand to rub her head. "Water? I'm not thirsty, thanks." she mumbled.

"Yes you are." Xena sighed. "You just don't know it." She stood and moved towards the bathing room, snagging cup from her gear as she went. A moment to fill it with cold water, then she walking back to where Gabrielle was now sitting up, massaging her temples. "Here." The warrior sat down on the couch next to her.

Gabrielle glanced up, wincing. "OK, in a minute. As soon as my head stops spinning." She blinked at Xena. "Wow..there are two of you. Lucky me."

Xena gave her an amusedly tolerant look. "I think you may have stopped just in time. " she remarked with a slight grin. and offered the water. "Drink this. It will make you feel better, I promise."

The bard took the cup, wrapping her hands around it and resting the cold metal against her forehead. "You're right. That feels much better." She gave Xena a wan smile. "Ok..ok..." she sighed, and took a gulp of the liquid, then several more. "Hey. That does feel better." She glanced at Xena, who rolled her eyes, but settled back on the couch. .

"Did you have a good time?" The warrior idly inquired. "You made a hit with those stories." She turned a smile on Gabrielle. "I even enjoyed the Centaur War."

Gabrielle's eyes wandered over her face. "Yeah...I had a good time." she answered. "Glad you're not mad at me." She reached up and touched her neck. "Everybody liked the necklace." She grinned. "How did you get the exact color, anyway?"

"C'mon, Gabrielle." Xena snorted. "After all this time, I should hope I know what color your eyes are." She opened her own a bit wider. "After all, you do know what color mine are, right?"

"Oh...yeah." Came the answer, in a tone Xena wasn't expecting. "I sure do." A grin crossed Gabrielle's face., then she glanced down into the depths of her cup. "I sure do." she whispered again. Another sip of the water, then she leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes.

Xena smiled to herself, and turned her gaze towards the low burning fire, propping her booted feet up on the padded bench in front of the couch and crossing her arms.

"What's so funny?" the bard asked.

"Mmm?" Xena shifted a glance her way, then back to the fire. "Nothing."

"Are you laughing at me?" Gabrielle's brows drew close in a scowl. "That's not fair. I'm drunk."

The warrior turned her head and gazed at her companion. "No, I'm not laughing at you. So relax." She returned her gaze to the fire. "Besides. I don't' think you're drunk. I don't think you can get drunk on just three..OK, four cups of mead."

Gabrielle mulled this over. "I think I am." She giggled a little, then shifted slightly and leaned her head against Xena's convenient shoulder, and turned her eyes towards the fire as well. Another giggle. "I know I am."

Xena turned her head again to observe her, though she was making mental bets with herself as to what was coming next. An impish grin forced its way on to her lips. "Now, what are you finding funny?" This should be interesting.

"Oh..nothing." The bard answered, innocently, giving Xena a curious look. "Well...nothing really...I mean...I was just...nevermind."

Xena turned so she was leaning on one shoulder, and facing Gabrielle. "Spill it." she drawled, "Don't' make me tickle you into spilling it, either."

Gabrielle picked up the lighthearted tone. "Oh well...I was just...trying to figure out.., really." She paused, then continued, an expression half curiosity and half something else on her face. "Was it you, or Autolycus?"

Xena knew exactly what she was referring to. She drew her head back a little, and gave the bard a slow, dangerous smile. "You be the judge." she chuckled, then captured Gabrielle's face with one hand, and kissed her, meaning it to be a simple gesture, totally unprepared for the explosion in her senses, or for Gabrielle's unmistakable response. It lasted much longer that she had planned. Then they broke apart. and Xena felt shock, among other things, traveling up and down her spine as she watched Gabrielle slowly blink open her closed eyes. Ohhh...I definitely shouldn't have done that.

"Wow." The bard breathed. "I guess that answers that question." A grin split her face. "Can we do that again?"

Xena laughed shortly, on an uneven breath. "Not while you're drunk." She felt her heart settle back down into it's normal rhythm. "That's not my style."

Gabrielle turned serious eyes on her. "Being sober wont change how I feel"

"Maybe." Xena smiled, and slid one arm around her in a quick hug. "But I'm not taking chances. Not with you."

Gabrielle smiled. "I think that's the nicest thing you ever said to me." She picked up her forgotten cup and took a long gulp, then offered the water to Xena, who took it without comment and drained it. The bard yawned, and snuggled back up against Xena's shoulder with a contented sigh. "I'm glad."

"Glad of what?" Xena inquired, setting the cup down on the floor, and resuming her original position on the couch.

"That it was you, and not Autolycus." Came the answer, with a little chuckle in it.

"Oh yeah?" Xena responded, relaxing into a grin.

"Yeah. You're much cuter than he is." Gabrielle commented, reflectively.

"You think so." the warrior laughed.

"Yeah." the bard answered.

"Don't tell him that." Xena warned.

"I won't. " Gabrielle amiably agreed, and turned her own gaze, thoughtfully, towards the fire, tipping her head back to rest on Xena's chest. Feeling the reassuringly strong support of the arm around her shoulders, Letting the steady heartbeat she could faintly feel against the back of her neck lull her senses.

Xena watched her companion until the change in her breathing heralded sleep. Then she turned her head and gazed thoughtfully into the friendly fire. After a moment, a resigned grin appeared on her face and she made a short tossing gesture with her unencumbered hand towards the air, as though throwing something to the winds. Then she settled that arm protectively around the sleeping bard as well, and let her mind drift, and just stared into the flames, not even realizing it when sleep claimed her as well.

Wild yells broke the stillness of the stronghold, long hours before dawn, and the hissing sound of drawn steel followed close behind. The hallway was full of leather and steel clad scuffling bodies, and screams of outrage and pain echoed off the high arched ceiling. Hectator stumbled out of his quarters into the melee, still so foggy with mead he could barely keep his sword out of his own leg's way. Rough voices rose in clamor on the sight of him, and rough hands grabbed him down, kicking his feet out from under him, and forcing his head to the ground.

"Augh" He grunted, as an negligent boot clobbered him in the kidneys. His heart was hammering in his chest, and threatened to stop completely when he was lifted up and jammed against the wall, a burning torch set near his head.

"It's him." a low voice growled. "tell the captain." He laughed. "Thought you'd get away with taking down our army, did you? With your gods benighted creatures? " He drove a fist into Hectator's ribcage, causing the man's legs to collapse beneath him. "You may have won the battle, Hectator - but you're going to lose this war." He leaned close and whispered in to the princes ear. "And you won't have your precious Xena to save you this time"

The shadow clad assassin slipped up the stairs, pausing to listen every few paces. Still silence...and he felt no stirring, not in the currents of the air, nor the whispering of footsteps. Behind black crepe, he smiled.

He skillfully trod the steps in total silence, and paused outside the door to his quarry's room. This, this would make his reputation complete. A silent laugh. He had jumped at the chance. With infinite care, he laid his callused fingertips on the wood of the door, bending his senses within. Silence. Stillness.

A fraction of a movement at a time, he eased the heavy wood beneath his hands forward, as the wood cleared the jamb he paused, and breathed in the scents of the room. Candles, aye, and the heavy spicy smell of the fire. The distinctive scent of two humans, two women. Again he smiled. And leaned further on the door. Still silence, but the almost unheard movement of two people breathing. Not when I leave. .

The door clearing the frame, barely enough for a small hound to enter, but he did..and shifted the wooden panel closed behind him, letting the darkness of the room bathe him, absorb him. His eyes adjusted to the low firelight with ease, bringing out sharp details hidden to most any but his kind. He glanced towards the bed, then shifted his gaze further. Empty. Unexpected. Then he spotted the two sleeping forms on the couch. A smile hidden in the darkness.

Silent as a shadow he moved, until he was behind them, and peering over the back of the couch. Even breathing showed them sleeping still, silent, unaware they would pass from the living to the dead at his hand.

He marked his target, the warrior first, a patch of embroidery just above her heart, unprotected. The slim channeled blade in his left hand quivered, anxious for the stroke. He steeled himself for the shock, rehearsed the needed force to drive the razor edged blade through muscle and bone, and moved, with blurring speed that had never missed it's mark. Ever.

Never seeing his target move. Never seeing the hand that gripped his own, the blow that broke his arm in two places. Never seeing the elbow that slammed into his chin with such stunning force that it shattered his jaw, only aware now of the steel grip on his throat, stopping air and speech, and the sudden glint of a pair of twin ice chips that bored into his eyes Terror and pain washed over him under that feral glare.

Then two fingers jabbed his neck, and he felt the rest of his body go numb, and a sudden exquisite pressure began to build in his head, throbbing. "You have 20 seconds to tell me who sent you." the voice was low, and rumbled with deadly menace. "After that, you die."

"Ansteles." he gasped, unnerved. "he's attacking the castle. He means to kill Hectator." No sense in not telling her everything. He was a hired man, and in any case, he had failed his commission.

Another jab, and the pain returned full force, bringing dark spots to his vision with it's intensity. Mercifully, a blow exploded against the side of his head, bringing total darkness, and a welcome quiet.

"Stay here." Xena looked back at Gabrielle's grim face. "No, on second thought, go down the hall and wake up Jessan, try to get as many people up as you can."

"What about you?" the bard answered. "No, forget it. Dumb question. Xena, please.." she clasped the dark haired woman's arm in emphasis. "You don't' have armor on. Just remember, OK? Be careful?"

Xena nodded. "I will. You be careful too." She moved towards the door, sliding her sword from it's scabbard on the way and slipping out with the same silence the assassin had used coming in. Close. her heart was still pounding from that. Way too close. I didn't hear him until he was inside the door. Damn, I am slipping. Disgusted, she paused on the stairwell, turning to watch as Gabrielle slid out the door, having removed her skirt and now clad only in the long tunic and boots, and moved towards Jessan's room, carrying her staff. Xena shook her head and continued down the stairs, pausing again when she heard scuffling and bladework starting below her. Her pulse picked up, and a taut grin crossed her lips.

Gabrielle slipped along the wall, and reached Jessan's door without incident. She pushed the wooden panel open and darted inside, blinking in the sudden darkness. "Jessan!" She hissed, moving further into the room and towards the bed. She heard a rustle of fabric, then the incoming moonlight was blocked by her friend's tall form outlined against the open balcony doors.

"Gabrielle" he breathed, moving to her with a grace uncanny in a man so large. "What..." He glanced down and spotted her staff. "Trouble?"

"Yeah." the bard rasped. "an...a soldier..." She paused. 'No, an assassin just showed up in our room. The castle's under attack by a mercenary force hired by Ansteles."

"Assassin!?" Jessan barked, moving towards the door, grabbing his weapons on the way. "Where?"

Gabrielle caught up to him and grabbed his arm. "Don't worry about that. We need to wake everyone up." she licked her lips in nervous tension. "Xena took care of the guy." She gestured with her staff. "You know."

Jessan laughed shortly. "Boy do I know:

They moved along the hallway, rapidly waking Jessan's people, and the human residents. In a short time, they had a sizable group of armed men and women headed down the hallway towards the main keep. Jessan detoured into Gabrielle's room as they passed, tugging the sleeve on one of his people to follow. Inside the room, they knelt by the side of the still unconscious would be killer, and Jessan removed the crepe covering from his face.

"Ares!" the forest dweller growled, startling Gabrielle, who had followed them inside. "It's Stevanos." He exchanged glances with his fellow warrior. "Uncle Warrin?"

The other forest dweller grunted. "Just so." He turned his dark eyes towards Gabrielle. "Anstele's wasn't fooling around. Stevanos is one of the best of the breed - if you could call it that. He's killed over 300 targets." He gazed at Gabrielle for a long time, then turned his eyes towards his nephew. "Ansteles is too dangerous."

Jessan nodded agreement. "I know."

Warrin glanced down at Stevanos, turning his face and examining the broken bones there and displaced in his upper arm. He smiled to himself grimly, then drew a small dagger from his belt, and held it up between Jessan and himself. The two men locked gazes, then Warrin gently made a cut in his palm, and in Jessan's, and the two clasped hands. "Blood of my blood, son of my sister." Warrin rumbled.

"Blood of my blood, brother of my mother." Jessan answered.

Warrin nodded at him again, then disengaged his hand, and stood, sheathing the dagger. He paused next to Gabrielle, and gazed at her, eyes half lidded for a moment, then gave her a sad smile, and passed out the door.

Gabrielle watched him leave, then turned and stared at Jessan. "What was that?"

Jessan dusted his hands off, and remained silent, as he bound the assassin with a piece of rope from Xena's gear. Finally, he stood, and motioned Gabrielle to precede him out the door. "That was my uncle Warrin." his voice held sadness. "he's our..well, our best tracker." he answered, evasively.

"Jessan." Gabrielle responded, as she passed into the hallway, and went on her guard. "he's so sad." She glanced up at the tall man. "Why?"

Jessan's golden eyes clouded and darkened in shadow. "He..is a broken lifebond, Gabrielle." he glanced at her, as they moved down the stairs, towards where the could now hear fighting. "My mother's brother..his lifemate was killed during a hunting expedition. An accident...but he's walked in darkness since." He brought his sword up as the noise got louder. "He is our...assassin."

Gabrielle's eyes widened. "That's terrible...about his lifemate, I mean. She paused, and a chill went down her spine. "He's going after Ansteles, isn't he." Not a question. She gripped her staff more firmly, and dropped back a little, to give Jessan room to swing. A lesson learned early from fighting with Xena. You stayed well out of her sword range or suffered the consequences.

"Yes." Jessan answered, surging forward as the first mercenary appeared around the bend in the corridor. His sword flickered in blurring speed as he engaged the man, disarming him easily, then using one big fist to knock him unconscious.

Gabrielle caught the next mercenary by surprise, as he was not expecting a half clad woman with a stick to be so accurate as to take his feet and head out with one skillful double swing; Grimly, she smiled, then went on to the next soldier, spotting a weakness in his defense, and taking him out with a sharp thrust to the face. I'm definitely getting better at this. Even with a headache that could fell Argo in her tracks.

"She's not that easy to kill.' Hectator wheezed, keeping one bloodied eye on his tormentor. "For your sake, you better hope you do, though. "

The man laughed. "We have a expert taking care of that, you puking pig." he turned his head, as a man in dark leathers and chain mail pushed his way through the crowd,. "Ah..there you are captain. Look what I have here."

The captain nodded, regarding Hectator with almost colorless eyes, matching his straw colored hair. He was not over middling height, shorter than Hectator, and in fact most of his troops. But the man breathed deadly intent, sending a chill down the prince's back.

The captain drew a short blade from the scabbard on his left arm, and examined it briefly. Hectator's blood chilled. An assassin's blade,. The captain wrapped his long fingers around the leather wrapped hilts, and moved closer to Hectator, poising his arm for the blow, then striking forward with a snake's speed.

He drove the blade through Hectator's body, pinning him to the door. The prince bit right through his tongue to keep from screaming and giving this animal the satisfaction. The blade was in such a position that he would die slowly, he knew. It was not piercing any vital organ. He looked up, into those colorless eyes, and spat blood with unerring accuracy into the captain's face.

"Captain IIlean..." the lieutenant growled..."let me..."

"No" the captain rasped, wiping his face. "He'll die well enough." He turned and gestured to the waiting mercenaries. "Let's finish what we came for." He turned and headed around the first bend of the stairs, peering ahead into the torch lit shadows above. A particularly large shadow flickered towards him, but his attention was on the top landing and he turned his head far too late, never seeing the kick that sent him right back down the stairs and into his troops startled arms.

"Hello, Illean. " Xena muttered, as she swooped down onto the landing and wiped her already bloody sword on a stunned mercenary, shoving her way through to where Hectator was hanging. "Didn't think you'd stooped to this kind of sneakery. Times must be tough." She turned around, and faced the troops, and a frozen Ilean. "I"m going to take him down off this door. That means I have to put this sword down and turn my back to you. The first person who moves, is going to get cut in half. You understand?"

"I think it's you who doesn't understand, Xena."" Ilean growled, dusting his leather tunic off. "These aren't dog troops. They'll cut you down." He smiled. "No armor, even? I had heard you were going soft."

Xena turned, letting he sword rest on one silk clad shoulder, and smiled at him. "Could be." she drawled. "Wanna find out? Who's first?" She let her eyes travel across the leather clad troops, raising an eyebrow at them in question. "You, Illean? For old time's sake?" The blond haired man glared at her. "Come on..come on..the best chance you'll ever get." Glowering eyes, flaring nostrils..but not one movement in her direction.

"Cut me down huh?" Xena snorted. "You wish." She jerked her head up the stairs. "The rest of your rabble's being routed out already." She turned back to Hectator, but tossed over her shoulder. "And pick up your pathetic assassin up in my quarters on your way out." She leaned close to Hectator's sweating pale face. "Hang in tight, Hectator. I'll get you out of this."

'They'll kill you.' He gasped, darting glances over her shoulder in panic. "Don't turn your back on them! I"m not worth that, for Hades' sake, Xena!"

"Nah." Xena winked. "Gotta have some use for my reputation, right?" She sensed movement behind her, concentrated her senses. Iliean. Figures. She waited for him to get within striking range, then dropped to one knee, and allowed his sword thrust to dig deep into the wood of the door, skimming over her right shoulder so close she could hear the hiss of the blade as it passed her ear.

She let her rage build for a minute, then turned and rose, and putting that anger behind her am, hit him in the face, feeling the bone crush beneath the force, and the tremendous shock of impact throw him backward like a rag doll. "You never did learn the right lessons, did you." she muttered, lifting her sword, and advancing on the remaining mercenaries, knowing what her expression must be showing by the widening eyes, and uneasy movement of the armored men. "Who's next?" she barked, angry and disgusted, and not bothering to hide it. "Step forward, or get out. Now!" She stooped and grabbed Ilean's padded surcoat, lifting him up and tossing him down the stairs, where he collapsed in a heap.

Xena whirled, and dropped her sword. grabbing the knife hilt pinning Hectator in place. "Damn." she seethed, shoving her arms hard against his body to keep him off the blade. "Grab my shoulders, Hectator." Watching as the prince barely was able to comply. With all the weight of her body, she pressed him up against the door and at the same time pulled hard on the knife, feeling it slip out of the door, and out of the princes body with a shiver of metal on bone. Blood gushed warm under her hands, and she carefully lowered him to the ground.

Xena sighed, and parted Hectator's tunic. "Ugh." She winced. "I need to get him to the infirmary, need bandages and cleanser." She felt a familiar presence at her back just before a gentle hand touched her shoulder. "Hello, Gabrielle."

"Hi." the bard murmured, peering over Xena's shoulder. "Ouch." She glanced at Hectator. "What happened to him?"

"Mercenary pinned him to the door with a knife." Xena answered, matter of factly, rapidly working with a pad of cloth ripped from the prince's shirt pressed against the ugly wound in his abdomen. "Give me that other piece of cloth. I have to keep pressure on this until I can get this bleeding controlled or he won't last a minute."

Gabrielle complied, her attention riveted on what Xena was doing.

Xena heard the crossbow cock before it even got halfway back, and jerked her vision to her right, keeping her hands pressed firmly to the prince's body. Ilean. I should have killed him. Damn. He was right. I am getting soft.

"Too bad, Xena." the pale eyed man rasped, "You...you were the kind of adversary that comes along once in a lifetime." Ilean grimaced, as close as he could come to a smile with his broken ribs. "You'll do wonders for my reputation, though."

Time slowed, as Xena's focus narrowed to a crossbow bolthead and the icy eyes behind it. I can't move my hands to catch that arrow, and I can't move out of the way because Gabrielle is behind me. Damn. So it comes down to this. Warlords aren't supposed to risk themselves for their troops, didn't I learn that lesson a long time ago? What a way to find out that I really have changed. She gave a minute nod, and turned slightly to face Ilean, squaring her shoulders to present the largest target possible. Her eyes met his without fear and a smile found it's way onto her face.

The mercenary read her smile, and returned the nod, grudging respect in his colorless gaze. He raised the crossbow, and aimed with care. He'd have only one chance, with her. But crossbow was his weapon, and his finger tightened on the release with steady ease.

And as the pressure descended on the trigger, his world exploded with a roar so primal, it shook him to the foundations of his understanding. He had no time to look, and no time left to live as a golden body crashed into his, clawed hands tore his ribcage even through his armor and hot fangs gripped his throat, ending his life in a shower of blood and bubbling air, and flying saliva. The momentum carried both mercenary and attacker to the floor, and with a shake of his head, Jessan tore his fangs free, blood dripping freely from his mouth to the flagstones.

The rest of the mercenaries ran as the forest dweller bounded to his feet with a hideous growling roar.

Silence fell in the corridor. Jessan blinked, then a shudder passed down his body, and he glanced up at Xena with bloodshot eyes. She met and held his gaze, never judging, never flinching. "Thanks." she said, in a normal voice, and turned her gaze back to Hectator's limp form. , sparing a glance to her left when she felt Gabrielle shaking. "You OK?" Stupid question.

The bard closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Then she blinked, and looked straight up at Jessan. If I can accept Callisto, I can accept this. I am not a child. Her mind ran the thought through her consciousness in a repeating loop. "Thanks, Jessan." She said, giving him a little smile, and was rewarded by the look of almost pathetic relief in his golden eyes.

Jessan then wrinkled his face, poking his tongue out. "Uck." he gagged, looking around for a container, and finding a discarded wineskin. He popped the top off, and poured a mouthful in, gargling briefly, then spitting the whole amount out onto the corridor flagstones. "I hate that taste." He walked over to them, still grimacing, holding his bloodstained hands out in front of his body, and crouched down on the other side of the prince. "I didn't..I mean...I just...he was going..."

"I know." Xena said, in a gentle voice. "I"ve got his bleeding controlled." she lifted one hand and touched his bloody clawed fingers. "Can you carry him to the infirmary?"

His eyes darted to hers, still haunted. "That was the first time I ever..."

Xena sighed. "I"m sorry, Jessan." She reached up and patted his cheek. "I guess we're even now. You saved my life."

The forest dweller gazed at her. "I"m not sorry...we all have to have a first blooding..and I"m glad, Ares, I'm glad that was mine." He smiled his sweet smile, and, daring, touched her face, watching her lips curve in a sad smile.

Gabrielle held herself very still, and just watched, seeing a sudden similarity between the two warriors beside her. Reluctantly, she delved into herself, and rooted out the feeling she had that terrifying instant when she realized that Ilean was about to kill Xena, and the feeling she had when Jessan tore him apart. And recognized a similarity in herself as well. That rage, that roar...she found echoes of it in her mind. She had no doubt..none..and it hurt..that given the speed, given the strength, she would have ripped Ilean's heart out herself. Xena would have given her life up. The bard would have given up more than that. So. She had a window at last, into that darkness. She nodded quietly to herself, and let out a long held breath.

"Yes" Jessan was saying. "I'll carry him. Look out." He ever so gently eased his arms under Hectator's body and lifted him, moving in the direction of the infirmary.

Xena paused for a moment, wiping her hands on a bit of discarded cloth, before she turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. "Are you OK?" She asked again, softly.

"You were going to let him shoot you. " Not a question. Not the time for hedging around.

Xena nodded, slowly. "Yes. I couldn't let go of Hectator. " She smiled grimly. "And you were behind me." A slight shrug "I tolerate arrows a lot better than you do."

Gabrielle matched her slow nod. "In this?." She reached out and fingered the silk tunic, a stern look in her eyes..

Xena held silent for a long moment. "Even in this." she attempted to lighten the conversation. "I would have tried to make sure it was somewhere non vital. Like my head."

The bard let a faint smile cross her face, and never taking her eyes off Xena, reached out and curled her fingers around Xena's hand where it rested between them. "That's not funny." she sighed. "I have no desire to be pulling arrows out of you, regardless of where they are."

Xena returned the squeeze. "I know. But there wasn't much time to make a decision, and that was the only one open to me."

Gabrielle sighed. "Next time, let's plan that better." she answered, getting a short chuckle from the warrior. She watched as Xena straightened up, and extended a hand down to her. "Thanks." she added, as she gripped the offered help, and was hauled to her feet.

"Sounds like the fighting has stopped." Xena commented, and started down the stairs after Jessan. At the front door, she paused, and looked out into the darkness, one hand shifting the sword she held in a rhythmic manner.

Gabrielle stopped beside her, and studied her companion's face. "What are you thinking of?" She asked, softly, seeing the fathomless coldness in those familiar eyes. Nothing I really want to know about, probably.

"Ansteles." the warrior muttered, closing her eyes and making a conscious effort to wipe off that 'look' before she glanced in Gabrielle's direction. "I don't like having assassins visit my rooms." She knew she was only partially successful by the perceptible flinch from the bard. She turned her eyes outside again. "He's out there." And every bone in my body wants to be out there after him. Damn, that never dies, does it?. That old wolf's still in there. She smiled grimly at herself. That cool night air was calling to her, a dark ride, tracking in shadows, and then...she could feel her heartbeat pick up, knew the feral glint emerging in her eyes. Knew she was probably scaring the wits out of Gabrielle, who persisted in believing this side of her was far more deeply buried than it truly was.

"He failed." came the bard's low reply, singing tension in the tone. "Xena..." She reached out and circled her hand around Xena's wrist, feeling the vibrating tension there. Steeling herself for the icy glare she knew would be turned her way, for the sudden motion that would throw off her hand with the same effort as if she were a fly.

But the look she received was not what she feared, and the hand she ventured was unexpectedly warmed by a returning squeeze. "I know." Xena replied, returning the wolf to his darkling den, and turning away from the night air. "I still don't like it, though." she grumbled. "that was way too close." she tilted her head at the bard. "How are you feeling, anyway?"

"Oh." Gabrielle answered, relieved. "Ow, actually. My head hurts." She gave Xena an aggrieved look, but was desperately glad of the change of subject. ."I remember you having to carry me upstairs, then not much else." Brows creased. "Did I make a fool out of myself?"

Xena looked at her, unable to stop the smile from creeping right up to her eyes. "No." she slung an arm around the bard's shoulders and steered her towards the infirmary. "We just went upstairs, talked for a few minutes, then you fell asleep on the couch."

"Oh. Really?" the bard frowned. " I don't remember that. What did we talk about? Did I get silly, or anything?"

Xena debated for a single very long instant. "No. You didn't get..silly." She glanced down at her companion, a grin barely edging her lips. "We discussed...Autolycus."

Gabrielle started in consternation. "Autolycus? Why in the wo..." Abruptly her face went blank, and she stopped walking and closed her misty green eyes tight shut. "Oh gods no."

The warrior sighed. "Gabrielle." she coaxed, giving the bard's shoulder's a squeeze. "It's all right. Relax." She glanced towards the open doors to the infirmary. "C'mon. I need to get some herbs on this hand, it stings like Hades." She watched Gabrielle's eyes open reluctantly, darting everywhere, but refusing to meet her own. Can't have that. Xena reached over and caught the bard's chin, gently lifting her face up to force eye contact. "It's all right." she repeated, consciously softening her tone,"I really mean it."

The mortified embarrassment faded hesitantly from the bard's expression, replaced by a shy wonder. Her eyes dropped to the hand on her chin, then she cleared her throat. "You're right. You do need to get that taken care of, It's starting to swell. " She lifted her hand and let her fingertips explore the damage, then raised her eyes to meet Xena's once more, smiling tentatively.

"That's more like it." The warrior said, quietly. "C'mon."

They resumed their course, met by Jessan just inside the door. Xena had more than a sneaking suspicion that the forest dweller had been peeking out the doorway, a suspicion immediately justified by the long, delightedly smiling look he turned on them the minute they cleared the entryway. Xena sighed, then decided it was halfway funny, and returned his look with one an amused but exasperated one of her own. "Would you cut that out?" she growled at him.

"What?" Gabrielle asked, staring at both of them in puzzlement.

"I'll tell you later." Xena promised, giving Jessan a hard poke in the ribs. The forest dweller responded by slinging an arm around her, and squeezing.

"Hectator's going to be fine." was his comment, though. "His battle surgeons are taping him up now, but he wants to talk to you." Ah...Xena.....my warrior friend. I Saw...and what I Saw was so familiar, it seemed like home to me. I am glad, more so than you could imagine.

The prince looked up muzzily as they approached. Xena dropped to one knee beside his pallet and examined the battles surgeons work. "Not bad." she muttered, glancing up at Hectator’s white strained face. "Looks like you’ll make it." she added, patting him on the knee.

Hectator sighed ."For what it’s worth. Xena..." wincing, he shifted slightly. "Ansteles is not going to stop. I can deal with him....after me." His gray eyes tracked over her face, then dropped to the hand resting on pallet next to him. "Did I hear you say there was an assassin in your room?"

Xena shrugged. "There was. But that’s not your fault, Hectator. I’ve been stalked by assassins before." She gave a quick glance at Gabrielle, standing quietly nearby.

"It was Stevanos, Xena." Jessan interrupted, bringing over a cup of water and handing it to Hectator. "I suppose you didn’t recognize him in the dark."

Xena’s eyebrows rose. "Really?" An intrigued expression crossed her face. "I think I’m flattered" She leaned back and rested an arm on her knee. "And I didn’t recognize him because I’ve never seen him before. He’s stayed pretty clear of me." She laughed a little to herself. So that was the deadliest hired assassin in Greece.

Hectator stared at her. "You act like it’s nothing" He passed a shaking hand over his brow.

Jessan settled to his knees on Xena’s other side. "It’s that warrior thing." he commented wryly. "And...one of my people is seeing what he can do about Ansteles." He added. "Now, I think Hectator needs to get some rest, and I’m sure we all can do with the same."

The battle surgeon looked gratefully at Jessan, and shooed them away from his royal patient, drawing a makeshift curtain around him.

The three of them walked quietly back down the hallway, mostly in silence. Finally Xena spoke. "What did you mean, someone is doing something about Ansteles, Jessan?" She turned her cool gaze on him, curious.

"My uncle." the tall forest dweller answered, slowly. "He’s the closest thing we have to an assassin of our own. " He continued to walk, not looking at either of them. "He went after Ansteles. We decided...well, he decided that he was getting too dangerous." He finally glanced at Xena, who was staring straight ahead with an unfathomable look. "We have a stake in this too, now."

"Mm." the dark haired warrior commented. "That’s true." She flexed her hand and looked down in annoyance. "Damn that Ilean. I should have remembered how thick his skull was." She sighed as they reached their well traveled and battle stained hallway. "good rest, Jessan." she said, giving he forest dweller a pat on the back

"You too." Jessan answered, enfolding her gently in a hug, then doing the same with Gabrielle. He walked past them to his own door, and slipped inside.

"With all this hugging, are you sure you two aren’t related?" Xena questioned, teasingly, watching the bard blush in response. She held the door open and gestured for Gabrielle to go inside. "I hope they remembered to pick up their pet assassin." They had. The room was empty, and mostly dark except for the faint glow of the fireplace. Xena put her sword down with a sigh, then padded over to the couch and sat down, laying the pouch of herbs she had gotten from the surgeons on the footrest. She examined her swollen hand in some disgust, then began assembling a mixture.

Gabrielle watched her for moment, then crossed to the couch and sat down, taking the mixture from her companion. "Let me do that.": she grinned. "It’s probably easier with two hands." .

"Probably." Xena answered, waiting patiently as the bard applied the herbs, and wrapped her hand in soft linen. "Thanks." She sat back and regarded the fire. "How’s the headache?" she asked, glancing at Gabrielle.

The bard shrugged. "I’ve had worse" she replied, gruffly.

Xena looked at her. "That bad, huh?" she smiled. "I think I have something that might help." She got up and started rummaging in her saddlebags, pulling out several folded parchments. "It doesn’t taste great, but it works."

Gabrielle got up and walked over to the press. "I’m OK, really - don’t bother." She managed a grin. "All that fighting got the mead right out of my system."

"Uh huh." Xena agreed, still continuing to mix. "Here." she added, handing Gabrielle her cup, ignoring the bard’s exasperated look.

Gabrielle sighed, and sniffed dubiously at the liquid. "Ugh." she commented, making a face at Xena. And got a raised eyebrow in return. "Oh, all right." she muttered, and, closing her eyes and stopping her breathing, she swallowed the contents in three big gulps.

"Augh" she spluttered, with a shudder. "that’s awful." the bard glared at Xena. "What was in there...no..never mind Don’t tell me..I’ll just lose it." She poked her tongue out again, and trudged to the water basin, scooping water into the cup and drinking it down hurriedly.

Xena watched her in amusement, then went over to the bed, and flopped down on her back with an uncharacteristic lack of grace. "Rotten end to a fairly nice evening." she sighed, lifting her uninjured hand and running her fingers through her hair. Glancing over at Gabrielle, noting the stillness of her companion, the merest hint of a reflection from her eyes in the moving firelight. "You OK? I know that mixture was pretty bad but.."

‘I’m OK." the bard answered quietly, setting the cup down, and moving across the room. "It’s..working. Actually. My head feels lot better." She sat down on the edge of the bed, and gave Xena a smile. "Thanks". she added, sliding onto her side, and propping her head up on one hand.

"Anytime." the warrior drawled, turning her head and glancing at her companion affectionately. "You look like you feel better."

"Do I?" Gabrielle answered, gazing into pale blue eyes at close range.

Xena rolled over onto her side as well, and studied her face attentively. "Mmmhmm." she confirmed, with a gentle smile.

I could drown here. Gabrielle reflected, thoughtfully, easily. Reading the face so close to her own, seeing beauty where others saw anger, gentleness where others saw violence, light, where the world itself saw only darkness. And I always have. from the very first moment I saw her. Must be some kind of weird vision problem. Right? "How’s the hand?"

Xena’s eyes twinkled. She flexed her hand experimentally. "Not bad." she remarked, "A little sore."

"A trivial thing for the Warrior Princess.." the bard answered, with a little giggle. Then she had a mischievous idea, and before she could stop to think about the consequences, she reached out and knowing Xena wouldn’t stop her, tickled the warrior’s exposed ear.

"Hey!" Xena yelped, startled. Then she bared her teeth in a feral grin and uncoiled from her relaxed pose with dismaying speed.

"Whoa..whoa.." Gabrielle squealed, scrambling backwards, not nearly fast enough to escape the hand that grabbed her wrist and flipped her back onto the bed. Deciding a good offense was her only defense, she gathered her wits and strength and pounced on Xena, trying frantically to keep those long tickling fingers away from her.

Ah.. I got lucky. Gabrielle had managed to get Xena on her back, and with both hands and all her body weight had her pinned by both shoulders to the bed. For a moment, they both looked at each other, "Give up?" the bard asked, hopefully. Oh yeah. Like she couldn't just shrug and I'd go flying across the room.

Should I? Xena mused, "Yeah, I give up." she answered, spreading her arms out to indicate surrender.

Gabrielle blinked in surprise. Huh??? Then Xena’s arms curled up, and she made two swift jabs at the bard’s upper arms, unlocking her elbows and causing her to collapse with a squawk onto the warrior’s chest. "Ugh.I knew that was too easy." she muttered, feeling Xena laughing silently. "Very funny, Xena."

Xena grinned her fierce grin. and chuckled, then wrapped both arms around the bard and gave her a long hug,, and she felt Gabrielle relax completely against her, offering no resistance.

"Mmm." Gabrielle mumbled into the crimson silk of her tunic. "That really feels great. Can I just stay here?" I’m inside the door again. And....gods...what I think I may have just heard is the that door being locked..from the inside. .

"Yeah." Xena whispered, not releasing her, feeling Gabrielle’s hands slide up and curl around her shoulders in an answering hug. "Yeah. You can stay here."

Two days later, they were packed and ready to take their leave of Hectator and his city. Xena glanced around at the city, and grinned for no particular reason. Then she turned to Hectator, who was seated in a chair on his front steps to say goodbye.

"So." Hectator smiled up at them. "Where to next?" He shifted to ease the strain on his bandages. "We'll miss you."

Xena raised an eyebrow at him, but smiled. "Yeah, I'm sure you will." she answered. "We're headed up the coast, towards Athens." the warrior added, turning to adjust the saddle girth on Argo. She turned back and offered her hand to Hectator. "It's been nice, Hectator."

The prince cocked his dark head at her. "Well, in a manner of speaking, anyway." He winced, but took her outstretched arm in a warm grip. "There's nothing I can offer that could come close to repaying you for what you did here. So I won't try." He captured her gaze. " But I will say this to you - my city is now, and will always be a home for you...for you both, if and when you decide to stop wandering around saving everyone."

Mist green eyes and light blue ones stared back at him with a solemn twinkle.

"Hectator,' Xena said, a chuckle disrupting her voice. "Believe me - we’ll always have a very warm spot in our hearts for your city. And you." She glanced at Gabrielle, who was nodding in agreement. "And, I think it’s safe to say we’ll be back. At least for visits."

"I’ll say." Gabrielle added, reaching over and giving him a careful hug. "Take care of yourself." she grinned, then stepped back to where Jessan was waiting, big hands resting on his black mount’s back. The big forest dweller would be accompanying them back towards his village, since they intended on moving along the coast after that.

Xena put her hands on Argo’s back, and vaulted up, swinging a leg over the mare’s back and settling her feet in the stirrups. Then she glanced down at Gabrielle, and held out her left arm. The bard grasped it without a word of protest, and allowed herself to be lifted up and across the tall mare’s withers.

"Getting more of a taste for riding?" Hectator inquired, with courteous curiosity.

Gabrielle smiled, and grabbed hold of Xena, who, uncharacteristically, also grinned. "Oh....you could say that." The bard replied, impishly. "I think I’m going to get to like it."

"Really?" Xena asked, casting a glance across her shoulder.

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, wrapping her arms tighter and resting her head against Xena’s back. "Really."

"Good to hear." The warrior commented wryly, ignoring the snarky look she was getting from Jessan. "C’mon." she kneed Argo towards the city gates, and headed out, with Jessan ambling along beside them. "Jessan, get that smirk off your face."

"Who, me?" the forest dweller asked, innocently. "What would *I* have to smirk about? I think you're imagining things, Xena. You really should get some rest." He batted his eyelashes at her. "Maybe a few days on the beach?"

"Jessan...." came the low growl.

The only answer he gave was a cheerful whistling tune.

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