It had been a shock, really, the first time she’d come wearily into a tavern they were staying by, and caught Gabrielle in the middle of a story.. about her. She hadn’t been sure whether to be embarrassed or mad, or both, or a little flattered to be honest. But she’d slipped into a seat in the rear of the room, hidden in shadows and out of the bard’s line of sight. And she’d just listened.

It was one of their milder adventures, to be sure, but the sound of Gabrielle’s clear, sometimes slightly hesitant voice describing what they’d done.. how they’d done it.. intrigued her and she’d gotten to see herself through the bard’s honest eyes for the first time.

That’s not me she’s talking about. Was her first reaction. But she knew the story, and eventually had to come to the conclusion that this… rational, brave, heroic person the bard was describing however unlikely she deemed it, was supposed to be her.

It changed something forever. She tried to deny that, tried to convince herself it was just Gabrielle’s misguided hero worship speaking through the bard’s voice. Tried to tell herself that it was just silliness.

But those clear, green eyes had held a conviction that drew her in, and for a tiny, short while in that wood smoke filled tavern, she’d gotten a glimpse of a possibility.

Then it had ended, and the crowd eagerly thanked her, and asked for more, and the bard had produced a delighted grin, which froze as her eyes lifted above the heads of the front rows, and met Xena’s own, there in the shadows.

She’d stumbled all over herself as they walked outside. "Uh.. I didn’t think you’d be back.. I wanted to.. try that out I mean… I didn’t want to get you.. or maybe you’d be embarrassed, or angry or.."

"Gabrielle." She’d said quietly.

"Look.. Xena, I’m sorry.. I didn’t mean.."

"GABRIELLE." Xena had raised her voice.

"Yyyes?" The bard had stammered, sending her eyes anywhere but up to meet Xena’s.

Xena had gripped her shoulders, the unusual physical contact making the bard start in surprise, and look up. They had looked into each other’s eyes for a long instant, before Xena had spoken.

"Look.." She’d said, searching for words. "No one’s ever… What I mean is… most of the stories…" She’d given up. "Oh Hades. " She’d sighed. "Thank you, Gabrielle. It was a very good story."

The bard’s eyes had widened, and gentled. "You didn’t mind?"

"No." Had come the answer. Then, "You’re quite the storyteller."

And Gabrielle had hesitantly clasped the hands still on her shoulders. "I have a lot of inspiration." She’d said.

Xena had smiled, and patted the bard’s cheek. "C’mon. For that, you deserve a decent meal sitting down indoors for a change. "

I'd gone from trying to find a way not to let her drive me crazy, to inventing things to do for her.. wonder if she realized it? Wonder if she realized she just took my heart like a spoil of war. And that was a strange feeling, Xena mused. Because Gabrielle was the first person in her life that she’d just… surrendered everything to. Held nothing back. All the rest of her involvements.. she’d been in control of. Dictated exactly how far she was willing to give, of herself, of her time…

Not this one. The warrior admitted to herself. I have no more control over this than I do the path of the sun. Her eyes studied Gabrielle’s face. Damn.. how can something this chaotic feel.. Her eyes closed and she let a warm wave crest over her. So wonderful. Even the dark situation she now found them in couldn’t put a damper on that.

"Hey." Gabrielle’s voice startled her, and she glanced up, to find the bard at her side, a concerned look on her face. "You all right?"

Xena grinned sheepishly, and rubbed her temples with one hand. "Yeah.. I was.. uhm." She sneaked a look at the bard’s worried expression. Whoops. "I was.. uh.. planning." She even managed to keep a straight face. "For tomorrow."

"Uh huh. " Gabrielle remarked, perching neatly on the arm of Xena’s chair. "So.. like what part of tomorrow were you planning that put that goofy grin on your face?"

The warrior laughed. "Ok.. you caught me. I was daydreaming." She admitted, lacing her hands around her propped knee. "Satisfied?"

"You?" The bard squeaked. "YOU were daydreaming? About what?" And found herself being regarded by intent blue eyes, and gifted with a half smile that brought it’s own answer. "Oh." She murmured softly, feeling the blood heat her face. I put that look there? I did?

Xena broke off their absorbed gaze, and took a breath. "Well done on the stories, by the way." She glanced up. "You changed around the ending part on the Trojan War."

Gabrielle gave a little start, and rested her arm on Xena’s shoulder. "You noticed?" She let out a short surprised laugh. "Didn’t think you paid that close.." And saw the look in her partner’s eyes and stopped. "Sorry. I know better." She finished quietly, touching the backs of her fingers against Xena’s cheek. "My own dumb lack of confidence just poked its head up there."

To her surprise, Xena just nodded a little, and took a deep breath. "I noticed." She said, giving Gabrielle a brief grin. "I liked the change."

"Thanks." The bard murmured, studying her closely. "How are you feeling? You look a little out of it."

And got a light shrug back. "Just thinking, really. Different scenarios, that kind of thing." Xena reached over and picked up her cup, taking a swallow of ale. "It’s what I usually do the night before a battle." She gave Gabrielle a nudge. "Besides, I had a really nice nap this afternoon."

The bard rolled her eyes, leaned against the convenient shoulder next to her. "I have only your word for that." She complained, having been gently woken up by Xena’s playful nibbling on her neck. "*I* wouldn’t know."

Xena laughed softly, and rested her head against Gabrielle’s side. "Cross my heart, Gabrielle." She took another sip of ale, and regarded the crowded room. Lestan had made a brief, informal announcement about the clan adoption. Good.. short and simple, just how I like them. Xena mused. And they had proceeded on with the banquet, which had been along the lines of stuff everyone as full as possible, pour ale down their throats to relax them, then get the storytellers up to get their minds off tomorrow.

It had worked, Xena chuckled, even, to a small extent, on her. She’d enjoyed the meal, liked the ale, and allowed herself to get lost in Gabrielle’s tales for most of the evening.

It really had been a nice nap, and she was feeling pretty good, despite her morning’s activities. This might even work… she considered, feeling Gabrielle’s fingers tangle themselves idly in her dark hair. And if not… she sighed inwardly. There was always plan B.

Plan B, which called for her to take a much more.. personal.. role in what happened tomorrow, above and beyond leading the forest dweller’s forces. Which would pit her directly against the enemy’s leader who, by all reports and despite Lestan’s assurance, might be too much for her to handle. And that was the first time ever that she’d considered an opponent that way. Wish I knew why.. this isn't like me at all. Even Hercules.. who any rational person would have avoided challenging, she lit into without a thought.

Do I stake this entire village on something I’m not sure I can deliver? Was the question rattling around in her head. Only if there’s no other choice. The answer kept coming back, repeatedly. Because that would have dire consequences not only for Lestan’s people, but also for her, death being a likely result, and that would mean…

Her mind slid past that, deliberately shunting the thought off. Am I that scared of dying? Gods…What was that you told Hectator? People who go into battle thinking they’re going to die, generally do? Knock it off, Xena. They’re forest dwellers, just like these guys here and you beat up 100 of them this morning. How bad could this possibly get?

The door opened, and a very dark furred forest dweller stumbled in, scattering startled villagers until Jessan had the presence of mind to grab him. "Restie?" Jessan rasped, holding him up. "What happened?"

The dark Restie grabbed Jessan’s golden arm, and remained silent, his chest heaving. "Hold on." He gasped. :"Gotta catch my breath."

By now, the group had quieted, and a small ring surrounded the two of them. Jessan glanced up as his father appeared behind him. "He was on north border duty." He quietly reminded Lestan. "Restie?"

"He’s mad." Restie got out, after taking a large breath of the close air. "He’s lost his mind, Jessan. He’s going to… " His dark eyes flickered to Lestan’s face, then back. "If he wins tomorrow, he’s going to take the village apart.. he’s going to kill all the lifebonds."

"What?" Wennid gripped his arm, appearing as if by magic next to her lifemate. "All of them?"

Restie’s eyes met hers and his nostrils flared. "No. One of each pair."

A shudder passed through the room, bringing deathly silence, in which the crackle of the cooking fire could be clearly heard.

And a voice fell into the well of quiet. "Why?" Xena had threaded her way through the tightly packed crowd somehow, and was now standing next to Jessan. Her pale eyes captured Restie’s dark ones.

The forest dweller snorted wearily. "Because he can. Because he likes making other people hurt. That archer he brought to the village today… " He just stopped speaking and stared at the ground. "They branded him."

A buzz went up, and Xena could feel the panic start to build. She let it, for a moment, to allow Lestan a chance to calm his village, but the tall leader was staring at Restie with a blank expression on his normally good-natured face.

Now what? She felt her mind calming, her body relaxing as she responded to the familiar tingle of danger circulating the room. Now I put a cap on this. "All right, everybody calm down." She said, her voice quiet, but penetrating. A hand touched her back, and she leaned into the contact, needing Gabrielle’s comforting presence. The bard slipped into place next to her, and left her warm hand on Xena’s back as she watched the faces surrounding them.

Xena’s voice caught their attention, and after a long tense second, the buzz in the room dropped, and a very uneasy silence descended again. Everyone always told me I’m a natural born leader. Xena mused privately. Maybe it’s just that I’m always telling everybody to shut up, then I have to think up a reason why they should. "You heard all this?" She questioned the dark furred Resti quietly.

He nodded, eyes fixed on her. "They’re making noise enough to scare a deaf warthog over in their camp. I got into a tree not far, and just listened for a bit. I heard.. that archer scream."

She nodded slowly. "So they’re pretty confident, huh?"

Resti nodded. "It’s not like they even think they’re going to be fighting."

"Point one in our favor." Xena said, giving him an easy smile, and she felt, in the little quiet after she spoke, that seductive tingle of excitement as the fighters surrounding her shifted, and picked up her meaning.

"They think you won’t fight." Resti added, nape lifting as he unconsciously responded to the crackling air of energy around her.

"Point two in our favor." Now Xena’s smile turned feral, and she deliberately relaxed her posture, crossing her arms on her chest and leaning on one leg while crossing the other at her ankles.

Resti took a deep breath, and nodded. "He wants you." A glance went to Lestan’s face, which was darkening in anger. "He wants you bad."

Xena was aware of the eyes on her, of the expectant silence in the room that waited her response. Aware of Gabrielle’s tense body brushing hers, and the rapid beating of the bard’s heart that she could see as a fluttering at the base of her throat. "Well.’ She drawled, lifting an eyebrow and chuckling. "He’d better be careful what he asks for. " She paused. "He may just get it."

She felt the expanding circle of confidence that had her at the center, and let her eyes travel around the room, collecting theirs. Xena knew, at this moment, she held them neatly in her cupped palm, as she had done with armies since she’d been fifteen years old. They believed utterly, because she did. Or they think I do. She quietly amended to herself. I only wish I had that option. I’d like someone to believe in, right now. "

"All right. So they’re coming in overconfident, and they don’t think we’ll be much of a challenge." She nodded judiciously. "That’s not a bad position. We can work with that."

"We?" Lestan muttered, quietly.

"Hey." Xena just as quietly muttered back. "You adopted me, remember?"

Lestan let a smile cross his somber features. "Xena.." His voice was very low, and hidden in the again rising buzz of the room. "There is too much death in this. I don’t want you part of it." His eyes flicked to Gabrielle’s face. "Please."

Xena took a breath, and felt Gabrielle’s arm tighten around her. She looked down at the bard, and found those mist green eyes fastened on hers.

"You took us into your clan, Lestan." Gabrielle said, not looking at him. "What kind of clan members would we be if we ran at the first sign of trouble?" Her eyes remained locked with Xena’s, and gentle promises passed between them. "We’re in for the duration."

Ah Gabrielle… Xena’s mind caressed the thought. "She’s right." That to Lestan, whose eyes held a resigned understanding. "Besides, you need us." And felt a warm squeeze from Gabrielle at the words. Had to train myself to say us, my bard. Hope you appreciate that. Even with my other lovers, it was never us. Always me, and them. But you and I… I’ve think I’ve finally accepted that. "Time for us all to get some rest, I think."

Lestan nodded, and raised his arm, commanding attention. "Sleep now, the rousters will wake the fighters pre dawn. The rest of the village will pack, and make ready to move if needed. No one, NO ONE gets caught behind, in any case, for those carrion eaters."

They dispersed, filing slowly out of the hall and into the dark of the cloud-covered night. Xena stayed a moment, reviewing last minute strategy with Lestan, then gave him a shove towards the door. "Gwan, Lestan. Get some sleep. " Her eyes fell on Jessan. "You too. "

Jessan stepped up to her, and their eyes met. Xena grinned at him.

"You know." He breathed, smothering a smile. How does she do that… magic again, I suppose.

"I guessed." Xena drawled, patting the side of his face. "Jess, I’m glad for you."

Gabrielle just gave him a hug, and tugged his chest fur with a smile.

"Thanks." He replied, shyly. Then his eyes darkened, and he swallowed. "But if.."

Xena put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders, and stepped closer to him, meeting his eyes over the bard’s head. "Don’t." She said softly. "Because I’m not gonna let that happen." And with that, the battle crossed the line with her, and became very personal.

Because she was, she suddenly realized, one of the people Secan meant to devastate with his insanity. He’d kill Gabrielle... and a fierce jolt of anger shook Xena’s body, and sent an icy mask over her features. "Get some rest, Jess." Her voice held a chill in it, and the forest dweller backed a step.

Gabrielle felt it, saw the subtle shift in her features, and turned, sliding her arms around Xena’s waist and looking up at her. "Hey." She called softly, watching the icy blue eyes slowly track to hers, and look through her for an endless moment, before they focused, and warmed, and brought her partner back to her. She tugged hard on the warrior, and was rewarded with a quirky half grin. "You too, hero."

Xena nodded. "Yeah." She said, "Let’s go." She steered the bard towards the door, pushing Jessan ahead of them. "Tomorrow’s going to be a long day. "

Gabrielle walked slowly through the darkness of the central grassy square, aware of the soft voices on all sides, and the comforting warmth of Xena's hand resting casually on her back. Sidelong glances told her that the warrior's face was tense and still, and she remained quiet, giving Xena time to assimilate the information of the evening.

What's she thinking? The bard wondered, studying that angular profile. Then an idea occurred to her. I could just ask her. That was a new thought, she pondered, as was the very real possibility that her close-mouthed partner just might tell her. She waited until they were inside the cot, though, before putting a hand on Xena’s side, feeling the warm skin through the coolness of the fabric covering it.

The warrior half turned towards her, and raised an eyebrow, focusing her attention on the bard. "What?"

"Dinar for your thoughts?" Gabrielle asked evenly, moving a little closer, and allowing herself to feel their connection. Knew that Xena was feeling it too, from the involuntary smile that shaped her lips, and the almost unconscious lifting of her hand to the bard's cheek. "What's bothering you, Xena?" And.. how far we've come, she silently mused that I can now just ask her that. Question is, will she tell me?

Xena's eyes searched hers, and her mouth quirked. "The fact we're going to fight against a homicidal maniac tomorrow?" She offered tentatively, brushing her thumb against the bard's cheekbone. "Lotta things can go wrong, Gabrielle." Her voice had dropped to a near whisper. "I don't.." She fell silent, unable to voice her fears.

But the bard understood, and sat down on the low couch, tugging Xena down with her. The warrior collapsed onto the cloth surface with an uncharacteristic lack of grace, and spread both arms out across the back, stretching her long legs out and crossing them. After a minute, she rolled her head to one side, and regarded Gabrielle soberly.

"Stakes just got a lot higher, huh?" Gabrielle asked seriously. And got a nod back in confirmation. Do I go serious here, or try to get her to relax a little? No.. no serious stuff before going to sleep. There's enough time for that tomorrow. "So.. what is it with us? Do we just attract disasters, or something?" She made a disgusted noise, and was rewarded with a wonderful, full smile. "I mean it, Xena. If we went to go buy lunch, we'd cause at least one small war, the theft of the village temple altar, and the birth of a three-headed goat. I swear."

Xena started laughing, and reached over, grabbing Gabrielle's arm and pulling her squawking across the couch. "C'mere." She said, wrapping the bard up in a fierce hug.

Well, that worked. Gabrielle sighed in satisfaction, as she burrowed happily into the warrior's warm embrace. "Did I ever tell you just how much I love when you do this?" She mumbled, then tilted her head back to gaze fondly up at Xena.

The warrior smiled back, and kissed her gently.

"Mmm..." Gabrielle chuckled deep in her throat. "That too." She rested her head against Xena's shoulder, and took a breath. "This.. makes it harder, doesn't it?" The words were out before she thought about it, and she felt Xena's breathing catch. Thought we weren't going to do serious, Gabrielle.. where in Hades did *that* come from?

Xena smoothed the red gold hair out of her partner's eyes, and let her fingers trail down the down soft cheek. "Yes, it does." She admitted quietly. "It raises the stakes.. beyond price."

A long still moment, when the only sounds were two sets of gentle breathing, the subtle popping of the fire, and the fading noises from outside coming in the window. Even Ares was motionless, lying tucked under Xena's extended legs.

"Are you.." Gabrielle whispered, then stopped as Xena touched her lips with stilling fingers.

"No regrets, Gabrielle." The warrior murmured. "No second thoughts, no what ifs." Her eyes were very serious. "Just something I have to take into account, that's all."

The bard closed her eyes, and let her fingers tangle into the soft cloth shirt Xena was wearing. Then she sighed, and raised her glance up again. "I'm going with you tomorrow morning." Her tone was inflexible. "I'm not staying behind here."

No, never again, my bard. Xena thought silently, we'll do what we do together. "Of course not." She acknowledged, feeling Gabrielle's heart skip a beat where the bard was pressed hard against her. "Who would watch my back?" She put a fingertip on the bard's nose. "I'm counting on you."

But then she took a very deep breath. "Gabrielle.. if it goes bad tomorrow.. " The bard's body went very still. "I.. want you to go home." She paused. "Please. I'd like to know you'll be someplace.. " She stopped. Gabrielle's hands clenched tight on her shirt, and she cleared her throat. "Someplace where you'll be loved."

Gabrielle stayed very still, letting the words play over and over in her mind until her breathing had settled, and she thought she might be able to speak. And what she said was something that she'd made a decision on, during that long, torchlit ride back from the mountain, with Xena's shallowly breathing form cradled in her arms. "No." Her voice was steady, and she saw the widening of the blue eyes locked with hers. "If something.. happens." She put a hand on Xena's cheek. "You just wait a heartbeat for me, all right?"

"No." The word on an explosion of air "You don't.."

"I do." Gabrielle spoke forcefully. "I can, I will, and nothing you're going to say, or do is going to change the way I feel." Her fingers twisted in fabric "I am not going to live like Warrin, Xena. Don't ask that of me." Her voice cracked a little. "Please. Promise me you'll wait."

Xena felt her whole world shift, then settle down again. Come on, Xena. You knew this. No matter what you told Lestan, and what you kept telling yourself, you knew it. She felt a mass of tension dissolve as she let her heart accept the concept. "On one condition." Came the quiet answer.

Gabrielle's eyes studied her. "What?" Trust Xena.. to go and try to put conditions on this.

"You make me the same promise." Xena replied.

Oh. The bard's mind reflected. Of course. "I promise."

A nod. "I promise too."

Gabrielle put her head back down on Xena's chest, and let out a deep sigh. They sat in companionable silence for some time, gazing at the fire, each lost in thought. Finally, Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, and tightened her grasp. "Let's get some sleep."

The bard yawned in agreement. "OK." She unwound herself from Xena's arms, and stood, indulging in a long stretch. "Sounds like a good idea." She extended a hand to her still seated partner, and smiled when the warrior grasped it firmly. "Come on."

Xena allowed herself to be hauled to her feet, then padded across the room and stripped out of her light tunic, pulling a sleep shirt out of her saddlebags. She turned in time to see Gabrielle do the same, and stepped closer to the bard, casting a critical eye at the fading scratches on her stomach. "Looks ok." She pronounced, running a finger over the smooth surface. "Lucky for him."

Gabrielle knew what she meant, and traced the lines herself. "Yeah." She agreed quietly. "Doesn't even sting today."

Xena took the shirt from her, and gathered up the sleeves, settling the fabric over the bard's fair head. "There." She chuckled, giving her a pat on the side.

"Thanks." Gabrielle murmured, studying her. "Bruises are gone." She commented, tapping lightly on Xena's chest, then trailing her fingertips down the centerline of the warrior's belly, and felt the muscles shift under her hand. Then she reached up and touched Xena's forehead. "What about up here?"

Xena sighed, and shrugged. "Mostly." She acknowledged. "Still don't like closed places much." She pulled the shirt on. "But then, I never did, so.."

Gabrielle let that slide. "I know how you feel." She said quietly.

Xena stopped, and glanced up at her. "Huh?"

"Coffin." The bard said, succinctly.

"Ah." Xena breathed, raising her hands and cradling Gabrielle's face. "I should have realized."

"Yeah, well.." Gabrielle sighed, letting herself fall forward against Xena's warm body. "It never came up."

"Suppose not." The warrior muttered, tilting the bard's face up and studying it with a unhappy frown. "Gods, I'm sorry. If I'd just been faster.."

"Whoa.. whoa whoa..!!!!" Gabrielle barked, grabbing Xena around the ribcage and shaking her. "Don't you even think about going there." She would have laughed at the startled expression on the warrior's face if she hadn't been so mad.

"OK..OK.." Xena blinked. "I was just.."

"I know what you were just doing. " The bard growled. "So just don't.. please?" She let her head bump Xena’s collarbone. "Not tonight."

Xena tilted the bard’s head up again and kissed her. "All right." She murmured as they separated for s second, then resumed. The warrior chuckled as Gabrielle moved closer, bringing their bodies into contact all along their length. She wound her arms around the bard, and straightened up, lifting her off her feet. "I can think of a better place to do this." She commented, as she walked over to the bed, and launched both of them up a little, twisting in mid air so that she’d land on her back with the bard nestled on top of her. "There."

"Much better." Gabrielle mumbled, as her hands explored and found bare skin, then sucked in a sharp breath as she felt a sudden, knowing touch in return. "Gods.. I’m sure glad you don’t have cold hands." Was her indistinct comment.

A low chuckle was the only response.

Pre-dawn brought a cold moist breeze into the window, and Xena knew there would be fog outside when she looked. Wonderful. Her mind sighed. Foggy, wet, cold morning. My favorite. She was glad she'd checked her leathers, and set them near the fire to make sure they were dry. Getting into clammy, cold leathers and then into chilly armor was one sure way to put her in a bad mood. And that was no way to start out a day of battle. Xena decided, then paused and examined that thought. Or any other day, for that matter. Gods, and I used to do it all the time. How dumb was that?

At the moment, however, she was still curled up in bed with Gabrielle soundly asleep beside her, the bard's head resting on her shoulder with one hand lying across her abdomen, and she allowed herself a few minutes of extra time to enjoy the warm feeling before starting what she suspected would be a very long day.

Well.. time to get moving Regretfully, Xena raised her left hand, and patted Gabrielle on the back. "Hey." She said, in a low voice.

"Mmm?" The bard stirred, and blinked her eyes open. "What? Oh..." She gave a quick glance around the darkened cot. "Let me guess, time to get up?"

"Uh huh." Xena remarked, giving her back a rub. "Bout that time." And despite her own self doubts, Xena felt that old familiar tingle starting in the pit of her stomach, an anticipation from that dark part of herself that found a seductive thrill in pitting her fighting skills against an opponent. That part of herself that always got loose during battle, and produced the deadliest of results, and that ringing laugh. "Gotta go, love."

Gabrielle sighed, and wrapped her arm tighter for a moment, giving the warrior one last hug. "All right. I'll go get us some breakfast." She grumbled, releasing her grasp, and propping herself up on one elbow.

"Well, I don't.." Xena started, then stopped as Gabrielle gave her a stern look. "OK, sounds like a good idea." She amended, managing to keep a grin off her face. "I am a little hungry." She poked the yawning bard out of bed and rolled out of the other side herself, stretching thoroughly and giving herself a little shake. No point in saying I don’t usually eat right before fighting, because she’s going to get me to one way or the other. Right? Right. Just go with it.

Gabrielle got dressed in a long sleeved tunic against the cold, and laced up her boots quickly, then trotted out the door, stopping for a moment on the steps to adjust her night vision. The central area was already whispering with gentle motion, dark shadowy forms crossed in front of her, throwing fog about in waves that lapped at the edge of the porch she stood on. Far off, haloed by the wisps of fog were the torches that ringed the circle of cots, throwing vague shadows off the trees, and the weapons racks, and the moving forms of forest dwellers.

The smell of burning pitch came to her, and woodsmoke, and the clammy, stinging scent of the fog itself that got into her lungs and brought an unpleasant taste to the back of her mouth. "Ugh." She muttered, dropping down the stairs and starting off towards the communal kitchen. "Hope Xena thinks to put hot water on for tea while I go scrounge."

Xena had thought of it, in fact, and had set the water pot on the fire while she ducked into the bathing room and let the reservoir water, now cold from the night exposure, rinse over her. Drying herself off, she slipped her linen undergarment on, padded over towards the fire, and stood regarding it for moment, then lifted her repaired leathers from the chair back they were slung over, and slid them on, fastening the shoulder straps with absent minded precision. Then she slid the upper arm protectors on, and pulled the bracers up, but didn't lace them.

Gabrielle came in as she was lifting her breastplate over her head, and settling the shoulder pieces, and paused as the bard put down what she was carrying and trotted over to help.

"Here.. let me," she muttered, pulling the shoulder straps over and reaching for the buckles. "Hang on, these are loose." She sighed, tugging the straps out of the fasteners and making them tighter. "Will you hold still?" She gave the fidgeting warrior a light slap. "There... " she slid around to face her partner, and patted the breastplate. "That's on the last hole there, love." A tug on the leathers followed. "Pretty loose… this one took a lot out of you, didn't it?"

Xena blew out a long breath and fiddled with her shoulder clasp. "Easy enough to get back." She replied, giving the bard a kiss on the nose. "Especially if we're heading home." That got a smile back. "Give me a hand with these damn bracers?"

Gabrielle tugged on the laces without comment, getting the leather bracers settled, then sitting down on the edge of the bed and watching Xena lace up her boots and strap on the heavy leg armor, adjusting the fitting with expert hands.

The warrior stood, and bounced twice on the balls of her feet, settling the armor plates with a subtle clinking, then cocked her head and regarded Gabrielle with a grin. "Did you mention breakfast?"

They shared the meat and cheese the bard had acquired, along with a still steaming loaf of heavy grain bread that Gabrielle broke into small chunks, and put a dab of honey on before popping in her companion's mouth.

"Mmm." Xena gave a satisfied hum, as she chewed the flavorful bread. "Good choice, Gabrielle." She gave the bard a wink, then stood, dusting off her hands, and crossed to the small table, where her weapons were laid out in gleaming display. She clipped her sheath to her armor, and settled the daggers in their respective sheaths, then secured the chakram. Took a breath, and gave Gabrielle a nod. "Time to go."

The bard stepped up to her, and put both hands on the dully gleaming armor. "You be careful." Came the gentle reminder.

Xena took the bard's hands in her own, and raised them to her lips. "Always." Then she pulled Gabrielle closer and kissed her, letting herself drift in that warm sensual haze for a very long moment. And when they parted, Xena wrapped her arms around her partner and squeezed hard, then released her. "Come on."

She knelt down and ruffled Ares’ ears affectionately. "You stay here, boy. " She told the wolf gently, and smiled as his ears drooped. "Your time’ll come. "

"Roo." He sighed, chewing on her finger dejectedly.

"Aww." Gabrielle cooed, crouching down at Xena’s side, and scratching him behind the ears. "It’s all right, Ares. When you get a little bigger, mommy will take you out and show you how to bite people ." This got a dry look from the warrior.

"Maybe I'll use you as a demonstration victim. " Xena mused, making a sudden motion of her head and capturing a fold of the bard’s arm skin neatly in her teeth. "Mmmm.." Her eyes sparkled.

"Hey!" Gabrielle laughed, grabbing a handful of dark hair and tugging. "Cut that out!"

"Roo?" Ares cocked his head at them.

Xena kept her jaws locked for a moment longer, then released them, as Gabrielle’s fierce pull moderated to a gentle riffling of hair through her fingers, then a tracing of her partner’s angular features. Her green eyes softened, and a smile shaped her lips "I love you." She whispered, with a tiny shake of her head.

Blue eyes regarded her in silence for a space, then Xena smiled. "I love you too." She answered, reaching up and clasping the bard’s hand. "Come on." She released Gabrielle’s fingers, gave Ares one last pat, and stood, taking a deep breath, and heading for the door.

Gabrielle grabbed her staff, and followed.

The warriors were gathered in front of Lestan's cot, torchlight flickering off the soft sheen of their woven battlecoats that covered them from shoulders to mid thigh. The heavy fog flowed around their legs, making them seem for all the world like they were standing in a shifting pool of water, and that shifting pool parted as they sensed Xena's approach, and cleared her a path.

In silence, with only the light wind and the fluttering torches as a backdrop she strode forward, her steps muffled until she reached the porch, and then the wooden planks sounded a solid echo as her weight hit them. A step more, and she was even with Lestan, and his eyes were meeting hers with something approaching relief. "Xena." He acknowledged her with a nod.

"Morning." The warrior said, in a normal voice. She looked around the crowd and put her hands on her hips. "Nice fog."

Serious furred faces cracked hesitant grins. Gods.. Jessan wondered, from his front row position. What a difference she makes. In armor, as she hadn't been since they'd pulled her out of the rockslide, she gave off a dark energy that made his nape hairs lift, and he felt himself getting excited.

Lestan repressed a smile, and carefully went over the battle plan, making sure everyone listening understood what to do. Startled looks were traded, then a palpable sense of relief washed over the waiting fighters.

"That might work." Deggis whispered, poking Jessan in the ribs. "She come up with that?"

Jessan snorted. "She conquered half of Greece. How hard was it for her to come up with a tactic between two small forest clans?" He rolled his eyes at Deggis. "You guys just don’t’ get it yet, do you?" He put his fanged jaws close to Deggis’ sensitive ear. "It’s not just the fighting.. she’s got a brain, doofus."

His cousin flinched, and rubbed the ear. "Ouch. " He complained, scowling. "Ok..Ok.. I get it." He sighed, kicking the fog around his knees and watching it disperse. "I just hope it’s enough."

The quiet trek through the pre dawn forest carried it’s own burden of unreality, as the forest dwellers, no more than shadows, waded through the thick blanket of smoky fog, scattering small clumps of it before them. Even the nightbirds were silent, as though the forest was holding its breath in wait for the violence to come

They came to the assigned place, at the assigned time, when the first tint of gray was invading the eastern sky, and paused, settling their alignment carefully. Xena stood behind a fallen tree, one hand resting lightly on the crumbling bark, the other fiddling idly with a leather strap from her armor. Her eyes constantly swept the opposing forest, finding the shadows and watching them for movement.

Gabrielle slipped quietly up next to her, glancing over at the still dark treeline, then up at her face. "Xena?" She breathed, not wanting to disturb the silence.

Hooded ice blue eyes darted to hers, and a dark eyebrow raised a fraction.

Gabrielle moved closer, until they could feel each other’s body heat. "What’s plan B?" She asked, keeping their eyes locked.

Xena’s head cocked to one side slightly, and her lips twitched. "Me and Secan." She answered, watching the bard’s face intently.

Her partner nodded. "Thought so." Then Gabrielle looked across the way again, and back. "Why isn’t that plan A?"

An unexpected question, and one that Xena had been hoping not to have to answer. "What do you mean?" She asked, buying some time. Gods.. what do I tell her? What do I tell myself? That I’m too scared to face him? To put my life on the line?

The bard took a breath, and glanced around. "You against the enemy leader.. that’s an old one, Xena. We’ve been there before.. so.. I mean, if they go up against each other, lots of people are going to die, aren’t they?"

A sideways jog of the head. "Maybe." Xena answered quietly.

"Right." Gabrielle sighed. "And not that I want to see you do this.. but it’s more like you to save those maybes and put the whole responsibility on your own shoulders. So… why?"

Xena half turned, and let her forearms rest of the rough bark, giving her head a little jerk towards the area facing them, which was starting to achieve outline form from the pale glints of a dawning day. Shadowy forms could be seen, the foremost a massive, dark furred, still body. She felt her heartbeat start to increase. "Because I’m not sure I can win." Her voice was very quiet.

Gabrielle’s brows knit. "Are you ever sure?" She asked, putting a hand on the warrior’s tense arm. "I mean.."

"Always." Xena replied, at last turning and looking Gabrielle square in the eye. "But not this time."

The bard took a breath, then a second. "Why?" Whoa.. Gabrielle.. this is very very dangerous. Step carefully.

"I don’t know." Came the tense, upset answer. "I… " She stopped, and just stared at the tree trunk, then in a savage, frustrated motion slammed a fist against it. Bark exploded outward, showering both of them. "I don't know." The warrior sighed. "Maybe you were right."

Gabrielle swallowed a few times, and shot a nervous glance towards their adversaries, getting a clearer look at what must be Secan. Gods.. her mind shivered. He’s huge. "Right about what?" She asked. "Xena, you always find a way to come out on top, you know that."

The warrior studied Secan, who was now swaggering slowly across the open space between the two groups, motioning with one lazy hand for Lestan to approach. "Remember when you told me you thought I convinced myself to do things?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle replied, in a small voice. "I remember."

"Well, I think you’re right. Only I can’t convince myself that I can throw myself into battle without fear anymore, Gabrielle, and that’s what my kind of fighting requires." Xena’s face was set, and Gabrielle could read tension in every line of her body. "Something broke.. and I'm not sure I know how to fix it."

"But you.. " The bard objected softly. "When Warrin.. and with Jess…"

"Reactions." Xena replied succinctly. "A threat, and my body responds. No thought required."

"But this is different." Gabrielle mused. "Because you have to decide ahead of time."

A nodded response. "Yeah." The warrior half turned, and studied the bard, a look of regret on her face. She picked off pieces of bark that had landed on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Sorry." Her gaze dropped. "I…" I can't look at her. I can't face that.

A gentle hand touched her jaw, and tilted her head up. "So.. now you know how the rest of us feel all the time, huh?" Gabrielle said, with a tiny smile. "Scary, isn't it." She paused, and focused on those pained eyes. "If you think I'm disappointed because you don’t want to recklessly risk your life, guess again." Saw the subtle change in Xena's expression. "But I think you'll get over it.. that's too much a part of who you are, love."

Secan’s voice rang out over the lightening forest, and they turned to listen. "So.. you showed up. Unexpected, but it’ll make for a good drill." The russet forest dweller hooked his thumbs in his swordbelt, and leaned back a little, obviously relaxed and in a good mood.

Lestan didn’t answer. His mahogany eyes studied Secan then flicked across his waiting fighters. Outnumbered. His mind sighed. But then I knew we’d be. Casually, he spat into the grass near his feet, and crossed his arms. Stay cool.

Secan raised an eyebrow, and laughed. "Aren’t we in a mood." He sauntered closer and picked a wildflower, twirling it between his fingers. "So.. you got your pet humans here?" His eyes ranged through Lestan’s ranks, searching. "I got plans for them, you know." He laughed, and a fluttering of echoed humor ran through his line of fighters. "My fighters want to know.. from an intellectual standpoint, of course, if it’s possible to interbreed with the pathetic things. " His fangs showed in a huge grin. "Could only help them, right?

Gabrielle felt her chest tighten, and her breath come faster. "He’s crazy." She murmured, glancing up at Xena. "What kind of a monster is he?"

"He has Ares’ Gift." Came the quiet reply, but there was a glimmer of something very cold starting to emerge in the restlessly searching blue eyes.

Gabrielle took a breath, and thought hard about what and who her companion was, and what she hoped to become. And whether or not there was any way to reconcile the two realities. This could be my biggest mistake. Gods watch over me if it is. "So do you." Her voice cut clearly, and calmly across the distance between them.

Saw the shoulders jerk in response, and had bare seconds to prepare herself before Xena turned and caught her gaze, and she had to grip her hands behind her back to keep from reaching out and taking hold of her partner, so painful was the look of quiet hurt in her eyes. "You do.. it’s part of you, Xena."

The dark head dropped, and Xena studied her boots quietly. "Yeah, I know." She finally said in a weary tone. "It’s where most of my fighting ability comes from." She turned her head and shot a glance at Secan, who was still taunting a silent Lestan. "And every time I let that out, I slip further and further back into the darkness, Gabrielle."

"No." The bard stepped forward and grabbed her by the shoulders. "No.. that’s not true." Her voice was shaking. "It may be his gift, but the use to which you put it matters, Xena, it matters more than anything else. And.." Her eyes lifted over the still bent head and found the enemy leader. "If you use it to defeat evil.. that’s all that counts."

"So." Secan stretched. "Shall we get this farce over with? I have a banquet planned, and I don’t wanna be late. " He yawned. "Can I assume you’re not challenging me? " One russet eyebrow quirked.

Lestan didn’t move, but he moved his shoulders in a certain way, and his fighters shifted their weapons to a ready position. I’ll die today. Lestan mused, knowing Secan would come straight for him. I’ve had a good life. His mind drifted for a moment to Wennid, and the quiet scene at their cot this morning when they’d said goodbye. I’ve been blessed more than most of my kind. "Come ahead, you son of a rabbit." His voice rang out over the rose tinted light of dawn.

"Fool." Secan spat at him, then turned, and headed back toward his own forces, raising a casual hand and signaling. Bodies began to move at his command, forming up , and waiting for him to reach their line.

"I wish I could believe that, Gabrielle." Xena replied quietly, raising her head, and meeting the bard’s eyes. Then she hesitated, and her brows creased. "Wait a minute.. are you telling me you believe the end justifies the means?"

Mist green eyes reacted, turned inward for a long moment, and then shone with quiet understanding. "You taught me that." Her mouth edged into a grim smile. "And.. the end I want is you whole, and this village unharmed. Whatever means you need to use… do it."

No answer, but Xena turned and studied Secan, watching him walk back to his fighters. Her face was impassive, but the eyes flickered constantly, and gave a small indication of the thoughts keeping the same pace. A swift turn of her head. "Remember you said that." She said, carefully, and let their eyes meet for a long instant before she turned, and put her hands on the trunk of the tree, and vaulted over it.

Gabrielle sagged against the bark, and held on for dear life, waiting for the shaking to subside. Gods.. gods.. what did I just do? But as she watched her partner stride forward, dispersing the fog like stiff wind, she saw a certain bounce return to her steps, and that brought a wan grin to the bard’s face. Be honest, Gabrielle. That’s a swagger. And it looks good on her.

Whatever it takes, huh Gabrielle.? Xena let the words ramble through her mind as she angled towards Lestan, with every step shedding the kinder and gentler side she’d developed recently. All right. A familiar thrill was building, and she let it, feeling it heighten her senses.

The angle she was at…Lestan only had a split second to realize her presence before she was on him, taking him down to the ground with savage efficiency. She drew her sword, and shaved a patch of fur off his neck, holding his eyes with her own. "Yield to me Lestan." In a voice so cold it rivaled the fog swirling about both of them.

Lestan stared up in total shock, seeing nothing familiar in those ice colored eyes, feeling the weight of her kneeling on his chest, and the exquisite sharpness of the blade she held at his neck. His fighter’s spirit raged.. but only for an instant. Then he turned his head slowly, and raised his rounded jaw, exposing his jugular to her. "To you, Xena of Amphipolis, I yield." His voice was very quiet. I thought she’d play by her own rules.. now I find she plays by ours. Never underestimate her, Jessan warned me. I should have listened. His eyes blinked sadly, and for an instant, a dark eyebrow rose, and a sparkle came into those blue pools, and she winked.

Xena leaned close to him. "Wish me luck." She muttered, putting a hand on his chest.

A slow, twitching grin found it’s way across Lestan’s face. "Send him to Ares, Xena."

And she was gone, standing and walking slowly towards Secan’s line, where he was standing, sword drawn, watching in amusement.

All right. She took several deep breaths, sucking the pine scented air deep into her lungs, and felt her heart pumping with slow, powerful beats, that sent a charge of blood right through her. Stared at Secan, with his sneering face, and remembered what he’d said he had planned for them, and let that start a boiling down deep, tapping into her darker side which rose up with little effort and sent a welcome shiver up and down her long body. Been awhile.

Xena stopped, halfway across the small open area, and held her hands out with a smile. Then she slowly sheathed her sword, and curled both arms up until her hands were even with her chin. Waited for his eyes to track to her, then motioned him closer with an insolent gesture. "Were you looking for me, fuzzball?" Her voice rang out, loud enough to carry across his forces, and back to her own. "Here I am." She lazily let her hands drop to her belt, and waited.

Silence across the forest, save the rising wind blowing the branches, and dispersing the fog. The rosy dawn light was now filtering through the trees, and sent a dappled blanket across her darkly clad and armored form.

Secan strolled out to meet her, stopping about two body lengths away and running his eyes over her with a possessive air. "So you are." He said softly. "Don’t tell me you’re the challenger from that grazer’s village." He laughed. "You haven’t heard the rules, I gather."

Xena sized him up slowly, letting her eyes linger over him as his had her. "Sure I have." She drawled, holding up the little clan token Lestan had given her and Gabrielle the night before. "It’s my clan." She smiled at him. "And I just took it over." A quick motion that tied the token off to her sword belt. "And the third… " She walked forward, within his grasp, armed only with that smile. "I think you’ll let me get by with. Am I right?"

His nostrils flared, and he felt his fur lifting in pure response to her presence. "They said you were lifebonded." He watched those cold eyes take on a feral glint.

Xena cocked her head at him. "I am."

He nodded very slowly. "I’m going to kill you, human trash. And I hope your little lifemate watches every minute of it."

It happened so fast he had no time to breath, no time to react, no time to even think, as her hand hit his nose with enough force to send his head snapping back, and sending a light shower of blood over them both. Then she was out of range, and standing clear, and gracing him with that insufferable, sneering smile. His blood rose, and sent fire coursing through him.

"You’ll try. " That voice curled around him like the dissipating fog. "And I guarantee she was loving every minute of that." And Xena chuckled. "I sure did."

Then his sword was out, and in his hands, and he was coming at her, with a speed and strength unmatched among his kind.


Concluded in Part 8

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