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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Gabrielle!" Jessan protested, raising a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessan nodded. "Exactly so."

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

He shook his head. "No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A silence fell between them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

He’d nodded. "Pretty name."

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

Argo had lifted her head, and whuffled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xena chuckled. "Getting lazy, my bard?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, really, truly, without question, concluded in Part 9. Really. Honest.

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