Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence – Where there is Xena, there will be violence. It’s just one of those things. But this kind is not too graphic, and we avoid mentions of limbs being chopped off and used for kindling, or any description of eyeballs being gouged out by an errant chakram or anything like that.

Subtext – Subtext R Us. This story, as was the last one, and the one before that which flowed like a sargassum monster from my terminal, based on the supposition that it’s about two women who love each other a whole lot. Once again, there is nothing graphic, but the theme does wrap itself throughout the story, and if you can’t take this, go read some other nice piece of fan fiction. I will make my usual statement – if love offends you, drop me a note with your snail mail address, and I will send you some authentic, found in Southernmost Florida only, key lime pie. (Just the thing for hot summers.) Because I really do feel bad for you.

Did I say this would end with part 8? Silly me. But I decided to post 9 and the conclusion together so I wouldn’t get shot.

 Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:



Bound – Part 9

By Melissa Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His ears swiveled. "You went."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They don’t?" Came the soft answer.

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

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

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

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

Gabrielle glanced down at him. "For what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tody snorted. "I knew that."

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

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

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

"Oh." The boy sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No way." Tody snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got a very raised eyebrow in return.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They walked out, closing the door behind them.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bard nodded in agreement. "Sounds good."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I live without her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaini and Gabrielle glanced at each other. Gabrielle shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Really?" Xena drawled.

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

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

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

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

"You know where Amphipolis is, Jess?"

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

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

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