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Second Part of Bound Part 3

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.

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



Bound – Part 3

By Melissa Good


Xena studied Jessan’s profile as he looked out over the grassy area, small wisps of fur whipping back against his ears in the wind. "So.. what’s up?" She drawled casually. "What was that fighting I heard yesterday.. you and that healer got problems?"

Jessan turned his head, and regarded her. "Uhm... problems.. no." He said, then sighed. "Just a difference of opinion." A wry look crossed his face. "We have a lot of them."

"Mmmm." Xena murmured. "Bout what?" Keeping her voice light and only casually interested, as she watched a hummingbird on a bush limb near by.

The forest dweller shrugged. "Nothing.. really.. oh, yeah. She was mad I didn’t tell her about you guys the night before." He saw the raised eyebrow. "About you being.. well, you know."

Xena nodded. "Seems nice." A glance at Jess "Little young for this job, huh?"

Jessan straightened, and half turned to face her. "She’s qualified." The defensive tone in his voice brought a faint twitch to the warrior’s lips. "She’s very nice.. sorry she had that little problem with Gabrielle. She just didn’t.. Xena, you’re not her usual kind of patient. " He patted her muscular leg. "Don’t sell her short."

Blue eyes gazed down at him in mild bemusement. "Me? I was just commenting that she’s a bit young to have finished healer’s training. That’s all.. no complaints."

"Oh." Jessan blushed. "Sorry.. I was just... " A peek at Xena’s face, which had maintained it’s amiable good nature. He shrugged. "She gets a lot of grief from the clan about being so young.. so I..."

"Sokay." Xena patted his head. "I understand." Boy.. do I ever. She grinned at herself. Remembering her own heated defenses of Gabrielle, usually not in the young bard’s hearing. "You’re a good friend."

Jessan stared off into the distance, and snorted. "Yeah." Then he looked up. "Just got back from a run." He absorbed her sympathetic grin and returned one of his own. "Going to go wash off, then I’ll be right back."

"Sure." Xena nodded at him, prodding him with her boot again. "Like those water arrangements, by the way."

He chuckled, and got to his feet, feeling the beginning of what was, he knew, going to be a lack of use soreness in his legs, and padded down the stairs and off towards his family cot, giving the returning Gabrielle a wave as he passed her.

"So." Xena asked, as Gabrielle seated herself back on the deck with a large basket. "What do you have there?"

The bard looked back and smirked. "Guess you'll find out." she teased. "Thanks for going along with my plan, by the way." She leaned back against Xena's leg and felt the warrior’s fingers tangle themselves in her hair. "She likes him."

Xena chuckled. "Uh huh."

"You think he likes her?" The bard mused, glancing up and over her shoulder.

"Uh huh. " Xena repeated, with a grin.

"We’re bad." Gabrielle chuckled, crossing her arms and smirking.

"Yeah." Xena sighed, letting her head drop back against the chair's wooden surface, and closing her eyes for a minute as a small wave of dizziness hit her. Damn.. still a little wiped out, I guess.

Felt a hand reach up and clasp hers, and opened her eyes to see Gabrielle's concerned gaze on her. "Hey." The bard rested her chin on Xena's knee and studied her face. "Everything OK?"

"Yeah." The warrior sighed. "Must have lost a lot of blood in there.. just a little lightheaded." Her mouth quirked. "Old news."

Which got a smile from her partner. "Not." She snorted, and squeezed Xena's hand. "Can I get you anything? Water?"

And that got an amused look from her partner.

"You're going to kill me for clucking over you like an worried hen, right?" Gabrielle sighed.

Xena gave her a little grin. "Nah." She glanced across the village center, then looked back into the bard's eyes. "Really.. I haven't had anyone do that to me for.. " Her gaze went inward for a long moment. "Since mother, actually. A long time ago." Very long time ago, she realized, remembering peering up fuzzily at Cyrene's worried face, as her mother changed bandages on.. yeah, that's right. She'd been thrown, and then kicked in the head by that bad tempered stallion of their neighbors. Just before Cortese, and after that... she hadn't ever let anyone close enough.. trusted anyone enough to expose that kind of vulnerability to them. Until now. "You can cluck over me anytime."

Gabrielle's eyes took on a quiet sparkle, and she blushed a little. "I haven't had much practice at it.. " Her brow creased. "And I hope I don't get much." She gave Xena a severe look. "You should be more careful.. how did you let yourself get caught in a rockslide anyway?"

Xena took a breath, and held it, letting it out slowly. "Well.. " She glanced down to where Ares had stumbled out next to her, and was yawning sleepily. "There wasn't a lot of time to think."

Gabrielle hauled herself up off the floorboards and settled back on the arm of the chair. "Since when do you require a lot of time for that?" She rested a hand on Xena's shoulder. "I’ve spent two years being amazed at how fast you move, you know."

"Yeah.. well, " The warrior reached down a hand and scooped Ares up, depositing him on her lap and scratching his ears. Not looking at the bard. " I could have jumped clear." She paused. "But he couldn't have." A half apologetic glance in Gabrielle's direction. "He was there, and I saw him, and I just didn't think.. I just. .it was..." She sighed. "It was stupid."

"No it wasn't..." The bard interjected, but Xena cut her off.

"It was.. is his life worth the amount of.. " She stopped. "I didn't want to put you through that."

A long silence stretched between them, punctuated only by the soft sounds of the returning hunters, and the rustling of grass and leaves in the wind.

Finally, Gabrielle sighed. "Look, we know... I know.. that's always a possibility." She stroked Xena's cheek gently with her knuckles. "It's the price we pay.."

"For me trying to make up for being a bastard most of my life." Xena finished quietly. "I know." She looked up right into the bard's eyes. "But I don't know if I want to pay that price anymore."

Gabrielle took a very deep breath. "Any life's dangerous, Xena." she began, tentatively. "I mean, look - you were just chasing after a runaway horse, here." What's she thinking?...

"You're right." The warrior answered softly. "But I deliberately go out and make it a lot more dangerous, Gabrielle, by putting myself, and you, in to situations that require me to use every skill I have full out just to survive." Her shoulders slumped. "And one of these days, I'm afraid those skills just aren't going to measure up."

Gabrielle gazed at her in consternation. "But you always.." she started, then stopped, watching the tension knot her shoulders. She's talking about quitting, Gabrielle. About settling down somewhere, isn't she? A sudden jolt of wistful longing hit her, but she ruthlessly wrestled it down. This is the price of her redemption. And even if she's not willing to pay it, I am. "Listen.. " she continued, softly. "Even if something happens, it's not forever, Xena. You know that."

"Isn't it?" Came the quiet reply.

Silence from Gabrielle for a long instant. "What.. I mean... " She stopped and took a breath, and swiveled around until she was facing Xena, putting her hands on both shoulders, and locking her gaze with the warrior's. "What's up with you?" And saw a quiet anguish in those blue eyes that made her breath catch in her throat with an audible sound. "What's wrong? Xena, talk to me, please?" There’s been something stirring around back there since it happened. I knew it.. thought it was just.. Damn, I should have dug this out before.

Xena let her eyes close wearily. "I had a lot of time to think, stuck in that cave in, Gabrielle." She looked up at the bard's worried face. "Not much else to do." and let a tiny smile tug at her lips, which Gabrielle reluctantly answered. "And.. well, I realized it wasn't the dying I minded so much.. after all.." She shrugged. "that's a certainty for us all, and for someone like me..." She left the sentence unfinished. "But the thought that was killing me a lot faster than those rocks was that.." She paused and swallowed. "I really didn't want to not ever see you again."

"But... " Gabrielle frowned. "We'll...I mean.. I know not here... but.."

"We're not going to the same place." Xena's voice was quiet and final.

The bard froze, and felt a solid chill take her, sending a shiver down her spine. "You don't know that." Her voice was shaking, she could feel the vibration in it.

Xena's eyes held a remote sadness in them that was it's own answer. "Unfortunately, Gabrielle, yes I do."

"No." Gabrielle whispered, her voice breaking. "Is that.." Where you were when you died? "But that doesn't mean.. it's only been... "

"I've always accepted that eventuality for myself, Gabrielle." Xena said gently, with a faint rueful smile. "Thought I'd have a lot of friends.. and enemies.. there to keep me occupied." She reached out and took the bard's chilled hands in hers, and felt the tremors in them. "That wasn't so bad. But.." She took a breath. "If I only have one lifetime to spend with you.. I'd kind of like it to be a long as possible."

Spotted the gleam of tears in the green eyes facing her and squeezed the hands still clasped in her own. "So.. I'm thinking about.. putting down the sword and going home for a while." She paused, and watched Gabrielle's eyes closely "And I'd really like you to come home with me." And saw the sudden look of intense longing that the bard tried to disguise but couldn't. I saw that, love. You stay out here for my sake, but you want that.. and on some level, so do I.

Gabrielle studied her quietly. "Where you go, I go." A simple truth.

Then she looked inside, and asked herself a question. And got back an answer. And realized that if she were to ask herself that question a thousand times, she'd get back the same answer. A thousand times.

Peacefully, she took in a breath, and gave her partner a smile. "That includes this life, and everything after."

Xena stared at her, with a stunned expression. "What are you saying?" She asked, her voice taking on a hoarse roughness.

The bard managed a shrug. "Simple. I'm not leaving you. No matter what, no matter where, no matter how long.. in this life, in Tartares, it just doesn't matter." She leaned forward and rested her forearms on either side of Xena's neck, so they were nose to nose. "You are stuck with me." She paused, and did her best rendition of the look. "Got it?"

Xena regarded her for a very long moment, in silence. "You don't belong where I'm going." But there were equal parts sadness and joy in the tone.

"Neither do you. But you're missing the point... " Gabrielle rested her forehead against the warrior's. "An eternity in the Elysian Fields without you would be far more torture than anything Tartarus could come up with. As long as I'm with you, nothing else matters."

"Just that simple?" Xena asked, in a wondering tone.

"Yep." The bard answered, kissing her on the nose. "Just that simple. So.. don't get me wrong, there's nothing I'd like better than to settle in at home and spend the rest of my life lazing around in the sun with you and running a village inn. But don't let your decision rest on what's going to happen after this life." She paused, and grinned. "Because that's a done deal."

"It is, huh?" Xena couldn't control the grin that kept twitching at her lips.

"You bet." Came the cheerful answer.

The warrior nodded, in resigned acceptance. "All right." She took a deep breath, and looked up. "Here come our lunch partners."

Then she looked back into Gabrielle's eyes. "We'll talk more about it later." She grinned a little. "You wouldn't mind hanging around a backwater like Amphipolis?"

"Nuh Uh." Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "Like I said when we were there.. I’ve got 10 years of work to do just to document what I've seen so far." She relaxed back on the arm of the chair, leaning against the tall wooden slats behind her. "Besides.. " her grin turned teasing. "Subject myself to your mother's cooking again? No arm twisting required."

"It’s an ultimatum." Lestan sighed tossing the scroll down on the large conference table in his cot, glancing at Wennid and Warrin, who were seated at the table, and then let his gaze travel around the roughly circular room at the scarred, older warriors who were present. "We either capitulate, which means reneging on our treaty with Cirron, and pay them tribute, or they attack."

"Let em." Brennan snorted, pushing himself away from the wall, and uncrossing his burly arms. "He’s not that good."

Warrin regarded him out of his pale eyes. "Not correct." The tracker stated, in a quiet voice. "He is, in fact, that good, and his threat is a serious one." He glanced around. "We have no one that can take him, one on one."

Wennid let a small sigh of relief pass her lips. At one time, it would have been Lestan who answered that challenge. Nowadays, it might be Jessan.. but even she realized he’d let his skills slip recently and wasn’t up to it. "So.." she said, glancing up at her bondmate. "Even though we can’t take him individually, can his clan take on all of us?" The us was her concession to joining the debate – she was no warrior.

Lestan walked slowly around in a small circle, pacing thoughtfully. "Maybe. I don’t know." He looked around the room. "We try to be a peaceful clan, he doesn’t pretend to that. He trains and drills his fighters year round, all the time. They have an edge."

Warrin grunted. "A big one. We can’t win." Not pessimistic, but just truthful, as they all had come to depend on his advice being. His shadowed eyes scanned them. "My vote goes to backing down."

A terrible thing, to hear from one of their kind. But from Warrin, they heard it, knowing it wasn’t fear that drove him. Fear of death was the least of his worries, bringing him one step closer to reuniting with his long lost lifebond.

Lestan winced. He knew Warrin was probably right.. but it galled the tall forest dweller, and started a sick feeling down deep in the pit of his stomach. "I’ll think about all the options." He finally said, with a heavy sigh. "We have a few days yet."

Brennan gave him a dour look. "Why don’t you ask our guest for advice." He spoke up, bluntly. "I’m sure her thoughts would be worth having."

Warrin slammed a hand against the table. "We don’t involve humans in our affairs, Brennan."

Lestan chewed his lip. He really wanted to ask Xena for her advice, especially now, but... if he had to break his treaty with Hectator, where would she see her duty lying? She was a fair person.. he believed that, but.. "No, it’s too delicate to involve her." He commented, giving Warrin a nod. "But if it comes down to the fighting, I’ll be glad of her sword at my side."

"Are you sure that’s where it would be?" Warrin asked, raising one pale eyebrow at him.

Lestan and Wennid looked at him, and spoke in unison. "Yes." And looked at each other in some surprise. Then Lestan’s mind presented him with a sudden image of himself, down and hurt on the battlefield, and a tall, dark haired woman fighter standing over him, holding off uncounted numbers of crack troops with a skill he’d never seen matched. Nor, he suspected, ever would.

I can’t even ask her.. His mind whirled. And yet.. and yet..Could she? No.. he sighed to himself. She’s injured, and it’s not her fight. Mores the pity.. it’s not the first time I wished her born into my clan. "Warrin, I know you hate the humans – but just as we damn them for judging us for what we seem to be, don’t judge all of them based on past experience." He gazed thoughtfully at the rough hewn table surface. "She’s an honorable person. I like her. "

Brennan rolled his eyes. "Lestan, in case it escaped your notice, most of us also like her." Boyo.. his mind chortled. Most of us would gladly lay our swords at her feet, including me. "I think you’re wrong in not asking her. I don’t’ know what you’re so ashamed of – you think the warlord who ran half of Greece is going to be surprised at interclan squabbling?"

Lestan felt Wennid’s hand on his own, and looked down at her. "What do you think, love?" He asked quietly, gazing deep into her burnished eyes with his own, and feeling their link as a low, deep river of emotion lying just beneath their golden furred exteriors.

Wennid sighed. "You know I am not enamored of her. " Her eyes flicked over the room. "And I know you’re concerned with whose side she’ll take if our treaty with Hectator is broken." She stood, and stretched her body, and shrugged. "But, my heart tells me that she will be a part of this before we’re through, and it behooves us to get the best advice we can." She dusted her hands off. "She’s an expert. Get her expert advice." Not looking at Warrin, who she’d had this argument with a short while earlier.

Lestan grunted. "As I said, I’ll consider all the options. We’re done here. Keep the guard up, and pass the word to the northern outposts to keep their eyes open. "

He waited until they’d all filed out, then regarded Warrin with a gentle wistfulness. "Listen.. I know.."

"No, you don’t." Warrin replied, in a remote voice. "No one does. And I don’t want those humans knowing our gift. I don’t care how much you like them. It dishonors the memory of all of us that have gone before." He stood up, and left the room without a backward glance.

"Well." Lestan sighed. "So much for that." He circled his big arms around Wennid. "And thank you for speaking what was in my heart, love."

Wennid smiled, and relaxed her body, melding into his in a warm cloud of tangled fur. "I hope she gives you good advice, Lesi."

He sighed. "I hope so too. She’s having a lunch with Jessan.. I’ll search her out after that. "

The four of them walked slowly down a shaded path towards the stream, away from the quiet bustle of the village. The path sloped down slightly, and was overgrown with tall trees, providing a canopy that blocked the sun from penetrating, and made the walk a cool journey.

"Nice." Gabrielle sighed, giving Xena a sideways glance. "You doing OK?" Her eyes took in the preoccupied look in her partner’s eyes with some concern.

Xena tilted her head down and smiled. "Yep." She reassured the bard. "Just thinking." She glanced ahead to where Jessan and Elaini were padding along next to each other in relative silence. "Got any ideas for that, yet?" Her head nodded towards the two forest dwellers.

Gabrielle chuckled, and linked her arm through the warrior’s. "Actually, I was hoping you did.. you’re better at that sort of thing than I am."

Got a two raised eyebrow look for that. "What?" Xena snorted. "I don’t think so, my meddling bardic friend."

"Right." Gabrielle retorted. "This from the woman who managed to single handedly solve all of Potadeia’s problems in less than a week. Uh huh." She glanced at Xena’s face, and saw the twinkle in her eyes. "Busted." She chortled, and bumped against her gently.

"See what I can do." The warrior relented, and freed her arm, settling it over Gabrielle’s shoulders and pulling her closer. For someone who doesn’t like public displays of affection.. Her mind teased her. You’ve become quite a mushball, know that? But her body craved the contact, and she was in no mood to argue with herself today.

Gabrielle wound a supportive arm around her, and returned the hug, smiling quietly to herself. Boy, has that ever changed, she reflected. When they’d first started travelling together, she’d had to be really careful about touching Xena. The warrior was as jumpy as a cat in the rain, and even the few times she’d slipped and grabbed an arm, she’d plainly seen the effort it had taken for Xena not to react by slamming her against something

And she could hardly help herself.. she remembered with a rueful smile. Touching was an important part of how she related to other people. She’d practically had to sit on her hands not to reach out with a friendly pat, a hug, a squeeze.. especially when things weren’t going so good, and she’d learned enough about her traveling companion to see when pain, or exhaustion was weighing heavily on those broad shoulders.

Then, one night around the fire, it had become unbearable. It had been one of the longest, worst days they’d had in a long time. Two villages burned to the ground, and a third half destroyed before they had caught up with the warlord’s pillaging troops, and had stopped them, but gods, there had been a lot of them, and they had been good, and it had taken just about all of Xena’s strength, and ferocity to defeat them.

They’d hurt her, Gabrielle knew. She could see it in the warrior’s stiff movements, and in the shadowed eyes she kept focused on the dimly moving fire after they’d eaten a mostly silent dinner and the bard had settled down with her scrolls on her bedroll.

But the scrolls remained empty, as she watched Xena’s tense face in profile instead. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, she quietly rose and walked up behind the warrior, forgetting the warning, forgetting... everything.. and dropped her hands to the knotted shoulders, feeling muscles like iron bands under her probing fingers.

Expecting.. she didn’t know what. To be thrown across the campsite, probably. To be yelled at, definitely. Probably not to even have an effect, since her hands weren’t that strong.

She never was sure, afterward, which one of them was more surprised when not only didn’t she get tossed on her rear, but Xena hadn’t reacted at all. Not a twitch, when Gabrielle had always seen the flinch on contact when she’d touched her before. The tanned skin had felt smooth and warm under her hands, and she’d felt the tension melt out of the stiff muscles, as Xena submitted to the gentle pressure and let her head drop forward and rest against her forearm, which was propped against her raised knee.

Gabrielle had let her hands lay in stillness for a long moment after she’d finished, quietly absorbing the warm feeling the contact was stirring in her. Xena had taken and released a deep breath, and tilted her dark head to regard her companion with a half grin. "Guess I was more tired that I thought. You got lucky."

"Sorry.. I just..." The bard had shrugged helplessly, and given Xena a sheepish grin. "You looked so.. " She stopped and just shook her head. "Sorry."

And Xena had regarded her with a quietly grateful expression. "Don’t be. That felt really good. Thanks."

Gabrielle wondered, after, if that wasn’t the start of everything.. really. Because after that, the warrior never flinched at her touch, and the bard had started to relax her constant need to make sure she didn’t just reach out and put a hand on the woman. Now look at us. Gabrielle giggled to herself, as she tightened her hold.

"Here’s the place." Jessan’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and Gabrielle looked up in surprised pleasure at the pretty little glade he’d led them to. It was surrounded on three sides by towering trees, and bordered on its fourth side by a chuckling tributary to the main stream that provided water to the village.

The mossy ground beneath their feet was soft and springy, and Elaini flopped down with a grin of evident delight. "Nice choice, Jess." She nodded approvingly at him, as he seated himself more decorously nearby.

Gabrielle plunked the basket down and knelt, running her fingers through the soft mossy turf. "This is great." She grinned, giving Xena a sideways glance. "Right?"

"Right." The warrior agreed amiably, as she lowered herself to the ground and relaxed into a reclining position propped on one elbow.

They unpacked the basket, and settled down to lunch, making idle small talk until they’d each gotten a trencher full of food, and leaned back against the warm rocks clustered in the glade.

"So." Elaini mumbled, around a mouthful of food. " Tell me about the 200 people you fought off to save Lestan." Her eyes focused with interest on Xena, who snorted and shook her head.

But Gabrielle just grinned, and was off, telling the entire story of their meeting with Jessan and the events that followed with cheerful enthusiasm, pausing frequently to assemble and chew her food, and make sure Xena was doing the same.

"Here." She handed the warrior a large pear, glaring at her until she took it and started nibbling. "Anyway, where was I?? Oh yeah.. so, we get to Cirron, and.."

Xena leaned back, and let the words run over her, focusing instead on the warmth of the sun that was laying on her like a blanket, and whose rich light was bringing out the golden highlights in Gabrielle’s hair, and the forest dweller’s layered coats.

The lunch had made her feel a lot better, which really wasn’t surprising considering that her body had a lot of rebuilding to do, and needed fuel to do it with. Gabrielle had determinedly chosen items she knew Xena really liked and had badgered her until she’d consumed what the bard thought was sufficient.

So the warrior was pleasantly stuffed, to he point where it was making her a touch sleepy, and she stretched out at full length on the turf, one hand resting on the drowsing Ares, the other propping her head up. Imp. She thought, watching the bard’s graceful hands describing the battle at Cirron. Her mind drifted lazily back to their conversation on the porch, and she mentally shook her head. Gabrielle... do you know what you’re saying? To spend an eternity in torment just.. to be with this beat up ex warlord. Her eyes traced the bard’s profile in loving detail. I’m not sure I can let you do that, love.. but the thought that you’re willing to.. oh Gods, Gabrielle.

Question is.. do I keep going, and hope I can do this as well as I do, for long enough to make up for the last 10 years? What are the chances of that, I wonder? I’ve died once already this year, and came close.. I don’t want to think about how many times. And she’s come close, too. The guilt of that thought settled over her as it always did. What happens the one time I’m just not fast enough to stop that? We’ve been lucky.. don’t know if I want to trust our luck much more.

"No way!’ Elaini laughed, slapping her furred thigh. "I don’t believe it."

Xena realized all eyes were on her. "What?" She inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"You catch fish with your bare hands?" Elaini demanded, crossing her arms. "Sorry, Xena, I know you’re amazing and all that, but..."

The warrior sighed, and gave Ares a pat. "OK.. OK.." She put both hands on the grass, and pushed up, getting her feet under her and standing with a lazy stretch. "I can see I’m going to have to prove this." She slipped out of her soft indoor boots and padded towards the creek before they could say a word.

"Wait.. " Gabrielle laughed, getting to her feet and trotting after the warrior. "Xena..."

The creek was fairly narrow, and fairly fast running, and the vibrant chill contrasted strongly with the warm sun on her shoulders as Xena waded into the water, cheerfully ignoring Gabrielle’s protests. "Shh." She gave the bard a look, then waded deeper, and tilted her head, listening.

Turning out the sound of the wind in the trees, and the bird sounds, and the rustling of the river grass on the bank. Listening to the rhythm of the water, as the fast running stream flowed past her, and detecting its pattern. Finding the out of pattern watery chuckles, and concentrating, hearing them closer, and closer, and now, only, looking down into the dappled water.

Saw the reflection of the sun’s rays against something that wasn’t rock, and wasn’t leaves, and she went very still, letting her stance deepen into a crouch, and becoming part of the stream, her body creating a shadow that the fish found intriguing. So he lazily swam into the shadow, and peered around, looking for his next meal.

And found himself grabbed by the gills, in a movement faster than his eyes could detect, and lifted out of his world and into the sunlight.

"There." Xena said, raising her hand, and displaying her catch, a very large fresh water trout, to both forest dwellers, who were now standing on the creek bank watching in fascination.

"All right.. all right. "Jessan said, glancing at Elaini’s markedly interested face. "Show me how to do that." He waded in the creek, hearing Elaini’s gasp and grinning. He could swim, unlike the balance of his clan, having been taught by the dark haired woman standing in thigh deep water in front of him. "Well?"

"With all the noise you just made, you expect the fish to hang around?" Xena asked, arching an eyebrow. Her eyes glinted. "Here." She said, casually flipping the fish towards him.

"Hey!" The forest dweller yelped, catching the struggling fish, and trying to control it’s erratic movements. "Whoa!" He hollered, as the fish got partially loose, and smacked him the face. "Yow!" His feet slid out from under him on the slick creek floor, and he landed on his back in the cold water.

Came up spitting riverweed, with one long stalk poking from behind one draggled ear, trying manfully to ignore the wild giggles from Gabrielle and the corresponding deeper laughter from Elaini.

"You said you wanted to catch a fish." Xena commented, a devilish look in her blue eyes.
"Didn’t say it had to be in the water."

Jessan narrowed his golden eyes, and, forgetting her recent injuries, lunged at her from his sitting position, wrapping his long arms around her linen clad body and taking them both into deeper water, holding on until she started tickling his ribs, and he let go with a high pitched howl. "Hey! Cut that out!!" He gasped, as they surfaced, and Xena tossed her head to get the dark hair out of her eyes.

Then he remembered. "Gods.. are you OK? I forgot..." He moved towards her clumsily, relaxing when she waved him off.

"Yeah.. fine. Don’t worry about it." Xena laughed, and laid back in the cold clear water, attempting to float. And failing miserably, as usual. She glanced up at Jessan, who was practicing his swimming. "Not bad." She cast her eyes over to the shore, where Elani was anxiously watching, up to her ankles in water. "Why not show your healer friend how to swim?"

Jessan gazed at her, golden head cocked to one side. "Swim. Teach. Elaini?"

"Got the essentials." Xena muttered, flipping over and swimming towards him with lazy overhand strokes. "Sure.. why not?" She reached Jessan’s side, and poked him. "G’wan."

"But.." The forest dweller hesitated. "I mean.."

Got him another poke.

"She doesn’t want to." He hissed at her, darting a glance towards the shore.

A raised eyebrow, and a slow, feral grin. "You didn’t want to either."

He sighed. "All right, I’ll try." Shaking his head, he sloshed towards the shore.

"Uh.." Elaini said, tiptoeing back out of the water. "No.. really.. uhm... I have... things.. no, really.."

Bumping into Gabrielle who suddenly was standing in back of her. "Hi." The bard said, putting a firm hand on her shoulder. "You should try it. Really.. it’s a lot of fun."

"Well.. uh no, no thanks, Gabrielle, really." Elaini stammered, but didn’t retreat any further. "I don’t.. Jessan, what are you doing?" The tall forest dweller had climbed out of the water, and was approaching her.

"It’s not hard." Jessan said, soothingly. "it’s really nice.. you can feel the life in the water all around you, Elaini."

They looked at each other, with an understanding common only to their kind.

"Xena taught me.. just like she taught me lots of other things" Jessan’s eyes softened. "I’d like to teach you."

Elaini gazed at him, noticing for the first time just how the light sparkled in his eyes. "Oh." She breathed. "I guess I could try. A little."

Xena pulled herself through the water, until she reached the side, where Gabrielle was seated on a rock dabbling her feet in the water. They both watched as Jessan carefully took Elaini’s hand, and led her into the stream, grinning a little at her gasp of surprise at the coldness of the water.

"Nice plan." Gabrielle whispered, giving the dark hair close at hand a gentle tug.

‘Thanks. I thought so." Xena deadpanned, splashing her with a handful of water.

"Cut that out." The bard warned. "Or else."

Xena reached one hand out of the water, and closed her fingers around Gabrielle’s arm. "Or else what." She asked, letting a slow grin cross her face.

"Uh... well, let’s see.. " Gabrielle thought furiously. "Why can’t I ever come up with some clever thing to say to keep you from throwing me in the water?" she finally finished, exasperation coloring her tone.

"Try ‘please don’t’.’’ Xena replied, taking her hand away and letting her body sink into the cool running water. She watched Jessan coaxing Elaini step by step into the deeper water, and smiled.

Felt a gentle hand run its fingers through her damp hair, and turned her head, to gaze up at the bard’s face. "What’s up?"

"I love you." Gabrielle responded unexpectedly, tracing one finger across the warrior’s cheekbone, and down the sharp line of her jaw. "That's all."

That got a grin from Xena. "And look. I’m already all wet. " Gabrielle blushed. "So it’s safe for me to say I love you right back, right?"

"Right." The bard sighed happily.

Xena stood up, and let the water drain off her body. "Think I need to dry off." She said, with a rueful grin. "Care to join me?"

They walked up the bank, to a sunny spot overlooking the creek, and settled down, watching the swimming lesson with mutually amused eyes.

"Think we did our job?" Gabrielle asked, reclining next to her partner.

"Mmm." Xena mumbled, soaking in the sun, which was rapidly drying her tunic and warming her through. "Sure." She opened one eye. "Right."

Gabrielle chuckled, and pulled the basket closer, reaching inside and removing a few of the nut and honey balls. "Open wide." She teased, and got the expected look in return. With a grin, she popped a morsel into the warrior’s mouth, and watched her chew and swallow. "Like?"

Xena let the stuff slide down her throat and made a humming noise. "Mmm..hmmm.." Her eyes twinkled, and Gabrielle produced a second confection, then more, until she’d finished them all.

This is a bad idea. She tried to tell herself. If I do go home, between her and mother, I’m gonna be in a world of trouble. And she tried to feel concerned about that, but the concern kept sliding away from her, washed away by the warm sun, and the cool breeze stirring her now drying hair, and Gabrielle’s nearby presence.

"Pretty day." Gabrielle sighed, as she resumed her relaxed position at Xena’s side, idly pulling out the folds of the warrior’s damp tunic to better catch the sun. She grinned as she saw Xena’s eyes drifting shut, and watched her partner try to fight it. No no.. my friend. That’s your body telling you it needs rest to heal, even this bard knows that. She moved a little closer, and slid a hand through the loosened openings in the fabric covering Xena’s chest, finding her skin cool to the touch from the water. "Nice breeze." She commented softly, letting her fingers move across the ribbed abdominal muscles in a gentle pattern. That’s it.. she mentally chuckled, as the blue eyes blinked sleepily, then slid closed.

Xena felt her awareness slip as an insidious drowsiness crept up on her, weighing her eyelids down with an almost irresistible force. The sounds of the meadow sharpened as her other senses relaxed, and she spent a long moment listening to the combination of sounds that made up the area.

A gentle thump as a rabbit sensed their presence. The rolling crack of the wood bird making its nest.

I shouldn’t drift off like this. A token protest, but Gabrielle’s warm body was now nestling closer, and the bards fingers were tracing gentle patterns under the fabric of her tunic, that were pulling the warrior deeper and deeper into sleep. Guess I was more tired than I thought..

And a sound penetrated her warm golden haze. A sound that sharpened her senses, and brought her sitting upright so quickly, she nearly bowled over Gabrielle.

"What is it?" The bard whispered, seeing the tense, listening attitude.

"Someone’s calling for help." Xena breathed, and hauled herself up, moving Ares out of the way with a gentle nudge, and turning her head to determine what direction the call was coming from.

"You hear that?" She called to Jessan, who paused in his instruction, and cocked his head. "Sounds like someone calling for help."

Both forest dwellers strained their ears, but it was long minutes before the voice came again, and it was closer, and more desperate.

"Please.. someone .. anyone. Help us.." The voice called, from the woods to their north.

"Damn. " Xena cursed, leaning forward and breaking into a run down the near side of the creek. A wave of dizziness momentarily blurred her vision. No time for that now. She grimly told herself, shaking her head to clear it, and kept moving, aware of Gabrielle’s following steps, and the splashing as Jessan and Elaini pulled themselves up out of the water and started in pursuit.

The warrior headed up the well-beaten path next to the creek, listening hard for the cries, and heard them. Heard panic now in the tone, and felt her body responding with an additional burst of speed as she rounded a bend of the stream and spotted the source.

Two forest dwellers, on the other side of the creek. One supporting the other, and even from here, Xena could see the crimson stain of blood stiffening their coats. She slowed momentarily, looking for a way across the water, then sighed, and headed diagonally across the path, straight for the edge of the bank.

Three long steps and she was airborne, diving into the water in a clean slice, and starting a strong pull towards the opposite shore, moving across the current with skillful strokes.

Heard the splash as her companions followed, and put her head down to clear the last fast moving current, spotting a long branch extending out over the stream and, getting her feet firmly under her and on the shallow bottom, kicked off and launched herself towards it.

Felt her hands wrap automatically around the branch, and realized too late that her injuries were going to make this little trick particularly painful. The momentum saved her, and enabled her to use a twist of her shoulders to bring her body up and over the bank, and she let go of the branch, twisting in mid air and coming down jarringly hard with a jolt that sent a shock of pain all through her. Boy. That was stupid. Her mind spat in disgust, as she shook herself off, and started running towards the two forest dwellers again.

They were both very young, she realized, as she came up on them, and they stared at her with rounded golden eyes. "It’s all right. " she said, holding both hands out. "What happened?"

The paler of the two glanced nervously behind him, and dropped to the ground, easing his companion to the leaf littered floor gently. "It was a patrol.." He said, softly, cradling the other forest dweller’s head against his chest. "Just a little scrap, nothing.. but Ereth got cut.’

Xena knelt down next to the injured boy, and parted the fur with gentle fingers. Her eyes closed in reaction, and she took a deep breath. Cut. This wasn’t a cut, it was a mortal wound. Her mind supplied wearily. The gash had severed some of the arteries that carried blood around the boy’s body, and with each beat of his heart, a red gush pulsed out from the wound.

Damn. Her mind cursed, and she glanced over her shoulder, seeing Gabrielle about to make the swim over. "Hold on!" She yelled, wincing as her stomach muscles protested the effort needed to project her voice.

Gabrielle glanced up, and waited. "Need my kit!"

The bard nodded in understanding.

"Gabrielle.." She added, pausing as her partner hesitated. "Run!"

And the bard took off, balling her hands into fists, and starting back up the path as fast as she was able.

Reflexively, Xena’s hands went to the cut, and pressed, temporarily slowing the flow of blood, but Xena could see the paleness already etching a path around the forest dweller’s muzzle, and she knew his time was limited. Heavy breathing and footsteps told her of Jessan and Elaini’s arrival, and she looked over her shoulder as they came up on either side of her, and Elaini knelt down.

Pulled aside one of Xena’s hands, and saw the blood flow. Blue eyes and golden met, and Elani’s shoulders slumped in acknowledgment. She moved around to the injured boy’s companion, and took him by the arms.

"Gennen.." The boy looked up at her, and swallowed. "That’s a very bad cut." Her voice was gentle, and she held onto him like a child.

"No." He said softly, searching her face, then turning his pleading eyes to Xena. "No. please..." His arms tightened around Ereth.

Xena’s heart hurt looking at him. She glanced down at the injured boy, who blinked up at her slowly, with a quiet knowledge in his eyes. A faint smile twitched the blood stained lips, and he lifted a shaking hand and touched hers.

Jessan knelt down at her side, and put a hand on her leg. "Who did this, Gennen?" His golden eyes gently searched the boy’s face. "Was it one of Secan’s guard?"

The pale golden furred Gennen nodded, clasping his arms tighter around his companion. "Jessie, can you.." He looked down at Ereth, whose eyes were fluttering closed.

Jessan turned his head, and studied Xena’s profile, which was frozen in concentration as she tried to stem the flow of Ereth’s lifeblood from his body. "They’re lifemates." He said, quietly, in a voice so soft only her ears could hear it.

Knew she heard, from the sudden clamping of her jaw that made the muscles stand out sharply against her tanned skin.

They sat in an unnatural stillness, not speaking, until they finally heard pounding footsteps, and ragged breathing as Gabrielle flung her dripping wet form down at Xena’s side, and started pulling things out of the kit she’d brought.

"Gut, thin needle, hurry." The warrior murmured, watching as the bard focused her concentration on threading the needle, and then handed it to her. "Put your hands here."

Gabrielle put her hands where she was told, and held them, feeling the warm blood seep through her fingers. Watching Xena’s emotionless face as she worked with a speed she seldom had to employ, and working mostly by touch, managed to get the broken arteries tied off.

She took a breath, and closed her eyes, fighting off another dizzy spell. Damn.. where are those coming from, anyway? No time, Xena... no time. She reached down deep and went for her reserves, and her vision cleared. "Not much chance." She said, glancing at Elaini.

"Wouldn’t have even tried what you did so far." The healer answered honestly.

Xena nodded, and took a deep breath again, then willed her hands not to shake, and continued to work, sealing the gaping cut with agonizing precision.

Pausing for a moment, and watched in grateful approval as Gabrielle sprinkled the wound with healing herbs, and wiped the area down with a bit of linen dipped in cleanser. "Thanks." She said softly.

Gabrielle smiled grimly, and finished her work, then sat back on her heels and looked at Xena.

They were all looking at her, she realized, as she took the last stitch, and trimmed the raw skin and fur back away from the wound with her small knife. "OK." She sighed, resting her hands on her knees. "All I can do. Rest is up to him."

"Let’s wait a bit and see what happens." Elaini responded calmly, settling down next to Gennen and putting a comforting arm around him. Jessan sat down on the other side of the injured forest dweller, and put a hand on his shoulder, watching the shallow breathing.

"I think you need to sit down." Gabrielle’s voice uttered, near Xena’s left ear. "Come on."

"Hmm?" The warrior replied, looking at her. "Oh.. no, I’m OK." Liar. And she knows it. "On the other hand, we might have a long wait. So.. " She started to stand and realized that was a bad idea when her vision tunneled, and she felt a queasy buzzing in her ears. Then a pair of warm hands gripped her arm, and with a determined effort, she forced away the swimming darkness, and took several deep breaths. She blinked a few times, and Gabrielle’s concerned face came in to focus. "Sorry about that." She gave the bard a half grin.

"You’re scaring me." Gabrielle said quietly.

"It’s.. OK. " Xena sighed. "Not unexpected, given what happened, and the fact that I just did some things I probably shouldn’t have." She allowed Gabrielle to lead her over to a fallen log, and they both sat down and leaned back against it, watching the silent tableau in front of them.

"Are they.." Gabrielle whispered, tucking her arm through Xena’s.

Xena nodded, watching Gennen’s agonized face.

"No.. " The pale furred forest dweller was moaning softly. "Don’t leave me.. please.." He pleaded, as he rocked his lifemate gently. "You can't leave me all alone, Ereth, please.."

And the words catapulted Xena back to a memory she shied from always, which visited her in her dreams and made the worst of her nightmares. A healing temple in Thessaly, with war cascading around them and the smell of blood and death that soaked through the place like fog on a damp, cold morning.

Her lack of good judgment had led them there. Her damned sure knowledge that she always knew the right thing to do.

And at first, it seemed right - because her skills had saved lives, and taught lessons to healers more used to the odd farming accident and skin rash than to the savageries of war. And then one more in a long line of stretchers had come in, but the body on it had been achingly familiar.

Damn you, Gabrielle.. what were you thinking of, to run out there under fire, in the middle of a war? Thinking of someone else, as usual. But not yourself, and the blood on that pale face had almost taken Xena to her knees in disbelief. No... she hadn’t been prepared for that. She’d lifted the bard off the stretcher and taken care of her with hands that would have shook like a leaf, if she’d allowed them to.

And the bard had faced up to the horrible pain, and what she felt was coming with the clear eyed bravery that was so, so typical of her.

She had been dying, and that knowledge had ripped a hole inside Xena so large she could hardly stand to think about it. My fault. Kept running through her head, and made her so sick to her stomach that she couldn't bring herself to eat or drink, or even think straight.

Ephiny. Her face when Gabrielle called her over, and gave her rite of caste. "I won’t be needing it." She’d said, with sad sureness. And then, after Ephiny had left, their eyes had met, and she’d known her heart was there, wide open, for Gabrielle to see if she had a mind to.

They hadn’t said a word to each other, but what passed between them left Xena exhausted, and the bard with tears tracking down her face.

Two moments.. one bright, one dark - the birth of Ephiny’s centaur son, all limbs and squalling vigor, which brought a faint glad spark to her heart.

Then the sounds of choking, as Gabrielle went into convulsions and Xena felt, in a real sense, the better part of her world toppling.

She had grabbed the bard, and tried to stop the convulsions, and felt the horrible sinking drop of her stomach as she felt Gabrielle's breathing stop.

Then her heartbeat stop.

And an ex warlord, who had seen the deaths of thousands, and watched without emotion acts of war that would chill Ares himself, found that her heart could not withstand the death of a friend.

It shattered her composure, and she found herself babbling in panic at the healers, seeing the pity in their eyes at her useless attempts to regain a loss that was beginning to fill her with a roaring, unending darkness.

And in a lone single moment in the quiet of her soul, a silent plea had gone out that was powered with all the strength of her will, towards someone she’d just begun to know, and was stunned to realize she wasn’t capable of living without.

The plea was answered, and Gabrielle had turned willingly from the Elysian Fields and returned to a painful, anguished present, gasping for air, and clasping the shaking arms of that desperately relieved ex warlord, who had let tears fall unashamedly down her face, and cradled the dazed bard in her arms for what seemed like forever.

And afterward, she’d sat braced against the crumbling wall, in the semi darkness of the half-abandoned temple, just watching Gabrielle sleep. Not taking her eyes off that pale face for an instant, not even to trim the wick on the guttering candle by her side.

Thinking about all the things that had happened to them in the past year. About the good times, and the people they’d helped. About the bad times, and the sadness, and the pain they’d both gone through.

About how her feelings for Gabrielle had progressed from tolerance, to amused affection, to the warmth of friendship.

And now? She’d closed her eyes for a brief instant, then popped them open and focused them again on the bard’s face. And knowingly, consciously, took the long closed locks off her heart, and admitted to herself that she’d broken one of her most strongly held rules.

She’d fallen in love.

With someone who, for her own good, she hoped would never find that out.

But that night she had just sat there, in the gathering darkness, and had been glad that their friendship had been strong enough to draw the bard back. The shadowy emptiness she knew was coming when the bard tired of her life on the road and left to settle somewhere had been postponed. And for right now, that was enough.

She felt a hand on her forehead, and opened her eyes, gazing at Gabrielle’s face with grateful appreciation. "Hey."

"Oh.. OK." Gabrielle said, removing her hand, and brushing the warrior’s cheek with her knuckles. "You looked a little out of it there." A shiver passed through her, as the cool wind dried the damp fabric around her body, and she huddled a little closer to Xena.

"No cold bards." Xena said, shifting and putting both arms around her. "I was just thinking, that’s all." She hugged Gabrielle hard, and didn’t let go for a long, long moment, which she spent with her face buried in the bard’s hair, just breathing in her familiar scent. Finally she raised her head and whispered in the nearby ear. "Thanks."

"For what?" Gabrielle asked, as she snuggled closer. Wonder what that was all about...

"Just for being here." Came the surprising answer, as Xena let her chin rest on the bard’s damp head, and watched the forest dwellers in their vigil.

"No place else I’d wanna be." Gabrielle sighed, feeling the warmth of the hug begin to penetrate her chilled body. "Mmm.. that feels really good." She laid her head down on Xena’s shoulder.

The late afternoon sunlight cleared the surrounding treetops on it’s journey to sunset, sending rich yellow stripes of warmth over them, and bathing the forest dwellers in a golden pool. Jessan and Elaini sat motionless, supporting the traumatized Gellen, and watching the unconscious Ereth’s faintly moving chest. The injured boy seemed on the edge of leaving this life, with his shallow breathing and bloodless features. But the will to live still held him, and the breathing, though slight, was steady.

They waited a long time, until finally Elaini reached down, and checked the faint thready pulse, and looked up at Jessan. "We’ll need a stretcher." She said calmly, and the tension seemed to flow out of him like water.

Jessan rose, and dusted his trousers off, laying his hand on Gellen’s bowed head. "Steady, my friend. We’ll bring you both home." He turned and padded over to where Xena and Gabrielle were quietly waiting, and crouched down by them. "Xena... you’ve given him a chance." His lips curled into a smile, and he laid his hand on her arm. "Thank you." Thank you, my human friend, who teaches me again, and again how few differences there really are between us. ‘I’m going to get some help to get him home." His eyes searched hers. "Do you need.." Help? And she’ll say no. Just like one of us.

Xena shook her head. "Nope. I’ll be fine." She kept up her steady stare, and dared him to disagree. I got here on my own, I’ll get back. But she had to chuckle at herself. Stubborn old mule.

Gabrielle studied her face, noting the returned color, and the more normal alert look about her eyes, and decided not to call her on it. She gave Jessan a wink, and noted the twitch of his lips in reply. "We’ll wait for you to get back, Jess."

Xena nodded. "Don’t want to leave these guys unprotected." A matter-of-fact statement that obliquely reminded Jessan, again, of what she was. Even now, even injured, and at reduced capacity, she was dangerous. More so than most of his kind would be.

"I feel better knowing that." He said, and meant it. "Take care." And with a pat on the arm, he stood and loped down the path next to the creek, moving in and out of the patterned bars of sunlight filtering through the trees.

Continued in Part IV