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:

Oh yeah – and by the way – I know I said this darn thing would conclude with part 8. I lied. Sorry.


 Bound – Part 8

By Melissa Good

Gabrielle had slid closer, until she had a good view of the field of battle. Her heart was pounding hard, as she watched Xena make her challenge to Secan.. Probably pounding harder than hers is. She concluded, as her eyes followed the easy, graceful movements of her partner. C’mon, can take this guy. I know you can.

A sound to her left snapped her head around, and there was Warrin, his pale eyes hooded, looking back at her. Her hand tightened around the staff, and she tensed, but his put a hand up, and gave her a little shake of the head.

"No need, human." His eyes went out over the field, and fastened on the two antagonists. "I didn’t expect her to do that." He regarded her emotionlessly. "He’ll kill her, you know."

"No he won’t." The bard replied, then grinned as Xena hauled off and slugged the much larger forest dweller, giving him a bloody nose. "Oh.. good one, Xena.!"

Warrin blinked. "You don’t understand." He said, unaware of the softening of his tone. "Secan is the best there is."

"Second best." Gabrielle answered, not even looking at him. "And you’re the one who doesn’t’ understand."

"What makes you so sure?" The pale forest dweller growled, as the first hissing clash of steel rolled over the battlefield.

"Because I said so." The bard replied, eyes glued to the fighters. That’s it.. gods.. watch it! Oh.. good one.. good one… whoa!

"And you think that makes it so?" Warrin breathed, shaking his head in sorrow.

Gabrielle turned her head, and stared right into his eyes. "That’s the secret, Warrin. You gotta believe in something so much, you make it happen." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "And I believe in her like nothing else on earth." Her eyes flicked to the bow slung across his back. "What’s that for?"

Warrin smiled. "I have my own agenda." He replied, in a silky smooth voice.

Gabrielle risked a glance away from him. Xena seemed to be holding her own, she turned back. "You’d better not aim a single one of them towards her."

Warrin laughed gently. "You’re no warrior."

The bard met his eyes. "For that, I'll become one."

And, curiously, looking into those sea green eyes, he believed her.

Xena knew, from his first stroke, which she parried, that it was going to be a long morning. Secan was almost two feet taller than she was, and more than double her weight. His strength almost did her in, until she could figure the angles, and knew how to deflect his momentum off.

Then it became a battle of her skills and superior speed against his strength, and he found out very quickly that he needed to watch the violence of his strokes, an overshoot past her meant a painful buffet, and once when he was very unlucky a sharp slash along his ribs.

He stepped back, and took a breather, then stepped back in and slammed his hilts against hers, trying to drive her back.

Oh no.. not that trick. Xena mentally rolled her eyes, and slid underneath the thrust of his blow, letting him go past her and getting in her own solid hit on his side. She parried his return backslash, and jumped over his outstretched arm, kicking back and connecting one booted foot against his kneecap. He howled, and slammed his fists against her back, but she was already moving, and the blow just pushed her into an already begun flip.

Which she completed, and slashed inward, surprising him and putting another crease on his ribcage. "You’re too slow for me, Secan. " She laughed, taking one deep step towards him, and pushing herself skyward, lashing out with powerful leg and hitting his collarbone. He staggered back, and didn’t swing, as she landed the jump, and twirled her sword around her wrist, then advanced towards him.

His chest was heaving, and he couldn’t help but notice that hers wasn’t. Damn her.. every stroke she parried, every lunge she diverted.. it was as though she could read his mind, and knew exactly what he was going to do. He took a breath, and settled down. No matter…

And he was on the attack again, probing for weak spots in her defense, no longer seeing her as human, but as a hated opponent whose skills he now took for granted. He used his height and reach advantage to gain a higher angle against her, slamming his weapon down against hers amid a shower of brilliant sparks.

She took the force of the blow, and allowed it to continue through to the bottom of the stroke, and then pulled the weapons towards her, and up into a circular motion.

Ah. His mind smiled. I’ve got her. Almost directly under him, and well within his stroke range. Fast, she was, but he was stronger, and a direct downward slice… she’d no more be able to block than she would be to fly off like a bird. He let his blow slide off hers, and swung the weapon up again, then with a striking speed, brought it directly down towards her head.

Oh Hades. Xena sighed, realizing the position she’d put herself in. I’m in for it. She saw his swing up, and the start of the descending blade, then her body was reacting with automatic precision and she was lifting her own weapon to block his downstroke.

Time slowed, and the memory of Gabrielle’s words echoed through her consciousness. You do things because you convince yourself you can. All right. Xena blanked her mind, and thought about only one thing. I can block this stroke. And set her will into motion, as the his steel blade impacted hers, and the shock of the blow jarred through her shoulders and knees, which flexed to take the weight of it.

She willed herself to hold, willed her arms not to collapse under the stress, willed herself to keep that heavy blade from cleaving her unprotected skull, and felt the dark energy respond with a powerful surge. Sorry Secan… you’re not nearly enough to make me break that promise.

Saw his look of triumph shift to startlement, then disbelief as his downward momentum wasn’t shifted, wasn’t redirected, it was simply stopped, as though he’d tried to cut into a mountain. They stood locked for an endless moment, before Xena leaned forward slightly, and straightened her crouch, throwing him back and flinging his sword to one side.

She was right. Xena’s mind chuckled in delight. It is all in my head. She moved forward a step, and felt that part of her that was part of Ares surge up, excited by this new revelation. "What’s the matter, Secan? Having problems?" She laughed softly. He was wrong about this lifebond stuff.. and so was I. Xena realized suddenly, as she slammed her weapon against his, and drove him back another pace.

It doesn’t make you weaker. The fire in her rose now, and she slashed again, and again, making the forest dweller frantic in his attempts to block the blows, which crashed through his defenses, and shocked him with their power.

It makes you… want to live so much, you just refuse to be defeated. She would have laughed if she hadn’t been in the middle of a fight to the death. What an idiot he was. She shoved him back with another overhand blow, locking their swords together, and saw his other hand fling out in a gesture that caused warning bells to explode in her head.

Warrin slid around to the side, blending his dappled pale coat in with the grey bark on a tree just to one side of the battlefield. He had a good view - and found himself pausing just to watch the combat.

She was… he was forced to admit, everything Jessan claimed her to be. He removed his bow from his shoulder, and strung it quickly, then settled both hands on the top of it, and watched a moment longer.

Secan was having troubles, he noted, his movements were getting a touch more frantic, and he was no longer smiling. All his strokes, his efforts.. were turned aside as though he were a rank cub against a master. Warrin could see her sharp, steady gaze focused in concentration, eyes shifting, body making automatic movements that seemed to flow without pause.

When she launched up, and kicked him, Warrin even laughed a little, at the look on Secan's face. So. The storyteller was right after all, it seemed..but wait…

Now he moved, sliding to one side of the tree, and nocking shaft to bowstring in one fluid motion. Saw her steel meet his over her head, and let a breath trickle out in a soft chuckle when it went no further. He drew his arm to full extention, and focused his long sight on his target. There. The angle was right, and he was so close….

Xena heard the arrow release, and knew, with her hands locked on her blade hilt, she had no chance of stopping it. Hope it hits something non vital. Her mind grimly wished. Or at least gives me time to finish this bastard off.

She heard a rushing sound behind her, and the sickening impact of a heavy shaft, but felt nothing, and couldn’t turn to see what had happened. Instead, she focused on him, and saw his eyes looking over her shoulder in disbelief.

Only for a minute, though, because her next blow, driven as much by will as by muscle, disarmed him, and sent his long sword flying through the air.

Time stopped, and she saw the rage take over his face, as he let out a blood-chilling roar and came at her, powerful arms sweeping towards her with deadly claws extended.

She waited, with patience honed from a lifetime on the battlefield, until his leap was committed, and he had no way to stop himself.

Then she shifted her grip on her sword, crouched, and let him come down, feeling the claws tear at her, until it was almost too late, and then she uncoiled her legs and brought the sword point straight up driven with all the power her body could muster.

Shoving the razor sharp blade up through his battlecoat, and past his wildly heaving ribcage, and into his heart, showering her with a rich, red explosion of hot blood.

He went right over her, and landed on his back, hands twitching in shock towards the length of steel protruding from his body

Then she looked up. To see Lestan’s forces lined up in full array, the archers foremost with quarrels nocked and ready, pointed past her, at Secan’s fighters.

And not two body lengths behind her, lay huddled a limp, pale yellow form, curled up and still. Silence fell as Xena turned her back on the dying Secan, and walked over to the form, kneeling down and putting a hand on the shuddering shoulder. Turned him over gently, as saw Warrin’s face contorted in pain, as his hands clutched the long, heavy shaft he’d intercepted.

His eyes opened, and he looked up, relief showing there. "Ssso. It.. was to good ef..fect." He stuttered, hardly breathing.

"Don’t talk, don’t move." Xena said, reaching for the arrow. "Let me see what I can do with this."

The head jerked, and his eyes found hers. "Nno." His hand grabbed her wrist. "Paid my dues to Ares, just now.. Chosen." He blinked at her. "Don’t.. deny me.. this."

Xena looked at him for a very long moment. Then she let her free hand rest on his shoulder, and gave a jab and a twist, and saw his face change. "Just stops the pain." She said quietly, watching him.

He nodded. "I was wrong… about you. Sorry." His eyes drifted over her shoulder. "Wrong about her.. sorry I … tried…"

The warrior just shook her head. "It’s past, Warrin." Her fingertips touched the feathered shaft. "I understand why you did it."

They looked at each other in silence, then his eyes unfocused a little. "She said.. she’d wait." His gaze flicked dreamily to hers. "Wonder if that’s true." He glanced down at the arrow and grimaced. "Wonder how long…"

Xena felt a lump rising in her throat, but she caught his eyes, and put her hand on the shaft, an unspoken question in her gaze. He nodded in understanding, and a look of profound relief flooded into his face.

One quick twist, was all. And the point punctured his heart. His eyes widened as he felt it, then fixed over her left shoulder, as he let out several shallow breaths, not seeing her anymore.

Then his expression softened, and his eyes lit up like stars, and a smile spread across his features, and his lips moved their last. "She did."

His body went limp under her hands, and Xena bit her lip hard, swallowing down the heaviness in her throat that threatened to choke her. "Hope I get as lucky, Warrin." She whispered, reaching out one blood covered hand and gently closing his sightless eyes. A touch fell on her shoulder, and she looked up to see Wennid there.

"He’s at peace." The forest dweller murmured softly. "At last." She looked up as Jessan joined her, and the forest dweller put a gentle hand on Xena’s arm as he crouched next to her.

"You all right?" He said softly, glancing over his shoulder. "They’re holding Gabrielle back.. didn’t want her to get hurt… not with all these bows drawn."

Xena bit back a smile. "Better let her go, before she hurts someone." She patted his leg. "I’m fine, but tell her to wait until we get things settled here."

Jessan nodded, and gave her shoulders a squeeze. "That was… incredible." Then he stood, and loped back to the treeline

"Let me go." Gabrielle's voice hit a low growl, as she twisted in the grasp of an uneasy and upset Deggis. "I said."

Jessan came trotting back, and gave Deggis a signal. "Whoa.." he put a hand up, as the bard started in the direction of the battle. "Gabrielle.. please.. hold on a minute. She said.."

The bard stopped, and gave him a look. "Jess…"

"Not my fault." Jessan sighed. "She said to wait a minute, till she was done out there. Please."

Gabrielle glanced past his shoulder, and winced. "All right." She said softly, as she watched what her partner was doing. Oh gods… She closed her eyes and swallowed hard to quell the sudden nausea. No way, Gabrielle - you told her to do this. Now you watch, damn you, because this is what she is.

So she forced her eyes open, forced herself to see the blood, and the violence, and the savage primal stregnth that was part and parcel of who her partner was. Gods.

The enemy force parted before her like a school of fish around a predator. She walked into their midst, her sword still dripping with Secan's blood, and they backed away from her menace with universal unease. A few moments only, and then she was turning her back on them, and walking back towards Gabrielle, her face a cold, silent mask.

The bard took a deep, shaky breath. This side of her scares me so much.. I see it, and I know It's there, and not too deep down, either. She crossed her arms and looked down at the ground. But you have to take all of it or none, right? The good, and the bad, the dark and the light. Because she's both. Trick is.. put the good side of her so firmly in charge, that even when she does bad things, she does them for the right reasons. That's.. horrible.

But loving her.. means loving all that she is. Not just the parts I like. Gabrielle watched the steadily moving form coming closer, walking through the high pale grasses. To anyone else watching, the bard knew, she was the picture of a victorious, barbaric fighter.

But Gabrielle saw her armor shift, as she took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders, raising her eyes to idly scan the treeline. And knew what those eyes were looking for.

Yeah. Incredible. Xena bowed her head for a moment, then stood, and turned towards Secan’s forces. They were dead still, eyes watching her, and the motionless body of their leader. She walked slowly over to him, and stared down, feeling a wave of exhaustion crash over her. Well, that’s to be expected. She sighed, glancing up at the sun. But I had time enough. She looked around, taking in the hundreds of forest dwellers poised on either side of the clearing. The grass would have run red with blood.. what was I thinking of? If Gabrielle hadn’t.. would I have let this go on? She looked inside herself for a long moment, then allowed a tiny smile to cross her lips. No. That was plan A all the time, wasn’t it, you old fraud. You just needed Gabrielle to give you a kick in the pants. Perversely, it made her feel better to know that.

Now.. how do I prevent this from happening again in the near future, for the next Secan who comes along? She stared thoughtfully down at the cooling body. Well, first things first. She put a booted foot on his chest, and grabbed her sword hilt, giving it a powerful tug and pulling it loose from his body. Then she sniffed reflectively, and wiped the blade down on one fur-covered leg.

Well, this will at least catch their attention. She decided, then grabbed the dead forest dweller’s battlecoat, and heaved him up, straining hard against the weight. You’ve only got one chance at this, Xena. Better make it good, because it’s going to look extremely stupid if you don’t.

Taking a deep breath, she got herself ready, then released her grasp, and drew her sword, putting all her remaining energy into three savage cuts that sliced through the russet body with a wrenching, grating sound.

Five parts. She noted, trying to catch her breath. Not bad, Xena, not bad. You haven’t quite lost that macabre touch after all. Walking forward, she grabbed the severed head, and picked it up, continuing to walk towards Secan’s forces. Saw the uneasy fear in their eyes, and smiled. When she was in range, she drew her arm back, and let fly, sending the head into their midst, and striking the tall silver lieutenant squarely in the chest with it.

He flinched, and gasped, and jumped back, as the heavy round object thumped to the ground, scattering a fine spray of blood everywhere. His eyes bulged, and he looked up at her with a sickened expression.

She swaggered into their midst, and let her blade rest casually on her shoulder, ignoring the blood still dripping off it. "Which one of you fired that arrow?" She asked, in a low growl.

Eyes flickered back and forth, and then a smaller archer stepped forward. "I did." His voice cracked slightly, and he flushed. Xena noted the angry red brand welt on his arm, and grimaced. So.. this was his shot at redemption, huh? Her sword flicked forward and pressed against his neck, driving him back against a tree.

Silence fell, as they all watched her. She stepped closer, and ran the edge of the sword around his neck, and down the front of his battlecoat. "Said I’d skin the next person who shot an arrow at me." She let her eyes narrow. "Maybe I’ll do it with you still alive." Feeling the shudder run through them but keeping her eyes pinned on the archer. "How would that feel, I wonder?"

He swallowed hard, and she could see his chest heaving. She moved up right next to him, and smelled the fear rising from his furred body. "You like this feeling?"

He shook his head, unable to speak, unable to look away from those bizarrely pale eyes.

"No one else does either." Xena remarked, tapping him on the head with her sword blade. "Think about that, ok?" She turned away from him, and affected not to notice when he slid down the trunk of the tree in a huddled mass. Now her eyes were on Kelten. "Blood debt’s paid." She said, now letting the point of her sword rest on his chest, just tickling the skin through his battlecoat.

His nostrils flared, and he managed a slight nod.

"Get out of here." Her voice hit its lowest register. "Don’t come back." She flipped the sword back and pointed it towards Lestan’s waiting group. "That’s my clan. If I hear of you so much as picking flowers on their territory… I might get mad." She smiled at him. "You really don’t want that, right?"

"No, Chosen." His voice was hoarse.

"Good." She smiled again, not refuting his title for her. That always brought nothing but trouble.. maybe it’ll help for a change. It’s what they respect, I guess. Bet Ares is up there laughing his head off. She rolled her eyes mentally. "Now, get out." She paused. "And take what’s left of your… leader… " She spat in the grass in disgust. "We don’t want any scavengers getting sick around here."

And so they did, two of them trudging forward to the beaten circle in the grass where they had fought, and gingerly collecting the pieces Xena had left them. The rest melted into the forest, leaving Lestan’s fighters to slowly put down their weapons, and look at each other in delighted disbelief.

Xena walked slowly back across the clearing, letting the thigh high grasses slap against her legs, idly sweeping her blade across them and shearing off the tips. The sun overhead felt good on her shoulders, and she rolled her head forward to release the tension that had built during the fight, letting the welcome warmth tickle the back of her neck. Well, that’s that, I guess. Her mind mused quietly. Wonder what Gabrielle thought of it. I know she said to do what I had to but… maybe it’s more of my dark side than she wants to deal with. Wouldn’t blame her.

Footsteps brought her head back up, and she saw Gabrielle’s trotting form heading towards her. Seconds later, she was being wrapped in a pair of enthusiastic arms. "Hey.. wait.. Gabrielle, don’t.. I’m all covered in.."

"Blood." The bard acknowledged, hugging her harder. "No kidding. But it’ll wash off."

"But you’ll get it all over yourself." Xena said, gently, aware of just how gory she was.

Gabrielle looked up and studied her with loving attention. "I don’t care." She wrapped her arms around Xena's neck. "So I'll have to take a bath too. " She hesitated. "That was awesome."

Xena’s lips twitched and she let her sword drop, returning the bard’s hug and feeling the cough as she squeezed the breath out of her. "Think so?"

The bard nodded.

"I just killed someone, and cut them into pieces, Gabrielle. " The warrior said softly.

Gabrielle pulled back, and tugged the edge of her breastplate. "You just saved hundreds of lives, and the existence of Lestan’s people, Xena." Her eyes were serious. "And you did it by risking your own life, and destroying someone who made a lifelong habit of hurting people." She paused. "Did you know Tody was his son?"

Xena’s eyebrows rose, and she knelt to pick up her sword. "Really?"

The bard nodded, and waited for her to stand, then wrapped an arm around her waist and started walking back to where their forest dwellers were collecting. "He left him out to die after he was blinded."

"Really?" Xena asked again. When Gabrielle nodded, the warrior shook her head. "Maybe I should have skinned him."

"Err… Ewwww." Gabrielle poked her tongue out. "Xena, that’s gross."

"Why not? He was a pretty red color. Would have made a nice rug." Xena went on, with a glint in her eyes.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up." Then she slapped Xena on the belly. "You didn’t tell me you were going to do that to Lestan, you fink." She laughed a little. "Jessan about croaked."

Xena shrugged, and cut some more grass tips off. "Had to make it within their traditions, so.." she grinned. "Now I have to give it back to him."

"If he’ll let you." The bard grinned slyly. "He had just the biggest smirk on his face when you punched that guy." Her brows creased. "Hey.. that would be kind of cool – I have the Amazons, you have these guys… we could have some great parties."

"Gabrielle." Came the warning laugh.

"No, really…" The bard persisted, enjoying herself. "At least you don’t have to wear one of those damn masks."

"Gabrielle!" Xena protested, as they drew close to the group of forest dwellers.

"Do you know how hot they are?" Gabrielle snorted. "Hey..would you have to walk around without your shirt on like they do? How cool would that be!"

"I’m going to get you for this." Xena growled softly, as Lestan stepped towards them, arm outstretched.

"Ohh.. I hope so." Came the teasing response.

Xena found herself surrounded by a warm moving sea of fur, as the forest dwellers all clustered around her, murmuring in happy voices. Hesitant hands reached out and patted her shoulders, until she reached Jessan, and he just wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet.

"Jessan.." She growled, right into his ear, but returned the hug.

He smiled and released her. "That was great." He sighed, as they all started to walk back towards the village. Then he paused. "Except Uncle Warrin." His golden eyes were sad.

Xena glanced at him. "He got what he wanted, Jessan." She said quietly, glancing ahead to where two forest dwellers bore a pallet holding the still, huddled form. And remembered his last words. She waited for him… even after all this time. And she thought about Warrin, her eyes idly searching the path before her. Warrin.. was certainly no pure soul. A quietly happy glow started in the pit of her stomach, and spread outward, chasing away the weary residue of the battle.

"Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice sounded to her left, and she turned towards the bard.

"Yeah?" She answered, sliding an arm around her partner and pulling her closer.

"What’s that smug look for?" The bard inquired, bantering lightly. "You look like you won a prize at the Athenian battle competition."

Xena looked at her, then grinned and shook her head. "No particular reason, Gabrielle." She shrugged and waved an arm at the exultant group surrounding them. "Except I’m glad things turned out.. the way they did." A prize… yeah.. unlooked for, undeserved… She hugged the bard tighter and took a happy breath.

Gabrielle gave her a wondering look. What’s that for? It’s like she sees something the rest of us don’t.. not that it would surprise me.. no.. but… "Well, yeah, sure.. I am too, not that I had any doubts." She backslapped her lightly in the gut. "After all that worrying.. you had control of that from start to finish. " She paused, and lowered her voice. "Once you started were you.."

"No." Xena replied peacefully. "Like riding a horse, I guess.. you gotta get right back on if you get thrown." She bit back another grin, and glanced to her right. "Hello, Lestan. "

Their eyes met. "Sorry about that." Xena apologized. "Didn’t really have time to discuss that plan with you."

The forest dweller chuckled ruefully. "Better that you didn’t. I don’t think I could have played it out.." His eyes covertly studied her. "I don’t blame you for taking that route. It was.. the fastest, least complicated way."

The warrior nodded slowly in acceptance. "Thanks for going along with me." Her voice was low, but carried force, and it echoed over the suddenly quieter crowd. "That did the trick in getting Secan to buy into it." And felt the sudden shift in tension around her, as the meaning behind her words penetrated.

He shot her an admiring, appreciative glance. "Well, a little playacting was worth it.." He drawled, sharing her grin. "Getting most of us home safe. And a great show to watch." He winked. "Gods, Xena.. that will be one of for the storytellers." You give me my village intact, my worst enemy destroyed, and hand back to me my dignity in one smooth natural motion. He laughed to himself. Remind me to give thanks to that damn mountain some time.

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle smirked, bumping her partner with an elbow. "I loved it when you punched him." But her eyes didn’t miss the more than one glance of masked disappointment as her partner neatly returned authority to its rightful owner

"Too right." Jessan piped up from next to the bard. "That was awesome." He grinned at Xena’s rolled eyes. "You should have seen Kelten’s face… it was priceless."

A discussion of the battle followed. Xena contrived, through her many years of self discipline, to avoid blushing too badly, but she wasn’t really used to having her fighting skills analyzed in depth with her present.

"Oh, and Ares’ boots, Xena.. when you stopped that downstroke of his… he about swallowed his tongue." Jessan waxed enthusiastic. "It was great… "

"No no… Lestan added, waving at him. "My favorite part was Kelten’s face when you hit him with that damn head. " He slapped Xena’s arm. "That.. was so choice."

Gabrielle had to bite her lip to keep from giggling at the look on Xena’s face. The warrior felt her body shaking, and glared down at her.

"Stop that." Xena growled, trying to ignore Lestan’s chuckles.

Gabrielle just giggled harder, and hid her face against her partner’s armor. "I can’t help it." She muttered. "You look so cute when you’re blushing."

"Gabrielle…" Xena sighed, then just started laughing. "Well, I’m glad that’s over with." She glanced up, at the gathering clouds overhead. "Weather’s been bad.. I hear it’s going to be a rough winter." She looked sideways at her partner. "I’m glad we’ll be home."

Felt fingers tangle with hers, and saw the contented smile on Gabrielle’s face. Right answer, Xena. "It’s mom’s busiest season. Hardest.. because there’s lots of transients going through, and food’s shorter." The warrior commented

"So.. she can use the help, huh?" The bard commented with a grin. "Good." Even though I know it won’t be forever… I’ll take what I can get.. Gods, if I can keep her there over the winter.. her mind chuckled. And I sure won’t mind either. "Bet she’s going to be glad you see you."

"Us." Xena corrected quietly, rolling the feel of the word around her mouth. ‘It wasn’t me she sent Johan to check up on in Potadeia." She gently bumped the bard with an elbow.

"Yeah.. I know." Gabrielle sighed happily, then gave Xena a sly look. "But I’m not the one she made all those batches of sweet cakes for." She nudged the warrior with her shoulder.

Got a nudge back. "Yeah, but you’re the one who ate them all."

"Oh yeah, right." The bard snorted, secretly reveling in the banter. "Don’t even go there, my ‘let me hold the plate above my head so you can’t reach them’ friend. She poked her hard in the ribs. "You got your share, and more."

They grinned at each other, and kept walking. Ahead, Xena could see the vague outlines of the village beginning to appear, and Lestan sent a pack of the younger fighters ahead to warn the remaining forest dwellers of their return.

Elaini had watched the fighters silently leave the village, and went back to packing up her medical kit. I know I’ll need it. She quietly reminded herself, trying to keep busy with putting together enough supplies to last.. however long.. in however long they were going to be running. She’d already packed her personal kit, which was standing by the door, and paused as she heard footsteps on the outer porch.

The door creaked open, and a familiar russet head poked in. "Elaini?"

"Hey, Tody." She sighed. "Come on in."

He trudged in, and hopped up on a pallet, swinging his feet in annoyance. "They wouldn’t let me go with them, Lani." He scowled.

"Of course not." His sister replied, rolling her eyes. "You’re too young." She sat down on the pallet next to him and patted his back. "And.. it’s not a game, Tody. You know that."

"Yeah, I know." He sighed. "I just wanna be there." His ears swiveled towards her "You think it’ll take long?"

Elaini scowled. "Well, I don’t know… these things take time, you know." She stood, and paced near the window, hugging herself. Ares.. keep him safe, please. This isn’t his war.

"Well, I don’t think it’ll take long." Tody said, hopping off the pallet and roaming around the room. "I think we’re going to have a great party tonight."

Elaini sighed, and walked over to him, kneeling down and putting a gentle arm around his furred shoulders. "Tody.. I’m glad you’re thinking good things. But.. we’re up against a very strong force, and we’re planning for.. any outcome."

The blind forest dweller cocked his head. "Nothin’s going to happen, Lani." His mouth curved into a smile. "Xena’s there."

The older forest dweller rolled her eyes. "What is with all of you? I mean.. I like the woman, but I don’t think for a minute she’s anything more than one very skilled, very knowledgeable human fighter. Why do you all talk about her like she’s some kind of envoy from Mount Olympus?"

Tody smiled, and kicked the floor with one clawed foot. "Did you ever Look at her, Lani?"

His sister shrugged. "Not really, no.. I know she’s lifebonded, but.."

"Ohh…" The boy sighed happily, rocking back and forth absently. "No… she’s all warm, and strong, and wonderful… not like anyone else."

"Whatever." Elaini rubbed his back. "I’m sure she’ll be a big help." No convincing these guys, is there? Gods.

She finished packing, and was just going to fix her and Tody some lunch when a sound outside brought them both standing. She rushed to the window, with Tody right behind her, and rested her hands on the sill, looking out.

The morning fog had burned off, and all the preparations had been made for moving.. the village was mostly silent, save the odd bird clacking, and the ever-present sigh of the wind.

From the north path, came the sound of rapid footsteps.

"Damn… " Elaini cursed, grabbing her brother. "All right… listen.. " Took less time than we expected…

Then saw the body attached to the footsteps was familiar, was Deggis, and the look on his face was anything but grim. He ran towards the infirmary first… and Elaini threw the door open, and rushed out onto the porch. "What news, Deggis?" She called.

"The day is ours!" Came his booming, happy, unexpected reply.

The remaining forest dwellers came running, all talking at once.

"Wait… what about injuries, Deggis." Elaini stepped down off her porch and grabbed his shoulders.

"None." The pale forest dweller grinned, and bounced up and down on his toes, then sobered. "Ah.. but Warrin took a shaft, and passed over."

Silence fell, and they all looked at each other. "That’s impossible, Deggis." One of the provisioners objected. "What happened?"

Deggis stuck his thumbs in his battlecoat, and leaned back. "To quote my friend Jessan, what happened? Xena happened."

"Told ya." Tody chortled, poking his sister in the ribs. "Told ya told ya!!!!"

"And Secan?’ An older forest dweller quietly questioned, stepping nearer. "Dead?"

Deggis raised one bushy eyebrow. "Very." He said, his grin returning. "And his mangy lot sent home packing."

"How?" Cane the question from several throats.

Deggis shook his head vigorously. "That’s for the storytellers. My mission was just to run ahead, and tell you all’s well."

Louder sounds, now – from the northern path, and Elaini could see the bobbing heads of the first returning fighters. She watched as they melted out of the forest, fuzzy blurs resolving into solid forms, rank upon rank of them, all laughing, gesturing, their voices ringing above the rising hum of the people around her.

She kept watching, and there… half a head above those around him was Jessan, head tipped back to catch the dappling sunlight, fangs showing in laughter. He walked next to his father, and now they were close enough for her to see the distinctive forms of the two humans striding along next to them.

Her eyes blinked, then focused again, and she realized that Xena wasn’t a little fuzzy, she was covered with blood almost from head to foot, obscuring the bronze of her armor, and staining her skin to a rusty hue. But the ex warlord seemed uninjured, though Elaini knew those looks could be deceiving . Must be Secan’s blood, then. She mused. I don’t believe it.

"C’mon!!" Tody yelled, and grabbed her hand. "Let’s go meet em!"

"That was very slick, by the way." Gabrielle murmured, as they were left, at last, to make their way to the cot and a very much wanted cleaning off.

"Huh?" Xena said, cocking her head. "What was?"

"Playing that Lestan was in on the whole plan the whole time." The bard gave her a look, and poked her in the side. "Very slick."

Xena waggled her eyebrows and chuckled, as they mounted the steps and opened the door.

"ROOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!" Ares collided with their legs, bouncing off and sitting down on the floor. He gave them a reproachful look. "Roo!" Then his head cocked, and he stood up and put his paws on Xena's knee, and started sniffing.

"Yeah, bet that smells strange, huh?" Xena said, as the wolf sneezed over one largish patch of dried crimson. "Gods, I am a mess." She gave a rueful laugh as she gingerly put down her still unsheathed sword, and started unlacing her bracers.

"No kidding." Gabrielle stuck her tongue out. "Gross. Here... let me get those." She worked the stiffened laces with strong fingers for a minute. "There." She grunted, and pulled them off, then started on the buckles, which held on her breastplate. "Gods... did you managed to get enough blood caked fur in here?"

"Sorry." Xena chuckled, working on the other fastening. "Guess I don't get points for neatness, huh?" She undid the buckle, and lifted the armor off over her head. "Wait.."

Gabrielle took the metal pieces out of her hands, and set them down. "Later for them. You first." She cheerfully announced, as she worked the upper armbands off.

"Uh huh." Xena sighed, and knelt in place, trying to avoid Ares' energetic tongue. "Ares..c ut that out."

"Hey.. he's helping the washing effort." The bard teased, taking one set of the leg armor from Xena's hands and leaning it against the wall. "I"ll take all the help I can get."

"Gee thanks." Xena muttered, getting her other boot off and standing up. "I'd forgotten drawing and quartering was so... messy."

Gabrielle took her by the hand, and led the way towards the bathing room in silence, and once there, she turned to Xena and undid the straps on her leathers. "Out."

The warrior grinned, and removed the blood stained leathers, and tossed them into the washing tub, followed by her undergarment. She let Gabrielle tug her over to the reservoir, and just stood, while the sun warmed water washed over her. "Gods.. that feels good." she admitted, closing her eyes.

Opened them at the touch of the bard's hands on her, as her partner joined her under the water. "Oh.. I like this, too." She grinned, as Gabrielle set to work on her with a handful of soap.

"He didn't touch you, did he." The bard said softly, as she worked to get all the blood out of the hollows and smooth dips her muscles created. She looked up to see Xena's shake of the head. "Didn't think so." She worked a while more in silence. "You know, I wasn't even scared for you this time.. it was like…I knew."

"Gabrielle.." Xena spoke quietly. "You don't have to do this.. I mean, I can.."

Green eyes lifted to hers. "I know I don't. But you're always taking care of other people. Of me, people we meet... so when I get a chance to, I’d like to take care of you. Is that OK?"

That got the bard a smile. "Sure." The warrior replied, relaxing. "Sorry.. I just.. " she paused. "No one's ever..."

"Taken care of you?" Gabrielle finished quietly. "Not since Cyrene, huh?"

"No." Her partner answered. "It just wasn't.. I mean, the people I was involved with .. they all wanted something.. from me, from my army.. it was almost like a little battle between me, and them. We were always worried about who would get the upper hand, I guess." Even Marcus. Especially Marcus.

Gabrielle almost held her breath at this sudden, and unlooked for revelation. "Competitive?"

"Yeah." Xena admitted, staring down at her hands, which Gabrielle was patiently cleaning. "Something like that." A touch of hoarseness entered her voice. " I couldn't really ever..." She searched for words. "Trust.. them completely. Because I always knew there were reasons behind why we were getting involved with each other."

Gabrielle thought about that for a while. "But you trust me?" She finally asked, finishing her task, and glancing up. "Completely?"

"Do you really have to ask that, Gabrielle?" Came the wistful reply. "Yes."

The bard remained quiet for a minute, then laughed a little. "You know.. it’s funny you say that.. because I was just thinking, before.. about how everyone I’ve ever known in my life.. my parents.. Lila.. even Perdicus, wanted something from me." She paused, and scrubbed Xena’s forearms, which had gone very still. "It was… what could I do for them. What could I.. be.. for them. My mother… never really had time for us.. my father.. well, you know." She swallowed, and felt Xena’s fingertips gently brush her face. "Lila.. needed me to take care of her. " She looked up. "And Perdicus… he was looking for someone to take care of him, too."

"I think you know.. I’m pretty good at taking care of myself, Gabrielle." Xena said softly.

The bard smiled, and let her fingers trace the pattern of muscles just under the skin of Xena’s arm. "Oh, I know that, because you’re the first person in my life who never asked anything of me,.. never expected anything from me… who just let me be who I was. " A pause. "Or who I wanted to be, anyway." She rubbed her temple a little. "And… you’re the first person I ever really wanted to take care of. " A glance up. "That’s kind of silly, isn’t it?" She went back to her scrubbing. "Gods… you did get that stuff all over you."

Xena examined her hands thoughtfully. 'Yeah.. but then you could wash these for a lifetime, and there would still be blood on them." It was barely a whisper, but the bard heard it.

"Then I guess I'll just have to stick around with you for enough lifetimes to convince you otherwise, huh?" Gabrielle took the long powerful fingers in hers, and lifted them to her lips, covering first one, then the other with gentle kisses. And looked up to see a wide-eyed, open stare that let her look straight through to the depths of her partner's soul. So she looked, and decided she liked what she saw there. "Do me a favor?"

"Anything." Came the instant answer, as Xena struggled to regain a shred of composure.

Gotta take the intensity down here or we're both going to go crazy. The bard realized. "Can you kneel down? You're way too tall for me to reach your hair all the way up there."

That got a smile, and Xena complied, dropping smoothly to one knee, and resting her elbows on it. "Sorry." she chuckled, as the bard worked on getting the blood and gore out of her dark mane.

Gabrielle rinsed the soap off, gazing thoughtfully at the bent head in front of her, caught as they were in gentle light from the opening in the roof. "OK." She said. "All done."

Xena looked up, and smiled into the light. "Right.. your turn." She said, in an ordinary voice, as she stood and held out her hand for the soap.

Gabrielle relinquished the bar, but shook her head in protest. "Xena, I didn’t get…" She stopped speaking and swallowed as the warrior stepped closer, and working up a lather between her hands, started at the bard’s neck and worked downward. "Uhm… on the other hand.." She breathed, leaning forward and letting their bodies touch. "A good wash never hurts."

Xena paid close attention to her task, sliding her hands around the bard’s back, and scrubbing industriously, smirking when Gabrielle’s own hands began to wander. "Thought I was all done?" She whispered, watching the flush climb up the bard’s neck and tinge her ears.

"Think I missed a few spots." Gabrielle muttered, experimentally tasting a few drops of water beading on her partner’s chest. "Can’t be too careful."

"Ah. I see. You thirsty?" Xena asked, all innocence.

Gabrielle acquired a few more droplets. "Yeah." She glanced up. "Watching you is thirsty work."

That got a low, lazy chuckle, and Xena tilted her head back, opening her mouth and capturing some of the water from the reservoir. She straightened back up, then bent her neck, lightly opening Gabrielle’s lips and depositing a portion of the water in there. The bard swallowed, then opened her mouth like a bird waiting for more.

She got the rest, and a kiss on top of it. "Mm." She hummed approvingly.

"Glad you approve." The warrior grinned, in a completely good mood for the first time in days. She finished washing her partner, and rinsed the soap out of her hair, as they exchanged kisses and let their hands roam over each other. One last pleasant splash of water, and Xena reached out one long arm, grabbing the large piece of linen she’d left there that morning to dry, and wound it around both of them.

"Gonna make it awful hard to walk." Gabrielle chuckled, as she found herself being roughly toweled dry. "Ohh.. that feels great… whoa!"

"Who said you were going to walk?" Xena inquired, lifting her up, still swaddled in the linen, and walking out into the cot’s open space, then just collapsing on the bed with the bard in her arms.

Gabrielle rested quietly there for a long moment, then snuggled closer, and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "I guess we gotta go and join in the festivities, huh?"

Xena wrapped her arms tighter and chuckled. "What would they do to us if we didn’t?’ Her brow arched wickedly. "Think anyone out there’s going to challenge me?"

The bard laughed softly. "Nope.. not a one. And it was nice seeing you get your swagger back." Her eyes twinkled with mischief.

"My what?" The warrior’s brows contracted. "I don’t have a swagger."

This got a helpless burst of laughter from Gabrielle. "You most certainly do."

"Do not." Xena growled, giving her a look.

Gabrielle put up one finger and tapped Xena’s chin for emphasis. "Yes, you do. But don’t worry. It looks really good on you."

The blue eyes blinked at her. "I do?" A pause. "It does?"

The bard nodded. "Uh huh."

"Hmm." A quirked eyebrow. "So.. how come you’re the first person to notice that?"

That got a giggle from her partner. "Probly because I’m the first person could say that without getting my jaw broken." She idly traced the rosy color tracing up Xena’s neck. "Gods, what a blush."

"Hmph." Xena mulled that over for a bit. "Well, one thing." She drawled, with a quirky grin.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered, still chuckling a little to herself.

"Least I don’t squeal when I’m tickled." Came the sly answer, and Gabrielle realized suddenly that she was trapped in a wad of linen, stark naked, within reach of her partner’s devilish fingers.

"Whoaa…oh no…. no … Xena, don’t you dare… ahh..AUGH!!!!!"

She squealed, proving Xena’s point admirably.

Ares, alarmed at the noise, scrambled over and hurdled himself onto the bed, stopping short with yip when he saw the writhing mass of off white linen that seemed bound and determined to flip itself off the bed. "GRRRRRR" He growled with all his strength.

Motion stopped, and Xena’s arched eyebrow, followed by a grin appeared. "Hey.. is he on your side now?" She asked the breathless Gabrielle.

"Ugghh." Gabrielle disentangled herself from the linen, and rolled onto her back, throwing her hands out and letting out a huge breath. "I’ll get you for that."

Xena stretched out on her side, and propped her hand on her head. "Oh yeah? When?"

Gabrielle let her eyes half close, and she lifted a hand and tickled Xena’s chin. "On your birthday."

A deep sigh. "She told you." Mother, I’m going to kill you. So much for promises.

"Oh.. you better believe she did." The bard chuckled wickedly. She watched Ares stumble across the bed, and curl up against Xena’s belly, tucking his nose under his tail and sighing. "Aww… he loves his mommy."

Xena shook her head in amused disbelief. "I don’t understand what the attraction is here."

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and let her eyes travel down the warrior’s sleek form, then back up until their eyes met. "I do." She smirked, getting a wry look in return. "Ok.. ok. We’d better stop making excuses and go join the crowd." She yawned, and rubbed her stomach. "Besides, I’m hungry."

"There’s a surprise." Xena commented, as she rolled off the bed and stood, stretching her arms and shoulders, and hearing the pop as joints settled back into place. "Oof… " She extended a hand to the bard, and hauled her to her feet. "I’m getting too old for this." She sighed.

Gabrielle slid in close, and patted her on the belly. "I’d sympathize with you, but it sure would sound more convincing if you hadn’t just wiped the field with an 8 foot tall fanged monster. With a sword." She glanced up, to see a glint in her partner’s eyes. "Right after you spent the previous morning whaling all over a hundred or so equally large, equally fanged forest dwellers. "

"Uhm." Xena bit her lip.

"Right after you got out of a infirmary pallet after being stuck under a pile of rocks all day. " The bard continued, enjoying the chagrined look on Xena’s face. "And, of course, saving my life."

"You made your point, Gabrielle." Xena smiled, running her fingers through the bard’s red gold hair, and fluffing it out to dry.

The bard nodded quietly. "Good." Her face went serious. "I feel bad about Warrin." She sighed. "I know.. he was really hurting."

"He found his peace" Xena replied quietly, but a smile etched itself onto her face. "He found what he was looking for.. at the end there. "

Gabrielle pulled a tunic over her head, and settled the folds absently about her body, giving the belt a little scowl as she fastened it. "Did he say anything to you?" She asked curiously, looking up from her task.

Caught in the act of donning her own garment, Xena slowly finished the motion, and fiddled with the hem for a second. "Yeah." She finally said. "He said… " she stopped and paused for a beat. "Uhm. He said his lifemate had promised him she’d wait.. for him. On the other side. And.. he was wondering if she had." Xena felt the lump form in her throat again, as the simple wrenching need of that thought hit her in the gut. Wouldn’t I have been wondering the same thing? I wanted to hate him.. but Gods… what he must have felt.

"Oh." The bard laid a tentative hand on Xena’s arm, frozen in motion on her belt. "I’m sure… I mean.." What if he’d promised too? And he’d broken that promise.. "I hope.."

"I couped him." Xena said, quietly. "As he was dying, he looked over my shoulder, and… smiled.. he looked just like a kid again. "

"You think.." Gabriele said, very softly, watching her closely.

"His last words were ‘she did.’" Xena replied, with a sudden, brilliant smile.

"Oh!" Gabrielle sucked in breath with a gasp. "How awesome." Impulsively, she flung her arms around the warrior, and hugged her with all the strength in her arms. "I’m glad for him."

Xena’s eyes glistened, as she returned the hug, and buried her face in Gabrielle’s hair for a long moment. "So am I, Gabrielle.." Because it means a door I’ve always known was locked to me… just might not be. And damn it – I know better than to believe that. I know better than to even start considering the remotest possibility that I could…no.. "

But… oh gods help me. I think I am starting to believe just that.

She closed her eyes, and felt an unaccustomed wetness trail down her cheeks A wave of emotion crashed over her, and she just let it, feeling Gabrielle’s gentle, reassuring touch rubbing her back. "He went to a better place.. " She whispered, feeling the sudden intake of breath in the bard’s body. "With everything he did…"

Gabrielle just stood there, unmoving, breathing in air that was suddenly perfumed with a hope unimagined. Realizing what those words meant. "I’m glad you finally see.. something.. that I never, ever had any doubt about." She breathed, burying herself in a haze of warm happiness. Sometimes, Gabrielle … sometimes, things happen for a reason.

Another moment to memorize, immortalize in a memory so clear, and so vivid she could later imagine with precision the exact points at which their bodies touched, smell the familiarity of the warm linen enclosing them, hear the first rumblings of the approaching storm, that sent uneven vibrations through the soles of her bare feet.

After a timeless stretch of closeness, Xena finally took a settling breath, and gave the bard’s back a little rub. "Well, guess we’d really better go and join the rest of the village – before we get soaked on the way over there."

And so they did – but the rain caught them anyway, just before the entrance of the gathering hall, and Gabrielle felt the sudden, terrifying feeling of being airborne as she was scooped up in a pair of powerful arms and catapulted forward, beating the leading edge of the thick drops by the laces of Xena’s boots.

Bound Part 8 continued..