The Gift by Spiritfox

HERE IS THE STANDARD DISCLAIMER STUFF: These characters do not belong to me. They belong to Universal Pictures and their affiliates. I write for entertainment only and no infringement on their rights is intended.
CONTENT: This is a story about two people who love each other. If gender is important to you in regards to relationships, then go find something else to read. God knows there's plenty out there to choose from. There is no explicit sex within, but I do imply sue me. I like a little mystery. There is violence and angst and wisdom woven into the story it is a “XENA” story after all.

As always when you write, comments are greatly appreciated. I can be contacted at I would love to hear from you.

Oh...please excuse any deviation from the series' timeline. I am a new Xenite and as such, had to wing it. Thanks for reading!



Gabrielle stood impatiently, her eyes closed..."Stop fidgeting Gabrielle!" Xena growled from somewhere in front of her. She smiled in the direction of the voice and replied impishly, “I'm sorry . . . I can't help it. I've never gotten a 'birthday' present before. It's kind of...exciting...” She giggled a little. She heard Xena snort a laugh and smiled warmly. "Thank you," She said, her hands stretched out toward the sound, "I love it..."

Warm breath whispered against her cheek, as Xena spoke, close enough to be nearly nose to nose. “I haven't given you anything...yet.”

Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open and she drew a sharp breath, but immediately melted beneath the warm gaze she couldn't help but a meet. "Yes Xena," She paused searching her friend's eyes, "You have." She tore her glance away from the affection and humor she had seen in them. "You are my friend...and you give me that every day." She smiled shyly, then let her eyes meet Xena's once again. "No other gift could mean more to me than that." She laughed when one of Xena's eyebrows arched dubiously. Without thinking, she reached out and stroked Xena's cheek, her eyes following the movement of her hand. She did not catch the pain that flickered in her friend's eyes. She suddenly realized what she was doing and withdrew her hand, covering her confusion with a laugh she said, "Having said that....what did you get me?"

Xena quickly recovered her composure with a lopsided grin and a knowing twinkle in her eye she replied, “That's my girl . . . mercenary to the core.”

Gabrielle laughed ruefully, shaking her head she said, "All my secrets revealed . . . I hope I can trust you.”

Xena's eyes blazed for a minute with an unreadable message, then soberly, "I hope so too.” Without another word, Xena reached down and took Gabrielle's hand, lifting it. She gently smoothed the fingers opened and laid two strips of leather in her hand.

Bewildered, Gabrielle looked up from her palm as Xena backed out of the way so that Gabrielle finally saw what stood behind her and was tethered by the two strips of leather. “A horse?” She looked at Xena, as if for confirmation.

“Umm...yeah,” Xena replied, now somewhat unsure of her gift's appropriateness. She shrugged and fidgeted uncomfortably.

Gabrielle looked back at the horse and moved toward it. The pretty mare nickered as if in encouragement and bobbed her head. Stretching her nose toward Gabby eagerly. Enchanted, Gabrielle reached her hand out and stroked the velvety muzzle.

Xena relaxed as she watched Gabrielle's heart melt. The mare was black as the Aegean night, with a single white crescent blazing on her forehead. She was small, graceful and delicate like her new owner. Xena had been struck on first examination by the mare's gentleness. She smiled with satisfaction. She had not been wrong in her instincts.

"What's her name?” Asked Gabrielle softly, her eyes when they met those of her friends, sparkled with unshed tears.

“That is for you to decide," Xena replied gently.

Gabrielle mused for a moment, “I will call her Jet, I think. Because she is as black as Jet." She turned to Xena, her smile bright as her friend nodded her approval. "She is beautiful Xena...the finest thing anyone has ever given me. Well..." she paused. The poignant moment, "The second finest thing, anyway."

Xena instantly gathered her meaning and almost blushed before she could tear her eyes away from the happiness that made Gabrielle glow without the benefit of firelight. Suddenly embarrassed to have been revealed as such a softy, she cleared her throat, gave Gabrielle a distracted smile and reached for the reins.

As the leather strips passed between them, their fingers brushed. Then without a word, Gabrielle grasped Xena's, prolonging the touch. Startled and unwary, Xena looked into Gabrielle's face. The connection between them crackled with tension.

When their eyes locked, Gabrielle breathed, “Thank you.” Those two simple words were laden with all the love Gabrielle could heap on them. She leaned forward and silently pressed a tender kiss to Xena's lips, surprising them both. For just a moment, Xena let her heart free. Closing her eyes, she reveled in the gentle pressure of Gabrielle's lips against hers.

She drew a shuddering breath and leaned back out of danger. Her smile wistful, she slowly opened her eyes and was almost blinded by the brilliance of Gabrielle's regard. “You're welcome,” She whispered back and before she could school herself against it, reached out and brushed her knuckles against Gabby's satin cheek. Unable to allow herself any more than this, she straightened briskly and walked the mare to the tree Argo was tethered to. The two horses had already made each other's acquaintance and were quite friendly. Looping the reins over a branch, Xena grinned mischievously at Gabby and said, "Besides the surprise isn't over."

Gabrielle's eyes widened, then she laughed, “You mean there's MORE?”

“Uh Huh” she said cryptically, “Come here.”

Warily Gabrielle moved into the firelight, watching Xena pull something from her saddlebag. She held two pointed steel rods, around, and 18 inches long. Each had a pommel and hand guard like a sword. With prongs on either side of the main blade, they looked like big dangerous forks. Her hands on her hips, she eyed them dubiously and asked, "Are we tossing salad?"

Xena gave her a disgusted look, “Always with the wise, as a matter of fact. Since you are always on about learning to defend yourself, I thought I might be able to teach you to use these. They are defensive weapons, not an offensive ones. But....maybe you're not serious enough...” She trailed off suggestively, making as though to put them back in the saddle bag.

“ No...Xena...wait, I'm sorry,” Gabrielle stayed her hand, “Please...I'd like to learn...” When Xena arched that eyebrow, Gabrielle schooled her features into seriousness, "Really . . . I want you to teach me . . . please?"

Xena pretended to consider, but she couldn't act nearly as well as she fought and capitulated immediately. “Come 'ere,” she growled, walking across the small clearing to stand facing the fire. Gabby scrambled to comply. Xena pulled Gabrielle around so that she was standing directly in front of her, her back to her. "Now," She said, actually posing Gabby as she spoke, "Stand like this, with your weight on the balls of your feet." She placed warm, strong hands at Gabby's waist and lifted her easily to demonstrate.

“Xena . . . ” She protested, “I'm not a child's toy . . . can you just show me what to do?” One look at Xena's scowling mien and Gabrielle grumbled something under her breath.

“What did you say?...” Xena asked softly, menacingly.

Gabrielle tilted her head back and using her most disarming smile replied, “I was just commenting on your....technique,” she hedged, her eyes laughing up at her friend.

Disgruntled, Xena still could not stop the answering smile that betrayed her bark. “Perhaps this is not the right occasion for this kind of instruction,” She said thoughtfully, “Maybe we should have some dinner instead.”

Gabrielle always game for a meal, yielded without any argument.

After they had eaten, Gabrielle went over to care for her new horse while Xena spent her time sharpening the blade on her sword.

Gabrielle making much of grooming Jet, was actually watching Xena. There was a calming rhythm to Xena's routine and Gabby found herself watching her every movement. Her large friend used an economy of motion that was fascinating. And with the firelight dancing on her face, she was very beautiful. Gabby felt a lump form in her throat, the love she felt for Xena swelled until she thought she might blow apart into shards of joy. She was very fortunate, she thought humbly. Xena was high maintenance there was no denying that, but the rewards were incredible. Xena had traveled through hell for her literally. There wasn't much more you could expect. She left the mare and walked over to stand behind Xena. She put her hands on Xena's shoulders, feeling the muscle ripple beneath her fingers and leaned down to rest her cheek on the crown of Xena's dark head. “Xena?” She said.

The sound of the stone on the blade was steady, “Um hm . . . Thank you ....” She paused as Xena's hand stilled and she laid the stone aside.

Quietly Xena asked, “For what Gabrielle?”

“For everything . . . ” She trailed off self consciously, “The mare . . . the lessons . . . dinner,' She felt Xena smile, “Mostly for just being my friend and letting me tag along with you while you do great things.”

Xena leaned her sword against the rock beside her and reaching up, grasped Gabby's hand, pulling her around until they were face to face. She looked up into Gabrielle's eyes with a seriousness that stilled Gabby's heart in her chest. "Gabrielle..." She began, then looked at the ground between her feet to find the courage to say what was in her heart. "It is I who am grateful Gabrielle. You are the best friend I have ever had. I have never known anyone as fair-minded, as kind, as loyal as you. And I never 'let you tag along . . . truth be known. I would have followed you anywhere. You give what I do meaning." With that final admission she bowed her head, her smile bitter.

Gabrielle stood shocked still for a few seconds. It was one of the longer speeches Xena had ever made, taciturn as she was prone to be. But the content, far more than the length, took her breath away. She hugged the warrior's head to her. This was what she had been waiting for and as the moment dawned, she recognized it for what it was...Xena had finally said something heartfelt, before Gabrielle pressed the issue. Gabby resisted the urge to crow, instead she stroked her friends hair tenderly and did what she did best.... “It's all right...I love you too...” Xena reached around Gabrielle and pulled her close, her arms tightening convulsively. Gabby had never seen her friend so vulnerable and it tore at her heart. She reached down and put her fingers under Xena's chin, lifted until their eyes met. “I always thought someday you'd tire of me getting in your way. That you'd send me home because you were constantly having to look out for me. I couldn't imagine my life now without you in it. It makes me feel proud that you might need me as much as I need you.” She smiled tenderly, stroking the wild black hair back from her friends flushed and tear stained face.

Xena gave a rueful, self-deprecating laugh, wiping her face with her forearm. “Believe me, Gabby.” She said, “I need you a lot more than you need me. You're my light in the dark.....”

“And you, Xena Warrior Princess, are my hero.” Gabrielle punctuated each word with gentle lips against Xena's forehead, then her eyelids, her cheek....when suddenly Xena tilted her head and their lips met. Time stopped and the wind died and all sound stilled to silence in the wake of that simple meeting of lips.


Xena's mood was somewhat less 'buoyant' than usual and a lesser adversary would have gotten the hint long ago. But Xena had to admit ruefully, Gabby was no ordinary adversary. She was still grumbling as she strode into camp, water from the full skins leaving a trail down her leg and pooling in her boot. She'd had just about enough and as her temper flared, she turned on Gabrielle only to find her gingerly exploring the huge purple bruise on the left side of her face. Suddenly all the wind left Xena's sails and she coasted, dead in the water. Still...she had been doing penance for a week and she just KNEW that little vixen was playing it for all she was worth. But she was truly and sincerely remorseful, her actions had been inexcusably contemptible. Without a word she dropped her eyes and began to make breakfast.

Gabrielle trying very hard not to smile, surreptitiously watched her friend coming back from the pond and correctly gauged her mood. She was pushing things a bit she supposed, but the big bully deserved a little punishment. She had seen the determined set of Xena's shoulders, heard the barely audible grumbling, but had known just how to counteract that. Guilt was a wonderful motivator. Still she had suffered enough and Gabby, smiling now, went and knelt beside her friend, stirring the fire absently with a charred end of a stick. “Xena?' Studiously staring into the fire.

“Yes Gabrielle....” her voice was resigned and a little weary. She shot a side long look at Xena's shrouded profile and smilingly brushed the errant black mane, back behind her ear.

“You're really beautiful when you're angry....” She bit down on her bottom lip to keep the gurgle of laughter captive, but her eyes danced with mirth. Xena still in a crouch, shifted to face her. Her face a study in incredulity. That was all Gabby could stand and she burst out laughing. Tears coursing down her creased and aching cheeks.

Xena rolled her eyes sardonically, but couldn't help a wry half smile, as she realized the joke. “You are truly evil.” She hissed, then shoved the squatting troll, who lost her balance and sat down hard in the dust, still holding her stomach and hooting like a great silly owl. Xena scowled at Gabrielle, but there was no bite in it. She had actually gotten no more than she deserved and she recognized Gabby's right to a little justice.

The training session had gotten out of hand and Gabby being the excellent student she was, had successfully used one of Xena's own maneuvers against her, actually bloodying her nose. Xena had gotten up from the ground, calmly using the back of her hand to wipe her face. She gazed at the blood for a moment, then her eyes had gone cold and hooded. She had circled a fast talking Gabrielle like a cat and when she had struck with her staff, had caught her totally unprepared. Gabby had been surprised, then hurt, then REALLY mad...Xena had caught the entire range of emotion as it marched across her friends face. Gabby hadn't said a word for two days...two whole...long....agonizing days. Xena had no idea how much she would miss Gabrielle's incessant chatter. But her cold, furious silence had been far worse than the sharp words that came later, or the guilt she doled out now. Without Gabby's voice, the world was a sullen place.

Smiling fondly now, she extended her hand to her breathless friend, and standing, drew her into an affectionate hug. Gabrielle, closed her eyes and hugged her friend tightly for a moment, savoring the homecoming. If Xena had felt the torture of Gabby's silence, it was nothing to the suffering Gabrielle had endured, being unable to do this one small thing. To stand within the comforting circle of Xena's strength. To touch the source, the wellspring. It was a toss up, who the last week had been harder for. Xena leaned back without releasing her and using a gentle finger rotated Gabby's face so she could examine the bruise critically. Her eyes winced and her smile faded.“I'm so sorry Gabrielle,” She said simply, her eyes fell from her friends warm, forgiving face in shame. “I really don't deserve a friend like you.”

Gabrielle ducked her head until she caught Xena's gaze and grinned, “ really don't. But in all honesty, I have bugged you relentlessly to teach me to defend myself...” She rubbed her cheek ruefully, her eyes alight with wry humor. “And you taught me a VERY important lesson.” She chuckled, pulling out of the embrace, her small hands trailing down Xena's arms from the shoulder, coming to rest just below the crooked elbow, as if reluctant to break contact. Their eyes met, locked and some intangible force swirled about them, suspending the moment. Many things unvoiced, passed between the conduit of their gaze and the light touch of skin on skin. Almost crackling like fire in the sudden silence. Then the moment burst from the tension and Gabrielle watched as Xena willed herself a fortress, the emotion squelched and all trace of what had just passed between them, erased.

Still Gabrielle was not discouraged, every day she was able to chip away a little more of the wall around Xena's heart. For some time, the chinks let shine only a fraction of the good within her, but it was enough to keep Gabrielle trying. Just one of those smiles, was enough to keep Gabby trudging along, staring at Argos' butt for hours.Wistfully she smiled, staring at her thumb, caressing lazy, absent circles on Xena's forearm. Realizing, with a start, how suggestive that caress had been. She shot a surreptitious glance at Xena, who met her gaze with a knowing glitter in her eyes. Gabby's unconscious intimacy, had not escaped Xena's notice.

Gabrielle's eyes skittered away from Xena's intense regard, her cheeks flaming, her breathing ragged and hastily backed away. But Xena caught Gabby's wrist gently in her grip before she could bolt and held her immobile until she raised haunted eyes back to Xena's face. A wave of tenderness, so keen, so sharp, cut through the warrior making her suck a harsh breath through clenched teeth.

Unnoticed her eyes blurred with tears and she lifted a trembling hand. Her heart was pierced with a shard of ice, when Gabrielle unconsciously shrank from her touch and she left her hand suspended inches from Gabby's cheek. An ache, weightless in the vacuum.

With her uncanny ability to spot a pivotal moment, Gabrielle deliberately took Xena's extended hand and pressed the palm to her cheek. She closed her eyes and heaved a deep, satisfied sigh. “ I glad that's over...” She whispered...shuffling closer, snuggling.... “I've really missed this big furnace, you call a body.” Not bothering to look up, she slipped her arms around said furnace and burrowed deeper into the embrace, almost purring. “However do you keep so warm?...” She trailed off, as if falling asleep, but shared a chuckle at Xena's droll response...



It was an easy days ride, since they had no particular destination in mind. They rode for a while, Gabrielle on Jet and Xena on Argo, then Gabby walked, then they both walked. Their conversation flowed back and forth easily. Their banter was affectionate and natural and the silences companionable. They walked side by side, shoulders grazing, hands brushing.

Xena finally called a halt as the sun was slipping down below the horizon. The place she chose for camp was in a small copse of trees, protected from the wind. A tiny stream meandered through the fragrant grass and formed a deep clear pool, where rocks from the hillside had tumbled into the stream bed.

It was a lovely, tranquil spot and Gabrielle sighed in pleasure, as she slipped from Jet's back thankfully. She cast a sly smile in Xena's direction, her eyes warm, when it occurred to her that Xena had purposely started the day late and ended it early, in deference to Gab's foreseen 'discomfort.' While she frequently rode Argo, up behind Xena, it wasn't usually for long periods. It would usually go like this...Xena would scoop her up, they would ride very fast for several miles, a little slower for a couple more, then Xena would drop her someplace sheltered, and go back to fight the bad guys. It had been the routine for a couple of years. In between bursts of speed, she had generally walked along beside Argo, deep in conversation with a voice from above. But that was the old days. Now she had mobility, a pretty good right cross, a nice roundhouse kick and a swift and lethal staff. She did not wonder that all those gifts had come from Xena, and with them a confidence and sense of self she might never have achieved without her.

“For all the taming she has required,” Gabby thought gazing at her fondly, “She has turned into the perfect pet.” If she had voiced that sentiment aloud, it would have probably gotten her butt kicked, but she was learning many things on her travels, not the least of which, was when to keep her mouth shut. Needless to say, she was just a little stiff as she left Jets reins trailing and walked slowly around the camp site, stretching tightening muscles. She groaned dramatically, shooting a glance at Xena to gauge the effect. Not a twitch...nope, she was wearing that smirk way she was going for it. Sheepishly resigned, she walked over and elbowed the bigger woman insistently out of the way, smiling grudgingly up at her. “Go on with you, and make a fire...I'll take care of the beasts.”

An ascending eyebrow and Xena said, “And dinner...?”

“Yeah and dinner too...” she sighed, giving her a playful shove. “But while I'm doing need to take advantage of a bar of soap and some running water.” She indicated the stream with her head and a wrinkled nose. That earned her a mock scowl and a patented icy stare, but she yawned in the larger woman's face, proving she was not impressed. “Please...shoo,” She waved at her, pulling Argo's saddle from her back. “One of you is quite offensive,” She leaned forward past Xena and sniffed of Argo critically, her nose twitching for effect while her expression bland. As she leaned back past Xena, she made a show of sniffing unobtrusively. A look of distaste briefly tightened her features, making Xena's lips twitch in helpless mirth. She finished dryly, “And it isn't Argo.”

The mare snorted, as if to punctuate the sentiment and Xena burst out laughing. She threw her arms up in surrender and chuckled, “All right you win...” She turned away, catching the mares eye...“Eh tu Bruti,” She sighed, making Gabrielle laugh in delight, as she walked away mumbling something about “wise cracking mules and comedic Amazon queens”.

The little pool was pretty much right out in the open clearing, so as Xena's toilet progressed, Gabrielle's tasks became more challenging, her attention seemed to be .....wavering. She kept having to redirect her gaze and every so often she would become aware she had been standing motionless, her hands stilled, jaw slack, eyes soft focused, gazing off in Xena's direction. Then her cheeks would color as she remembered what she had been thinking. Continually having to shake yourself mentally is tiring.

By the time she had finished with the horses, wandered down stream and hand caught four small trout, dug and washed some wild tubers, and made a simple dinner, she was too tired to eat. Despite Xena's wheedling, she refused food and laid quietly on her bedroll, watching Xena scoop out the last flesh of the tuber she was eating. Gabrielle smiled dreamily, the firelight playing over her calm features. Her eyes intent on Xena's lips closing over the spoon. “Lucky spoon...” She said as her eyes closed. Not realizing she had spoken aloud, she drifted off with a gentle smile. Unaware that the warrior had heard her remark and was regarding her thoughtfully as she slept.

She awoke not much later, although a full moon had risen and washed the entire clearing in a gentle white glow. The surface of the stream sparkled, ribbons of rippling moonlight, slithered among the reflected stars. She propped herself up on an elbow and glanced around. A small fire burned merrily a few feet from her and an earthenware jug steamed on its heated rock. Next to the jug was a covered bowl of sweet rice, still warm and a leaf wrapped piece of fish. Next to them was a piece of parchment, folded in the shape of a dove. She reached out wonderingly, a little sad that she hadn't known that Xena could do such fine delicate things and opened the paper, laying it flat so she could read the message.

“Eat, drink, then come down stream for 100 yards, I have something to show you. X”

Yup, definitely her. She was tempted just to go in search of her friend and leave the food for later, but the fragrant rice had her salivating, so she reasoned she could take a few more minutes. Feeling much better for a full stomach, she stood up wincing and limped a few steps before she loosened up a little. She followed the stream for about a hundred yards, as instructed. She saw nothing at first, then one of the shadows in a clump of trees drew away from the others, and Gabby recognized Xena's silhouette. “Xe?” She spoke softly.

“Yeah Gab, it's me.....come here.' And she raised a sort of lantern to light her way. She turned as Gabby reached her, “That way,” She indicated with the swinging lantern. “I'll be right behind you.”

Her voice was soft and held a note of.... Gabby couldn't quite place it. She glanced at her, but her face was totally in shadow. “OK,” She shrugged and moved forward on the path.

“It's not far...” Xena's voice was right against her ear practically. She was so close Gabby could feel her breath on her cheek and the hand not holding the lantern up, at the small of her back, guiding gently.

About to comment, she thought better of it and chose to simply enjoy the intimacy Xena seemed intent on creating. Suddenly the trees parted and she stepped into a tiny clearing, onto a pebbly bank. Directly in front of her, across the steaming surface of a pool, rose a rock face that curved around an eddy, over a continually pumping thermal spring, forming a natural grotto.

“Like it,” She breathed over Gabby's shoulder, holding the lantern aloft. She had spent her evening, carting load after load of flat smooth rock into the warm pool, making seats below the surface and lining the terraced walls with ferns and candles, giving the grotto a fairy like atmosphere.

“You did this for me?” She asked in a small voice. Xena paused, “Well... 'enhanced' it for you, I suppose would be more accurate, but...yeah....for you.” She trailed off lamely and was completely unprepared when Gabrielle spun around and threw herself, sobbing into Xena's arms. Perplexed Xena hung the lantern on a convenient branch, so she would have both arms. “Hey...” She gave Gab a squeeze, “What gives here? Gabrielle? Gab?...Are you all right?”

But the bard said nothing, only shook her head and Xena at a loss, just stood holding her, letting her cry. Finally, after a few minutes, Xena felt her begin to relax, heard her sniffle and felt her shift so that her head was tucked up under the warrior's chin. Xena rubbed her back gently, smiling. “Better now?”

Gabrielle nodded, but offered no explanation. So she stood holding her for another minute. “Well...are you going to tell me what that was all about?”

She eased Gabby away from her and tried to read her friends expression in the dim light. “What's going on're going to tell me anyway, you always do, so spill it.”

Gabrielle heeled her eyes with the palm of her hand, and turned away disconcerted . “You'll laugh at me,” She said in a small voice, “And I don't think I feel like being laughed at.”

“Hey...” Xena said softly, gently placing a consoling hand on Gabby's shoulder. “ I won't laugh Gabrielle...I can see this is serious to you...” She exerted gentle pressure on the bards shoulder, until she turned around and met her eye. “I promise I won't laugh at you.” She smiled, placing her other hand over her heart, “Hero's honor.”

Gabrielle smiled back half heartedly, sighed deeply and replied, “Ever since I began traveling with you....I have been a” She waved off her friends protest before she could speak, ”Even if YOU don't think so.” She met her eye and held it, “ I do and that's what matters. I can't ride well, so I slowed you down. I can't fight well, so you had to protect me. I'm idealistic and naive and you're constantly having to rescue me. And then....” She gazed over her shoulder at the grotto, “Then you do something thoughtful like this....” She trailed off bleakly, then looked up.

Startled, when Xena began to laugh. Instantly, her temper flared and she opened her mouth to voice some scathing remark when Xena said thoughtfully, “After all these years of being a warrior, hacking up the innocent, stealing, lying, cheating...I find it so ironic that when I finally get around to being nice to someone, they can't deal with it.” She grinned sheepishly at Gabrielle and rolled her eyes. Gabrielle's anger died and she reached out and took Xena's hand, giving it a squeeze. Xena grew serious, "Look Gabrielle...I don't deny that there are some things I do better than you. But we each have our strengths and yours are too numerous to count..."

“Try,” Gabby said mournfully.

“All right.” Xena laughed shortly, “I will. First, your mind is better than mine. You think faster and you're less impulsive. You see options in a situation that would never occur to me. Second, you're better with people. They trust and like you instantly. I scare everyone to death. You're better with money.” She began ticking each one off on her fingers. “You're more organized, you can shop like a merchant and you're a damn good cook.” She grinned sheepishly, “And as for the fighting, well...all I can say is, if you can bloody MY nose, you're getting pretty damn good.”

Without a word, Gabrielle took two steps and wrapped her arms around her warrior friend. Resting her head against Xena's breast she sighed and whispered, “Thank you.”

Suddenly Xena pushed herself away and even in the dark, Gabrielle could see her eyes flash. “Don't thank me,” She hissed angrily, stalking to the waters edge, her back turned. “Don't ever thank me for treating you kindly.”

“But....why not?,” She asked hesitantly.

Xena spun back around and her face was a mask of misery, “Because it is no more than you deserve.” She waved her hand at the surrounding area, "Take a look around Gabrielle, as you can see, I don't have that many friends. I don't deserve friends and certainly, I do not deserve YOU. Buying a horse...building a seat in this grotto, fighting a platoon of armed bandits to save you...none of that can repay the gift of your friendship. Don't deny me these small attempts to give something back. What I have maybe stained, but it is all there is and I give it to you freely.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “All I ask of you, is that you let me.”

Mutely, Gabrielle nodded, and turned away so Xena wouldn't see the pity in her eyes. Did she really think so little of herself, Gabby wondered, oh...if only she could see herself through my eyes... "I wish you'd stop treating me as though I'm doing you some kind of favor, as if you owed me something." She turned slowly towards Xena, the thought progressing.

Xena could see she was warming to this subject and that her plans for this evening, were in serious jeopardy.

“We are in this thing together, it's symbiotic and I think we've pretty much covered the 'share -a-soul' territory. What you and I need to do now, is to figure out where this relationship goes from here. I love and respect you.” She made deliberate eye contact, giving a little nod as if to say, 'Got that?' and when Xena replied in kind, she went on, “And I assume that we're clear on the fact that you feel the same way... correct?” Deliberate eye contact again, Xena nodded quickly in understanding, Gabrielle continued, “I concede, that much of my early interest in traveling with you was based in hero worship...however.” She spun on her friend, her eyes narrowing. “I can assure you, Ms. Princess, that after a while in your company, the glow faded.”

She cocked her own eyebrow, which made Xena grin, which was her objective after all. She went and stood in front of her, eyes unavoidable and her tone brooking no dishonesty. “Look my friend, you and I have reached some sort of impasse and we know it. We just aren't sure on what to do now. But I have to say, all this drama and who deserves who, is getting tiring. There is something going on between us, something deeper than before and we're both afraid of it. I have a hard enough time dealing with you sane. In case you hadn't noticed, you're a princess in name only.”

They both laughed at that, “But I love you, I believe in you and what you are trying to do and I want to be a part of that. I know it scares you to feel responsible for me or for losing me. makes me responsible for you too.” She stood quietly for a moment, her head bowed, mustering her courage and when she tipped her head back up, her glittering, moonlit eyes bored straight into the warrior. “All I can say, in closing,” She gave a tight little smile, “Is that wherever we are headed, it's someplace completely different, because when I kiss you on the mouth or touch you with my hands, I don't seem to be doing it as your friend anymore....and it leaves me....longing.”

“Gabrielle....” Xena sighed, her shadowed face troubled in the soft light. “Where can this go? I am afraid...afraid of the way I already feel about you and afraid of the way I have begun to feel. I am afraid of becoming complacent. I can't afford that, both our lives depend on my being sharp and if I cross that line of intimacy with you, I'll never be sharp again.”

“Oh to hell with that.” Gabrielle scoffed, “I am not afraid of you or what loving you could bring. I have lived with the dangers for several years and in case you hadn't noticed, I 'm becoming pretty dangerous myself. I won't accept that excuse. What you're really afraid of, is not being the boss anymore and making me your partner, instead of your side kick. Afraid to trust ME, with the one thing you didn't know you had, until I came along.” She poked Xena hard in the chest, “A HEART.” She shook her head and Xena saw some of the fire leave her eyes. “I want whatever it is you are keeping us from having. You need to decide which is more important to you....your pride....or fulfilling the need we share. I am not afraid to need you. I am not afraid to love you and I am not afraid of the consequences. Now...I am going to sense wasting all your hard work.” She slipped her robe from her shoulders and walked naked to the waters edge, looking for all the world like a water sprite in the moonlight. She looked back over her shoulder, "Let me know what you decide.” With a splash , she was gone.

Continued in Chapter Four ----->