The Gift, Part Two
The Gift
by Spiritfox


Xena sat brooding on the other side of the water between the trees and watched as Gabrielle floated around gracefully. She was fascinated by the way she would bob upright for a few minutes and then slip below the water for so long Xena nearly stood to go after her and then suddenly break the surface like an otter. Xena floated like a rock. But she admired how Gabby moved in the water...the way she LOOKED in the water.... there was no sense in following that thought, because there could be no happy ending that way.

Xena was angry that Gabrielle had forced this issue. Oh sure, she had known it was coming, since the first night Gabby sat at her fire, her teeth chattering, her stomach growling. It hadn't taken Xena long to figure out some very basic things about her relationship to Gabrielle. Gabby was Dulcinea, to Xena's Don Quixote. She was the last, best thing worth fighting for. Xena knew she would always be a warrior, but in order to turn her skills to Good, she had to have a cause. Gabrielle was her cause, the only hope she had for a better world, because Gabrielle's heart and conscience were clean. She was the blood of the lamb for Xena, and Xena was Gabrielle's strong right hand. So she had coddled Gabby...making herself indispensable, keeping Gabrielle from Harm, doing worse than that by her efforts. Because Xena had seen the ability in her friend from the first, the competence, the sharp mind, and the conviction and had been terrified Gabrielle would outgrow her.

But Gabby had made her choice and now Xena had one to make also. She stood and slipped her boots off, her armor after, until naked...weren't those acolytes that flayed themselves?...Weren't they always naked? seemed fitting anyway. She walked slowly into the water, making enough noise to get Gabrielle's attention.

Gabby's eyes widened noticeably, but though they followed her, she said nothing. She had spoken her piece, now it was Xena's turn....Gab was nothing if not fair.

It was deep enough here that she had to tread water, and she moved like a crocodile towards her friend....who didn't appear to be breathing. This was going to be very....very difficult.

Gabrielle for all her bravado, was sick with indecision over the ultimatum she had delivered. She really did not want to lose her best friend and she really didn't want to be denied what she damn well felt. But as scared as she was, there was also a sense of centering and a cognizant realization that no matter what Xena's reply was she, Gabrielle would not submit to life with Xena, without the answer to the question. She felt an instinctive need for the intangible "more" she had always sensed on the periphery of their relationship. And she would not be denied...or if she was then she would not be around.

Xena, her heart twisting in her chest, read it clearly on Gabrielle's face. But it had to be done. She dove then, to hide the tears that suddenly filled her eyes and surfaced silently, scant feet from her seated friend...her only...her best friend, as the water sheeted down her face. She did not move towards Gabby, if Gabrielle were to touch her, her resolve would crumble.

She bobbed, only her head above the surface and spoke sincerely, “Gabrielle... This thing you ask of me...I know of the love between two Women, between a man and a woman. I have experience in these things, where you do not and I tell you plainly, you don't know what it is you are asking for. I would be betraying you, for the sake of nothing more than attraction." Her eyes swam as she bared her soul to her Friend, her one true friend, " would be so easy for me to give in to the need...the need we share. I want to so badly.....Gabrielle, I love you more than life itself, but if I give in to what I feel....if I become inextricably tied to you. You will become a target and you can't ask me to live in that kind of fear. I would become useless. And what I am and what I am trying to do would become lost in my need to protect you."

Gabrielle's eyes shimmered, but her voice was cool and steady. "What you are failing to account for Xena, is the fact that together we are better than either of us was apart. We are already the two halves to the whole. Without your darkness, I could not be the light. Without me, there is only more darkness."

"Don't you think I know that Gabrielle," She sighed, "Don't you?...Can't you feel the way my heart is breaking, but what is the choice? My life is ruled by the sword Gabrielle, everything in it resembles a sword, even my relationship with you. It's two edged. On the one hand, on the cutting edge, is the woman you have become. My best friend, a cunning mind and a competent soldier. I am so proud of that woman Gabrielle...she is wise and kind and her heart is filled with compassion and understanding. It makes me proud that I may have helped her into being. But at the point, the killing edge...I saw you die a little yourself that day, when Flanigus was killed and knew that it might have just as well been me that killed that part of you. And every time you strike a blow, every time I see the pain in your eyes, it makes me sick to know I brought you to that. That I made you make a choice between your beliefs and the life of a friend. And every day, I see a little more flint in your gaze and less laughter. More pain, more anger and I feel as though I've sullied something pure. Don't you see Gabrielle? I'll only draw you further into darkness. My motives are good this time, there are fights that must be fought for those who can't." She quirked a self-deprecating eyebrow, causing a small sad smile. "But you shouldn't be the one fighting them Gabrielle, all that exuberant curiosity of yours should be fighting, is poor light to write by. You have the soul of a child, the wonder and the joy of the young. You're a discoverer. A teller of tales...not a don't have it in you. But it's how I live..It's who I am. When you changed to be more like me, you changed the only person whoever thought I could be better than I was. More like you," She finished, her eyes pleading with Gabrielle to understand and judging by the look on her face, she did.

Her voice when she spoke, was low and deep and it rolled over Xena, making her break out in gooseflesh. "Then why Xena? If you want me to leave...then why the grotto? Why the seduction, why ?....why...why did you let me fall in love with you? Why have you been so kind?" The words were halting, but clear and strong, she really didn't understand.

Xena smiled at her tenderly, "Because you idiot, I'm in love with you too. And I don't want you to go, I could never, want you to go anywhere I wasn't. But this is all, I can give you Gabrielle. Because if I cross that line and desecrate the one person who elevates me, then I might as well put a sword in your hand and turn you over to Ares. You love me because you find me heroic, that I fight for those who need my help. But Gabrielle, I fight for those who need help because you think me heroic. I guess I'm starting to believe my own press. But I am who I am now, the person you love and respect because you loved and respected me. In a very real way I am your character. You gave me nobility now, and you're going to have to live with it."

Gabrielle sat still, but her features were twisted with bitter irony, "Talk about your poisoned pens," She laughed humorlessly, "What I don't understand is ...what is it about this one thing? It's not such a big thing, really, just a natural progression...but you've turned it into some sort of holy grail, that must be protected, but never drunk from. Where is the harm in allowing you and me for that matter, a little happiness? Certainly, you've paid enough restitution by now? And maybe I don't want to be your god-cursed paramour, did you ever think of that? Maybe I learned how to fight, so that I could have some part in history. What kind of spiritual leader could I be? What kind of bard? If I always stood in the background and let someone else change the world. Maybe I'm tired of the way things are, maybe I'm not so naive as you think."

She made a good argument, Xena had to admit it. Perhaps she was really only afraid of herself, of the need she would carry with her always if she were to give in. Maybe Gabrielle was right. She had grown harder, she had lost some of the preconceived idealism she had first come to Xena with. But she had been free to make her own choices. It was she after all, who begged to be taught to fight. To stand beside her friend instead of behind. Who was Xena to deny Gabrielle her place in the world? But then who was she that she should bind this beautiful soul, to darkness. Because that was what would happen. Xena realized now, that her fear was not for Gabrielle, although the same fate would await her in the end. But more for herself, because giving herself body and soul to Gabby would tie her to the light. Once they had crossed that threshold, she knew Gabrielle would never leave her and live a more normal life. She would keep her hand wrapped around the hilt of a sword until they died together. But maybe that was what they were fighting for.

Xena stood up in the water, waded over to where Gabby was sitting and sat down beside her. They both leaned forward and rested their elbows on their knees, then turned to each other simultaneously saying, "Some mess huh?" They shared a soft laugh and both nodded. "I don't know what to do Gabrielle," She said simply, "I know I need you. I know I love you. I know I don't want you to leave. And I know that if you stay, someday the way we live will kill you. I know what I really want to do right now...."

Gabrielle looked up, reading the truth in her friends eyes, believing.

"What I have wanted to do since the first time you made me laugh is kiss you breathless. I know that if I do that, there will never be any turning back and that someday, one of us will have to watch the other die. This is not any easy decision for me," She grinned and shrugged, "There isn't anything to fight and there is everything to fight." She stood up, then bent over Gabrielle, lifting her cold hand to her lips and kissed the fingers gently, "SO...I think we had better talk about this some more, in the morning. As for me...." She walked into the water and began to swim back to the other side, "I'm going to take a walk, a cold dip in the river to clear my head and sleep...." Gabrielle heard her disembodied voice come from the other shore, "Perchance to dream...."

CHAPTER FIVE Gabrielle sat for just a while after Xena left, letting the tension ease from the atmosphere, letting her breathing slow and her mind drift. The last few weeks had been the hardest emotionally that their friendship had ever endured. There had always been devotion. They had been tempered by some very hot fires quite literally and what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. But the question that kept plaguing Gabrielle, during her drills with Xena, or in an actual engagement, was: what am I getting stronger for? If peace is what I crave, then why must I be strong? Why can't I bend to the forces, instead of fighting them? What is wrong with being passive?

Xena had opened her eyes to a truth that had dimmed a lot of Gabrielle's optimism. The truth that, as long as there is aggression, it must be reacted to with implacable resistance. Passivity cannot overcome the ill, it can endure in suffering or it can resist to whatever measure it is forced. This was a hard truth for a green bard, with a passion for justice. There was no justice without insistence, sometimes forcible insistence, until cooler heads can prevail. Sometimes Gabrielle longed for the company of the Amazons and their practical approach to disputes. But it was a man's world and they needed to be considered.

She waded across the pool to where her clothes lay on the clean smooth pebbles and stepped into them. The grotto was dark and plain, all its magic evaporated with the light and Xena. Gabrielle felt her resolve to leave...weakening. Xena had spoken more from her heart in the last few weeks, than she had in all the previous time they had spent together. No matter what happened between them physically, Gabrielle had no doubt what place she held in Xena's life. There was redemption, . . . and there was Gabrielle. Xena was nothing, if not focused. Gabrielle smiled fondly. What did it matter that they didn't share that one last thing, broke the final barrier? There was so much to enjoy in her friend, so much to learn, why could she not be satisfied with what Xena could give her?

Her mind swirling with conundrums, she failed to hear the warning she was given, before a whispering arrow caught a strand of golden hair and pinned it to the olive tree she was passing beneath. She stopped dead, deftly pulling out the deeply embedded arrow, even as she dropped into a crouch. The instinct's Xena had helped her hone, hummed vibrantly, the close call making her blood sing. Her eyes searched the surrounding brush fervently, listening intently for a rustle, or a cough, to give her opponents location away. But there was only silence.

She balled her fist and knocked her forehead a couple of times..."Stupid, stupid, stupid...should have heard the silence..." She began to scan nearby for some sort of weapon, when a voice, vivid with humor came from the darkness only four or five feet to her right..."How can you brain me?...When you can't see me? "

Gabrielle started, her hand closing on a fair sized stick, when she heard the unmistakable whine of a tightening bowstring.

"I can see you recognize that sound, princess golden hair...please put the stick back on the ground...I don't mean you any harm, but you were blundering up the path, your mind definitely somewhere else..."

There was a pregnant pause and Gabrielle wondered how long this person had been watching the grotto and suddenly, frighteningly, she wondered where Xena was.

"Don't worry princess," The voice chuckled, but it was benign and indulgent, "Your big Amazon is fine, if somewhat....distracted. Rest assured," A little flint entered the voice, "If my intentions had not been honorable, your friend would have died, just as quickly as you nearly did."

Gabrielle stood slowly, still unable to distinguish anything unusual in the surrounding brush, until the soft sigh of the bowstring relaxing. A slight figure, in muted colors matching the woods, stood slowly, as if growing from the underbrush. It was a young woman. Gabrielle had no trouble seeing that once she was illuminated by the moonlight. Her hair was russet, shot with streaks of gold, cut short in a cap around her interesting face. She wasn't beautiful, not in the way that Xena was or that even Gabrielle was. Not the sort of woman that would turn heads with her looks. But something radiated from her, a wave of good humor, good will and a cautious friendliness. She might be a grinning fool, but Gabby had no doubt in her mind, she had that humor to thank for her life. This was a woman who could afford to be of good cheer.

"Well that you can see me, do you still want to brain me?"

Though she didn't hear it, Gabrielle could feel the chuckle behind the words.

She grinned in response, "I might, if I didn't think you'd laugh at me. My name is Gabrielle and you are?..."

She did laugh then, and stepped up to Gabby, her hand extended, "Pleased to meet you," She replied smoothly, shook Gabby's hand, then stepped back a pace. She is very casual about it Gabrielle thought shrewdly. But she dropped naturally into a warriors's stance...this one is dangerous. But she seemed friendly enough. "You aren't going to tell me your name?"

"Perhaps when all are assembled, will be the time for introductions," Her smile was warm and genuine.


"Your friend," She shrugged then winked" ...and of course...mine."

"Yours?," Gabby asked warily.

"Yes, mine, little sister," She chortled again, "But don't go on the defensive, Garrote is gentle as a kitten. We only wished to share your fire and maybe a story or two. Certainly that is amiable enough, even for your fierce Amazon." She indicated the distant campfire with her head, but never took her eyes off of Gabby's face. It would not do to underestimate this seemingly delicate young girl. Asps were delicate too.

"And who is Garrote? And what kind of name is that?' Gabby asked, her curiosity getting the best of her caution.

In answer, she beckoned to the darkness and a mountain rose from the ground. Seven foot tall if he was an inch, the man was massive. He had close cropped, dark hair and a face that looked as though it were carved from the rock of Mt. Olympus. His arms were four feet long, gnarled and knotted with muscle. His legs were shorter and slightly bowed. He had a patch over one eye and a terrible scar ran from ear to ear, then up his jaw to the corner of the patch. But the single eye that gleamed at her in the soft light held such a wealth of intelligence and benevolence, that it made Gabrielle's heart ache.

Gabrielle decided in a moment, and said, "Certainly you can come back to our camp. There's probably some food left and actually..." She paused sheepishly, as the woman grinned, "A little company might be a good thing." She gazed at the towering man and asked, "But I still don't understand why you call him Garrote."

The girl moved a little closer and said softly, all trace of humor gone from her voice, "I came across him on a battlefield month's ago. He was horribly wounded and it took all the small skill I possess to keep him alive. When he was well enough, I asked him what his name was, but he can't write and his injuries left him mute. So I asked him what happened to him, he mimed being garroted and then cut, so..." She paused and looked back over her shoulder, her face sad and tender, "I called him Garrote Blade, for want of anything better."

That simple story sealed the bargain, as compassion soared within Gabrielle. What a sad excuse for a name, though poignantly fitting, as the man could hear and was obviously intelligent. Gabrielle thought she might like to try teaching him to read and write. Maybe she could give him some mobility of his own. She indicated the path, then took the lead. She was not misled by the bedroll stretched out near the fire, seemingly occupied. She felt that Xena was watching from somewhere close by. So as arranged previously, she called out, "Coming to the fire, with friends." She glanced back at the enigmatic woman trailing her and there was a soft and knowing smile on her face. Obviously she was not misled either.

When Xena melted out of the one in the little group, seemed surprised to see her. And the girl, half Xena's size, seemed in no way intimidated by the warrior. In fact, her eyes danced with suppressed mirth. "Knew you weren't there, but clever just the same." She intoned seriously, but grinned as she said it. "You're pretty imposing, so we've been keeping an eye on you for the last..." She glanced askew at a horrified Gabrielle. "Quarter candlemark or so..." She finished stoutly, her face a study in innocence.

Gabrielle nearly sighed out loud in relief, but Xena smiled that smirk of hers and replied, "I came across your tracks, quite a ways down stream. Long before I let you see me. I knew you were headed for the grotto, I knew Gabrielle could take care of herself and I wanted YOU to know I was with her."

The young woman did not press the point, but it was clear that she had some talent as a tracker. Gabrielle judging by the wary expression on her face, Xena as well. Both realized that they were on equal footing with this unimposing slip of a girl. That in that slim androgynous frame, was a bundle of tightly wound springs, which could expand and decimate. There was a potency to her that could nearly raise the hair on the back of your head. If it were not for her casual good humor, Gabrielle would have been very frightened of her.

She did not mention the arrow. Gabrielle thought about then immediately discarded, the idea of telling Xena herself, what the girl had done with an arrow. How the shot had been almost a caress, it had come so close.

Suddenly Xena's eyes narrowed and she grabbed Gabby, pulling her into the firelight. She examined Gabrielle's face and discovered a thin bloody scratch on her cheek. "What is this?" She asked softly, "How'd you get the scratch Gab?"

Gabrielle carefully avoided looking at the young woman, but felt the tension in the air rise a degree. "Probably just a tree branch, I don't know...why is it bad or something?"

Xena looked suspiciously from Gabby, to their visitor and her large friend. Something about him?.... She couldn't catch any of them dissembling, though she didn't think for a minute that Gab had scratched her face on a tree branch. The edges of the superficial wound were cut neatly, by something incredibly sharp, something honed to a fine edge. But if Gabrielle wanted her to believe that it had been a branch, then so be it. Gabrielle was well aware that Xena would make up her own mind about the strangers. Gabrielle would talk to anyone, after all.

Xena moved to her bedroll and flipped out the bearskin cape she had used to make a form within it. Silently, she extended it to the big man by the fire and indicated they should sit across from her, across the fire. The girl smiled, but complied knowing full well that Xena had put the fire between them as a precaution.

The sprite of a girl sat cross-legged in the grass and the big man draped the cape over the girl's shoulders. Gabrielle, the consummate party hostess, henned about the camp fetching cups and tea, and to Xena's disgruntlement, the rest of those little apple fritter things she had made yesterday. She had been going to eat those for breakfast . . . "So ...Gabrielle?...Perhaps introductions are in order?" She prompted.

"Well...if I knew their real names, I would be delighted. Frankly I'm quite curious myself." Gabrielle turned her frank, open gaze on the strangers and taking it as her cue, the girl inclined her head and began to talk.

"I was at the scene of the battle between Caesar and Pompey, " She said quietly. Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other, but said nothing. "I was looking for my father." She gazed up at them candidly, "He was a soldier for Pompey...a slave actually taken as a prisoner three years ago and trained as a gladiator. When that went out of style in Rome, Pompey recruited him for the army. We are from Athens originally." She said wistfully, her smile sad, "It was just my father and I. My mother died when I was two of some current version of the plague. Papa and I were best friends though. He was the captain of a charter boat. Pompey chartered his boat,' bitterly', then chartered him. He went out on a day trip and never came home. His knowledge of the seas was impressive. He was learned and intelligent. Pompey saw his potential from the first. For a year, I thought he was dead, until a friend of his saw him one day as he marched in uniform through the village. The friend got word to me and I've been searching for him since."

She looked up at them, her face revealing no emotion whatsoever, "I found him father...they hadn't even buried him, but let him lie where he fell. I only knew it was him, by the coin he had in his mouth. I think he put it there to keep it from getting stolen." She smiled sadly, "It would have been just like him. My mother had bought a ride on his boat with it, when they were both very young and he had saved it as a memento. It had his and my mother's names engraved on it. Between that, and the chipped front tooth, identification was possible." She stopped talking for a moment and took a sip of her tea. The big man sitting next to her, gently took her hand in his and patted it kindly. She smiled warmly at her guardian, put her cup on the ground next to her, then picked up her voice, and her tale. "After I buried him, I began to look around, I don't know why...I guess I was in shock. I'd spent so much time and effort to find him, you see. That when I did and it was over, I had no idea where to go, what to do. I was alone, skilled, my father saw to that, but still....alone. I heard some moaning and I found this big guy here," She indicated Garrote, "Buried under about thirty other men. Barely, just barely alive. I pulled him a couple of miles from the battleground in a wagon, found an abandoned farmhouse and went to tending him. We've been together ever since."

She grinned again, a ghost of her former humor, haunted her eyes. "For some reason the big goof thinks he needs to protect me. That is my story, perhaps you can find some way to learn his." She jabbed a thumb at the flesh mountain next to her, "But I haven't been able to make heads nor tales of it."

"What brought you to our camp?" Xena asked, still somewhat hesitant.

"We came after you." She replied without a preamble.

"Why?" Xena asked casually, but Gabrielle could sense the danger in her. The way she was holding herself.

"We want to join your little family," She smiled brightly, but her eyes glittered with something indefinable.

"You have to be born into family." Xena said, being deliberately rude.

"We came to fight with you." She said finally, flatly.

"What do you know of us and what makes you think we could use your help?" Gabby finally broke her silence to ask.

"I only know what I heard in the villages I went through following you." She laughed and pointed at Gabrielle, "Perhaps if you wish anonymity, you shouldn't travel with such a prolific story teller." She said to Xena, who had to incline her head in wry acknowledgment. "As for what makes me think you could use my help?"

She stood and walked to the center of the clearing. From a bag at her waist, she produced two silver links, about two inches across. The big man, a tiny grin on his face rose beside her. He took the links from her and moved out in front of her about twenty-five paces. Out into the darkness, with only the light of the waning moon to show his location.

She pulled two arrows from the quiver at her back and ripped the inner flights off with her teeth. She notched both arrows and nodded. The big man heaved the two links of silver high into the air and she let fly. Garrote trotted off into the night to retrieve the arrows like a happy dog, playing his favorite game. When he reentered the fire light, he was carrying both shafts. Neatly ringing the arrowhead of each, was the silver link. Even Xena's eyes glowed with appreciation of that feat. As she handled the arrow "Gar,” as the girl had referred to him, had handed her, it did not escape her attention that the width and sharpness of the arrowhead were pretty close to a perfect match, with the scratch on Gabs' cheek. Her eyes narrowed speculatively as she watched Gabrielle and the other girl, chatting animatedly. It was relatively easy for her to imagine what had happened.

"Nice trick." She said, interrupting them neatly, "But you still haven't told us your name..." She raised inquiring eyes to the girl, "And what makes you think our fight is yours."

The russet head bowed in amused acknowledgment and her green eyes danced, "You are correct, I am name is Misera Hasheed. Sera to my friends...if I had any." She raised her eyes to the two women sitting across from her, a question apparent in them.

Gabrielle shot a side long glance at her warrior and said, "And your reasons for choosing us?"

"I feel a need to right wrongs and end tyranny in Greece." She shrugged with a smile, "According to what I have heard, you are on the same road...I only thought we might walk it together for a time."

"Our quest requires we travel a perilous road." Gabrielle said intently, giving the young girl a serious look, "It is not a countryside stroll to be taken at leisure. It requires loyalty, trust, dedication and sacrifice. It is not a light journey for amusement."

Xena glanced at Gabrielle and then away quickly, to keep any trace of humor from showing in her face. Seems she had said something similar to Gabby, once upon a time.

Misera's green eyes glittered at the subtle rebuke, "I ceased to be a child a few years back." She said, her voice tightly restrained, "I am well aware of the risks." She plucked the arrow out of Gabrielle's hands and regarded it coolly, "I have not always used silver links as targets. I am also good with a staff and then there are...these," in one fluid motion, she stooped and pulled a neatly concealed throwing knife from her boot top.

Before even Xena could react, the small missile was launched and thumped audibly between the big warriors feet, neatly pinning her laces to the ground. Xena regarded the knife implacably, but when she looked up at Misera, her eyes were glittering dangerously.

"I would not suggest you do that again." Hissed furiously in a tight voice by....Gabrielle.

Xena shot her an amused look and reached down to extract the knife implanted in the dirt. In a blink, the dart whispered through the air, caught the arrow shaft in Misera's hand and spun it away. Xena smiled, but it never reached her eyes and said, "I think I would listen to Gabrielle if I were you." She yawned, looking bored and without another word, rolled into her blankets and went immediately to sleep.

Gabrielle vacillated between incredulous glances at Xena's broad back and accusatory ones at Misera. The younger girl, an enigmatic half smile on her face, shrugged unconcernedly and sat down again. This time closer to Gabrielle. "Sorry, but sometimes it's just easier to demonstrate." She grinned a little bigger, "Most people have a hard time reconciling my size and demeanor, with my abilities."

Gabrielle held eye contact firmly for a second, a slow smile worming its way onto her mouth, then shook her head and looked away. "You're a bit of a gambler Misera."

She glanced back at the younger woman who replied softly, "Sera.”

Gabrielle looked puzzled..."What?"

" Sera," she repeated, looking directly into Gabrielle's eyes, "I like my friends to call me Sera."

Gabrielle gave Sera a cool, thoughtful appraisal, her face unreadable. She glanced at her sleeping friend, then back at Sera, and said, "In our family as you called it, we choose our friends very carefully..." Her gaze direct, "I'm sure you can appreciate our position?"

Sera nodded, her face solemn, "Of course...does this mean no?"

There was no sense of impending histrionics, so Gabrielle answered truthfully, "I didn't say that. Not that it is my decision anyway. Xena will have your answer soon enough. In all things dealing with the safety of our fellowship, I bow to my friend. She is much wiser than I."

"Why Xena...why not you Gabrielle?" She asked curiously, "Are you not a member of this fellowship? Is your voice not heard? What say you to my question Gabrielle, for it is your regard I seek, more than your large?"

Gabrielle chuckled a little and replied ruefully, "My voice is heard far more than is sometimes prudent. But Xena is my friend, my one true friend and I trust her judgment in these things, far more than my own. As for my answer to your question?" She shrugged, "I don't have one yet. I may be more gregarious than my warrior friend over there, but I'm no less cautious. Xena has my trust and respect, because she has earned them. I do not know you, or your motives, so I will wait..." She smiled, "But I am encouraged by your candor. I do wish you'd be a little less dramatic in your presentation though." She glanced again at Xena, shivering a little, then back at Sera with a sly smile, "And I fervently hope you do not walk in your sleep."


It was almost dawn. Judging by the stars. Gabrielle's watch had been over nearly an hour ago, but she had sat in the crisp night, with the constellations wheeling overhead and let her mind travel a familiar journey through the land of "I wish." She had become such a frequent visitor that she had been thinking of buying a farm there. She smiled at her own joke and tossed another small log on the fire. The logs shifted, sending a funnel of sparks shooting skyward. In the glow, she gazed at Xena, only to find Xena gazing back. Her face was soft with sleep and composed like a newborn babe.

She smiled warmly and lifted the blanket, inviting Gabby into a familiar embrace. Xena propped her head on her cupped hand and draped her arm around Gabrielle as she snuggled into the blankets, pulling her close, sharing her warmth. She smiled and dropped an absent kiss on her friend's hair, "You're cold," She said.

Gabrielle grinned, "You have a wonderful talent for summing up the obvious, in as few words as possible."

She felt her friends body quiver with suppressed laughter. "Truer words...I never was one for small talk."

Gabrielle nodded in agreement, "So...what do you think of my prisoners?"

Xena snorted, "Prisoners' eh? So that's what they are." She gave Gabby a friendly squeeze to erase any sting, "I don't know yet Gabs...I'm thinking I might like to put the pinch on her..." Her voice had dropped an octave and was deceptively soft.

Gabrielle almost laughed out loud. She laced her fingers with the hand Xena had been resting on her hip and squeezed. "I don't think we're at the pinch stage yet. Besides you're just mad that she was able to surprise you..." She trailed off loftily and nearly laughed again when she felt her friend puffing up with indignation. "I told her we would see...I suppose we'll see then."

"Do you trust her?" Xena asked carefully, she didn't want to upset this fragile balance they had achieved.

"Not completely..not yet anyway. But I like her, and I feel some empathy for her, if that answers your question." Gabby moved closer, drawing on her friend's warmth and companionship.

"It tells me enough." Xena pulled the covers up, tucking them in around Gabby casually, "Were you going to tell me about her shooting an arrow at you?"

Gabrielle looked up guiltily, shaking her head a little, "How'd you?...No, as a matter of fact, I hadn't planned on it."

"Why not?"

"I didn't think it was important."

"You want me to trust her, when she shot at you?"

"It was a warning, she didn't hurt me..."

"But you didn't think it was important?"

"I thought you might overreact."

"You mean like now?"

"Well know how you...oh Hades..."



"I do love know?"

"I know. Go to sleep now..."

"It's my turn to watch."

"I think it'll be safe. And Xena?..."


"Will you hold me?"

"With all my might Gabrielle....with all my might..."


It was full on daylight by the time Gabrielle rolled out of her blankets. The fire was down to embers, but the tea was still warm. There wasn't anyone in camp with her and Gabrielle found that almost ominous. She got up, quickly rolled the furs up and poured herself some tea. She turned her face up to the sun. It was probably still early, but she felt languid, as though she had slept for days. She was again wondering where everyone had gotten off to, when she heard the sound of wood on wood and Xena's voice raised in battle. Gabrielle didn't pause to think, she grabbed her staff on the run and followed the sound. At a sprint, she raced along the path, around a stand of trees and slowed suddenly at the scene in the clearing beyond.

Xena was in a pitched battle with Gar. They were both shiny with sweat and the sound of the staffs clashing rang in echos around the edges of the clearing. Gabby could see that Xena was exhilarated. Her face was a mask of primal, almost feral, enjoyment. She was having a grand old time. She lunged at her huge attacker, her staff whistled and caught Gar a glancing blow on the ear, just barely deflected. He grinned at her, the bottom half of his staff, swinging up in a wide arc and cuffing her on one of her gauntlets. She stepped back, rocking her weight to her back foot and swept her staff low, catching the big man behind the knee and knocking him on his back. He hit the ground like thunder, a puff of fine dust whooshed up around him. He grunted and moaned for a few seconds. Embarrassed, Gar got to his feet slowly. He gazed at the warrior princess with a grin and a gleam of respect in his single perfect eye. Then he planted his staff between his feet and knelt before her in salute.

It made Gabrielle's throat tighten when Xena laughed out loud in sheer exuberance and said, "Get up man! Get up...well fought! That was the most fun I've had in an age. You wore me out." She plopped down on the grass to illustrate her point. Her grin firmly fixed, her hair wild and her eyes bright.

Instead of standing, the big man laughed soundlessly and clapped the warrior on the shoulder, then sat next to her. They were both breathing hard and Xena was flushed, but Gabby could tell she had enjoyed her exercises this morning.

She glanced around, wondering where Misera was during all of this. Taking a deep breath, still trying to get her own breathing under control, Gabrielle strolled toward the two Gladiators. Xena looked around before she had taken three steps, smiled warmly at her friend and beckoned her. Xena stood then and reached a hand down to Gar, who allowed her to heave him up to stand beside her. Xena nudged him in the ribs, grinning at Gabrielle she said, "Did you see how fast this big guy can move Gabrielle?"

Gabby chuckled under her breath, Xena was never happier than when she'd had a good fight. "I saw." She replied, knowing there was no way she was ever going to understand her friend's relishment of beating someone to a pulp. "Where is Misera?" She asked.

Xena's smile dimmed a little and she tossed her head towards the trees. "Said she was going hunting," was her cryptic reply.

"Oh," Gabby smiled, "Good, I'm starving."

"Me too," Xena replied rather too quickly, trying to hide her own smile.

Gabby knew if she wanted an edible breakfast, it was just as well Xena stays away from the fire. She was going to get stuck cooking again, but at least she'd be able to eat it. Gabrielle insinuated herself between the two sweaty warriors and pulling them along said, "Well....breakfast won't cook itself...let's get going."

They had taken only a few steps when a laughing voice floated across the clearing, "I brought breakfast, but someone is going to have to win it from me...." Misera drifted out from between two trees, where she had been almost invisible. She held a brace of pheasants, their lifeless bodies tied at the feet with a thong of leather. She held them up and draped them over a low branch, "You're going to have to spar me for them." Her voice was light, and full of laughter, but her eyes were sharp and glittered dangerously. She was dressed differently this morning, her clothing was plain and nondescript, but strapped to her forearms were two small crossbows fixed to gauntlets. The arrows weren't so much arrows, as large darts. They were also fixed to the gauntlets. She carried her ash bow at her back, with a quiver of arrows. Two wicked looking daggers at her belt and a staff in her hands.

Gabrielle couldn't help the laughter that bubbled up in her when she said, "What? No catapult?"

Xena snorted derisively, but Misera chuckled and replied, "Now why didn't I think of that?"

Gabrielle looked from one to the other for a moment then said, "So...who's it going to be? I'm starved."

Misera looked at them both impassively and shrugged, "It makes no difference to me, but the birds don't move until someone moves them and they have to go through me."

A small tight smile curled on Xena's face, as she stepped forward. But Gabrielle moved in front of her, her eyes on Misera and said, "Not this time my friend," She held up a hand and Xena stopped, "I think I might like to accept that challenge. Besides,"and she grinned over her shoulder, "You and the big guy there," indicating Gar, "Have already had your fun for the morning."

Xena, her smile genuine this time, inclined her head to her friend, deferring to her. "As you will." She said and stepped back propping her crossed arms on the end of her staff to watch.

Misera removed her gauntlets and handed them to Gar, along with her other armaments. She hefted her staff and walked out into the middle of the clearing.

Gabrielle followed, watching the way she moved, what hand she shifted the staff to, how she placed her feet. They turned warily to face one another. Misera was smiling gently, "I'll try not to leave any marks."

Gabrielle grinned in her best imitation of Xena and replied, "I'll see that you don't." As she spun to her left and swung from the waist, only to encounter Misera's staff as she deftly blocked the blow.

They circled, each feinting and lunging, measuring one another. Holding her staff upright, Misera brought the end down sharply at Gabrielle's head, who batted it away contemptuously, following through on her parry and rapping Misera's knuckles. Misera sucked in a sharp breath, but grinned even bigger. She lunged at Gabby, her staff whirling.

Gabrielle stepped aside and swung at Misera's exposed back. But the younger girl met the attack by swinging the stave down and back behind her, countering Gabrielle's move without even looking at her. "Very nice." Gabrielle said admiringly, "You'll have to teach me that move."

"It would be my pleasure," Misera replied, even as she whirled around, her staff jabbing at Gabrielle's midsection. Gabby deflected the blow, but the end of the staff abraded along her forearm, raising a welt. She raised her eyebrow, her smile predatory now and said softly, "I think you might have to regret that..."

She lunged at Misera, feinted a blow to her midsection, then twirled her staff suddenly and caught the girl a glancing blow on the jaw. Misera took a backward step, probably more from surprise than injury, as Gabby had pulled the strike, but her eyes sharpened appreciatively.

"Impressive," she grunted, and she swung her staff at Gabrielle, who leapt in the air, clearing it easily.

There were some advantages to having Xena the warrior princess as your mentor. Gabrielle landed lightly and swept her staff down and forward, hooking Misera's leg and yanking it out from under her. Gabrielle hammered down at her, but Misera sprang nimbly to her feet, blocking the stroke gracefully.

Winded, the two women faced each other, circling, testing each other's boundaries. The staffs clashed again and again, the women fairly matched in skill, but finally Misera got her staff inside Gabrielle's defenses and poked her hard in the stomach, riving her breath out in a great whoosh.

Gabrielle took two steps backward, then sat abruptly, gasping for air and wheezing...."You win...I give up..."

Misera grinned and reached down to help Gabrielle up, but before their hands could meet, Xena had stepped between them. Her eyes on Misera, she grasped Gabby's forearm and pulled her up and held her against her side.

Gabrielle smiled sheepishly then extended her hand to Misera, "Good fight....Sera."

The younger woman's eyes clouded for a second, then she laughed and took Gabby's hand gently. She met Gabrielle's eye, not sparing a glance at the larger woman who held her friend protectively, then bowed over Gabby's hand and kissed it. "Never have I enjoyed winning less. My apologies' Lady Gabrielle." Her voice held humor and a sort of adoring respect, and her eyes were shadowed, but intent. " Not only have you won the birds and my undying admiration, but I will cook breakfast for you myself. Perhaps that might suffice as reparation?"

Xena, her gaze on Misera speculative, gently pushed Gabrielle towards the campsite. "It might for her." She indicated the retreating Gabrielle, "But if you ever raise a weapon to my friend again, you will have to go through me to use it."

Misera bowed, sweeping her arm out to her side, indicating that Xena should precede her, "The thought will never again cross my mind, I assure you, fierce one." She raised her eyes to Xena with a smile, "Your friend has made a friend in me."

Xena started away, her voice cool as it drifted back, "We'll see what kind of friend you make."


Xena trotted down the path to catch up with her friend, slowed and then fell in step beside her. They trudged on for a few minutes in silence. Xena shooting sidelong glances at Gabby. Finally she leaned closer, mindful of the quiet Misera behind them and whispered, "Are you OK?"

Gabby, pulled from her reverie, glanced up and gave Xena a distracted smile. "Sure... why wouldn't I be?"

"Well....ummm.... you don't usually let someone thump you that hard, then walk off with a shrug and a benign smile." Xena tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

Gabrielle was just not acting like herself. She glanced quickly behind them at Misera, who was twirling a leaf between her fingers, staring at the ground with a curious smile on her face. Something clicked in the warrior's mind and her heart was suddenly on fire with an all consuming jealousy. "Or maybe there is something you want to tell me?..." She ground out, the sound like gravel crunching underfoot. Gabrielle, suddenly alert, stopped walking and turned to face the warrior.

"Such as?..." She arched her brow, wary and verging on angry, though she wasn't sure why.

Xena was immediately sorry she had let those words pass her lips, but it was too late to backpedal. She sent one searing look at Misera, then taking Gabrielle gently, it would not do to throw oil on the fire she could see smoldering, by the arm led her off the path a ways. She turned to face her, maybe a little ashamed of her self and said softly, "I'm sorry Gabrielle...I didn't mean to imply anything...I just...well I.... I guess I'm a little jealous..." She finished lamely.

Gabrielle regarded the warrior curiously then followed her gaze to Misera, who had passed them without even glancing their way. Suddenly Gabrielle's eyebrows migrated into her hairline and she couldn't help the incredulous snort of laughter that issued from her. "You mean to say you think?...That Misera and I?....That after last night I would?...You can't be serious?" Gabrielle pressed her palms flat to her stomach and woofed with grim laughter. Just as quickly, her laughter faded, her eyes somber and speculative as her gaze traveled back to Misera. "Then again....."

"Gabriellllllllle." Xena warned, but without any heat. What right did she have?

Gabby spun on her warrior, her voice sharp as a knife blade, "I hadn't given it a single thought." She eyed Xena coldly, "Until you mentioned it...but now that you have, I will admit that I feel a certain ...attraction towards Sera. She is, after all, nearer my age. With a sweet nature and a good sense of humor." She let her eyes follow Sera around the bend, then turned back to Xena, knowing the look that would be on her face, knowing she would be trying to fight it. "She's smart, and she'd be handy in a fight..." Gabby paused, looking the warrior up and down contemplatively, her expression bland, "And more importantly ... she loves me." She sighed, pretending indecision, "Maybe you're right..." She glanced quickly at Xena out of the corner of her eye, "Maybe I should head back to the Amazons..Take my place as their queen...settle down." She turned to face Xena, her eyes as penetrating as her words, "I think Sera would make a great Amazon...don't you?" Gabrielle watched in amazement, the parade of emotions that marched across the warriors' tortured features. Jealousy, envy, rage, hurt, a kaleidoscope, melting and reforming in Xena's face and eyes. Tears shimmered, making Gabrielle feel vaguely guilty and then.

"There is only one way I can think of to shut you up." Xena hissed at her in a raw voice, "And I should have done it a long time ago!" She lunged forward, grabbing Gabrielle by the forearms and pulled her into a rough embrace. Her eyes glittering, she forced Gabrielle's head back until their eyes met.

Fear caused Gabrielle's heart to lurch and her breath drew short.

Xena stared down at her, a feral smile curling her lips, "Is this what you want Gabrielle?..." She lowered her head and pressed a hard emotionless kiss to Gabrielle's mouth. But then she let the kiss deepen, no longer able to stoke the anger, when another fire was demanding fuel. Gabrielle's lips softened, turning to honey beneath hers, drawing her on with incredible sweetness. Xena groaned softly, her punishment had turned back on her. She tried desperately to find the will to break the kiss, but when Gabrielle twined her hands in the warrior's hair, drawing her back...well...she was lost. Her arms slid around the slight body that had melted to hers, drawing the bard gently closer. She trailed her lips across Gabby's cheek, her eyes pressed tightly closed, as if in reverence. Nuzzling behind her ear, nibbling at her throat. "I'm sorry Gabrielle.. I'm sorry..."

"Don't be." Came the breathlessly joyful reply, "In answer to your question?...YES, this is definitely what I want." Gabrielle gave a shaky laugh. "By the God's....this is all I have ever wanted." She buried her face in the warrior's neck, her breath warm and ragged against the sensitive skin. "I love you Xena. I feel like the only thing keeping me from exploding, is your arms around me." She tipped her head back, her eyes smoky and colored with arousal. "Can't you feel how right this is?"

Blue upon green, Xena fell into Gabrielle's eyes and drowned happily in the love that washed over her in a wave. Tears of surrender streamed down her face as she nodded, her head bowed. "I can feel it." She whispered tautly. "I could always feel it Gabrielle. I love you too."

Gabrielle sighed, lifting Xena's chin she smiled warmly into her bleary face. "You know..." Gabby mused wickedly, "If I'd have known that showing interest in someone else was all it took to get this response from you, I would have..."

Descending lips cut off her gloat, stealing her breath in a fashion she had never encountered before. Her smile died as the warrior's need, the love she had kept locked safely away rolled over them like a storm. They clung to each other for long minutes. Their minds spinning with released energy and arms tight around each other.

Xena pulled away slightly, resting her forehead against Gabby's, her eyes closed, her breathing shallow. "I have never felt like this before . . . " She whispered unsteadily, "Never been so . . . overwhelmed ...." She paused and smiled wryly, knowing without opening her eyes, that Gabrielle was also smiling.

Gabrielle dropped her head until her brow rested on Xena's chin. She was trembling all over and her knees were wobbly. If she hadn't been firmly anchored in the warrior's embrace, she would probably have sunk limply to the ground. "Did you feel that?" She whispered, tilting her head back she met Xena's eye. "Like something left my body...and entered yours?"

Xena could only nod affirmation, she seemed to have lost control of her voice.

Gabrielle's eyes were wide with wonder, "Has that ever happened to you before?"

Xena's mouth formed the word "never,” but she shook her head instead, not trusting her voice, knowing if she opened up to Gabrielle here, now, that she would not be able to stop until her soul was drained.

Gabrielle gazed at her impassively for a second, then one eyebrow arched on her forehead and she said "....Wow."

Xena, her eyes laughing, nodded her head emphatically and mouthed the word back into Gabby's upturned face. Then she gave Gabrielle one of those wonderful, mischievous toothy grins and kissed her forehead tenderly.

"You know," said the bard, never at a loss for words. "I could get used to this with very little trouble." She laid her head against Xena's leather clad breast and listened contentedly, to the irregular beat of the warrior's strong heart. She felt Xena smile...when Xena smiled like that, she used her entire body. They stood still for a few seconds, their thoughts gathering like clouds, then Gabrielle said, "Now what?"

She felt Xena fighting the moment, struggling to keep reality from encroaching, but in the end, she simply shrugged. Gabrielle pulled away from the warrior pensively, already feeling the connection straining. She moved a few steps away, her mind fluttering from one scenario to another, living an entire life with Xena, in the space of a few quiet seconds. Then living alternate lives, without her. The choice was simple. She was nodding to herself as she turned back to face the one person in the world, she knew she would never be able to live without. She stood directly in front of Xena, her face composed, her heart back on course. "I think I understand now, why you didn't want to get intimate." She paused, her smile warm. "Because that was really intimate... wasn't it?"

Xena smiled shyly, almost sweetly, which made Gabrielle's stomach clench like a fist and blushed gorgeously. "And it was only a kiss." She replied, her gaze soft like a caress, "One kiss Gabrielle...and what do you think comes after that? And where does it go from there?" She reached out gently and brushed the bard's hair back from her face. "After only one kiss...I'll never be able to let you go."

Gabrielle heard trumpets and angel voices rejoicing in her mind, that one statement put her whole life in order. No matter what happened between them now, they were Held, one to the other, by an unbreakable bond. Something important had happened in the space of just a few stolen moments. Some consummate answer to an eternal cosmic conundrum, "What's it all about?" Gabby captured Xena's hand and held it to her cheek, her eyes closed in blissful security. No matter what, they would never be separated again, not time or distance or even death could mar their connection. In those few stolen moments, Gabrielle had found her peace. She hugged her friend affectionately, the blaze of desire cooling slightly. "It doesn't matter any more." She replied after a few seconds and when Xena looked dubious, she smiled, "No... really, it doesn't matter now. Don't you see? I have gotten what I wanted, what you were afraid to give me."

Gabrielle laughed then at the bewildered and frustrated look on Xena's face. "I mean, what I wanted was that part of you no one else has claim to. The Intimacy, the Trust." She prodded the warrior's chest gently, "What was in here. And in one kiss, you gave it to me. Almost fed it to me...." She laughed when Xena colored again and kissed the end of her nose.

Xena smiled at her, "Actually Gabrielle." She said matter of factly, "You had that all along. I have never trusted anyone the way I trust you. Never loved anyone, been consumed by anyone, the way I have with you." She shook her head ruefully, "You have turned me from fierce to fuzzy, from maniac to marshmallow..." She grinned to take the sting out, "You've ruined a fine warrior."

Gabrielle laughed in delight and her eyes sparkling she replied, "Thank the God's for that." She locked her gaze to Xena's, her voice dropping suggestively, as her hands strayed to the buckles on the warriors armor. "I guess then," She began removing Xena's outer layer, "That you won't be needing this," She tugged the breast plate free, "anymore..." Gabrielle watched Xena, watch Gabrielle throw her warriors armor away from them, something unreadable in her eyes.

She reached down and stilled Gabby's hands, "Are you sure about this Gabrielle? Once this has begun, there will be no turning back . I don't want to risk my friend, for the sake of ..." She smiled tenderly, "What would be enormous pleasure. I need my friend more than I need a bed partner."

"Not to worry." Gabrielle sighed sweetly, "I think I can fit both people, friend and Lover, into one package. Now shut up...and kiss me."

And the warrior obeyed without question.

Continued in Chapter 9 ---->