Fishing in the Dark By Bibbit

Disclaimers
Legal:
The characters in this story belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Actually, only Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo don’t belong to me. Guess I used my imagination. At any rate, no copyright infringement was intended.
Violence: Xena does not go on any killing sprees in this fiction, though fish suffer extensively. The violence level is less than the average episode. Proceed at your own risk.
Subtext: This is my little love story contribution to the Xenaverse. Two women, in love, doing something about it. Finally. This fiction, however, is not sexually explicit.

This story is a sequel to my first, The African Queen. You do not have to read that tale in order to understand this one, but it would make me feel better if you did.

I’d like to sincerely thank my beta reader Charlotte. Without you, this would still be sitting on a shelf.

Copyright: Bibbit, 1999

All comments are welcome. Send e-mail to: bibbit@brightok.net

Part 2 (ch 5-8)

Chapter 5

Xena spent most of the afternoon giving carpentry lessons to the few villagers capable of attending, so Gabrielle hung out at the inn watching over the last of the sick. Most people were at least up and around, if not well enough to participate in the outdoor activities. Consequently, some very restless folks were sitting around the downstairs bar brooding and drinking.

The bard and her shadow moved from one room to the next, dishing out water and comforting stories in equal measure. Rebecca was mostly a cheerleader, but Gabrielle enjoyed her enthusiasm. The remaining bedridden patients loved both of their efforts.

By the time dinner arrived, they both needed a break from the closed in rooms and stagnant air. They settled down at one of the few empty tables and waited to be served the customary fish soup, or filet of baked fish, or whatever fish concoction the cook managed to dream up.

"Is Xena eatin’?" Rebecca asked while they waited.

"Not at this moment, but she’ll be here soon," the bard replied. Xena hadn’t told her yet, but she’d seen her brain working behind those steel blue eyes. Wherever she was, the woman was hatching a plan.

The serving girl, one of the first villagers to recover, brought two mugs of water, sloshing them down on the table. Rebecca was unfazed by the interruption. "Xena should check on you mowe. My man checks on me all the time," she declared.

Gabrielle’s brow furrowed as she tried to process the statement. "What man," was her first question.

"Awness. He watches out fo me." Her manner indicated she thought the situation was common knowledge.

Smiling sheepishly, Gabrielle was charmed. She wondered if Arness knew how Rebecca thought of him. She would have guessed he was more like a big brother, but then again… "Why should Xena check on me more?" she asked, attempting to raise an eyebrow as the thoughts came together.

"She is you…woman." She frowned as she tried to reconcile the concepts, fumbling the words, but recovering quickly. "She should check to see if you all wight," she finished with a smile.

Gabrielle laughed, not at all worried about the blush that she felt on her cheeks. Rebecca was okay in her scroll. "Don’t worry, she checks up on me plenty."

"I know you’re not talking about me," a deep voice burred from behind the bard. She could tell by the plump woman’s expression that Xena must have performed one of her patented sudden appearance tricks.

"Hello Xena, glad you could join us," the bard remarked as casually as possible, though her heart immediately started beating double time. Her reaction to the warrior hadn’t always been so intense, but the pressure building between them was becoming more exhilarating in it’s inevitability, hence the bard’s expectations continually spiraled.

The leather-clad woman sat down next to Rebecca, across from Gabrielle, her lazy, lopsided smile firmly in place. "The longer I’m away, the more you miss me. Right?"

Taken aback slightly by her friend’s playful mood, the bard laughed nervously. Xena wasn’t always in a bad mood, but an actual good mood was a treasured treat. "Right," she managed to murmur.

A dark eyebrow rose as the warrior laughed. Gabrielle could feel her face turn a record shade of red. Luckily, Xena took pity on her. "Rebecca," she said, turning her attention to the woman beside her. "Arness wanted me to send you home. He needs to talk to you."

"What was that about?" the bard asked when she fully recovered and Rebecca had scooted away from the table. She didn’t normally have much of a shy streak, but sometimes Xena could render her speechless with a look.

Xena waggled her eyebrows. "We need to go pack our bags. It’s time for a ride," she stated mysteriously, rising without another word.

As they gathered a few supplies, the warrior revealed that the little trip was going to be more than merely a ride, but a mission to track the raiders down to their camp. Once there, they would scope the place out and decide on a plan of action dependent upon what the place looked like. Xena gave no indication that there would be any trouble finding the place. Gabrielle supposed she had one of her ‘feelings’ about it.

Gabrielle waited beside Argo, stroking her neck unconsciously, while the warrior retrieved Arness, the completing member of their scouting posse. Considering Xena’s expression of …distrust for the constable, the bard was surprised that he’d been invited. No doubt it was some kind of warrior test to determine his loyalties. She loves doing that kind of thing, she thought with a smile.

Argo’s excited whinny announced her mistress’ reappearance. "You ready?" the warrior asked as she approached the horse.

"You bet ya," Gabrielle replied playfully. She moved out of the way so that Xena could mount up.

The warrior gave her a look, then grasped the pommel of the saddle and vaulted into it, immediately lowering a strong arm to help the bard up. When she was settled, Arness appeared beside them on a black stallion. A white hat, the sides shaped like an upturned turtle shell, blocked the sun from his pale skin and obscured his bright red hair. He nodded to the women politely, dipping his chin, a finger touching the brim of his hat.

They started off in silence, taking the direction the sick raiders had come from the day before. Gabrielle wondered at Xena’s seemingly sudden decision to try and track the bandits. When they’d first arrived, the warrior pushed that part of the town’s problems out of the forefront to concentrate on healing the infirm. She’d projected the attitude that the past was gone and wasting time tracking the reprehensible men would do no one any good. The strange arrival of the two riders must have changed her mind.

Being who she was, Gabrielle couldn’t hold her tongue long. She leaned forward, contracting her arms around Xena’s waist, and whispered in her ear. "Why are we doing this?" If she couldn’t speak her mind to her best friend, who else was there, she figured.

Her dark head turned away from Arness when she spoke. "It might be simpler to catch these guys than I thought. They’re around here somewhere," she answered in a hushed tone.

Gabrielle wasn’t exactly sure why they were whispering, but it gave her a chance at closer than normal contact with the warrior, which was not a bad thing, so she continued the trend, her lips almost touching a delicately shaped ear. "How do you know?"

Shaking her head slightly, Xena cleared her throat before answering, her voice a touch haggard. "Those men were too sick to have rode very far," was her logical explanation.

"Are you trying to find their tracks?" the woman wrapped around her waist asked.

"Nah, the trail is too cold for that. But if this group is as big as everyone says, I don’t think they’ll be that hard to find around here." The warrior straightened in the saddle, placing a protective hand over the arms crossing at her stomach.

Gabrielle put her head down on a strong shoulder. "What are we gonna do when we find it?"

"Don’t know," was her answer.

Arness was travelling quietly beside them, apparently not offended by their whispered conversation. The bard noted his continued presence in passing as she relaxed against her partner, content to enjoy Argo’s swaying gait and the warm body in her arms.

A few candlemarks down the trail, Xena noted a worn entrance into the woods, shabbily covered with chopped limbs and bushes. The rough path within the trees led them to a crossroads of sorts, ripe for a decision by a certain Warrior Princess to lead them down the correct path. Instead, Xena found them a clearing away from the fork, deciding it better to see the camp in the morning sun anyway.

Well-practiced motions had the camp set up in moments, fire burning low, bedrolls spread on the hard earth. Arness, seated on a nearby log, watched the process with a smile, continuing the easy dialog he shared with the bard. When she was done, she settled down on the blankets, leaving Xena to finish Argo’s tender care.

"The town’s gonna hate to see you go, Gabrielle," Arness continued. If nothing else, the man knew how to praise a woman.

The bard blushed a little. "They won’t even notice we’re gone after everyone is up and around."

He fervently shook his head. "That’s not true and ya know it. I’m sure gonna hate to see you go. Before we met, I never realized how lonely my life was," he emphasized.

"You’ve got Rebecca to keep you company," she told him.

"That’s not the same and you know it," he chastised gently, moving the few steps over to the bedroll she was on and sitting down. "Is this okay," he motioned to his new position.

Gabrielle nodded with a smile. "Sure. And Rebecca cares a lot about you, you know. She thinks you’re her man," she joked with a playful push on his shoulder.

Arness snorted a little laugh, looking away for a moment. "I know and I’ve tried to explain it to her, but it just won’t sink in. She’s sweet, but I’d like a little more than company. I’d like a wife."

The bard hoped her eyes didn’t go too wide as she swallowed hard, not at all liking the way this conversation was going. "I’m sure you’ll find one," was all she could think of to say.

"You’re a very beautiful woman, Gabrielle. Has anyone ever told you that?" He touched her chin gently, redirecting her suddenly shy gaze to his.

She kept in mind what Xena had told her and hoped that she wouldn’t be mad about what her advice wrought. The warrior wanted her to be nice to the man and not slapping him across the mouth wasn’t going to be enough. "Yes," she stammered.

"They were right. And I don’t need to find a wife anymore, Gabrielle. I’ve already found her." His other hand cupped her cheek. "I want you to marry me," he pledged, his voice soft and sincere, a desperate longing in his misty green eyes.

She knew her mouth was opening and closing without sound, but a proper response refused to issue from her lips. Being a bard didn’t mean she always had a response. Her heart screamed NO at the top of its lungs, but no sound emerged. The line that Xena asked her to walk was getting thinner and thinner by the moment.

The line snapped soundlessly as Arness moved slowly toward her, his hands still cupping her face. She knew what was coming, knowing there was probably something she could do to stop it, but was unable to act. His lips touched hers tentatively, perfectly consistent with her image of the man and his personality.

"Gabri-elle," Xena’s voice audibly cracked. Arness pulled away almost as soon as he’d initiated the kiss, masking the bard’s lack of response. An embarrassed smile tugged at his lips.

In a mad dash, Gabrielle was up from the blankets and over to the warhorse on the other side of the camp. She nervously tucked gold hair behind an ear, standing before the warrior, a look of confusion and fear warring on her features. "Yeah?"

"Why don’t you come to the stream with me to get water?" Xena asked as if she hadn’t witnessed the fireside exchange. Her voice had regained its normal rock solid steadiness.

"Okay." Gabrielle accepted the wineskin shoved into her chest, following the warrior’s long strides away from the clearing. The stream was only a short distance away, but far enough that Arness was out of earshot. She wished she knew what her friend was thinking.

When Xena placed her container in the current, the bard banished her silence with a stream of words. "Xena, I had no idea he was going to do that, but I didn’t know what to do. I mean, you asked me to try and get close to him so we could see what was up and I didn’t want to make him mad and…"

Xena stood, placing a hand on her shoulder, halting her babble with a compassionate look. "You don’t have to explain anything to me, Gabrielle. I know what you were doing," she assured the bard.

"Good, because I don’t want you thinking that I have any inclination whatsoever to accept his offer." The bard covered the hand on her shoulder with her own, stepping closer to the warrior, gratefully accepting the comfort she always felt when they were near.

Xena grinned. "I know that."

"Do you?" she asked seriously, her eyes imploring. A nervous flutter entered Gabrielle’s stomach, the realization that this could be The Talk settling over her.

"Of course I do. I know how you feel, Gabrielle," the warrior admitted with an apprehensive smile.

The bard chuckled. "I’m pretty sure I know how you feel too, Xena, but we’ve been skirting this issue for a long time without ever really talking about it. Or making it clear. Don’t you think it’s time?"

The warrior thought for a moment, clear blue eyes riveted to green. Her quirky smile gave way to a serious expression as Xena just stood there and breathed. "It’s time," she finally said after what seemed like a lifetime.

And in the next timeless moment, Gabrielle watched, seemingly from another point of view, as Xena casually cupped her face in one hand and brushed golden hair from her face with the other. Her dark head dipped down slowly, endlessly, until soft lips brushed together, confirming answers to old, exhausted questions.

The kiss was sweet and delicate, more so than she’d ever imagined Xena could be. She’d always thought there was something hard and savage about the warrior and secretly yearned to be that way herself. Now, in the midst of the warrior’s caring touch, she knew for the first time how wrong she was about that. This was the side of Xena that only she could touch and bring out. It was what she’d longed to feel. And it was beautiful beyond words.

Xena pulled away, stroking her face tenderly, the half-smile back in place. Water from the small stream gently gurgled at their feet. "We’d better get back to camp."

Gabrielle watched her turn before the statement registered and was met with incredulous outrage. Oh no you don’t Warrior, her mind sang. You are not going to walk away and act like nothing amazing just happened. Not this time. Her small hand caught the warrior’s arm, swinging her back around. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" she asked innocently, her eyes bright.

"Thanks for clearing things up." She pulled the warrior closer, delighted by the full smile on those gorgeous lips.

Crystal blue eyes averted, suddenly shy. "No problem."

Gabrielle laughed, closing the distance between them. Boldly, she pulled Xena’s head down, a small hand tangled in silky, dark hair, placing the first of her own kisses on the warrior’s lips, what she hoped to be the first of many. She ended it shortly, wishing only for the warrior to know that the moment would not be forgotten…ever.

Mercifully, knowing that Xena was still learning how to function effectively in a relationship and even now found it difficult, the bard allowed them a silent walk back to the camp. Her concession a strong hand held in her own until they reached the fire’s dim light.

Arness was already snugged down in his bedroll, of which Gabrielle was quite glad. She had no idea what she was going to tell him next and hoped to avoid the situation for a while, at least, by not letting Xena leave them alone. The warrior would probably have some wonderful solution thought up by the morning as it was.

Both women reclined on their blankets, conveniently set up side by side close to the fire. Gabrielle had to mentally reprimand herself, wanting desperately to move across the short distance between them and bury herself in long, strong arms. The warm feeling filling her body and soul was nice, but she knew it would be so much better a few feet away.

Instead, she faced the warrior, a silly grin plastered on her face. She knew it was silly because she could see the answering one on Xena’s, as the older woman returned her stare, lying on her side in the same position. Stars peaked at them through the interwoven canopy of trees above, but the bard saw none of the patterns there. The world could have turned ten times for all she knew, lost as she was in Xena’s gaze, finally drifting off into a blissful dream, not nearly as compelling as the waking one she left behind.

She awoke in a pleasant haze to the sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling, and Xena banging a spoon against their pot. Green eyes snapped open alertly, wondering what kind of disaster the warrior was currently making. They’d agreed long ago that food preparation was strictly a bard thing.

Xena had her back to Gabrielle, bending over the fire stirring a concoction that had a surprisingly pleasant aroma. Before the bard could even move, Xena’s uncanny senses warned her that her companion was awake. "Mornin’ Gabrielle."

She smiled and shook her golden head. "Good morning. Are you cooking?" she asked curiously, pulling herself up from the warm blankets. Over the warrior’s shoulder she could see a boiling stew.

"I am, but I think you’ll approve." Xena straightened to her full height, placing strong hands on the bard’s upper arms and bringing the woman up with her. "It’s rabbit stew."

Green eyes widened in delight. "Oh gods." The idea of a good rabbit stew was so overpowering after months of fish, she didn’t even allow herself that sad image of a fluffy little bunny that usually plagued her. "Thank you, Xena," she said sincerely, unconsciously licking her lips as she stared down at the bubbling pot.

Xena gave her that lopsided little smile and a raised eyebrow. "How are you feeling this morning," she inquired, her voice unsure.

Gabrielle frowned, bringing her full concentration back to the warrior. "I feel fine. Why do you…" Oh, the morning after, she realized. "I feel fine," she repeated shyly, turning her face away from those penetrating eyes, willing the blush rising in her cheeks to stop.

Strong hands slid down the bard’s arms, grasping her hands gently. "No second thoughts?"

"No, of course not. I’m just…it’s just…," she stumbled. "It seems a little weird," she finally conceded with a sigh. Now that they’d finally taken the step, she was beginning to realize she had no idea where to go from here.

"I know, it is kinda strange." The warrior squeezed her hands a little tighter and waited for the bard to look up. When she did, the dark-haired woman smiled brightly, more openly than Gabrielle ever remembered seeing before, and leaned in closer. "We can work it out together though. Slow and easy. No reason to change things now, huh?"

Gabrielle laughed. If they took it as slow as the build up to this moment they’d be in their graves before anything else happened. "Maybe not that slow, but it all doesn’t have to happen today. Okay?" she asked hesitantly.

Returning the chuckle, Xena agreed with a nod. "What do you say we eat some of this stew?"

"That is the best offer I’ve had in months," she joked as Xena released her, not without a playful shove, to fix their bowls. "Where is Arness, by the way?"

"He went to the creek to wash just before you woke up. He’ll be back anytime now, I’m sure," the warrior informed her.

The bard cringed at the thought of facing him. "What am I gonna do about him, Xena?"

With two bowls of steaming stew, the warrior settled down on the bedroll next to her. "I know you’re not going to like this, but I’d like you to stall him."

"Stall him," she said incredulously. "I think the time for stalling him is way past. He asked me to marry him."

"I realize that, but I’m almost convinced he’s involved with those raiders, Gabrielle." She whispered cautiously. "If we can keep him on our good side for a while and watch him, it could make this whole business easier."

Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle turned her attention to the stew. After one bite, which melted deliciously in her mouth, she answered. "Okay. I’ll stall him. But I’m not gonna like it and I may belt him if he tries to kiss me again."

A nod of her head indicated that the warrior wholly agreed with that plan. "I’ll try not to leave the two of you alone. That should keep his grubby little lips off of you," she stated with a grin.

Gabrielle returned a full one of her own. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen Xena smile so much. It made her look so young. "As long as those rules only apply to him, we’re okay," she said boldly.

Xena arched an eyebrow and took the hint, leaning in toward the bard, who was doing the same. Their lips had almost touched when the warrior picked up the sound and pulled away. "He’s coming," she murmured apologetically.

The bard’s shoulders shrugged as she smiled and turned back to the stew, totally ignoring the blood rushing to her cheeks. This new facet of their relationship was definitely going to take some time to get used to. She thought happily, though, she’d probably love every moment of it.

Arness rumbled into the camp a short time later, washed and preened practically to a shine. He accepted a bowl from Xena and eagerly sat down to eat, flashing a dazzling smile to the bard in the process. "Thanks," he said politely.

Gabrielle looked back and forth between the lanky man and Xena while they all ate. She knew her mother would fall over if she found out that her daughter was about to turn down his proposal. He was hard working, successful, and kind. Above all, he wasn’t a blood-thirsty former warlord and he wasn’t a woman.

But she knew no matter how easy it would be for her to take him home to the family, he could never make her feel the way Xena did. Somehow, Xena just knew her, inside and out. Any difference that ever came up between them had been overcome through their love, acknowledged or not, and made them stronger. The warrior brought out the best in her, the desire to be a better person, and she liked to think she had the same effect on her partner. They were a perfect complement to each other and she liked it that way. To hades with her mom if she didn’t approve.

A hand touched her shoulder, causing her to jump. "Are you ready?" the warrior asked, for the third time, the bard suddenly realized.

She smiled nervously at being caught daydreaming. "Sorry. Yeah, I’m ready."

"Let’s go then." Xena picked up their bowls and handed them to Arness without mentioning the bard’s lapse. The big man gave her a look, but took the dishes and headed off to the stream. Without a word, both women began their well-established routine of compacting their camp.

Xena decided to leave the horses at the clearing. She was sure they were relatively close to the raiders and preferred to sneak up on foot. Arness grumbled a bit, but eventually agreed. He’d probably already realized that even the strongest of men couldn’t stand up to the warrior when her mind was made.

They all stood at the fork in the trail, closely examining each for signs of ingress and egress. Both looked to be used often, making it difficult to decide which was a waste of time. Gabrielle gave up after a few moments, deciding to leave the experts to do the job. Plus, it was a lot more fun to just lean on her staff and watch Xena work.

After a short while of comparing the sides, the tall woman stood up straight, finished with her inspection. "Let’s go this way," she commanded, pointing to the trail on her right.

"Sounds great," Gabrielle agreed, moving from her perch in the indicated direction.

Arness stopped them with his objection. "Wait. I think this looks more like it." He pointed a large hand to the left. "Look at all the horse tracks here." He motioned the warrior over.

She obliged him, but the bard could see that he would never win. She also feared that he’d just flunked an important test.

"You’re right, Arness, but that’s not the right trail. There are too many tracks," she asserted, as if her logic were clear. She was toying with the man.

"What do you mean? The more tracks, the more it’s used and that means more raiders," he said, exasperated.

The warrior regally walked back to the other fork and squatted, pointing to the ground. "There are less tracks here, but I can tell that some have been covered up. The other looks like it’s used more to draw attention away from this one. Come on."

And with that, the conversation was over. Both women walked ahead while Arness followed, growling like a whipped dog. He remained a few feet behind them at all times, presumably guarding the rear.

Xena courteously cleared limbs out of the way as they went, closely watching the trail for the tell-tale signs of use. Gabrielle could only see some of the indicators that they were on the right path, but the warrior used her well-honed instincts without a doubt of where they were going. The closer they came to the camp, the sloppier the raiders were at covering the trail, so that the bard could clearly tell they were coming near.

With a wave of her hand, Xena took them off the path into deep undergrowth. Morning sunlight infiltrated the leaves above them, but not enough to erase the chilling effect of stepping into the darkened forest. Not to mention that it wasn’t long until Gabrielle could hear the camp’s activity, which meant they were entirely too close for her tastes.

"Here we are," Xena whispered, grabbing the bard’s hand to halt her progress. Still within the protection of a thick thatch of trees, the warrior lowered herself onto her stomach, peering out at what lay beyond.

Gabrielle mimicked her behavior and found herself staring down at the bustling camp, a perfect view from the rise they were on. She could never get over how good Xena was at this stuff. "Looks pretty big," she commented.

Concentrating, the warrior was silent until Arness settled down beside her. "Sixty men. I guess that’s big enough," she directed her statement to the bard.

"What are you gonna do now?" the big man asked.

"Well," Xena turned her attention to him. "It’s a little bigger than I’d hoped. Taking care of them is gonna take some finesse." She turned and smiled at Gabrielle, one eyebrow cocked. "We need to catch one and have a talk with him."

"Oh boy." Gabrielle shook her head with a grin. Xena had that gleam in her eyes again. The one that said she was about to do something totally crazy and get away with it clean. "Please be careful," she whispered in the warrior’s ear.

Arness looked alarmed. "Do you think one of them is gonna walk up here?"

The warrior laughed as she stood. "No, I’m going down there. Everybody just hold tight."

And she was gone, slinking off down the hill, dodging from one tree to the next. Gabrielle could see where she was going. The camp had guard stations set up at various spaces around the perimeter, but none of them were manned in the bright morning daylight. The group apparently didn’t expect to be attacked directly after breakfast. Xena headed to the busiest place in the camp, a small tent the bard could only guess was a latrine. As Xena slit the back and entered, a man exited the front, tying his britches around his waist.

Gabrielle couldn’t stop her giggle as the next man entered. Though she could hear no sound from the distance they were away, she was almost sure he was whistling. I hope she lets him get finished with whatever he’s got to do before she grabs him.

A few moments later the warrior emerged from the back of the tent, the unsuspecting man slumped over her shoulder. She stealthily followed her original path back up the slope and entered the forest unseen by the heavily manned encampment.

"Let’s get out of here," she declared triumphantly.

Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. "Xena," she uttered in an uncharacteristically high voice. She knew she was whining, but at least there was an excuse. She pointed to the man, still unconscious as he hung on the tall woman’s shoulder easily, his pants around his ankles.

Xena looked over to his bright shining rear, seemingly seeing it for the first time. "Oh. Heh, heh," she chuckled.

The bard put a hand over her mouth to muffle her full-fledged laugh. "Really Xena, that’s gross," she said as she calmed.

"It is. Help me," the warrior requested as she lowered the man to his feet, supporting his body with a shoulder.

Pulling his pants up and tying them off, Gabrielle merely grinned at her friend. Arness failed to comment, unless the red tint to his cheeks could be counted as a statement. They continued back to the horses in silence, where Xena slung the raider over Arness’s stallion. The overly large mount looked more than capable of handling the two men.

"You ride up ahead. We’ll be right behind you," she dismissed him.

Red brows furrowed slightly, but the big man did as he was bid, hopping up in front of the unconscious man and urging his horse ahead. Xena mounted Argo with her normal casual grace, pulling her partner up behind her.

They road for a while before the bard spoke, certain Arness couldn’t hear. "Do you still think he’s in on it? He didn’t give us away," she argued.

Xena glanced back at her. "I don’t think that proves he’s not, but I’ll have to admit I’m having some doubts."

Gabrielle was glad he’d passed the test and even more glad that he’d been too busy all day to say as much as one word to her. Xena had kept him too flustered for that, questioning every suggestion he made. "He’s a very nice man, Xena. I can’t believe he would do that to his own town."

"I know you can’t," the warrior responded tolerantly. "I hope you’re right, but I’m still gonna keep an eye on him."

"That, I can handle," she conceded. The bard tightened her grip around her friend as Argo took an uneven step over a large rock, causing her balance to shift. Riding had never been one of her favorite activities, but she could suddenly see benefits from it that she hadn’t let herself think about before. So instead of loosening her hold when she was steady on the big horse’s haunches, she held on, laying her head on Xena’s shoulder.

The warrior didn’t say anything. She simply moved her hand protectively over the ones grasping her waist and rode on in comfortable, peaceful silence.

The bard awoke with a start a while later, Xena supporting her weight with both arms pulled behind her, letting Argo lead the way. "Was I asleep?" she asked, astonished. "Good gods. I’m sorry, Xena."

"S’okay," she mumbled, releasing the bard when the smaller woman’s sleepy muscles resumed control of her body.

She stretched as much as she could, but retained the bear hug on the warrior. "Guess I’m just too comfortable when I’m with you."

"Yeah. Must be that safe and uneventful life we lead," the warrior snorted.

She got a poke in the ribs for her trouble. "I’m serious. Even when we’re doing something dangerous, I always feel safe with you," the bard assured her.

"There have been a lot of times I wasn’t able to protect you, Gabrielle. Probably always will be." She sounded resigned.

Gabrielle stared at her for a moment as they bounced down the trail, genuinely surprised, and very pleased, at the rare admission. "That’s true, but I don’t mind taking my chances."

Clear blue eyes turned to look into green. "Even with all we’ve been through? You’ve been hurt a lot, and most of the time by me."

"Never on purpose, though, and that makes all the difference. I believe in you, Xena. I believe in us. And I’d go through tartarus a thousand times as long as you were with me," she declared earnestly.

She thought she saw a layer of mist well up in the warrior’s eyes before she turned her dark head and she knew she could feel a relieved release of breath beneath her arms. Though Xena didn’t say anything else about it, the way she was caressing the small hand beneath her’s told the bard all she needed to know.

When they got back into the village, Arness led them to the constable’s office, dragging the semi-conscious raider along behind him. Neither man looked at all happy about the situation.

The jail, if it could be called that, consisted of one small room off of Arness’s home, a corner of which had a cage that looked like it could house no more than three people at once. And they would have to be literally stuffed in there to fit. A round table stood shakily on the other side of the office.

The Sheriff wrangled the man over to the cell, opening the door to put him in when Xena stopped him. "We don’t need to put him in there yet. If he talks, he can go."

Arness looked at her as if she were insane. "What? We can’t let him go," he raged.

"Sure we can. If he tells us what we need to know, I don’t care where he goes," she calmly assured the tall man.

Arness looked from the warrior to Gabrielle, his face confused. The bard tried to convey a look of confidence without giving away that Xena would never just let the man go, but she doubted that the Sheriff’s simple mind could comprehend it. He looked like he was about to bust trying to figure out what was going on.

The raider, a scruffy little man with short, unkept black hair, appeared even more bewildered. The bard knew it was only a matter of moments before Xena shredded him like a carrot. She just wondered if the pinch was in order or not. She could see a mischievous glint in the warrior’s eyes.

"Why in the hades did we bother risking our lives if we’re just going to let him go," he continued.

The dark woman’s nostrils flared as she shot him a deadly glance, signaling to Gabrielle that she’d finally lost her patience with their compadre. "I risked my life, you watched. Let me deal with this," she hissed.

The sheriff’s eyes widened and he looked as if he was about to say something, but he remained silent. Apparently he wasn’t so dim after all.

"They’re gonna come lookin’ for me and you’ll all be sorry," the raider interjected weakly.

Xena looked down to him, her brow furrowed, obviously unhappy at the interruption. Gabrielle felt a pang of pity for him. "Really. And who would they be, exactly?"

The little man laughed smugly. "That’s for me to know and …"

His dirty hands shot to his throat and his mouth opened in breathless, strangled gasps. Xena towered over him in silence for a long moment. "Tell me the name of the warlord leading those men or suffocate right now. Your choice. I’m done playing games," she ordered.

He struggled for a time, pressing his fingers against his throat fruitlessly, until the stream of blood from his nose began to take a toll. His nod was vigorous when he finally decided to choose life.

The warrior obliged him with two quick jabs to the throat. Gabrielle released a relieved breath. She knew that even though Xena would never show it, not to her or anyone watching, she was glad as well.

"His…his name is Claudinius," he rasped. A coughing fit wracked his body, ending with a violent heave. The raider spit a red glob onto the packed earth, giving the warrior an evil glare. "And he’s gonna kill you, bitch."

Cold blue eyes stared at him momentarily. Then, faster than Gabrielle could comprehend, a long leg flashed out, booted foot connecting to the raider’s chin, sending his head snapping back. He crumpled to the floor. "Put him in that cage and don’t let him out until I say," she commanded Arness.

Even the simple constable could see that smoldering rage in the warrior’s eyes. He complied with her command without question.

Xena let her gaze fall upon the bard for a moment before she moved toward the door.

Gabrielle knew she needed to act fast if she wanted any idea of what was going to happen. "Xena," she almost shouted. "Meet me for supper?"

A deep breath was the only indication that she’d been heard as Xena stood frozen, her hand clasped around the door handle. Without turning around, she answered. "I’ll meet you there," she whispered.

She heard her and the agony in that beautiful voice. Holding her here wouldn’t help anything, but it still hurt when her best friend walked out of the room alone. The bard knew it was best to leave Xena by herself when she was fighting with something, as she was obviously fighting now. The secret would be revealed soon enough.

Trying to push her partner’s anguish deep into her soul for later inspection, Gabrielle turned back to Arness. The gangly man was finished stuffing the little raider into the cell, where he sat, still unconscious. The sheriff looked mad. She just hoped she could smooth his feathers and get out before he mentioned last night’s proposal.

Chapter 6

Xena just kept riding. The speed whipped her hair back wildly and the brisk night air stung her exposed skin, but she urged Argo forward, squeezing with her knees, asking for all the strength the horse could give. Maybe, if they could go fast enough, she could forget.

Why is it that every time things are going great, something from my past comes along to screw it all up, she thought bitterly. Most of the time, the warrior could reconcile her deeds of the past with the consequences in the present. Tonight, though, her mind wouldn't stop cursing the Fates for their cruel tricks.

Reaching the top of a particularly steep rise, the raging woman pulled on the reins, giving rest to Argo's heaving and lathered chest. She looked back the way she'd come, the little village now a speck on the horizon, almost invisible in the dim moonlight. Gabrielle was down there, wondering what was wrong with her, she was sure. The frustrating thing was that she knew she'd tell the bard everything when she got back. Then she'd have to shy away from the disappointment in those beautiful green eyes, like she always did.

She had no misconceptions that Gabrielle would suddenly turn away from her upon hearing this latest episode of her sordid past. The bard had already been witness and victim to her dark demeanor and still remained steadfastly by her side. Her story with Claudinius wasn't that much more horrible than any she'd told in the past. Xena was simply tired of plugging new characters into the same old, disgusting tale.

Argo swished her tail, turning them away from the town, and Xena let her, not yet ready to deal with the prospect of riding back. She looked up to the stars, wondering if their number could be as great as the number of her sins. And if, like she and Gabrielle often examined those innumerable, twinkling, points of light, her past would ever quit searching her out.

A trembling hand ran through her hair and she exhaled heavily. Not likely, she conceded warily. She’d done so much and hurt so many, there’d always be people out there to remind her of the bad old days and rightly so. The moment she forgot was the moment her struggle to make a difference was over. Sometimes, though, the weight seemed so heavy.

Like tonight, when she wanted nothing more than to walk into that inn and take Gabrielle into her arms and hold her tight. She wanted to tell her things to make her smile and blush. She wanted to make her happy, not burden her with the knowledge of acts she had no part in. And Xena knew Gabrielle would find some way to take some of the responsibility away from her, willingly, as she always managed to do. The little woman could make her feel good about slaying a kitten if she wanted to, she was so good. But she didn’t use her power over the warrior like that. The bard always managed to find some balance between forcing her to accept responsibility for her acts and forgiving herself for things she could no longer change.

That hurt, but Xena knew it was exactly what she needed. Right now. She guided Argo around, setting an easy pace back to the village. Going back to the bard, the wind wasn’t quite so chilling, nor the night so dark. The closer she got, the brighter the inn’s flickering candlelight appeared.

When she made it up to their room, Gabrielle was sprawled across the bed on her stomach, surrounded by scrolls with quill in hand, sound asleep. The warrior softened her steps as she made her way across the room, stopping in the corner to remove her boots and armor and change into a soft shift. A cloth covered platter, food outlined beneath, sat on the room’s small table.

Seeming to sense her presence, the bard sleepily blinked her eyes open, yawning as she took in the warrior. "I saved some supper for you."

"I see. Thanks," she said with the best smile she could muster. Gabrielle’s frown indicated she didn’t approve.

Hanging her legs off the bed, feet not touching the floor, the blond woman rolled her shoulders and arched her back in a long stretch. "If you want to talk about it, I’m here," she assured.

It was amazing how those simple words could make her feel so much better. "I know." Xena scooted a chair closer to the table and settled in it heavily. She picked up a piece of bread from the tray and took a bite.

The bard sighed, still not pleased. "This guy can’t be bad enough to turn you monosyllabic. I kinda thought we were past that no talking stage," she teased, her smile half-hearted.

"We are," was all she answered, her jaw clamped shut to keep from smiling. No one had ever had such an easy, uplifting effect on her. The warrior continued eating, amusedly watching the bard.

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "You’re toying with me, aren’t you?"

"No." She watched the bard clamp her jaw tight in annoyance, jagged muscles flexing, before she allowed a smile to come to her lips. "Maybe," she corrected, rewarded with an answering smile from her friend. "I really needed to see you smile," she said, not believing she actually spoke aloud until the words were gone.

"Xena," the small woman replied softly, her eyes immediately glistening. She moved around the small table and settled herself on the warrior’s lap, her strong arms surrounding Xena’s body in a fierce embrace.

The warrior let the feeling sink in for a moment before returning the hug. She wished she could have asked to be held like a normal person, or at least spoken her heart consciously. Gabrielle had to get tired of relying on her warrior radar to figure out her moods. Xena was supremely grateful that she did, though. Nothing felt better than this.

Silence stretched on as the candles burned and the moon rose high in the dark sky. Xena didn’t know how long they held each other like that, but at some point, she felt a wave wash over her and knew there was something that needed to be said. With a sigh, she lifted the bard, who kept her hold on the warrior, and moved her to the bed.

Sitting beside her, Xena summoned the courage to open herself up once again, to judgment and disappointment, fully and completely. "I met him when I was working with Caesar," she admitted in a low, shaky voice. That mere name always sent chills through her. "Claudinius was only a sailor, but we got along well and he knew how to follow orders."

Having said the simple part, blue eyes turned to the splintered ceiling and the worn floor, and the plain wall, anywhere but to Gabrielle. "After...after the whole mess with the Romans, I didn’t see him again for a long time." She cleared her throat. "Once Borias was gone and I reestablished my army, he volunteered to join. I accepted."

Footsteps in the hall drew their attention to the door. They both waited far longer than necessary for the sound to recede, staring at the door as if it were about to move on its own. A quiet thrumming settled between the warrior’s ears.

After several moments, she took a deep breath. "He moved up in the ranks fast. He was an adequate fighter and ruthless to the core. A lot like me, I guess," she continued. Gabrielle was about to protest, but the warrior stopped her with a tilt of her head and a cocked eyebrow. "Claudinius was my first lover after Borias."

Xena looked up to see what her reaction was, but Gabrielle wasn’t looking at her. The bard was leaning back against the headboard, her eyes closed. Somehow, that made it easier. "He’d been with me for a few moons when we raided some village." She waved her hand toward the east. "I caught him raping a woman in one of the huts." Thinking about almost any of her actions from that time made her angry. This one was no exception. "I was furious. Only I didn’t care what he was doing to that woman, except that I saw it as him being unfaithful to me. I was…I don’t know, jealous or," dark brows bunched in thought. "Maybe I was guarding my territory," she shook her head.

Gabrielle placed a hand on her arm. "It’s okay," she whispered, meaning okay for her to go on.

"Right there, in a split second, I killed her. No second thought and no regret." She waved a hand in illustration. "I was just...angry and I did it. Within a moon he was gone and I haven’t seen him until now," she finished, her gaze still diverted from the bard. Over those dark years, she’d done so many horrible things it was impossible to distinguish them in severity, but this was one that particularly stuck in her mind as utterly heartless and selfish.

When she could not longer stand to wonder what her friend was thinking in the profound silence, Xena looked up. She ached at the confusion written so plainly across the bard’s face.

The bed creaked as Gabrielle straightened. The bard waited to speak until fiery blue eyes met hers. "You killed her," she asked, disbelief tingeing her voice.

"Yes," the warrior answered quietly.

Golden hair flowed around her as the younger woman shook her head, a small, trembling hand touched her mouth absently. After several moments of deep thought, she looked back to the warrior. "That wasn’t you."

Xena sighed. The perpetually innocent part of Gabrielle never let the rest of her realize that the warrior was the same person then as she was now. "Gabrielle…"

"You regret it now." It wasn’t a question.

"Yes," she agreed. There was so much in her past she wished hadn’t been necessary to get to this day. "But…"

"Then don’t worry about how you felt then. You can never change it, or make up for it, you can only know that the person you are today is right." Her smile was sad, but hopeful.

Xena nodded, unable to even know how she felt about the statement, much less express those feelings. Sometimes it seemed like she’d never be able to reconcile her menacing past with this amazing present she’d fallen into.

The bard leaned back again, more settled, though still thoughtful. "Why did Claudinius leave your forces?"

The warrior ran a hand through her dark hair. "I…I kept seeing her face as she died," she shrugged. "Some part of me felt guilty for what happened. He reminded me of that guilt."

Nodding, Gabrielle snuggled into the covers. "You may not have always acted honorably, Xena, but you always had honor in your heart. The answer was simply a matter of you figuring out how to use it," she explained.

As she watched the bard’s eyes slip shut, the warrior questioned how she’d been blessed with such a forgiving person. In all her life she’d never met a person with so much love for others. Gabrielle seemed to be a well of the stuff, quenching the thirst of every person she’d ever come across.

Exactly as predicted, the bard had managed to get her past the guilt and anger, giving her room to put energy to the real problem. In comparison to what her companion had done, putting the bastard out of the raiding business didn’t seem so monumental.

Chapter 7

Xena didn’t know how long she’d been watching the bard sleep, only that the moon had moved far across the sky while she gazed at her partner. When the young woman started twitching and moaning, the warrior didn’t know if she should wake her friend or enjoy the show.

After a wickedly indulgent moment, she tapped Gabrielle on the shoulder a few times. Full-fledged shaking constituted the next step in the routine, one the warrior knew well. Unfortunately, cold water wasn’t always plentiful when she needed it.

Blearily blinking her eyes open and surveying the dark room, the golden-haired woman raised up to her elbows and squinted at her friend. "Why?"

Xena smiled, knowing the exact thoughts running through that beautiful head of hers. "You were having a bad dream," she answered.

The bard looked at her intently for several moments before speaking. "Xena, did you love Borias?"

At least she thought she knew what the bard was thinking. Apparently she was wrong on this instance. Someone must have been having an interesting dream, she surmised. She’d always wondered when they’d get around to really talking about Borias, though. "There was no way I could love him." Xena looked away, seeing his face in the shadows, his eyes bright and alive in her memory. "Back then, he was a body and a sword, nothing more. I was blind to what I see now. He was a good man." Broad shoulders shrugged.

A brisk wind rattled the shutters on the window as they sat quietly, the bard soothingly leaning on her shoulder. "If I could have opened up to him, so much would have been different. He was moving toward where I am now, except I had no idea that I would ever want this," she shook her head ruefully.

"When did you know that you wanted this?" the bard asked.

"The moment I saw you," Xena replied, remembering the clarity of that moment and the feel of the air as it transformed around her. "That’s when I was sure. You stood there so proud and brave, not because you were powerful or feared, but because you were right. You were protecting what you loved."

Gabrielle turned a light shade of red, but didn’t turn away, the corners of her mouth upturned in a small grin. "I thanked the gods you showed up."

Xena laughed. "So did I," she revealed. "And after that, I realized that what you were fighting for was what I wanted. What I needed. I’d never had trust or commitment like I saw in you." She covered the bard’s hand on her stomach with her own.

"I wanted your strength." Gabrielle softly squeezed her torso.

Blue eyes twinkled. "And I wanted yours." She moved slightly up the backboard, pulling the bard’s small hand up to her lips, kissing the back softly. "I still do. You," she kissed the hand again. "Are," another kiss. "Amazing."

A gentle smile graced the bard’s lips as she watched, her eyes glistening. "Xena," she whispered shyly. The warrior felt her anguish disappear under her partner’s gaze as easily as a puff of smoke.

Gabrielle didn’t seem quite so shy as she leaned upward, placing a strong hand in raven hair and bringing their lips together. The surrender was the sweetest feeling Xena could ever remember, giving her heart so freely and completely. She didn’t know where the courage had finally come from for them to cross this impassable barrier, but she knew it had been worth it all.

After a few moments of slow exploration, the warrior pushed forward, forcing Gabrielle back into the bed. They continued the acquaintance for an immeasurable span of heartbeats, until they needed a full breath of air. Staring into each other’s eyes, they broke apart, both smiling.

Seeing Gabrielle look down with a little trepidation, Xena realized that she was still fully on top of the smaller woman, their heated bodies touching. She quickly rolled to her side with a sheepish smile, wondering how that had happened and when she could do it again. "Slow," she mouthed, maneuvering further under the covers.

The bard nodded and tucked herself into the warrior’s arms. "Good night, Xena."

"Night," she answered, pulling the smaller woman closer to her. She ran her hand through golden hair, astonished that the night had transformed into this, knowing her anger had no chance against the bard’s gentle love.

Chapter 8

The sun glazed shore and bright blue sky of her dream faded from sight in a rush, as hands gently shook her shoulders. Gabrielle struggled to open her eyes while Xena called her name. When she did, the warrior was sitting beside her on the bed, looking at her indulgently.

The bard cleared her throat. "What," she croaked crankily. Nothing could rouse her temper faster than an ill timed wake up call. Ill timed being anytime other than when she naturally woke up.

"Time to get up, sleepyhead," Xena answered with a smile.

Sitting up with a groan, Gabrielle tried to shake the blanket of dazedness that was settled over her. Xena still looked a little blurry, she noted, wiping her eyes. "What in the gods’ names do I have to get up this early for," she whined.

A tolerant, dark eyebrow cocked at her. "For one thing, you know I do nothing in the gods’ names." A large hand swept the covers to the foot of the bed, revealing the bard’s body. "For another, the sun has been up forever." She scooted a little closer. "And," she pulled her hands up and cracked her knuckles. "You have to get up so I can have my way with you," the warrior purred.

Gabrielle felt her eyes go wide and she swallowed hard. Then Xena’s sensuous smile turned wicked and her hands became a blur of movement. The bard didn’t know what was going on at first, until uncontrollable laughter racked her body following the warrior’s flickering touches on her skin.

"Xena," she gasped, trying desperately to fend off the attack. "I’m gonna…" Another uncontrollable howl. "Peeeeeee," she screamed raggedly.

The warrior sat back, laughing. "Why didn’t you say something?" she asked.

"I’m gonna hurt you for that," the bard threatened, shuffling off to do her business.

When she returned, Xena handed her a wad of clothes. "Get dressed. We’ve got a mission."

Shaking her head, Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "A mission, huh. And I suppose you’ll fill me in on the road."

"Bingo, bard. Get moving," she commanded, with a smile.

The bard didn’t mind the playful order, though. She realized that this was probably the type of adventure she would have been left behind on not long ago. The gesture was pleasing. She dressed quickly, then followed the warrior from the inn.

Sitting astride Argo, Gabrielle tightened her hold on the warrior’s waist. She had no excuse, as they were traveling at a relatively slow pace, but she wanted to feel her companion in her arms. Maybe, she mused, she didn’t even need an excuse anymore. Xena certainly wasn’t protesting.

The road, not more than a small path beaten out by rough wagon tracks, was lined with healthy, leafy trees, good for shielding them from any unwelcomed watchers. The mission still hadn’t been explained to her, but she knew that oversight would be remedied soon.

"What did you do this morning that led to this excursion," the bard began.

Xena glanced back at her, then back to the road ahead. "While you were sawing logs, I went fishing with everyone again." She lightly pinched the bard’s thigh.

Gabrielle slapped her hand. "How did that go, oh princess of fish?" she asked.

"Biggest group yet. They’ve about got it down. I think it may be time to concentrate on rebuilding." A bird called somewhere in the forest, attracting the warrior’s attention. Though it was invisible to the bard, she knew that Xena’s sharp eyes could probably pin point it’s position exactly.

Waiting until her friend’s alarm passed, she continued. "I think you’re right. Everyone is out of bed at least some and most are going stir crazy. They need their homes back so they can restart their lives." Gabrielle sighed. She knew that also meant that they would soon be back on the road, facing an endless stream of unpredictable dangers again. Part of her longed to roam, she and Xena alone, but another part was getting used to the familiarity of a simple, safe, sedentary existence. "So, are we going to Athens to buy new hammers or something?"

The warrior glanced back at her quizzically. "No," she drawled. "After I fished, I talked to our little friend we picked up at Claudinius’s camp."

Geez, the bard’s mind reflected, she does more before sunrise than most people do all day. More than me, especially. She shook her head. "And did he thank you for his accommodations?"

"You could say that," she laughed. "And after I put the pinch on him, he told me some interesting things."

Gabrielle waited for a moment, knowing her friend enjoyed torturing her. "Go ahead," she grumbled, poking leather clad ribs.

A large hand grabbed the bard’s smaller one, hard at first, then softly, replacing it around the warrior’s waist. "He told me Claudinius’ angle." She paused uncertainly for a moment. Gabrielle could tell she was working up the courage to tell her. "All the men in his camp have had the sickness and are immune to it. He’s been infecting villages all over this region with it and then raiding them while they can’t defend themselves."

Her stomach turned a couple of flips at the thought. "That’s disgusting," she observed. Xena didn’t comment. "Is that where we’re going?"

"No. We’re going to a village he’s supposed to be infecting. The thug back in the cell told me they were sending someone today." The warrior’s stature perked up considerably and she slowed Argo to a stop.

The road was wider here and the trees thinner. The ground was chewed with wagon and horse tracks. "What is it?" the bard asked, concerned.

"Town’s up ahead. Let’s stop here and watch for them from the trees," she suggested, pointing to a thick stretch of forest. Xena gracefully dismounted, then put her hands on the bard’s waist to assist her. Both of them knew the act was less than necessary, but they’d both become accustomed to the feel of it.

Gabrielle waited in the canopy’s cool shade while Xena led Argo deeper into the woods. She found a well hidden watching post and spread out the blanket the warrior had given her. The bard assumed the offer of comfort meant that this could be a long job. Hanging out on a blanket all day with Xena didn’t seem so bad, though, if she thought about it.

Which she did, constantly. The warrior rarely left her thoughts these days, it seemed, even with the chaos of her duties with the villagers. She knew more important events were going on in the world that probably needed her attention, but all her mind wanted to think about was how Xena’s lips had felt on hers and the surprising softness of her hands. And she really wanted to feel bad about her lack of concern over those other affairs. Then she would see those beautiful eyes and forget that anything else could possibly exist.

The stories she’d listened to all her life hadn’t prepared her for this feeling. Most told of a love that hit a person over the head and knocked them down with its force. Her love for Xena, though, wasn’t like that at all. Somehow without her knowing, it sneaked up on her over time, gently placing its arms around her and rooting her to the earth even before she realized it was there at all. Once she did recognize her feelings for what they were, her love acted as a tether, letting her fly higher than she’d ever imagined, but holding her firmly to the ground.

The bard laughed, knowing that Xena would scowl if she ever heard such thoughts. All of it was true, though. The warrior only saw that she was enhanced by their relationship, but Gabrielle knew that she’d been allowed to grow with it as well. A true partnership if she’d ever seen one.

Laying on her side in the blanket’s softness, the bard watched the trees for Xena, knowing that she would soon emerge. It wasn’t that she could hear her footsteps or breathing. The warrior was normally silent in her movement. She simply had a feeling that her companion was close, watching her from some safe distance away where her thoughts couldn’t show.

Green eyes surveyed the trees for a while longer until they finally landed on a sturdy, almost swaggering shadow emerging from the trees. The warrior settled down on the blanket next to her. "Did you build Argo a stable while you were out there?" the bard asked.

"No," she replied dryly. "I thought it might be nice if she was near some water since we could be here for a while. Sorry to have kept you waiting."

The bard smiled. "Apology accepted. Don’t let it happen again." Crystal eyes glared at her dangerously from under a raised brow. Gabrielle decided it was time to stop harassing the warrior before she paid for it. "When do you think they’ll be coming?"

"I don’t know. The jailbird said they usually started traveling at dawn to drop the sick off. It probably takes a while with someone that ill." Xena rolled over onto her stomach to watch the road.

Gabrielle sighed and did the same. Not long into the venture, the sun reached the right point in the sky to really start blazing down on them. She could hear the warrior’s soft breathing and when she periodically looked over at her, she could see trails of sweat on her cheeks. The bard thought that it was astonishingly sexy.

"This is gonna be a long day if I have to lie here next to you all day and not touch you," she said aloud. When she realized the statement was more than just a thought, she wanted to slap her hand over her mouth and run. Instead, she calmed her nerves and waited for a reaction.

The warrior cleared her throat and shot the bard a quick glance. "Well, as nice as that would be, it’s probably not a very good idea. Besides, I thought we were taking this slow," she ventured.

Flopping over to her back, Gabrielle quietly groaned. "Slow," she exhaled heavily. "Xena, the only time I want to take it slow is when I slip up and let myself get scared. Most of the time I just want you desperately."

Xena continued watching the road. "What are you scared of?" she asked quietly.

Anguish filled her voice. Gabrielle knew she interpreted the statement to mean that she was somehow afraid of her. "I get scared I’m not good enough for you. After all the experience you’ve had in your life, you’ll see me as the plain farm girl that I really am," she admitted.

"You’ve never been plain to me, Gabrielle," the warrior said sincerely, turning to her.

"That’s the way I feel sometimes. I know so little about this, ya know. More than anything, I don’t want to disappoint you," she explained softly. Tears fought to fill her eyes, but she fought back just as hard. This was no time to cry. She didn’t want to make that impression.

Moving closer and placing her hand on the bard’s arm, Xena looked down into her misty eyes. "I may have more experience, but…," she paused uncertainly. But I’ve never had the opportunity to be with someone I truly cared about. This is new territory for me too." The warrior smiled shyly. "You don’t need to worry about that. What you feel counts so much more than experience. When it happens, that’s all you need to think about. How you feel."

Genuinely surprised at the warrior’s eloquence, Gabrielle filed the information firmly away for later use. "I guess I’m also still afraid that things will change between us."

"They will," Xena said emphatically. "Actually, they already have. It’s too late to try and go back now, Gabrielle. We both know that. And I would never want to. I want to share everything with you."

Gabrielle made sure her mouth wasn’t gaping. Her partner could be a good talker when she needed to be. This must be another thing where feeling counts a lot more than experience, she thought with an internal smile. "I don’t want to go back either. And I’m tired of being afraid to go forward," she placed her hand over Xena’s.

Looking down at their joined hands, the warrior smiled one of her rare, full, brilliant smiles. She pulled the bard’s hand up to her lips and kissed it gently. Linking their fingers, she pushed Gabrielle’s hand onto the blanket, above her splayed golden hair. Xena hovered over her for a moment, letting her eyes say everything her voice couldn’t. The bard could see it all in those blue pools and knew that her eyes reflected the same intense emotions.

Finally, apparently oblivious to the mission and their surroundings, the warrior leaned down and started a gentle, passionate kiss. The moments lasted forever as hands and lips wandered in concentrated introduction.

Gabrielle allowed herself only to think about how she felt, as Xena suggested. And how she felt was the most glorious thing she’d ever experienced. The warrior’s soft, patient touches demonstrated how reverent she was held in the older woman’s heart. The bard knew that they wouldn’t be going too far in this experiment, which helped her keep her bearing and left her wanting more. Each time Xena slowed their pace, she moaned lowly.

The bard didn’t know how long they were there, mildly exploring each other, but it was no surprise when Xena pulled away, her eyes darting to the road. "I knew you were listening," the bard chuckled, trying to catch her breath.

"A warrior’s work is never done." Xena smiled mischievously down at her.

"I don’t think I’d be able to take it if you only had me to focus on," Gabrielle joked.

She leaned down again, kissing the bard deeply. "We’ll find out soon enough," she whispered on an uneven breath.

Brushing dark hair back from her partner’s face, Gabrielle marveled at where she now found herself, safer and more content than she’d ever been. "How do you do it?" she asked, almost to herself.

Xena raised an eyebrow cockily, her voice low and serious. "I have many skills," she breathed, a large hand caressing Gabrielle’s soft cheek, their eyes locked in unwavering communication.

Blue eyes finally pulled away, breaking the spell. Xena cocked her head, listening. "Time to do some work, bard," she teased, getting back on her stomach, facing the path.

"What’s the plan?" her smaller companion asked, joining the watch.

"We have to capture both of them. The raider can’t go back to the camp." The warrior looked grim.

Gabrielle knew exactly what that meant, unfortunately. The raider was in a dead or alive situation, and from what she knew of raiders and Xena, his future didn’t look very bright. "Where do you want me?"

A dark eyebrow raised speculatively at her, making the bard blush, before Xena saved her with a smile. "Go back through the forest a bit and wait until they’re past you. I’m going to confront them head on here."

"Okay. When you take care of the bad guy, I’ll see what we can do for the captive." Xena nodded in agreement and they both stood. "Be careful," she said, feeling suddenly awkward.

The warrior mirrored her discomfort as she fidgeted with her chakram, simply standing there, looking at her. "You too," she offered hesitantly.

This is so weird, the bard’s mind screamed. When she couldn’t take it any longer, she stretched as tall as she could and placed a soft kiss on Xena’s cheek. Without a word, she turned back the way they’d come and started off through the trees.

She stepped carefully through the scattered leaves and branches until she heard the soft footfalls of a horse on the road. Stopping in her tracks, she lowered into a crouch, watching the road for their prey to pass. After a moment he did, a tall man in dark leathers, typical of the men she’d seen at Claudinius’ camp. In front of him in the saddle was a sickly pale young boy, his blonde hair turned almost white in the sun’s reflection. The boy didn’t even look conscious as the horse bounded down the road, jostling him in the larger man’s arms, his head bouncing back against the leathered shoulder.

Anger wasn’t unfamiliar to her, but Gabrielle normally tried to calm herself from the viciousness of it. Seeing the helpless young man and knowing how terribly he was being used, though, she didn’t feel the need to check her reaction. Xena had taught her that sometimes anger was appropriate and if that was ever really true, this had to be the situation.

The horse’s steps were almost undetectable when the accustomed cry filled her ears, causing her heart to beat double-time as she raced into the road. It didn’t take long for the fight to start after a yelled slur or two by the raider. Before she could see them, the bard heard the metallic ring of sword on sword.

She topped the rise of the road to see Xena flat on her back, dust curling up around her. The large man vaulted atop his spooked mount and began back down the road, charging directly for her, his face a mask of rage. Gabrielle knew they couldn’t let him get by and prepared herself, staff in hand, to do whatever she could to stop him. She could see Xena pulling herself up in the background as she watched the horse barrel down on top of her in slow motion.

The raider didn’t seem concerned with her at all, though he did swerve the horse slightly to the side, more likely in an attempt to avoid an annoyance rather than for fear of actually being stopped. Gabrielle did the only thing she could to compensate, swinging the staff full force at the horse’s motoring legs. She winced at the thought of the impact of wood on bone, but the sound never came and the moment was over before it began.

I can’t believe I missed, ran through her mind, though she knew she’d be glad later that she hadn’t hit the innocent horse. Before the raider was a body length past her, the bard recognized the characteristic whiz as an object rushed over her head. The sound of the chakram burying itself in the man’s back made her stomach turn, but she couldn’t stop herself from looking up to see him tumble from the horse’s back.

Xena was immediately by her side, giving her the up and down scan she knew was the warrior’s way of making sure she was okay. The bard nodded, then turned up the road toward where the boy was sprawled.

A hand on her shoulder stopped her. "Don’t," was all the warrior said, but her eyes told the rest.

Gabrielle had learned to fight the feeling a long time ago. The one that would normally have knocked her to her knees crying. She didn’t know if this strength was a good thing, but for the moment, she was glad of it. "What happened?"

"The bastard killed him the moment he saw me." Cold blue eyes went to the raider’s lifeless body.

Gabrielle knew she wouldn’t see any regret there, at least not yet. "This was less than a success," she sighed.

"It could have went better," Xena agreed. She rested an arm on the bard’s shoulders. "The boy was going to die anyway, though, and we did stop this guy from telling Claudinius about us."

"That doesn’t make me feel better." She pointed to the man’s body and looked away.

Xena began guiding her back to the trees. "I know." She paused and hugged her companion lightly. "Get Argo while I clean up this mess. It’s time to go home."

She watched the dark woman head to the boy. Xena always took care of this particular dirty task, for which the bard was eternally grateful. It always took her too long to recover after one of these ordeals, no matter how frequent they seemed to happen.

Home was certainly what she needed.

Continued in Part II (chapters 9-12)

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