DISCLAIMERS: Xena, Gabrielle et al are the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. There is no copyright infringement intended in any way, shape or form. Characters brought into this story by my own imagination are mine. Not that anyone would ever possibly want to but just to cover all bases, this story cannot be used or sold for profit in any way.
NOTES: Thank you to Sandy, A and J, and to Steph for asking.
If you would like to talk to me about this or any story Ive written, please email: email@example.com
"Xena, do you ever wonder if Pandora figured out that the box was empty?" Gabrielle queried as she walked ahead, her mind working on stories she hadn't told in a little while.
"Not really," answered the warrior, wincing as a considerable weight of exhaustion bled into her voice without her control.
Instantly, Gabrielle stopped in her tracks and turned around. Using some surprisingly inventive phrases, she cursed herself under her breath for her inattention as she saw Xena's flushed appearance. "Xena..."
"I know. But, I really want to make it to that town," Xena replied.
Passing Argo with a pat to her flank, Gabrielle pressed her palm against Xena's hot forehead and cheeks when she reached the warrior's side. She managed to keep up the attention even as Xena attempted to move away, not that she needed touch to see her friend was miserable. "How long have you been this way?" she asked with more than a touch of asperity in her voice.
"Not long. It's just..."
Knowing that the warrior would almost certainly brush aside how awful she was feeling, Gabrielle interrupted her with a sigh, "No big deal. I know." With considerable trepidation, she ventured to ask, "Is it infected?"
Xena simply nodded.
Gabrielle's stomach turned, knowing the damages that infections could inflict on a body, even one as stalwart as her partner's. Pushing down any irritation on not being told, she carefully grasped Xena's left arm to keep her still and looked into the glassy blue eyes. It only took a few moments for her to realize that time was likely an issue. "How far is it to the town?"
Xena hesitated, trying to clear her mind, and tried to rein in the frustration that was bubbling inside over a small wound she had received when they had been attacked by a group of marauders two days before. "If we didn't stop tonight, probably by sunrise."
Searching her companion's face, Gabrielle shook her head. "It's not close enough is it?"
"I can make it," Xena replied instantly, and with quite a bit of steel in her voice.
Gabrielle sighed at the other woman's stubborness, and then decided to brave the turbulent waters of a confrontation. "Is there any chance of a healer at this town?"
"Maybe." Xena moved away from Gabrielle and began to walk again.
Gabrielle started to protest. "Xena..."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and then turned back to face her friend. "Look, we're wasting time. I was there years ago and who knows how big its gotten," she interrupted.
"Or even if it's still there!"
"I'm going. If you want to stay here, then do it," Xena snapped back, grasping Argo's reins and moving up the trail.
The tears that hit Gabrielle's eyes stung mercilessly, and she fought to keep the fist sized lump in her chest from causing her to do something she hadn't done in a long time. Luckily, crying was not on her agenda right now. However, her aggravated and obviously bristling partner was.
They had come so far in their time together, that something that would have initially sent her scurrying for the closest cover had merely become just another step in getting to know someone that had touched her so deeply that she would never understand everything they had given to her.
Whereas in the beginning, it had hurt so often and been so lonely that she had caught herself wondering what she was doing very many times. Many very cold and distant nights became something else, something totally different. Something that seduced her with its ease, with its comfort, with its face of so many interesting facets.
Yes, sometimes it still hurt, but so many more times it was fascinating, wonderful, warm and something she wanted to fall on her knees and thank the Gods for allowing her to experience.
Of course, thanking the Gods wasn't on her agenda as often as it may have been prior to traveling with Xena. But then, that was before she found out that perhaps the Gods weren't all that wonderful and that humans frequently made their own fates, their own mistakes, and the Gods were usually far too involved in their own petty wars and deceptions to wonder and worry about lowly humans.
Still, the bard and the eye of wonder so obvious in her had to admit that it was pretty neat to be able to say she had seen and even talked to some of those Gods that she spoke of in her stories. To be able to give real substance to something that so many people had never seen.
Breaking off her musing she noticed, as it had been promising for some time, a light mist had started to fall, turning the entire immediate vicinity into a drab watercolor of damp proportions far outweighing its initial promise.
Gabrielle sighed as she spied Xena, who had used her long legs to good effect and moved up the path some distance.
Of course, the move would have been much more daunting and upsetting if she hadn't caught Xena trying to surreptitiously glance back at her twice already. Yes, she decided, even when you have to live with an occasionally grumpy ex-warlord, it had definitely been worth all they'd been through to get to where they were now.
Still, that grumpy ex-warlord was also a hurt ex-warlord and she had to find a way to get her to stop so that she could take proper care of the wound. With that in mind, she ran to catch up and easily saw the tension in Xena's shoulders.
"Xen... " Gabrielle began.
"Look I ... " Xena stated at the same time.
They both stopped and Gabrielle said, "Go ahead."
Aware that Gabrielle hadn't deserved her temper tantrum, Xena had mentally yelled at herself in the interim, and cringed internally as it brought back some of the times she'd been unforgivably cruel to the blonde. She accepted the weight of that guilt as well as the rest of the burden she would carry, but at least this one she could try to do something about. "I'm sorry I'm a grump," she apologized.
Xena looked considerably more chagrined than Gabrielle could remember her ever appearing and she tucked that inside to warm her lost heart. "I know you must be hurting, I shouldn't have kept on," Gabrielle admitted and then continued, "But, can we find some shelter so we don't catch something nasty as well as you having that infection?"
"Gabrielle," Xena drawled, "I'm not going to get a cold from a little rain."
"Please? I can probably find herbs out here, and if there's no healer in that town, who knows what will be there."
Xena started to argue again, but one look in those green eyes and she found herself sighing with acceptance instead. "I... I think we have some herbs that'll help it," she replied.
"Then why are we standing out in the rain and not having you find us one of those great caves that you usually find for us?"
That brought a hint of a smile to Xena's lips. "Because I'm not sure if I can find one?"
"Please! The great Xena, Warrior Princess put off by a little bit of a hole in a rock?" teased Gabrielle.
Slightly buoyed by the teasing and pathetically grateful to Gabrielle for not being mad or arguing, Xena had to shake her head with a touch of chagrin. "You're pushing your luck, Bard," she mock growled and couldn't help wondering which river her supposed ferocity had sailed down.
Feeling a weight leave her shoulders, Gabrielle smiled. "I'll take my chances, Warrior Princess."
It didn't take long before Xena had found one of those caves she had a knack of finding in bad weather. A quick check verified its empty status and they moved inside, starting a fire quickly that sent interesting shadows chasing each other on the walls. Xena had insisted on making sure Argo was taken care of and had put Gabrielle in charge of settling the cave as she was outside.
Gabrielle watched as Xena placed Argo's tack as far back as she could into the cave and wiped it off as best she could. The bard took careful note of how unusually tentative Xena's movements were, as if something was hurting her badly, which it likely was. With a last stir of the stew, she stood and navigated her way past the rest of their supplies and sleeping furs towards the cave's other occupant. "Argo settled?" she asked.
"Yes, not happy but it was the best I could do. She certainly wouldn't fit in here with us," Xena answered, eyeing the ceiling which was much too close to the top of her head and kept making her duck in reflex."
"Okay, let me finish that for you," Gabrielle began, indicating where Xena was still drying off the saddle.
"Xena, humor me," the bard interrupted inflexibly. "It's going to take a bit to get you out of that leather. I can finish this if you want to start getting undressed, so that I can work on that wound."
Seeing the sense in that, Xena looked at the bard for a few moments and then silently handed the cloth to the other woman as she started to move out of the way.
"Hang on," Gabrielle said, and stepped closer to the warrior first reaching around to unhook Xena's breastplate on one side, then leaning over and helping with the other.
"Xena, Warrior Manikin," Xena murmured.
"Tsk, as if I don't usually do this."
Taking care to do a good job with the tack, Gabrielle nevertheless kept an eye on the undressing warrior and winced as Xena obviously hit a sore spot. She started to rise to help but, as usual, Xena ignored the pain and stripped to her shift. With one last swipe of cloth and shake of her head, Gabrielle finished her job and moved back towards the fire.
"Stew's going to be a while but I have some hot water ready for you. Lay back and let me see it?" Gabrielle wasn't sure if she should be terribly grateful or worried when Xena moved onto one of the sleeping furs and stretched out, lifting her shift as she did.
The sight of the wound caused Gabrielle to suck in a pained breath. Just below Xena's ribs a finger length wound prominently stood out, totally rimmed with inflammation. She realized instantly that it would have to be lanced and that the task would fall on her, and that was something she wasn't sure she could do.
Gabrielle had helped with Xena's minor wounds and even sewn up a couple of hard to reach ones. She had watched others die because not even Xena's healing skills could help them but this would involve causing her friend so much pain and that her heart couldn't reconcile. Her eyes moved to Xena's and she started to speak but Xena jumped in.
"The breast dagger or armor knife is the best bet."
"I'm not sure...," Gabrielle replied hesitantly, knowing that Xena was already aware of the severity of the wound. One more look at those exhausted blue eyes helped her find her voice again. "It's going to be nasty, Xena."
"I know, but it has to be done. I found some stuff for fever when I was getting Argo settled but it'll need to steep for a while. But, I checked and we have everything for a poultice."
Gabrielle could feel the heat of the fire at her side, hear the raindrops kissing the rock and grass surrounding their current abode, but mostly she could hear her own heart beat rushing through her ears as she stared at the awful state of the wound. Strained green eyes met the blue that gazed confidently back at them.
"I can try but I don't think I can clean it as well as it should be," Xena softly commented, seeing Gabrielle's indecision and trying to take the decision out of her hands.
Jaw muscles flexed as Gabrielle found that inner strength she had in such abundance and she shook her head. "No, I will do this."
"You sure?" Xena queried.
In response, Gabrielle grabbed up some of the folded linen they carried around for drying themselves with and helped Xena to sit up so that she could lay the material down under her body and save the sleeping furs from damage. She covered the warrior up with a blanket and said, "You stay right there and I'll be back after I get everything ready."
Seeing that look of steely determination that so often sparkled in Gabrielle's eyes, Xena decided to take the other woman at her word and quietly wait for her to be ready. It wasn't difficult since the fever had sucked so much out of her, that much was evident once she'd actually sat down for a little while.
Still, Gabrielle's voice bringing her out of a doze surprised Xena and she started to rise, only to find herself gently pressed back against the furs by a familiar hand.
"Don't, it's all right," Gabrielle reassured her friend gently. "It's just me. I'm sorry I had to wake you but you need to take this."
Slightly chagrined that she'd fallen asleep, an idle thought ran through Xena's mind that it hadn't been Gabrielle, even in her weakened state, anyone else trying that would have been knocked through the wall.
Xena pondered that as she gingerly propped herself up on one elbow and sipped at the nasty tasting concoction, which she immediately recognized as one she'd taught the other woman how to make. Even though she hadn't eaten much that day, she knew that the potion wouldn't knock her out. However, helping her to be in an easier state of mind for whatever was to come was a very good idea.
The potion started to work fairly quickly and she found herself her mind drifting down various avenues as she watched Gabrielle putter around the cave.
One direction found her thinking of Gabrielle and how her own reaction to the woman had been that way for as long as Xena could remember. She was sure there had to have been times when Gabrielle's touch was greeted in the same manner as everyone else, if perhaps muted, but she couldn't recall such a time. Surely it wasn't possible that Gabrielle had found a way around her considerable defenses, even back then.
Another direction found her considering the look that Gabrielle had on her face when looking at the wound, and then the next moment when she'd obviously decided to do what she needed to do. It echoed looks that she had seen parts of so often in Gabrielle's eyes through their time together. But this was a totally captivating combination of innocence, indecision, fear, strength, patience, resolution and a deep caring that still amazed, fascinated and occasionally frightened the warrior.
Ah, there was something to definitely examine, a dangerous and tricky path to navigate and one that she had yet to truly pull out and pick apart in the light of day. In fact, now she let her mind work on it, there were several junctions in that path and none of them were particularly pleasant.
Xena certainly wasn't blind. She'd long ago recognized that the Bard's actions; long glances over a writhing fire, adorable blushes during a sun drenched bath, an inability to keep her hands to herself and a myriad of other things had spelled out a truth that she was sure neither of them wanted to face.
But now those actions found a place in her mind and refused to exit, worse they picked at her and made her look at her own actions. Half awake, feverish and in a good deal of pain, Xena was forced to acknowledge that regardless of exactly what Gabrielle felt about her, she was indeed totally captivated by the Bard.
There were so many times when Xena had watched in awe as Gabrielle captured a crowd and took them to places and introduced them to people they'd never seen or would ever see. When her green eyes would flash and her graceful hands would tell a story that pulled them in and wouldn't let go. When they would crowd around her and ask her questions, she would laugh or share a word with them and they probably never realized that they were under her spell. Just as she was.
So many times that she'd glanced over as they walked and found Gabrielle in a spotlight of sun, her body defined by shifting shadows and restless light. Her hair flaming in a riot of brilliant glory, when she'd felt the jolt her body knew so well, of attraction and need. Then again, she realized, for some time now, it didn't take any particular moment for her body to recognize that attraction. It was simply there most of the time but Xena kept it reined in, not willing to risk a friendship she valued beyond any other friendship she had ever had.
And helping her was the fact that the attraction was tempered by memories of a girl who had followed her, saved her life and grown into so many things, a beautiful woman certainly but Xena doubted that Gabrielle would agree, nor that Gabrielle would consider that terribly important.
But it was becoming harder, she'd noticed. More difficult to pull her body away from those unbelievably satisfying hugs that Gabrielle had initially shocked her with. Now Xena was the one to hold the Bard closer, to want to protect the person she had in her arms from any harm, from anyone out to take her away. More difficult to not lean in and close a gap between their lips, as she'd felt Gabrielle wanted more times than she could count. More difficult in too many ways to count.
Yes, Gabrielle was a startling concoction of so many ingredients that came together in a package that was simply so different from anyone she had ever met. Therefore, it only made sense that the place she held in Xena's heart was also completely different than anyone else ever had.
"And there you are, you old feckless windbag. What are you going to do about it?" Xena muttered to herself, her eyes still closed from the resting they'd been doing.
"What?" Gabrielle asked from a position much closer than Xena had realized.
Xena's eyes fluttered open and she looked up at her friend, startled. Caught napping twice, she wasnt sure she was going to live this one down. "I... " And she was saved by Gabrielle herself.
"Are you ready?"
After shaking her head to clear out a cobweb or two, Xena then nodded. "Yes. Got everything?"
"Yes, the dagger's been sterilized, the poultice is ready and I have the fever medicine almost finished. Do you need any more of this?" Gabrielle lifted up the cup containing the remainder of what she had already given to Xena and then nodded as Xena shook her head.
"All right, is there anything else you need or that you can think I need before we start," Gabrielle queried, her voice considerably more even than she thought it should be.
"No, are you sure ..." Xena began to ask.
"It has to be done and I can do it. I've done it before and I can do it now," Gabrielle answered, not adding that the other times had never been on Xena. Stitches and general fixes, sure. But actually cutting into her skin and causing her the pain that Gabrielle knew it would cause, it made her stomach turn to just think about it. Still, it had to be done.
And with a final glance to be sure that Xena was ready and receiving a nod in unspoken answer, Gabrielle began her work of lancing the wound to drain out the infection.
She tried to put herself in another place as she settled the pot of hot water by her side, tried not to think that this was Xena. One glance at the toned muscles blew that idea out of her mind like a leaf in a hurricane, she'd seen plenty of bodies that were in shape but none that approached Xena's and she felt a little sick to her stomach at the thought of what she was about to do.
Blowing out a slow breath, Gabrielle risked one more glance at Xena and found a surprisingly gentle lift of lips in the form of a smile waiting for her. The confidence it gave her that Xena believed in her abilities was unbelievably settling for her. The shaking in her hand was barely noticeable and she realized that her stomach was back where it belonged as well.
The breast dagger made an easy cut into the lesion and Gabrielle couldn't stop the grimace at the immediate release of infection. However, with meticulous patience, she eventually had the wound drained to the best of her ability and then the entire area thoroughly washed.
During the operation, she had kept an eye on the warrior, but, as was typical for her, Xena had barely flinched. The only outward signs of her ordeal were the rigid set of her muscles and the sweat beading across her brow.
Gabrielle reached over for the salve they normally used on wounds and looked up once more, this time Xena was looking back at her. "I don't think I should stitch it yet, Xena," she said, more in a desire for confirmation than to speak.
Xena saved her energy and shook her head slightly to indicate that Gabrielle was right, she shouldn't stitch the wound. It was quite likely that it would have to be cleaned again, if nothing else.
Before long, the poultice was in place and a dose of the fever medication had been given and Gabrielle was washing her hands to clean them thoroughly as Xena dropped into an induced and hopefully healing sleep.
It wasn't until she saw the rings in the water she was using to wash her hands did she realize tears were falling. As she wiped at them with the back of her hand, she realized they were not simply from relief but also a combination of many things that couldn't even be named.
As she dried her hands, Gabrielle realized that she finally had a chance to relax for the first time in several candle marks and slumped back against the cold rock wall. It was a welcome wake up call, as she knew she would have to watch Xena this night, to be sure that the fever was kept under control and her friend kept as comfortable as possible as she fought her way through the illness ravaging her body.
The piece of linen she'd used for her hands drooped between her upraised knees and Gabrielle let her head fall down to stretch out her extremely tense neck muscles.
She allowed herself to think a little finally, as the only way to get through what she'd just done had been to not think. To remove herself from the situation as much as she could and just do what had to be done.
It had been shocking to see just how horrible the slice had gotten since Xena had originally picked it up from one of the foolish men who chose to ignore the dangerous warrior's warnings, and her equally sharp weapons. If they had waited until getting to the town, Gabrielle was quite sure that it might have been too late. It was bad enough now and they were in for a rough ride.
Gabrielle mused about that, her mind trying to catalogue what would be needed for a prolonged stay, and then wondering just how Xena had been injured as she hadn't seen the actual blow. Rolling her head around her shoulders she glanced outside the cave and saw the full moon beginning to rise between the trees, and then she cocked her head to see that it appeared different tonight. As if a smooth chunk had been bitten out of it.
Then a sound from outside fully caught a hold of her attention and shook it mercilessly. Looking around, she spied her staff on the other side of the fire and quickly scrabbled around to grab one end and drag it close to her.
A glimpse at Xena found the warrior apparently deeply asleep, sweat still beading at her brow and Gabrielle spared a moment to curse herself for putting a little extra into the drink she'd given her. She'd never even thought about a potential problem showing up on their proverbial doorstep.
Moving so that the fire was now at her back and no longer blinding her, the Bard who was also every inch a fierce defender and quite capable of taking care of herself, squared her body, flexing at the knees and continued to listen.
As she listened, she felt goose bumps begin to rise as her body reacted to something outside. Something she could sense but not see. Something that sent a blast of fear through her body.
Unwilling to risk Xena's life on her mistake, she shouted out, "Xena!" and prayed the urgency in her voice would bring her friend to a waking state.
The sound of some of the loose rocks moving outside the entrance to the cave made her heart rate pick up instantly and she tensed in readiness for whatever was coming.
Gripping the smooth wood of her staff with a knowing touch, she swiveled her body easily as movement caught her attention.
Unable to get a good view, Gabrielle chose the direct method, "Show yourself!"
It was quite some surprise to her when that happened and an almost completely black cat walked to the cave's entrance and then sat down, staring at her with eyes as red as the richest wine.
Half expecting the cat to do something at any moment, Gabrielle watched it carefully for a few seconds before her attention was caught by the sudden appearance of a figure in the gloom of the trees outside the cave.
"Who's there," she said with considerable steel in her voice.
Gabrielle frowned as the dark figure moved closer, the shadows bleeding and swirling from its body as if they had other places they really wanted to be and decided now was the time to be there.
There was something very different and she quickly realized what it was, it was a child's figure standing also at the edge of the cave's entrance. She almost stepped forward but stopped herself as the prickle of danger poked her senses. An errant moonbeam broke through the trees and illuminated the figure for just an instant and a boy appeared to step out of its way, obviously preferring the shadows.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked of the figure, but the boy just looked at her. He was adorable. His blonde hair, porcelain skin and elfin face would have melted the hardest person's heart but Gabrielle was very well aware that something wasn't right, and that only one person caused her heart to melt.
"What do you want?" she tried again.
The cat lazily got to its feet and began to move over to the boy in a strange undulating and almost serpentine movement that put Gabrielle's nerves even further on edge, even when it sinuously wrapped itself around the boy's small legs.
She had been so fascinated by this strange tableau that Gabrielle jumped when the boy spoke, his voice low, soft and melodic, "Mixy."
Shaking her head to clear a few cobwebs, she replied, "What?"
"Her name." The boy indicated the cat, who was now apparently content to watch from a seat between the boy's legs.
Her goose bumps still quite firmly in 'something's not right' mode, Gabrielle asked, "What are you doing here?"
"Lost. Can I come sit by the fire?"
It would have been so easy to say yes, and a considerable portion of her saw the young boy that needed to be out of the cold. Yet, the Bard had seen a few too many things to not trust instincts that were yelling at her to be careful, especially when Xena wasn't up to par. "What's your name?"
"Jake," he replied simply, his pale eyes blinking the firelight away.
"Where do you live, Jake?"
He ignored her question. "Can't I come in? I'm cold."
It was on the tip of her tongue to agree, but something continued to stop her. "Where's your family?"
"Gone somewhere. It's scary out here."
"Gone where, Jake?"
Gabrielle ground her teeth together, the need to keep the child safe and get him help was truly rising uncontrollably. "Who are you?" she spat out around the words she really wanted to say.
"Please let me by the fire, I'm so cold," he tried again, bringing his hands up to rub his arms, as if freezing.
Her now heaving breath clouding the air before her, Gabrielle felt a pressure against her will that almost did her in but a moan from Xena broke the spell and she almost dropped to a knee against the relief.
Not knowing what would happen if she succumbed and extremely unwilling to find out, Gabrielle decided then and there that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. "Are you a coward that you use a child's form?"
The boy's head shot up and his eyes bored into hers. "You dare!"
"Gotcha." Gabrielle smiled sweetly at her victory and pressed on. "Who are you?"
"Does it matter?" the boy asked, his countenance suddenly changed to something much darker than the inky depths of the darkest night.
"To me it does."
Incongruously, a tiny smile flitted across his face making it appear - just for a second - considerably older. "Your companion has chosen well."
Not rising to the bait, Gabrielle returned, "And what do you want of her?"
"Do you know what tonight is?" the voice, which had become richer and somewhat oily, asked of her.
Puzzled, Gabrielle simply shook her head.
"So many names, now, then, soon. And there will be more."
"What?" Gabrielle blurted out.
"Do you know of the festival of Feralia?"
At Gabrielle's slight shake of her head, he continued with evident disdain at her lack of knowledge. "Nos Calan Gaeaf?" he asked. "Samhain? So many names for the same thing and so many more to come. This is a night for me. Mine."
Not being in the mood for games, Gabrielle wanted to know, "What do you want?" The pale eyes lifted and fastened on her, but she resisted the urge to step back at the dreadful hollowness of that gaze.
"Just to warm myself by the fire," he answered pleasantly.
Sensing a different meaning to those words, Gabrielle questioned further, "How do you know Xena?" Then her eyes were taken with the cat, which slowly stretched and then began to pace along the cave's entrance, its tail twitching with every step.
"Doesn't everyone know of the Warrior Princess; scourge of Greece, killer of many, defiler of towns?"
The boy's upper body seemed to push in towards Gabrielle and she found herself catching her breath, as if the pressure was on her own chest. "She's not that person any more," she breathed out with effort.
"Isn't she? That's not what the men from a few days ago would have to say, I'm sure."
Now struggling for air, Gabrielle took a few strained breaths and then replied, "They attacked us." Another breath. "We had no choice."
The boy's eyes bored into her and the pressure worsened as he spoke again, "There is always a choice, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle felt a wave of revulsion flow over her as he spoke her name but she simply shook her head. "Not this time."
"Oh yes, always a choice."
"To die?" she asked him, her breath coming in pants, and then felt her entire body twitch in shock as the meaning of what she'd just said sunk in. That was the reason the boy was here, that was why the temperature was so cold, why this strange boy who wasn't really a boy was here.
"No!" she yelled from somewhere deep inside. The boy recoiled slightly at her vehement tone and Gabrielle felt the crushing compression lighten slightly. Sucking in a slightly easier breath she continued, "No. You can't have her."
"She is already mine," the boy calmly replied.
"Not while I live," Gabrielle stated.
"That can be dealt with," he returned.
The sly smile on the boy's face made Gabrielle shudder, she wanted to look behind her and make sure that Xena was still with her but steeled her strength and kept her gaze right where it was as the pressure on her chest continued to ease. Without further ado, Gabrielle staked her claim and stood behind it. "I won't allow you to take her. She belongs with me."
The boy laughed, a horrible echo screamed through the cave and Gabrielle fought the intense desire to cover her ears from it. Standing firm, she pushed the need away and continued to face him.
"You will not allow me?" he snickered. "And what can you do to stop me?"
The answer was there before she could even think about it. "Whatever it takes."
His answer dripped with venom. "Your life, Gabrielle of Potadeia? Is she truly worth that?"
"Anything. Everything. You will not have her." Gabrielle took a step forward as she spoke, as if daring him to approach.
The cat hissed and the fur on its back rose, its tail violently twitching back and forth in agitated response.
"Let me pass and you will not be harmed," the boy entreated.
"Try to pass and you will be," came the quick retort.
"Do not presume to believe you can stand in my way, human. I will take what is mine!"
The volume of the boy's voice continued to rise, until it seemed to assault Gabrielle from every angle. In response, she raised her chin and was defiant in her reply. "If it were that easy, we wouldn't be talking. Would we?" she reasoned.
The boy moved slightly, and Gabrielle could see the snarl marring the boy's face in the splash of moonlight and then all was shockingly dark. The shock of the sudden darkness had Gabrielle scanning the tree line for the moon, which seemed to have hidden itself away from the world.
"You will let me past NOW!" he demanded.
The pressure on her chest was back and Gabrielle once more began her labored breathing, but it didn't take much power to utter one word, "No."
It was the space of a mere instant, but it felt as if it could have been days, before the boy replied. "You have one final chance to make the right choice, Gabrielle."
"I've already made the right choice." Gabrielle tensed in readiness and then the cat drew her attention as it wound its way back to Jake. It seemed as if it had become a nightmarish mist of swirling blackness. Almost unsubstantial and becoming more so with each carefully placed paw.
The pressure once more began to ease on her chest and it gave her the opportunity to notice that it was getting slightly lighter again outside the cave, and a sliver of the moon became visible over the tops of the trees.
"This is your final chance. Allow me passage or pay the price!"
The odd appearance of the moon forgotten, Gabrielle stepped forward again, and then once more. Until she was a step from the entrance of the cave and could easily see the strangely shifting patterns in the boy's eyes.
Her heart pounded in her ears as she faced the ... boy or whatever it was, but she was prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect their lives.
With all of her attention focused towards the entrance of the cave, it was with knee knocking surprise and relief that she heard a tired, soft voice behind her, along with the soft scrape of metal leaving leather.
"Leave her alone." It came out as almost a croak but the steel power behind it was still all Xena.
Never to miss an opportunity, the boy said, "You will spare her much by giving yourself to me now, warrior."
Startled into action, Gabrielle held out an arm, just in case Xena decided to do something stupid and answered the comment herself. "I'll take my chances."
The boy's face morphed into a mask of fury. "It's only a matter of time and then you will regret this," he spat at the warrior.
"Bring it on," was Xena's rusty reply.
Gabrielle suddenly realized that the cat was gone and the boy seemed to be retreating without truly moving. Her stomach flip flopped as his eyes focused once more on her. "We will meet again, Gabrielle."
"And I'll do exactly the same thing." And then between one blink and another, he was gone, the clearing in front of the cave's entrance startlingly empty and the moon's glow a little brighter. A hand warmed Gabrielle's shoulder and she jumped slightly.
"Very well done, Gabrielle," Xena commended.
"You heard?" she asked, even as her body began to relax slightly, the sense of danger receding like sand in an hour glass.
"Enough to realize how very lucky I am," Xena replied.
"I'm ... " Gabrielle began only to be stopped by Xena coming to stand before her, sword still dangerously gripped in one hand.
Xena leaned forward and moved in, at the last moment pressing her lips against Gabrielle's forehead, and then moved back. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
Feeling her skin flush, Gabrielle looked up at Xena and tried to find a way to change the subject, "I ... What was that?"
Xena kindly ignored the other woman's blush and decided to play nice. "If I had to guess, I'd say that some of the tales I'd heard about Soul Stealers were true."
"A Soul Stealer?"
"Mmm," Xena muttered.
Gabrielle turned her head back to the cave's entrance to be sure all signs were that the cat and boy were gone and directed a question back to the warrior, "What is that exactly?"
Quietly, Xena replied, her eyes now searching the now moon lit clearing, "They say that on nights when the moon becomes the eye of the gods, a stealer of souls walks in the shadows and searches for prey to appease its hunger. Stealing souls away to a place far worse than Tartarus, and only returning to whatever foul place it calls home when the gods give us the moon back."
"So when the moonlight returns it leaves?"
"That's what I have heard."
Gabrielle surveyed the area again. "Is it gone now?"
"I think so, the moon's ours again."
"I've never heard of such a thing. Why didn't it fight me?"
Now proud sapphire eyes turned on the Bard. "Because the soul has to be given to them."
"Given to them?" Gabrielle whispered.
"If you had allowed it to enter or not been as steadfast as you were, it would have found a way to trick you into giving up. It's a master of illusion, of trickery and deceit."
"Never!" came the instant response.
"I'm guessing I was the prey tonight, I certainly have enough souls on my shoulders."
"And enough saved!" was Gabrielle's vehement response.
Perhaps it was the fever still working through her body. Perhaps simply the need of rest but whatever it was, as she gazed into Gabrielle's eyes the thought crossed Xena's mind that perhaps there wasn't anything she wouldn't do for the girl who had morphed before her very eyes into the beautiful, confident young woman kneeling by her side. The woman who also happened to be one of the best Bards that Xena had ever come across.
Lost in her memories it took several seconds for Xena to realize that Gabrielle was now speaking to her and that the warmth on her cheek wasn't just the fever.
"...you all right?"
Shaking her head to clear it, Xena found her hand moving to cover the one that Gabrielle had against her cheek. Quite without her permission, her fingertips curled around the Bard's fingers and squeezed gently, her pain momentarily forgotten, shoved aside by that special something she had which simply took over sometimes, usually the most important of times. "Thank you," she rasped.
Puzzled and more than a bit concerned, Gabrielle replied, "You don't have to thank me, Xena."
"Of course I do, I certainly never do it enough. I'm sorry. And, if you need to hear me say it fifty times a day from now on, I will."
Gabrielle smiled, not sure at all where this declaration was coming from. "Why would you thank me fifty times a day?"
Xena thought about that million dinar question for a few moments. Not at all sure which of the many different answers she should choose. "For everything? Your friendship, loyalty, honesty, stories, your ... everything," she replied softly.
Gabrielle's eyes closed for a moment as she took a mental snapshot of the moment and for the second time that day, albeit for totally different reasons, she felt tears well in her eyes. However, this time one broke the dam and slid down her cheek.
She felt the loss of warmth around her fingers as Xena's hand moved to catch the tear. As was its nature, the drop picked up the golden warmth of the fire and twinkled between them as they regarded each over the crystalline drop
Xena held her breath, desperately tired but somehow energized by the feeling that her soul was being stripped bare by a single moment. A single truth derived from so many unspoken thoughts, wishful dreams and a well earned disbelieving nature. A nature, Xena finally realized, that had been beaten down by a certain blonde butterfly.
What she felt had been a part of her heart for so long that Gabrielle was sure it would forever remain buried. That the time would never be right. That Xena would never either be willing or able to accept everything that Gabrielle had to offer, wanted to offer.
Knowing that a cave in the middle of nowhere with a very injured Warrior Princess wasn't the place, Gabrielle tried to stuff down the words that wanted to bubble out and threatened to drown her with their impact.
Later, she would realize that sometimes even the worst of times are the best of times. There was something in those deep pools looking back at her that showed her a future she'd never imagined. A hope stirred inside, and it quickly awoke a ferocious need that had only one possible outlet and she set it free.
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle spoke, her voice a whisper, as her chin dropped to her chest and her eyes closed.
Silence, broken only a crackling fire, resounded through the cave. Even Mother Nature seemed to be waiting for the familiar pin to drop.
The same fingers that had cradled her tear nudged Gabrielle's dropped chin up, so that she had no choice but to look at the devastatingly expressive pools so close to her own.
"I know," was the quiet response.
Gabrielle heard Xena's following sigh and waited for the words that would cut her heart and soul to shreds. The solicitous murmurs that would send her back to Potadeia or the Academy or somewhere so far away that Xena would never have to deal with her foolish naivete ever again.
"I never ..." Xena could see the awful tension in Gabrielle's body and tried to clear her fever ravaged mind long enough to find the right words.
Closing her eyes in pain, Gabrielle didn't even realize that she was leaning into the gentle touch that still held her face.
"I don't deserve it," Xena declared softly, shaking her head. "I certainly don't deserve you."
Gabrielle opened her eyes to instantly disagree with that statement but she was stopped by the gentle smile gracing Xena's lips and the single finger across her lips.
"I don't know where we're going, Gabrielle, but I want you to be on that path with me. I never want to see you walking away from me again, ever."
"Wh... what?" Gabrielle was too confused to truly listen to what was being said.
It wasn't even a decision, it was simply a typically forthright statement of what she felt when Xena decided to make it completely clear what she meant. With her stomach doing dances she leaned forward, stuffing down the pain as she did so, and very lightly brushed her lips against the Bard's.
Closing her eyes briefly against the pain that was beginning to break down even her monumental barriers, Xena had no regrets about what she'd just done. She'd lost her heart so long ago, and the bone deep need she had long since stopped trying to excuse away for the Bard was so strong that she was simply tired of keeping it at bay. However, it was the strength of four words from Gabrielle had completely vanquished any doubts that may have existed for Xena.
And the look of complete and utter wonder in Gabrielle's face as she opened her eyes was worth every instant of pain, every moment of indecision, every rescue and every heart stopping situation she'd gotten herself into over the Bard. Even the instances that Gabrielle had gotten her out of trouble, which had been considerably more heart stopping than the others.
For the first time, Xena looked at the woman before her in open and honest admiration for her beauty, strength and innumerable fine qualities. No more sly glances or hidden desires. She let every part of what she had inside show and prayed that Gabrielle would see it for exactly what it was before she spoke again.
Gabrielle brought her fingers to her lips as they continued to tingle from the slight pressure they'd received. It was a moment she'd dreamed of so many times, albeit usually in considerably better conditions; such as a luxurious inn or palace. And now it was here, she wouldn't have had it any other way. Never. Not with the look that had transformed Xena's face with that special smile she had that could melt a glacier, nor with their first kiss still lingering on stunned lips.
In a cave in the middle of nowhere, with little supplies and even less comforts was perfect. It would only be a matter of time, she believed that with all of her heart. Just as she'd dreamed that Xena would do just what she'd done and show how she felt with a gesture of supreme significance, Gabrielle knew that she would wait for eternity for those words if she had to, because now she knew that she wasn't totally alone.
She knew that one day Xena would drop those last barriers, many of which had been already shattered in the recent moments, and her world would be everything she had wanted since she was saved by a certain warrior on a certain path just outside Potadeia.
Xena's smile widened at Gabrielle's look of amazement, and she did the only thing that a brave warrior could do at that moment.
"I can't remember a time when you didn't have my heart, Gabrielle. It's a ragged old thing and not worth much but it's yours, just like I am."
And as she leaned forward once more to fully taste the nectar she'd only sampled, she whispered against Gabrielle's lips, "I love you, Gabrielle."
They came together carefully, in deference to Xena's injury and Gabrielle experienced a moment of complete and total perfection as their lips met and melded. A thrill ran through her body and she gave herself into it completely.
Xena shifted the hilt of the sword into a better position and then wrapped her other arm around Gabrielle as they continued to kiss. She felt Gabrielle's total submission in her arms and her world righted in a way that she'd never experienced before. As if this were what her life had led to. What it had meant.
Everything came down to this moment.
When she pulled back, it was only by the tiniest of margins, and she watched as Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open.
"Wow," breathed the Bard.
They stood there for some time, loosely holding the other until Gabrielle finally remembered Xena's condition. "Xena! Come sit, please?" She moved out of Xena's hold and began to pull her gently by the hand.
"What"? Xena asked, still in a bit of a haze.
"You're hurt. Please?"
Unable to say no to Gabrielle, Xena allowed herself to be positioned on the furs again, and then got a jolting reminder of her injury as she tried to sit.
"Easy." Gabrielle helped Xena down to the furs, placing the warrior's sword close by and then stood by the side of them. "Let me get you some more medicine."
"No," Xena argued.
"I want to be sure it really is gone, and I think we have things to talk about," Xena said after cutting Gabrielle's protest off.
"Xena, Warrior Princess of Understatement," Gabrielle teased, smiling she got a laugh out of the warrior at that. "We have time, Xena. Rest now." Belatedly realizing that they both probably needed a little time to process what had just happened.
"A lot more time, thanks to you," Xena replied.
Gabrielle crouched down by the furs and reached out to touch Xena's hand in wonder. She looked up to find Xena patiently waiting for her and wanted to taste the sweetness of the words again, "I love you."
"And I love you. I always will."