by Rebecca Weiner (Aceberry)
"The Reward" Copyright 1997 by R.G. Weiner (Aceberry)
Xena:Warrior Princess, and the names, titles and backstory used in "The Reward" are the sole property of MCA. The author intends no copyright infringement through the writing of this fan fiction. The action and events of this story are the creation of the author and may not be sold and may be archived only with the direct permission of the author. Any archives must carry this entire copyright statement.
Disclaimer: This story is written solely for your entertainment and enjoyment. There are several references to Joxer that may be offensive to his fans. Please don't take this seriously, folks. It was all done in good fun.
(This story takes place immediately following "The Price.")
The silence between them was long and uneasy, a natural reaction considering their most recent experience. Gabrielle leaned back in the canoe and took in a deep whiff of the fresh , sweet scented air that surrounded them along the river. Ahhh! What a great feeling to be alive! Having fulfilled her need to enjoy that pleasure, she tilted her head toward the subdued warrior, seated cross-legged behind her.
"Xena, you all right?"
"Working on it," the warrior said tersely.
Xena pushed her paddle into the water with added fervor, causing their canoe to glide even faster down the river. It felt good to release the pent up energy that spiked through her body following the brutally fought battle against the Horde.
"Hey, Xena. How about some 'kaltaka'?" Gabrielle smiled at the sound of this new word that rolled so naturally off her tongue.
"It's water, Gabrielle. Okay?" The warrior scowled at the bard's use of this foreign expression, so distasteful to her for its barbaric origin.
"Is that a yes or a no?" Gabrielle's face lit up in a big grin, as she tried to charm the warrior out of her foul mood.
Xena shook her head and looked away from her best friend. With her dark brows creased in a pointed glare and her clear blue eyes roaming the surrounding area, the warrior continued to push the pace of their canoe, determined to get as far away from the site of the battle as possible.
Gabrielle shrugged, not at all surprised by Xena's heavy silence. The war against the Horde had taken a serious emotional toll on both of them. Added to that was the aftershock of their own private trauma, an intense battle of words and actions that raged between them for several days as they fought the Horde. Gabrielle had been exposed to a huge dose of Xena's dark side and she was left dazed by the experience.
The day had started innocently enough. Xena and Gabrielle were fishing along the tranquil river when they were suddenly attacked by a fearsome group of savages. The two companions managed to escape by canoe, but their journey downstream was filled with strife as they were relentlessly pursued by the bloodthirsty Horde. The young bard had never been so terrified in her entire life. Even Xena, the most courageous warrior she had ever known, showed fear in her eyes during their horrifying escapade. Just as the situation seemed hopeless, they found unexpected refuge in a garrison of Athenian soldiers further down the river.
While Xena assumed command of the dwindling, dispirited troop, verbally lashing them into shape, Gabrielle gravitated to the healing room, lavishing gentle and proficient care to the many wounded. Even those near death were treated to Gabrielle's kindness, as she kneeled beside them and tilted a filled water bottle to their cracked lips, talking softly into each man's ear.
During the battle, Xena periodically entered the healing room, callously ordering all men capable of walking and holding a sword to resume fighting. Gabrielle was furious at Xena for taking those men that she had mobilized as aides for the seriously wounded. Each time Xena made an appearance inside the healing area, scouring for additional men to join her ranks, Gabrielle cringed, knowing the warrior would deliver yet another order to incite her wrath and add further fuel to the already high level of friction between them. Their most serious confrontation occurred when Xena ordered Gabrielle to give water only to those wounded soldiers who were physically able to fight, ignoring all others. The warrior's face was stone hard and her tone chilled. Despite her best efforts, Gabrielle could not break through to the Xena she knew and loved. It frightened her, more than death itself, to see her best friend so heartless.
Gabrielle glanced briefly at the warrior who was quietly humming an unfamiliar tune. This Xena was such a contrast to the bloodthirsty warrior princess who had licked her lips with insatiable lust each time she had sliced open the throat of another of the enemy Horde. The warrior had single-handedly slaughtered many of the enemy, including one she had struck in the back with an ax.
The young bard tipped the waterskin to her lips and swooshed the cool liquid inside her parched mouth, savoring the smooth feel of the water as it slid down her dry throat. It took several more deep swallows until she was finally satisfied her thirst had been quenched. Then her stomach started to grumble. There were no food reserves in their canoe, leaving Gabrielle to wonder how much longer it would be until they landed somewhere. Behind her, she could hear Xena still quietly humming to herself. Tempted as she was to question the warrior, Gabrielle kept silent. Xena would let her know their plans when she was ready, not before.
As they proceeded to travel rapidly upstream, Gabrielle found herself enjoying the temperate nature of the lush green wilderness around them. Wouldn't it be nice to land along the shore of one of these cozy, inviting places? Her empty stomach was not impressed. Next, Gabrielle focused on the delightful warmth she felt on her back from the blazing, hot midday sun. Such a simple, satisfying pleasure in life, why couldn't everyone sit back and appreciate it like she did? Her stomach rumbled even more insistently. Gabrielle turned her head to sneak another peek at Xena. The warrior had stopped humming and was now grunting with the added effort she was exerting with her oar to speed up their pace. Gabrielle decided to help.
The bard wearily dragged her paddle through the water, struggling not to feel the numbing pain that weighed down her limbs. Though she desperately wanted to land the canoe somewhere, she still said nothing to the warrior.
It would have surprised Gabrielle to know that Xena had been watching her all along, carefully noting her slumped form and growling stomach, clear signs that the bard needed to stop and rest. Xena had a specific destination in mind that she knew Gabrielle would enjoy.
"Just a while longer," Xena said, breaking her long silence. "As soon as we land I'll catch you as much fish as you can eat."
Gabrielle straightened her aching back. "Is that a promise?" she asked, raising her eyes expectantly in the warrior's direction.
"Yeah," Xena said, with a quick lift to her brow. "Any special requests?"
"Anything. You catch it. I'll eat it."
"That's a deal." The warrior watched as Gabrielle pushed her paddle through the water with renewed zeal. The younger woman's enormous appetite never ceased to amaze her. In this case, however, she was justified in her hunger. The past few days had been brutal. Food had been scarce, and as the war raged on, their reserves dwindled until there was nothing left. It didn't bother Xena. Lack of food never did, especially during battle. In the past, the ruthless battles she fought as a warlord served as her best source of nourishment, each killing a welcome notch to her tight fitting belt. If only Gabrielle had been there in the beginning when her lust for hatred and revenge had taken root. Her past would have been so different, her present more tolerable.
Xena closed her eyes to blot out an idealized thought that could never be realized. She, the warrior princess of Amphipolis, was doomed to live the rest of her days filled with horrendous memories of a haunting, degenerate past, never to be altered. It was only by the grace of Gabrielle that she had received a reprieve from the constant torture that pervaded her soul.
Gabrielle was probably the most courageous person Xena had ever met. She had seen this quality time and again with the kind hearted bard, but it was their most recent adventure that had impressed her, most of all. Despite the risk of certain death, Gabrielle left the safety of the compound to face the Horde alone. As long as Xena lived, she would never forget the sight of her best friend giving water to the wounded enemy, surrounded by armed savages. Anyone else would have cowered in fear. Not Gabrielle, who kept nourishing the wounded with her waterskin, despite the danger around her.
As for her own actions, Xena felt hopelessly entangled in a web of confusion. She hated for Gabrielle to see this brutal side of her, but she believed her harsh rule was the only way to survive the Horde. Gabrielle had disagreed. With forced patience, Xena had tried to explain to the bard, calmly at first, the reasons for her tough methods and seemingly heartless decisions. At one point, the warrior went so far as to warn Gabrielle to go from the room when she was about to torture a captured prisoner. Instead of leaving, Gabrielle continued to question Xena in front of her men, an inexcusable act that earned the bard a private tongue lashing for interfering with her command. Xena shuddered, as she recalled the sharp exchange that followed, their final confrontation before the war ended.
"I love the peace of the river right now. Don't you, Xena?" The warrior looked up, startled by the unexpected sound of Gabrielle's voice.
"Uh huh." Xena answered.
The bard observed how Xena's eyes were darting back and forth as she scanned the surrounding area. "You know, it wouldn't hurt for you to just sit back and enjoy the peace for once."
"That would be nice, Gabrielle, but it's a luxury I can't afford." She dipped her oar into the water to coincide with the slower rhythm of the tired bard's paddle. "One of us should be prepared for an unexpected crisis. Right now, it might as well be me."
"So, you're telling me to enjoy the serenity while I can. Is that it?"
"You deserve that pleasure after all you've been through."
"How about you, Xena? What's your pleasure?"
"Knowing you're still here beside me," the warrior said quietly.
Gabrielle shook her head, her reddish gold bangs swaying insistently in the warm, gentle breeze. "Where else would I be?"
Xena stared at the bard, her vivid blue eyes pensive and sad. "You could be anywhere else. I disappointed you, Gabrielle. I don't know how to fix that." She leaned over the side of the canoe and thrust her oar into the water, her gaze fastened on the river, away from Gabrielle.
The young bard stopped paddling and turned her body completely around until she was directly facing the warrior. She watched Xena discharge several more powerful strokes with her paddle, then she placed her hand on Xena's thigh. Xena stopped paddling and looked up at Gabrielle. The bard was smiling. "You don't have to worry, Xena. You're my best friend. I know who you really are."
Xena shifted her long legs which had grown tense beneath the bard's grasp. After everything Gabrielle had seen of her dark side, why was it so hard for the bard to accept the truth about her? "Do you really know me?" she wondered aloud. "What you saw back there, the darkness, is a part of me that's real. I can't change that, Gabrielle, only control it with your help."
"You are changing," Gabrielle persisted. "Don't you see that? When you realized your order to feed only the healthy soldiers was too harsh, you revised it to include all the wounded."
Xena shook her head sadly at Gabrielle's continued effort to cast her in a good light. "It wasn't kindness, Gabrielle. The situation was so desperate it didn't matter anymore. Your realizing that 'kaltaka' meant water was the key to our survival."
"And you fought the Horde's leader and defeated him," Gabrielle declared firmly. "Seems to me we both did what we had to do."
Xena kept silent. Despite Gabrielle's reassuring words, her chest felt as though it was being tightly bound by a thick, hard knot, making it difficult for her to breathe. She pushed away that feeling and set her mind to paddling. She and Gabrielle needed food, shelter and a good night's sleep. It was her job to provide them with those essential requirements.
A short time later, Xena guided their canoe toward the shore with her paddle. "We're here, Gabrielle. Recognize this place?"
Gabrielle smiled broadly. Of course she did. It was the site of their successful fishing expedition. The two women had planned to set camp there before they were so rudely interrupted by the attacking Horde. Gabrielle leaped out of the canoe, but in her haste to reach dry land, caught her boot over the edge and tumbled to the ground. When she raised herself off the wet earth, Gabrielle's mouth, elbows and legs were covered with mud. Nonetheless, she was grinning widely.
"You're gonna have to take a bath to wash off all that mud, you know." Xena said dryly.
"That's the plan. Right now, in fact." The bard sprinted past Xena toward the river, shrieking at the cold as she splashed through the still waters. After dunking her body underwater a few times, she playfully sprayed water toward Xena, careful not to wet the warrior, who did not seem in the mood for an unexpected shower.
"Come on, Xena. Join me. Think of the great time we can have together."
Xena punched the air with her fists, trying to relieve her cramped muscles. "Not now, Gabrielle. I've got things to do first."
"Suit yourself," the bard said casually. "You don't know what you're missing."
"At least one of us is enjoying herself," Xena muttered under her breath. She left her carefree companion and wandered through the thick brush until she located their fishing rods further up the riverbank. Continuing to trek inland, Xena followed the trail back to their original campsite where she retrieved their two supply pouches hidden beneath some rocks. Not in the mood to set up camp just yet, Xena tried some slow stretching exercises to relax her taut muscles. It did not help. She found no relief. Without thinking, the warrior vaulted into the air and twisted her body in a perfect somersault, savoring the energy she felt in her limbs as she landed fluidly on the ground. Pumping both arms up in the air a few times, Xena laughed out loud. Maybe a little action was what she needed.
The warrior removed her sword from its scabbard on her back and twirled it once in her hand before drawing it forward in front of her body. She tilted her head to the right, then to the left, eyes pointed forward in rapt attention, as she slashed the air in a swirling arc with her blade. Inching her body steadily forward, she continued to swing her blade nimbly in all directions, leaping at times as though she were dodging an opponent's lethal blow. She was so absorbed in her movements that she almost didn't notice the rock barrier that stood at the rear of their campsite. With no more room to maneuver her body, Xena plunged her weapon into a large section of earth pressed tightly between two rocks, delivering a high pitched scream as she released the hilt.
Her heart pounded rapidly against her chest as she gripped the handle and pulled the blade from its dirt enclosure. After wiping the droplets of sweat from her brow, she spent the next few minutes walking slowly in a wide circle, puffing loudly until her breathing slowed to its normal rate. Still feeling restless, she ambled over to a nearby boulder and sat down in her usual cross-legged position, slowly turning over her sword to examine it. This weapon, so comfortable in her hand, had killed so many. Shortly after the war ended she had gone to the river to immerse her sword and cleanse away the blood soaked memories of her latest killings. To her mind, the Horde were savages who deserved to die. It was her duty to kill them, not only to end the war, but to avenge the vicious slaughter of one of her troops, several years before. It still sickened her to think of their skinned carcasses, all that remained of her men after being stripped away by the Horde.
The more gentle-minded Gabrielle had thought of the Horde as human beings capable of communication, despite their foreign ways. Xena shivered in the sun fueled heat, as she recalled the acute conflict between them that centered on this issue. In the end Gabrielle had been right, and she, the warrior, had been short-sighted. It was why she had gone to the river with her sword, to restore the humanity she had lost in her battle with the Horde -- until the next time when she killed again. She was, after all, a highly skilled warrior.
Xena shook her head in bewilderment. She certainly was not acting like one. Too much thinking, probably due to Gabrielle's influence. Enough of that. She forced her attention back to her weapon; this time she examined it with a warrior's vigilance, running her thumb along the flat side of the blade, noting the many nicks embedded along the edges. A quick trip to her supply pouch brought forth her sharpening stone. Returning to her seat by the boulder, Xena began to rub the stone vigorously across the blade, hoping to release her pent up energy in the process. When she finished, she closed her eyes and took in long, slow, even breaths to ease the pressure that had not ceased, despite her best efforts, to assault her body. After what seemed like a long time, she opened them again to survey her surroundings. The sweet smelling green shrubs highlighted by the soft, twittering sounds of nature's calls did little to alleviate her stress.
She stood up to stretch the stiffness from her arms, shoulders, and neck muscles that felt cramped from sitting so long, then glanced up at the deep blue sky. Its golden, luminous sun surrounded by wide, bulging cushions of snow toned clouds extended as far as she could see across the horizon. It was a beautiful skyline that gave her no pleasure. On the contrary, this place seemed too peaceful for what she was feeling. She needed noise, action, excitement, other soldiers around her. In the old days she had celebrated the end of a battle surrounded by men who were feeling as feral and crazed as she was. Instead, she was alone in this secluded area with her best friend, filled with a turbulent force that needed to be released. The thought of what could happen when she discharged that energy was terrifying. She needed to speak to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was drying herself off in the sun, feeling totally relaxed after her long time in the water. She looked up as she heard the soft, insistent sound of Xena's footsteps. The warrior's face, ever the barometer for her assorted moods, appeared grim. Gabrielle ran up to greet her best friend with a ready smile.
"Hey, Xena. You really should spend some time..."
"Not now, Gabrielle," Xena said brusquely. "We need to talk."
"There's plenty of time to..."
"Now!" Xena commanded. She walked briskly past Gabrielle and sat down by the riverbank. The younger woman followed, curious at her best friend's strange behavior.
"What's going on?" she asked, as she settled next to the warrior.
"Gabrielle, have you ever heard of battle shock?"
"I live with you, Xena. Of course I know about battle shock. Not personally, of course. You're the one who usually goes off by yourself doing who knows what." Gabrielle grinned. "As long as we're on the subject, what is it you do off by yourself?"
Xena ignored the bard's banter and closed her eyes. She breathed in deeply several times before opening them again. "Gabrielle, it's happening to me right now and I don't know how to relieve it."
"You've handled it before. Why is this time different?"
"Maybe it's because I felt the thrill of leading an army in battle again. The pressures on a commander in combat are enormous. You saw that, Gabrielle." The bard nodded briefly, but otherwise kept quiet, leaving the taciturn warrior the unpleasant task of continuing this conversation on her own. "In the old days, after every major war we spent the next couple of days immersed in battle shock, celebrating our survival by releasing our pent-up emotions."
"How, Xena?" the bard asked , finally breaking her silence.
"Different ways. I've seen big strong warriors revert back to childish behavior. Others black out after they've done something so shocking they don't remember anything afterward." The warrior bit down on her lower lip, wishing she had been one of those lucky ones who had forgotten it all. "There's a great need for physical release," she said, staring at Gabrielle, "and we do things we wouldn't under normal circumstances."
Gabrielle's eyes widened as the implication of Xena's words set in. "Come on, Xena. What would we do? We're not like that."
The warrior's clear blue eyes misted over in a cloud of gloom. "You're not, Gabrielle, but I'm...different." Xena swallowed hard, the agony of her concealed burden weighing down her words. "In the past I used people... for my own pleasure." She stared toward the river, away from the bard. "I did it...after every battle."
Gabrielle reached out to Xena, as she usually did when the older woman was upset, but drew back when she saw Xena pull away.
"That's in the past." Gabrielle said. "You're not like that now." She seized the warrior's arm and held onto it. "You'd never hurt me. I know that."
Xena peered at Gabrielle, the intensity of her startling blue eyes overpowering the bard. "I shocked you when we fought the Horde. It's the dark side of me you've never seen before." Xena closed her eyes. "I pray you don't experience it now."
"I'm fine, Xena. I won't let anything happen to us. That's a promise."
Xena smiled weakly at Gabrielle's show of confidence. Such a typical reaction from the determined young bard. She just didn't understand. No one who survived a brutal war as the one they fought was immune from battle shock, not even Gabrielle.
"You've been through a lot, Gabrielle, more than you realize. It's hard to know how you'll react." Xena inhaled a deep breath of fresh river air. "I don't know what's going on with me," she admitted, "and I don't like that feeling."
"We'll get through this. It's only temporary, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked. Though she tried to sound convincing, a note of uncertainty slipped into her tone.
Xena grabbed a stray branch off the ground and snapped it in two; the sharp crackling sound of splintering wood intruding on the peaceful nature of their surroundings. "A lot of damage can be inflicted in a couple of days," Xena said, tossing the broken branch aside. She stood up abruptly and left the bard, pacing briskly toward the shore.
Gabrielle rubbed her hand across her forehead, puzzled by her best friend's strange behavior. In all their time together she had never before seen Xena so shaken. Normally, the warrior relished the opportunity to confront any kind of obstacle that came their way. Yet, here she was, acting almost defeated, as if all was lost between them. How could Xena ever believe that? True, the bard had been upset with Xena for her brutal actions during the war; but she would never forfeit their friendship because of it. Tempting as it was to go over to the warrior and reassure her of their strong bond, the emotional wall that Xena erected when she needed to shut herself away, was now solidly entrenched, leaving that option out of the question. Undecided in how to approach the reluctant warrior, Gabrielle chose to improvise, confident a solution would come to her as they talked. She was an accomplished bard, was she not? Fortified by those positive thoughts, Gabrielle rose to join Xena by the edge of the riverbank.
By this time, the warrior had stopped pacing and was standing by the river, a faraway look in her eyes. "Tell me what to expect," Gabrielle began, with a light touch to the warrior's elbow.
Xena stared at the bard, her blue eyes boring into Gabrielle's green ones. "Things will seem normal between us but the simplest word or gesture can happen to set either of us off. We may snarl at each other for no apparent reason or we may feel an overwhelming desire to release ourselves physically." The warrior's smooth, resonant voice faltered. "There's only two of us here; not much choice in picking your partner." Then, without warning, Xena clamped her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, tightening her grip as she brought to light her greatest fear. "I don't want to ruin what we have together," she cried out to the astonished bard. "I like things just as they are between us." For one brief moment, the warrior stared frantically into Gabrielle's eyes. Then she released her hold on the bard, and walked away, her bearing erect and proud, as always, despite her personal torment.
As Gabrielle watched Xena wander off toward a nearby tree, she could not help but feel sorry for her best friend. It was an emotion she rarely accorded the fearless warrior, whose intense pride and rigid control held her together, despite the severe anguish that ravaged her soul. In spite of all the terrible things that Xena had predicted for them, Gabrielle had to believe deep in her heart, that somehow, everything would work out in the end. Xena would come up with a plan, as she always did -- or would she?
The bard watched as Xena removed her breast dagger from inside her bodice and proceeded to dig a hole into the tree's solid dark brown crust. Her hands shook as she worked, a cause of great concern to the bard, as Xena was normally so adept with a knife. The longer she watched Xena strain to dislodge the bark, the more upset Gabrielle became with their plight. It was all because of that horrible war against the Horde. Xena was being seriously affected by it and so was their friendship. She had hoped that a few days rest would restore everything back to normal between them. The warrior, however, was telling her otherwise.
The bard walked over to her companion and stood anxiously by her side. Sensing Gabrielle's presence, Xena stopped what she was doing and looked up at her friend. "What is it, Gabrielle?" Her tone was curt and her manner distant, as though she didn't care. In truth, she felt angry at herself for disappointing Gabrielle, and at the bard for placing such faith in her. The responsibility of finding a suitable solution for both of them seemed like an impossible burden to the overwrought warrior. How could she possibly admit that to the bard?
Gabrielle held onto the warrior's arm. "Xena, talk to me. Please. You're scaring me. You know that?" She shook her head in frustration at the warrior. "You're saying we can't trust ourselves or each other. How, in Hades' name, are we supposed to know what's real and what's due to battle shock?" The bard took a deep breath, then peered solemnly into Xena's sapphire-blue eyes, hoping to find some form of encouragement in their expression. The warrior held the bard's gaze briefly with her own. Then her eyes flickered and Gabrielle grew afraid. Xena never reacted that way, especially when she knew Gabrielle was seeking her assurance. The bard's green eyes glistened with tears. "I trust you with my life, Xena," she said trembling. "Promise me you won't let us drown in battle shock. Yours or mine."
Stirred by the intensity of Gabrielle's plea, Xena moved in closer to the bard and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders, her own feelings of darkness replaced by an even stronger sense of caring for her best friend. "We'll get through this together, somehow," she said softly, "I promise." They held each other for several minutes, silently arming themselves with mutual courage to confront their fears. When she felt they were reasonably recovered and ready to move on, Xena casually rubbed her moist eyes, then let go of the bard. "Just beware of any strange behavior or unusual feelings that may suddenly emerge out of nowhere," she cautioned her friend. Gabrielle smiled faintly at the warrior; her smile broadening to a full grin as the warrior responded with a brief, but genuine, smile of her own.
As Xena led the way to their campsite, Gabrielle spotted their fishing rods lying next to the two leather pouches. "You found them!" she cried out. "Guess the Horde aren't into fishing."
"Too busy hunting us," the warrior commented dryly. "Come on, Gabrielle. We'll set up camp and then try and relax."
Gabrielle bent down to untie one of the leather pouches and began to unpack their supplies. "No, warrior princess. You rest or do whatever it is you do after a battle to unwind. I'll take care of camp."
Xena was too exhausted to argue. "Are you sure?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You need the break. Take it. That's an order."
Xena eyed her friend warily. "I can follow orders, unlike a certain bard I know."
Gabrielle's jaw muscles clenched tightly, a subtle facial movement not lost on the warrior. "Go on, Xena. Before I change my mind."
As Xena wandered off by herself, sword and fishing pole in hand, Gabrielle began to arrange their campsite. After gathering enough rocks to form a fire pit, she systematically laid them out in a neat circle, humming one of Xena's favorite tunes as she worked. Somehow, thinking of the warrior in this way helped her feel better.
She loved the sound of Xena's voice. Its well modulated, expansive range possessed many subtleties that held Gabrielle captive to its potency and charm. On rare occasions she used it to entertain the bard, choosing a wide medley of ballads that displayed a more sensitive side to the warrior.
Gabrielle smiled to herself as she recalled the first time Xena had treated her to a private performance. It was on her birthday, two moons after they began traveling together. That whole morning Gabrielle had been irritable and kept picking fights with her taciturn companion. At one point the warrior exploded, going so far as to yell at the girl that maybe it was time she returned home. Gabrielle started to cry and, when pressed by Xena, finally confessed it was her birthday.
"Happy birthday, Gabrielle," the warrior said, "but you don't have to cry about it."
"That's not why I'm crying, Xena, and you know it."
"You should have told me it was your birthday," Xena insisted. "None of this would have happened."
"I thought you wouldn't care about that kind of thing," Gabrielle blurted out.
"It obviously means a lot to you. Why wouldn't I care?" Xena was sitting on Argo and held out a hand to Gabrielle, standing beside her. Thinking it was a gesture of peace, Gabrielle clasped hands with the warrior. Much to her horror, she suddenly found herself being lifted onto the horse behind her smirking companion.
"That's not fair, Xena. You know how much I hate riding."
"Come on, Gabrielle. It's your birthday for Zeus' sake, and this is your present. Argo wouldn't have it any other way." As the big war horse cantered down the dirt road, Gabrielle squeezed her arms tightly around Xena's waist, praying to the gods she would survive her birthday.
Almost immediately, she felt Xena tug at her grip. "Easy, Gabrielle. I need to breathe." Then, the older woman turned and peered directly into the frightened girl's eyes. "Trust me. I won't let anything happen to you." Gabrielle loosened her hold on the warrior.
The two companions rode until dusk, camping out at a cave that Xena remembered when she was a warlord. As they settled in for the night, Gabrielle took out her scrolls and began to write while Xena polished her armor. After a short while, Gabrielle, who was immersed in her writing, was startled by the sound of Xena singing. She looked up to make sure she wasn't dreaming. Sure enough, Xena was singing a sad ballad about a teenage boy who left home to fight, only to be killed in battle. As she sang, the expression in her face, normally set in a stoic cast, appeared unguarded, making Xena seem more youthful and exquisite looking. As she listened to Xena sing, Gabrielle felt her insides quiver. Xena's voice was melodious, expressive, and hauntingly beautiful. She sang at least a half dozen songs, each very different, but all equally as moving. When she finished Gabrielle had tears in her eyes.
"That was beautiful." Gabrielle said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "Why haven't you sung before?"
"I sing when I feel like it. I guess I wasn't in the mood."
"I'm glad you chose tonight. It made my birthday feel special." Gabrielle blushed. "I mean, riding Argo was all right but this was the best."
Xena settled down into her blankets on the other side of the campfire, across from the bard. "You better get some sleep," she said with a yawn. "Early day tomorrow. You may be older but I better not find it harder to get you up in the morning." She looked up at the girl. "You don't want to get me mad, do you?" Gabrielle smiled uncertainly at Xena. The warrior smiled back.
Gabrielle squealed in disgust as a half dozen slimy fish came flopping into her lap, breaking into her musings. She looked up and saw Xena grinning down at her.
"You wanted fish, didn't you? I got you fish."
Gabrielle picked up the strung fish from her lap and scowled darkly at Xena. "This fish does not belong in my lap. Got that warrior princess?"
Xena grabbed the fish from the bard. "If you feel that way about it, I'll just keep it for myself, and you'll have nothing for supper."
With hands placed firmly on her hips, the bard stood up to confront the much taller warrior. The tension thickened as both warrior and bard glared at each other, neither one sure where this confrontation would lead or why it was taking place.
"You know, you need me, " Gabrielle began. "Who else can cook this fish?"
"I cooked fine before you came along," Xena shot back.
"If I die from starvation it will be your fault."
"Go on, Gabrielle. Catch your own fish."
The young Amazon was the first to weaken, probably from staring so hard into Xena's deep sea blue eyes that she loved so much. "Xena, this is silly," she said with a sheepish grin. "I'm just mad because your dumb fish interrupted my wonderful daydream."
"If you tell me about it. I may reconsider." The warrior swung the fish lightly by her side.
"Only if you wipe that smug look off your face."
Xena rolled her eyes at Gabrielle, but the smug look disappeared. "Well?" she asked.
"I was just thinking about the first time you sang for me."
"Your birthday," Xena said. Her face softened at the memory.
"Did I ever tell you it was the best birthday present I ever had?"
"I'm not sure I ever gave you the chance." Xena stared past her best friend, "I was a lot more reserved then."
"HA! That's a nice way of putting it." Gabrielle held up her hands at the warrior. "Not that I'm being judgmental or anything, but you weren't the easiest person to be around."
"Can we save this honesty until after we eat? I'm starved and these trout need to be cleaned and cooked." Xena handed the strung fish back to the bard. "Take care of these. I need some time alone."
"Your wish is my command O' warrior princess," The bard said, curtsying toward Xena.
"Your curtsy's improved, but your knees are still too stiff." Xena bent down smoothly to illustrate a perfect curtsy.
"Just keep practicing, Gabrielle. You'll get it before you are betrothed to your next dead king."
The bard shuddered at the memory. Not long ago, she had been kidnapped to marry a deceased king. As she was about to cremated along with her royal dead husband, Xena came to the rescue, despite being blind at the time.
"That won't be for quite awhile, Xena. I've sworn off all men. Too dangerous."
The dark haired woman raised her eyes at this unexpected piece of news. "Come on, Gabrielle. You don't mean it. You like men. We both do." She peered at the bard through narrowed eyes. "Are you serious about this, or is this just a reaction to the dead king?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know. I can't explain it. I just feel that way."
Sharp intuition and an intimate understanding of her best friend led Xena to believe that the bard's response may have been less casual than it appeared, but this was not the time to delve into the subject; her own need to relieve her inner turmoil more pressing at the moment. "Think about it while I'm gone," she suggested mildly, picking up her sword. "We'll discuss this later." The warrior hoisted her sword over her shoulder and left Gabrielle to sort out her own confusion.
Gabrielle sat down by the fire pit to cut open and clean the trout. Leave it to Xena to catch more fish than they can eat. Maybe not. The bard was so hungry her stomach had turned numb from the pain. As she scraped the insides of the trout her thoughts inevitably turned to her last comment to Xena. It had come from nowhere, surprising the bard, and from the looks of it, Xena, too. During their travels together both women had, on occasion, found men that appealed to them, but unforeseen circumstances had cut short those relationships, leaving the two friends back together again.
Earlier in the year, Gabrielle had left Xena to marry Perdicus. His sudden death, the day after their wedding, had devastated the bard. There were times she wondered if she would ever recover from her sorrow. In the beginning, she had blamed Xena for Perdicus' death and left her best friend to return home to Poteidaia. After some time apart, Xena came to see her and the two friends resolved their differences. Over the coming months, Gabrielle learned to be more appreciative of the former warlord, who showed surprising sensitivity, as she patiently helped the bard to grieve her loss. It took a long time, but Gabrielle eventually became fully recovered and content to remain alongside her best friend.
As for Xena, life was pretty quiet in the romance department; not that there wasn't a long line of boorish men ogling after her stunning looks and exceptionally toned body. The warrior laughed at those clowns and took special pleasure in beating them up in various, inimitable ways. She was comfortable around those ill-mannered types and knew how to handle them, having been that way, once, herself. Serious relationships, though, built on trust and love were a lot more difficult for the the warrior princess to engage in. There were three men that Gabrielle had met personally whom she believed Xena had truly loved.
The man who probably meant the most to Xena was Marcus, an old friend from her warlord days, whom she encountered again while trying to save the life of a young princess. Xena had tried to convince him to reform his evil ways and was gratified when he finally agreed. Tragically, his first and only good deed was to sacrifice his life to save the young princess. His death, during Gabrielle's first year with Xena, had depressed the warrior. Xena didn't talk much to her about it, but Gabrielle sensed that her presence was a great comfort to the warrior. Shortly afterward, Gabrielle began to notice subtle changes in Xena's attitude that showed she was finally beginning to trust the bard.
The second man in Xena's life was Hercules, the towering, powerful demigod who had turned her toward the path of goodness. Gabrielle understood the special place that Xena held in her heart for Hercules. It was obvious those rare times they met on the road together. When the news spread that he had married for a second time, Gabrielle realized her best friend's anguish, even though Xena never openly admitted it to her. Somehow, a visit to Hercules after his wife died made it clear to the warrior that she and the demi-god were meant to pursue separate journeys in life.
Finally, there was Ulysses, king of Ithaca, Xena's most recent love interest. Gabrielle cringed as she recalled that long, horrible sea voyage to Ulysses' homeland that brought romance for her best friend and a wretched bout of sea sickness for herself. She gave Xena her blessing to enjoy that love, but felt secretly relieved when Ulysses' wife turned out to be alive, ending all hopes for that relationship. Xena was sad, at first, but as far as the bard could tell, time seemed to have mended her heart from that brief love.
Thinking it over, Gabrielle didn't really need men in her life. Xena was more than enough to handle by herself. The young bard was so busy trailing along with the dauntless warrior on countless adventures, she never had time to crave a normal existence. Those times, between exploits, when she and Xena were alone together, were, surprisingly, never dull. Even the long periods of silence between them had turned comfortable, even cozy, at times. The bard had learned to talk less; Xena, to communicate more.
There were moments when Gabrielle missed her family, such as those times they visited a friendly village. A family invitation to a home-cooked meal, or a request for the bard to tell stories to a captive audience of children, brought back cravings for her own family and village of Poteidaia. One look at Xena beside her, though, and her pangs of homesickness inevitably disappeared.
Xena meant everything to her; family, best friend, soul mate. When Xena had died and come back to life, recently, Gabrielle learned it was possible to survive without the warrior princess by her side. Her life, though, could never be the same. Gabrielle shook her head to clear away that depressing thought. She and Xena were back together and nothing would change that, not even battle shock.
Placing the last of the cleaned fish in a large pan she had brought in her supply pouch, Gabrielle spread a generous helping of her select herbs and spices over the batch. She lit the firewood and placed the pan on a flat, broad rock near the low flame. Knowing it would take awhile for the trout to cook, she grabbed a container and went to pick wild berries from a cluster of bushes she had spotted earlier. Xena would be pleased with the surprise dessert.
As the bard picked berries off the shrubs, she felt a sudden urge to taste them. She soon found herself eating more fruit than she was placing into her pot; not good news if she was hoping to have berries for dessert. With a determined vow to stop eating and start picking, Gabrielle promptly filled her pot and headed back to camp.
The air near their campsite permeated with the rising, nose tingling aroma of cooking trout. A quick look around the area confirmed that Xena had not yet returned. No doubt, she was still busy practicing with her sword. Having watched the warrior a number of times, Gabrielle knew how intense and physically demanding these workouts can be. At the same time, there were extended periods of controlled slow motion movements that required enormous mental concentration. Xena had once explained to her that highly skilled sword fighting required the total fusion of peak physical stamina with sharp mental agility.
With the campsite set up and the fish still simmering in the pot, Gabrielle found herself wondering what was taking Xena so long. The warrior should have returned by this time. She briefly considered leaving the campsite to find her friend but quickly rejected the idea. Xena seemed unusually tense and needed her private time. She would not infringe on that right. Having made that decision, the amazon neatly set down her blankets near the fire and lay down to rest.
A short time later she opened her eyes and noticed Xena kneeling over the fish pan, portioning two generous servings of trout onto their plates. The warrior was dressed in a clean white shift, her long, jet black hair, freshly washed and brushed. Gabrielle sat up in her bedroll and took in a deep breath, relieved to find that the air she inhaled smelled pleasantly of cooked trout. Amazing! Despite her nodding off to an unexpected sleep, the fish had not burned.
Xena handed Gabrielle a filled plate and motioned for her to dig in; the warrior too busy chewing on a generous morsel of trout to speak. Gabrielle took a forkful of fish and gasped in wonder at how fresh and scrumptious her dinner tasted. The fish was spiced exactly right. The two companions ate hungrily, not speaking until the food on their plates was totally consumed. Afterward, Gabrielle placed their dirty dishes aside to be washed in the river later. Then she brought out the container of wild berries she had hidden under one of the bushes and set it between them.
Xena grinned appreciatively at the welcome treat. "I noticed wild berry bushes all along the woods here. I had a feeling you wouldn't let them go to waste."
"Don't tell me I'm getting predictable," Gabrielle declared with an exaggerated sigh.
"You predictable?" Xena's eyes grew wide. "And I'm a GORGON-eating sea monster!"
"You are, sometimes," Gabrielle said soberly.
Xena frowned, the soft hairs on the back of her neck prickling incessantly. The memory of the war against the Horde returned, drowning out the inner sense of calm she had been enjoying following her vigorous exercise and swim.
Gabrielle noted the sudden shift in the warrior's peaceful expression and immediately regretted her words. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
Xena swallowed the soft, ripe berries she had been swirling around in her mouth and looked at the bard, her blue eyes sharp in their gaze.
"Yes, you did. You meant every word." She wanted to say more but controlled herself, surprised at the intensity of her feelings.
"We have to talk about this. Maybe now isn't the right time." Gabrielle waved her hands as she spoke, a familiar gesture she used to make an important point.
"When is the right time, Gabrielle? The next time we're engaged in a full scale war? That will happen, you know. Life on the road is not only coming to the aid of poor, defenseless villagers." The warrior's tone was cutting, knifelike.
Gabrielle forced down a huge gulp of air as she felt a heavy, concealed anger struggle to release itself from somewhere deep inside her soul. How dare Xena treat her like a naive child after all they had been through together! "What's wrong with helping villagers?" She retorted hotly, her voice scaling to an irate pitch. "Too dull for the bloodthirsty warrior princess?"
"No, Gabrielle. That's not what I mean," Xena held up a hand to restrain the bard, softening her tone, at once, as she realized how harsh her words must have sounded. "You're making more out of this than you should."
Gabrielle shook her head, her pale blonde eyebrows creased in a deep frown. "No, I'm not." The bard's breathing quickened. "I saw that look in your face when you killed the Horde, then again when the men called out your name. Pure pleasure." She stood up suddenly and glared down at the seated warrior. "Is that how you feel when you help poor, defenseless villagers, or do you do it for my benefit?"
The warrior's hand drew instinctively to her cheek, as though she had just been slapped by her best friend. Gabrielle's accusation startled her. Such an unusual reaction from the kind hearted bard -- where did it come from? The warrior closed her eyes for a long time, to gain some form of composure. When she finally opened them again, her best friend was gone. Their plates and cooking utensils were also missing which meant that Gabrielle must have left to wash them by the river. Xena hesitated about following her. The bard was angry and needed time alone to sort out her rage and confusion.
Xena lay on her blanket and stared up at the darkening sky. She felt angry and wasn't sure why. The vivid pink and lavender hues of the setting sun did nothing to improve her agitated state. Gabrielle was also upset, which made the warrior feel even more uneasy. They both had hot tempers and worked hard at not flaring up simultaneously. Most of their disagreements involved minor tiffs; major conflicts being rare between them. This was potentially their worst.
It was hard for Xena whenever the two of them fought, be it a battle of words or actions. Aside from her mother, and possibly, Hercules, the bard's approval meant more to her than anyone else in this world. Within the span of her lifetime, she had never encountered a better, more loyal friend than Gabrielle. They made an unusual pair; the tall, proud warrior and the warm-hearted little bard. Gabrielle, as a bard, was compassionate and excitable, bursting with high minded ideals; while she, the warrior, was utilitarian and hard-edged, consumed by inner conflicts relating to good and evil. She had always feared the effects on Gabrielle when confronted with her dark side and knew it would happen some day. To counter that possibility, Xena kept much of her past hidden from the bard, revealing only that which was necessary. Still, Gabrielle remained loyally by her side. The thought of losing her support and friendship was excruciating. Without it, Xena would be lost, even afraid, a feeling she hadn't experienced in a long time, probably because she cared so deeply for the tenacious little bard.
Gabrielle's parting shot had frightened her to the core. Other people may think of her as a bloodthirsty warlord, never Gabrielle. To hear her use those harsh words hurt like Hades. Were those words a result of battle shock or had Gabrielle really meant what she had said? As the bard had so shrewdly observed earlier, there was no way of knowing what was real between them and what was due to battle shock.
As the sky turned to a darker shade of black, the warrior rose, her pragmatic nature overwhelming any emotions she was feeling at the moment. Her best friend was alone in the dark. She was determined to find her. Xena grabbed two blankets as she left the campsite. The air had turned chilly and she had a feeling Gabrielle had not prepared herself for the sudden change in weather.
The warrior advanced silently through the brush, her exceptional hearing tuned into listening for the familiar, rustling sound of Gabrielle. Further exploration along the shore brought forth the faint swishing sound of splashing in the river. That had to be Gabrielle.
Xena raced along the moist earth, following the trail of sound, until she could finally discern the dark image of the bard's form floating lazily in the river.
"Gabrielle," she shouted. "Are you crazy? The water's freezing and the air is cold. You're gonna get sick if you don't get out right now."
"Stay away, Xena. I'm hardly afraid of a little cold water after what I've been through," Gabrielle yelled back.
Having been the object of Gabrielle's anger many times in the past, Xena thought it best to remain silent. The bard was still too angry to engage in a rational conversation; it made no sense to provoke her further. That didn't mean that she wouldn't stay around to keep an eye on the bard. Of course she would. At the same time, she would also provide her agitated friend with some much needed space.
Xena sat down on the edge of the riverbank, resigned to watching Gabrielle float in the water. As she continued to stare into the river, the sight of the calm, dark water highlighted in bright moonlight began to look very tempting. Her concern for Gabrielle, notwithstanding, the warrior thought of her own rising desire to immerse in the peaceful stream. She waded into the shallow water and wiggled her toes, which immediately turned numb from the cold. She knew from her previous swim that the river, shallow at the shore, turned deep quickly. With that in mind, Xena took two more quick steps before plunging in. She glided quickly through the water, propelling her body with smooth, even strokes, until she found herself a short distance from Gabrielle. She and the bard ignored each other, each content to lie on her back and let the gentle current wash over her body.
Despite the cold, Xena soon found herself closing her eyes, fighting the irresistible urge to wander off to sleep. When she felt herself begin to lose her battle with fatigue, the tired warrior forced her eyes open and immediately called out to Gabrielle. There was no answer. Xena turned her head toward her friend. To her horror, the young bard was drifting aimlessly down the river, obviously sound asleep.
The warrior reacted swiftly, swimming long, powerful strokes until she finally caught up with Gabrielle in midstream. She extended her arm around the sleeping bard's chest, and grew instantly alarmed when she felt her icy cold skin. Knowing how crucial it was to get Gabrielle warm and back to shore, Xena immediately set to work pulling her young friend along the cold water. For the most part, their long trip upsteam was uneventful. Then midway through the river, the unconscious bard opened her eyes and began to thrash wildly in the water, nearly breaking loose from the stronger woman's hold. Determined to get her chilled friend to safety, Xena tightened her grip on the bard to prevent her from slipping away, and continued the long swim toward the riverbank. When they reached the shore Xena laid Gabrielle on the ground and promptly covered her with one of their blankets, placing the other one over her own cold frame. She watched with some concern as Gabrielle stared open-eyed at her, but did not move or speak.
The full moon shone brightly in the dark evening sky, casting a soft pearly glow over the peaceful woodland. "Come on, little bard. Time to go home," Xena said softly, hoisting the trembling young woman onto her shoulders. Using the moonlight as her guide, the warrior trudged slowly along the shadowy path, weighed down by the bard's still form as well as her own weary limbs, that she willed herself to ignore.
As soon as they reached the campsite, Xena settled Gabrielle carefully onto her blanket alongside the slow burning fire. Rummaging quickly through the bard's pack for a clean shift, Xena found one, then rushed back to Gabrielle to strip off her wet clothes and dress her in the dry undergarment. When she finished, Xena placed a blanket over the whimpering bard, followed by a second one, as Gabrielle continued to moan through clattering teeth. Having done all she could for her companion, Xena quickly exchanged her own wet leather garb for a dry shift. Then, feeling completely worn out from the evening's near disaster, the warrior curled down next to the bard and hugged her close to her chest to provide additional warmth. When she was sure Gabrielle was no longer chilled, Xena raised herself on heavy limbs to throw more wood into the weakening fire. As the heat from the rising blaze unfurled to warm the air around them, the fatigued warrior lay down again next to the bard. It was only after Gabrielle's eyes were closed and she was breathing evenly, that Xena allowed herself to collapse into an exhausted sleep.
When Gabrielle awoke the next morning, she was surprised to find herself wrapped in a blanket and pressed securely against the body of the warrior princess, sleeping in back of her. She dared not move. Her head ached and her mind felt as though a thin layer of clouds had settled over it. What had happened last night? She and Xena had never slept this close before. Was it battle shock? Gabrielle kept still as she felt Xena stir from behind. The warrior slipped her arm off the top of Gabrielle's shoulder and gently tugged her other arm out from beneath the bard's waist. Gabrielle turned around suddenly to face her best friend.
"So how was it?" Gabrielle asked, stifling a big grin.
"What?" The warrior felt grumpy. Her muscles were cramped and her right arm was throbbing from Gabrielle's weight on it while they slept.
"You know, Xena." Gabrielle leaned over the reclining warrior and whispered softly into her ear. "Us. Together? Under the stars. A full moon?" She wrapped her arms comfortably around Xena's waist and smiled.
"Splendid," the warrior growled, pulling away from Gabrielle's grasp.
"Oh, Xena. You are, and always will be, the master of understatement." The bard stood and raised her arms dramatically toward the billowing white clouds spread across the bright blue sky. "Hopeless, my dear warrior princess. That's what you are."
Xena raised herself on her elbows and surveyed the bard. "Gabrielle, you are either totally recovered or hopelessly impaired following last night's incident."
The bard grinned. "That good, huh?"
"No, Gabrielle. That bad! You fell asleep in the river and almost drowned."
"And you rescued me, of course," the bard concluded. The gray cluster of clouds encircling the inside her mind began to thicken. "The wondrous warrior princess stops her bloodshed in time to rescue her gentle little bard."
Xena frowned, the inside of her head pulsating from her rising anger. "Gabrielle, this isn't funny. Stop it! Now!"
"Why, Xena? What'll you do to me if I don't?" Gabrielle's mind grew smoke colored--- a storm was brewing. "Or is the warrior princess suddenly afraid of the little bard?"
Xena bowed her head, not sure what was happening to her best friend or how to handle it. "No, " she said in a low voice. "Right now, I'm afraid for both of us."
The warrior's final words were drowned out by the relentless downpour of rain that pelted steadily along the perimeter of Gabrielle's brain. The bard stood up and seized her staff, raising it over Xena's head. "I say we settle this on the battle field," she growled. "What do you say, warrior princess?"
Xena rushed to her feet and grabbed the smaller woman by her arms, hoping to snap her out of her strange mood. With surprising strength, Gabrielle twisted away from Xena's grasp and landed a stinging blow with her staff on the warrior's forearm. Then she pivoted her body and swatted Xena on the back of her head. The warrior fell purposely to the ground, hoping Gabrielle would stop her attack. It was to no avail. The raging bard showed no mercy as she kneeled over Xena and pressed her staff against the older woman's throat.
Xena looked up at her best friend, whose face was twisted in rage. "Go ahead, Gabrielle," she said weakly. "If you kill me, I deserve it."
Gabrielle stared wide-eyed at Xena and then at her staff, poised at the warrior's throat. She threw down her weapon and stood frozen in place. Then she toppled to the ground.
Xena scrambled over to examine the young bard. Physically she was fine. Her skin was cool, her breathing regular, and her eyes fluttered lightly behind closed lids.
While Gabrielle slept, Xena stayed close to camp, occupying herself by polishing her neglected armor and dusty boots. As she worked, she tried not to imagine what might happen once the bard would rouse from her sleep. No use brooding over something she could do nothing about. It was mid-morning by the time Gabrielle opened her eyes and called out to her.
Xena leaned over her reclining friend and took her hand. Gabrielle attempted to smile up at her, but abruptly stopped. "Oooh! My head," she moaned, pressing both hands to her temples. "It hurts like Hades!"
The warrior proceeded to massage the top of the bard's head with her fingertips and felt relieved when her gesture was not rebuffed. "What's the last thing you remember?" She asked her friend carefully.
Gabrielle squinted up at Xena. "Nighttime. Floating in the river. I was angry with you. Then this morning I woke up in your arms and my head felt cloudy."
Gabrielle nodded. "What did I miss?"
Xena gave the bard a tight, controlled smile. "You tried to seduce me. How's that for starters?"
The bard groaned. "Did we---?
Xena laughed. "Don't worry," she said to the confused bard. "Perdicus is still your one and only."
"That's good," Gabrielle stammered. "I mean, if anything happened between us I'd want to know about it."
"Trust me. You wouldn't forget." Xena smiled at her flustered companion whose face had turned the shade of a perfectly ripe apple.
"I guess you want to know whether you killed me," Xena said, her smile growing bolder.
"I was willing to let you do it," she continued. "That's when you fainted."
Gabrielle stared open mouthed at the warrior, stunned by the reality of what she had almost done to her best friend. "Did I hurt you?"
Xena shook her head. "It'll take more than a few love taps with your staff to keep me down." She stopped suddenly, taken off guard by her odd choice of words.
Gabrielle stared curiously at the warrior. "You all right, Xena?"
"Yeah, sure." The warrior reached up to stroke her scalp. "Just thinking."
"Must be catchy," Gabrielle said. "I am, too." She stared hard at her best friend to try and read her mind. "You think we're thinking about the same thing?" She asked the warrior.
"I don't know," Xena returned. "Tell me what you're thinking."
"All right," Gabrielle began. "I was wondering why you were willing to let me kill you. I'd never do that to my worst enemy. How can I possibly think of killing my best friend?"
"That's exactly the point," Xena explained. "I was hoping to shock you out of whatever strange mood had come over you." She pressed her lips together. "It worked, too."
"What happened to me? It's so strange not to remember anything."
"It's hard to know exactly, but I would guess that the combination of your emotional stress together with the long time you spent in the cold river must have put you in some kind of battle shock, making you behave violent and aggressive." The warrior swept some stray strands of hair away from Gabrielle's forehead. "You remember my telling you about men in my army who did something so shocking they blacked out afterward?" Gabrielle nodded. "Well, congratulations, my friend," Xena said with a grim smile. "It's what happened to you when you realized you wanted to kill me."
"You think I'm okay now?"
Xena punched her companion lightly in the arm. "Gabrielle, I never know with you."
"Now, it's your turn," Gabrielle said with a grin. "What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking I better go practice with my sword," Xena said, reaching down for her weapon. "All this talk has made me feel...edgy."
"Are you sure you'll be all right? That love tap I gave you to the head may cause you to harm yourself in some unfortunate way," Gabrielle suggested with a wry smile.
` The tall warrior stood up to her full height and stared down at the much shorter bard. "For Zeus' sake, Gabrielle. I'm a warrior. Not Joxer." The two women laughed at Xena's reference to the bumbling cretin who fancied himself a mighty warrior. "Now there's someone who can really benefit from one of your love taps," Xena added with a wicked gleam in her eyes.
Gabrielle threw some stray blades of grass in Xena's direction that fell way short of its intended target. This only made the warrior appear more smug at having bested the bard in this final exchange. With one final grin, Xena grabbed her sword and fled the bard, who, in a most colorful vocabulary, pledged to get even with the arrogant, snooty, perverted warrior princess when she least expected it.
By the time Xena returned, feeling fresh and invigorated by her intense work out, Gabrielle had prepared two heaping plates of berries for breakfast.
"So, Gabrielle," Xena began as they sat down to eat. "How's your head?"
The bard grinned. "I think I'm finally back to normal. How about you?"
Xena shrugged. "I hope so."
The bard glanced at Xena, her eyes dreamy and longing. Having seen that look many times before, the warrior felt certain her friend wanted something and was leading up to it in that mild but shrewd way she used to get what she wanted. Xena raised an inquisitive eye toward the bard and was greeted by a bright, engaging smile.
"Xena, you think we can spend some time by the river? It's so peaceful. I love it there."
Xena nodded her assent, instantly grasping the underlying reason for Gabrielle's request. The bard wanted them to talk. Much as Xena dreaded the prospect, she knew it had to be done.
The two women headed for the riverbed. Gabrielle sat down first, followed by Xena, who settled beside her. The sun streamed directly overhead, filling the warrior and the bard with a comfortable warmth. Gabrielle grabbed a nearby stone and hurled it high and hard into the water.
"Good throw," Xena said. She, too, picked up a stone and threw it even farther downstream.
Gabrielle scowled at Xena. "Show off!"
Xena awarded Gabrielle with a half smile. The two companions stared at the calm river, lost in thought, until Gabrielle finally turned to her best friend.
"You remember the time you threw a stone into the river to teach me something about yourself?"
Xena nodded. The incident had occurred two years before, after she had rescued Gabrielle in a dream passage from an evil Morpheus. The bard had come close to killing one of the enemy warriors and was badly shaken by the experience.
Gabrielle stared at the spot where her rock had landed, "You described to me how, at first, the water ripples and churns. Then, its surface appears calm. But the rock remains below, so the water is forever changed. Just like you."
Xena cleared her throat, which had unexpectedly grown tight at the memory. It was one of the first important conversations between them to cement their developing friendship. "You told me that for my first stab of wisdom I did pretty well," Xena recalled.
Gabrielle smiled. "Then you said you didn't mean any of it. You were just saying it all for my benefit." She turned to Xena. "I didn't believe you, of course."
"Even then you knew me," Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle leaned forward. "I saw your goodness, but I was blinded to your faults. That day you tried to tell me, but I wouldn't listen." The bard sighed. "Now I know."
"It's part of who I am," Xena said, tightening her long, sturdy fingers into a solid fist. "Anger, hatred, guilt, regret always lurk somewhere inside me ready to emerge anytime, especially in battle." Xena closed her eyes to blink away the tears that loomed so close to the surface. "I wish you knew me before I killed my first. I was so different then." A bitter laugh emerged from somewhere deep inside the warrior's soul. "Hades, Gabrielle," she cried out. "I was once innocent---like you."
Xena stared straight ahead, her expression stonelike, as she sought to find peace in the calm waters. Gabrielle leaned in closer to the warrior and placed a comforting hand on her hunched shoulders.
"Xena, look at me."
The warrior ignored her plea.
Gabrielle tried again. "Xena, I want -- I need you to look at me. Now, warrior princess!" She commanded.
Xena turned her head slowly toward Gabrielle until they were staring face to face.
"I love you, Xena. Past, present and future. I only wish you felt that way about yourself."
The tears finally emerged, running relentlessly down the warrior's smooth, bronze colored cheeks. "How can I? After everything I've done?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle said honestly. "But I'm going to spend the rest of our time together helping you find your true self worth." Gabrielle felt tears come to her own eyes. "You know this crying thing is awfully contagious. You think it has something to do with battle shock?"
The warrior's water soaked eyes crinkled in laughter at the bard's sudden observation. The past two days had been filled with battle shock, for herself and the bard. She wiped Gabrielle's tears away with her hand and placed her arm around the bard's shoulders.
"This is it, Gabrielle. Full blown battle shock. How do you like it?"
"It's weird, Xena. You're crying and pouring your heart out; I tried to kill you. We both--well, we both got a little carried away, I guess."
The two women resumed their silent watch over the peaceful river, the mood pensive between them. Then Xena rose and walked slowly toward the shore's edge, her tall, robust frame graceful, yet determined in its movement. Gabrielle watched silently from afar, not sure whether Xena wanted her to follow or remain behind. The warrior stood with her hands on her hips and stared ahead into the water. Then she bent down to scoop up a rock, examined it briefly, and tossed it sidearm into the river. As Gabrielle observed Xena gaze thoughtfully at the rippling waves where the rock had landed, she immediately understood the silent message her friend was conveying. She had thought their conversation had come to a satisfying end. Xena, apparently, believed otherwise. The bard felt her stomach churn as she walked over to join the warrior.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior's face was mired in anguish as she called out to the approaching bard. "I'm sorry," she said haltingly, when Gabrielle reached her side. "I wish I could promise it will never happen again, but...I ...that's not...possible." She blinked once and breathed in deeply, pausing for a long moment to shut her eyes. When she opened them again, her features were composed, though her eyes remained blinking. "There will be other wars, different conflicts that come up between us." Xena grimaced as she proceeded to expose that which she feared most. "I disappointed you," she said, sighing deeply. "Now...you know...how ruthless... I...become." The warrior pulled a tall stalk of grass out from the ground and twisted it tightly around her fingers. "That won't change," She said, biting off the remaining stem of grass in her hand. "It's a savage world we live in, Gabrielle. I'll do anything to protect us from it, to ensure our survival." She leaned down to spit out the bitter tasting grass, then peered solemnly at the bard, "I need to know if you can accept it all. Otherwise..." Her voice trailed off, the alternative too painful to speak aloud.
Xena turned away from the bard and resumed staring into the river, her pose stiff and aligned, her expression a dense veil. At one time Gabrielle would have been intimidated by this image of the warrior, but she knew her friend well enough to realize she was shielding her own uncertainty. Gabrielle swept her hand through her strawberry blond hair, grabbing a fistful of hair into her palm and squeezing tightly, as she came to an important decision. Xena was asking her to be honest, to unburden herself, even if it meant hurting her best friend. She agreed. It was the only way to set things right between them. The bard grazed her bottom teeth slowly along the end of her upper lip, then wiped her damp palms across her short Amazon style skirt, as she prepared to confront the warrior.
"You frightened me, Xena, more than I was willing to admit to myself, or to you," she added softly. "I hated seeing you so callous and unfeeling, and, yes, I was angry, even disappointed in how you acted when you fought the Horde." Gabrielle closed her eyes to force back the tears that hovered around the edges. "At first I couldn't believe it. Then I didn't want to be part of it, to sink down to that level of inhumanity. It's something I don't understand about you and I will never agree to change my principles for yours, no matter how many wars we fight together."
When she finished, Gabrielle took a long, deep breath and checked Xena for a reaction. The warrior's gaze was anchored to the river; her eyes narrowed, her jaw muscles taut, and her mouth arranged in a grim line. She waited for Xena to turn to her, to make some kind of comment, but the warrior kept silent. Gabrielle reached down to trace her fingers along the outside of Xena's hardened palm until she gently, but firmly clasped the warrior's hand. "You are the most important person in my life, Xena of Amphipolis. Remember that, no matter what happens between us." She grasped the edge of Xena's gauntlet with her other hand, pausing to stroke the hard leather base with her thumb. "I may not agree with your warrior ways but I accept who you are. Totally."
Xena looked up cautiously at the bard who returned her gaze with a light smile. The two companions stared awkwardly at each other, until Gabrielle finally held out her arms to Xena. The warrior tilted her head to the side, grinned sheepishly, and pulled Gabrielle forward until they were joined together in a tight embrace. The two friends spent a long moment holding onto each other, eager to savor the renewed feeling of warmth and faithfulness that flowed between them. When they finally parted, warrior and bard were both smiling.
"So, what's next?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at her best friend.
Xena chuckled. "Why do I have this strong hunch you already have a plan?"
"Because I do?" They both laughed. "Subject to your approval, of course," Gabrielle added quickly. Xena smirked, feeling too good to give Gabrielle any argument on that point.
"I'd like to camp out here tonight, if you don't mind. I don't remember anything about last night and I want to know what it's like to sleep in this beautiful place."
"I can't speak for Argo," Xena said, referring to her mare who was being stabled in a nearby village, "but it's fine by me."
Gabrielle rewarded her best friend with a huge smile. "Let's do fun things the rest of the day," she suggested brightly.
"What exactly do you have in mind?" The warrior's low toned timbre held a mixture of teasing and prudence to it.
"Oh. You know. The usual stuff. Swimming. Fishing. Catch the warrior. Catch the bard." Gabrielle clapped her hands together in front of the warrior. "Come on, Xena. A little enthusiasm here. Winner gets to cook all that fish we're gonna catch together."
Xena snorted at the bard's proposal. "Let's make it, winner gets to CHOOSE who cooks dinner tonight," she counter-offered. The warrior and the bard engaged in a short round of eye to eye contact until Gabrielle finally ended their stand-off by reaching out to firmly grip Xena's arm in a warrior's handshake.
"I look forward to your dinner tonight," Xena said with a wink, as she released the bard's arm.
"So do I," her petite challenger countered with a determined set to her lean shoulders.
That evening, the two women sat down to their campfire feeling relaxed, exhilarated and blissfully tired by the day's full schedule. They managed to complete all the activities that Gabrielle had mapped out for them earlier and enjoyed every one of them; ending the day, by mutual consensus, with a delectable fish dinner prepared by the master bard chef.
"Xena. That was the best day we've had in a long time. Thank you." Gabrielle smiled gratefully at her best friend.
"It's not over yet, Gabrielle. There's more to come." Xena had a mischievous glint in her eye that captured the curiosity of her younger companion.
"Whatever do you mean?" Gabrielle asked playfully. The warrior opened her mouth and Gabrielle braced herself for what was sure to be a snappy comeback. To her surprise, instead of responding to the bard, the warrior began to sing. Gabrielle smiled broadly at Xena. So this was to be her treat for the evening, a long awaited session of the warrior's songs.
Whenever Xena decided to sing, Gabrielle would sit back and listen in suspense, never knowing the musical selections Xena would choose for the evening. Her melodies ranged from sad to happy, or even silly, depending on her mood. This evening started with a sad ballad about a young man who left his village and his betrothed to join the Athenian army. He fought in his first battle and emerged a hero who had saved others in his troop from certain death. As a result, he became a rather confident warrior and stayed on for a year until he was badly wounded. The young man returned home to find his betrothed married to another man. His heart broken, he left the village, feeling lost and uncertain about his future. By the time Xena finished the last verse, Gabrielle had tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
Xena next broke out into a joyous melody of a village of young maidens preparing to meet with a village of young men all primed to choose their beloved. The maidens dressed in their finest clothing and chattered on about meeting the men of their dreams. Some mismatches were made that were eventually straightened out, and everyone finally came up with the right partner in the end. The song was jolly and spirited. Gabrielle found herself bursting with laughter at the hilarious lyrics.
When Xena finished, Gabrielle clapped her hands and shouted for an encore. Xena, however, stopped singing and peered solemnly at the bard. It seemed the perfect opening to ask Gabrielle a question that had been on her mind since the previous day.
"Gabrielle, what did you mean when you said you were swearing off all men?"
The bard stared open mouthed at her best friend. What a strange time to bring up the subject. "Come on, Xena. You know how it is. Every man I get involved with, dies on me."
"Coincidence, Gabrielle," Xena rebutted. "Talus was ill before you met him and Perdicus was murdered by Callisto. I created her, by the way -- so it's technically my fault." She raised an eyebrow. "Maybe, you should consider giving up on our friendship."
"Come on, Xena. That's silly," she scolded the warrior. "Besides, Perdicus' death was not your fault."
"Neither were the deaths of any of those men your fault." The warrior fixed the bard with a hard stare to coerce her into revealing what was really on her mind.
"All right," Gabrielle conceded, finally. "Maybe swearing off men was the wrong way to put it. I love my life with you. No one can possibly measure up to what we have together."
"You're sure about that."
Gabrielle nodded. "Aren't you?" she asked uncertainly.
The warrior threw up her hands. "How do I know? I never think beyond tomorrow. Anything is possible."
"I don't believe that," Gabrielle said, staring at the warrior. Xena shrugged, which only made Gabrielle more agitated. "I don't want to leave you and make the wrong choice," she persisted. "Don't you feel that way, Xena?"
The warrior exhaled sharply, as she suddenly found herself on the receiving end of this intense discussion. "Why do you think I agreed when Ulysses asked to travel with us? I didn't want to make the wrong choice."
"He seemed right for you," the bard said kindly. "I'm sorry it didn't work out."
"As sorry as I was that Perdicus died and you came back to me?" the warrior hurled back sharply.
"What are you saying?"
"The truth, Gabrielle. We were both relieved when it didn't work out with the men in our lives." Xena wiped her hand across her mouth, not sure that she had been right to open this private pandora's between them, or why she had done it in the first place.
The bard shivered in the cool night air, overwhelmed by her stoic companion's startling disclosure. Gnawing thoughtfully on a fingernail, she reflected solemnly on the warrior's words. "It's true," she confirmed, after some deliberation. She looked up at Xena, whose attention was directed on the pile of firewood by her side. "Is it wrong for us to feel that way, Xena?"
The warrior picked up a thick piece of wood and lobbed it into the low flame, seeking to arrange the many jumbled thoughts in her mind, as she deftly prodded the glowing embers to a full blaze. The bard's question was not new to her. The gods know, she had posed it to herself any number of times, never coming up with a tangible conclusion. She glanced at Gabrielle, who was leaning forward, warming her hands by the fire, and felt a sudden surge of affection for the young bard. How many times over the past two years had they replayed this scene between them, sharing intimate moments that inevitably bonded them closer together? Even this night, seemed more special, somehow, as it already forged a closer connection between them than she had ever believed possible. Why did she have to push Gabrielle on this last issue? It wasn't... Just then the bard leaned away from the fire and caught the warrior's eye. Xena nodded back at her. It was time to address this issue between them.
"It's not wrong or right to feel as we do," Xena answered slowly, "It's just the way things are between us." She stared into the flame, a safe haven she had created for herself to unveil her most sacred feelings. "Few share what we have together. It's very...special." Her voice lowered until it sounded barely above a whisper. "It's why it hurts so much to do what's best for that person we care most about."
Gabrielle rested her head comfortably on the warrior's broad shoulders. "I wish we were together always. Then it wouldn't have to hurt at all. Would it, Xena?"
Xena reached over to stroke the top of the bard's head. "That would be nice, Gabrielle, but it's not likely." Xena's gentle tone became matter-of-fact. "As much as we enjoy our life together, anything can happen to change it -- like that." The warrior snapped her fingers to demonstrate her point. "One or both of us can die or be badly wounded in battle, or there may yet be a man out there who enters into our lives one day and actually stays with one of us." She smiled and rolled her eyes at the bard, making them both laugh. Then she patted her friend's arm to soften the blow of her next remark. "These are facts we have to accept."
"I know all that, Xena. I just don't like to think about it," Gabrielle lifted her head from the warrior's shoulder and gazed tenderly at her best friend. "I just want to enjoy every day we have together and assume nothing more beyond that."
Xena chuckled softly. "Somehow I thought you'd come to that conclusion." The warrior stretched out her arms and gave a loud yawn. She looked over at her friend who was having trouble keeping her own eyes open. "Time for bed, Gabrielle. We leave here early tomorrow."
The two women rose reluctantly from their seats by the campfire and settled into their nearby blankets. Gabrielle lay down next to Xena and pointed toward the sky. "Care for some star gazing before we retire for the night?"
Xena yawned again. "Sure, why not? We've done everything else, haven't we?" Star gazing was actually fun with the bard. It was a game they played where they both searched the sky for interesting star groupings and created stories about them. "You first, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle pointed to the right side of the sky and turned to Xena to make sure she was following her directions. "You see those two shooting stars, one trailing rapidly behind the other?" The warrior nodded, surprised that with all the stars up there, she was able to discern the two stars Gabrielle was referring to. "That front star, the bigger, brighter one, is Xena. She has just warned Gabrielle if she doesn't wake up soon she'll leave without her. The back star is Gabrielle trying her best to catch up to Xena. Well, maybe not her best," Gabrielle chuckled. "She is rather tired, you know. Xena drags her all over the place. They just returned from a war against the Horde."
"No. No. No." Xena objected. "The front star is Gabrielle and the back star is Xena. They just had one of their famous fights and Gabrielle has run off in a huff. Xena, of course, feels guilty so she chases after Gabrielle to make sure she doesn't get herself into her usual trouble."
"HA! You would say that," the bard interjected. "When was the last time I got into trouble?" Thoughts of the night before in the river came immediately to mind. "Okay. Strike that." They both laughed.
"I really don't mind coming to your rescue," Xena said. "It's part of your appeal."
"Like brooding is part of yours, I guess." Gabrielle poked the warrior in her arm. "I like the challenge of drawing you out of your dark moods."
"You are a glutton for punishment," Xena said, poking the bard in return. "Good night, Gabrielle."
Xena closed her eyes and stretched out on her back, determined to shut out the events of their busy day and relax her weary body and drained senses. When she felt herself finally begin to drift off to a welcome sleep, the bard's voice suddenly crossed into her dream sphere, spiraling her back to reality.
"Xena, as long as we've been doing everything we always do, there's something we haven't done tonight that we did last night."
Xena rolled over to her side and reluctantly pushed her eyelids open. "If you're thinking of swimming in the cold river again, Gabrielle. Forget it!" Xena resumed laying on her back and closed her eyes once again.
Gabrielle sidled over close to Xena and nestled her head comfortably on the warrior's shoulder. "As long as we paid the price for battling the Horde, we may as well enjoy the reward," she said softly.
Xena picked her head up instantly and turned to the bard, who was still leaning cozily on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, what are you doing?" Her own voice sounded jarring to her ears.
"I'm cuddling next to my best friend."
"In case you haven't noticed," Xena said coolly, "your best friend is exhausted and wants to sleep. Good night, Gabrielle!" The warrior closed her eyes, fully expecting Gabrielle to leave her alone. The bard, however, did not oblige.
"Lila and I used to cuddle together all the time whenever we had been through something traumatic," she said aloud.
"I'm not Lila." Xena looked at her friend; this time with her eyes wide open. "I'm a warrior, Gabrielle, and warriors don't ...cuddle."
"So, I'm your first," Gabrielle said with a big smile.
Xena looked startled, "I...I guess so." She turned her head to recover her poise. "I'm just not sure how I feel about it."
"That's obvious," the bard said, still smiling. "You're rather stiff, you know. With practice, though, you'll get the hang of cuddling." Gabrielle squeezed the warrior's shoulder to loosen her up. Xena caught the bard's hand and held it firmly in her own.
"I'm not sure I want the practice. It's just not me."
Gabrielle lifted her head off Xena's shoulder. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I'll stop now, if that's what you want." The warrior kept quiet, not sure what she wanted. True. She was a hardened warrior, but the bard held a special place in her heart that belonged to no other.
"Sometimes best friends who travel alone together and experience ordeals as we do, need to comfort each other this way," Gabrielle said. Then she added, "I don't want to lose you again, Xena. It hurts too much." She placed her head back on the warrior's shoulder and lay resting by her side.
Xena spent the next few minutes contemplating the bard's words. She lay still and allowed her body to absorb the nearness of Gabrielle's presence. The bard was silent, her breathing steady and serene. Somehow, her closeness seemed soothing to the warrior's jangled nerves. Instead of becoming more tense, Xena was surprised to find the muscles in her body begin to loosen next to Gabrielle.
"So this is it," she said to the bard finally, "we just cuddle."
Gabrielle laughed. "I'm not about to ravish your beautiful body, Xena. Much as I love you, it's not in that way."
"For me, either," the warrior affirmed. Having made that acknowledgement, Xena wrapped her arm around the bard and closed her eyes, feeling more at ease with the new sensations she was experiencing. It seemed relaxing, cozy and very natural to hold the bard. She wondered briefly whether it would have helped ease the strain between them, had they done this earlier. She shifted her body toward Gabrielle.
"This is ...nice."
"You seem surprised."
The warrior nodded. "I just never thought we could do this without...you know...what I was afraid of..."
Gabrielle placed her fingers lightly over the warrior's lips. "Xena, it's okay. This isn't battle shock and it's not your past. This is something...between us. We need each other and sometimes that means holding one another when we want added support or reassurance. Like now, for instance."
Xena shivered, overwhelmed by a sudden realization that laid bare her heart. "There was a time for me, when caring for someone meant absolute control over that person, body and soul." She shook her legs to relieve the stiffness that gripped her limbs. "With you, Gabrielle, it's different. I never want to hurt you as I've done to others in my past."
"You won't, Xena." The bard paused to backhand her friend lightly on the stomach. "I won't let that happen." Her strong tone left no doubt that she meant every word.
"That's good, Gabrielle." Xena held her hand to her mouth to stifle a rising yawn. "Now, tell me about the last time you and Lila held each other." A good bedtime story by the bard would be the perfect way to end their evening.
Gabrielle stirred restlessly in the warrior's arms. "Why do you want to know?" Her tone was guarded, alerting the warrior that something was wrong.
Xena picked up her head and looked down at the bard. Her normally jovial expression had turned downcast, distressing the warrior. "I'd like to understand more about you and Lila," she fumbled,. "but if it makes you uncomfortable we'll drop it." Xena started to release her hold on the bard to give her more space, then stopped when she felt Gabrielle snuggle more cozily onto her shoulder. They lay quietly together, listening to the assorted night sounds that echoed occasionally through their campsite. Feeling the bard's rapid heartbeat flutter repeatedly against her chest, only served to intensify the warrior's heartache for her best friend's anguish.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Xena whispered into the bard's ear.
Gabrielle nodded her head quietly into the warrior's shoulder, then released a deep sigh. "It happened every night for two months until the night I left Poteidaia to follow you," she began softly. "Mother was very ill that winter and we were afraid she wasn't going to make it." Gabrielle's voice wobbled at the memory. "Holding onto each other every night gave us the strength to face mother's destiny, good or bad. It was a reward for our pain." A steady flow of wet tears slid down Gabrielle's cheeks onto the warrior's bare shoulder. Xena soothed her companion's moist cheeks with her fingers and was rewarded with a faint smile by the bard.
"By the time you came to our village, mother had recovered but was still weak. I felt bad leaving Lila alone with mother but I wanted...needed to follow you."
Xena tightened her grip around the bard as the meaning of her words penetrated straight to her heart. She had never before realized the extent of Gabrielle's great sacrifice to unite with her on her journey toward redemption. "Thank you." Xena mouthed softly into her best friend's ear. "You're very special to me. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said quietly. "Every day we spend together, you show me in different ways... how much."
The warrior clasped her friend's hand. "I'm glad you understand."
"I'm a bard, Xena. And you're my favorite subject. I want to learn all I can about you." Then she grinned, "besides the fact that you're my best friend, of course."
Xena chuckled along with Gabrielle, then stopped as she was suddenly struck by a new thought. "Do you miss Lila?" She wasn't sure why she asked this question, only that she needed to hear the bard's answer.
"Sometimes," Gabrielle admitted. "Especially those nights I wish she were here to cuddle with me."
Xena felt suddenly sad she had never understood that about her best friend. "I'll try to be there for you...in that way. I'm new at this but..." The warrior took a deep breath.
"You don't have to explain, Xena. I understand. It's just one more way we can learn together about love."
"You have many skills, Gabrielle, and you do know about love." The warrior yawned, once more, and her voice slurred from lack of sleep. Still, the bard hung on to every word.
"Good night, Xena. Sweet dreams." The young woman reached over and lightly touched Xena's arm before settling back to rest on her shoulder. Xena bent down and placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle's forehead.
"Are you missing Lila tonight?" she asked softly.
""No, Xena," she said, with a firm squeeze to the warrior's hand. "Tonight I have you."
"So, Xena, what do you think of my idea?" Gabrielle asked, as she placed the last of their cooking utensils in her supply pack.
"Which one?" Xena asked. The bard had been talking so much that morning it was difficult to keep track of what idea she was referring to.
"You know," the bard said smugly. "Joxer following us to fulfill our every whim and desire, especially after a good battle when we need him most." Gabrielle wriggled her eyebrows at Xena for added effect.
"Gabrielle! Between the two of us, we'd kill the poor man!" The warrior held back a smirk that was fighting its way to her lips. Gabrielle made no such effort, as her blue green eyes danced merrily with a lustrous gleam.
"That's the plan," she said, rubbing her hands together gleefully. "Think of it as being our personal contribution toward the greater good. Our acts of unabashed desire will benefit mankind, ourselves, and especially Joxer, who will surely die happy."
"What is it with you and Joxer?" Xena asked, shaking her head. "Underneath all that cheap armor he's got a very good heart."
"Do you really want to find out?" Gabrielle asked wryly.
"No!" Xena exclaimed. Then she changed the subject. "You know, I'm beginning to think we need a rest from wars. You're impossible when you have battle shock. How about we go rescue a nice village from some warlord or something?"
"Not too boring for the warrior princess, I take it." Gabrielle suggested with a smile.
"Gabrielle! What ever gave you that idea?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know. Battle shock? Xena, I'm sorry I said those hurtful things yesterday."
Xena fingered the chakram that hung by her side. "You're right, you know. My greatest joy comes from the battlefield; a good fight, a well planned strategy, leading the charge against the enemy." She let go of her chakram and rested her blue gaze on the bard. "The rest of it, understanding people's needs and gaining their trust, that's your pleasure. I take my cue from you."
"You have a good heart, Xena, and it shows," Gabrielle said with a smile. "You're less intimidating than you used to be."
"And you've become quite skilled with your staff." Xena observed candidly. "But you'll never be a true warrior and I'll never become a natural humanitarian."
"So our best work comes from combining our skills." Gabrielle tapped her staff on the ground. "I like that concept."
Xena smiled at her companion, then bent down to tie her supply pack. "Come on, little bard. Enough talk." The warrior gave one last look around their campsite to make sure it was cleared of their belongings. "All right," she said when she was done, "This is it. Let's go." She started to walk, then stopped when she realized the bard wasn't following.
Gabrielle was standing with her hands on her hips, completely immersed in her own final review of their campsite. Her purpose, however, was entirely different than the warrior's. "I'm going to miss this place, Xena," she said finally. "Think we can come back here someday?"
"Could be," Xena replied, "If not, there are other special places I can show you when we need time together to collect our reward."
"You mean it?" Gabrielle asked, as they crossed through the thicket of bushes onto the road.
"I said it, didn't I?"
"Can I get that in writing?"
"Change the subject."
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The commitment of being a bard in the xenaverse would not be nearly so much fun without the contact and encouragement of certain fellow bards who enjoy writing Xena stories as much as I do. With special thanks to my bard friends Dancyer, Storygal and Tammy for the many brainstorming sessions we held and for their constant encouragement in pushing me to the limit to write this story and to believe in myself as a writer; and to my bard friends, Rebekah and Enginerd for their painstaking attention to detail in editing the first draft of this manuscript, and for bringing out the perfectionist in me as I worked out the final version of this story many drafts later.
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