Intent on mending their relationship
after returning from Chin, Xena and Gabrielle encounter
confidential “help” from the Amazons. This story follows
THE DELIVERER, GABRIELLE’S HOPE and THE DEBT, but precedes
the culminating “rift” episodes MATERNAL INSTINCTS and THE
BITTER SUITE. It also makes reference to the preceding
Season Two’s THE QUEST and A NECESSARY EVIL.
“‘LOST SOULMATE: Short blonde seeks tall
brunette. Blue eyes preferred. Sexy look a plus.’” Solari
glanced up from what she’d written. “Whaddya think? Should
I add anything else?”
“How about ‘killer instinct a must.’”
“I don’t know, Eponin.” Ephiny snorted. “Wouldn’t eliminate many Amazons.”
“Good point. Might need to stack the deck a little more.” Solari chewed the end of her quill. “Aha! I know just the trick.” She drew a line under her first entry and added another below. “How’s this? ‘LALALALALA: Blue-eyed brunette searching for green-eyed blonde. Martial art skills preferred.’”
Eponin sucked in her cheeks. “Gabrielle’s one thing. No way anybody’d believe Xena wrote that.” She snickered. “Sounds more like the muse Calliope advertising for a body guard.”
“So let me understand the extent of your madness. You propose we post ‘wanted’ notes for both of them?” Ephiny shook her head. “I always knew you had a creative side. Maybe it’s better you spend it on basket weaving.”
Huffing, Solari scowled at her reluctant co-conspirators. “You two have no imagination. We can’t fix this with bows and arrows, okay? Our friends have traveled to distant lands. Faced Caesar and some Eastern emperor from Xena’s past. From the little they told us, both nearly died. Something happened between them. We all felt it.”
“They’re still together. Still love each other.” Ephiny sighed. “I’m not sure we should interfere. Pfft. As if counseling affairs of the heart is an Amazon specialty.”
“We’re giving them a push, is all. A fun way to remind them there’s … fun … to be had, along with the serious stuff they’ve been through. Besides, the timing’s perfect – our joining season. We’re simply including them in our rituals.”
“Since when did we practice nonsense like you have in mind?”
“Eponin, Eponin, Eponin. It’s no wonder you’re the weapons master.” Solari gave her comrades an indulgent smile. “You’re forgetting something.”
“Like, you’ve gotten crazy as Velasca?”
“Like, who’s in charge this year. I’m changing things up a bit.”
“No more dancing and drinking all night? Hooking up with whoever you wake up to?” Eponin scowled. “I kinda liked that.”
“You traditionalists may continue using the drunken stupor method. I’m also encouraging a more … targeted … approach. Communicating desired characteristics in some fashion, or to a particular individual. Directly or indirectly, doesn’t matter. The important thing is better matches that don’t end in ruffled feathers.”
“Hmm.” Ephiny relaxed back in her chair. “There could be benefits, beyond Gabrielle and Xena. In fact, regardless of whether it works for them.”
“Speaking of which, how do we know they’ll come back? What if the scouts couldn’t find them? Or they got involved in some mission?”
“Oh, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Seems they’ve been located easily enough in the middle of nowhere, by practically anybody with a problem. Perfect strangers pop up asking, ‘Are you Xena?’” Solari chuckled. “They’re like trouble magnets. Who’s to say they won’t be magnets for love too?”
The three chatted awhile longer before figuring they’d done sufficient strategizing for the night, unaware they’d shared their secret plan with a figure lurking outside.
Xena emerged from the lake, pleased to see Gabrielle lying on a blanket with her eyes closed. She walked quietly to their campfire and began toweling off so as not to disturb her companion. This was their first chance to truly relax since their recent travels to Brittania and Chin. A quick visit to Amazonia had been reassuring to their friends, but somewhat stressful in terms of dodging questions they hadn’t yet settled for themselves.
“Enjoy your swim?”
“You’re supposed to be napping.”
“I am.” Gabrielle smiled. “More like a wink and a nod.”
“Mm. Might wanna focus on the ‘nod’ part. My gut says these moments of peace won’t last too long.”
“No doubt. What about you?”
“I’m with ya, soon’s I finish drying out.”
Xena squeezed water from her hair. She shivered despite the fire and warm sun. Remembering her swim to Ming T’ien’s castle. The cold wetness of his murky prison. Gabrielle’s surprise appearance to save the young emperor. Her own unrevealed success in killing him anyway. She’d thought to put that behind her. Rationalize necessary evils as usual when committed against enemies, in pursuit of the greater good.
This time the guilt couldn’t be dismissed as easily as the drops she wiped off her skin. Everything had changed too much. Gabrielle was different. Not like most others Xena’d let penetrate her tough hide. Nor quite the innocent who’d followed her from Poteidaia. Either way, good enough to love. Close enough to hurt. To experience a new regret for the unexpected entanglements of growing together.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. She appeared serene enough. Seemed to have understood the debt owed Lao Ma, to be satisfied with how she believed Xena had paid it. To accept the warrior’s assurances all was forgiven. And yet …. Xena shrugged. So what if Gabrielle was a bit more subdued? Nothing strange about that. Even an optimist needed time to process what they’d been through. Hoping that to be the case, the warrior finally lay next to her partner.
“Mmm.” Gabrielle rolled to face Xena. “How long do we have?”
“We’re not that far. Maybe a couple days, if we start out in an hour or so.”
“Sounds good. You could use the rest too.”
Xena smiled wryly. “Wouldn’t hurt.”
Gabrielle felt the warrior relax against her. She tried to do the same. She was glad Xena had managed to close a warped old door in her life. She, on the other hand, had opened a new one into something she’d never expected. Guilt. For her first kill. For the daughter she’d secretly saved from Xena’s sword and prayed was alive and well. Betrayals that haunted her, but not nearly as present or solid as the body touching hers.
Her eyelids clenched against the terrible images. Of Xena’s expression at discovering her in Ming T’ien’s bed. The warrior battered, pilloried and imprisoned in a pool of filth. Stretched out for execution on yet another cross. Stunned and vulnerable because of the one person she’d allowed so close. How could Xena trust her again? How could she trust herself?
To think she’d been so eager for independence, so certain her ideals in action would stand firm and pure. So confident she could be the difference in Xena’s quest for good. Everything had changed. Xena was different. Flawed as ever, but more forgiving and open to less violent solutions. Certainly good enough to love. That girl who’d set out from Poteidaia? Whose innocence hid dangers that rivaled Xena’s dark side? What did she deserve?
Gabrielle’s eyes blinked open to concerned scrutiny. She feigned a yawn. “Uh huh.” She wriggled as if to get more comfortable. “Might be on a rock or two. They always seem to find me.”
“Mm.” Xena gazed at Gabrielle a moment longer. “Too bad about that. Adventure in the wilds does have its downsides.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I’ve been known to make a decent pillow, if that helps.”
“You do have many skills.” Gabrielle nestled her head on the warrior’s chest. “Definitely an upside right about now.”
The spy balanced on a sturdy branch, observing her targets. They hadn’t been particularly hard to find. They lay in a meadow near a lake, not far from the road. Cuddled together under the sun as if completely unconcerned about prying eyes. If such carelessness was any indication, maybe these “heroes” weren’t really so – .
“You’d better be an Amazon.”
The spy’s head jerked. She squinted at the motionless figures, fairly certain that’s where the voice had come from. Suddenly the larger one sat up and whispered something to the blonde before staring right at the spot where the intruder crouched.
“Show yourself,” the woman ordered, displaying a round metal disk. “Or you’ll be one dead whoever you are, Amazon or not.”
“Hold up! It’s me!” A head poked through the leaves. “I mean, yeah, I’m an Amazon. Ephiny sent me.”
“Then I suggest you come down and state your business. As you can see, we were kinda in the middle of something.”
The treed figure made a rapid descent. She approached the women. “Um, hi. I’m Tyra. A scout.”
“Guess you know she’s Gabrielle. Not sure I wanna be Xena `til I hear what I’m in for.”
“Don’t pay Xena any mind. Come.” Gabrielle patted the blanket. “Would you like some water or fruit?”
Tyra walked over. “Um, no, I’m okay,” she answered, dropping down. She peered up at Xena. “S-sorry about the interruption. Just following orders.”
“Has there been trouble since we left?”
The young scout gladly focused on the more inviting Gabrielle. “Trouble? Oh, no. No trouble. Least none I know of.” She smirked. “Course, we’re Amazons. Who knows what – .”
“How about we skip the Amazon customs. Why’re you here?”
Gabrielle gave her partner a look. “You’ll have to excuse Xena. We haven’t had much time to relax lately. Ephiny knows that. If she sent for us, she must have a good reason.”
Tyra silently cursed her luck. Just when things were getting interesting back home, she’d been dispatched on this mission. Her friends said it was an honor. Teased her about having permission to chase after their absent queen, who was not only close to their age, but cute. Nobody mentioned the ice blue glare she’d catch as well. Which warned she’d better have a good answer – bad, since she doubted her message would please the Warrior Princess.
“Um, well, Ephiny didn’t brief me on that. She just said ….” Tyra scrunched up her face, trying to recall Ephiny’s exact words. “She said, ‘Tell Gabrielle it has to do with her interest in Amazon traditions.’” Tyra chewed her lip. “Oh, yeah, and Xena could …. Um, I think it had to do with fishing.”
“You sayin’ we’re to turn around and go back? No chance we could catch these ‘traditions’ some other time?”
Tyra blew out a breath. “Um, yeah. Now.”
Xena wanted badly to suggest she stay right there and fish, while Gabrielle pursued the other school. The plea in her companion’s eyes suggested cutting class was not an option.
“Go on ahead.” Xena blew out a resigned breath. “Tell Ephiny we’ll be about a day behind you.”
“I wish you’d say something.”
“Excuse me? What’ve I been doing from sun up to sun heading west?”
“You know what I mean. And it’s not your observations about local flora and fauna, fascinating as they might be.”
Xena rolled her eyes. With a sardonic glance down at Gabrielle, she bent over Argo’s neck and mock whispered in the mare’s ear, “We all know it’s better I don’t. Gotta give `er some slack though. Her head’s kinda messed up. Probably from all that sea travel.”
Gabrielle scowled up at the warrior, continuing to walk. “I’d rather the usual grumpiness. At least then I get some idea what’s on your mind. Unlike this fake, ‘Gee, Gabrielle, if you’re happy, I’m happy.’”
“See what ‘nice’ gets you?” Xena muttered to Argo. “And she wonders why it took so long changing my evil ways.”
“I appreciate the effort, Xena. You’re doing this for me. I know that. I don’t expect you to jump for joy. It doesn’t mean we can’t discuss how you feel.”
“You’ve gone along with me, haven’t you? When you had doubts? Was that ‘fake?’”
“Of course not. But I didn’t hold back, either. I put in my two dinars in my own way. You listened. Took it into account.”
“And maybe still did what I’d planned in the first place.”
“True. But sometimes you didn’t.”
Xena reined Argo to a halt. She dismounted and began strolling alongside Gabrielle. “Do I believe whatever the Amazons have in mind is a crock? Sure. Would I rather find out what they’re up to, than 100 other things I can think of? No. That’s really all there is.” She shrugged. “I’m simply skipping to what matters most – going along because I’m with you. Once we’re there, if something rubs me the wrong way, you think the whole place won’t hear loud and clear?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Also true. Maybe I am being oversensitive. ‘All that sea travel,’ as you so delicately put it.” She sighed. “Not talking enough …. The secrets nearly tore us apart, Xena.”
“Terrifying.” Gabrielle flashed back on setting Hope afloat. She bumped shoulders with the warrior to remind herself she’d kept Xena at the same time. “We’ve had some hard choices. Bad things happen when we leave each other out. Love doesn’t always fill in the blanks. Not the way we might take for granted. You know?”
Xena’s jaw clenched. Ming T’ien would know a thing or two about that, if not for the hairpin she’d pushed through his skull. “Yeah.” She gave Gabrielle a quick hug, sorry for not telling the truth, not sorry she’d kept Gabrielle as a result. “We’ll work on doing better.”
They journeyed along in companionable silence, now close to Amazon territory.
“You really think it’s something silly?”
“No offense, but if it’s not related to butt-kicking, what else could it be?”
“Xeenaa.” Gabrielle whacked the warrior across the midsection. “They helped save your butt, if I recall. Not to mention all your other body parts.”
“Mm. I suppose if you overlook nearly sending me up in smoke ….”
The warrior laughed. “Okay, okay. They done good. Though it did involve some butt-kicking.”
“But ‘nice.’ Don’t forget that.”
“You too. Especially when we get there.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior.” Xena snickered. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll come to love me as much as you.”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle snickered. “Let `em try.”
The sentries escorted their guests across the compound. Only a few warriors drilled on the usually active practice field. Most sat in front of their huts or in groups, braiding each other’s hair, painting their faces and bodies. A few strutted around in elaborate battle skirts.
“I smell something fishy already.”
“Because they’re relaxing? Enjoying themselves?” Gabrielle acknowledged the smiles of her sisters. “I sense something … nice … in the air.”
“Exactly. Since when do Amazons care what they look like? Unless it’s for war dances or camouflage?”
“Gabrielle! Xena!” Ephiny jogged from the queen’s quarters to greet her friends. “We’re so pleased you could return.”
“For you? Of course,” Gabrielle said, hugging her regent.
“Yeah.” Xena offered her arm for a warrior’s handshake. “Although a little explanation might be good too.”
“Not to worry. All in good time. First, why don’t you get settled?” Ephiny beckoned the young scout who had found the visitors. “Tyra, show them where they’ll be staying. We’ll eat here after.”
Xena unloaded Argo. The three walked to a large hut set off to itself near the bordering forest. Tyra raised the entrance flap for their guests, then positioned herself outside.
“My.” Gabrielle surveyed the unusually comfortable furnishings. Plush furs covering a double-sized cot and the floor. A wooden tub draped with thick towels. An ornately carved desk and chairs. Tall grass and flowers arranged throughout. “Fit for a queen.” She grinned. “Oh, that’s right. I am a queen.”
“Mm.” Xena set their gear down with a suspiciously raised brow. “A permanent one, from the look of things.”
Gabrielle had plopped on the bed, about to test its luxuriousness. “I could get used to …. Huh?”
“Maybe that’s the plan.”
“You don’t seriously think …. Surely they know they can’t convince me – .”
“To resume your royal duties? Can’t rule anything out with this stubborn lot.” She snorted. “Especially when they’re being so … nice.”
Gabrielle jumped up and strode toward the door. “Well, we’ll see about that.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“You haven’t unpacked your bag yet.”
Gabrielle ignored the barely controlled smugness. “It may stay that way, depending on the nature of our invitation.”
Ephiny had ordered quite a spread for the guests’ meal. Eponin and Solari soon joined them. They ate in relative silence until the regent raised her cup for a toast.
“In honor of our friends. May we always share the love, loyalty and courage that brought us together.” Ephiny smiled as the others raised their cups. “Now, we know you’re curious about why we sent for you.” She chuckled. “Xena especially.”
Xena casually plucked a chicken leg from the platter in front of her. She took a bite. “Mmm. You ladies really outdid yourselves.” Waving the leg in Gabrielle’s direction, she continued, “As to what else you’ve planned, I’m with her. Her curiosity is what matters.”
“Very diplomatic,” Solari said with a grin. “I see our queen has rubbed off on you.”
“Oh yeah. She’s quite the … rubber … all right.”
“Yeah?” The weapons master raised her eyes from the food that had so far absorbed her attention more than the conversation. “Any particular – .”
“Not now, Eponin.” Ephiny scowled in that direction before explaining lightly, “Our sister isn’t used to chitchat. Her brain tends to track only a couple of topics.”
“Only a couple worth tracking,” Eponin muttered.
“Be that as it may …. I believe Xena’s point is clear. Gabrielle, what would you like to know?”
“Tyra mentioned traditions I might be interested in. Let’s start there.”
“Solari? Why don’t you take that?”
Solari began by noting that the only Amazon rituals most people witnessed had to do with preservation – battles, territory, food, discipline, structure – mostly because their Nation constantly faced threats on all fronts. They generally approached even their couplings as a practical aspect of survival – birthing new generations, letting off steam, the health benefits of satisfying physical urges – in the form of “quickies” periodically with men or as needed within the tribe.
“Now, this doesn’t mean we have no use for more meaningful companionship. Some of our fiercest warriors wish they could devote more time to that.” Solari winked at Xena.
Xena raised a brow at Eponin, as if to say, “What’s with her?” Eponin responded with a “Beats me” shrug.
Solari rolled her eyes. “Gabrielle, you have an appreciation for more … evolved … affections. Would you agree it’s important to create opportunities for such?”
“Um, sure. It can be hard, always preoccupied with defense or offense. You have to make time. Find ways to give it a chance.”
“Exactly.” Solari described how they’d set aside “seasons” for that during lulls between planting and harvesting or expected battles. “But it hasn’t been particularly creative.” She cut her eyes at Eponin. “Too often drinking buddies or sparring partners. Disastrous relationships once the lust wore off.” She grinned. “So I decided to spice up our current joining period.”
Ephiny cleared her throat. “She’s added elements intended to foster longer-term commitments. Help potential mates be more selective. Experience more … romance.” She sucked in her cheeks at hearing a skeptical cough. “Yes, Xena? Something you want to add?”
“I’m picturing body oils applied during hand-to-hand sparring. Or bouquets zinging through windows on the end of arrows.”
Solari scowled at her dark-haired guest. “I see your imagination equals some of my sisters’. Which is why we wanted your perspective, Gabrielle. You have personal experience nurturing relationships in rough conditions. Doing so with people similar to Amazons.” She cut her eyes at Xena. “You could help assess the effectiveness of my new methods. Establish better traditions. Maybe even discover a thing or two you find useful.”
Gabrielle rubbed her chin. “How long did you have in mind?”
Solari leaned forward. “Probably a moon for us. I figure a week’ll be enough for your review. It’s up to you.”
“It does seem a worthy idea. We had planned to check on things in …. Well, nothing pressing. Um, Xena? What do you think?”
“Tyra mentioned fishing. Where does that fit in to all this?”
The Amazons exchanged glances. Once again Ephiny and Eponin turned to Solari. She grinned with a hint of mischief. “What did you have in mind?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “You know – with a pole? Although I’m pretty good with my hands too.”
Eponin nearly choked. “Um, yeah. I can see that working.”
“Any particular kind?”
“There something around here besides trout?”
Ephiny nodded, figuring she might as well get in on the fun. “You’d be surprised at what’s right under your nose. With the right bait? Might hook something special before it gets away.”
“Well. That was helpful,” Xena concluded sarcastically as they left the queen’s quarters.
“This, from the Warrior Princess of Mystery, Espionage and Oooo What Trouble Can We Find Next?”
“Pfft. You’re the queen, remember. Especially of that last one.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Can’t argue with that.” She glanced around. “Hmmm. Where to begin.”
Solari had been rather vague about what to expect. She preferred her guests “get in the swing of things” like everyone else. The fewer preconceptions, the more “objective” the assessment. She did point out a wall where participants could post notes for each other. Several women hovered there reading, their reactions ranging from frowns to raucous laughter or huddled whispers with pals. Gabrielle figured she might as well join them, while she still had enough sunlight to see by. Xena feigned interest in sampling opinions among the handful of warriors on the practice field. Later, after a communal evening meal, they retired to their hut.
“I’m not seein’ much different to hang around for,” Xena stated, plumping down on the bed and laying out her weapons. “Unless you count the spectacle of Amazons acting like love-struck kids.” She began sharpening her sword. “What about those notes? Anything interesting?”
Gabrielle sat in the desk chair. “The idea of them, I guess. The content was rather … crude. Uninspired.” She shook her head. “‘Haven’t been laid in awhile. How about you?’ Or, ‘Aiming to meet somebody strong and brave.’”
“And you’re surprised why?”
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle sighed. “You’d think they’d be starved for a little romance. Not with anybody. With somebody they’ve had their eye on. Use this as an opportunity to … stretch. Take a few risks.”
“Heh. Maybe they know each other too well. I mean, it’s not like they can hide many faults, being around each other all the time.”
“But that’s the point. A chance to show a different side. More attractive. Softer. Explore interests beyond routine whacking or chores.”
Gabrielle glanced around the room. “Arranging plants. Somebody cared enough about that to decorate this place pretty well. Storytelling or hiking through the woods.” She narrowed her eyes at Xena. “Fishing.”
Xena inspected her sword. “Then what? They talk about it? Celebrate with a roll in the hay and start all over again after?”
“It’s a way to spend time together. Get to know each other better. Deeper. See if they’re comfortable enough to wake up to more than one morning.”
“Mm. Not sure they’ll see the payoff.”
“What do you mean?”
“Strings, for one thing. Jealousy. Hurt feelings. The pain of losing someone in battle. Why choose that, over the ‘as needed’ basis? Whenever you can. Whoever’s near.”
“We’re with each other all the time. Know the irritation of each other’s faults.” Gabrielle smiled ruefully, looking down at her hands. “The sting.”
Xena turned to reach for her chakram. “Got that right,” she said under her breath.
“We spend hours at camp – you messing with your weapons, me writing or talking. Are you bored?”
“That’s different. We already … care … about each other.”
“It didn’t just happen. You had your doubts, then I had mine. We took a chance anyway. Compromised when necessary. Committed to doing what’s best for us individually and together.” Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. “Xena! Maybe that’s it!”
Xena paused in polishing her chakram. “Oh, boy.”
“Of course they’re stuck in the old ways! How many good examples have they had? You know – to show them the payoffs. We could do that!”
Gabrielle stood and began pacing. “Everybody always wonders why we’re together. The big, bad stoic warrior. An idealistic peasant girl. They don’t understand all we share. How we work through our differences. The give and take.”
“It must seem like magic to them. Just the fact we’re here – those who know us figuring it’s because of me. Throwing in the fishing thing as a way to placate you.”
“Why, we might already be rubbing off on them.” Gabrielle stopped and clasped her hands. “Given them clues by simply going about our business. Sometimes together, sometimes not.” She looked at Xena. “I know this must sound crazy, but what if I’m right?”
“You talkin’ to me?” The warrior searched over her shoulder for an imaginary guest. “Wondered if I was still here.”
“I may know a way to tell.” Gabrielle absently chewed her lip, brain whirling. “Those notes. Solari said to keeping checking them. Some could be different tomorrow. Maybe they’ll reflect something they learned from us. What do you think?”
“Dumb, dumb, dumb,” Xena muttered, hitting her forehead.
“What?” Gabrielle looked crestfallen.
“I meant me. I knew this was a crock. Hadn’t figured on being cooked in it.”
The next morning, Solari concealed herself in the shadows, observing. The buzz among those near the wall suggested the notes she’d placed had been spotted. Now, if only a certain couple …. Her eyes lit up when she saw Gabrielle striding that way as if on some mission. But the young woman’s approach got interrupted by a series of Amazons. Some stopped for a brief chat. Others passed with a wink and a knowing nod. A few pressed something into Gabrielle’s hand before moving on. Finally a handful encircled the blonde and guided her to breakfast with them in the assembly hut.
“The best laid plans, eh?”
Solari glowered at Ephiny, who’d come up beside her. “So Gabrielle didn’t get to see. I can steer her over there later.”
“And her groupies? You don’t find that a little curious?”
“Why? She’s attractive. Can’t fault them for broadening their horizons.”
“Riiiight.” Eponin stuck her head in. “Gotta question doing it over Warrior Princess territory.”
Solari gritted her teeth. That potential complication hadn’t escaped her. “Sure, they’re joined at the hip. It’s not like they’ve publicly declared anything. Maybe the competition’ll – .”
Xena was striding toward the corral. An Amazon sidled up to whisper something to her as she passed by. When she entered to tend Argo, a couple more engaged her. One admiringly stroked the Palomino. The other made some comment and, laughing, slapped the warrior on her back. Three more hung over the fence and gestured toward the woods. Xena finally nodded and accompanied them in the direction they’d pointed.
“Okay, now I’m worried.” Solari waited for stragglers to head off for breakfast, then led the way to the wall. “What the ….”
“‘LOST SOULMATE: Short blonde seeks change from tall brunettes with blue eyes. Sexy look a plus.’”
Eponin read the second ad. “‘LALALALALA: Blue-eyed brunette searching for somebody other than green-eyed blondes. Martial art skills preferred.’”
“Those aren’t the notes we agreed on.”
“I can see that!” Solari snapped. “I put ours there last night. Somebody …. Crap.” She snatched down the notes. “Yeah, yeah. I know,” she huffed. “Leave it to Amazons to turn romance into a battlefield.”
Festivities that evening included dinner and dancing around the outdoor ceremonial fire pit. Several couples gazed at each other with more than the usual lust, many eventually strolling off in whispered conversation. Unattached women remained near the drum players. Some stood or sat moving sensuously to the beat, while others prowled seductively around them. Quite a few hovered near the guests of honor before the two finally bid good night and retired to their hut.
“Quite a day,” Gabrielle said, removing the jewelry that accompanied the Amazon leathers she’d worn for the occasion.
“Mm.” Xena pulled off her boots. “Been around plenty horny men. This was a first. Much quieter at least.”
“It’s called ‘romance,’ Xena.” Gabrielle stepped out of her skirt. “I don’t think it’s just wishful thinking. There’s something different. It really could be because of us.”
“Ah. Maybe that explains it.” Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Why you stayed glued to me all night?”
Gabrielle glanced up sharply from draping her clothes over a chair. “What?”
“Wondered if you needed protection at first.”
“A buffer. From your legions of admirers. But it was part of that ‘showing them an example’ thing, huh?” Xena raised a brow. “They were … practicing … on you?”
Gabrielle’s cheeks reddened. “Well, I did … chat … with a few of them. You know, about ways to appreciate each other better. I suppose it’s natural to form a little … crush … on the teacher.”
Xena casually propped on the bed. “Uh huh. Natural.”
Gabrielle pulled on her nightshirt, recalling the many shy – and not so shy – advances she’d received. Troublesome, but nothing she couldn’t handle or worth making a bigger deal than necessary. Especially with Xena around as a buffer. “What about you?” she asked casually. “I wasn’t the only one they had eyes for tonight. You attract a few new friends today?”
Xena nodded. “Big ones. Small ones. Some worth hauling in, others throwing back.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I’m not talking about fish, Xena.”
Xena smirked. “Me neither.” She scratched her chin. “Not sure I held up my half of the ‘example’ lesson. Somebody wanting me for ‘practice’ better have sparring in mind.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself.” Smiling, Gabrielle blew out the candles and settled next to Xena. “The more they get to know you – .”
“The more they’ll love me? Heh. Not this up close and personal.”
“We’ll see. You going out with them again tomorrow?”
Xena sighed. “Yeah. Unless you got something better in mind?”
Gabrielle sighed. “No. I’m doing the same. I am curious about how things went for them. You know, after they left the ceremony. Maybe you could do a little research too?”
“Not sure what I’m looking for yet, but I’ll give it a whirl.” Xena chuckled. “For Amazons, some of `em were almost as chatty as you.”
The small procession of women made their way through the dark to a clearing deep in the forest. Most sat on the grass. A couple posted themselves against nearby trees, on alert for possible intruders. They signaled “all clear.”
“This is too perfect.”
“Gotta admit, you were right. And here I thought this ‘luv’ stuff was a crock.”
“Not to Gabrielle. That’s what matters. She’s gonna give us more ‘tips’ tomorrow. Now all we gotta do is … discourage … the others sniffin’ `round her.”
“Yep, she was in hook, line and sinker.”
“Heh, same as Xena.”
“Pfft, if you’re countin’ trout. I swear, the woman wouldn’t catch a flirt `less it had a worm on the end.”
“Yeah, you’d think she’d notice folks hanging off Gabrielle. Doesn’t seem to phase her. Not sure we can count on jealousy driving them apart.”
“Think she’ll be a problem?”
“Nah. We’re goin’ out again in the mornin’. We’ll keep her busy enough.”
“Excellent. Couple more days, they’ll be right where we want them.”
“Might not hurt putting somebody on Xena’s tail. Maybe Tyra. She’s green enough not to ask too many questions.”
“What about the wager?”
“Yeah, any of ya maybe get close enough to score?”
“Depends. We talkin’ on the lips? Heh. Or in the back.”
Xena leaned against their guest hut, observing a gaggle of Amazons practically drag Gabrielle off to breakfast. If anyone had told her she’d witness these fierce warriors mooning over someone like peasant girls, she would’ve thought them delusional. This looked real all right. At least, for the most part. Some of it smacked of going through the motions to appear “romantic.” Xena shrugged. Like Gabrielle had said, this wasn’t something Amazons were used to. With any luck, they’d find somebody else to practice on soon enough.
The warrior caught sight of her own groupies lounging near the corral. Instead of heading that way, she ducked behind the hut and sprinted into the forest. She headed toward the farthest end of the river, intent on pursuing her favorite pastime in peace before being spotted.
Halfway there, she paused, knelt and pretended to retie her bootlaces. “You really gotta improve your approach,” she said, without looking up. “If you’re gonna sneak up on somebody like me.”
A few rustles of leaves later, Tyra appeared. She stood with her arms crossed and a disgusted expression. “Like what.”
Xena rose. “There are other creatures here besides humans. You expect `em to sit quietly while you prowl through their territory?”
“Nooo. I don’t expect `em to shut up on my command either.” Tyra cocked her head. “But I suppose you can do that too, huh?”
“Nooo. I listen. Pay attention to their habits. Move when they do. Worry less about staying close to my quarry, more on not letting `em hear me coming.”
Tyra stared at Xena, surprised as much by being addressed as if she had sense, as by the advice that also made sense. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Now we got that out the way, why’re you following me?”
“Um … making sure you don’t get lost?” Tyra winced at the warrior’s nonverbal response. “Kinda lame, huh?”
“Something else needs working on.” Xena raised a brow. “Actually, I’m kind of glad.” She walked over to a log and sat. She indicated Tyra should do likewise on a stump. “Somethin’ smells fishy. At the village, not the river. My nose tells me you can help clear that up.”
Tyra chewed her lip, pondering where her loyalties lay. Her sisters had trusted her, despite her junior status. She felt weird questioning their purpose, but admitted she too didn’t quite like the smell. Especially since it extended to the queen she happened to like. And to the imposing warrior who’d turned out to be a pretty decent sort.
“Tyra?” Xena waited for the girl’s attention. “If it involves Gabrielle, I need to know.”
Tyra blinked. Gradually realizing the warrior really was that good. She glanced over her shoulder. Satisfied they had privacy, she leaned forward. “I, um, don’t think anybody means harm. At the worst, maybe a prank.”
Xena stiffened. “Go on.”
“Well, see, they don’t really tell me much. Only what I need to know. Sort of like … instructions.”
“Just tell me what they asked you to do. I’ll figure out the ‘why’ from there.”
Tyra blew out a relieved breath. “Okay.” She propped her elbows on her knees. “You know how some people have their own little groups? There’s one we call the ‘Top Feathers.’” She snorted. “They act like they’re somehow better’n the rest of us. Not in skills so much. Like they know more. Stuff we’re too dumb to understand. They barely gave me the time of day, until after I came back from scouting you and Gabrielle.”
“It bother them? Us coming back?”
“Oh, no. They seemed glad. I figured it was because of the joining season.”
“The joining season? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You know – you and ….” Tyra ducked her head. “Um, in case you wanted to, um … participate … with us. I mean, along with us. Um, not that you had to stick to each – .”
“I get the point. So they asked you to do what?”
“That wall? Where you can put up notes about ….” Tyra shuddered. “Notes about what you’re interested in? Well, they had me take down a couple and put others up instead.” She took a deep breath. “It was a pretty good bet the notes were about Gabrielle. And you.” She dropped her chin and peered up at Xena. “I, um, don’t know who did the first ones,” she ventured, more like a question than a statement.
“Don’t worry about that,” Xena said, having a pretty good idea. “Keep going.”
“Uh, okay.” Tyra tried not to look disappointed. She reminded herself of the warrior’s reputation for being a private person. “Well, um – in case you don’t know? The first were about a blue-eyed brunette.” She cleared her throat. “Seeking a green-eyed blonde. And vice versa. The ones I put up had them seeking pretty much anybody but that.”
“I see. Your Top Feathers – they give a reason for the bait’n switch?”
“The …. Huh?”
“Oh. Um, they said it would ….” Tyra’s cheeks reddened. “It would ‘spice’ things up. Maybe people get too comfortable with the same thing. Bored. Change, a little competition, could, um, ‘rekindle old flames.’”
Xena digested this information with mixed emotions. It helped explain the hangers-on the two of them had acquired. The “why” remained a mystery, as she wasn’t buying the “wouldn’t it be nice to add more lovey-dovey” to their relationship angle.
“Xena? You think there’s something fishier?”
The warrior studied Tyra, trying to assess where the girl’s loyalties lay. “I do.”
“Something that could hurt Gabrielle?”
“I wouldn’t count that out.”
“Should we tell Ephiny?”
“I’d like to keep this between us for now. No sense stirring the pot more without a good reason.”
Tyra straightened. “My first responsibility is to my queen. Something should be done. I have to know it’ll be taken care of.” She raised her chin. “And be in on it.”
Xena nodded. “Oh, you will. Hook, lies and stinker.”
The original three conspirators sat in the queen’s hut grimly reviewing the undesired twists to their plan. Some of their sisters did indeed seem interested in learning about and taking a more romantic approach with prospective mates. Unfortunately, the candidates included two women who were supposed to be off limits. The switched “for their eyes only” notes suggested designs on keeping them apart.
“I’m not buying the prank motivation. Somehow somebody knew in advance what we were up to. It’s like they’re purposely using Solari’s ideas for their own purpose. A purpose I’m pretty sure we won’t like.”
“I agree with Ephiny. I’ve had my suspicions about certain individuals for awhile now.”
“The so-called ‘Top Feathers?’” Solari rolled her eyes. “So they act a little snooty and secretive sometimes. Other than that, what’s the harm?”
Eponin’s jaw clenched. “You didn’t notice how many of `em glommed on to Gabrielle? Same ones had their noses in the air last time she was here.”
“That is curious,” Solari acknowledged. “Could be her status. Maybe they want to get in good with her, in case she takes the royal mask again. Or be associated with somebody they see more on their ‘level.’” She drummed her fingers in irritation. “Whatever, there’s gotta be some way we can get back on track with Gabrielle and Xena.”
“You guys talked to `em, right? How’d it go?”
Ephiny reported catching a moment with Gabrielle that afternoon. Admitting they’d hoped the joining rituals would help bring her and Xena closer after whatever traumas they’d recently gone through. Expressing concern their admirers would distract them from giving each other sufficient attention.
“She said it was okay. Xena could probably use the space. Fishing with others who enjoyed it might help her relax, take her mind off ‘disappointments and failures.’” Ephiny put up a hand. “No, she didn’t go into further details about that. Just said she took solace in sharing lessons about love with her Amazon sisters.”
“Nothing about being good in the sack?”
“Typical.” Ephiny shot Eponin a look. “I did hint at the topic. A little more diplomatically than to your tastes.”
“Good for you. And?”
“Eh, she looked at me like I was nuts. ‘Xena’s the most beautiful, sensual, magnetic woman you could imagine. Almost anybody would find her attractive.’ Claimed the unique part was loving Xena for – and despite – what was inside.”
“Yeah, takes somebody special to see past the WP ‘package.’ Let alone find a hole in it.” Eponin shuddered. “Or want to.”
“Pretty much the same with Xena.” Solari chuckled. “Seems she shed her fishing buddies awhile. I caught her sneaking back to the guest hut before they zeroed in on her. Anyway, she thought all this might be good for Gabrielle. You know, having some ‘down time’ to spend on herself. Talking about what brings and keeps people together. Being reminded her spirit and philosophies can benefit others.”
“Gods. You saying that’s the ‘turn on’ for Xena? The mushy stuff?”
“Let’s just say she glossed over the nicely rounded but chiseled container it comes in.”
“Sounds like the opposite of our grand strategy.” Eponin snorted. “Might as well’ve left them to fend on their own. Whatever the distance between `em, wouldn’t’ve had a passel of horny – or weird – Amazons in the mix.” She regarded her colleagues with uncharacteristic thoughtfulness. “Guess they proved they are magnets. For trouble or love – either way, you better duck Lots of nails flyin’ at you from directions you wouldn’t expect.”
Ephiny scowled at the weapons master. “They’re our friends. We can’t ‘duck out’ on them. Especially since we had a hand in tossing these particular ‘nails.’”
“I agree. We need to go back to the drawing board.”
Eponin narrowed her eyes at Solari. “You got a better idea than the first one?”
“Not necessarily.” Solari grinned. “Only this time we make sure our girls see it.”
Nardia had nearly dozed off when she heard hushed voices. She could make out three figures in the semi-darkness, one carrying a torch. They ended up at the wall and tacked up a note. Recognizing who they were, she had a pretty good idea of their purpose. She gritted her teeth. She’d better rouse her girls. If she was right, they were about to lose the edge they’d counted on.
Eponin stood guard at the wall, shivering slightly in the dawn’s coolness. She’d be damned if anybody would mess with their plan this time. Soon Ephiny passed by. They nodded to each other, after which the weapons master watched the regent arrive at the guest hut and call quietly to the occupants. Some moments later, Gabrielle came out. The two headed toward Eponin.
“Ephiny, what on earth is so important you had to – .”
“Look.” Ephiny held the torch so they could see better. She pointed toward one of the notes.
“Really, Ephiny. I’m glad the sentiments have improved. But I can’t imagine any are worth – .”
“This one is. Trust me.”
Sighing with a bit of exasperation, Gabrielle squinted at the note indicated and began reading aloud. “‘LALALALALA: Blue-eyed brunette searching for green-eyed ….’” She leaned closer, then turned to Ephiny with disbelief. “Surely you’re not suggesting Xena did that.”
“You’re always saying she’s got a soft side people don’t get to – .”
“For one thing, her hand didn’t write it. For another –.”
“Solari talked with her yesterday. She didn’t reveal much, but it was about you.” Ephiny winked. “Not much slips past the WP, you know. She’s well aware you’re getting attention from everybody but her.”
“Ephiny, please. Just because we’ve had separate activities during the day doesn’t mean –.”
“All I’m saying is, it’s possible. Maybe Solari wrote it for Xena – her being so busy and all.”
“Well, there’s one way to settle this.” Gabrielle scowled at Ephiny. “And I’ll handle it my own way, thank you very much.”
“Of course.” Ephiny casually waved a hand. “Not like we want to interfere or anything. Just making sure you didn’t miss this.”
“Mm. If that’s all, I’d like to go back inside.” Gabrielle rubbed her arms. “I’d hoped Xena and I could at least have tea together before the usual troops arrive at our door.” She turned away, then threw a wry look over her shoulder. “No doubt you’ll want an update, hmmm?”
Ephiny feigned interest in another note on the wall. “Huh? Oh. Sure, if you want. No rush.”
Chuckling to herself, Gabrielle walked away. Unbeknownst to her, Solari had fetched Xena and led her the long way to the corral, purportedly because Argo seemed restless and might need exercise earlier than usual.
“Argo seems fine to me.”
“Huh. False alarm, eh? Sorry about that.” Solari was trying to come up with a way to delay Xena’s departure when she heard Eponin’s birdcall. “Um, got a minute? I need to check on something.” At Xena’s hesitation, she added, “Security stuff. Shouldn’t take long.”
Xena sighed. “Sure. Ephiny dragged Gabrielle off somewhere. We were gonna have tea together. Guess we’ll have time after she gets back.”
The two walked from the corral to where they spotted Eponin.
“I heard your signal. Something up?”
“Nothing bad. Just … interesting.” Eponin cocked her head. “Lucky Xena’s with you. Could be … interesting … to her too.” She brought a torch close to the wall. “There.”
Xena stared bemusedly at Eponin before turning her attention to the piece of parchment indicated. She read it silently, soon rolling her tongue in her cheek. “‘LOST SOULMATE,’ eh? Let me ease your minds. That’s not Gabrielle’s handwriting.”
“Hmmm.” Solari inspected the note. “Could be Ephiny’s. She mentioned chatting with Gabrielle yesterday. Seems your name came up. Something about distractions keeping you from more time with each other.” She rubbed her jaw. “Could be they decided she might use a little of her own advice. Maybe Ephiny helped, so Gabrielle would have time for her … appointments.”
“Mm.” Xena raised a brow. “Very convenient. And thoughtful of Ephiny.”
“Gotta admit – the preference for a sexy blue-eyed brunette? Mighty big coincidence,” Eponin added as if this just occurred to her.
“Uh huh.” Solari nodded in agreement. “Xena, what about you? Think it’s possible?”
“Oh, I think the ‘short blonde’ is supposed to be Gabrielle, all right,” Xena responded dryly. “The question is, does she know? Anyway, thanks for the heads up. I’ll look into it.” She turned and headed for the guest hut.
“Think she bought it?”
“What’s it matter?” Solari grinned. “If it wasn’t on their minds before, it is now. Some spicy intrigue for a bedtime chat.”
Xena pushed open the door flap. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the otherwise unoccupied room was Tyra. She rose to greet the warrior.
“They came for her. The Top Feathers. Said something about a beautiful new sunrise joining ceremony. She had to hurry if she didn’t wanna miss it.” Tyra felt Xena’s tension. She nodded. “Yeah, I don’t like it either.”
“You know where they took her?” Xena was already gathering her weapons.
“Their meeting place in the forest. I can show you.”
“No. Tell me how to get there. Let Ephiny know there might be trouble.” Xena’s lip curled. “Couple things I gotta do first.”
Gabrielle’s uneasiness grew as her escorts moved deeper into the forest. The fawning she’d tolerated previously now bordered on a rather puzzling indifference. Being Gabrielle, she graciously attributed the mood change to preoccupation with the new ritual. Eventually they pushed through thick vegetation into a small clearing. The sky had blued a little during their trek. She easily saw five women seated in a semi-circle. A small fire burned, with a stool beside it. One of the women stood.
“Welcome, Gabrielle. Glad you could participate. We’ve waited a long time for this opportunity. About a year, I believe.”
“Nardia? I thought ….” Gabrielle felt herself nudged toward the stool. She turned to see her three escorts drop to the ground behind her. “What’s going on?”
“Why, a joining.” Nardia exchanged looks with the others. “Probably a little different than what you had in mind.” She gestured toward the stool. “Please, have a seat. I’ll be happy to explain.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then sat, her senses on high alert. “Why do I get the feeling the ‘joining’ involves me?” A thought occurred to her. “Is this about me and Xena? Another ruse to get us ‘closer’? I told Ephiny – .”
“Oh, it involves you, all right. But not Xena.” Nardia smiled unpleasantly. “Unless it’s after both of you are in Tartarus.”
Gabrielle jumped up. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t intend to – .” She froze as suddenly the women got to their feet and made a tighter circle around her. Some had drawn weapons.
“Your intentions don’t matter anymore. They never should have.” Nardia sauntered up to Gabrielle. “Like when you robbed the queen’s mask from its rightful owner.” Her face contorted. “Velasca!”
Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. “Velasca?!”
“She was a true Amazon. Knew what we needed to survive and be strong. None of this … this ….” Nardia spat on the ground. “This lovey-dovey drivel you seek to infect us with. But it did serve a purpose. Finally gave us an excuse to get next to you. Made you and your protector vulnerable. We thought to drive you apart with jealousy. Play on your doubts and differences.” She shrugged. “It worked out anyway. Thanks to you.”
Gabrielle searched the faces that had so recently shown such fondness for her. She drew no confidence from the expressions on them now. “What are you going to do?”
Nardia raised her chin. “Some of us will get carried away, celebrating our partnerships. We’ll dance close to the sun. On that ridge high above the village. Tragically, you will fall to your death. Ephiny will become queen. By all rights, I should be the new regent. Should an accident befall her as well ….”
“You’ll be next in line.”
“And Velasca’s legacy will live on as it should.”
“And Xena? You expect her to let this happen? For grief to rob her of her senses if it does?”
“Ah, yes. Your beloved Warrior Princess. Something tells me she’s riding to your rescue this very moment. That she’ll get in the way of a hunting party. Catch an ‘accidental’ arrow.” Nardia sneered. “In the back. Tsk tsk. Another tragic death.”
“What the …?!”
The women ducked, heads turning in every direction, taking a defensive posture against some unseen attacker.
“There!” One of them pointed to an arrow pinning something to a tree. Crouching, she made her way over to investigate. “It’s a note!” She wrenched the arrow free and held up a small piece of parchment. The others gravitated toward her.
“What’s it say?”
“‘2 DIE 4: Tall, blue-eyed brunette seeks rendezvous with seekers of short, green-eyed blonde. Must be suicidal.’”
“You were right. I did catch that arrow. And I’m dyin’ to give it back.”
Gasping, the women peered up to see a dark-haired avenger perched on a limb above them, holding a bow nocked with another arrow. Gabrielle took advantage of their shock by easing to a spot away from where they had gathered.
“Give it up, Xena!” Nardia snatched out her knife. “We’ll kill her!” she shouted, signaling the others to advance on Gabrielle. “You can’t shoot us all!”
“Don’t have to. Just the first one who gets closest to her. Suppose I could clean up the rest of ya with my chakram.”
“Coward! Come down and fight like a warrior!”
“Nah. Saving myself for somethin’ better.” Xena winked at Gabrielle before lifting her head to give a loud birdcall. Amazon guards suddenly sprouted in and around the trees, armed with arrows aimed at the Top Feathers. Xena gazed up at the sky. “Now that’s what I call a beautiful sunrise joining party, hmmm?”
Gabrielle lay on her back soaking up the sun's warmth, coaxing her muscles to relax. Back in Poteidaia she’d dreamed of power to change the world. Becoming important enough to spawn enemies or potential evil? To nearly bring down the world’s greatest warrior? She hadn’t imagined that. But neither did her reveries include the kind of good she’d managed the past few days, like drawing out a poison that might have spread through her tribe, or helping her sisters value themselves and each other more fully. As to her effect on Xena ….
“You’re supposed to be napping. Not sure your eyeballs doing drills under those lids qualifies.”
“As opposed to brushing the hide off poor Argo?” Gabrielle turned to her side and absently watched Xena put away the mare’s grooming items. “I was thinking about our little side trip. Despite everything, I don’t regret it. You?”
“Eh, it worked out okay.” Xena dropped down, resigned to giving the nap thing a go. “Except for Nardia.” She held up a fist. “One punch. That might’ve spared ‘poor Argo.’”
“Ah. Banishment didn’t quite do it for you, eh?” Gabrielle fiddled with a blanket edge. “We could’ve done better about that in other respects as well.”
“Yeah?” Xena snickered. “Sorry you didn’t bop her too?”
“Keeping secrets. We were supposed to work on that, remember?”
“Secrets?” Xena paused in taking off a gauntlet. “What secrets?”
“I should’ve been more upfront about their flirting. It was more … excessive ... than I let on.” Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. “Even directed at someone as adorable as me. You would’ve had suspicions it wasn’t so innocent.”
Xena raised a brow. “I’m thickheaded, Gabrielle. Not blind. You gave `em the benefit of the doubt.” She snorted. “Not to mention minimizing the chances of a certain party going ballistic.” She put up her hand before Gabrielle could dispute that last point. “You took the sensible course. Didn’t make a problem where there wasn’t one.”
“Was that how it was for you? Why you didn’t say anything about the Top Feathers?”
“Eh, it was more a hunch. Related more to your … adorableness. I had no idea they’d turn out to be a bunch of renegade Velasca wannabes. Lucky for us, Tyra was a decent scout after all.”
“Yup.” Xena ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. “Think we’d better add ‘oversensitive’ to our list of things to work on. Trust that not everything’ll blow up into evil gods and emperors.”
Gabrielle shuddered. “Between them and the Furies …. I’m looking forward to getting back to warlords, assassins and petty criminals.” She rolled to her back. “Besides, seems we’ve got plenty of others monitoring our relationship. Amazing the interest they take. The extent, I mean. Poor things wanted to fix something they must’ve thought missing. They looked so disappointed when we left pretty much the same.”
“Pfft. As if they’re experts on what to look for.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Can you picture our warrior friends obsessing about romance? It’s a wonder Eponin’s brain didn’t explode.”
“Thank the gods they do better with battle strategy.”
“Although …. Solari may have stumbled onto something with those notes. Bringing desires out into the open like that? It does give people a way to share that’s not so scary.”
“Mm. Funny you should mention that.” Xena reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a small piece of parchment. “Found this tacked to a tree, over there by Argo.”
Gabrielle blinked innocently. “You did?”
“Uh huh. Seems I have a secret admirer. Xena’s finger caressed the familiar script. “Listen to this. ‘LOST SOULMATE: Short blonde seeks tall, blue-eyed brunette. Grumpy and relentless acceptable. Forgiving and patient preferred.’” Her eyes twinkled. “Evidently somebody I’ve been around way too long. We’re starting to think alike.” She grinned smugly at Gabrielle's perplexed expression, then pointed her chin at a large bush behind them.
Eyes suspiciously on Xena, Gabrielle crawled to the bush. She bit her lip when she spotted something stuck between the leaves. “Hmmm. Guess you’re not alone in the secret admirer department.” She crawled back to the blanket. Fondly tracing the bold letters, she read aloud, “‘LALALALALA: Blue-eyed brunette searching for green-eyed blonde. Open-hearted and idealistic a plus. Must be forgiving.’”
The blue eyes held the green ones a long moment. Each woman silently acknowledging remorse for times she’d fallen short of her partner’s expectations, regret for the probability it would happen again. Joy at how often she’d managed to come through. More confidence in the good possibility she’d be loved either way.
Xena scooted around, facing away from Gabrielle. “Think I'm ready now for that R&R,” she said, stretching her legs out.
“I’m with ya.” Gabrielle positioned herself behind the larger body, her legs flanking Xena’s. She began loosening the warrior’s battle bustier. “Even these ‘normal’ adventures can wear a girl out.” She waggled her feet. “Think my toes could use some air.” She propped a leg over Xena’s knee.
Xena untied Gabrielle’s bootlaces. “Mind you, pursuing something is okay. The excitement. Mystery. Testing whether you've got the heart for it. Humpf. I practically lived off that in the past.”
“Me too, though more in my head.” Gabrielle rearranged the dark hair to expose broad shoulders. She slipped her fingers under the bustier straps, slowly pushing them down.
“Lately, I’ve come to appreciate the opposite more.” Xena’s hands grazed the smooth skin revealed under the boot she tugged off. “You know, finding what you’re after, right under your nose?”
“Mmhm. Like a present under the Solstice tree,” Gabrielle murmured, kneading the muscles of a strong back.
“Mmhm.” Xena massaged a well-shaped calf. “Seems what they say about gifts is true.” She gazed over her shoulder, eyes posting a message well worth noting. “The best part is getting to unwrap them.”