Xena woke up before Gabrielle but not before Cor, who grinned at her widely as he watched her extract herself from the tangle of Gabrielle's arms and legs. "She was having nightmares and couldn't sleep," Xena said, as she rose. Dusting off her leathers and slipping on her armor, she shot him a look that warned him to mind his own business.
Cor nodded and smiled, before tossing her some trail rations to eat, as the two of then began packing up the camp. Not a single word was spoken about what had happened the night before. When they were nearly finished, Xena went to wake Gabrielle. She handed the bard her breakfast and then carefully examined her friend's ankle. She was gratified to see that the swelling was gone, although she warned the young woman that it still needed more time to heal. "Guess that means Argo then, huh?" Gabrielle asked, looking at the mare with a decided lack of enthusiasm.
"Yup," Xena replied with a grin, as she helped Gabrielle to rise to her feet. The trio took a few minutes to tend to last minute details, including a short trip into the bushes for Gabrielle, and then they were ready to go. Xena helped Gabrielle over to Argo, where Cor joined them so that he could lift the bard up onto the horse behind Xena. Gabrielle reached around her friend's waist and laced her fingers together, leaning forward against the warrior's back, as she sought to get comfortable. She sighed contentedly when she felt the warmth of her friend slowly permeate her skin and had to admit that riding on Argo had a few advantages.
They only traveled for about half a day before they decided to make camp, since Xena had no intention of pushing Gabrielle too hard. Once they stopped, Xena again checked the bard's ankle and was relieved to see that there was still no evidence of swelling. Gabrielle took a few tentative steps on it and announced that there was hardly any pain at all. Still, Xena insisted that she continue to stay off it as much as possible. Eventually, though, she relented somewhat and, after obtaining a promise from her young friend that she would be careful, she agreed to let Gabrielle set up camp while she and Cor went to hunt and scout the area.
Xena had set up several snares and already managed to catch a rabbit but, considering the way that Cor and Gabrielle ate, she doubted that one rabbit would be sufficient. As she wandered around looking for edible plants, she heard the sound of splashing water to her right. Heading in that direction, she came to the edge of a large lake. She saw Cor's armor and clothes lying on the shore and, as she watched the calm surface of the water, Cor swam into view.
"Finished scouting?" Xena asked with a sly smile.
"More or less," Cor said grinning sheepishly. "The water just looked so damned inviting, that I couldn't resist." He swam closer. "Come on Xena, join me. The water's perfect."
"No thanks....," she started to reply, when he suddenly lunged forward, splashing her with water and nearly drenching her in the process. Her eyes narrowed as she watched him slowly swim away from her with a cocky grin on his face. "Okay...now you've asked for it," she said, laughing as she began to remove her armor and weapons.
She carefully hung up her armor and placed her weapons near the shore. Removing her shift, she tossed it aside and then dove into the lake. Cor swam in circles, while he tried to figure out what Xena's next move would be, a problem made more difficult to solve since Xena continued to swim underwater. Suddenly, he felt her hand on his foot. Before he could react, she had jerked him below the water's surface and then kicked away out of his reach once more. He re-emerged, sputtering with indignation, only to see Xena a short distance away laughing at him. "Payback Cor. You know I always pay you back." Still smiling, she began to swim towards the opposite shore, as Cor shook his head and began to give chase.
The two swam for a while, enjoying the chance to relax and wash a bit of the trail dust from their bodies. Eventually, though, Xena realized that they needed to get back to camp before Gabrielle grew worried about them. "Come on Cor. I'll race you to the shore," she challenged. Seeing Cor's nod of assent, she waited until he was ready before giving the start signal.
Gabrielle quickly finished setting up the camp and collected more than enough wood for the night. She soon began to get bored and a little concerned, as she waited for her two traveling companions to return. Finally, after checking the bedrolls for the third time, she decided to do a bit of scouting on her own. Leaning on her staff, she headed into the forest. She moved as carefully as she could, knowing that Xena would be furious with her if she were to trip and reinjure her ankle. She knew that she was probably being foolish to worry about two people as capable as Cor and Xena. On the other hand, she had been made aware of Xena's mortality and frailty on more occasions than she liked to recall.
She heard the sound of splashing water and, after walking a short distance and moving in the direction of the noise, she came to a fairly open area overlooking a lake. She could see Xena and Cor rapidly swimming in her direction and, while she watched, she saw Xena reach the shore several seconds before Cor. Both stepped out of the water and, to Gabrielle's surprise, they were completely naked. As they stood talking to one another for several moments without reaching for their clothes, she realized that they were either very used to the sight of one another's bodies, or they were the two least self-conscious people she had ever known! She snapped back to attention when she saw Xena playfully punch Cor. Feeling guilty but unable to stop herself, she listened to their conversation.
"You are slooooow Cor," Xena teased.
Cor grinned at her evilly. "Slow, but I have lots of endurance. Haven't had one complaint yet."
"Glad to hear it; because it's going to come in handy. I won. I demand payment, and you know what I want." Xena smiled sensuously, while she trailed a finger down Cor's arm and then slowly sank to the ground to look up at him.
Gabrielle's face flamed with embarrassment. Backing away as fast as she could, she turned and began to hurry back towards the camp site. The last thing she heard before she left was Cor's deep voice replying, "You're right Xena. I know exactly what you want."
Cor knelt beside Xena as she rolled over onto her stomach. Slowly, expertly, he began kneading the knotted muscles of her shoulders and back, occasionally using his knowledge of pressure points to relieve even more of the tension. Soon Xena was groaning with pleasure, luxuriating in the feel of Cor's strong hands moving over her body. "By the gods Cor. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but you've gotten even better at this," she finally managed to say.
Chuckling, Cor leaned down closer to her. "That's because I've had a lot of practice. Sairen was a sucker for a good backrub. It's one of the few things you two had in common."
"That and the fact that we both hated to cook. Of course, in Sairen's case, that was more self preservation than anything else." Xena smiled contentedly, as Cor's hands continued their relentless assault. "Do you remember that stew' he made for us? If he hadn't been serving you too, I would have sworn he was trying to poison me!"
Cor laughed at the memory. "Yeah, I quickly learned that I had to do all the cooking if we were going to survive. Relying on Sairen to do the cooking would have meant certain starvation!"
Xena was quiet for several moments. "Cor, I never said this to you before but I'm sorry. I'm sorry I tried to come between you and Sairen. He was a good man and he truly loved you."
"I know Xena, I know. And if things had been different, I never would have left you, but that life....," his voice trailed off.
Xena knew what he was thinking, could hear the regret in his voice and felt it deep inside herself as well. Her refusal to give up her life as a warlord had cost her Cor's friendship. She just thanked The Fates that she'd been given the opportunity to set things right with him again.
Not wanting to dwell on the past, Cor decided to change the subject. "I'm guessing you haven't had a decent massage in some time, huh?" Seeing her nod, he continued, "So why haven't you taught Gabrielle how to give backrubs? After all, I know you'd much rather have her doing this than me."
Cor felt Xena's muscles tense beneath his fingers, before she rolled onto her side to look up at him. "What are you saying?" she asked guardedly.
"Come on Xena, this is me remember? I've seen the way you look at her when you think no one is watching. I've heard how your voice softens whenever you talk about her. And I saw your reaction when you realized she was hurt yesterday and days ago in Trezine. I know you, and I know you're in love with her."
Xena's voice had an edge to it as she replied. "That's ridiculous Cor. You don't have any idea what you're talking about." She stood up and angrily began to dress. "Gabrielle and I are friends. Nothing more," she snapped.
Cor watched her, trying not to laugh. "Oh, I know that. What I don't understand is why you're only friends, when it's obvious you want to be so much more," he said, before rising to his feet and beginning to get dressed as well.
"Cor you don't....," Xena stopped when she met his gaze. Turning away to pick up her weapons, she sighed deeply, collecting herself. Emotions back under control, she quietly asked, "Look, even if I did want that, what difference would it make? Gabrielle isn't interested in me, or any other woman, that way. She prefers men. Are you forgetting that she was married?"
Cor shrugged. "Big deal. You've been with your share of men in the past. You were even engaged once as I recall. You've always been attracted to both men and women, why shouldn't Gabrielle be the same?"
"She's not Cor. She's been attracted to I don't know how many men since we've been traveling together. I've never seen her pay even the slightest bit of attention to any woman."
Except you Xena,' Cor thought to himself. She watches every move you make.' Aloud he said, "Maybe she just doesn't realize that it's okay. Maybe it just hasn't occurred to her that she'd be happier with a woman than with all those men she keeps flirting with. Maybe...."
"Enough!" Xena glared at him. "I know how she feels. She married Perdicus. She chose him over me, remember? She considers me a friend and nothing more."
"I remember, but frankly, I don't think it proves a thing."
Now completely exasperated with his stubbornness, Xena rolled her eyes. "And why not?"
"Okay. Bear with me for a moment. Gabrielle married the same man that she ran away from, right?" Seeing Xena nod, he continued. "She sees this guy in Troy. He's a brave soldier, not that simple farmer she remembers, and maybe she sees something that attracts her to him, something she didn't see before. Am I right?" Xena shrugged, not really seeing any point to all this. "Then, months later, he shows up out of the blue and asks her to marry him. He's giving up the sword and he's going back to the farm. She thinks about it for awhile and then says yes. Now what I'd like to know is, did she talk to you about him before she agreed to marry him?"
"A couple of times."
"Uh huh. And what did you tell her?"
"I figured she was concerned about leaving me so I told her not to worry, that I'd be fine. Her happiness was what was important."
"Wow. You know, I think that's pretty much the exact opposite of what you said to me," he said sarcastically.
"And we both know how well that worked, don't we?" she said, equally as sarcastically.
"You weren't in love with me, and we both know that that was a completely different situation," he replied, refusing to be baited.
"So what's your point Cor?"
"My point? My point is that the man she agreed to marry was certainly not the exciting soldier type she saw in Troy. He was the same simple farmer she never wanted to marry in the first place."
"People change Cor. She obviously changed her mind."
"Riiiiiight," he said skeptically. "She decided in what, one day, that she was ready to go back and be that guy's wife? Did it ever occur to you that maybe she was waiting for you to tell her to stay?" He paused for a moment, waiting for Xena to respond, but she continued to glare silently at him. His voice took on a decidedly mocking quality as he continued. "Must have been one tough decision for her. Perdicus or Xena? Who should I pick? The one who tells me he needs me and can't live without me or the one who tells me she doesn't need me and not to give our relationship a second thought. Poor Gabrielle. I'm amazed she was able to make a decision like that."
"Go to Hades Cor! It wasn't like that and you know it!" Xena snapped.
"No, probably not. But I'd wager everything I have that that's how it felt to Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle knows how I feel about her. She knows she's important to me," Xena protested angrily.
Cor chuckled sadly. "You're not exactly the most open person in the world Xena. Besides, even if she knows how you feel, everyone occasionally needs to hear the words said. Words are important to people like Gabrielle. Trust me on this, I went round and round on it with Sairen." He reached out to place a friendly hand on her shoulder but she scowled at him and stomped away, too furious to listen. With a sigh, he gathered the rest of his things and headed back to camp. "What a pleasant evening this is going to be," he muttered ruefully.
When he got to the campsite, Cor wasn't particularly surprised to see that Xena had not yet returned. Thinking about how mad she had been when she'd left him, he realized that they would be lucky if she showed up before morning. Cor grinned when he thought about her reaction to his comments, and chuckled to himself as he realized that, despite the fact that Xena prided herself on maintaining her cool, she had completely lost it where Gabrielle was concerned.
Gabrielle was somewhat surprised to see Cor returning to the camp by himself, but then assumed that, since Xena had chosen not to return with him, she didn't want Gabrielle to know about the two of them. Well two can play at that game,' she thought to herself. If she doesn't say anything, then I won't either.' "You're back. Find anything interesting?" she asked Cor brightly, then began to blush when she heard her own words.
Cor noticed her flush but couldn't think of any reason for it. "Not much. The area looks safe enough. If you want to take a swim, I did find a lake a short distance to the west." To his surprise, he saw her cheeks redden even further, before she quickly turned away from him, busying herself with mundane chores
Gabrielle tried to regain her composure, certain that Cor would soon realize she had seen him and Xena swimming in the lake. "Maybe later," she finally managed to say, her voice sounding strained even to her own ears.
Cor nodded, before moving over to his bedroll and beginning to take off the majority of his armor. After carefully inspecting it for wear and tear, he began repairing several of the straps and polishing the metal, a daily ritual that always helped him to focus his thoughts. Xena returned to their camp about half an hour later. She had regained control of her emotions, but Cor could tell from her movements and expression that she was still angry with him. Shrugging it off, knowing she'd get over it soon enough, he offered to take the rabbits she had caught and start cooking their meal. Xena hesitated for a moment before wordlessly thrusting the animals in his direction and going to check on Argo. Doing his best not to laugh at her behavior, Cor quickly cleaned the game and began supper.
Gabrielle watched the entire exchange without a word. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn that Xena was angry at Cor, but that didn't make much sense after what she had witnessed earlier. Maybe she just doesn't know what to do with me around,' she thought. Xena probably wants to be alone with him and I'm getting in the way.'
Cor knew that Gabrielle was bothered by something but, try as he might, he couldn't figure out what it could be. As he cooked their meal, he began talking to her about inconsequential matters, trying to draw her out of the strange mood she was in. Fortunately, Gabrielle responded, and soon was telling him one of the many stories she had learned during her time at the Academy.
Gabrielle knew Cor was concerned about her and, despite herself, once again found that she was warming to him. He was a good man and normally she would be ecstatic about a friend of hers finding someone like this to share her life with. It was just that this time she was about to lose her best friend in the world, and she couldn't help feeling a bit sad and even a little jealous at the prospect of losing Xena. Suddenly, Gabrielle caught herself. Jealous?' she asked herself silently. That doesn't make any sense. I'm not jealous of her chance to be happy am I? No...I know that's not it. I want her to be happy. I just...I just want her to be happy with me.' Thunderstruck, Gabrielle tried to understand what it was that she was thinking, what she was feeling. With me? What in the world do I....'
Xena's return interrupted Gabrielle's thoughts. "Supper ready yet?" she asked, before tossing several saddlebags to the ground.
"Almost, it will be done as soon as Gabrielle finishes her story," Cor replied with a friendly grin.
Thoughts in a whirl, Gabrielle hastily finished her story, too confused by her latest chain of thought to really concentrate on what she was saying. Smiling apologetically at Cor, she promised another story later, hoping by that time she would have sorted out her feelings.
Supper was a relatively quiet affair, since both Xena and Gabrielle were absorbed in their own thoughts. Cor cleaned up afterwards and then announced he was in the mood for another swim. Seeing that neither of the other two was interested in accompanying him, he shrugged and headed towards the lake alone, whistling cheerfully as he went.
Gabrielle was a bit surprised that Xena hadn't chosen to go with Cor, but was definitely happy that she had decided to stay. As she walked over towards the saddlebags, she noticed Xena was watching her intently. "Is there something wrong Xena?"
With a start, Xena realized that she had been staring at her friend. "No, I was just uh...." Frantically, she tried to think of something to say that would explain what she'd been doing. "Uh, I was just noticing that you're still limping. Is your ankle bothering you?"
"Oh, yeah, I guess it is a little. It's just a little sore though, nothing serious."
Xena rose and walked over to where Gabrielle was now sitting and gracefully sat down in front of her. She examined her friend's ankle carefully and was relieved to see that it appeared to be fine. Smiling slightly, she slowly began to massage it, knowing that it was the best possible medicine for aches and pains like this.
Gabrielle sighed blissfully when she felt Xena's strong fingers pressing against her ankle, relieving the ache with practiced skill. Slowly the pain began to recede and, as it did, she became keenly aware of the feel of Xena's gentle fingers against her flesh. Her skin was tingling everywhere that Xena touched, and delicious waves of heat were beginning to course through her body. She felt her heart begin to pound and her head start to spin. It was as if her whole universe centered around Xena and the amazing sensations that her touch was causing her to experience. She swallowed hard as she looked at the warrior, wanting to say something, or maybe ask for something, although she wasn't sure what. In fact, she wasn't sure about anything at the moment.
Despite her best intentions, Xena's eyes began to stray to Gabrielle's supple calves, while her mind traveled even further up to her thighs, her hips, her.... Wrenching her thoughts from the direction they were taking, Xena ordered herself to relax, but she might as well have tried to order the sun not to rise. Her throat was beginning to constrict, making breathing difficult, and she could feel herself starting to tremble. "Better?" she asked tightly, knowing that if she didn't get away from Gabrielle right away, she was liable to lose control completely. Rising unsteadily to her feet, she slowly moved a safe distance away, taking several deep breaths to calm her wildly beating heart.
Trying not to show her disappointment, Gabrielle simply nodded, before turning and pulling a scroll out of one of the saddlebags. By the gods,' she thought. What just happened to me? I've never felt like that before in my entire life.' Realizing that she was shaking too badly to work on the story she had been composing earlier, she sat for several long minutes while she tried to understand what was wrong. Xena was her friend, her best friend, but still just a friend. Why in the world should she react like that to a friend? As her shaking subsided, she unrolled the scroll and began working on the story, hoping to clear her mind by focusing on her craft. Deep down, however, she knew that this was a futile effort at best.
After an hour or so had passed, Cor returned to the camp looking refreshed and content, a sharp contrast to Gabrielle and Xena. Noticing the rather stiff smile that Gabrielle gave him and the studious way Xena ignored him, Cor wondered to himself just what had been going on while he was gone. Seeing Xena sharpening her sword, he decided to do the same and was soon surrounded by his weapons. He began to clean and polish each in turn.
Xena slowly sharpened her blade, grateful for something to keep her occupied. She barely acknowledged Cor's return, not yet ready to deal with him. Unfortunately, sharpening a sword was something she had had years of practice at, and therefore it required very little of her attention. She felt her eyes drawn to Gabrielle, and covertly watched the young bard while she worked on her latest creation. She smiled when she saw the frown of concentration on Gabrielle's face, as she tried to come up with exactly the right word. Even though she had long since memorized all of Gabrielle's features, she once again felt the need to lose herself in contemplation of the bard's form. Her eyes trailed down Gabrielle's face to her graceful neck and then lower still to her breasts, where they lingered for several timeless moments. Taking a deep breath, she forced her eyes to continue their journey and slowly they traveled down to Gabrielle's bare midriff and graceful legs, before languidly moving back up. Her breathing was becoming ragged and she knew she was staring, but somehow she couldn't find the will to look away. A sound from the other side of the camp finally drew her attention from the young woman. Looking in that direction, she saw Cor smirking at her with knowing eyes and realized that he'd seen her staring at Gabrielle. Feeling more embarrassed than she had ever felt before, she jumped to her feet, anger pouring out of her. Seeing Gabrielle's surprise at her sudden movement, Xena muttered, "I'm going to check the perimeter. I'll be back later," she finished, before sheathing her sword and storming off.
Xena walked aimlessly into the forest, not particularly caring where she went, knowing only that she needed to get away from Cor and Gabrielle. Finally, after putting a considerable distance between herself and the campsite, she slumped against a tree, frustrated with her inability to control her emotions and desperately needing to regain her focus. She sat quietly for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the night, before she unwillingly began to think about what had just happened back at the camp.
When did it happen? When did that little girl I rescued from Draco's men become so important to me? When did I...when did I fall in love with her?' she asked herself. Xena sighed, not knowing the answer to the question but knowing that, no matter how hard she tried to deny it, it was true. She was in love with Gabrielle - completely, totally, hopelessly.
Thinking that it was a good thing Cor wasn't around at the moment, because she would have cheerfully strangled him, Xena sat back and considered what to do next. She had three basic options. First, she could tell Gabrielle how she felt and hope the bard felt the same. Second, she could keep her mouth shut and part ways with her friend, either permanently or temporarily, and hope that she could fall out of love with her. Third, she could keep her mouth shut and learn to live with loving Gabrielle but having her always out of reach. As Xena considered her choices, she immediately rejected the first one. I already know how she feels. If I tell her how I feel, it will either alienate her or make her pity me, and I couldn't live with either of those.' Unfortunately, eliminating that option meant that she was left with either leaving Gabrielle and being miserable without her, or keeping her around and being miserable with her. I should send her away. She'd definitely be safer and she'd most likely be happier.' Xena sighed heavily. May The Fates forgive me, I'm not strong enough to do it. I'd rather learn to live with wanting her and knowing she's out of reach. I can't risk losing her for good by telling her the truth.' Decision made, Xena felt a portion of her earlier tension ease. Right or wrong, at least now she had a plan for how to handle the situation. Knowing that she still wasn't ready to return to the campsite, she remained under the tree for another hour, fantasizing that she had chosen to tell Gabrielle the truth, and that Gabrielle felt the same way about her.
The next day, Xena let Gabrielle sleep in, partly because she was still a bit concerned about her injury, but mainly because she wanted to put off talking to her for as long as possible. Eventually, though, she began the laborious process of waking the bard so that they could leave. As she watched Gabrielle looking around sleepily, trying to focus on where she was, Xena's breath caught in her throat. If there had been any lingering doubt in her mind as to whether or not she was actually in love with Gabrielle, it was instantly erased. Gabrielle had never looked more beautiful than she did at that moment and Xena had to fight the urge to kneel down next to her and take the young woman in her arms. Shaking herself slightly as she tried to drive those thoughts from her mind, she told Gabrielle that they were nearly ready to leave and handed her some food to carry with her. "You can eat breakfast while we travel," she said, before moving over to Argo to recheck their gear.
Gabrielle nodded, before stretching deeply and rubbing her eyes. She stood up carefully, feeling the stiffness in her ankle that had returned during the night. Looking around, she could see that Xena had already packed their things and kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire, leaving nothing left for her to do. As she reached down to pick up her staff, she noticed Xena and Cor speak briefly before Xena swung onto Argo and took off down the road. Cor smiled as Gabrielle approached, then frowned when he noticed she was still limping a little. "Are you going to be all right?" he asked, concern evident in his voice.
Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at him. "I'm fine. It just stiffened up overnight. It'll be okay as soon as I walk on it some."
Cor looked at her doubtfully. "Are you sure? We can wait here until Xena gets back if you want. She just went to scout ahead, but she'll be back soon enough. Or I could probably catch up with her before she gets too far...."
"Really Cor, it's no problem. If it starts to bother me too much I promise I'll stop."
"Okay, if you say so, but only if you also promise to defend me if Xena gets mad at me for letting you walk like this."
"I promise," she said laughing, before almost immediately launching into a story. They traveled slowly and took frequent breaks. Gabrielle knew that Cor was deliberately taking his time because of her, and she appreciated his thoughtfulness. After a couple of hours, they saw Xena rapidly approaching on Argo. As the warrior drew nearer, Gabrielle could see the troubled expression on her friend's face and realized that Xena had grown worried by their slow pace.
Xena quickly swung off Argo. "Gabrielle are you all right? You're still limping." Xena berated herself for leaving so quickly that morning, but she'd thought some time alone on the road would help to clear her mind. Any peace she had attained, though, had been shattered when she saw Gabrielle limping alongside Cor.
"I'm fine Xena, really. My ankle is still just a little sore, but it will be all right. Don't worry about it."
Xena knelt beside her and carefully examined her ankle. "Well it doesn't look swollen." Standing back up, she went back to get Argo and then led the mare to Gabrielle, "There's no reason to push it though. You can ride on Argo again today. Tomorrow you should be fine."
"Xena, I don't need to ride Argo. I'll be okay," Gabrielle protested.
"I know you will, but it doesn't make sense to overdo it. Which would you prefer? Ride Argo for another day and let your ankle heal properly, or walk on it and be in pain for the next several days while it slowly mends?"
Gabrielle grimaced. "The correct answer here is probably supposed to be ride Argo', isn't it?" she asked mournfully. "All right, you win. I'll ride."
Xena hid a smile as she jumped onto Argo and then helped the reluctant bard up behind her. As she felt Gabrielle's arms circle her waist, however, she immediately realized the mistake she had made. She wasn't ready for this yet; her feelings were still too raw and uncontrolled to have Gabrielle this close. Now, though, she had no choice but to grit her teeth and deal with it and somehow hope that she didn't make a complete fool out of herself before the day was over.
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully. Xena, however, longed for something, anything, to take her mind off Gabrielle and the way that having her so close was making her feel. The bard's touch was slowly driving her insane. The softness of her breasts pressed against Xena's back was becoming harder and harder to ignore, as was Gabrielle's warm breath on the back of her neck. When the bard shifted positions and momentarily rested her hand on Xena's thigh, the warrior had had enough. Pulling Argo up abruptly, she announced in a strained voice that it was time to stop for lunch and then quickly helped Gabrielle down from Argo. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she hesitated before jumping off Argo and leading the mare to a shady spot where she could graze. She deliberately lingered with the horse before returning to Gabrielle and Cor. Leaning back against a tree, she forcefully reminded herself to focus, while she tried to tune out Gabrielle and Cor's conversation, determined that she would not lose control again the way that she had the night before.
All too soon, Xena realized that it was time to get moving again. Gabrielle sighed resignedly, as Xena led Argo towards her and then waited expectantly for the warrior to get on first. Xena, however, had learned her lesson all too well. Shaking her head, she calmly said, "I'm not riding this time Gabrielle. You can ride Argo by yourself. I'll help you up."
Gabrielle gave her friend a startled look. "By myself? Xena I don't....," Gabrielle began to protest.
Xena held up her hand to cut the young woman off. "Gabrielle, I don't want to tire Argo out. I can walk beside you. You'll be fine." Carefully lifting Gabrielle into the saddle, she turned and grabbed the reins, catching sight of Cor as she did so. Glaring briefly at him and his smug expression, she began walking down the road.
Gabrielle uneasily clutched the saddle horn as she rode along. It was bad enough riding Argo in the first place, but to have to ride him without Xena there to help hold her on, was much, much worse. Gabrielle knew something more than just her usual troubles was bothering her friend. She had felt it in the tension of her muscles as they rode; she had thought Xena was going to jump out of her skin when she had briefly touched the warrior's thigh. She could see it in other ways too. Every time that Gabrielle got near her, Xena almost imperceptibly pulled away, as if she was trying to distance herself from the bard. Gabrielle tried to recall if she had done or said anything that could have upset the warrior, but could come up with nothing. There seemed to be only one logical explanation; Xena wanted to spend more time with Cor and less time with her and, no matter how hard she tried, she kept coming back to that explanation. The more she thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed, and the angrier she became. Xena should at least have the decency to just come out and tell her the truth. She couldn't believe that, after all the time they had spent together, Xena apparently didn't even think she deserved that much. It was obvious what was going on and Gabrielle knew that it was just a matter of time before Xena decided that she didn't want her around at all anymore.
The afternoon passed by as uneventfully as had the morning. By the time they stopped for the evening, Gabrielle was furious with her friend. She allowed Xena to help her down from Argo but then stiffly pulled away from her and walked off without a word. Camp was set up with a minimum of discussion, since both Gabrielle and Xena were lost in their own thoughts. Cor had no clue as to what he could say that wouldn't result in one, or both, of them biting his head off. For her part, Xena was beyond confused as to the reason for Gabrielle's behavior. Something was obviously upsetting the young bard, and Xena didn't think it was just the fact that she'd been forced to ride a horse. For once she was grateful for Cor's presence, since it kept her from having to be alone with Gabrielle, something she definitely wasn't ready for yet.
Once supper was finished and darkness had fallen, what little conversation there had been ground to a halt. Cor made a few abortive attempts to get Gabrielle to tell one of her stories, but he soon realized it was useless to try. Feeling the tension in the air getting thicker and thicker, he decided that it would be best if he left for a while. If nothing else, it might get the two women to start talking about what was bothering them. "I'm going to check the perimeter," he announced flatly, as he picked up his scabbard and strapped it to his side.
Xena felt panic beginning to rise within her at the thought of being left alone with Gabrielle. "You don't need to do that Cor. The area is secure," she said, desperately willing him to stay.
"That's okay, I'll enjoy the walk. See you two later," he said casually, as he hastily ducked into the trees, knowing that he needed to leave quickly before Xena tried to stop him again.
Xena sighed to herself as she stared into the fire. Gabrielle was sitting across from her and she could see the firelight dancing across the planes of the bard's face, as she gazed into the fire as well. Knowing that, if she wasn't careful, she would begin to stare at Gabrielle in the same way that she had the night before, she decided to take the bull by the horns. At the very least, talking about what was upsetting the bard would keep her mind off what was troubling her. "Gabrielle, is there something you want to talk about?" she began hesitantly, breaking the silence that was building around them.
Gabrielle was startled by Xena's question. "No, not really," she mumbled, still focusing on the campfire.
Perfect,' Xena thought. Of all the bad habits I have, she picks up being moody and staring into campfires.' Xena tried again gently. "Gabrielle, I know there's something wrong...I want to help if I can, but you have to tell me what's bothering you."
Gabrielle's rage suddenly exploded. "What's bothering me? What's bothering me? You are what's bothering me Xena, and I can't believe you have the gall to sit there and tell me you want to help."
Utterly confused by the bard's response, Xena just stared at her for several seconds. "I'm what's bothering you? Gabrielle, I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Do you think I'm blind? I've seen the way you've been looking at me, how you've been acting towards me the past couple days. Do you want to deny it or do you understand what I'm talking about?"
Xena's blood ran cold. Her worst case scenario had just come true. Gabrielle knew she was in love with her and was furious. "No I won't try to deny it," she said quietly. "Gabrielle I'm sorry...it just happened. I didn't plan on it, didn't realize it until I was in over my head. But it doesn't mean anything has to change...."
"Of course it does! It changes everything!" Gabrielle took a deep breath, calming herself down. "Just tell me one thing Xena. When were you planning on telling me about you and Cor?"
Not following Gabrielle's line of thought at all, Xena paused, trying to figure out what in the world she was talking about. "Me and Cor?" she finally asked slowly.
Seeing Xena's reaction, Gabrielle assumed that the warrior was still not taking her seriously and she was treating her like a child. "Yes, you and Cor," she said sarcastically. "I know all about you two."
Completely baffled now as to what the young woman was talking about, Xena could only manage to ask in a bewildered tone, "You know all about Cor and me? What do you know?"
"I heard you two talking," Gabrielle admitted. "I know you were in love with him once but some woman named Sairen came between you two and he chose her over you." Seeing Xena getting ready to interrupt, she held up her hand. "I don't know how close you were in the past, but from what little I saw yesterday, I'd say you were very close here in the present."
"Yesterday? What did you see yesterday?" Xena asked, racking her brain.
Gabrielle flushed. "I got worried when you two didn't come back, so I went looking for you. I saw you getting out of the lake and you looked pretty happy to be together. Sorry, I can't be more specific, but I didn't exactly feel comfortable joining the two of you."
"So that's why you're upset? Because Cor and I have something going?" Xena asked, as her heart began to pound. Gabrielle had sounded almost jealous when she had been talking about Xena having a relationship with Cor.
"Yes, that's what I'm upset about," Gabrielle replied, her tone implying that she thought it was a stupid question to be asking.
Hardly daring to hope, Xena asked the question that she most dreaded hearing answered, "And why would it change things between us if I were in love with Cor?" Gods above. Please Gabrielle...give me the right answer to this.'
Looking at Xena as if she were an idiot, Gabrielle replied, "Because you'll be wanting to go off on your own now that you have him. What place will there be for me?"
Xena stared at Gabrielle in shock, feeling as if she had just been hit in the gut. "Is that what you think? That as soon as I find a man I'll dump you?" she asked with deadly calm, after several long, silent moments had passed.
Hearing it put like that, Gabrielle had to admit it sounded a bit harsh. "Look Xena, I'm not blaming you for falling in love with Cor. He's a good man. I just wish you could have been honest with me...told me the truth."
"And what truth is that Gabrielle?" Xena asked quietly, staring at her friend with ominous intensity.
"Well, obviously things will change now that you two are together, even if you don't end up getting married. You certainly won't want me around all the time anymore, will you? Were you planning on giving me some warning here or were you just going to walk up one day and tell me good-bye?"
Xena's tight control on her anger finally slipped. She knew she should get up and leave before she said something she regretted, but she couldn't make herself do it. "No, unlike you, I don't operate that way. I'd definitely have given you plenty of warning, two full days at least." Forcing herself to stand, she began to walk away from the camp but her anger was still burning too intensely for her to simply leave. She heard her next words in her mind before she uttered them and, although she knew that they were thoughts that should never be spoken aloud, she was unable to stop herself from saying them. "You know, I don't know why I'm surprised you expect this out of me. After all, it's exactly what you did with Perdicus, isn't it? You hung around, killing time with me until something better came along and then you dumped me." She heard Gabrielle gasp, but refused to look at her. Instead she stalked off, barely able to contain her rage.
Xena drifted through the forest haphazardly, not particularly caring where she was going. Eventually she strayed across a large stream that was slowly flowing through the woods. Sitting down near the edge, she rested against a large rock while she stared across the water. She had no idea how long she sat like that before she heard the sound of someone approaching from behind. Knowing without looking that it was Cor, she remained where she was, silent and unmoving. "Xena?" she finally heard him ask tentatively. "Are you all right?"
"Never better Cor," she replied sarcastically. "How bout you?"
Closing the rest of the distance between them, Cor sat down near her. "What happened?" he asked quietly.
"I finally found out what was bothering Gabrielle. She thinks you and I are, or are about to be, lovers." Seeing the astonished look on Cor's face, she continued. "Evidently, she heard us talking about Sairen and assumed that he was a woman. Now that Sairen's out of the picture, she thinks you and I are going to pick up where we left off...apparently, marriage is a strong possibility for us," she finished derisively.
Cor laughed at Xena's final comment. He cared for her deeply, but the two of them had never been more than friends and the pesky little fact that she was a woman would always get in the way. "What did she say when you told her the truth?" he finally managed to ask. For several seconds he waited for her to answer, before a sick feeling started in the pit of his stomach. Looking at Xena, he frowned when he saw the expression on her face. "You did tell her the truth didn't you?" he asked. At his friend's continued silence and undiluted stubbornness, he sighed with exasperation, before leaning forward, forcing her to look at him. "Why in the world didn't you tell her the truth?" he demanded.
"What difference would it have made?" Xena asked flatly.
"What diff....fine, fine...be that way if you want. I'll tell her the truth about Sairen and...."
"No Cor!" Xena interrupted him angrily. "Stay out of this! It doesn't concern you!"
"Doesn't concern me? Like Hades it doesn't concern me! I'm right in the middle of it!"
"No...you're not," Xena replied quietly. "The problem isn't with you. It's between Gabrielle and me and it goes a lot deeper than whether or not you and I are lovers." Xena sighed as she turned away from Cor to look back at the stream. "Gabrielle assumes that, if I get married, or even if you and I are just lovers, that I'll dump her. Why would she assume that, if it wasn't what she would do in my place?" The angry edge returned to her voice. "As a matter of fact, it's exactly what she did do...." Seeing Cor about to protest, Xena stared at him intently. "I mean it Cor. Stay out of this. I don't want you telling her the truth about Sairen. Promise me."
Cor opened his mouth, determined to argue some more, but realized that this was one fight he wasn't going to win. "Fine. I promise I won't tell her the truth about Sairen," he said, raising his hands in surrender. He waited for several minutes before speaking again. "Xena, did you tell her how you felt about her?"
Xena laughed harshly as she shook her head. "Why bother? If she doesn't think any more of our friendship than that, how could she possibly feel the same way about me that I feel about her?"
Cor shook his head, not knowing what to say that would ease the pain he could see on Xena's face and hear in her voice. Knowing that she needed to be alone for a while, he rose silently and turned to leave, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze as he did so. Xena barely acknowledged his departure. She had a long night ahead of her, and there was no way she'd be getting any sleep any time soon. One thing was certain, she wasn't going back to the camp until she was positive that Gabrielle would be sleeping.
No one got much sleep that night. Morning found them all still tired and, in the case of Xena and Gabrielle, more irritable than ever. Silently they began gathering their things and packing Argo, the tension in the camp building steadily. Finally Cor had had enough. Clearing his throat he said, "I think I must have slept on a pile of rocks last night. I'm going to stretch a bit. I'll meet the two of you out on the road." Buckling his scabbard to his waist, he left the clearing, hoping that Xena and Gabrielle would clear the air while he was gone.
Without a word, Xena watched Cor leave, not in the mood to speak to him any more than she was in the mood to speak to Gabrielle. Still maintaining her silence, she continued loading their gear onto Argo, before swinging onto the mare's back. Glancing over at Gabrielle, she set her face into a blank mask before asking, "Ready?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena for the first time since she had arisen that morning and found her sitting astride Argo. She realized that the other woman had gone into "Warrior Princess mode" and had retreated well behind her defensive shield. Her face was expressionless, her voice monotone and her eyes cold. Gabrielle couldn't figure out how things had suddenly gotten so twisted around. She was the one who was supposed to be angry with Xena, but somehow Xena had ended up more angry with her than she had ever seen her before. "Xena, I think....," she began, hoping that somehow the right words would magically come out.
The sound of someone stumbling through the forest to her left caused the words to die in her throat. As she watched, a tired young man stumbled into their clearing, before stopping short at the sight of the two women. Even though he was wearing a sword around his waist, he looked more like a farmer than a woodsman or a soldier. He slowly looked at Gabrielle and at Xena, and Gabrielle nearly laughed aloud when she saw his eyes almost bulge out of their sockets at the sight of the warrior. "Are you Xena, the Warrior Princess?" he managed to ask.
Xena's eyes narrowed fractionally. "Yes," she replied guardedly, never certain what people's reaction would be to her.
This time, however, the reaction was positive. "Thank the gods!" the young man exclaimed excitedly. "We'd heard rumors you were in the area. They sent me for help, but I never really expected to find you."
"Calm down. What are you talking about? Why are you looking for help?"
"My name is Nikias. I'm from a small farming community about a half day's walk from here," he replied, pointing off towards the west. "We're not even a village, but the soil is rich and we live well. At least we did until a few days ago. Raiders have been attacking us, taking everything they can get their hands on. None of us have any experience dealing with people like this, so several of us volunteered to try and find help. Please, we need someone to deal with these bandits before they get tired of just robbing us."
"How many are there?" Xena asked thoughtfully.
"Eight of them, half with swords, although maybe they all have swords by now," he replied.
"Eight?" Xena asked surprised. "You're sure it's the same eight each time?"
Nikias nodded. "We've seen them three times, I've seen them twice myself. They were the same men both times. They don't wear uniforms or anything, and they haven't mentioned a larger army." He gave her a rather embarrassed look. "I know it may not seem like much of a threat to someone like you, but we're just farmers, and most of the people there are either too old or too young to be much good fighting bandits."
Xena realized that it was probably a gang of thugs who had decided it would be easier to stay in one place and terrorize farmers, than to travel the roads attacking travelers. Reaching a decision, she nodded briefly. "All right. I'll help."
Gabrielle had been following their conversation closely, even though she hadn't been participating in it. Hearing Xena's words, she picked up her staff before asking, "Xena, do you want me to go get Cor or do you want to go get him yourself?"
Glancing at Gabrielle, Xena shook her head. "No Gabrielle. I said I would help, not we. You go find Cor and keep heading towards Agranor. I'll catch up with you soon enough."
The look on Xena's face warned Gabrielle not to object, but she refused to let that stop her. "Xena, it won't take anytime to get Cor and then we can all go. There's no reason for you to do this alone."
Out of patience, Xena snapped at her angrily. "Don't be foolish Gabrielle. You and Cor are on foot and slower than I am on Argo. We've made poor time for the past couple of days and today we can finally make it up. Besides, we're talking about eight men here. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of this on my own. I don't need your help! Now go find Cor and I'll meet you in Agranor as soon as I'm done."
Stung by Xena's words, Gabrielle refused to let her see just how badly they had hurt her. Drawing herself up, she stared Xena coolly in the eyes. "Fine. And when should we expect to see you?" she asked icily.
"Not before late tomorrow, and that's only if I'm able to find them fairly quickly," she replied evenly. "Get a room at the inn and wait for me. I'll find you as soon as I get there." Turning away without another word, she nodded for Nikias to lead the way.
Gabrielle watched them walk away, before turning and making her way to where Cor was waiting. It only took her a few minutes to find him. Forcing a smile onto her face, she asked brightly, "Are you ready to go?"
Cor looked at Gabrielle with a confused expression. He had seen her before she had seen him and he knew that something was definitely wrong. "Sure...but where's Xena?" he asked slowly.
"Some guy came along, looking for someone to help take care of bandits who were attacking farms in his community. Xena decided to go with him and said that we should continue on to Agranor," Gabrielle said, pretending a lightness she definitely did not feel.
"She went off to handle it alone?" Cor asked in disbelief. "What kind of logic is that?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Xena logic. Apparently there are only eight raiders. She said she didn't need any help and that we'd just slow her down."
Cor knew Xena didn't need any help to deal with a handful of common brigands, but he still didn't like the way this felt. Looking at Gabrielle, however, he was forced to admit that maybe this was for the best after all. A little time apart might ease tensions and force these two idiots to realize just how much they needed one another. "Okay," he finally said. "Let's get going. You set the pace and don't push it. If you need to rest your ankle, then rest."
The trip to Agranor was largely forgettable. Gabrielle occasionally told a story to pass the time, but was generally too absorbed in her thoughts to tell much of a tale. They traveled slowly, since Gabrielle's ankle was still a bit tender, and they didn't reach the town until it was nearly dark. Stepping into the tavern, they made their way to a table where Gabrielle sat down. Cor hesitated for a moment before turning to her. "Are you okay with just getting the one room? I don't particularly care about sleeping in a bed anyway, and it seems sort of foolish to waste the money."
Gabrielle realized that she hadn't even thought about the sleeping arrangements. Although it seemed strange to share a room with Cor, she couldn't think of any particular reason not to. After all, they'd been sleeping a few feet away from one other around a campfire for the past several nights. "One room is fine," she finally said.
Cor nodded and then went to speak to the innkeeper, stopping along the way to talk with the barmaid. After a couple of minutes he returned, just as the woman was bringing two plates covered with food to their table. Thanking her, they began to eat, both enjoying the chance to relax and take things easy.
Cor studied Gabrielle as he ate, wondering what she was feeling. He knew she was upset about the way things were going with Xena, and he was willing to wager everything he owned that she was just as in love with Xena as Xena was with her. He wanted to just reach out and shake her and make her realize how foolish she was being, but unfortunately he had promised Xena he would stay out of the situation between her and Gabrielle. Slowly, a large grin began to spread across his face. Well, technically I didn't promise to stay out of it,' he thought to himself. I only promised not to tell Gabrielle the truth about Sairen. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make Gabrielle realize for herself that she's in love with Xena.'
Cor considered several different approaches, before finally deciding on the best method of attack. Knowing that she had enjoyed the meal, he made a few casual comments about the food and then mentioned the innkeeper's wife who had cooked everything. Continuing to discuss the wife, he slowly started talking about marriage and, after a few more minutes of innocuous questions and comments, he casually asked his first "real" question of the bard.
"So Gabrielle, Xena mentioned that you'd been married before...." He left the sentence hanging, not entirely certain of what her reaction would be to his comment.
Somewhat taken aback that Xena had told him about that, Gabrielle replied, "Yes I was. His name was Perdicus. He was from my hometown...Xena told you about him?"
"A little," he admitted. "She made a comment back when we were in Trezine about you having been married, so I asked about it. You don't mind do you?"
"No I don't mind, I'm just kinda surprised," she said, oddly relieved to know that Xena hadn't told Cor about Perdicus after their fight last night. "She isn't usually that easy to get information out of."
Cor grinned in a conspiratorial fashion. First hurdle crossed,' he thought to himself. "You're telling me. It was like pulling teeth to get what I did out of her. About all she told me was that he was a farmer from your hometown, that you saw him again in Troy for a day or two, and then met him again months later when he visited your camp." He paused for a moment, to take a sip of wine, before continuing. "So tell me, what was he like?"
Gabrielle smiled as she thought of her former love. "He was kind and gentle, warm and loving. We grew up together in Poteidaia. He was my best friend...we did everything together." She chuckled at the memories that came back to her, and a mischievous glint appeared in her eyes. "We used to get into so much trouble. Well...actually Perdicus was usually the one who ended up getting in trouble. He always took the blame for me. He could never say no to any of my crazy schemes." Her face clouded over when she said the last part, and Cor saw a fleeting expression of guilt cross her features.
Taking another sip of his wine, Cor asked, "Did I understand Xena correctly? Were you betrothed to him before you met her?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, I was." She smiled again before continuing. "I don't really remember him ever asking me. Everyone just sort of expected us to get married, since we seemed so perfect for one another and, somehow or other, we ended up betrothed. But when I met Xena, I realized I couldn't go through with it. I just wanted to see the world. The life of a villager just seemed so dull. I never really expected to see him again. Strange how things work out...." Her voice trailed away as she became lost in her thoughts.
"And then you met up with him again in Troy. That must have been quite a surprise, huh? Troy's a pretty strange place for someone like him to find himself, isn't it?"
Gabrielle's face took on a guilty aspect once more. "Yes, I guess it was. After I left, Perdicus decided it was time for him to get out and see the world too. He thought fighting for Helen of Troy would be a noble, exciting cause, so he joined the Trojan army. He was so different from the boy I had left behind in Poteidaia. He wasn't the farmer I remembered. He had become a soldier, a warrior." She paused for a moment before continuing. "But after the battle had ended, we decided to go our separate ways. He went off to find another battle and I went with Xena."
Cor chose his next words with extreme care. "And then one night he showed back up and asked you to marry him?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I didn't know what to say at first. But eventually I realized that I loved him and that marrying him would be the best thing for me. So I said yes and we got married the next day. But....," she took a deep breath, unable to continue.
"It's okay Gabrielle," Cor said comfortingly. "I know the rest of the story." Gabrielle smiled at him gratefully, thankful she wouldn't have to relive that scene again.
The two sat in silence for several minutes, Gabrielle thinking about Perdicus, Cor trying to figure out the best words to use to ask his next question. Before he could try, though, Gabrielle asked a question of her own. "Have you ever been married Cor?"
Startled, Cor paused for a second as the image of Sairen dominated his thoughts. His hand involuntarily touched the metal bracer on his right wrist as he answered Gabrielle's question. "Yes, yes I was. For a little over a year."
Gabrielle noticed his hand moving to the bracer and wondered again at its importance. Even when Cor had been swimming with Xena, he had still worn that bracer. Obviously it had some connection to his wife. Seeing the sadness that had instantly filled his eyes, she asked quietly, "What was her name?"
Cor suddenly felt uncomfortable. He had promised Xena he wouldn't tell Gabrielle the truth about Sairen, but when he made that promise he hadn't expected he would have to lie about him. "Sairen. We were both in Xena's army. Well actually, Sairen was never really in Xena's army. Sairen was a mercenary of sorts who considered Xena to be nothing more than a bloodthirsty warlord; used to call her the Bandit Princess.'" He chuckled at the memory.
"What was Sairen like?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
Cor smiled. "A lot like you actually. Sairen was a warrior with the heart of a bard. Open, friendly, confident, brave. Never backed down from a challenge," he paused to grin at Gabrielle, "And very good with a staff."
Gabrielle smiled back at him before asking gently, "What happened to her?"
Cor's voice took on a lifeless, almost mechanical quality. "Riding accident. The horse stepped in a hole and fell. Sairen was thrown, h...her neck was broken. She died instantly." He took a deep breath and downed the rest of his wine, before motioning to the barmaid for a refill.
Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on his arm, giving it a comforting squeeze. "I'm sorry Cor," she whispered, as her heart went out to this man who usually seemed so happy.
Cor took another deep, calming breath, before looking at Gabrielle. Seeing the concern in her eyes, he smiled reassuringly. "It's okay. Really, I'm fine. It's been over two years, but not a day goes by that I don't think about Sairen, that I don't see hi...that I don't see her face." He paused for a moment, collecting himself. "But I guess you know all about that, don't you?"
Disconcerted and confused, Gabrielle suddenly realized that it had been weeks since she had thought about Perdicus, except in passing. Desperately she tried to recall the image of his face but, to her astonishment, she found that she was unable to remember exactly what he looked like. She didn't see how this could be possible. How could Cor still remember his wife so clearly after she'd been gone for over two years? She had known Perdicus all her life and he'd only been gone a fraction of that time. "Yeah, I guess I do," she managed to mumble, as she struggled with her thoughts, unaware that her reaction was rapidly confirming what Cor has suspected all along about her marriage. "Sairen sounds like a very special person. You must have loved her very much Cor," Gabrielle finally said, trying to steer the subject away from her and Perdicus, needing to give herself time to think about this new revelation.
"I did. Sairen had the other half of my soul."
Gabrielle's head shot up at his last comment. "The other half of your soul?' You know that story?"
Cor chuckled. "You mean about the people with four legs and two heads?" Seeing Gabrielle nod vigorously, he continued, "Yeah, it was one of Sairen's favorite stories. I used to hear it all the time."
Gabrielle stared into her glass for several moments, before quietly asking, "And do you think it's true? That there's one person out there who shares our soul?"
"I know it's true. Something inside me called me to Sairen...and when...she died, a part of me died too. Fortunately, a part of Sairen still lives within me, so she'll never really be gone."
"So if it's really true, why does it have to be so hard to find your soulmate?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Cor considered his answer carefully before replying. He knew he was walking a thin line as far as his promise to Xena was concerned, but he had never really promised he wouldn't try and knock some sense into the young woman's head. "Because that kind of love, the love between soulmates, is the greatest gift mankind was ever given. And a gift like that comes with a price that most people aren't willing to pay."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, confused by his response.
"I mean that there are all kinds of love. Love between family, friends...you name it, it's there. But to totally and completely love someone means you open yourself up to the possibility of being unbelievably hurt. You have to be willing to risk everything." He shrugged. "Most people are either unable or unwilling to do that. So they settle. Convince themselves that the friendly' love they feel for someone is true love'. It's easier. It's safer. It's polite."
"Polite? What do you mean it's polite?"
Cor shrugged once more. "I mean when someone you care about tells you that they're in love with you, it's kinda hard to just say that's nice'. It's much more comfortable to tell them you love them back and, if you do it enough times, you might even start to believe it yourself."
Gabrielle looked at him sharply as he said the last part. Something in the way he had spoken made it sound as if he was directing his comments specifically towards her. When she scrutinized the expression on his face, however, she could see nothing that would indicate he was deliberately focusing on her. She shook her head ruefully. Obviously she was still so upset about the situation with Xena that she was becoming paranoid. There was no reason why Cor would think she had ever done anything like that. Feeling rather uncomfortable with the direction their conversation had taken, but not fully understanding why, Gabrielle again tried to turn the focus back to Cor, still curious about this woman he had chosen over Xena. "So when did you know, Cor? When did you know that you'd found your soulmate?"
"I knew it the moment our eyes first met. It was like we had always known one another. I knew in that one instant that this was the person I was supposed to be with. Of course, I was lucky. It takes some people a lot longer to see what's right in front of their eyes. Sairen, for example, was pretty stubborn and refused to believe we were meant for one another. But I can be mighty persuasive when I really want to be," he said as he grinned at her.
Gabrielle smiled back at him distractedly, as she became lost in her thoughts. Cor watched her while he finished his drink in silence. Rising from the table to head upstairs to their room, he hesitated for a brief moment and placed a hand gently on her shoulder. As she looked up into his eyes, he saw the confusion on her face and his heart went out to her, knowing that all of this had to be difficult for her. "So Gabrielle?" he said, looking at her quizzically. "When did you know that you'd found the other half of your soul?" he asked quietly, before leaving her to private contemplation.
Gabrielle slept in the next day. She didn't have anywhere in particular to be, and she'd been up all night trying to sort out her feelings about, well about almost everything. She spent the day wandering around the village but there wasn't much to see in Agranor and, since she wasn't in the mood for company, she kept to herself as much as possible. As she walked around, she tried to organize her thoughts, but she was still no closer to figuring anything out by the time she turned in for the night.
The next day started out much the same as the one before. She and Cor sparred for a while during the morning, but her heart wasn't in it. Nothing made sense anymore and she couldn't understand how things had gotten twisted around so fast. If someone had asked her about Perdicus and Xena a few weeks ago, she would have said that she'd loved Perdicus and missed him terribly, and that Xena was her best friend and always would be. Now, however, she was questioning everything about two of the most important relationships in her entire life and she was still no closer to figuring out how she felt about any of this. As she finally settled down for bed that night, she couldn't help being a little concerned that Xena hadn't arrived yet. On the other hand, she rather doubted that Xena was in any particular hurry to catch up to her at the moment.
Gabrielle rose early the next morning and went for a long walk, eventually ending up beside the edge of a large lake. As she sat on the shore, she thought about all the times she had been at places like this with Perdicus. The memories brought back good feelings of her childhood in Poteidaia, and she lay back on the grass to let the sun warm her as her mind traveled back to her village. After a while, she stood and stretched and continued her walk around the lake. Eventually she stumbled upon a thin piece of rope that looked as if it had been used as a fish stringer. Immediately she thought of Xena and how she had once used a string of fish to pulverize a gang of men who were intent on taking a young boy to be sacrificed at an altar. She smiled when she remembered how Xena had looked while she had been fighting those men. It was their own fault though. They had, after all, ruined a perfectly lovely....
And there it was...Finally, things made sense again.
When Gabrielle returned to the village, she was surprised to learn that there had been no word from Xena. The day grew later and eventually darkness fell, but there was still no sign of the warrior. Cor and Gabrielle reassured each other that there was nothing to worry about, that Xena had obviously just had trouble finding the bandits. However, neither one really believed anything they were saying.
Gabrielle said her goodnights early and went up to their room, needing to be alone to think things through. She had the first answer she needed; she had finally figured out when she had found the other half of her soul. It wasn't in Poteidaia; it wasn't in Troy; and it wasn't the night that she had agreed to marry Perdicus.
It was nearly two years ago, when she had been standing in a clearing outside her village and a powerful, beautiful woman had appeared out of nowhere to save her life and capture her heart.
Gabrielle rose early the next morning. Xena had still not arrived, and that fact was beginning to make her more and more nervous. There was no reason that it should have taken her this long to get here. Even if she'd been delayed for some reason, she would have sent word.
By the time midday had rolled around, Gabrielle had had enough. She went looking for Cor and found him in their room packing. "Come on, we're going to go find her," he said, as he tossed her pack to her and walked out the door. They settled their bill and left a message with the innkeeper in case Xena showed up after they left, then set off down the road back to where they had seen her last. They reached their old campsite shortly after darkness fell and reluctantly set up camp, knowing that it would be foolish to try to go any further that night. Eventually they settled down to sleep, neither one of them expecting to do much of it.
For once Gabrielle had no trouble waking up. When it was light enough to see, they were off once more, determined to find Xena as soon as possible. The warrior's trail was fairly easy to follow, but still they were forced to travel slower than they would have liked. After several hours had gone by, they came to a low ravine surrounded on either side by trees. As they passed through the gorge, they could see that most of the grass in the area had been trampled down. Here and there, blood stains covered the ground. They continued to search the area, finding a few pieces of armor with insignia that neither recognized, as well as a broken sword. Gabrielle's anxiety steadily increased, certain that at any second they would find Xena's lifeless body. It was obvious that dozens of men had recently been at this site and, as much confidence as she had in her friend's fighting abilities, she had to admit that even the Warrior Princess would be hard pressed to fight off so many attackers.
"Gabrielle, over here!" she heard Cor shout urgently.
"Xena?" she asked hopefully, yet fearfully, as she ran to where he was standing.
"Not exactly," he said, as she saw him reach around the side of the tree and then pull. As his hand came back into view, she saw that he was holding Xena's chakram.
Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Xena would never leave that behind....," she began, but she was unable to put the rest of her thoughts into words.
Cor nodded silently, considering the implications of what they had found. "Okay," he said finally. "It's pretty obvious she was ambushed here. The chakram is still here. That means she didn't give chase to whoever attacked her. Her body isn't here, so I'm guessing they took her captive." He paused to think some more. "Xena would not be an easy person to take alive, so if they went to the effort to capture her then they probably knew who she was and wanted her for some specific reason. That means they'll keep her alive." As Gabrielle watched, Cor's face hardened and a cold look came into his eyes. He handed the chakram to Gabrielle as he rapidly checked his weapons. "All right let's go; wherever she is, she's in trouble," he said in a quiet, deadly voice.
"Cor," Gabrielle said hesitantly, startled by the sudden change in him. "Can you use this?" she asked, holding out the chakram.
For an instant, a ghost of a smile formed on Cor's lips and a rather embarrassed look appeared on his face. "No, I can't. Xena tried to teach me once but I was absolutely hopeless. About the only thing I ever managed to do with it was to nearly sever my own hand. I could never learn how to use it at all."
Following the trail of Xena's ambushers was extremely easy, since they were following the tracks of 30 or 40 horses through the forest and then onto the plains. Late that afternoon they finally reached a road running east and west, where the tracks mixed with those of countless others, making it impossible to follow them any further. Fortunately, a small city could be seen on a hill off to the west so, crossing their fingers, they headed in that direction. As they approached the main gate to the city, they could see several soldiers standing guard. Their armor bore the same insignia as the armor the two of them had found at the ambush site. Cor's eyes narrowed as he watched the guards, fighting the urge to draw his sword and demand to know what had happened to his friend. The guards barely paid them a second glance as they walked through the gates, seeing only an exhausted man and woman covered with trail dust.
Gabrielle sighed softly as she looked around the city. "Now what?"
"I'm working on it," Cor replied quietly. "We've obviously come to the right place though."
Gabrielle nodded. Suddenly she whirled around to face Cor, a stunned expression on her face.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" Cor asked, confused by her behavior.
"That soldier behind me, over by the blacksmith. Tall, blond, thin...do you see him?" Cor looked to where she had indicated and nodded. "That's Nikias...the farmer who asked Xena for help."
"Are you sure Gabrielle? Absolutely sure?" he asked, needing to know for certain.
"Positive. He looks a little different but not that much. It's him."
Cor's expression became unreadable. "All right. I'll find out what we need to know from him. You need to keep out of sight; he can surely recognize you too. Wait for me in the tavern...I'll be there as soon as I get finished." Seeing her nod in agreement, he handed her his pack and then watched as she entered the tavern. Smiling a grim, humorless smile, he began to follow Nikias, waiting for the soldier to make his first, costly mistake.
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