Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story iteslf are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices. April 17, 1997 by Beowolf.
This story follows the events in "DeathMask"
" A Romance a Day......."
Gabrielle hiked along the road behind Xena and Argo, seriously considering the offering of a few heartfelt prayers for deliverance. Nothing major: a severe thunderstorm would do it. Local, of course. There was no point in risking crops. Her feet hurt, she had a headache and, above all, she was hot.
She looked at Xena's back almost resentfully. After all the time they had been together, after all they had been through, it was still a complete mystery to Gabrielle how the warrior always managed to look the way she did right now, as if she had just stepped fresh from a relaxing bath.
Not even the road dust dared to settle on the Warrior Princess.
At the moment, that was bothering Gabrielle more than anything else. She swatted impatiently at the tiny dust cloud that seemed to perpetually follow her around these days and resigned herself to looking, and feeling, like the victim of a recent cave-in.
She sighed in frustration. Things hadn't gone too well lately, and she was actually having to work at staying positive. Somebody had to....Xena wasn't a ray of sunshine at the best of times, and Gabrielle had no problem with labeling the last little while the worst of times.
Xena heard her, and turned in the saddle to look back, reining Argo to a halt.
"What's wrong?" she asked as Gabrielle caught up to her.
"What could be wrong? Nothing like a pleasant stroll on a beautiful day to whet the old appetite." The bard fixed a smile on her face.
"Uh huh." Xena surveyed her appearance, and swung down from Argo. She unhooked the waterskin and tossed it to the bard.
Gabrielle took a long drink and handed the skin back.
"What is it?" she asked. Xena was giving her an odd look.
"You have mud on your chin," said Xena carefully.
"Oh for..." began a thoroughly fed up Gabrielle, swiping at her face. "Get on the horse and ride for a while," interrupted Xena.
Gabrielle eyed Argo. They had a truce of sorts, but the bard wasn't inclined to push it. "No, thanks. I'll walk.""
"Another two leagues to go." said Xena flatly.
Without a word, Gabrielle put her boot in the stirrup and Xena helped her up. As she thumped into the saddle, Argo turned her head and gave the warrior a reproachful look Xena ignored it and led her off as soon as Gabrielle was settled on her back.
"I hope there's a decent Inn. What I wouldn't give for a good long soak and a night in a bed for a change," said Gabrielle presently, good humour restored once again. "If there's a good crowd, I can tell some stories and pick up a few dinars. Guys with a couple of drinks in them should be suckers for a good........romance." She looked down expectantly at Xena's back, waiting for her to make some typically caustic comment.
That was hardly the case in Xena's experience, but she didn't have the chance to say so, even if she'd wanted to. Gabrielle didn't wait long for an answer, she was off and running with some tale or other, and Xena shook her head slightly and smiled to herself. She let the words flow over her, relieved that Gabrielle seemed more her usual self. It bothered her when Gabrielle behaved uncharacteristically, and what could be more so than hours of silence?
"....'.so her father finally gave in and granted permission for them to get married. They had a big wedding, lots of children and lived happily ever after.' So, what do you think? I know it's an old story, and it needs a bit of polish, but I don't think it's too bad. "
The look of polite attention on Xena's face never changed as she asked, "How many?"
Gabrielle was confused. "How many what?"
Xena glanced up at her. "How many children," she said patiently.
"I don't know. Many! What difference does *that* make?" Gabrielle demanded.
"There's a reason these guys are drinking in taverns. I imagine it has to do with many children." Xena's reasonable tone put a scowl on the bard's face.
"This is a story about the triumph of love over adversity, *not* a population survey," she observed tartly "Look what the guy went through to rescue his true love. Come on, don't you think that's romantic?"
Xena privately considered the girl a spineless little thing, and the boyfriend an incompetent fool who could have avoided the whole mess with no trouble at all, but she knew better than to say so.
"It's a popular subject," she evaded. That, at least, was true.
"Huh," sniffed Gabrielle, "and how would you know? You leave the room before the poor bard has a chance to open his mouth."
"Why would I want to listen to any of them? I have the benefit of private performances." Xena said dryly.
Gabrielle was pleased with her success. That amused gleam in Xena's eyes had been missing for too long.
"Nice diversion. Maybe I should stay with adventure stories." She shifted uneasily in the saddle. She had more against riding than the height of the horse, but she had no intention at all of telling Xena that.
"Why don't you ride now," she ventured. Really, the ground was looking more appealing with every step Argo took. She hoped fervently for a hot bath.
"No, that's alright. You stay up," said Xena. Her long stride ate up the distance. With Gabrielle on foot, they wouldn't make the village until after dark. "We could get you a horse."
"Oh, right," replied Gabrielle." Look, everyone! It's Xena, the mighty Warrior Princess, and her brave warhorse, Argo! Oh, and the bard with the pony."
Xena contemplated that image for a moment or two, then grinned. A genuine, full-faced grin, thought Gabrielle, that had the bard wondering about the shape of the imaginary pony. Knowing Xena's sense of humour, the poor thing was likely a barrel with legs.
"It's not *that* funny," Gabrielle snapped, feigning annoyance.
"No, of course not," answered Xena, clearing her expression with a visible effort.
Gabrielle regarded her with narrowed eyes.
They arrived in Antes around dinnertime, Gabrielle still on Argo and still talking. Xena was ready to swear that she'd heard every romance every written, and a few Gabrielle had undoubedly made up on the spur of the moment. She resolved never, ever, to mention horses again without careful consideration beforehand.
"Looks like there's a festival going on. I hope we can get a room. There should be a good crowd in the tavern anyway," observed Gabrielle, as Xena led Argo to the front of the village Inn.
The bard climbed down from Argo, gleefully watched by a group of snickering, nudging young boys. She smiled at them, caring not at all, and fled gratefully inside.
"Is this your horse?" asked one of the boys, bending his neck back to look up at the tall warrior. .
"What's his name? Can I pat him," another wanted to know.
"*Her* name is Argo, and yes, you can pat her, but stay in front so she can see you," said Xena.
"Your friend doesn't ride very well, does she?" said the smallest one boldly. The others looked at him in horror. Everyone knew it wasn't safe to upset warriors, and to a boy, they shifted their eyes back to the woman.
Xena looked down at him. "Oh, she has her moments," she replied mildly, thinking of a certain mad dash down a river bed and an exquisitely detailed description, provided by Salmoneus, of the fastest exit from a courtyard he'd ever seen. Xena had been suitably impressed. Few people knew more about fast exits than Salmoneus.
"All set," said Gabrielle, coming back out. "We got the last room. There's a bard here already, but Polonius seems happy to have some new blood."
"Are you a bard?" one of them asked.
"That's right. You guys like stories?" Gabrielle gave them a friendly smile, certain they hadn't got one from Xena.
"Who doesn't? What kind of stories do you tell?" demanded the tallest.
"Romance," said Gabrielle brightly.
"Yech." They turned away.
Xena turned quickly to the saddle to untie the packs. Gabrielle glared at her back, then returned to her vanishing public.
"Just kidding. I tell adventure stories," she said reassuringly.
"No kissing?" asked one suspiciously.
Xena moved quickly to Argo's off side, earning another look from the bard.
"No kissing," Gabrielle assured him.
"If you're finished....." said Xena, coming back around with a bland look on her face. She piled the two packs and bedrolls into Gabrielle's arms. "I'll stable Argo."
"Around the back," said one boy.
"I can show you, " said another.
"You can all show me, " said Xena, holding up her hand for silence. She led Argo off, following behind the boys.
Gabrielle staggered back into the Inn, feeling over-encumbered and under-appreciated. "I will never understand why everybody is so fascinated with horses." she muttered to herself.
She dumped the gear onto the bed, noticed with a grin that Xena's feet were going to be hanging out over the end, and headed back out to the main room. Hunger had won out over a bath at the top of the priority list.
"So what can I get you," asked Polonius from behind the bar. "We've got a pretty decent mutton stew, fresh bread and cheese."
"Sounds good," said Gabrielle, surveying the room. It was a popular spot, filled with chattering customers and a few drunks propped up in the corners. "Business looks good," she remarked.
"Sure, until that bard shows up," said Polonius sourly. "Find a table, I'll bring dinner over."
"Thanks. For two, please. My friend will be here soon. I'd like a cider and a port as well."
Gabrielle took the two cups and threaded her way to a table tucked in the back of the room. She drank her cider and tried to get a feel for the crowd. When she went up to get another, she had to wait while Polonius posted a notice, and moved hastily out of the way of the crowd that formed around it.
"What's all that about?" she asked.
"It's the list of contests for the festival. You know, the usual. You should take a look. Only 3 dinars to enter. Prizes for the winners, too."
" I don't know. There's not..... what's the matter?" Polonius was staring at the door.
Gabrielle sighed and reached to take her cider as Polonius said respectfully, "oh my...." he caught the look on Gabrielle's face and subsided.
She signalled to Xena, standing in the doorway and carefully looking over the room, to follow her over to the table.
"What's the matter," asked Xena.
"Nothing the gods couldn't fix. What took so long?"
"Argo had to be groomed." Xena reached for her cup.
"Since when does it take you this long/" asked the bard.
"Since I had help," replied the warrior, taking a swallow of her drink.
Polonius came over, carrying their dinner himself. He eyed Xena, and started to say something that was drowned out by the sudden stampede towards the door. He watched with a disgusted expression as half his customers pushed their way out, leaving a clear line of sight to a weedy looking young man with a bewildered look on his face. The remaining customers all headed for the bar.
"Let me guess," said Gabrielle. "This is the bard."
"Yeah," sighed Polonius. "His name is Achilles. Can you believe it? He looks like that with a name like Achilles. Is there some kind of rule that says bards can't change their names?" He hurried to the bar and began filling orders.
"I'll see you later, " said Xena, her hands on the table and half-way to her feet.
"Oh, no," said Gabrielle firmly, snagging one gauntled arm. "Not this time. Dinner's here, you need to eat, and it won't hurt you to listen to another bard for a change. You might enjoy it. Besides, think how the poor guy feels, everyone leaving like that. I know how I'd feel.... " she let her voice trail off.
Xena's eyes narrowed slightly and she looked down. Gabrielle was ready for that. She had her most innocent look in place already. Xena could use some lightweight diversion that didn't involve weapons, or the application of boot to flesh, and the best way to manipulate her, when it was possible at all, was with an emotional appeal. She didn't dare do it often, but so far it had always worked.
The warrior recognized the look on Gabrielle's face. It was the one the bard used when she was trying to nudge her into doing something that Gabrielle was convinced was for her own good. Since she didn't use it often, and Xena knew that when the bard did, Gabrielle was honestly concerned about her, she decided to give in. Gabrielle would feel better for it: so far it had always worked.
Rolling her eyes a bit for affect, she settled back. Gabrielle released her arm and Xena prepared to reduce the stew to a memory.
"How bad can it be?" asked Gabrielle. "There are still people here." She started on her own stew. Storytelling was hard work.
Xena gave her a dark look, and concentrated on her bowl as the bard started to speak.
"I knew it. I knew it. Why didn't I just keep my mouth shut?" Gabrielle berated herself. "The second I said that, I should have known it was fated." She was afraid to look at Xena. The story was bad, it didn't make sense, you could hardly hear it (which might be a blessing), and, worst of all, it was about the Warrior Princess.
At least, Gabrielle thought it was. It was hard to tell. She couldn't take the suspense any longer, and shifted her eyes to her right. If she was lucky, Xena had fallen asleep.
Xena was staring at the bard as if he was some sort of curious animal she'd never seen before and never expected to see again. Fortunately, they were sitting in an out-of-the-way corner, pretty much unnoticed.
"I'm surprised you're still here," Gabrielle whispered to her.
"You know, maybe I haven't given you enough credit." said Xena thoughtfully.
"I remember telling you that you're a good storyteller. If this is typical, you're obviously a great one."
"He is *not* typical," hissed Gabrielle, stung into defending bards in general. Then she realized that she'd just been given a compliment. "Is this story about you?" she asked. "Did he say you took on four giants all at once?"
"He said it, " said Xena. "I don't remember doing it."
Achilles came to an trailing halt, smiled weakly, and scuttled off, all to total silence.
"My turn, " said Gabrielle, already anticipating a standing ovation after what she'd just heard. "I'll meet you back at the room."
"Going to try a romance?" asked Xena laconically, leaning back and stretching out, her cup held in big hands. The very picture of relaxation, thought Gabrielle uneasily.
"After that, I could recite a grocery list and get a better reception. You're staying?" asked Gabrielle.
"There's a reason I shouldn't?" One of Xena's eyebrows went up.
"No! No, of course not. You just never have, that's all" Gabrielle said hastily.
"First time for everything," said Xena complacently. "I might enjoy it, isn't that what you said?"
"You don't have a knife to sharpen, or something?"
Xena's eyes narrowed. "What's going on here, Gabrielle?"
The bard sighed.
"Well, you remember when I told you no more secrets?"
"Yee...ssss," Xena's voice dropped ominously
"Well, there was this one thing...things, really....just small things....."
"Bard! Bard!" the crowd was chanting and Polonius was gesturing furiously. Gabrielle abandoned a very unrewarding conversation and moved quickly to the front of the room.
She needed to tell a funny story after Achilles had driven the room into near stupor, and one of her favorites was Meleager's defence of her village. She'd worked it up more or less privately, and it had turned into a real crowd pleaser, beginning it with her dramatic flinging open of the tavern door. She'd been looking forward to telling it, too, until Xena had decided to stay. There were one or two small details she hadn't felt it necessary to burden the warrior with, and she'd certainly never expected to have to inform her of them in a room full of people. Xena had been too distracted at having her back to think about asking how things had gone, and Gabrielle had been too happy at being back to think to tell her. Later on....well, she supposed, she could have said something, but the time had never been right. Gabrielle looked at her briefly.
Xena never failed to surprise her. That might be a good thing.
Oh well, too late now. In for a dinar....
Not until she got to the part about being captured by Damon's men did she take her first look at Xena.
She was still leaning back in the same postion she'd been in before, and she certainly looked as if she was taking it calmly enough. The glint in her eye, however, was visible to Gabrielle even at the other end of the room. The bard refused to look as she described the events leading up to, and in the tent, then lost her nerve and left out the sound effects (which she thought was the funniest part of the whole thing), but there was no way to skip over just how she and Meleager had fooled the guards, not without losing the sense of the story. Possibly, she hadn't left out enough. Both of the warrior's eyebrows were now up: never a good sign. The customers loved it, that was something. The guffaws and catcalls were proof of that. So were the cheers when Gabrielle vaulted the cart, and the roars of approval and encouragement when Xena's chakram cut through the swords of the bandits, sending them scrambling away.
Three more stories had them stamping their feet, and as she finished, she grinned at the audience, who were calling loudly for more.
"Tomorrow", she said to the chants of "more."
Polonius pushed over a cider and port, grinning from ear to ear.
"On the house" he said. "Great job. They'll be packed in here tomorrow. He placed a bowl on the counter. "Allright, you lot! Let' s show the bard some appreciation!"
Gabrielle headed to the table with both cups. Xena almost never drank more than one port, but Gabrielle thought she might need it herself.
Xena had an unreadable expression on her face as Gabrielle sat down to silence.
"Just small things..." quoted the warrior, finally.
" I would have told you, it just didn't seem... well, I....you know how it is." fumbled Gabrielle.
"Only too well, " muttered Xena. "You did a good job on the defences," she continued in a more normal tone.
"Thanks," said Gabrielle, suprised. "I have a very good teacher."
"About that business in the tent..." started Xena.
"I knew the guards would fall for it." defended Gabrielle. She had a feeling this was a losing argument.
"I'm not talking about the guards."
"Xena, he's old enough to be my grandfather!" the bard tried.
" No, he isn't, and I don't mean that, either." Xena looked grim. Gabrielle felt grim.
"Did you know he killed 317 men at Liguria?" she asked in an effort to change the subject.
"Is that what he told you?" asked Xena.
"Do you know him?" Gabrielle asked, interested in spite of the current topic of conversation.
"Heard of him," said the warrior.
"Not in Potedeia." said Xena pointedly. The thought of Gabrielle mixed up in...running!... a defence of a village against a Warlord with no help except the slapdash, totally unimaginative, self-proclaimed ladies' man Meleager had her clenching her jaw. When she saw him ..and she'd make sure she did.... that would be the second item she'd be discussing with him.
The first...well... She drained the port in a swallow and got up from the table, followed by Gabrielle.
"So what did you think of the story?" asked Gabrielle, then mentally groaned. Of all the stupid things, remind her of that. On the plus side, Xena was certainly diverted.
Xena walked down the hall another few paces, then said " it was interesting. Parts of it were very....informative." She opened the door and went in, Gabrielle coming behind.
"Xena, there's nothing to be upset about," the bard said placatingly. " It was months ago, after all. Believe me, I have absolutely no interest in Meleager."
"I'm not upset," said Xena mildly. She dug into her saddlebag and pulled out the small bag that held her sharpening stone.
Gabrielle looked at her doubtfully. "Do you want first turn at the bath?" It seemed like a good time to change the subject
"No, you go ahead. I want to sharpen my knives."
"You could have done that earlier!" the bard said through clenched teeth.
"I could have," agreed Xena. She gave Gabrielle an "is there anything else" look
Gabrielle started to rummage in her bag, looking for the soap, and listening to the steady strokes of the sharpening stone drawn authoritatively down a blade. She shifted her eyes, frowning thoughtfully, and watched as Xena's attention was fixed on the knife she was working on.
She and Xena were both a long way fron Potedeia, both in time and distance, but Xena's protective instincts had always been strong, and probably always would be. Things had been particularly bad since that....Ares, in Lotia. Gabrielle didn't mind receiving the habitual glances Xena directed her way. She'd long since grown used to them, they were reassuring, and lately, she'd been giving the warrior the same quick looks. She certainly welcomed the sometimes tentative touches whether she needed the comfort or not. What she did mind was a return to the "stay back" days. She'd never be in Xena's class, but she could take care of herself.
She stopped beside Xena's chair, and waited until the warrior looked up, eyebrow raised in silent enquiry.
"You know, neither one of us is the same person we were when we left Amphipolous together," the bard said carefully.
The other eyebrow rose. "I had noticed that." Gabrielle smiled affectionately and and briefly gripped Xena's arm. Thoughtful blue eyes followed her path out the door.
She spent much longer in the bath than she had anticipated. Polonius, well pleased with the night's profits and bolstered by an ale or two, extravagantly provided her with fresh hot water. Blissfully soaking certain portions of her aching anatomy, Gabrielle lost track of the time.
Humming to herself, she turned the corner to cross the hall when she literally ran into Achilles just outside the room she shared with Xena.
"Sorry," she said smiling, and tried to move past. He stepped in front to block her path.
"I enjoyed your stories very much, especially the first one. You're as talented as you are beautiful."
Gabrielle tried not to smile too broadly. Pretty poor line, even for this guy. Close up, and she was a lot closer than she wanted to be, he was as unprepossessing as he had been when she'd seen him earlier. At least he sounded more assertive. He smiled hopefully, and she returned it with the one she gave audiences that had been less than generous with the dinars.
"Thanks, I'm glad you liked it." She tried to move again.
"Who did you get the original idea from?" he asked curiously.
Maybe assertive wasn't the right word.
"It's not made up. It's real life and I did those things. Well, most of those things, and I had help, of course." Gabrielle was indignant.
"And so brave, too," he said, staring in admiration. "What did you think of my stories? Did you hear them?"
Gabrielle was momentarily at a loss.
"Oh, yeah...yeah, I heard them. It was....well, I don't have the words to describe it."
He beamed and she sighed to herself.
"I have lots of stories about the Warrior Princess character. I'd be glad to..."
"Wait a minute. Character?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. Her eyes slid involuntarily to the door standing slightly ajar just a few feet from her.
"Certainly. She's not real, you know," his tone telling her that he just knew he was shattering all her girlish illusions.. "Oh, people like to pretend that she is, but let's face it, with all those skills she's supposed to have, strong as a dozen men..."
"Ten. Ten men," said Gabrielle, fascinated with a viewpoint on Xena she'd never even considered might exist.
"Whatever," he waved it off. "Think about it. She's supposed to be unbeatable in battle, never runs into trouble she can't handle, young, beautiful, comes out of some nowhere village, no explanation for all this skill, and to top it all off, there are even stories about her horse. And this round thing she uses to kill people...." he smiled condescendingly. "and her...friend....some storyteller she travels with. Now, really, why would someone who's supposed to be as awesome as all that, travel with a storyteller? Personally, I think it's just a cover for a group of raiders or something."
"Do you?" asked Gabrielle sweetly. She was half tempted to scream and let Achilles see for himself just how much of a character Xena could be. If he hadn't been so utterly pathetic, she would have. Still, she'd be able to turn this into a funny story for the fire some night.
Not in the near future, though. She doubted that Xena would currently find this as amusing as she did.
He smirked at her, and she began to feel sorry for him. Having to use other people's stories, well, bards did that all the time, of course, but most of them liked to tell their own, too. She didn't expect much had ever happened to him, and he didn't seem to be the creative type.
"I have to get back. My friend will be waiting for me. Good luck," she started to move past again, and looked down in surprise as he gripped her arm.
"Wait! Listen, I have to leave tomorrow, and I think it would be a great idea if you came with me. I could help you with your stories, and I think we could make a good team. What do you say?" He had an eager look in his eye that reminded Gabrielle of a puppy she'd once had.
She allowed him five minutes to declare undying admiration, mostly because of the puppy, before she cut him off.
"Sorry, but that's out of the question. I told you, my friend is waiting for me." She jerked her arm free.
"Your lover," he said, heavily. He looked disappointed, and the bard suspected it was a familiar expression.
"Well..." Gabrielle said, then stopped suddenly, looking closely at him. Just maybe, she thought...
"What's wrong," he asked uneasily, as the bard continued to study him..
Xena had sharpened all her knives, her sword, checked and cleaned her armour, chakram, and boot laces, and still no Gabrielle. She didn't really want to go looking for her...Gabrielle took that as a lack of confidence on her part, these days, and it wasn't easy to move around an Inn unnoticed.
Xena often found herself wishing that Gabrielle could somehow overcome, at least some of the time, the habit of acting without thinking. There was no telling what she was going to do next,. and it was very hard on the nerves, especially lately, with trouble lurking around every corner. The bard could be anywhere right now, doing who knew what. She was pacing the width of the room when the voices in the hall outside caught her attention. She started for the door.
"I'm sorry, I just can't go with you...you're sweet to ask, but....can you keep a secret?"
The warrior frowned, recognizing Gabrielle's voice, and paused. Go with who? What secret? She looked back indecisively at the chair by the fire. This was a private conversation, after all, none of her business. Still, it was hard to imagine the bard with a secret. She talked all the time, surely something would have slipped out, some sort of indication that there was something bothering her that Gabrielle didn't feel she could confide.
Xena looked back to the door and bit her lip. Gabrielle didn't have secrets, not exactly, but she did have a tendency to forget to pass on information that somehow always seemed to become essential at some point or other. This might help her head off trouble, she told herself. 'Just great,' she thought, 'reduced to listening at doors.'
She moved forward on silent feet in time to hear a voice say, "Of course I can keep a secret."
Hmmm. The would-be bard. She raised an eyebrow.
"See, I love another, and my heart isn't mine to give away." Gabrielle threw herself into her explanation with a certain amount of tragic enthusiasm that would have had Xena narrowing her eyes in suspicion if she hadn't been, at the moment, frozen with the shock of her life. The warrior's eyes had widened and her lips parted as her hand fumbled for the door.
"It's a secret, you see, because I haven't said anything. I didn't quite know what kind of reaction I'd get, and...."
Xena had to force herself to breathe, and her eyebrows had disappeared into her hair. All the Warlords in Greece couldn't have moved her away from the door. She fixed her attention on the conversation in the hall.
"...not say anything then?"
"It just recently happened, and there really wasn't any time to say anything...the circumstances weren't right....lack of opportunity...I'm not sure it's mutual. I think it might be, but it's pretty important. I don't want to make a mistake and risk ending up alone."
"But that's so sad...." Achilles said sympathetically.
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed morosely.
"You haven't told me who he is."
Behind the door, Xena was silently begging Gabrielle for the same information.
"I can't tell you that," protested Gabrielle. "It's a secret. I wouldn't feel right about telling someone else first."
"At least tell me what he looks like," Achilles pleaded.
Gabrielle considered. She supposed it wouldn't hurt.
Xena was straining every muscle forward, hand gripping the door, grimly determined to hear every word. She ignored the tightness in her chest, it wasn't important, she had bigger problems than trying to breathe. As incredible as it was to hear that Gabrielle had fallen in love, it was infuriating to know the worthless bastard hadn't even had the guts to say anything. What kind of man was walking around maybe not knowing, or caring, that he had Gabrielle's heart? How could he not know? What kind of man would leave her?
Unconsciously, her lips had drawn back into a snarl.
"Well....tall, naturally, you may have noticed I'm not......dark hair, blue eyes, nice cheekbones, a good jaw...big shoulders...a bit on the grim side, but I can fix that......oh, and a really great...."
Xena had ceased to listen, wracking her memory for someone they'd met who fit...
"Toris!" she thought savagely.
Her fingers drove through the paneling on the door. Her own brother was the worthless bastard who'd left Gabrielle, who'd gone back to Amphipolous. And she'd let him leave. She swore to herself. Of course, she hadn't seen it, but that wasn't the point. She'd let him go And all because Gabrielle hadn't told her. Told Toris, she corrected herself. Told both of them, although it was obvious now why Gabrielle hadn't said anything to her.
She took a deep breath and tried to get hold of herself, working her fingers out of the door after a puzzled look at them. She didn't remember how they got there, but that wasn't important now, either.
She picked up her knife and dropped heavily into the chair. Her eyes travelled aimlessly around the room, seeing nothing until they ranged over the bed and stayed there. Gabrielle discovering herself to be in love with Toris. Gabrielle leaving her to follow him to Amphipolous, the way Gabrielle had followed her. Toris claiming her as his....holding her....kissing her....making love to her....
Xena jerked her head around, focusing on Gabrielle's face inches away from her own, small hands gripping her arms.
"Don't shout, I can hear you," she said irritably, trying to cover her confusion.
"You haven't heard a word I've said," retorted Gabrielle. "Are you all right? You're not getting sick?"
Xena brushed away the hand that Gabrielle tried to put on her forehead. "I'm fine."
"Really. Then how did this happen?" She pointed, and Xena looked down, surprised to see the blood on her hand where the newly sharpened blade had bit.
"Just an accident."
"Right. You cut yourself with sharp weapons all the time." Gabrielle's voice was as sarcastic as Xena had ever heard it, and she was conscious of the bard's eyes on her back as she swiped roughly at her hand with a rag.
She stowed her knife and left for her bath with as much dignity as she could.
When she got back, Gabrielle was already in bed asleep, the shutters were fastened and the fire banked. Laying her sword on the floor within easy reach, Xena slipped in beside her, kicked at the short blanket in annoyance, and determined to mind her own business.
She was still minding it an hour later.
Gabrielle's safety and well-being were very much her business Xena wanted few things from her own life anymore, and expected even less, but Gabrielle's happiness was important to her. If Toris could give her that happiness......she shifted uncomfortably. It was inconceivable that the fierce, bright soul that was Gabrielle would endure long in the living death that life in Amphipolous would be to her. Excitement, adventure, meeting new people.....Gabrielle left friends behind her wherever she went. The same faces, the day-in and day-out routine of a village.....the safety, the security, Xena reminded herself. Gabrielle knows what life in a village is like. No one leaping out of bushes, or off roofs. No pitched battles, no ambushes, no come-ons in bars. No more hard ground, no more rainy nights, no more horses, Xena thought.
She glanced over as Gabrielle murmured softly in her sleep and turned over.
Fine- boned features and clear green eyes that laughed up at her to coax a reluctant smile. Compact build to her own rangy height. Small, deft hands dwarfed by her large ones. Innocent soul and blood-washed Warlord. Light to her dark. Xena exhaled slowly. It was hard to imagine a more unlikely pair. What we have most in common, she thought ruefully, is stubborness. That damn braiding business.....
She'd been saddling Argo one morning when she'd felt Gabrielle's eyes on her back.
"What?" she'd asked without turning around.
"I think we have to do something about that," Gabrielle had said in a critical tone.
"About what?" she asked puzzled, turning to face her.
"Your hair. It's all over the place. Doesn't it get in your eyes when you have to fight?"
At first, she'd thought this was just another one of Gabrielle's odd conversational forays. When she'd seen that the bard was serious, she'd shrugged and taken out her knife.
"What are you going to do with that?" Gabrielle asked, apprehensively.
She'd gestured to her hair. "Cut it," she said, fighting back a grin.
Smiling, she remembered Gabrielle's cry of horror, and how she'd almost ripped the knife out of her hand.
Gabrielle had spent ten minutes trying to convince her that there were other ways of keeping hair out of eyes than wrapping a leather tie carelessly around whatever could be gathered up. The bard ruthlessly swept aside any objections about constant tugging and pulling. Xena didn't intend to cut it, it was a certain statement of ability that she'd found useful in the past. Most warriors were very careful about anything that could be grabbed by an enemy, and kept their hair short or tightly bound. Long, flowing hair sent a message all it's own, but if it was going to make Gabrielle happy to braid it, what harm could it do?
"It hurts," Xena complained, more for something to say. She knew she was going to give in. Gabrielle had that look on her face, and the warrior wasn't going to dwell on other reasons she might have for agreeing.
"I won't hurt you. I promise," the bard said in a solemn tone, though her eyes were laughing.
Gabrielle had kept her word. At first, Xena thought she'd make use of the time to sharpen weapons, but that was usually what occupied her after dinner, when the fire was crackling and Gabrielle was either working on one of her parchments, or sitting back and just talking while Xena worked with the stone and oil. That hadn't gone well, though. After a number of sharp comments to 'sit still and stop fidgeting', she'd sat back and set herself to endure. Gabrielle's touch was gentle and soothing, and if it took longer than it would for Xena to braid Argo's mane, well, that was all right.. More than all right....
Xena blinked. Don't go there, she told herself. Gabrielle loved Toris, and it wasn't as if she had any claim on her, and no right to one either, really. Gabrielle had almost lost her life on more than one occasion because of her. True, the bard loved her, but she'd loved that strangely named pony, as well, so how much could that mean, really?. She should be grateful that Gabrielle had stayed as long as she had, although lately, she'd thought a few times, after catching a look out of the corner of her eye that Gabrielle....no. Why would she, after all?
Her brother was, she supposed, a good, steady...she didn't like to use the word 'dull', but she suspected it fit... man who would give Gabrielle the love she deserved, and she would be happy for her. She could visit, meet the newest members of her family. Gods above, she thought, children. Babies. Noisy ones, if they took after their mother. She looked down as Gabrielle flung out her arm, turning onto her stomach, her hand relaxed and warm across the warrior's chest. Smiling faintly, she shook her head at the sound muffled by the pillow. It wasn't easy to sleep with Gabrielle.
She'd be damned if she'd visit.
Xena was tired and irritated when she rose. Her hand hurt and her feet were cold. She was almost finished strapping on her armour when she heard Gabrielle's voice behind her.
"Morning." the bard muttered, half asleep.
Gabrielle opened her eyes completely and looked at her.
"I take it you didn't sleep well."
"Get dressed, Gabrielle. I'll pick up supplies and meet you back here. Be ready." She left rather abruptly, leaving Gabrielle staring after her, and at four holes in the door panel.
Xena was making her way through festival bound villagers, her saddlebag slung over a shoulder, when the commotion behind her caught her attention. She turned to see a group of heavily armed riders coming towards her, and she tensed as she recognized the lead rider. With no suprise, she watched him stop in front of her and dismount.
"Haven't seen you for a while, Xena," he said cheerfully.
"I can't say that I've missed you," she replied evenly. " You're a little far south, aren't you? What do you want, Merius?" She noticed that he appeared to have lost weight since she'd last seen him.
He spread his hands out.
"Relax. I don't want any trouble. I've..well..sort of settled down. You can only burn so many villages before you want something more in your life." He glared as she looked in disbelief.
"It's true," he said defensively. "I even got married a while back. Nice woman, didn't want me away from home." Xena recoiled slightly at the faint, silly grin on his weatherbeaten face. He saw, and frowned at her.
"Try it yourself if you don't believe me."
Xena restrained herself from asking if he expected her to find herself a nice woman as well, and instead asked him again what he wanted.
"I'm looking for someone."
"So much for married life," she said dryly.
He flushed. "Not that kind of someone. My brother-in-law. A few spears short of a cartload, if you know what I mean. He's all right most of the time, but when he gets a little....well, he can be dangerous. He got away and the wife's worried. I thought he might come here for the festival. He thinks he's a bard. Gods above, Xena, you've never heard drivel like his in your whole life," he said disgustedly. "Night after night...romance! What happened to good honest stories about killing? I can handle the romance myself just fine."
Xena stared at him for a moment, a familiar chill running up her back.
"What's his name, Merius," she demanded.
"Don't tell me you want to meet him."
She stepped forward, twisted her hand in his shirt and lifted him up. "His name!"
"Petrus," he said. He looked puzzled at the relief on her face as she set him down. "Likes to call himself Achilles, though."
Xena took off at a dead run for the Inn, pushing her way through the crowds at first, then with a clear way as bodies melted away in front of her. Behind her, she could her Merius shouting and pounding along.
She slowed down as she saw the ring of people ahead. No one was moving, not a good sign. She rose on the balls of her feet, and looked over the crowd, Merius coming up beside her.
"What's going on?" he puffed.
"Your brother-in-law just dropped another spear. That's not all he's going to lose. He's got a knife to my friend's throat." Her eyes were hard and her face set as Merius grabbed her arm. It was his turn to recoil. He'd seen that look before.
"Xena...he's not responsible..truly. It just happens to him. Your friend won't hurt him, will he?"
"It's not my friend he has to worry about. No one lays a hand on her. No one," she finished in a low, cold voice.
"Xena, don't hurt him..you don't have to. You can usually talk him him out of it. Look, he knows who you are. Find out what he wants, and he'll let the woman go. Humour him. He probably just wants to hear a few stories," he urged. If anything happened to the little bastard, his wife would kill him.. And Xena, and anyone else she thought was involved. He swallowed nervously.
Xena paused, considering what she knew. Anyone could kill with a knife to someone's throat. She couldn't endanger Gabrielle, or anyone else, by charging in like a bull, so she'd have to try it Merius's way. She could still keep her options open. One drop of blood, just one...and Merius wouldn't have to worry about his brother-in-law anymore.
" I'll see what I can do. But, Merius..." she met his eyes. His mouth twisted, and he gave a short nod. Xena started to push her way to the front of the crowd, trying to hear what was happening in front of her.
Gabrielle tugged slightly at the skinny arm around her neck, the one holding the less-than-skinny knife. She was worried, but not seriously concerned. Not yet, anyway.
"Look, Achilles," she used her most reasonable tone, " you really don't want me, you just think you do. I told you...I'm involved. Sort of. Why don't we just go somewhere quiet and talk about this before my friend..."
"Your friend! Your friend's not here, you've been left behind. I can make you happy, why won't you go with me!"
Achilles was actually whining. Gabrielle made an exasperated sound and promised herself a good talking to about keeping her mouth shut when she had an urge to be helpful in the future. Assuming she had a future. Achilles was sweating nervously and his voice was cracking as it rose. She had to end this fast, before Xena came back. The warrior had a tendency to get very irritated, very quickly, when little things like this happened. Gabrielle's best chance was to play the hopeless romance angle for all she was worth, and with luck, no one would get hurt.
"Achilles, how can I say this? I don't want to hurt you, but try to understand...I already love..."
"Me," said Xena, pushing her way past the last man in front of her to stand in the clear space around Gabrielle and her captor.
It seemed obvious that Achilles believed that an abandoned, heartbroken Gabrielle would be willing to go with him, given the right encouragment. The easiest way to handle this was to convince him that Gabrielle was neither abandoned nor heartbroken. If that didn't work, there were other ways. Faced with unwelcome reminders of that idiotic girl and her fool of a boyfriend in the story Gabrielle had told her, she'd forced her way forward in time to finish Gabrielle's sentence before she got herself into even more trouble.
Gabrielle was giving her a strange look, but her concentration was on Achilles, taking note of his appearance. He was gaping at her like a dying fish and she tried to look as non-threatening as she could. Probably she wasn't succeeding very well. She wasn't feeling non-threatening. Achilles took a step backward, dragging Gabrielle with him.
"But...you're not..." he stammered.
Xena raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth, but Gabrielle hastily intervened.
"I..um...never..well, actually told you it was a man."
Xena heard Merius behind her, muttering something, she couldn't hear what.
Achilles was just staring at Xena, standing a few feet away, her hands relaxed at her sides, well away from her weapons. Gabrielle could feel his arm trembling.
"But I thought...she said...you didn't know!" Achilles sounded confused. Xena could sympathize with that. She was feeling confused herself. Worry about it later, she thought.
She rummaged through the memories of all those stories she'd been hearing, searching for something to say that might sound convincing, but she couldn't remember a word of any of them. Can't just stand here, got to get that knife, she told herself.
"I did know," she said in a low, soft voice, holding his eyes with hers and inching forward. "How could I tell her until I was sure of my feelings...sure of her feelings?" Just a bit closer, now. "I would rather die alone and silent than cause her a moment's distress." Yes, she thought, seeing his expression change. There was that same slightly silly look she'd seen on Merius's face.
Time to go for it.
" I love her more than my life and I would die for her without hesitation." The crowd around them had gone completely silent. "She is sunlight on the darkest day, and when the moon bathes the night, she haunts my dreams."
Xena was close enough now to count Gabrielle's eyelashes and she flicked a glance at the bard in warning. She frowned slightly. Gabrielle was staring at her as if she'd never seen her before, her eyes....Xena blinked and looked back at Achilles.
Carefully, slowly, she reached out and lifted his arm from around Gabrielle's neck. Her other hand went to Gabrielle's shoulder, and she pulled her clear as Merius came up from behind Achilles to take a firm hold on his brother-in-law. The crowd burst into chatter around them as Xena looked closely at a slightly glassy-eyed Gabrielle, who for once seemed to have nothing to say.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked. She exhaled sharply when she received no answer and put a finger under the bard's chin to lift her head, leaning down to look at her throat. It was unmarked, no sign of blood, thank the Gods.
"Gabrielle," she said loudly.
Gabrielle looked up. "Mmm? Oh...yeah, hi." Xena quirked an eyebrow, but Merius got her attention. He had Achilles... Petrus, Xena remembered, by the arm.
"That was beautiful," Petrus said, blinking rapidly up at her.
Xena straightened to her full height, looming over him and transforming herself from soft-voiced, would-be lover, to cold-eyed warrior. Petrus moved back a step into Merius, who scowled and lifted his boot.
"I'm sorry about this. That was quite a...well, thanks for not hurting him, Xena," Merius shot his brother-in-law a quick glare.
She nodded shortly.
"Xena? Xena...now, where..." Petrus muttered.
Gabrielle did her best to stifle a snicker as Petrus stared at Xena with a terrified expression. " "Xena? the Warrior Princess? " His voice cracked. "But you're just a story...you're not real!"
Gabrielle gripped Xena's arm at the same time that Merius pulled back on Petrus, and the ex-Warlord chuckled. "Believe me, boy, she's plenty real. Don't press your luck, now."
Petrus swallowed, and his eyes darted over the woman in front of him: tall, dark hair, a heavy, businesslike sword on her back, good cheekbones that framed two blazing blue eyes, and a jaw that was clenched with annoyance.
"I assumed...I mean," he started a bit wildly, "you look like..."
"My brother," said Xena flatly. Only Gabrielle heard the almost undetectable bite in her voice. She looked sharply at her, but Xena's attention was on Petrus.
"I didn't know you had a brother," remarked Merius. "Thanks again."
Xena turned to glare at the crowd as Merius took Petrus back to his men, gesturing angrily as he pulled him along. Gabrielle felt sorry for him.
"Sure you're OK?" asked Xena.
"Yeah, fine." Gabrielle gave her a look. "Are you sure you've never been a bard? That was...pretty inspired."
Xena shrugged slightly. "All those romances you insist on telling me..." she said vaguely. The Gods knew she'd heard enough of them.
"What did he mean when he said I wasn't real?" Xena changed the subject.
"Oh...long story," Gabrielle said, grinning. Her eyes shifted to look Xena over slowly, from dark hair to booted foot. "You're real, all right. No doubt about that."
Xena quirked an eyebrow, puzzled.
"He assumed you weren't. That's the really tragic thing about assumptions. Sometimes you don't find out until it's too late that they're dead wrong."
Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's for a moment, then she turned and headed for the Inn.
Xena watched her go, suddenly uneasy, and looked away after a moment, trying to shake the mood off. They'd lost some time in the past few days. Nothing to worry about, though. She headed to the stable to saddle Argo. They could go straight through Metoa and on to Athens.....
"The Last Stand"
Gabrielle drew a deep breath of air into her lungs and squinted into the late afternoon sun. The cries and moans faded behind her as she headed for the gates, shrugging tired shoulders and wishing she was any place else. Exchanging small smiles with other women on the same errand, she rounded the corner into the small recess that housed the gates and had to stop short to avoid falling over Xena.
White teeth gleamed in the dirt-and-sweat streaked face, and Xena pulled her legs up so that Gabrielle could sit down beside her. She was sitting back, leaning against the heavy wood wall, relaxing while she could, eyes closed and face tilted to the sky.
"I suppose this isn't over," Gabrielle remarked, dropping carefully down.
"Doubt it," replied Xena. Her voice was hoarse from shouting and weariness, and Gabrielle winced as she heard it.
"Are you all right?" the bard asked, quietly. She ran her eyes over the warrior's body and dusty, bloodstained leathers, looking for signs of injury. Little of the crusted blood was Xena's, and Gabrielle thanked the Gods for that.
"Mmm." A corner of Xena's mouth twitched. "You?"
"Sure, I'm fine. Here, I brought you water and something to eat. It's not much," Gabrielle said apologetically. Xena didn't need to know that some of it was from her own rations.
Gabrielle watched as bloodshot blue eyes opened and studied her briefly. As they had almost constantly lately, they started with her face, moved to the bandage on her shoulder, now grimey from the need to be changed, then down to its twin wrapped around her stomach. Only when they were satisfied at what they saw did Xena reach out to take the waterskin, her head going back for a long drink, heedless of the trickles that tracked down her throat and chest as she swallowed.
"Better. Thanks." The weariness in Xena's face disappeared for a moment as her eyes met the bard's.
Gabrielle smiled up at her as Xena took the bread and cheese, the warrior's eyes moving around the square while she chewed. Everywhere Gabrielle looked, there seemed to be exhaused men slumped against anything that would hold them up. Women tried to coax husbands, brothers, sons or lovers to take just one more bite, one more sip of water while there was still time.
There were a lot fewer of them than there had been yesterday. Or the day before.
"The wounded?" Xena asked between bites.
"We're doing all right. It's pretty crowded in there, though. Some of the men want to be out here." The bard paused for a moment, then said quietly, "we'll need another pyre, tonight." Staring at the sky, head against sun-warmed wood, she felt Xena's eyes on her.
Still not fully recovered from her wounds, Gabrielle was working with the midwife. The village had no healers, and although they were doing the best that they could, it wasn't enough. Fire arrows burned people and property without discrimination, catapults didn't care where their burdens fell, and sword wounds needed fast, accurate stitching that no one was used to doing.
A dirty, callused hand covered her own in a brief hard squeeze, and Gabrielle gripped tight as it started to withdraw. She looked at Xena, saw the blue eyes soften slightly, and tried to smile. Gabrielle could feel the strength in the warrior, like a fire that refused to be quenched, and her spirits lifted. It was impossible to think of anything as hopeless when Xena was beside her.
They sat silently for a time, and Gabrielle could easily have thought that Xena was asleep, except for the firm hold on her hand. She should have been asleep, they all should have been. The last four days had been a blur of fighting, noisy confusion, and death.
Gabrielle had been half dozing in the saddle, lulled by Argo's rhythmic walk, when the horse stopped suddenly. Opening her eyes in sleepy puzzlement, she'd found Xena standing tensely by her knee, eyes searching out whatever had put her instincts on alert.
"What?" She kept her voice to a whisper.
Xena had shaken her head slightly, most of her attention on their surroundings. Her vigilance was rewarded with time to put the reins into Gabrielle's hands when the raiding party appeared out of the trees up the track.
"Get going..southeast..now!" Xena moved clear of Argo, her hand going back to draw her sword.
"I.." Gabrielle started to protest, but Xena had anticipated that. She was moving forward, and shouted over her shoulder, "Argo, go!"
The order sent Argo off the track with Gabrielle more passenger than rider. She'd heard the faint ring of swords behind her as the horse made her way through the woods and into the cultivated fields beyond. The bard had eventually found herself here, startled villagers clustered around asking anxious questions she couldn't answer. Argo had been stabled and fed, and she'd paced the outside of the walls for hours before spotting the figure breaking out of the trees, running easily toward the village. They'd been here ever since.
"Why are they doing this? Don't they care about the treaty?"
Xena shrugged. "Either word hasn't got this far out yet, or they're not interested in peace."
"What happened at that meeting?" The elders had gone out earlier, under a flag of truce to meet with the raiders. Only two had come back.
"The Metoans intend to take this village. It'll be leveled, just like the one over there." Xena didn't need to point out the village where the bulk of the raiders were. Gabrielle could see the smoke as it burned. They'd be facing those same raiders in the morning.
"So, what now?" she asked. Xena would have a plan. She always did.
Silence. Gabrielle looked at her in surprise, then with suspicion. Xena didn't look thoughtful, or worried, or confident. She had no expression on her face at all, and the bard felt a tiny shiver of cold run up her back.
"Tell me," the bard ordered. She knew that look
"It's not my decision, Gabrielle." Xena turned her head to meet her eyes. "There aren't many choices. They can either fight or run."
"They've been fighting. It hasn't done any good, and without you here, they'd need to be halfway to Athens by now." Gabrielle protested.
Xena smiled slightly. "I don't think so. They know about the treaty, I told them, and they don't want to give up their homes."
"They're just farmers. How long do they think they can hold out before they have to leave? That's a small army out there, in case they hadn't noticed."
"They know that."
"What about the women and children who've been hurt? Has anybody thought to ask them what they think?" Gabrielle was angry at what she saw as senseless stubbornness, but Xena understood, all too well, what kept the villagers from slipping out into the countryside.
"It's not up to me," repeated Xena. She had her eyes closed, but she didn't need to see to know that Gabrielle was watching her. She always knew. Releasing Gabrielle's hand, she rose to her feet, stretching thoroughly, trying to loosen sore, tired muscles. The bard gave her an appraising look and stood beside her.
"What aren't you telling me?" she asked, gripping Xena's arm. She got a quick glance, then the warrior turned rapidly at the sound of footsteps coming towards them. Gabrielle watched her friend's back for a moment, then went to join her and the two remaining elders.
"Tonight would be best. Even that might be too late." One of the men looked at the other and sighed heavily. Everyone was tired. "We'd best tell the others. Give them as much time as we can." Xena nodded and Gabrielle waited impatiently until they were out of hearing.
"What is..." she began, determined to get an explanation.
Xena's face was grim as she curled both big hands gently over Gabrielle's shoulders. Few things could have alarmed the bard more. Xena was not a demonstrative woman. She looked up apprehensively.
"I want you to get the wounded together and ready to travel. Only the ones who can walk." Xena hesitated visibly. "No stretcher cases. That includes the children, Gabrielle."
"We're leaving people behind? We can't do that...children!" The bard could hardly believe what she was hearing.
"It's not up to me, I've had my say about it, and they've made their decision. There's not much time. Hurry, and we'll talk when everything's ready."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue, but no words came out. She searched the warrior's face, but Xena wore the mask that had been so frequent in their early days together, and there was little to read there. The bard nodded, and Xena's face relaxed slightly. A small smile, and she was striding away after the elders, and Gabrielle headed for the injured.
Gabrielle was grateful that the patients already knew of their elders' choice. She couldn't have faced telling someone that they would have to stay behind. The next few hours flew by, and she was surprised to find it was full dark when she finally came out of the makeshift hospital in search of Xena. Argo was waiting, saddled and loaded, and although it was hard to see in a village that dared show few lights, she made out figures in the square, and nestled into the shadows of what buildings were left standing. Murmured voices came at her, directionless in the soft summer night..
Gabrielle supressed a start of surprise and turned to see Xena behind her. "Yeah, just a few more minutes. Are you going to tell me what's going on, now?"
Xena drew her around the corner of the building, moving carefully to avoid the debris..
"You'll leave here, and move immediately south for a half-league or so. That should take you around the army, then swing east. Head for the Temple, and send a messenger to Marmax. He'd better get down here if he wants to enforce the treaty, or there won't be any peace," Xena told her. "We'll hold out here as long as we can."
The bard stared at her in disbelief. "You're staying here? Without me? I'm not leaving until you do! These people know this country, they don't need me to lead them to the Temple. I'm not going." Gabrielle voice was low and hard.
Xena said nothing, just stared at the wall over Gabrielle's head.
"Well? Say something.... aren't you going to tell me that we have to help these people? That you'll meet me at the Temple? That everything's going to be all right?" she finished with a questioning note in her voice that she hated to hear.
Xena looked down then, and met her eyes. "No, I'm not going to tell you that everything's going to be all right, and I'm not going to tell you that I'll meet you at the Temple. If we can hold the army here, Marmax will have a chance to catch up with them. Otherwise, the fighting will just start again. They know I'm here, so they won't go around this village. That means there's a chance to finish this." She looked briefly uncertain, then continued. "That's why you're leaving. Not because you can't fight, I know you can, and not because the wounded will need your help, although they will. You're leaving because I want you to leave."
"No! Don't you ask me to do this....." Gabrielle collected herself. "I can't. What happens if..." she tried to swallow around the lump in her throat, memories of the wounded and dying in the Temple, memories of that terrible night in Salmoneus's factory, all too vivid in her mind. "We can get these people out of here, it's just one village..."
"It's always just one village..and then another, and another..it just goes on until it's stopped. These people are farmers, not soldiers. They won't leave their homes, and I can't leave them." Xena's voice was so soft Gabrielle could hardly hear it, and it became softer yet.
"Gabrielle, I've lived a lifetime already. You haven't. I need you to leave. Please."
Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes blur with tears as the bard struggled with herself. Everything she wanted to say would only add to Gabrielle's grief, and she wouldn't do that, so she kept silent, wanting this to be over and the bard safely gone, but wishing it could go on forever. She envied Gabrielle her tears.
All around them, shadowy figures clung together in final goodbyes, quiet voices and low sobbing carried on the still air. Gabrielle heard it all as if it came from a vast distance away, and she wondered if the warrior could hear her heart breaking.
Her chin came up slightly. "I'll take them. Then I'm coming back."
The corner of Xena's mouth moved into a smile, and she reached out a hand. She touched Gabrielle's cheek, gently moving her fingertips on soft skin wet with tears.
"Thank you...for everything," she said quietly. Too late to say anything now. Gabrielle was strong, she would go.
Gabrielle threw herself into Xena's arms, wrapping her own arms around the warrior. She buried her face against her shoulder, heedless of the armour, and tried desperately to memorize the shape and texture of leather and Xena. Xena felt her trembling, clenched her jaw, and held her tightly. Soft hair brushed against her cheek, and she closed her eyes against the might-have-beens.
Gabrielle felt a warm hand on the back of her head, the rub of a cheek and felt breath stir against her ear. " Remember, I love you."
Then Xena was gone, melting into shadow and leaving her alone.
"I love you, too," she managed, and hurried to Argo.
Gabrielle didn't look back as she and Argo led the too-small group out past the walls and into the countryside. She didn't see Xena, standing in the darkness by the gates, watching with eyes filled with regret, her fingers idly resting on the shoulder still damp from Gabrielle's tears.
Marmax looked sympathetically at the silent woman beside him who stared down at the remains of what had once been a small but prosperous village. His soldiers were quiet behind him, no more anxious to go down there than he was. He rubbed at the stubble on his jaw, tired from the hard ride, the fighting, and the negotiations that somehow seemed to take more from him than the combat. Now, there was this to face, in some ways harder than anything coming before it..
"Why don't you wait for us here? There's no need..."
Gabrielle idly stroked Argo's shoulder, giving no indication that she had heard his words. Her attention seemed turned inwards, as if, he thought uneasily, she was listening to something only she could hear.
"Come on, Argo." The horse moved away from the line of trees and broke into a canter.
Argo's only reaction to the cloying smell of smoke was to roll her eyes nervously as Gabrielle led her through the remains of the gate and into the small square. The horse stepped carefully, avoiding bodies that lay where they had fallen.
Gabrielle looked around her. Now that she was finally here, she could ignore for a moment the constant cold fear that now lived inside her.
It hadn't been a big village, but in the short length of time she and Xena had been here, she had been impressed with the tightly knit community. That pile of rubble had been the shoemaker's home, this pile here the home of a woman who baked the best nutbread Gabrielle had ever eaten. A faint smile touched her lips as she remembered urging Xena to "try just one bite", and laughing in embarrassement as Xena held it to her nose and gave it an exaggerated sniff. The bewildered look on the woman's face had even drawn a smile from Xena.
Now, there was no more shoemaker, no more baker, no more village; a Thessalian village, reduced to ruin and rubble by captured Thessalian catapults stripped and wheeled for fast movement by Metoans. All that remained were piles of boulders, splintered and charred timbers, and bodies.
Everywhere, bodies. There was hardly a wall left standing.
Gabrielle registered the movement of skittish horses behind her and the voices of the men trying to calm them. They finally had to picket them outside the walls. Except Argo. Argo was Xena's, and she was as unique as the warrior princess. Gabrielle felt her heart constrict.
All around her, men were tying cloths over their noses and mouths against the smell of death that mixed in the air with the smoke. With a soft word to Argo, she took her staff and did the same.
Each body was checked and collected, every rubble heap examined, and Gabrielle was feeling lightheaded and sick. She'd surprised a pack of wild dogs at the far end of the square, and her heart was still pounding. Although they had found bodies with the characteristic wounds of the chakrum, there was no sign of either the weapon or Xena.
Marmax came up behind her as she pulled the waterskin from the saddle, her shoulder rigid under his gentle hand.
"I'm sorry, we've found nothing. All the bodies have been collected and after we light the pyre, we must go. They aren't that far ahead of us." Gabrielle was silent, looking blindly toward the trees.
"Trees. Have you checked the woods," she said quickly, stopping in mid step when he took her by the arm. "She could have headed towards them, if she was hurt or couldn't..."
"Gabrielle, she knew where you were. If she could have made the woods, we'd have met her on the way, seen some sign that she was there. She would have come to you if she could." It was true, and she knew it. Her eyes blurred and she turned back to Argo.
"Just get ready to leave. It won't be long. Keep your horse saddled."
"I'm not leaving." Marmax raised his eyebrows. That flat statement sounded far more like the warrior he remembered than the bard he had thought too innocent to be in a war zone.
"You can't stay here alone."
Gabrielle turned angrily, and Marmax drew back.
"I'm not alone," she said insistently. "Xena's here, and I'm staying until I find her. I promised to take her home. I won't leave...I promised...she's going home..." Gabrielle turned away as her voice broke, leaning her head against Argo's silky coat. Her eyes were stinging with hot tears and she couldn't swallow. 'Gods, how many times will I have to face this?' was her only thought.
She heard a sigh behind her, and there was an awkward pat to her shoulder, and soon all she could hear was the crackle of the pyre and fading hoofbeats.
"We'll find her, Argo," she whispered to the mare, "we will..." but where? she thought. The only places left to look were under collapsed buildings.
"I'm sure the horse will be a big help."
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. Once heard, that mocking voice couldn't be forgotten.
"Where is she," demanded the bard, whirling around to face one of the most handsome men she had ever seen.
"I don't know.....where?" He looked around, wide-eyed.
"I want to know what you've done with her." Gabrielle took an angry step forward before she checked herself.
"Nothing. Yet." Ares shrugged, as if it was a matter too insignificant to bother himself about. "That's why I'm here."
"Oh?" Gabrielle was trying to remind herself that caution was called for, here. "Did you start this war?"
"No need. They did a good job of it all by themselves, don't you think? No reason not to take an interest, though."
"What is it that you want?" she asked.
Ares studied her. "Xena's pesky_little_friend." She flushed as he stared, repeating the words he had taunted Xena with, in Lotia. "I'm here to see you, of course. Maybe there's something I can help you with."
"Help me with? You?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. "What could you possibly do for me?"
She swallowed and took an involuntary step back as he met her eyes.
"You're looking for Xena. I know where she is. I thought that you might be...interested."
"Yeah, I'm interested. What I don't understand is why you'd be willing to help me. I mean, she's...dead, isn't she?" Gabrielle bit her lip. Ares wasn't known for kindness. This couldn't just be about finding Xena's body.
"She might be. She might not be." He shrugged again
Gabrielle made a visible effort to keep from grabbing Ares by his tunic and wringing the information from him. Elation sang through her....Xena was alive. She had to be. Otherwise Ares wouldn't be wasting his time here. He certainly didn't need a bard. . 'Easy,' she told herself as his eyes narrowed in anger at her temerity, 'you can't help Xena if he turns you into a frog or something.'
"I see," she said carefully.
Ares looked amused. "Do you, Gabrielle?" he wanted to know as he sauntered to her side and let a lock of her hair fall over his hand.
She tried to keep from shuddering as he stood too close beside her. She could understand now just how hard it was to resist the pull of the God of War. Despite what she knew, despite what he had done to Xena, there was something incredibly compelling about him. She shut her eyes and remembered Xena, sword inches from her throat, standing calmly waiting for death at Ares' hands.
"Xena told you she'd rather be dead than go back to you. I won't betray her," she said flatly.
Incongruously, she thought of Petrus, and that ridiculous mixup in Antes. If he'd thought the Warrior Princess was fictional, he'd never believe that she was standing in a ruined village, bargaining with the God of War for Xena's life. She almost laughed, but caught sight of Ares' scowling face.
"Did I ask you to do that? This is between you and me, Gabrielle. Xena is just..." he searched for the right word, and smiled, " the prize. Think about it, " he suggested, "if she's alive and I tell you where she is, you can get to her in time. If she's dead, then you have her body."
"And what do you get out of it?" Gabrielle wanted to know. It was dangerous to bargain with a God, especially this one.
"Does it matter? This has nothing to do with Xena. This is between us." He lowered his voice. "You know what you want to do."
The bard swallowed. She knew. If Xena was alive, as she now believed, she might get to her in time without Ares. Or she might not. What could Ares want with her...
"What is her life worth to you, Gabrielle?" he asked softly.
Gabrielle looked up and met the eyes of the God of War squarely with her own.
"Everything," she said simply.
Ares looked smugly satisfied and held out his arm in a warrior's grip. She hesitated a moment before gripping it in the way she had seen Xena do. It surprised her that it felt just like any other arm, solid under her fingers.
"I'll get back to you on that," he said flippantly, before fading from sight.
"Wait!" She looked around wildly. No Ares, no Xena walking toward her, or lying at her feet. Just an anxious horse, village walls, rubble, the Inn, the funeral pyre....
Her head snapped back around and she stared in amazement. The Inn was wavering insubstantially in the sunlight, whole and intact on the outside. It was almost transparent and danced like a mirage as she watched. With a gasp, she broke into a run.
She didn't let herself stop to think, just charged in the open doorway, thumping to a halt. It was bare on the inside, except for the shreds of wood that had once been benches and table. The floor sounded firm under her boots, but the walls....she couldn't watch the twisting they were doing.
Calling Xena's name, she checked every room, heart pounding with fear. It didn't take long, there were only four, and all showed the same signs of devastation as the main room.
This was getting her nowhere. Back in the big front room, she calmed herself, slowing her breathing from the harsh pant that rattled in her ears, and just.....waited. Xena was somewhere in this building. All she had to do was find her. Eyes closed, she pictured herself in a market, completing her purchases, turning away and walking unerringly towards wherever Xena was. She opened her eyes, and looked at a small doorway cut cleverly into the wood behind the bar, tucked out of sight in the corner. Smiling in satisfaction, she walked over, reached out and opened it.
Narrow steps led down into a low storage room cut into the ground, the temperature dropping the further down she went. Stale ale permeated the ground and the air, she could see the ruined casks in the dim light. She refused to think about where that light was coming from, and she had other worries, anyway. She'd found Xena: that sword was unmistakable, and the only chakram she'd ever seen hung from the warrior's hip..
Threading her way through cramped rows of stretchers, each with a silent, unmoving occupant, she couldn't take her eyes from the figure lying partly on it's side, curled protectively over something on a stretcher beneath her. Gabrielle spared a glance around, then, trying to understand what had happened.
The cellar was full of the injured, and she couldn't see any armed men. There were none left by that time, she thought. Probably, the survivors had all come down here, hoping the stout floors of the Inn would save at least some of them when it became apparent that the raiding Mitoans intended to leave nothing standing. As Gabrielle knelt, she could see the imprint of wounds left by heavy floor beams caving in to crush the already helpless.
Xena was covered in dust and dirt, and Gabrielle could hardly tell where her leathers left off and her skin began. Ever so carefully, she lifted Xena's head and slid it onto her thigh. She didn't look at the body of the child the warrior had tried to shield.
Shaking fingers gave her a weak but steady pulse. Dark hair framed a filthy white face, lips cracked from lack of water. The bard thought she was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen.
Gabrielle gently brushed her forehead clear and touched her lips to cool skin. She sniffled and wiped angrily at a tear, took a deep breath and ran her hands over arms and legs in a quick search for anything broken. The shallow breathing never changed, and she took that as a good sign. She talked to Xena as she worked.
"It's me, I'm here..it's going to be all right....I've got to get you out of here...I need to leave for just a minute, then I'll be back." She reached behind her and took the blanket off the body. It wouldn't be missed and she needed it. She'd spare a thought for taking from the dead later, she told herself, and pillowed Xena's head with it.
At the door of the Inn, she whistled for Argo. Xena was too heavy for her to carry under the best of circumstances and she'd never make it up those steps if she had to drag her. The easiest, fastest answer was a rope and Argo.
Argo didn't like the Inn. Not at all. Gabrielle made herself move to her, patted her, and explained the situation. At first, she'd felt silly about talking to a horse, as if she could understand what she was being told, but Xena had simply levelled one of 'those' looks at her and raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle had subsided and slid a dubious look to the mare. Xena talked to Argo, so Gabrielle resigned herself to the necessity of doing the same.
The bard wasn't surprised when Argo snorted, then stepped reluctantly into the Inn. Gabrielle stayed with her and led her over to the doorway.
"Ok, Argo. You wait here, all right? I'm going to tie this rope around Xena and when I give the signal, you move backwards. OK?" Argo blew air out of her nostrils, and Gabrielle fought back a desperate need to laugh. She would laugh later. With Xena.
The rope in her hands, Gabrielle cleared a path from the bottom of the stairs over to where Xena lay. The warrior never indicated that she was aware of the bard moving her onto a stretcher she'd rigged to be pulled, even though Gabrielle told her what she was going to do. A thick bunch of blankets went around her, and Gabrielle whistled up to Argo.
It went fairly quickly, but not fast enough for Gabrielle. She kept looking nervously at the building around her, and the only one happier to see the outside again was Argo, who came over and blew gently at the figure on the stretcher.
"Good girl, Argo. I have an apple for you, good horse." Gabrielle patted her, and laughed at the superior look she seemed to be getting. She turned her attention to Xena and had just knelt by her side when a faint sound caught her ear.
She looked up in alarm, ready to throw herself over the warrior, and watched, wide-eyed, as the Inn caved in. There was only the slightest of hint of what the actual sound must have been like, but she shuddered as she thought what it must have signified to the people in the storage cellar. It continued to waver in the dying light, a ghost Inn tumbling down to bury ghosts, and then there was only the pile of rubble, as it had been when she had ridden in. It was utterly silent, just the wind through the village ruins. Even the pack of dogs she could see again stood stock still as the hand of a God moved over the village and then withdrew.
Gabrielle discovered she was holding her breath.
She found a fairly sheltered spot and with Argo's help, she moved Xena there. The hearth was still good, and after she gave Argo her promised apple, she got a fire going, went to the well for water, and used one of Xena's knives to cut up cloth.
It was well after dark when Gabrielle had finished stripping and bathing a still unconscious Xena. She was worried, but one look at the heavy bruising and the partly healed sword cuts at least let her believe that unconsciousness was to be expected. The Warrior Princess would ride again, going forth into battle on behalf of the helpless. She smiled at falling into the comforting rythym of storytelling, knowing what she was evading.
It was useless to tell herself that Xena was like family, that she loved her like family. Her family had never understood her hopes or her dreams, dismissing them as mere escapes from a life that was good enough for them and should be good enough for her. That had hurt the worst of all, Gabrielle thought. No one understood.
'Until I met Xena. She didn't expect me to be my mother. She didn't expect me to be anyone except myself. But is this the me I expected to be?'
Propped up against Xena's saddle, warrior breathing quietly by her side, she considered her life in the past year. Ambushes, pitched battles, narrow escapes from death, hard ground, rainy nights. Horses. People she'd come to care for, dying. Terror, gnawing at her. Having to struggle for answers to dilemmas she'd hardly known existed, or worse, finding there were no answers.
She looked down to Xena, thinking about the other side of the dinar. It was easy enough to list the places she'd been, the things she'd done, the people she'd met. That didn't have that much to do with Xena, though, not really, she thought. Xena was sunny days and the possibilities around the next corner. She was the realized dream of the Academy, the hard ground and rainy nights of a life being experienced, not simply observed. If the bard had lost people she cared about, well, everyone did. It was a risk, yes, but did that mean it was better not to care about anyone? And if you never asked the questions, how could you even begin to find the answers?
She brushed the hair back off Xena's temples. Her friend was evenings around the fire after a long day, the smell of dinner cooking, blue eyes looking up just before she spoke, a smile flashed at her after a silent thought. Joys, disappointments, dangers shared and survived. Answers to questions she hadn't asked.
And now there was Ares. And more answers, and more questions.
Gabrielle pulled the blankets up under Xena's chin, making sure she was well covered against the night's chill. The fire was built up next, both for warmth and to keep the dog pack away, the big sword unsheathed and laid beside her with her own staff. Her last action was to nestle in close to Xena. If she stirred during the night, Gabrielle intended to know about it.
Without moving a muscle, Xena tried to locate herself. She hurt all over, and it was hard to stifle a groan of pain. Feeling fuzzy, she separated out sounds individually. That crackle was a fire, yes, those were nightbirds that she was used to hearing all the time, that faint woof was a dog, and the rythym of the breathing against her shoulder matched Gabrielle's. She dragged her eyes open, and shifted them to the right without moving her head.
She was on her back, Gabrielle's head pillowed on her shoulder. The weight across her chest must be the bard's arm, and with a grimace, she lifted the blanket, saw that it was, and took a second look. She had no trouble seeing the bruises. Given what she remembered, she'd been damn lucky to come out of there alive. Obviously, she had Gabrielle to thank for that.
Carefully, she eased out from under Gabrielle and hunted for the waterskin to quench a raging thirst. She could almost hear herself creaking as she sat back on the blanket, thirst satisfied for now, and looked around. Not that there was much to see. It was dark, but that wouldn't have made a difference. When she'd hauled the last stretcher into the storage room below the Inn, it had been the last building still more or less standing. Since she and Gabrielle were the only ones here, she was the last one standing, too.
Gabrielle was propped on one elbow, grinning at her, and Xena smiled back. Scrambling out of the blankets, the bard sat next to her.
"How do you feel?"
"Like a building fell on me. Pretty much what you'd expect," Xena answered.
"You should lie down. I don't know if you've hurt your head or not. Or how long you were out."
"I'm all right. I didn't hurt my head, I just...went away for a while." Out of habit, Xena ran her eyes over Gabrielle, starting at her face, moving to the wound on her neck and down to her stomach. Thoughtfully, she looked back at the bard's face, Gabrielle evading her eyes. She'd seen it, though, fear and something else. She shifted her position, unable to prevent a groan.
"Lie down," Gabrielle ordered.
"I should really..."
"Lie down." The bard met her eyes, then. "You're the only one left. Marmax and his men have gone after the raiders. Everyone in that storage room...they're all dead." Gabrielle looked down at her hands.
"Thanks for getting me out of there," Xena said gently. She reached out to touch Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle looked up and Xena could see the tears in her eyes. "Even the children, Xena. There was nothing I could do."
"There was nothing anyone could do. That's the true horror of war. It touches everyone one way or another. Ares loves it," Xena finished bitterly.
"I know." Gabrielle spoke without thinking, and Xena's hand tightened on her shoulder.
"You saw Ares?" she asked, very softly. Her eyes were suddenly hard in the firelight. "What did he want?"
Gabrielle looked at her with frightened eyes, and Xena felt cold waves ripple up her back.
She moved and put both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, holding the green eyes with hers. "Tell me."
"She can't do that. She doesn't know."
At the first word, Xena was moving, rolling on the blanket to take her sword and rise to her feet. She ignored the fiery lances of pain running through her body and concentrated on staying between Gabrielle and Ares.
He ran an appreciative eye over her. She'd forgotten she was naked, and it seemed to distract Ares. Good. She could use that. If she had to fight a God, she'd need all the advantages she could get.
"Then suppose you tell me." The flat command in her voice brought a smile to Ares' face.
"Gabrielle and I have an...understanding."
"And what kind of understanding would that be? You want to be told a story?" Understanding? What in Hades would Ares want with Gabrielle?
He started to move closer, and she lifted her sword suggestively. "Keep back," she told him softly.
He just grinned at the steel in her voice and asked, "don't tell me you want to fight?"
"If it comes to that. You're not taking her."
"Oh? And why is that? And what makes you think you can stop me if that's what I want?"
Xena narrowed her eyes, set herself. "I'll stop you. She stays with me. You hurt her, you change her, and I swear, God or not, I'll kill you if it takes me until the end of time to figure out how."
"A battle between us would be interesting. Not like that last time. You'd do it, too. And that's why I want you back." He eyed her again. "Partly, anyway. She's already given me what I want."
"And that is?" Xena held her breath. There wasn't a sound from Gabrielle behind her.
Ares flashed white teeth in a grin. "Now I know for sure just what a life is worth. Something to think about, don't you agree?"
Xena snarled as Ares vanished, sword rising as she took a step forward. "Xena, no!"
She swung her head to look at Gabrielle rising to her knees. "No, don't. He didn't hurt me. It's all right."
With another glance toward the spot where Ares had vanished, Xena let herself sink back down beside Gabrielle. Anger and fear were warring in the blue eyes she turned on the bard. With deliberate motions, she laid her sword down, collecting herself.
"You're sure he didn't hurt you?" she asked unecessarily.
Gabrielle tried to smile. Xena flinched inwardly at the effort her friend was having to make.
"Yeah, I'm sure." She took a deep breath. "When we got here, the village...well, there was nothing left. I looked everywhere and I...couldn't find you. Marmax, he went after the raiders. I stayed here." She looked away, her hand fidgiting with the blanket, and Xena could see her trembling.
She hesitated for a moment, reached out for another blanket and threw it around herself, then pulled the bard close.
Gabrielle leaned into the solid shoulder, feeling the reassuring hold of the warrior's arms, and went on. "I couldn't think of where to look next, except under the buildings. Even then, maybe I wouldn't have...." she swallowed, and Xena tightened her hold slightly. Gabrielle turned her head to look up at her. . "Ares offered to find you. I accepted."
Xena's mouth went dry. "And what did you agree to do?" she asked apprehensively.
Gabrielle looked puzzled. "I don't know. He just asked me....."
Xena didn't let the silence hold long.
"Asked you what, Gabrielle?" she demanded softly.
The bard bit her lip. "He asked me what your life was worth to me." She tried to shrug. "I told him." She couldn't look at Xena. "I said...everything."
The warrior's breathing stilled, and Gabrielle twisted in Xena's arms to look up.
"I wasn't going to leave you, not again," she tried and failed to keep her voice even. "If you were dead, I wanted....if you were alive, I would have given him anything he wanted if that meant finding you.." she couldn't finish.
She was enveloped in strong arms, her face pressed against the warm skin of Xena's neck. A large hand rubbed her back, and the low voice she loved to hear, the one she'd been afraid she'd never hear again, murmured comforting sounds.
The bard pulled back, reached up and touched Xena's jaw. Questioning blue eyes looked down at her, and she said quietly, and with absolute certainty, "I'm not leaving you again. I knew I loved you, but I guess Ares just...well, clarified things. I don't know what's going to happen now, not with Ares, or anybody else, but I want to face that together." She looked away for a moment, frightened that she'd mis-read the warrior completely.
She stared into Xena's eyes, trying to read what she saw there. Disbelief battled with the flare of hope, and she held her breath as the fight came to an end. What shone out of eyes as blue as the summer sky was love.
The bard stroked her hand gently over the line of Xena's jaw, smooth, warm skin like silk against her fingers.. The warrior closed her eyes, shuddered and inhaled sharply.
"But I thought.." she was stopped by Gabrielle's fingers against her lips.
"I know what you thought." the bard teased. She felt almost lightheaded. Xena loved her. "What did I tell you about assumptions?"
"Sometimes they're wrong, I remember." Xena pulled back for a moment. Gabrielle felt a shiver run down her back at the look in her eyes. " Are you sure, Gabrielle? You have to be sure. There's no going back."
Gabrielle trailed her fingertips over Xena's lips, anxious to get past the warrior's reservations. "When I left home, I knew I didn't belong there. I wasn't sure where I was supposed to be, just not there, and I was afraid I'd never find out. Now I know." She looked into Xena's eyes again. " I belong with you.."
"And I belong with you." Xena lowered her head, threading her fingers through soft hair and brushing Gabrielle's lips with hers. She felt Gabrielle's trembling echoing in her own body, deepened the kiss, and her heart skipped a beat when her tongue tasted Gabrielle's mouth. The little sound that Gabrielle made went right through her.
"Kiss me like that again, and I'll follow you anywhere," Gabrielle said unevenly. Her arms were wrapped around Xena's neck.
"No," said Xena softly, fingertips tracing the line of Gabrielle's cheek. It seemed almost too good to be true, holding her bard like this. 'Gabrielle loves me', she thought. " I don't want you to follow me, I want you beside me...a part of me."
The breath caught in Gabrielle's throat, and she felt Xena's arms tighten around her again, gently moving her closer. She went eagerly, lips parting for another kiss, tightening her own arms around her warrior.
Gentle hands removed her clothing and she took Xena's warm weight on her, skin to skin. She closed her eyes and whimpered as caressing lips moved slowly on her throat, tasting and teasing her breasts, kissing their way along her ribs and stomach. Fingertips explored her body, Xena's ragged breathing magnifying the sensations that ran through her like fire. When Xena finally slipped between her legs, soft lips and tongue grazing the inside of her thighs, Gabrielle moaned. Xena looked up in silent question, and Gabrielle wound her fingers in dark hair and lifted her hips to meet Xena's waiting mouth. That darting, stroking tongue gave pleasure such as she'd never imagined, and just as she thought she couldn't bear it any longer, she shook with the strength of her climax, already anticipating the next time.
Xena kissed her way up Gabrielle's body, feeling the quakes still running through her lover. 'My lover,' she thought incredulously, fighting against desire so strong it threatened to overwhelm her. She kissed a breast, marvelling at the softness of the skin, only to be taken into Gabrielle's arms. A searching tongue slipped between her lips, and soft hands set out to discover her body. When, finally, Gabrielle's tongue and fingers, at first tentatively, then with growing confidence, urged her to her own release, it was as if she had truly made love for the first time. Every nerve ending in her body exploded.
Gabrielle felt Xena stir under her, and sleepily lifted her head.
"I guess I'm hurting you," the bard said regretfully. .
"No, you aren't hurting me. Not at all. The building did that, already," said Xena wryly.
Gabrielle bolted upright, drawing a groan from the warrior. "I forgot."
"So did I...not that it would have mattered." Xena smiled, and Gabrielle grinned back, then looked down at the bruises. "I never noticed them,." said the bard apolgetically. A strange look was on Gabrielle's face, prompting Xena to raise an eyebrow.
Gabrielle blushed slightly. "Um, I was just wondering...you're a pretty fast healer, aren't you?"
Xena chuckled and drew Gabrielle back down, wrapping an arm firmly around her to hold her in place. "You know I am," she reminded the bard, "and, by the way, if you're wondering just how much this might have...slowed me down, well, you'll have lots of chances to find out. Assuming you found anything lacking earlier, that is." Her tone of voice made it clear that she considered that a remote possibility.
"How did you..I wasn't thinking that." Gabrielle said defensively. She lifted her head at the skeptical sound Xena made, and smiled. "Well, maybe I was." The smile turned into a grin at the look on Xena's face. "Alright, I was thinking that. And no, I didn't notice anything lacking, and if you insist on compliments and the absolute truth, we could have been attacked and I wouldn't have known a thing about it " She settled back down, refusing to acknowledge Xena's self-satisfied grin, then just as quickly lifted her head again.
"Toris, Xena? Toris?" The bard.asked disbelievingly, then looked slightly shocked as she remembered that he was, after all, Xena's brother. She looked down cautiously.
"Well..." Xena didn't quite know what to say.
"Toris seems like a good, steady- and I'm sorry, Xena, but 'dull' kind of applies, here- type of guy. Even if I hadn't already pretty much sensed that it was you I wanted, Toris is just not my type. I left one of those already, remember? Besides, I can't see myself lying here, in a ruined village, making love with Toris, can you?" She added after a seconds' thought, "not even once, never mind several times."
"I'm trying not to," agreed the warrior, fighting to keep a straight face. Gabrielle was full of surprises, tonight, she thought, but she kept that to herself.
There was a moment or two of silence and Xena, who knew her Gabrielle, was anticipating a comment any time.
"Lots of chances?" the bard asked hopefully.
Gabrielle felt as much as she heard the low laugh that rumbled in the warrior's chest, and was hugged tight.
"Lots," Xena promised.