Disclaimers: All characters are the exclusive property of those who created them and absolutely no infringement upon anyone's rights is intended.
Timeline: This story takes place somewhere during the 3rd season, after the Dahak mess, in honor of my brother who introduced me to the show at that time and because it always bothered me that they never dealt with any of that.
Violence: This is Xena, after all, so yes, expect a little face-punching on occasion.
Subtext: Eventually, yes. At this point, however, our favorite warrior and bard are just beginning to realize their feelings for each other. And even when they do stop being so clueless, there probably won't be anything explicit.
Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. Please e-mail comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
A rickety wooden ship creaked and groaned ominously as it rocked against its moorings, while a great eye painted on the bow solemnly regarded the world around it. Standing on the long dock, a small blonde woman eyed the ship nervously as she waited for her taller, raven-haired companion to secure their passage. Absently chewing on a thumbnail, Gabrielle grimaced at the thought of the overpowering nausea that always accompanied a sea voyage. She hastily wiped the expression of distaste off her face as her warrior friend approached.
"Boat leaves at dawn tomorrow," Xena said tersely.
"Ship," Gabrielle corrected.
"It's a ship, Xena. Not a boat."
Xena's blue eyes widened and she stared at her friend incredulously. Did it really make a difference what she called the stupid thing, she wondered silently.
"There's a difference between a ship and a boat," the young blonde started to explain. "Just forget it. It's a bard thing."
Xena shrugged and wisely decided to let the matter drop. She knew better than to argue with the bard over something like semantics. Besides, she suspected she knew what was putting her friend in such a combative mood, and she rested a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Look, I know how much you hate sea travel, but this is the only way to get to the isle of Eire. Use the pressure points I showed you before. Plus, I've got some herbs that are supposed to help with your stomach."
"That's not it...well, it's part of it," Gabrielle admitted irritably. "It's just... tell me again why we're doing this?"
Xena sighed deeply and rolled her eyes with a hint of exasperation as she launched into the explanation for the third time that day. Three days ago, she had received an urgent plea for help from an old acquaintance --- someone she had known back in her warlord days. Siobahn had been Boadicea's protégée and she had nearly been killed as a result of Xena's betrayal in Gaul, and according to her message, she was willing to put old grudges aside in exchange for Xena's help in preventing the Romans from invading her homeland.
"Xena, how many times are we going to travel to the ends of the earth just so you can play your little mind games with Caesar?" Gabrielle turned abruptly and stormed off towards the inn they were staying at, leaving Xena standing stunned, speechless, and alone on the docks.
Xena watched the bard leave, her ears still burning from the sting of Gabrielle's words. Mind games? Should I be hurt or angry, or both, she wondered. Besides, it's not like I'm doing this just to bloody Caesar's nose. Although that would be a welcome side benefit, Xena admitted reluctantly. The people of Eire deserved to live free of Rome's dominion if they so chose, plus, she owed Siobahn this favor. Helping this woman that she had nearly killed long ago might put her one step further down the road to redemption. Not that the scales could ever truly be balanced where the former Destroyer of Nations was concerned, she mused wryly. Still, it wasn't like Gabrielle to get this upset. Xena started towards the inn, intending on extracting an explanation from her friend. Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks as a flood of images flashed through her mind ....a temple in Britannia....a flaming altar.......and the traumatic birth of a baby girl.
"Oh, Hades!" Xena cursed bitterly, drawing a few curious stares from people passing by on the crowded street. Furious with herself for not realizing the problem sooner, she raked her fingers through her long, dark tresses. "Of course she's upset. How could I be so stupid?" she berated herself as she entered the stout double doors of the inn.
The other patrons, noting the don't-mess-with-me scowl on the warrior's face, hurriedly moved out of her way as she climbed the narrow stairs to the small, spare room she and Gabrielle shared. Xena paused outside the rough, pitted door, uncertain of what to say to her friend. 'Gee, sorry I forgot about that whole Khrafstar, Dahak, Hope thing,' just didn't seem to cut it. Finally, she took a deep breath and nudged the door open with one booted foot.
Gabrielle was sitting cross-legged on her bed, busily working on one of her scrolls. She glanced up at Xena's entrance and winced inwardly at the awkward silence that immediately settled over them.
"I'm sorry I snapped at you before. I don't know what came over me," Gabrielle ventured tentatively.
Xena's shoulders slumped slightly and her chin dropped towards her leather-clad chest. Genuine anguish showed in her clear blue eyes.
"Gabrielle, I'm the one who should be sorry. I should've realized that this trip would bring up bad memories for you. For both of us," she amended quickly. "If you would rather not come with me on this one, I'll completely understand."
Gabrielle bit her lower lip, desperately trying to hold back the tears welling up in her green eyes. With two long strides, Xena bridged the distance between them and wrapped her arms tightly around the now-sobbing bard. Gently, she stroked her friend's reddish-gold hair and waited for the tears to subside. Finally, Gabrielle spoke again.
"No, Xena. Of course I'm coming with you. I would never let you go alone. It's just that I can't help thinking about everything that happened the last time we went after Caesar. And about Hope," she paused for a long moment before continuing. "You're right though. The people of Eire need our help. We have to try to help them."
She looked up at Xena and her stomach sank as she saw the pain clearly written across her best friend's face. Xena's piercing gaze was firmly fixed on a spot on the wall behind the bard's head and her teeth were clenched so tightly that muscles in her jaw trembled from the strain. With a soft sigh, Gabrielle reached out and touched the warrior's cheek, forcing Xena to look at her. The intensity in those blue eyes frightened her a bit.
"I swear to you, Gabrielle, this time I won't let my hatred of Caesar blind me to what's truly important. I would sooner die than let you get hurt like that ever again."
Gabrielle smiled sadly through her tears. "I know that, Xena. The only time I ever feel safe is when I'm with you," she stopped suddenly, pondering the meaning of that last statement. Then she let out a soft laugh. "Okay, I don't know about you, but I've had enough angst for one night. What do you say we get some sleep?"
"Sounds good," the warrior grinned in return.
She gave the bard one final hug before moving over to her own bed. With expert fingers, she quickly and efficiently removed her boots and her heavy brass armor. As she slid under the blankets, she cast a worried glance towards Gabrielle's side of the room. The bard was curled up on her side, facing the wall and already appeared to be asleep. Gabrielle was one of those fortunate people who could fall asleep instantly, no matter where she was. Xena leaned over and blew out the candles on the tiny table between their beds, plunging the room into total darkness.
The warrior lay on her back with one arm resting behind her head. She stared sightlessly at the darkened ceiling as thoughts raced through her mind. It would be a long journey to Eire and all sorts of obstacles could pop up in their path --- pirates, bad weather, hidden reefs, and the gods only knew what else. Once they reached the island, the situation was bound to become even more uncertain. They would be strangers in an unfamiliar place, and the Romans certainly weren't going to back down without a fight. Plus, who knew what Xena's former comrade had in store for them? Yep, she mused, they were definitely headed for trouble again. She listened in wry amusement to the light snoring emanating from her friend's side of the room, and wondered for the thousandth time if she had done the right thing when she let herself be befriended by a young, innocent girl from Potadeia two and a half years ago. She asked herself yet again how long she could continue to let Gabrielle follow her blindly into danger. As usual, she found no answers and finally, she allowed herself a few restless hours of sleep.
Like always, Xena awoke long before dawn. She threw the covers back and winced at the chill that immediately penetrated her exposed skin. She sat at the edge of the bed for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. Gabrielle, of course, was still sound asleep. It would take a screaming herd of wild horses to wake the young blonde before first light.
Silently, trying not to disturb her friend, Xena pulled on her boots and laced them tightly, feeling the cold, clammy leather warm quickly to her body. She crossed over to the window and cracked the shutters open slightly, peering out to find what the day held for them. It was still quite dark out, and the street adjacent to the inn was quiet, save the furtive scurrying of an occasional rat. The warrior sniffed the air reflectively and frowned. The cold, morning air carried a distinct promise of rain. Xena closed the shutters again with a sigh, her breath appearing in a puff of white mist. It was a bad time of year for a trip overseas with winter fast approaching. Briefly, she flirted with the idea of ignoring Siobahn's request for aid, but deep down, she knew that was something she just couldn't do. Steeling her resolve, she turned away from the window.
During the night, Gabrielle had burrowed deep beneath the covers until only the top of her fair head poked out from under the heavy blankets. Xena shook her friend's shoulder.
"C'mon sleepyhead. Time to wake up."
Her only response was a muffled groan, and Xena rolled her eyes. Waking Gabrielle was never an easy task. She shook the bard again, harder this time, and pulled at the blankets. At last, a single green eye appeared, glaring at her resentfully.
"Why do these things always have to begin at the crack of dawn? Why can't we ever get started at, I don't know, noon?" Gabrielle muttered grumpily as she rubbed the last vestiges of sleep from her eyes.
Xena arched an eyebrow, but remained silent. She had learned through experience that the bard could be extraordinarily temperamental in the morning. Fondly, she recalled an incident involving a dented frying pan that had particularly raised her friend's ire.
Gabrielle sat up, finally, and wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the bitter cold that threatened to seep into her bones. She ran her fingers through her long hair, attempting to bring some semblance of order to the disheveled locks. Unsuccessfully, she tried to stifle a yawn and then cast a sheepish look at her patiently waiting best friend. The bard was definitely not a morning person, a fact which she knew often frustrated Xena to no end. Today, though, the warrior seemed to be mostly amused.
"Okay, okay, I'm up. What's for breakfast? I'm starved," Gabrielle's stomach heartily agreed with her words, letting out a loud rumble.
"Why am I not surprised?" Xena replied, handing the bard a chunk of day-old bread, along with an assortment of dried fruit and nuts. "We've got a little more than an hour before we have to be on the boat."
Gabrielle stopped chewing on a dried fig and stared at the warrior, her brow wrinkling in consternation.
"For Zeus's sake, Xena...it's a ship. A ship!" she exclaimed.
A slow smile spread across Xena's face and a mischievous gleam lit up her eyes. This time, it was Gabrielle's turn to roll her eyes as she realized she was being played with. She hurled an empty walnut shell at the laughing warrior, which Xena neatly dodged.
"You do these things on purpose just to drive me crazy," the bard accused plaintively.
Blue eyes widened in mock innocence. Gabrielle threw up her hands in defeat and resumed munching on her breakfast. She watched, fascinated, as Xena began to assemble and fasten the various pieces of her armor. On more than one occasion, she had wondered how the tall warrior always managed to look so at ease, encased in all that heavy leather and metal. Once, Gabrielle remembered, she had been forced to don Xena's gear, and she had barely been able to stand the weight. Yet, somehow, the warrior always made it look effortless. As the bard looked on, Xena pulled the scarred, well-worn gauntlets over her forearms and settled the intricately wrought breastplate over her broad shoulders. She felt Gabrielle's gaze on her and glanced up, questioning.
Caught staring, Gabrielle felt her face and neck grow hot as she flushed involuntarily. She frowned slightly, confused by her reaction, but she decided to put the matter away to be contemplated later. Instead, she stood and brushed the breadcrumbs from the thick wool leggings that Xena had insisted she wear. The extra fabric on her legs had felt strange at first, much different from her usual short skirt. Now though, she was grateful for the additional warmth. The hard wooden floor was icy beneath the bard's bare feet and she hurriedly pulled on her boots, flicking a clump of dried mud from the toe of the left one. She perched on the edge of her bed and began to pack her few belongings into the leather bag she carried on their travels. Surreptitiously, she regarded her friend, who was carefully inspecting her sword with a practiced eye. Gabrielle noted the tense set of the tall warrior's shoulders and the faint shadows beneath her eyes and knew that Xena was more concerned about this trip than she was letting on.
"Didn't sleep much last night, did you?" Gabrielle asked disapprovingly. She wished for the thousandth time that Xena would take better care of herself, often driving herself for days without sleep or decent meals, pushing her body to the point of near exhaustion.
Xena looked at her, eyes completely unguarded for the briefest of moments. In that instant, the deadly ex-warlord looked for all the world like a guilty child about to be scolded by a beloved parent. She would never admit it out loud, but secretly she liked that the bard worried about her well-being.
"I had a lot on my mind," she conceded, her lips twitching into a rueful half-grin. "Besides, I'll have plenty of time to sleep on the ship."
"Well, I guess that's true enough," the bard paused. "See, I knew you knew the difference between a ship and a boat."
That earned her a rare full smile from her usually stoic companion. In one fluid motion, Xena rose and sheathed her blade with a steely hiss. She grabbed two heavy travel cloaks from a pair of hooks on the back of the door, and handed the smaller, forest-green one to her fair-haired friend. The other, a deep charcoal grey, she fastened around her own muscular frame.
"Let's go. We might as well get there early and get settled in," Xena said, picking up her own pack from the floor.
Gabrielle nodded and slung her bag over her own slim shoulders as she followed Xena out the door. No one else seemed to be stirring yet, and they padded quietly down the deserted hall, moving through the empty dining area towards the outer doors. As they passed the bar, Xena filched a loaf of last night's bread and several apples, leaving a handful of coins in their place. Gabrielle lifted the latch and pushed open the sturdy door leading outside, exposing them to a sudden blast of frigid air that caused her to shiver and pull her cloak tighter around her compact form. The sky was just beginning to lighten with the approaching dawn, revealing ominous dark clouds that stretched across the horizon. Xena slipped past her to the street and started walking purposefully towards the docks, moving with long, powerful strides.
Half-way to the waterfront, a dark alley loomed to their right and Xena slowed her pace slightly, extending her finely-tuned senses outward to search for hidden dangers. The hairs on the back of her neck tingled in anticipation as she felt their presence. Three men, crouched in the alley, waiting. She sniffed the air and caught the reek of dirty leather, unwashed bodies and far too much ale. She halted and put her hands on her hip. Gabrielle stopped beside her and waited, her grip tightening on her amazon staff.
"All right. I know you're in there. Come on out," Xena's low voice rumbled through the open space.
They waited patiently for a response. From within the alley, they could hear a hurried, whispered conference. Xena rolled her eyes dramatically and folded her arms, growing weary of the game. Finally, three grimy, unkempt, would-be thieves emerged from their hiding place. Two carried battered, rusty swords, while the third, a hulking giant of a man, hefted a solid length of wood planking. Gabrielle's sensitive nose wrinkled at the stench emanating from the trio. Xena merely fixed them with a cold, hard stare. This close, Gabrielle could feel the waves of menace radiating from the tall, dark warrior and she idly wondered why anyone, let alone these bumbling fools, would want to tangle with the six-foot, bloodthirsty ex-Destroyer of Nations at her side.
The trio's leader was a thin, wiry man with a crooked nose and a hooked scar that ran from his left ear to the corner of his mouth. He shuffled forward and pointed his sword at them. Behind him, the giant with the plank was slapping the wood against his free hand with a rhythmic thwack that was grating on Gabrielle's nerves.
"I'll give you ten seconds to get out of my way," Xena warned flatly, her voice dripping with contempt.
"Now, now sweetie. We don't want to trouble you. Just give us your money like good little girls and we'll be on our way," the scar-faced man ordered in a voice still slurred by drink.
Xena raised a dark eyebrow, her blue eyes glinting dangerously. She shook her head slowly.
"No," she replied, daring these morons to test her skills.
Scarface's expression grew uglier and he lunged forward, thrown off-balance as he found himself slashing at empty air. Xena flipped lazily over his head, dropping down behind him. She planted her foot in the middle of his back and sent him sprawling headfirst into a stack of crates at the mouth of the alley. The second swordsman took a step towards the warrior and suddenly found the ground rushing up to meet him as his feet were swept out from under him by a fierce, green-eyed blonde with a staff. He started to rise, but the end of that same staff slammed into his midsection and he doubled over, gasping for air. Satisfied that he wasn't getting up, Gabrielle turned her attention to Xena and her hulking opponent.
Xena and their last assailant were circling each other warily. The warrior's lips curled into a positively feral grin and a low chuckle, completely devoid of warmth, bubbled forth from her throat. The air whistled as the thick wooden plank flew towards her dark head. She ducked at the last second and allowed her adversary's momentum to bring him within her reach. She brought the flat of her sword against the man's unprotected ribs with a loud smack that made Gabrielle wince in response. The big man howled in pain and rage, and he charged blindly at the warrior, hands outstretched towards her throat, but Xena simply stepped aside calmly and slammed her elbow into the side of his head with a sickening crunch. He dropped into a heap, instantly unconscious. Xena started to turn to Gabrielle, not seeing that scarface had extracted himself from the scattered crates. Scarface staggered forward, sword raised, visage twisted by fury. Gabrielle started to cry out in warning, but, as usual, Xena was way ahead of her. With a negligent motion, she flipped her sword around and thrust backwards, hearing the scrape of metal on bone as her blade slid easily between his ribs. She whirled to face him as he fell, her face an expressionless mask. Yanking her sword free, she wiped the hot, steaming blood off on his filthy clothes.
"I have never, ever been a good little girl," she snarled as scarface took his last, shuddering breath.
Their other two attackers had recovered their wits, and they stumbled away hurriedly, not wanting to further incur the warrior's wrath. Silently, Xena watched them until they were out of sight, making certain that the threat had passed. Satisfied that their assailants were gone, she resheathed her sword and bent to retrieve her pack, hastily tossed aside in the thrill of the fight.
"Well that was fun. Nothing like a little excitement to get your juices flowing in the morning, right?" Gabrielle commented brightly.
Xena flashed her a quirky half-grin. "Yup," she replied with her typical economy of words as she resumed walking to the docks.
After a few moments, they turned left around a corner and the waterfront came into view. The wind had begun to pick up and the sea churned dark and grey. There was definitely a bad storm on the way, Gabrielle thought as her guts contracted at the sight of the heaving ocean where, about a hundred feet away, foam-tipped waves crashed against the side of their vessel. The ship's captain was waiting for them at the edge of the dock and Xena stepped forward to greet him. Captain Khreig was a tall, barrel-chested man with leathery skin weathered from a lifetime of exposure to the wind and sun. Lank brown hair, streaked with grey, fell to his shoulders and was kept tied back by a ragged scrap of leather. A grizzled beard covered his square jaw and hard, flint-grey eyes surveyed them appraisingly.
"Bout time ye showed up. Get aboard then, I'll want to be out on the open sea before that storm hits," he grunted in a gravelly voice.
Xena nodded curtly and led the way up the swaying gangplank with Gabrielle at her heels. Khreig followed them, barking commands at the sailors scurrying about on the deck. Near the top of the walkway, a gust of wind shook them, causing the gangplank to lurch violently and Gabrielle nearly spilled the contents of her stomach into the sea. Xena glanced over shoulder at her miserable young friend and felt a pang of sympathy for the poor bard, who was already turning an unhealthy shade of greenish-grey. Wordlessly, Xena tapped the inside of her wrist with two fingers, reminding Gabrielle of the pressure points that would help ease her nausea.
Once they had reached the ship's deck, Khreig signaled two nearby crewman and they hauled the gangplank aboard. He unleashed a mighty bellow and commanded the rest of the crew to cast off the mooring lines, and within minutes, the big ship was slowly heading out to sea. The captain waved a hand, beckoning the warrior and the bard down to the cluttered cargo hold. The cramped space was littered with crates and barrels of trade goods on their way to Eire. Pale, grey morning light streamed in through a row of portholes set high in the wall and spaced several feet apart. The air was damp and somewhat musty, and Gabrielle reminded herself to be grateful the ship wasn't carrying livestock as she descended the ladder into the hold. She edged her way around the massive captain who was leering at her with undisguised interest. He spread his arms wide.
"Welcome to the Pandora, the jewel in Poseidon's crown," he said with pride. "Settle in down here, then. Ain't much, but it's private like ye asked," he directed his comments at the tall, forbidding warrior.
Xena grunted as she scanned their surroundings. Khreig was right, it wasn't much, but it was the best she had been able to afford since their passage, plus supplies, had taken practically every dinar she had. It would have to do, she sighed inwardly. She moved past the burly captain and chose a spot near the corner of the cargo hold, a relatively open space between two portholes. The warrior didn't mind the dark, but she knew Gabrielle would appreciate the light when she worked on her scrolls. She set her pack down against the wall and turned around to see Gabrielle fidgeting uncomfortably. Khreig's eyes were travelling up and down the young blonde's lithe, athletic form, causing the bard to squirm.
"Yer a pretty one, ain't ye," he growled, making Gabrielle's skin crawl.
Much to her relief, Xena suddenly appeared on her left, dropping an arm possessively around the bard's shoulders.
"Hands off, Khreig. She's mine," she exposed a row of perfectly white teeth in a sultry, dangerous grin that dared the captain to challenge her.
Khreig's flinty eyes narrowed and darted from one woman to the other, trying to gauge whether or not the warrior was serious. They made an unlikely couple, he thought doubtfully. He had heard stories of Xena, the savage ex-warlord. What would someone like that want with the innocent-looking little blonde at her side? He missed the almost imperceptible squeeze of Xena's hand on Gabrielle's upper arm, indicating that the bard should play along. Gabrielle plastered a sunny smile on her face and slid her arm around Xena's waist. Again, she was puzzled by her reaction as a jolt of energy surged through her. She would definitely have to sit down and figure this out later, she told herself firmly.
"Right then," Khreig muttered darkly, deciding that the blonde wasn't worth risking Xena's fury. "Your drinking water and food stores are in those barrels over there," he said, pointing to several casks stacked against the opposite wall. "I'll leave the two of ye alone then."
Khreig turned stiffly and climbed the ladder to the upper deck, quickly disappearing from view. Gabrielle exhaled, relieved by the captain's departure as Xena released her friend's shoulders and went to examine the hinged shutters that covered each porthole. She systematically checked to make sure each one was tightly fastened against the cold air and the spray from the ocean, leaving only the two portholes near their sleeping space open. Gabrielle, in the meantime, spread their sleeping furs on the floor and sank down on them with a groan, succumbing to the persistent sea sickness that plagued her. Xena knelt next to her, rummaging in her bag for a waterskin, a small metal cup and her healer's supplies. She carefully sorted through her collection of herbs, selecting the ones that would relieve her friend's agony. These, she sprinkled into the cup and poured water over. She swirled the mixture a few times before handing the cup to the bard, who swallowed the contents gratefully. Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, the cramping in her guts already subsiding.
"That captain's a creep," she commented.
Xena was busy securing the heavy crates around them to make sure they wouldn't shift with the movement of the ship.
"Sorry, I know he's pretty slimy," the warrior agreed. "But his ship was the only one I could afford," she finished apologetically.
Gabrielle digested this statement. It was just like Xena to take responsibility for someone else's bad behavior.
"Hmm. It's not so bad down here, kinda cozy actually," the bard supplied helpfully, eliciting a tiny grin from her friend. "Hey Xena," she started thoughtfully. "Why'd you tell Khreig that we were, well, you know, together?"
Xena regarded her with twinkling blue eyes. She didn't really know why she'd chosen that particular tactic. It had just seemed like the fastest way to get the guy to back off. She shrugged.
"Would you have preferred it if I let him chase you all over this stupid ship for the next couple of months?" Xena asked mildly.
"No, no, I was just surprised, that's all," Gabrielle replied hastily. "So what's in those food barrels?" she asked, ignoring the look the warrior shot her. Xena constantly teased her about her healthy appetite. Just because Xena could achieve impossible physical feats without proper food or rest didn't mean that she could do the same, Gabrielle reasoned indignantly.
Meanwhile, Xena had crossed the cargo hold and was inspecting the supply barrels. Using her strong fingers, she pried up the lid of the first cask to reveal fresh drinking water. She dipped her hand in and tasted the liquid carefully to determine its purity, nodding approvingly as she replaced the lid and moved on to the next. This one contained dried fish, packed in salt. She made a face, not one of her favorite foods, but it was standard seagoing fare, she supposed. The third cask held a variety of dried fruits and vegetables, along with a supply of the hard, dry biscuits that Gabrielle hated so much. Oh well, it was better than starving, Xena thought with a shrug.
She returned to their sleeping area and sat down next to her friend, who was humming softly to herself, completely absorbed by a new scroll. Xena took out an armor hinge that was in need of repairing and lost herself in that task. They remained that way, quietly enjoying each other's companionship for the next few hours.
By midday, the storm finally unleashed its wrath. The wind howled and rough waves battered the sides of the ship. Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and closed the shutters on the two remaining portholes to keep the rain and sea out, plunging them into near-total darkness as the Pandora heaved and rolled violently beneath their feet. Over their heads they could hear the frantic shouts of the crew as they struggled to secure the sails and weather the storm.
"Stay here. I'm going to see if I can lend a hand," Xena's terse command pierced the darkness.
Gabrielle could barely make out the warrior's outline as she climbed the ladder and exited the hold. The bard considered staying put like Xena had said, but left alone, the blackness closed in on her. No, she decided, storm or not, she would rather be wherever Xena was. Determined, Gabrielle ascended the ladder, now slick with rain and poked her head above the hatch. What she saw before her was a scene of utter chaos.
Panicked sailors dashed madly across the slippery deck while another group fought desperately to secure the main sail before the fierce gale shredded it completely, but the wind challenged them at every turn. Gabrielle emerged from the cargo hold and nearly lost her balance as a massive wave crashed over the side of the ship. She regained her footing and raised a hand to shield her eyes from the driving downpour that pricked her skin like a million icy needles. The sky had taken on a peculiar greenish cast that the bard knew meant trouble. She searched the gloom for her friend and spotted Xena standing near the bow with Captain Khreig. Thunder boomed around them, the sound ringing in Gabrielle's ears as she started towards the pair. A flash of lightning illuminated the sky. Xena was dripping wet and she looked especially fierce and wild as the wind whipped her long, raven hair about her face. She was arguing with the equally soaked captain.
"Damn you, Khreig! Get that sail down and then get your people down below," the warrior shouted over the din.
"No need for that yet. I've stared into the teeth of worse storms than this," he scoffed.
Xena resisted the urge to grab the arrogant fool and shake him until his brains rattled. Her hands twitched lightly at her sides, and she was about to tell Khreig exactly what she thought of him when she caught a familiar sight out of the corner of her vision. Gabrielle was walking towards them, slipping a little on the water-logged deck. Xena shook her head, wondering why she had bothered to tell her friend to stay below. The bard never listened. Just then, the ship lurched wildly, pitching the warrior forward a step before she could steady herself. Xena heard a strangled cry that froze her heart as she turned her head just in time to see her best friend swept overboard by an enormous wave.
"Gabrielle!" she screamed in horror, barely believing what she had witnessed.
Xena's blood thundered in her ears and her head spun as panic held her in its icy grip. No time to think, she just reacted, seizing a coil of rope and knotting one end of the thick twine around her waist. The other end she tossed to the startled captain who stared at her as if she'd gone mad.
"She's lost fer sure," he said, shaking his head sympathetically.
"No she's not," Xena growled back, flinging herself headfirst into the water below.
Cursing in several different languages, Khreig wound his end of the rope around a stout iron clamp fixed to the bulwark. The shock of the freezing sea nearly took Xena's breath away and the numbing cold threatened to paralyze her limbs. Huge waves, driven by the screaming wind, buffeted her from all sides. She searched frantically with her preternaturally sharp vision, but all she could see around her was more water. Desperately, she sucked in a lungful of air and ducked beneath the waves. Please, please, don't let her be gone, she cried fervently in her head, knowing she couldn't stand the emptiness she'd be left with. Opening her eyes underwater and ignoring the sting as salt saturated the delicate membranes, she scanned the murky depths for something, anything. Then she saw it --- Gabrielle's limp form tangled in a clump of seaweed below her. Two powerful kicks, and Xena was at her friend's side, viciously ripping away the fibrous tendrils that held the bard captive. She was running out of air, her chest felt like it was about to burst. After another agonizingly long moment, she freed Gabrielle from the clinging seaweed. Cradling the unconscious bard against her, the warrior lunged for the surface.
On board the ship, Khreig waited anxiously, peering through the downpour, searching for a glimpse of the crazy warrior and her friend. It was the damnedest thing he'd ever seen, Xena diving in after the little blonde like that. His crew had finally managed to lower the sails, and most of them had sought shelter below. A few, however, gathered around their captain, laying wagers over whether or not either woman would survive. They were experienced seamen, and they knew that in storms such as this, few escaped Poseidon's clutches.
Suddenly, a dark head broke the surface several yards out, and the sailors cheered ecstatically. Xena ignored them as she struggled to raise the bard's fair head above water. Gabrielle's face was unnaturally pale and her lips had a faint bluish tinge that meant the warrior had to get her somewhere warm and dry, quickly. Using sure, measured strokes, Xena swam for the ship, making sure to keep the vessel firmly in her line of sight. Keeping her attention fixed on the hulking outline of the Pandora in front of her, she never saw the giant swell that pummeled her from behind and sent both her and the bard careening towards the side of the ship. At the last second, Xena twisted her body around, protecting Gabrielle from the impact as they slammed into the wooden planks with a solid thud. Stars exploded inside her head, and Xena ground her teeth, grimly forcing herself not to lose consciousness. Her life depended on it, and more importantly, so did Gabrielle's. She shook her head, trying to clear the ringing in her ears and she heard Khreig yelling above her as he suddenly remembered the rope tied around the warrior's waist.
"It's about time," she muttered to no one in particular.
Khreig grabbed hold of the rope, swollen with rain and seawater, and he heaved with all his might. Two of his crewmen joined him and together they pulled until the top of the warrior's dark, dripping head appeared. Xena did the rest, gripping the rail and vaulting herself and Gabrielle over the side. She landed on her feet with a thump and seized a dagger from the belt of a startled young sailor. Swiftly, she cut herself free from the rope and brusquely elbowed the men out of the way as she carefully laid her friend down on the deck. She tried to stay calm, refusing to acknowledge the terror that was twisting her guts as she checked for Gabrielle's pulse and found it fluttering weakly. She let out a shaky, relieved breath that she hadn't realized she was holding. Khreig dropped to a knee beside her, a new respect showing in his eyes.
"She's not breathing," he pointed out, trying to be helpful.
"I know that," Xena snapped back.
With her thumb and forefinger, she pinched the bard's nose shut. Taking a deep breath, she fastened her lips over Gabrielle's and gently blew into her friend's mouth. She repeated the process, anxiously watching the rise and fall of the bard's chest as she sent much-needed air into the smaller woman's lungs. After what seemed like an eternity to the warrior, Gabrielle began to cough and sputter, and Xena nearly sobbed with relief, restraining herself only because she knew Khreig and his men were watching. She rolled Gabrielle onto her side and waited patiently for the bard to expel the rest of the water from her lungs.
"Hey," Gabrielle managed weakly between coughing spasms.
"Hey yourself," Xena gave her a tiny half-grin. "Can't take you anywhere, can I? C'mon, let's get you dried off."
Xena effortlessly scooped the bard into her arms, ignoring Gabrielle's feeble protests. She stood, squaring her broad shoulders as she unleashed one of her more intimidating glares at the awestruck sailors blocking her way. A single damp eyebrow inched skyward and the men got the message, hurriedly clearing a path for the menacing warrior.
The storm was beginning to slacken as Xena carried the exhausted bard down to the hold. Gabrielle had wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck and leaned her fair head limply against Xena's shoulder. Strong hands set her down on her thick sleeping fur, and the bard was dimly aware of Xena stripping off her soaked clothing and replacing them with a warm, dry robe. Those same hands tucked a coarse wool blanket tightly around the bard's slim frame. Xena scowled thoughtfully, then added another blanket for good measure. Only after Gabrielle had been taken care of did she change out of her own sopping wet garments.
"Xena," Gabrielle mumbled sleepily, pausing to make sure the warrior was listening. "I sure hope the rest of this trip isn't this exciting."
That got her a light chuckle from the drained warrior. Through closed eyes, Gabrielle tried to imagine Xena's expression. She would be shaking her head at me, the bard thought, and those bright blue eyes would be twinkling. That was her last conscious thought before she fell deeply asleep, her energy sapped by her watery ordeal.
"Do you have any idea how badly you scared me today, my friend?" Xena whispered softly, listening to the welcome sound of Gabrielle's slow, steady breathing.
She stretched out on her side, curling an arm beneath her head. She gazed fondly at the relaxed, peaceful countenance of the oblivious bard and was struck by just how young her friend looked while she slept. A hundred what ifs haunted her restless mind and Xena forced herself not to dwell on what might have been. Don't worry about it, she told herself in vain. Just be glad you got to her in time. Someday, she knew she might not be so lucky. Strange, she mused silently, I wasn't looking for a friend. Didn't even want one, really. But this persistent young bard somehow managed to worm her way into my life and my heart, and now I can't imagine my world without her. That was dangerous, Xena acknowledged. It made her vulnerable. Somehow though, she just couldn't bring herself to care.
A ghost of a smile flickered across the warrior's face as she impulsively smoothed a few damp strands of hair away from the bard's face. She stretched languidly, grimacing a little at the stiffness in her back and shoulders. Her head ached from being bashed against the ship and she had pulled the long muscle behind her left shoulder blade. Wincing, she rotated the joint in question and sighed ruefully. There was no time for her own pain, not right now, and she banished her discomfort to a dark, dusty corner of her mind. For the next several hours, watchful blue eyes kept a constant vigil over the sleeping bard, standing sentinel against all dangers real or imagined.
Continued in part 2
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