Disclaimer: If anyone can prove that I own any part of Xena, Warrior Princess, I'd be eternally grateful and will willingly share the loot! Hey, I can dream, can't I? <G>
But, until that happens, I think it best to acknowledge the true owners: RENPICS,
MCA/UNIVERSAL, et al. May they live long and prosper. But that's another lawsuit.
This is for all the Walking Wounded who, like me, survived Season 5 and still harbor great hopes for Season 6. Come ramble through the past with me, to a kinder, gentler time in the warrior and bard's lives. I hope it helps.
Dedication: For Temora, a.k.a. the TASKMASTER, who wields that blue pencil with great panache and whose high standards and gentle ways could probably inspire Michaelangelo to stop shirking and try harder. And for A., who knows why.
Any traveller passing through the woods on this particular late-summer afternoon, near this particular campsite, would have had little difficulty identifying the occupation of the beautiful dark-haired woman so seemingly absorbed in her task. A cursory glance would reveal a tall, muscular but quite womanly figure with long midnight hair that cascaded down her back and partially covered her chiseled profile.
Seated upon a low, flat rock, her back comfortably supported by the trunk of an ancient olive tree, the woman's hands seemed to take on a life of their own as long, elegant fingers guided a thin bone needle through several thicknesses of a rough, dark-green, homespun fabric.
In and out went the needle, back and forth went her hand and with amazing speed, a symmetrical, criss-cross pattern began to emerge, transforming the humble piece of cloth into something, if not quite beautiful, then certainly highly decorative.
A closer inspection might make the traveller wonder why this obviously talented seamstress chose to wear bronze armor over a brown leather dress. Or why a sword, a really big sword, lay close to hand, ready to use should the need arise.
But of course! This was no simple seamstress, this was a warrior! A warrior obviously possessed of many skills.
A slight movement near the edge of the clearing where she sat caused the warrior to quickly lift her eyes in that direction. She smiled appreciatively at the young woman of average height and slender build who walked towards her, eyes sparkling, hands full.
"Look what I found, Xena. Dessert!" she said, as she laid her treasure of sweet, juicy blackberries at her friend's feet.
What a pleasure it was to the warrior to see the marked changes that two weeks of travelling in very easy stages and lots of tender, loving care had produced in her friend.
Almost immediately, the dark thoughts that haunted her memory resurfaced, casting a shadow across the once cheerful face. Gabrielle was quick to notice the change.
"You're thinking about Thessaly again, aren't you?"
The warrior averted her eyes, not wanting the girl to see the pain she felt reflected there.
Gabrielle was no fool; she knew that the warrior's guilt trip had gone on far too long and she was determined to put an end to it. Right now.
Placing her hands on her hips and a mock scowl on her face, she turned to the warrior and demanded with as much conviction as she could muster in the presence of her always intimidating friend:
"Xena, look at me."
And though Xena kept her face averted, her traitorous eyes did as they were bid.
"Take a good look. Does this look like the body of an invalid to you?" She thrust her arms out away from her body and presented herself for her friend's inspection.
At any other time, such an invitation would have produced far different feelings in the warrior, but the lingering fear in her heart over her friend's health forced her to really look at Gabrielle for the first time in weeks.
Steeling herself against the inevitable pain that was to follow and repeating over and over in her mind, 'I'm a warrior, I can do this,' she began her careful inspection at the very top.
There was the shimmering fall of liquid gold that draped softly past the shoulders ( 'Check.' ), the wide, intelligent forehead just above those mesmerizing green eyes ( 'Don't go there.' ), the cute little nose, the soft, soft lips ( 'Gods help me!' ), the graceful neck leading to ... and here the warrior froze, willing herself to keep her eyes upon the still visible scar just below the girl's neck, though every fiber of her being screamed at her to run and never look back.
Gabrielle winced in sympathy at the warrior's obvious distress but, knowing Xena had to do this by herself, said not a word. She watched, fascinated, as Xena's whole demeanor changed right before her eyes.
Her back straightened, her fists unclenched and, incredibly, the haunted look was forced to recede by a will stronger than any nightmare. She forced herself to confront that error in judgment, that exercise in pride that had allowed her to take this vulnerable girl through a war zone, just to avoid a few extra days of travel. Stupid, stupid pride! It had almost cost her ... everything. Never again! Never again.
Gabrielle read all this in her friend's face and, unable to hold back any longer, she placed her hand on Xena's shoulder, forcing the eye contact the warrior wanted desperately to avoid.
"It wasn't your fault, Xena. It's over. And I'm fine, truly I am."
When she still saw the doubt in those eyes, she moved her face to within inches of the warrior's and saucily jiggled her eyebrows. And, just like that, the solemn mood was finally broken as, unable to resist the silly look on her friend's face, the warrior laughed.
Looking at the piece of fabric in Xena's lap, Gabrielle quickly took the opportunity to change the subject. "What are you making?"
"It's a new top, for you to wear tomorrow."
"For me? Oh Xena, that's so...."
"Do you like the color?"
"Don't you think it's a little strong?"
"No, I don't. It matches your eyes."
"What?!? You're kidding, right? Since when are my eyes a bilious shade of green?"
The warrior just smirked and continued to sew, totally ignoring the visual daggers being cast her way by a very miffed bard. Knowing discretion was the better part of valor, the bard tried another tack:
"That pattern is really beautiful, Xena."
The girl was just about to ask her friend why she'd decided to make her a new top, when the one she wore was still serviceable. But as she looked down on the copper-colored garment, the very first thing that caught her eye was the yellowing remnant of a bloody stain, her own blood, that no amount of washing could remove, though Xena had tried mightily to do it. And there, she suddenly realized, was the answer to her question.
"Do you have much to go before you finish that?"
"Not much ... why?"
"Oh, I thought we could walk down to the lake before dinner and watch the stars come out."
"You go ahead. I need to feed Argo first, but I'll join you in a minute."
"Right. See you soon."
As the bard walked to the lake, her thoughts turned purposely to Thessaly and all that had happened since they'd first set foot within its borders. She knew that Xena blamed herself for her close call with death but really, Gabrielle knew that she had gotten hurt because there was no way she would have let that little boy fend for himself, surrounded as he was by grown men enamored of war and of winning, no matter the cost. And she'd found him just where his father had said he'd be, near the stand of trees by the river, huddled into a tight ball, unconsciously making himself as small a target as possible.
She'd picked him up and started running towards the temple ... towards safety ... and Xena. Then, just as she came within sight of it, she saw a group of men leaving the temple, running in her direction, all the while shouting things she couldn't hear, pointing at something behind her. Her instincts, which were quickly developing under the warrior's tutelage, told her to put the boy down and make him run as fast as he could towards the temple.
And just as she turned to face the danger behind her, she felt the point of a sword pierce her shoulder and, moments later, the hilt of a blade come crashing down on her head. After that, everything turned hazy and it seemed to her that her vision was being filtered through a heavy veil.
She remembered being brought into the temple, remembered feeling death close by and the urgent need to pass her right of caste to Ephiny, before it was too late. Remembered the constant pain and what an effort it had been, just to breathe.
But above all else, she remembered the look of terror on Xena's face, not realizing then that she was the cause of it. And even in her delirium, it had frightened her terribly. Xena was her rock! Xena had no business being scared! What was she thinking?
And then oblivion had mercifully claimed her.
Of course, she had later learned just how close she'd come to dying, as her friend Ephiny had given her a blow-by-blow account, speaking almost reverently of Xena's role in her recovery, how she'd never left the bard's side until she'd been absolutely sure that Gabrielle was truly out of danger.
Gabrielle smiled now, as she reached the lake and found a convenient rock, half-way submerged at the edge of the water. And sitting down, she immediately began removing her boots.
Her smile broadened, as she recalled a visit to her bedside by the father of the little boy whose life she'd saved. He had been so grateful and spoke of having wanted desperately to thank her before, but the big warrior was always at her side and every time he'd tried to come near, her warning glance had clearly said, 'Approach at your own peril.'
As he spoke, he saw the girl's smile widen, as something over his shoulder caught her eye. Turning quickly, there was the self-same warrior, steaming mug in hand, bearing down on him. And the look in her eyes, the one that was beginning to haunt his nightmares, convinced him that now was a very good time to bid the girl good-bye. And, jumping rapidly to his feet, he hastily thanked the bard again, then swiftly disappeared
Gabrielle now dipped her feet in the cool, refreshing waters of the lake and her loud, contented sigh frightened a small bird who'd stopped by for his last drink of the day. As she watched him soar homewards, her thoughts turned to her family and Potadeia. That was their next stop and tomorrow she'd be home again.
Xena had insisted on the visit, though the girl was having trouble understanding the reasoning behind it. And then, as always seemed to happen lately, thoughts of Xena brought that dreamy look to the bard's eyes.
Her friend had been so kind and gentle to her lately, so solicitous of her comfort that Gabrielle sometimes felt she was living in a dream, one more lovely than any reality she'd ever known and waking up was sure to be painful. If only this could last forever....
But here came reality again, shaking her by the shoulders, insisting she wake up, now.
It wasn't that she didn't love her family, of course she did, but they didn't love her friend and to Gabrielle, that was unacceptable.
"Well, I'll just have to think of some way to fix this. Surely it can't be that difficult. I love them, they love me ... how hard can this be?" Still, the nagging doubts remained but Gabrielle, always a sensible soul, decided she'd deal with it tomorrow. As for now, well, there were definitely more pleasant things to think about.
She sensed rather than heard Xena's approach, felt her sit close by and though not one word was exchanged, the peace that descended over both was almost palpable in its intensity. And Gabrielle lifted her eyes skywards to better appreciate the glorious show that Nature was about to provide.
It was the kind of twilight that invited dreaming ... purple and deep and hushed and beautiful, adorned in garlands of stars that stretched across the heavens from pole to pole. Even the creatures of the forest seemed to sense the need for quiet, as they wended their way back to burrow or limb, imbued with the sense of peace that blanketed their world, if only for this little while.
The bard had always been sensitive to beauty in any guise and often felt it as a dull ache, centered very close to her heart. She raised a hand now and covered the place, as if the gesture could somehow preserve the feeling for just a bit longer.
This year of travelling with Xena had removed most of the illusions Gabrielle had concerning the Olympian Gods and she was absolutely convinced that those vain, selfish creatures would never create this gift for mankind's sake. So ... what had? Was it possible that a Power greater than the Greek Gods existed? Someone or something that loved mortals enough to feed even their souls?
'Hmm ... I'll need to think about that. Or better yet....'
She reluctantly tore her eyes away from the beauty before her, only to have them settle on a sight equally beautiful in the bard's eyes. And, 'How strange,' she thought, as her hand made yet another journey to that same place it had covered only moments before, because the ache was back, only this time, it wasn't the twilight.
As if on cue, Xena turned her gaze to meet Gabrielle's and understanding flowed between them like a warm current. Twin smiles mirrored each other and Gabrielle forgot the question she'd been about to ask and simply basked in the shared affection.
Something had changed between them since Thessaly and yet the bard would have been hard-pressed if asked to explain just what that something was. Of course, her heart would have willingly told her if only it had been consulted, and had even tried on several occasions to pass on a few helpful hints in the form of skipped heartbeats and breath-taking sighs. But Gabrielle wasn't ready to listen quite yet.
Ah, but Xena knew, the events at Thessaly had made it quite clear to her, and it was all there in her eyes, the knowledge clearly visible to anyone who cared to plumb their sea-blue depths. If only that someone had been Gabrielle....
But for now, it was enough just to be near this girl who, with a simple look, could elicit the most exquisite pangs within the warrior's breast, as was now the case. And if this in turn produced a silly grin on her face, well, it was a price easily paid.
And so they sat and looked and smiled and felt, and never were words less necessary.
"Isn't it beautiful out tonight, Xena?"
"Um hmm, the view is lovely from here." And though her gaze never left the bard's face, Gabrielle mistook her meaning and looked to the heavens once again.
"Some people believe you can tell the future by simply consulting the stars. Do you suppose that's possible, Xena?", the girl asked.
"We make our own futures, Gabrielle." Forcefully but not unkindly said.
"Oh, but Xena, where's the magic in that? Wouldn't you rather think that all that twinkling going on up there had a purpose? That the stars might have a language all their own and if we tried really, really hard we just might be able to understand it?"
The bard's stomach, tired of being ignored for so long, chose that precise moment to make its presence known and Xena had to bite down on her lip, to keep from smiling at the mortified expression on the young girl's face.
"Now that's a language anyone can understand." And as she rose, she stretched a hand out to Gabrielle and brought the bard up with her.
"Ha ha, very funny."
They were standing very close together, Xena's hand having yet to relinquish its hold on Gabrielle's. And though the bard wanted very badly to be mad at the warrior, the merriment she saw when she looked up into those eyes made that utterly impossible. And, just that quick, a charming smile replaced the half-hearted scowl as she pulled Xena along by their still-connected hands .
"Come on, Impertinence," laughed the bard, "let's eat."
Dinner had been simple and filling, two very desirable results when one lived on the road. And Gabrielle experienced that feeling of well-being that only a good meal and her friend's company could produce.
Gabrielle's prodigious appetite had always been a thing of wonder to Xena, but it had proved to be a god-send after her illness, helping her gain back the weight she'd lost.
"What do you think, will that hold you until tomorrow?"
The irony wasn't lost on Gabrielle.
"Oh yes Xena, I'm fine," she said, then added, "for now," just to see Xena roll her eyes, which she immediately did.
The bard giggled, then remembered something very pleasant.
"Oh Xena, wait 'til you taste my mother's cooking! She just makes the best food!"
The delighted smile that lit the girl's face at the memory was so contagious that the warrior had to share it.
"Do you have a favorite?"
Gabrielle concentrated for only a moment before her eyes grew large with wonder.
"Our neighbor, Paxius, once met a peddler who sold him the most amazing little plants and said they'd bear fruit very quickly, and they did. And, one day, he came to visit, carrying a large basket filled with these lovely things. And they were so delicious! Juicy and sweet! None of us had ever seen them before."
"What did they look like?" asked the curious warrior.
"Umm ... well, they're sort of heart-shaped and very red and they had little black speckles all over them. Oh, and Xena, they each had the cutest little leafy green hat."
The warrior's eyebrow completely disappeared under her bangs when she heard that and even Gabrielle had to giggle at the description.
"But the best part is my mother found a way to cook them with some sugar and cinnamon, then she stuffs little balls of sweet dough with the mixture and fries them up in a little butter. Oh Xena, they're glorious!", and Gabrielle smacked her lips just to hammer home the point to the warrior, who still looked skeptical.
"I'll take your word for it, Gabrielle."
"No, no, you'll see for yourself, if I can get Paxius to part with a few while we're there. Trust me, you'll love them."
And of course, she did.
They were quiet for a time as they sat by the firelight, each lost in thought, content to be together. The bard was first to break the silence-
"Xena, why is it so hard to go home again?"
"Won't you be glad to see Lila and your parents after all this time?"
"Um ... sure ... of course ... I guess."
"My father's not exactly your biggest fan."
Xena caught the whispered words and, almost imperceptively, turned her gaze so that she could better see the bard's face, as the young girl's eyes closed, almost in pain.
In this year of travelling together, Xena had watched the bard's expressive face go from sunshine to shadow , from joy to pain, often in the blink of an eye. And although she had never thought of herself as a particularly good judge of character, witness all the times in her past that the people she thought closest to her had betrayed her, still, to Xena, the girl's character seemed made of the purest water, transparent and clean and crystal clear, with no muddy ripples to mar its serenity.
And after all the crushing disappointments, here at last was an anchor, a rock her battered emotions could cling to while they healed in the warmth of Gabrielle's smile. And, best of all, the wondrous discovery that goodness had not died with her brother, Lyceus, but was alive and well and thriving within this little bard.
It was a gift she was determined to always keep safe, even as thoughts of Thessaly surfaced for the millionth time to haunt her again with the knowledge of what her pride had almost cost her. She gave her head a shake and returned her attention to the girl at her side.
"And that's important to you." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, very important! I want the people I love to love each other, too," was her earnest reply.
The warrior froze in place, the only movement a slight widening of the eyes. Then-
"Do you love me, Gabrielle?"
The bard's head shot up at that, something about the tone of Xena's voice not quite right. But as she searched her face for an answer, all she saw was the slight raising of the corner of Xena's mouth, as the patented half-grin was carefully put in place. Gabrielle couldn't help but smile back, as she lightly swatted the warrior's forearm with the tips of her fingers.
"Well, of course, silly. You're my best friend, aren't you?"
A beat ... and then another ... and finally-
"Ah, of course," was her reply and though her shoulders drooped just the tiniest bit, the smile never left her face.
"Xena, will you mind very much if he...."
"No, Gabrielle, I won't mind. I don't think I'd like me very much, either, if I were in his place. Don't worry about it."
"But it's so unfair, Xena. It's not as if you hit me over the head and dragged me away. I was the one who ran off, chasing after you, for Gaia's sake."
For some reason, that thought brought a shy smile back to Gabrielle's face, as she remembered that in spite of the warrior's oft-repeated dislike of travelling companions, it hadn't taken her long to convince her to let her stay.
'No sir, not long at all,' she thought, quite pleased with herself. As Gabrielle wiggled her toes contentedly, the movement caught Xena's attention.
"Unless you're planning to catch rabbits with those toenails, I'd suggest you put your foot up here, now."
The warrior patted her lap with one hand while the other rummaged in her saddlebag. She pulled out a small tool she'd had made just for this purpose and proceeded to give the bard a pre-mycenean pedicure. It had become a ritual of late, one they both enjoyed but neither would ever admit to. What the warrior didn't know was that the bard would purposely let her toenails get scraggley because she adored the attention Xena lavished on her feet. What the bard didn't know was that Xena welcomed any opportunity to touch Gabrielle. So ... it was a win-win situation all around.
Xena wielded the implement carefully, very pleased with the way it worked. She'd had her design, which consisted of two flat blades, with a finger-hole at the bottom of each, which crossed against each other and were fastened together half-way up by a clever little rivet, made up by a talented blacksmith in one of the larger towns they'd travelled through. Gabrielle had even named it, calling it the "his-hers", as the thing could be equally useful to both sexes. And though Xena's eyebrow almost left her face when she heard that, still, if the bard liked the name, then she'd learn to like it, too.
"Xena, maybe I can use the "his-hers" to trim your bangs. What do you think?"
"I don't see why...."
"Don't push it, Gabrielle."
"Oh, all right. It was just a thought."
The little ritual always ended with a vigorous foot massage and any polite traveller who happened to be passing through the woods would surely give their little camp a wide berth, as the sounds of pleasure emanating from the bard could easily be confused with another, more private activity. It was a wonderful way to end a day and both always felt completely at ease, afterwards.
The shadows were deepening around them as Xena leaned down to add another log to the fire.
"This time tomorrow, you'll be home, sleeping in your own bed."
Xena rose and stretched her arms wide, working out the tension that had built up in her back and shoulders. She stopped in mid-stretch when she heard the bard's next words:
"It may be my own bed but four walls don't necessarily make a home, Xena. Not anymore."
The warrior waited until the bard looked up at her and their gazes held for a long moment.
"Sometimes, home can be a person, Gabrielle."
"That never occurred to ... do you really believe that, Xena?"
"Yes, I do."
The warrior smiled at her then, that special smile, the one that reached all the way to her eyes. Then took off on her nightly rounds, making sure the perimeter of their little world was safe from intruders.
Gabrielle used the time to undress, then don her sleeping shift, after which she sat down by the fire and pulled a scroll, a quill and some ink from her bag.
Her beautiful eyes were softened by some deep, inner emotion and she wrote quickly and carefully, as though her thoughts at that moment needed to be preserved exactly as she remembered them, each one too precious to be forgotten.
When she had finished, she touched the newly written words reverently, with the palm of her hand, an old habit, something she did whenever she read anything that moved her.
Then she carefully rolled up the scroll, stoppered her little bottle of ink, cleaned her quill and placed them all back in her bag. After a short search, she found what she'd been looking for and carried it back with her to their bedrolls, where she sat, patiently awaiting her friend's return.
Moments later, she was rewarded as she saw Xena break through the overgrown bushes that grew at the edge of the little clearing they inhabited, and after carefully banking the fire, came straight towards the bard, the remnants of a smile still gracing her lovely face.
The bard modestly averted her eyes as Xena quickly removed her weapons, armor, leather dress and boots, always in that exact order, and then put on her own sleeping shift. Sitting down on her blanket, she looked quizzically at Gabrielle, who had the strangest expression on her face.
"What?" she asked softly.
But the bard just smiled and shook her head, then showed the warrior what she held in her hand.
It was the first present Xena had ever given her. When Gabrielle had left home to follow the Warrior Princess, she'd done her packing hastily and in the dark, so as not to awaken her sister. And one of the many things she had neglected to take was a comb. On the morning after their first night camping out together, Xena had been surprised to see Gabrielle, who was suffering from a bad case of morning hair, trying to arrange her locks with the tips of her fingers, but having very little success at it.
"Why not just comb it?" the warrior had asked, eyeing the girl curiously.
When Gabrielle explained she'd forgotten to pack one in her haste to leave home, Xena had just scowled at her but had said nothing more, until two days later, when exiting the first village they'd come to since leaving Amphipolis.
The warrior had extended her arm sideways, narrowly missing the bard's mid-section in the process and simply said, "Here."
The young girl's eyes had opened to twice their normal size as she'd reached out to take the package the warrior handed her, mostly because she was afraid not to.
Wrapped inside a little square of homespun cloth, she'd found the most beautiful comb she'd ever seen. It was crafted of bone, lovingly wrought by a master carver, with mother-of-pearl inlays all along the curved top, its pink and blue pearlescence winking at her as the sunlight played upon its surface. She'd stopped dead in her tracks and just stared at it for the longest time, wonder and delight fighting for sole possession of her expressive face.
When she'd finally looked up, there was Xena, a good half-mile down the road, hands on hips and even from here, the girl could see the dreaded scowl already firmly in place. She hurried to catch up but just as she reached the place, Xena mounted Argo and trotted off, leaving Gabrielle with thanks unsaid.
The bard didn't know it then but that was the first of many lost opportunities between them. And to this day, she had never officially thanked Xena. But that night, after she'd set up camp and while the warrior was out hunting rabbits, Gabrielle had foraged for herbs and wild onions and had cooked the warrior the best rabbit stew she was capable of making. Her thanks? The warrior had actually eaten two helpings of it. And for Gabrielle, it was enough.
Her thoughts came back to the present as she felt movement beside her and she saw Xena quickly turn and toss her head back, her eyes closed and a tiny smile of anticipation on her lips. The onyx tresses gleamed in the firelight, delighting the bard, who instantly lifted a hand to touch the lovely sight.
Though she would never admit it, the warrior's hair was a point of pride with her and Gabrielle had never seen it other than immaculately clean and groomed. And when Xena had begun to pamper the bard's feet with such lavish attention, Gabrielle had thought it only fair that she find a way to reciprocate, a way that would be acceptable to her finicky friend. And, finally, she had.
She smiled now as she remembered the first time she had broached the subject to Xena, only to see the dreaded scowl begin to make its unwelcome appearance. But then, as one brow went up and the other came down, her eyes had taken on the roundness of a happy child's, and she'd simply said, "Fine." And she'd entrusted her glorious mane to the bard's capable hands, just as she did now.
And so Gabrielle began her almost-nightly ritual by carefully running her comb through the silky strands, over and over, almost hypnotically, until she saw the warrior's head begin to loll and knew she had once again accomplished her goal. Just one thing remained to be done and she quickly plaited the warrior's hair, the loose braid hanging down her back like some black pony's tail.
She knew that in the morning, Xena would return the favor by carefully braiding the bard's own reddish-gold mane away from her face, as any prudent warrior would. As she finished, the bard's hand lightly touched the warrior's shoulder, signaling the end of their little ritual, at least for this night.
And any starry-eyed traveller who happened upon this particular campsite on this particular night could have easily seen the loving though drowsy look on the face of the tall, dark-haired woman who lay down facing a golden-haired girl, whose answering smile did more to illuminate the darkness than any campfire ever could.
And after certainly wishing them a pleasant night's rest, the same starry-eyed traveller could continue on his way, secure in the knowledge that, at least in this part of the known world, love was alive and well and thriving.
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