The following takes place between the early first season episodes CHARIOTS OF WAR and DREAMWORKER, shortly before Gabrielle sneaks off to practice with Xena's sword and buy the breast dagger Xena confiscates and turns into her own signature concealed weapon.
Gabrielle had never felt so alive. Entire body engaged on multiple fronts. Eyes shifting from sightless dreaminess to sudden focus on the tiniest petal. Hearing attuned to the slightest rustle of leaves or creatures creeping through tall grass bordering the road. Guarded against losing any of what she'd experienced, missing the moment she was in, or closing herself off to surprises around the bend. Her mind and words determined to capture and thrash every detail.
"Xena?" The young redhead paused in her breathless recounting of their recent rescue of a settlement in the Parthenon Valley. She peered up at the silent woman on horseback. "Is this what it's been like for you? Since you left home? Became a warrior?"
The older woman chewed the insides of her cheeks. To think she'd prided herself on her ability to sort through the din of battle for sounds of impending victory or defeat, of friend vs. foe, of the thrust that could mean her death. None of that compared to the workout her ears had gotten the last few weeks traveling with Gabrielle. How could a brain explore that many directions at the same time? A mouth keep up so tirelessly? And long.
"Xena? You listening?"
"I heard you."
Gabrielle skipped ahead, pivoted and began walking backwards so she could scrutinize the warrior's face. "Oh yeah? Which part."
"I got all the parts, Gabrielle. The problem's how they fit."
"Xena, Xena, Xena." Gabrielle shook her head. "They're impressions. Observations. Bits'n pieces. Like swatches for a quilt. Or a puzzle. I'm trying to put them together. See how the parts I'm working on match with yours."
"Why not?" Gabrielle faced forward and continued alongside the Palomino. "You think we're so different? In case you haven't noticed, we're on the same road, at the same time, going in the same direction." Grinning, she patted Xena's foot. "Supposedly right next to each other."
"Mm. One of us with her head in the clouds. The other … far from it."
"Hah. My head wasn't in the clouds when you made me race that horse as bait for a bunch of warlords. Or leap in that chariot with you. I couldn't imagine anything besides trying not to imagine."
"You did okay. Survived good enough to chew me out." Xena snorted. "Could've waited until after the chase."
"So my timing wasn't so good. Point is, like you said, I survived." Gabrielle stuck out her chin. "And that's not all. I saw a man die. Violently. Because that's all he knew. And would've killed you or his own son otherwise."
Xena's jaw tightened. "Won't be the last time, hanging with me. You'd rather that? Than your clouds?"
Gabrielle pondered Xena's question. She could feel the warrior's gaze burning the top of her head. "Maybe not the death part." She looked up with a slightly smug smile. "The hanging around you part I'd rather any day over clouds."
"Mm." Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. The girl was good. At least with words. And seemed determined to get equally good with swords and everything else Xena preferred she didn't.
"Okaaay." Gabrielle took the warrior's silence as a victory of sorts. "So …. What about my question?"
"Gods." Xena's head lolled back. "Which question?" she asked scowling resignedly at the clouds.
"The one about your life. Is it always this exciting? You know – blood stirring, body tingling, senses alert nearly every minute?"
"Yeah? On what?"
"On when you're talkin.'"
"You mean, like before or after you changed?"
"Nooo. On when you're talkin’."
Gabrielle frowned. "I'm talking –."
"Right. Talking." Xena urged Argo into a fast trot. Smirking, she threw over her shoulder, "Depends on whether you mean before or after I met you!"
A short, middle-aged man pressed his back against the tree he'd been peering around. He held up two fingers and beckoned his companions. They crept forward to join him. Shorty pointed to the carry sack beneath the head of one lump lying under some furs, then to the saddlebags and weapons near a second sleeping figure. He indicated he'd get the carry sack, that his skinny young friend should go for the saddlebags, while his potbellied colleague could take care of the weapons. Skinny and Potbelly nodded.
The three had almost made it to Shorty's goal, when suddenly the furs on the other side of the fire pit exploded, revealing a tall woman in leather with wild dark hair and an even wilder expression. They froze, gaping at her.
The men exchanged glances. Skinny and Potbelly fingered their sword hilts. Shorty held up his hand. The woman stood with her arms crossed, hadn't reached for her weapons yet. Not necessarily good signs to a veteran in the robbery business. Shorty calculated the probable worth of the women's belongings vs. the danger radiating from the owner on guard. Before he could signal his decision, the furs nearest them flew back. A young redhead jumped up. She gave them a glaring once-over. Startled, Skinny began fumbling at a knife in his belt. Next thing he knew, the redhead was swinging her bag at him.
"I've got this one!" the redhead yelled as Skinny took some steps backward, tripped and fell trying to protect his face from the whaling cowhide.
The other men heard a low growl. A moment later, they found themselves knocked nearly senseless.
"G-g-get off of `em! Get off or I'll cut `er!"
The sprawled woman and men looked up to see Skinny panting, holding his knife to the redhead's throat. His companions staggered to their feet and drew their swords. The dark-haired woman remained crouched, caught between pouncing and waiting.
"Let her go." Shorty started backing slowly away. "Not worth the trouble."
"Says you." Potbelly took a few steps toward the saddlebags.
Potbelly hesitated. For some reason the dark-haired woman didn’t sound nearly as scared as she should. "Yer bags worth the little one's life?"
"They worth yours?"
"Leave it be, I tell you. Ain't the only fish in the sea."
"Why?" Skinny glanced nervously between Shorty and the coiled woman. "What's ta stop us from takin' their stuff, if I don't? If I do, what's ta stop that one from gettin' us anyway?"
Shorty locked eyes with her. "I'm bettin' she could do whatever she wants." He sheathed his sword. "But I don't think she wants us, `less we make it worth her while."
The woman nodded, her pupils pinpoints encased in ice, aimed at Skinny.
"You got any sense, you'll leave with me." Shorty continued backing away.
Noticing Skinny's knife hand waver, Potbelly lumbered over to him, pushed him away and rested his blade against the redhead's throat. "You been doin' this too long. Lost your edge. Run if ya want. Me'n him're gettin' what we came for."
"Don't listen to him." Shorty had reached the edge of the clearing. "I'm tellin' you, git while you can." He turned and disappeared into the trees.
The woman rose. "I'll take out your dumb friend first," she stated, not bothering to look at Skinny. "You next, if you're still here." Her eyes lingered on the redhead before honing in on Potbelly. The corner of her mouth twitched. "His knees're already weak."
Potbelly's face reddened. "You don't scare me, you – yeow!" A blinding pain shot through his leg. He tried in vain to hold onto the body in his grasp, soon realizing he needed to be more concerned about the large projectile hurtling his way. He did manage to drop down, unfortunately with a broken neck.
"So." The woman turned, brushing her hands together. "Which body part do you want readjusted?"
"N-n-none! Don't hurt me!" Skinny glanced frantically around, not sure which direction was best.
"You got a horse?"
"A horse? Y-yes. Three. B-back a ways in the woods."
"Good. Grab your dumb friend's legs. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Your smart friend might’ve hung around long enough to see if he had one extra horse to sell or two."
Xena returned with a rabbit dangling from one hand, carrying a cloth containing berries in the other. She smiled at Gabrielle before wordlessly beginning her camp chores as if nothing had happened. Gabrielle wasn't quite sure what to do. Or say. Of course she was grateful for the warrior's continued patience. Which she didn't feel she deserved, especially after this morning's blunder. She wanted to apologize – not just for the consequences, but because of her ineptness at providing her share of defense.
"Can we talk about it now?" Gabrielle asked when they sat down to eat.
Xena blew on the meat she'd pulled from the spit over their fire. "Talk? Since when do you need permission?"
"You know what I mean." Gabrielle picked at the bone in her bowl. "I said 'we.'"
Xena popped a berry in her mouth. "Mmm. These're good. Should try some. Went to a lot of trouble to get `em, you know." She smiled good-naturedly. "See? I'm talking."
"Xeenaaa." Gabrielle's eyes dropped. "You mad at me? You don't think it's important enough? Just Gabrielle tripping over herself as usual?"
"Gabriellle. Of course not." The warrior sighed. "Look, all things considered, you did good. Kicked him in the kneecap like I showed you. Like I wanted. You survived again, didn't you?" She tossed a berry in Gabrielle's lap. "Enjoy it while you can."
"You don't get it, do you?" Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath. "That's not enough. Surviving. Eating. Tripping over myself. I want to do more."
"We've been over that. You stood up to slavers. Saved me from a stoning. Tripped one of Draco's men for me. Rode break-neck to lure warlords into my trap. Talked your way past a Cyclops, for gods' sake. If you could just …."
"Just what? Stop butting in? Like this morning?"
"Trust me to take care of us." Xena put her half-eaten rabbit leg aside. "It's not so much the butting in. I don't know when you'll …. It catches me off-guard."
"Because you don't expect me to help."
"Well, no, I don't. Not like that. I know what I'm doing, Gabrielle. Every situation's a little different. I had things under control."
"You think those guys would've left us alone? Scared off by a few words?"
"Yessss. At least two of them." Xena shrugged. "I could've handled the third – or all of `em – if I had to."
Gabrielle sighed. "I know. With one hand tied behind your back." She recalled the warrior standing there as if daring the men to attack. She'd lain under her furs feeling the rush, imagining herself joining Xena, fighting side by side. And when the skinny one went for his knife ….
"Xena, it was instinctive. Jumping in to stop him. You're right – I don't think sometimes." Her eyes widened as she considered this. "Doesn't that show I have it in me? To be like you? A warrior?"
Xena thought of the countless times she'd killed without thinking. How she'd welcomed that haze wherein she and her weapons were one, flowing like a force of nature. Not questioning whether they could – or should – strike down anything in their path. How lately she'd been working on her inclination to resolve everything with violence. On harnessing her blood lust when peaceful methods might work as well. Like this morning. Until that big robber's sword came dangerously close to Gabrielle. In an instant she'd felt her hands around his neck, the satisfaction of hearing it snap.
"Maybe you do, Gabrielle." Xena held the trusting green eyes. Grateful they inspired who she wanted to be, regretting their envy of what made her who she was. "Maybe I don't want you letting out what I'm trying so hard to keep in."
Gabrielle blinked. "You mean, it could be the same? I do have it in me?"
"I'm saying, maybe neither of us wants to find out."
Gabrielle studied Xena a moment. "So you weren't toying with those guys?"
"You really thought you could talk them out of it?"
"Well, my weapons kinda speak for themselves." Xena smirked. "A hint of restrained menace doesn't hurt."
"And here I'm the one all primed to kick butt."
Xena cocked her head. "I suppose that should make me feel better."
"Really?" Gabrielle said with a bit of hope in her voice.
"I meant, I've been worrying about being the cause. Doesn't make me feel much better if I'm not."
"You want me all soft and peace-loving?"
"I want you alive. And not a killer. Like me."
"You forget. I smell flowers. Study the clouds. I’m curious about any and everything. Sound like somebody with a death wish? I don't think so." Gabrielle gathered a handful of berries and tossed them all in her mouth. "Futhamoh," she added, munching, "I got my first taste of a 'bad boy.'"
"So I noticed."
"Attractive, I admit. Of course, he turned out not so bad after all. Then there was Darius and his kids. The celebrations, neighborliness. Reminded me of what I like about village life."
"Yeah, that was nice. Good people."
"And I've gotten to experience bad people. The kind who enjoy killing."
"There's a point to all this, right?"
"Uh huh. I discovered something."
"I like you better."
Xena's brow rose. "Say again?"
"Surprised ya, huh?"
"Try … confused."
"See, you don't need to worry about me turning into a killing machine. Preferring bad people or pining away for what's good. I've got you. That's more than enough. Better than everything you think'll tempt me away from where I belong. I just …. I have to explore my full potential. Test myself like you. See if I can handle the part that wants to kick butt." Gabrielle snorted. "Besides, only so much damage I can do with my carry bag."
"You've got a fighting spirit, that's for sure. In your own way. Mine …. Gabrielle, I let what was inside me out. To the fullest. Thought I could control it." The warrior blew out a long breath. "Turned a village girl into a monster. Probably won't happen to you, but I don't want you dying to find out."
Gabrielle's shoulders drooped. "Kinda selfish, huh? Silly, arguing what I don't have a clue about. With someone who's lived it. Who's kind enough to tolerate me and my mistakes." She gave her friend a little smile. "I'll try to do better. I see now my fumbling could get one or both of us killed."
"Listen, you're fine as you are. I'm who's gotta change. Keep trying to be more … like you." Xena shook her head. "I'll probably regret this, but I don't expect you to stop taking chances because of me. You're stumbling along with me into who I'm supposed to be. Not fair asking less of myself or more from you."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle swallowed back her emotions. "You mean that?"
"Time'll tell." Xena’s brow arched. "No doubt you'll test it all the way."
Gabrielle grinned. "Probably." She reached across to brush the warrior's hand. "But you know, Xena, you're way too hard on yourself. About changing. Sure, you want to temper some things. Don't you realize how many others make you the kind of person I want to be?"
Xena chewed her lip. "Don't think about it enough, but I guess so," she acknowledged softly.
"Something you have that you really like. Or at least admire."
"Come on. Your integrity? Sense of humor? Smarts?"
"If you say so."
Gabrielle leaned forward, eyes twinkling. "You saying you can't?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "That a challenge?"
"How quickly you forget. For somebody who wants to be like me."
"I have many skills."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Your favorite bobbing and weaving?"
"Mm. Comes in handy at times like this. Not high on my list though."
"Driving opponents insane?"
"Close to the top, but no. Got something I like much better."
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "Liiiiike … ."
Xena leaned forward. "Liiiike …." Smiling with just a hint of smugness, she tweaked Gabrielle's nose. "You."
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