"What? Is one woman too much for you?"
Gabrielle recalled rejoicing at the unmistakable voice. All she'd been through ... leaving her family, surviving on berries, dodging danger, tricking a salty old guy into carrying her on his wagon. Finally reaching Amphipolis and spotting the golden mare tied outside the inn. Praying it meant she'd also find the singular individual who'd make the torturous journey worthwhile.
She'd been surprised at the crowd inside. Wondered if maybe they'd formed a welcoming party for the new friend she sought. Wiggled her way forward and stood on her tiptoes, smiling at the dark head she could see above those in front. Frowning when she heard angry murmurs and the speaker's next words.
"Let me even the odds. One unarmed woman might be more to your tastes."
She'd stared in disbelief as a small object hurtled toward the tall figure ahead. And then another one. Rocks?! Aimed at the warrior who'd almost single...handedly saved Gabrielle's village?! Standing defenseless against the stony weapons and hearts of her kinsmen?
She'd pushed through to shield the intended victim. Used her wits to persuade the attackers to forgo their assault. Relieved to hear them warn, "You'd better get Xena out of here ... now." And did.
"What're you grinning about?"
"You'd do better to pay attention."
"Attention?" Gabrielle blinked, focusing just in time on a large rut in the road. She hopped over it and smiled at the mounted warrior. "Whew! Thanks!"
"Might wanna ride awhile. More bad patches ahead."
Gabrielle watched Xena guide her horse through the tricky footing. "Like I'm gonna feel safer on Argo?" She snorted. "I don't think so."
"Suit yourself." Xena raised a brow. "Glad you find pits so amusing."
"Not especially," Gabrielle retorted, now more cautious about where she walked. "I was thinking about the other day. How little young me had to rescue big old you."
Xena scowled over her shoulder. "Mm. A debt I'll no doubt repay until I go deaf."
"Nah." Gabrielle stepped over another rut. "I'm here. You're here." She smirked. "I'd say we're even."
Chickens and a few children flitted between the collection of thatched houses. Gabrielle lounged in a shady spot near the road. Not quite the adventurous scenario she'd pictured when they'd embarked on the journey away from their home villages. She chuckled, realizing it would be hard to duplicate the drama of their first days together.
Since then their biggest challenge had been dodging holes and replacing Argo's damaged shoes. Xena had gone off to find a blacksmith. "Relax. Enjoy the sun," the warrior had said. "Most days'll be pretty dull. Might as well get used to it."
Gabrielle had snorted to herself. Xena stirred the air simply standing still ... senses always alert, body ready for action, mind constantly assessing what might lurk in the shadows, be camouflaged by the mundane. No, "still" hardly applied to Xena. If it did, Gabrielle might as well have been satisfied with life in Poteidaia.
"Hurry up! Attibus could be here any moment!"
Gabrielle's ears perked up at the sound of running feet. Several adults rushed in from their fields carrying baskets. They gathered around one of the wells and began lowering their loads into it. A few caught sight of the stranger, soon regarding her with a mixture of uncertainty and suspicion. An older man approached. He scrutinized her peasant dress and small carry bag.
"Strange place for a girl like you to be ... sitting. Passing the time of day."
Gabrielle stood and dusted herself off. "I'm waiting for a friend."
"That so." The man glanced up and down the road. "From around here?"
"My friend? Sort of. We're traveling through. Our horse needed new shoes." Gabrielle pointed her chin toward the villagers at the well. "Speaking of 'strange' .... May I ask why -"
"You seem like a nice kid. Better you forget the questions and move on. We're expecting company ourselves." The man scrutinized the area behind the houses. "Company you wouldn't want to meet."
Gabrielle's heart quickened. This was more like it! "Hey, if trouble's on the way, I may be just the - ."
"No time for chitchat. The warlord Attibus demands half our stores. We hide some when we hear he's in these parts. Stay, he might add you to his list." The man's jaws clenched. "Whatever you do, keep your mouth shut about what you just saw." He turned to leave.
"Sir?" Gabrielle caught the man's arm. "I may be back. My friend is a warrior who helps people in need."
"Don't bother. Unless it's Hercules, one warrior won't be enough."
"Xena! Up here!"
Xena steered Argo toward the hill where Gabrielle had come from behind a tree and stood waving. "Thought I told you to wait by ... ."
"I did. I was. Minding my business just like you said. When suddenly it turned into dodging trouble." Gabrielle carefully descended.
"Bees? Mosquitoes 'big as eagles?'"
"Better! A warlord!"
"Better? How's that better than ...." Xena dismounted. "What warlord?"
"Somebody named Attibus. See, there I was entertaining myself." Gabrielle giggled. "Well, if you can call counting daisies 'entertaining.' Although, I did discover a pretty rare ... ."
"Did he attack that village?"
"Attack? Um, no. Not then anyway."
"He threaten you? That why you ran?"
"I'll have you know I strolled away ... quickly. To bring help. Humph. You're as bad as that villager. Called me a 'nice kid.' Can you imagine that? Like I have no experience with ... ."
"I'm sorry but, no, Attibus did not chase me down or try to chop off my head. You'll be happy to know he might have if ...."
"Um, if he'd bothered to show up."
Rolling her eyes, Xena prepared to remount.
"Xenaaa! I'm not finished. Don't you wanna know -"
"A two...bit thug. Who might drop by with nasty ideas." Xena shook her head. "Who's apparently made a name for himself bigger than he's worth." She climbed aboard Argo and reached out. "C'mon. We've wasted enough time."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "Excuse me, but where exactly are we supposed to be, that we're in such a hurry? All you said was, 'Where I'm headed there'll be trouble.' Isn't that our mission? Fixing trouble? There some rules you neglected to mention?"
Xena stared at the young redhead a moment before withdrawing her hand and resting it on her thigh. Only recently had she begun to feel again the sting of disappointment. From potential new friends who knew only the evil she'd done. Kinsmen who didn't believe she could change back to the good person she'd been. Former comrades who didn't want her to. Now from someone who both believed and wanted it to be true because she didn't know any better. Had made it "our" mission, not just hers.
Xena hadn't yet determined Gabrielle's definition of "trouble," but it probably didn't matter. She carried trouble inside regardless of their destination. And would apparently face its meaning every day as the companion she couldn't deny, coupled with disappointment that would no doubt come along as well. Sighing, she reached out again.
"We'll camp nearby. You can tell me more on the way."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm. "You'll help them?"
The villagers exhibited less nervousness than the day before. Gabrielle wondered if that meant Attibus had visited after all ... partly glad if he'd left without hurting anyone, partly regretting they wouldn't need rescue. Aware of curious eyes, she studiously avoided the fake well and headed toward what seemed to be a meeting hall. Inside she found the older man she'd talked to yesterday. He and some others worked beside long tables piled with sacks.
The man glanced up from making notes on a scroll. "You again? What? Your friend didn't show? Unlike you, had the good sense to stay away?"
"Yes, yes and no." Gabrielle smiled. "I tried to tell you, danger's our business."
"Pfft. Then you're both nuts."
"Um, no, I'm Gabrielle. My friend is ... dangerous, but not nuts. And you would be?"
"More sensible than you." The man straightened. "But you can call me Percolos. Head Elder of Seres."
"So you're saying there's still danger?" Gabrielle indicated the sacks. "Attibus hasn't come yet?"
"Probably'll get here tomorrow instead. Gives us extra time to squirrel away more."
Gabrielle beamed. "Excellent. My friend's scouting the area. Gives us extra time to figure out a defense."
"What do you mean, 'us?'" Percolos swept his hand across the room. "This is our defense. Only way we know to keep our skin. You and your invisible friend best keep your noses out. Silly young thing like you will get us all killed."
"Sir, if you'll just listen ...." Gabrielle blew out an exasperated breath. She crossed her arms. "First of all, I've survived warlords, a Cyclops and a lynch mob. I've traveled alone with wits and two feet my only protection. Second, my 'invisible' friend could beat most warlords with one finger. I promise, we won't do anything ... ."
"Forget the fantasies." Percolos grabbed his quill and shook it in Gabrielle's face. "You wanna help, you can fill sacks for Attibus. You got any other ideas, take `em back wherever you came from."
"Sooooo .... You're saying this is where you'll be for awhile?"
"Most of us. Quicker we take care of these supplies, sooner Attibus'll leave." Percolos narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Oh, just wondering." Gabrielle blinked innocently. "Might take you up on your invitation."
"What invitation? I told you -"
"The more workers you have, the quicker you can get rid of Attibus. Yes?"
"You really are -"
"Don't worry. Maybe you'll get a nice surprise."
"Surprise? What .... W...wait! You can't ...." He threw up his hands as the redhead vanished through the door. "Kids," he muttered, turning back to his work. "Miracle they ever learn a thing."
Xena cantered toward their meeting place, pleasantly surprised to spot the small figure waiting as instructed. Not surprised when it jumped up and ran to greet her.
"Did you see anything?"
"Mm." The warrior dismounted, patted Argo's flank and watched the horse amble off to chew on some grass. Turning, she pointed her chin at Gabrielle's carry bag. "Any leftovers from this morning?"
"Leftovers?" Gabrielle gaped at her friend. "Food? At a time like this? What about ... ."
"It'll wait. I'm hungry." Xena pursed her lips. "You know, from riding around? Making sure the world won't end?"
"Funny. I take it that won't happen any time soon?"
"Not for me. As for you ...."
Gabrielle whipped her head around, searching for trouble, finally realizing it stood with folded arms in front of her. "Oh." Grinning sheepishly, she reached into her bag and took out cloth...wrapped bread and cheese. "All yours, if you want," she said, handing it over.
"Half'll do." Xena dropped down and began dividing their lunch. She cocked her head at Gabrielle.
"I swear, Xena. I've never met anybody so ...." Huffing, Gabrielle plopped across from the warrior. "One minute you eat less than a bird. Then, in the middle of .... When I least expect, you act like a normal person." She cleared her throat. "Um, 'normal' in the sense of an appetite. You know, human needs I sometimes wonder if -"
"Only two ways Attibus would come, with troops of any size. Road's clear in both directions. Passable forest from the north. No signs of him there either."
Gabrielle frowned. "So maybe they're wrong? He's not really coming?"
"Didn't say that. There's a mountainous area to the west. Good vantage point for checking the valley beyond the forest. I saw mounted men. From their numbers and formation, I doubt they're traveling merchants."
"Couldn't that be Attibus? Headed here?"
Xena shrugged. "Figure it'll take `em a couple days." She glanced up from breaking off a piece of bread. "So. How'd it go with your villagers?"
"They're still expecting him. Pfft. Packaging supplies as their 'defense.' I, um, told their leader, Percolos, they might have ... other options." Gabrielle grinned. "Us."
"They're convinced current arrangements are less harmful to their health. Quite naturally skeptical one warrior could do anything that wouldn't get everybody killed."
Xena snorted. "Especially me, eh?" She raised a brow at Gabrielle's silence.
"Um, about that ...."
"I wanted you to be a surprise, okay? Besides, I'm not sure it would've made much difference. Probably wouldn't've believed me anyway." Gabrielle fiddled with a piece of cheese. "Percolos thinks I live in some fantasy world. Wandering around with an imaginary super warrior. Sure, might've been me a few days ago. Things're different now. I'm different. You know?"
Xena blew out a long breath. "Yeah. Unfortunately I think I do."
Gabrielle scooted closer. "It's silly, I know. Selfish too. But Xena, being with you has changed everything. I've always wanted to help people. I didn't know how. Now I'm traveling with someone who can fix just about anything. I feel so ... powerful." She winced. "Um, not me, of course. I mean, you're the reason .... I guess 'less helpless' is a better way of ...."
"Gabrielle, it could make a difference. That it's me." Xena's eyes bore into the eager green ones across from her. "Not the way you pictured."
"Your old reputation? Xena, you agreed. Things are different. They'll see. Just like your folks. How will you know, unless we try?"
Once again Xena felt the force of Gabrielle's conviction, the desire not to disappoint her. Acknowledged the truth in risking the future one new day at a time, if she was ever to prove she could earn a life worth the good she'd vowed to make of it.
"I suppose tomorrow's as good a time as any."
"Yes!" Gabrielle ducked her head. "Um, how about today?" Noting Xena's scowl, she quickly added, "Everybody'll all be at the meeting hall. Won't that make planning easier?"
"Fine." Xena reached for the cloth to wrap her remaining food.
"Right now? Don't you wanna finish eating first?"
"We 'super warriors' don't need much."
Gabrielle grinned. "Heh. Percolos thinks I'm a silly kid, does he. Wait'll he sees the 'imaginary' playmate I skip in with."
The few adults outside watched the two strangers ride in, dismount and head for the meeting hall. When they reached the door, the younger one ran ahead.
"Everyone? Your attention please! Percolos told me of your troubles with Attibus. I'd like to introduce you to the one woman who can make a difference." Gabrielle swept her arm before the tall figure trailing behind. "Xena! Known as the Warrior Princess!" She stuck out her chest, basking in the stunned silence, especially the bulging eyes of Percolos.
The name echoed throughout the room. Those closest to the visitors moved back as though hit by a strong wind.
Gabrielle grinned smugly. "Now, now. Don't be shy. I understand your awe. Despite her ... stature ... so to speak, she puts on one boot at a time like the rest of us."
Percolos edged a few steps in front of the others. "This is the friend you spoke of?"
"Told you I had a surprise."
"You dare bring her here? To help us? You're even crazier than I thought!"
Gabrielle felt a chill from the coldness that had settled at her back and before her. "Okay, I think I know what's going on here. You must've heard about the 'old' Xena. You probably don't know she's changed. She's devoted herself to ... ."
"We know all right!" someone shouted.
"Changed?! From bad to worse?!"
"You take us for fools? Expect us to prefer her over Attibus?"
"W...wait! You're wrong!" Gabrielle started forward, her intended passionate plea interrupted by a hand on her shoulder.
"No. Go look after Argo."
"Argo?! What -"
"Make sure she gets water."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior. "You need me here. Why're you -"
"Gabrielle, please. Do as I ask." Xena softened with a small smile what she knew to be a hurtful order. "Wanna show I'm not just in your imagination, right?"
Gabrielle searched the blue eyes, noting they reflected the same resoluteness as the sullen villagers. "Fine." She waggled a finger at the stoic warrior. "You call if you need me."
"Absolutely." The corner of Xena's mouth twitched as her young friend pivoted and strode with her head high out the door. She squared her shoulders and faced the crowd, confident this time she had a way out at her back.
Gabrielle paced beside Argo, muttering her displeasure with a certain tall brunette. Naturally she wanted to be in on any action ... conversationwise ... but respected Xena's wishes. Especially since even pressing her ear against the heavy door hadn't yielded much beyond muffled voices. "Could've mentioned she had a history here." She glared at the Palomino she considered a co...conspirator. "Sure, take her side," she said when the horse seemed to neigh disagreement.
"You warrior types stick together, huh? Treat us civilians like weaklings who'll crumble at the slightest bad news. I had those folks in the palm of my hand. But noooo, she decides to go it alone. She afraid I'd get too mushy? Go too far defending her honor? Get hurt somehow? Like I couldn't whack somebody with a broom if I had to. When'll she realize I'm good for more than ... ."
Gabrielle swung around at the sound of a door opening. Xena strode out, her face a mask revealing nothing unusual. She rushed to meet the warrior.
"What happened? How'd it go? Are they -"
"Did you water Argo?" Xena brushed past Gabrielle to the mare.
"Water Argo. Like I asked."
Gabrielle pointed to a nearby bucket. "Happy? Now can we move on to -"
"Good." Xena placed her foot in a stirrup. "Stay here," she instructed, swinging up on Argo. "You'll be safe."
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle grabbed the mare's bridle. "What're you .... Can't you at least tell me -"
"Not working out quite the way you hoped. Sorry. " Xena gently pulled the bridle free. "Try staying out of trouble." She smiled before urging Argo on.
Gabrielle watched the disappearing figure, suddenly aware how little she actually knew Xena. She didn't doubt the warrior planned to protect them all somehow, yet realized the same faith which reassured her the warrior would return also made her afraid she might not.
Gabrielle pushed through the door, determined not to be denied. She surveyed the clumps of quietly talking people until she located Percolos. He did not seem happy to see her.
"You again." Percolos shook his head. "Figures. You're less good to her than us. Guess we're stuck with you 'til she comes back."
"What did she say?" Gabrielle got in the man's face. "Tell me. Everything exactly as it happened."
Percolos glowered. "I look like a bard to you?"
"Don't let this baby face fool you. You've seen how persistent I am." Gabrielle summoned her staunchest expression. "I'll hound you until what's left of your hair falls out. Pester you like a fly on a sweet roll. Stick closer to you than -"
"All right! Back off! You're driving me nuts already!" Percolos sat on a bench and gestured for Gabrielle to do the same. "Really not much to tell. You know she was here before?"
"I guessed that much. Was it during her defense of Amphipolis?"
"Is that what she called it?" Percolos chuckled darkly. "She wanted Seres to join her militia. Warned the raiders would come for us next. A few of our young men got suckered in. They never returned. She did. Surprised us with the army she'd built. Demanded booty to keep it going. Claimed it was for our own protection. Whether we wanted it or not."
Gabrielle leaned forward. "Did she .... Were innocents hurt?"
"She didn't have to. Her threats made clear the consequences of opposing her. We'd heard of other villages that had fires or heads bashed in or looting. You wonder why we caved to the likes of Attibus? Ask your ... friend. She taught us." Percolos spat on the floor. "And now we've come full circle. Traded Attibus for her."
"W...what do you mean? She wouldn't -"
"Where'd she find you? A cabbage patch?"
Gabrielle stiffened. "I know what I'm talking about. I witnessed it. Twice. Both times she could've walked away. Both times she risked her life for people like you. People who couldn't accept she's changed."
"Yeah? We told her what we thought of the Xena we witnessed. She didn't even try denying it. Stood there like a stone. Let it all wash over her. Not one crack to show it got through."
"You weren't afraid?" Gabrielle cocked her head. "She could've exploded in a rage and wiped the floor with you. If she was as bad as you say."
"Pfft. One woman? We had her outnumbered." Percolos dropped his head. "If she comes back with an army.... We couldn't take the chance."
"You wouldn't give her a chance either. What makes you think she'd -"
"After the last accusation, it got real quiet. The first thing out of her mouth? 'What're you paying Attibus?' We showed her the sacks. Told her how many there'd be when we finished. She said, 'He's nothing compared to me.'" Percolos glared at Gabrielle. "Warned we might as well stop hiding what we didn't want to hand over." He stood dismissively. "So you see how much you helped us. Ought to be grateful we know a silly young thing when we see one. Otherwise we'd throw you out. Let you rot with the bigger scourge your nonsense brought with it."
A day passed. Early the next morning, shouts of "She's coming!" rang out. Some rushed to bring out sacks. Others waited by the road, surprised to see a lone horse. No army. No carts. Gabrielle pushed to the front. She smiled her relief when the warrior nodded to her before riding stone...faced to the meeting hall. Xena remained mounted, staring ahead, ignoring the nervous whispers.
Percolos appeared, his confusion evident. "Your supplies are ready. We thought .... How .... When do you want them?"
Xena untied a large sack from her saddle. It clattered when it hit the ground. "Open it."
Two boys ran to the sack and dumped out its contents. "Swords!" one exclaimed. "And knives!" He frowned. "They're rusty." He ran a finger gingerly across a blade, shoulders slumping in disappointment. "And dull."
Percolos bent down to pick up one of the dark pieces of leather that had fallen out. "This is Attibus' insignia." He gaped at Xena. "You ... you took his army?"
Xena's lip curled. "Those boys would make better men. And probably take better care of their weapons."
"B...but .... I don't understand."
"I'll make it simple. You needn't worry about Attibus anymore. Or me." Xena beckoned Gabrielle and pulled the young woman up behind her. "Funny thing about wasps," she said before turning Argo to head out. "Maybe they'll sting you, maybe not. Might wanna worry more about yourselves." She swept her eyes across the sacks and villagers gathered for her expected command. "What you might do in fear you'll be stung."
Gabrielle walked alongside Argo. Her friend of few words had spoken even fewer since leaving Seres. She figured Xena needed space, though the warrior already seemed miles away.
In truth, Gabrielle needed some space as well. Her sister used to say she lived more in the sky than on earth. She couldn't argue with that. The expansive heavens comforted her, making problems appear smaller as they did the highest mountains. Twinkling stars in the night fed her optimism that darkness existed to provide light a place to shine. She hadn't focused so much on those in between times, when the sun rose or set. She found herself thinking maybe she should. That perhaps "real" life was more like the grayness before the blue or black revealed their gifts.
"No chirping. Squeaking. Squawking."
"Huh?" Gabrielle tuned into the forest, wondering if she'd missed some sign of danger. "Those crows're making quite a racket. You don't hear them?"
"I wasn't talking about birds."
"Xena, what are you ...." Gabrielle noted a raised brow. "Hmmm. You referring to me? Humpf. I don't always have to talk, you know. Mostly it's around certain silent types. How else are they gonna get entertainment and edification so far from civilization? Beyond grunts or groans, I mean. And so far the conversations with other ... ."
"Which I do appreciate. And now that I know you miss it ...." Gabrielle smirked. "I was just noticing how much that cloud resembles a horse shoe. I'm sure Argo would agree. Maybe. She and I don't seem to agree on much. Except you of course. Even then, she's perfectly fine communicating nonverbally. Whereas I ...." She peered up at Xena in time to catch a wry smile. Happily encouraged, she rambled on. "Whereas I prefer multiple words strung together every now and then. You know, enough to ...."
Some hours and multiple words later, the two prepared their camp. Gabrielle congratulated herself for not peppering her taciturn friend with questions. Judging from Xena's more relaxed air, the incessant one...way chatter had softened the warrior up a bit for revealing some answers. Like how she'd gotten the wounds she eventually tended beside their fire.
"Need any help?" Gabrielle crouched next to Xena. "Ooo, got a cut high on your back. You might have trouble reaching it."
Xena craned her neck to see. "S'okay." She applied salve to a strip of cloth, laid it over her shoulder and tied the ends. "Thanks anyway."
Gabrielle settled on the grass nearby. "You get those fighting Attibus and his boys?"
"Surprised to see you, huh?"
"You blow in, do your 'yiyiyiyi' thing? Catch `em off guard? Try negotiating with him first? I mean, assuming the two of you were acquainted with each -"
"We were." Xena administered to a gash on her arm. "Didn't make much difference."
The older woman rolled her tongue in her cheek. If she'd learned anything during their brief journey together, it was that Gabrielle could be like a wolf pup, once she sunk her teeth in something.
"Couldn't make it in my army. No discipline. Big on bluster. Figured, with a little luck, anybody could be me. Guess tossing him out on his butt didn't convince him otherwise."
"Heh. Bet it did this time."
"Yeah." Xena's eyes darkened. "Permanently."
Gabrielle blew out a breath. "And his men?"
"Same as him. Used to weaseling something from nothing. Didn't believe I was all they'd heard." Xena shrugged. "I convinced the survivors not to bother Seres anymore. End of story."
Xena began putting away her healing kit. Gabrielle cleared their eating utensils while she considered ways to prolong their conversation. She started to dump the water heating in a small kettle, instead grabbed a couple of mugs from Xena's saddlebag.
"Tea? We forgot all about that."
Xena eyed with pursed lips the mug offered her, before taking it. "Really stretching out this bedtime chat. Some of us have had a long day."
"Exactly. What better way to sooth those sleep nerves?" Gabrielle closed her eyes and inhaled the steam from her tea. "Ummm. Get comfy. Take a load off those aches and pains."
"Uh huh." Xena gave a look that expressed her awareness of Gabrielle's ploy. She stretched out propped on her side. "My lips could use the rest."
"Riiiight. Like they get as much exercise as the rest of you."
"I'm drinking with them, aren't I?" Xena took an exaggerated sip of tea.
Gabrielle scowled. "Talk about 'weaseling.'"
Xena couldn't help but laugh. "See? Maybe a step above Attibus. You're who insists I'm so different."
Gabrielle was silent a moment, perusing her cup. "It's hard understanding how some people see you. The hostility in Poteidaia, Amphipolis, Seres. Maybe if you'd come with an army .... You were alone. One woman too much for the people you wanted to help. Certainly for all the bad guys." She studied Xena. "So you've made mistakes. Big ones. Is it too much to ask to believe you changed? Now that you're proving it?"
Xena sat up and gazed into the fire. "That's not for me to say. I can't worry about it either." She smirked. "I'll leave that to you." She untied the cloth on her shoulder. "Time to turn in."
"I .... I'm sorry about Seres. And Attibus. Pushing you into that. I had no idea ...."
"S'all right. I did."
Gabrielle shivered, remembering the chilly reception. "Percolos was right. A couple 'worldly' experiences don't change that I'm still a green kid. Getting carried away with all this adventure stuff. Saving a world I don't have a clue about. Thing is, it's you being put in danger. Making the sacrifices." She sighed. "I sometimes forget that."
"You forgetting the 'super warrior' part?"
"Noooo. I probably go overboard on that too. Let my Warrior Princess haze blind me to the fact that you are human," Gabrielle said, gesturing toward one of Xena's wounds. She hunched forward. "It's just that I see so much good you can do. More than I can even imagine, since I can't picture a lot of the bad either. Everything in me says it won't be too much for you. That you'll be up to the task."
Xena didn't have to imagine the evil. She'd witnessed it. Done it. Been it. The worst elsewhere, but the seeds planted not far away in Amphipolis. Growing and spreading relatively benignly through surrounding territory, the roots still fresh in local memory. It's why she'd intended to put some distance between where she'd come from and the quest she'd committed to. Hoped her innocent new companion meant the fresh start she'd futilely sought in trying to bury what she'd become and return home.
Instead, they'd ended up where she started, Gabrielle leading her to face her first sins, the consequences all too familiar. She'd been oblivious in the beginning, so focused on control, then conquest. Like Gabrielle, no consciousness of how enormous the horror could become. Now that she felt its weight, responsibility for bearing it on her shoulders, mitigating the effects on others, no excuse or complaint ....
Gabrielle was right. No amount of good would be too much to ask. The former Destroyer of Nations deserved no less. But she did question her capacity. When the guilt, her flaws and doubts threatened to crush any hope. In those dark moments she could barely acknowledge to herself ... let alone anyone else ... that the pain of it all might be too much for one woman.
"Mm. Like the great philosopher Draco said ... ."
"Draco!? The warlord Draco?"
"'No rest for the wicked.'" Xena allowed a weary smile. "Which brings us back to the topic of sleep."
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle huffily prepared her bedroll, but wasn't ready to retreat quite yet. "Um, while you're taking your armor off ...."
"Just one more thing. I promise." Gabrielle interpreted Xena's silence as consent, choosing to ignore the gritted teeth. "I've seen you in tight situations. Defending on all sides at once. Split...second reactions."
"At your mom's place? When they threw.... You just stood there. Kinda like you were in shock or something."
"They were my people. The only way out, through them."
"You'd laid down your sword. Shouldn't that have been enough? For them to trust you?"
Xena shrugged. "Apparently not."
"I just wondered .... You know ... me being so curious and all .... I don't want to pry or anything ...."
"Just say it, Gabrielle."
"Okay." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "You wouldn't have let them, right? Stone you? I mean, just because they'd given up on you ...."
"I can't." Xena sighed. "I can't forget either." She unhooked her chakram and placed it atop her sword. "There've been moments ...." An imaged flashed of the hole she'd dug, her hands brushing dirt over the weapons and battledress she'd discarded just before witnessing Gabrielle's defiance of slavers. "Lately, seems they keep getting interrupted." She cocked her head. "Like outside Poteidaia."
"You mean Draco's men? A good fight? Yes, I can see how that would ... ."
"Mm, they were easy. When I'm the enemy .... Going up against myself ...."
"Like in Amphipolis?" Gabrielle nodded to herself. "That's why you froze?"
"Let's say it's not a test I was used to." Xena raised a brow. "Then you butted in."
"Oh." Gabrielle's chin dropped. "And kept you from knowing what you'd do, huh?"
"And kept me from having to decide alone. Again."
Gabrielle's breath caught. Careful not to display too much emotion, she simply let a big grin speak for her. The warrior smiled back. They bedded down for the night.
"I just thought of something else. Sort of a moral to our chat. Much better than Draco's." Gabrielle paused for a response, as usual forging ahead without it. "If one woman's too much, and the other hasn't had her fill yet, maybe they'll even each other out? Together be just right?"
Gabrielle smiled at the cocooned warrior before snuggling under her covers, content the cosmos had absorbed her words, if not certain ears. She'd nearly drifted into dreamland when the darkness seemed to respond, its voice a muted promise.
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