"Try again." Xena laid her hand over her companion's. "Relax your fingers ... like this."
"Xena, I'm sorry, but I'm just not motivated right now. I don't think this is one of my many skills anyway." Gabrielle tried to ease her hand away, only to find it firmly held in place.
"Come on, Gabrielle, it's not like this is your first time. You did okay even with Minya and Hower a few feet away."
"Yeah, right, for about as long as it takes for one of your opponents to blink. Maybe Minya's hot tub relaxed me." Gabrielle glanced around. "I don't see one of those anywhere here."
"Very funny. And what do you mean you're not motivated? How much motivation does it take?"
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. "Look, this stuff comes naturally to you. I was raised to be a good little girl. Traveling around with you is bad enough. I have to get used to doing some of the wild and crazy things you take for granted."
Xena let go of Gabrielle's hand. "I don't take you for granted," she said, all playfulness suddenly having vanished from her voice. "If I say you can do something, it's because I mean it."
Gabrielle stared at Xena, as usual not sure whether to grin or groan at the warrior's amazing leaps in logic. "Um, Xena?" She reached to retrieve Xena's hand. "That's not nearly what I was trying to say. I only meant ...." Gabrielle paused, noting the sudden tensing in her friend's shoulders. "What?" she whispered, squinting into the trees for hidden trouble.
"Let's get some grub," Xena said loudly, nodding her head slightly, then crooking it to signal Gabrielle to follow her. They began walking nonchalantly to where their saddlebags lay with Xena's weapons and Gabrielle's staff on top. "Just when you think the water's safe," Xena muttered, a couple beats before about a dozen men came strolling from behind the trees. The gang halted a short distance away.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" The apparent leader looked his prey up and down. "Didn't your mothers ever warn you to be careful out in the open?"
"Didn't yours ever tell you not to go where you're not invited?"
The man smirked. "Oh, we were invited, all right." He turned to his comrades. "We couldn't help but want to come, could we, boys?" They snickered appreciatively.
The two women waited for the name to sink in. They watched with satisfaction as their adversaries' leers turned to frowns.
Xena looked down at her body. "Oh, we're not properly dressed for company, are we?" She pointed to her piled leathers and armor. "Without the right attire, we probably look like a couple of easy pickings, just waiting for the likes of gentlemen such as those over there."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle turned to address the men. "Our mistake. See, it promised to be such a beautiful morning." She threw her arms out, pirouetting with her face to the sky. "Feel that sun. That lovely breeze." She stopped and swept her hand around. "A lush, green meadow. Nobody - we thought - for miles around. We woke early and, well...." She shrugged, grinning. "One thing led to another."
Half the men looked at each other, confused. The other half gazed longingly at the trees they'd emerged from. Their leader poked out his chest, his eyes daring his colleagues to move.
"So, maybe you are Xena," he challenged. "So what? No matter what they say about you - how good or bad you are - you're still nothing but a woman."
"Oooo," Gabrielle breathed, grimacing. "Somebody's in trouble now." She balanced herself, preparing for the tuck and roll to her staff.
"Oooo," Xena breathed, smiling. "Looks like I'm getting some exercise after all." She strolled a few paces away from their gear. "And I think I'll do it with 'nothing' but this," she said, sticking out her little finger. "Unless," she added, walking closer to the leader, "that's still too much woman for you to handle."
Turning purple, the man charged Xena with a roar. She waited until he was almost upon her, then dropped to the ground, planted her foot in his chest and tossed him over to where she knew Gabrielle would be standing, staff in hand, to whack him over the head. Which she did.
"But, now, she's something, eh, boys?" Xena chortled, springing to her feet and pointing back to her partner. "I wouldn't mess with her, if I were you."
Two of the men decided to try anyway. Three others rushed Xena. She kicked the front-runner's sword from his hand and used his shoulders to flip over and kick his comrades nearly into the trees, where the rest of the men were already headed. The crack of wood on bone told her Gabrielle was holding her own, so she toyed with her prey a little before finally smashing her fist into his nose. She turned to see Gabrielle execute an impressive sweep that took her second opponent off his feet, slamming him into the first, who was trying desperately to crawl away.
Gabrielle backed off, keeping her staff at the ready, only relaxing at Xena's nod. "Should we tie these up?" she asked, indicating the bodies that hadn't moved yet.
"Nah." Xena beckoned for Gabrielle to join her. "Waste of good twine we can use for better purposes." She eased herself down and patted the ground beside her. "Let's sit awhile, enjoy the view. It'll be like fishing. See if they stay on the hook or get away."
A few minutes passed before groans emanated from the downed men. All but the leader had the good sense to get up and weave their way into the forest. He rubbed his head, glaring at Gabrielle. "Nobody said nothin' `bout her," he gritted out. "Wasn't fair. You're supposed to fight alone."
The women grinned at each other, amused by the man's perplexing logic.
"Warriors," Gabrielle muttered.
"Um ... worriers."
"Yeah, you know - worriers. All the bad stuff those guys do, and he's worried about not getting a fair shake from two outnumbered members of the 'weaker' species."
Xena chuckled. "Go figure." She returned her gaze to the lone bandit. "So, what's it gonna be? Another round with my friend here? With little ol' 'nothing' me? Or should maybe you head downstream with your flock of fishies?"
The man glanced around, suddenly realizing he was alone. He stumbled to his feet, keeping his eyes on the seated women, and went to retrieve his sword. When he picked it up, Xena's right thumb twitched.
"Nothin' here for me," he sneered, sheathing his weapon. "Just like I thought." He backed away. "Next time, maybe the odds'll be even."
Xena rose, startling him. He didn't move when she slowly advanced on him, not so much holding his ground as glued to it, like the fly in a spider's web.
"Odds are, if you ever try to hurt another woman, you'll see me again," Xena warned softly, her melodic voice wrapping around his heart like fine silk that could strangle the life out of him if he breathed wrong. "And after that, you will see 'nothin'.' Just like you thought." She closed in mere inches from his face. "Get outta here, before I make you even less than the nothing you already are."
The wetness trickling down his leg gave the man hope he still lived. Swallowing back his fear, he willed his foot to move. Backwards. It did. Relieved, he continued retreating until he thought it safe to turn and run.
"And to think you like this sort of thing," Gabrielle remarked, surveying their disheveled campsite. Shaking her head, she began gathering up the remnants of their "beautiful morning."
Xena remained standing where she'd made the man pee in his pants, her face masking some emotion Gabrielle couldn't quite fathom.
"That's not all I like, Gabrielle." Xena's jaws clenched as she knelt to stuff some items back in the saddlebags.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, why must you take some things so literally? Or make way more out of other things?" She sat on the bedroll she'd just unrumpled, observing her companion's pretense at being absorbed in cleaning up their campsite. "Xena?"
"I heard you. What do you want me to say? That, 'No, I'm really a great conversationalist?'" Xena finally raised her head. "I fight. I kill. Sometimes I ax enemies in the back." She looked down at some scrolls that had been scattered on the ground. "If I'm lucky, I won't end up doing that to a friend."
Gabrielle was up, walking quickly over to Xena, almost before the warrior had finished speaking. "Xena? Xena, what's wrong?" She knelt in front of Xena and lifted the warrior's chin. "We've come so far. I feel like I'm walking on eggshells again."
Xena closed her eyes briefly, then gently took Gabrielle's hand. "We have come far, thanks to you." She stood, hauling Gabrielle up with her. "There's still lots of beautiful day in front of us. Let's not waste it on eggshells, all right?" She sniffed the air. "I smell brunch in that stream where Argo's probably lollygagging," she stated, smiling. "I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for some real fishies. See if you can find something to go with them. I'll be back in about 30 blinks of an opponent's eye." With that, Xena was off and running.
Gabrielle watched her companion disappear into the trees, continuing to stare at the Xenaless space as though the warrior would magically reappear as quickly as she had vanished. Two years, and she still wondered sometimes if maybe her life with Xena was a dream, the product of her overactive imagination. She looked around the camp, searching for evidence, chuckling when she realized Xena still hadn't put on her leathers, then laughing at the sight of her own outer garments lying in a heap. She put them on. She picked up Xena's sword, marveling as always at how heavy it was. She let the tip fall to the ground and ran her finger lightly around the slightly dented pommel. It was real, all right, and she took comfort in the reassurance it meant Xena was real as well.
"Sword's not your weapon, eh? How good are you when you don't have that demon to trip folks for ya?"
Gabrielle felt a chill. She wasn't afraid of the man. She was afraid for him. She let the sword drop and backed slowly to where she'd left her staff. She watched the man edge over to a patch of grass and squat without taking his eyes off her.
"You shouldn't have come back."
"I discovered there was somethin' here worth my while after all," he said, picking up a small leather pouch. "I got separated from a few coins when I was here last." He stood and unsheathed his sword. "I was afraid I'd have to wait `til you left. Think now I can get my loot and much more."
"Don't," Gabrielle warned, as he started menacingly forward.
"I'm carrying an IOU for that knot you put in my skull. I don't think a little honey is too much to ask." He licked his lips.
"Oh, but I do."
Both Gabrielle and the man froze at the dangerously low voice. Xena stepped out into the clearing. Any other time, the man would have been distracted by the wet cloth clinging to the statuesque woman's body, but all he noticed were her eyes and his death in them.
"Xena, don't hurt him."
"Oh, I won't," she purred, one moment standing a few paces from him, a blur hurtling toward him the next. They tussled on the ground, came up on their knees with Xena holding the man from behind. She whispered something in his ear, then snapped his neck. "See? He didn't feel a thing."
Gabrielle stood speechless as Xena dragged the man's body into the forest. Just as she was beginning to worry about how long Xena'd been gone, her companion returned, triumphantly holding up two large fish.
Xena walked over to the fire pit they'd dug the night before. "I'll get this going," she said without looking at Gabrielle. "Why don't you gut the fish? We don't need much more than a few berries anyway."
Gabrielle was stunned, more at herself than Xena. She expected to feel horror, or at least regret, for what had happened. Instead, she was angry. Angry with Xena for once again barging in when she didn't have to. But Gabrielle held her tongue. Whatever was going on with Xena, this wasn't the time to push.
Dinner that evening wasn't accompanied by much conversation - at least not in the usual sense. Xena alternated between sharpening her sword and trying to entice Gabrielle to laugh at the humorous aspects of their encounter that morning. Gabrielle barely raised her head from the chores she busied herself with, her responses ranging from grunts and thin smiles to loudly banging pots or throwing twigs a bit too forcefully at the fire pit.
Xena sighed. More eggshells. Not exactly the menu item she'd desired. "I'm turning in," she finally said, breaking the silence of the meal neither of them had had much appetite for. She began clearing away the leftovers.
"I'll get that. I'm not tired yet." Gabrielle got up and for the first time that night looked directly at her companion. "Cleaning up is one of my better skills, after all."
Xena hesitated, then nodded and began spreading out her bedroll. She had a pretty good idea what was bothering Gabrielle, but didn't have a clue how to fix it - not without fixing herself first. And that could take forever. She lay down and closed her eyes. "Don't stay up too late. Wanna get an early start in the morning."
"I won't." Gabrielle glanced over at Xena, noting the tense lines on her companion's face, wondering if loving the warrior would ever be enough. "Good night, Xena. Sleep well."
"Mmmm." Gabrielle stretched languidly, eyes still closed, enjoying the freshness of a new day. Her ears picked up the sounds of a bridle jingling and Xena softly murmuring to Argo. Gabrielle smiled wryly, reminded she was supposed to be mad at the friend who never seemed to have trouble communicating with her horse. "Come on, Gabrielle, try again," she mumbled to herself. "Otherwise, we'll have eggshells for another moon."
Gabrielle sat up and began putting on her travel clothes. She looked around the camp, not surprised that everything was cleared or packed. Some berries and a steaming cup of tea sat on a cloth next to her bedroll. "Breakfast in bed?" she asked Xena's back. "You'll spoil me, if you keep that up."
Xena turned from saddling Argo, a slight grin softening the serious blue eyes. "It was either that, or pour water over you. Figured you'd prefer the former."
"And you say you lack people skills," Gabrielle teased, reaching for the goodies Xena had left her. "How soon before we leave?"
Xena hefted the saddlebags over the Palomino's back. "Why? You thinking of making a leisurely meal of those berries?"
"No, I thought .... " Gabrielle lowered her eyes. "Um, I thought maybe we could resume the lesson that got interrupted yesterday." She looked up at Xena. "Seems to be another good day for it."
Xena gazed fondly at her companion a moment before turning back to secure the saddlebags. "Maybe later. After what happened, I'd feel better being a little more cautious, until we get to Torbis. Remember, Dehlia warned us about the recent spate of robberies in this area."
"Okay." Gabrielle began rolling up her bed. "But don't wait too long. I don't want to lose my motivation again."
"Understood," Xena chuckled. "I'll keep that in mind."
Shortly thereafter, the two were on the road, Xena astride Argo, Gabrielle striding along beside. The young woman soon found herself humming.
"You're in an awfully good mood, considering you were almost toast a few hours ago."
Gabrielle's jaws clenched, but she forced a smile anyway. "I'm usually in a good mood. And I wasn't almost toast." She reached up to pat Argo's flank. "I can take care of myself, you know."
Xena didn't respond. Yes, she did know, but wasn't exactly sure how she felt about that. Or should feel. Or wanted to feel. She gave Argo a little kick, prodding the horse to canter ahead of their companion. "I'm going to scout ahead," she threw over her shoulder. "I'll have the noon meal waiting for you when you catch up."
Gabrielle stopped in her tracks, mouth open, watching Xena's dust. No "Don't get into trouble"? Or "I won't be far. Yell if you need me"? Xena was actually trusting her to walk down this road, alone, without imagining a horde of bandits suddenly springing up out of nowhere? Gabrielle glanced around to be sure. She took a few cautious steps forward. Nothing bad happened. She stopped again, this time squinting ahead to make sure Xena wasn't hiding up there, playing tricks on her. No, didn't seem to be. She pinched her arm. It hurt. So, she wasn't dreaming either. "Huh," she said to herself, walking now with confidence. "Will wonders never cease?"
"Berries." Xena got up and started away from the little fire she'd built. "I could find more berries." She looked at the pile of berries already covering nearly half the blanket she'd laid out. "Or not." Sighing, she paced around the collection of fruit, fish, bread, and cheese it seemed she'd spent hours arranging in an attractive presentation. Surely Gabrielle should be here by now.
Xena plopped back down on the log she'd dragged over some time ago. Her instincts screamed for her to leap on Argo and ride out to find Gabrielle. Logic said the impressionable young woman had probably paused to admire the landscape, maybe even jot down a thought or two on one of her scrolls. Xena wasn't much with words, but at least her actions could show she knew Gabrielle wasn't a child. If the warrior anxiously galloped up to Gabrielle, only to discover all was well, her best intentions would be ruined again.
Xena shook her head. All her life, she'd followed her instincts. Taken action. Even if it didn't turn out so good, it felt better than doing nothing. Why was knowing what to do so hard now? She stared at the spot where Gabrielle should've appeared, wondering if loving the bard would ever be enough. Sighing again, she pushed off from the log, undid her meal preparations, strode over to Argo and anxiously galloped off to find Gabrielle.
The noise had been so faint, Gabrielle wasn't sure she'd actually heard anything. It sounded like a cry, maybe a child's cry. She had to check it out. She veered from the road and climbed the hill that blocked her view of the area she thought the sound had come from. When she reached the top, she saw a small wagon surrounded by the gang she and Xena had tangled with the day before. They had a family at their mercy - three children and what appeared to be their parents.
Gabrielle considered leaving to find Xena. No sooner had the thought crossed her mind, than the father decided to take the men on, which encouraged the largest child to kick one of their attackers in the leg.
"Oh, boy," Gabrielle said to herself. "Someone's going to get hurt." She raised her staff and yelled to get the men's attention. Once they'd paused to look up at her, she hurtled herself down the hill yelling Xena's battle cry.
Xena urged Argo up the hill that lay between her and some commotion. Sure enough, there was Gabrielle in the midst of a fight with their recent adversaries. Two of the six attackers lay on the ground, with an adult and a couple of children kicking them for good measure. Xena smirked as Gabrielle jabbed her staff into one of the men trying to get her from behind, then whipped the staff into two of the men in front. Now, only one - apparently their new leader - was still on his feet.
Xena let Argo leisurely descend the hill. She noted Gabrielle and her opponent had turned to watch her. She smiled with satisfaction when both looked surprised to see her ride over toward the family members surrounding the downed attackers. She dismounted, waved casually at Gabrielle, then proceeded to help with the cleaning up.
Gabrielle and her opponent faced off again. Five moves later, she'd managed to disarm him and add another lump to his head. As she turned away from his crumpled form, she saw her other three victims struggling to their feet.
Xena put a final knot in the rope around a bandit's legs. She glanced up as though just noticing what was going on a few feet away.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes before charging over to take the legs out from under one of the attackers. "Feel free to join in any time," she panted, eyeing the other two.
Xena merely nodded with a mischievous smile. She strolled closer to the action. As she watched Gabrielle finish off the remaining bad guys, she heard rustling behind her, where the leader lay. She calculated how long it would take for him to rise and lunge at her. Then she noticed Gabrielle looking that way, her widening eyes signaling she too was aware of the leader's intentions. Xena recalculated - this time figuring Gabrielle would have time to stop him.
Xena took a deep breath and willed herself not to move, appearing oblivious to the danger behind her. She wasn't sure which stunned her more - seeing Gabrielle suddenly turn away, or feeling steel slide against her ribs. Only her superlative instincts enabled her to shift just enough to avoid more serious injury. Angered at her own stupidity, she grabbed her attacker's arm, flung him to the ground and used his own hand to plunge his knife into his heart.
They'd bound the men and were helping the family restore their cart, when Gabrielle noticed Xena favoring her right side. "It's nothing," Xena had said, turning away as Gabrielle attempted to get a better look, before stalking over to Argo with a curt, "I'll scout ahead."
They'd traveled all day, accompanying the family to Torbis and dropping the bandits off with the local authorities. Gabrielle expected to stay in Torbis a night or two, but, no, her taciturn companion had other ideas.
"You can stay here, if you want," Xena said.
"I'll camp nearby. Check on you in the morning. You could probably use a
quiet change of scenery."
"Wha- ... wait!" Gabrielle protested, grabbing Xena's arm as the warrior started walking toward Argo. "At least let me stock up on a few supplies," she said, deciding it wise not to mention Xena's flinch of pain.
Xena pursed her lips, then took in a deep breath. "Fine. Get us a room for the night. You can shop in the morning. I'm going over to the stables. Argo'd probably like a little hay anyway. I'll join you later."
Gabrielle secured a room and took out some trail rations for dinner. She'd plopped down on the bed, figuring to close her eyes until Xena came. Next she knew, birds were chirping and her eyes cracked open to early morning sunlight. But no Xena.
Gabrielle fingered the sleeping furs that had somehow gotten from the corner of the room to on top of her, then eyed the empty food dish. She shook her head. Either she'd been sleepwalking, or Xena must've come up after all. Another glance around the room revealed most of the things she'd brought up were gone. She rose and looked out the window to see Xena lounging against a railing below. She dressed and went down to see what this new day had in store for her.
"Hi. Sleep well?" Xena asked, a small smile playing at her lips.
Gabrielle gave her a mock glare. "You should know. See if you can stay out of trouble while I go get the supplies."
"All taken care of care." Xena pointed to some bundles hanging from Argo's saddle. "I ... persuaded ... the shopkeeper to open a little early."
Gabrielle smirked. "A 'pinch' in time saves nine, eh?"
The twinkling in Xena's eyes dimmed. "No, I used a few hard knocks. On his door."
"Xena, I was just -"
"Yeah, I know." Xena turned to fiddle with her stirrups. "You ready?"
"Ready for what, is the question," Gabrielle muttered to herself.
"Yes, I'm ready. Let's go."
Gabrielle was congratulating herself on the patience she'd managed during the early stage of their quiet trip from Torbis. She hadn't questioned Xena about whatever hurt she was trying to hide with her stiff riding posture, figuring the warrior had maybe pulled a muscle somehow, that whatever it was could wait until they bedded down for the night. But then she'd noticed the sheen of sweat on her companion's tense brow, even in the cool morning air, and later the goose bumps that appeared on Xena's arms as the day grew warmer.
Xena's jaw tightened. She glanced down at Gabrielle. "Yessss?"
Gabrielle clutched at her thigh. "Um, I think I might have overdone it the other day. My leg seemed okay at first, but the problem's flared up again from all this walking. Could we take a rest?"
"Problem?" Xena pulled up on Argo's reins. "What problem? Why didn't you say something before?" She swung her leg over and dismounted with a slight wince. "Let me take a look at it."
Suppressing a smirk, Gabrielle limped over to a shady spot and sat down. "It's nothing, really. I just wanted to get off it for a little while."
"Gabrielle, I know you." Xena frowned as she walked over to kneel beside her companion. "It must really be bothering you, if you're admitting to having 'a problem.'" She bent over the gimpy leg, pushing Gabrielle's skirt up to begin her examination.
Gabrielle took the opportunity to do her own subtle once-over.
"Where does it hurt exactly?" Xena asked after a little gingerly prodding. "I can't see or feel anything wrong."
"Yeah, well I do." Gabrielle traced the newly repaired rent on the right side of Xena's leathers. "Care to tell me what this is about, Princess 'problem, what problem, why didn't you say something?'"
Gabrielle took her time going over to fetch the medicine pouch from Argo's saddlebags. "Breathe," she told herself. "Count and breathe. Breathe and count. Maybe then you'll be calm enough to yell at her like an adult."
The young woman had put a lot of energy into sustaining her anger since learning Xena was wounded in their fight with the bandits. She'd accepted Xena's argument they should find a good campsite, before dealing with Xena's injury or its circumstances. They'd set up just before dusk in a spot near a waterfall, sufficiently secluded, but near a large meadow whose flora Gabrielle appreciated even in her irritation. She stole a peek at the chiseled face illuminated in the fire they'd built, reminding herself of the wonders that lay behind it as well.
Xena felt the eyes on her. She loved those eyes, even as she feared their uncanny ability to penetrate the darkest recesses of her soul. She shivered, as much from that as from the coldness creeping up her spine. She felt like Centaur poop, but what could she say? How could she explain the inexplicable? She stole a peek at the one person she least wanted to see hurt, certain the greatest injury would come at her own hands. Her hands. The ones that had broken that bandit's neck and so many before his. That had once struck Gabrielle in a haze of Ares-inspired fury. That had sewn her bard's flesh, torn because --
"What were you thinking?"
Xena's head jerked up. "What? 'Thinking?'" Xena looked at her hands. They were trembling. "I ... I ...." She shook her head, trying to clear the fogginess that had suddenly descended around her brain. "I was thinking .... You're right. We need to fix this. I'm ... my wound ... is infected."
Gabrielle watched her partner fumble with her bracers. "Here," she said, coming over and kneeling beside Xena. "Let me help you." Together, they began peeling off the layers of armor.
"Xena?" Gabrielle began quietly, noticing the slight glassiness of the blue eyes that looked up. "I meant, what were you thinking when you let that guy stab you? I know you heard him. There's no way he should've gotten the drop on you."
They'd pushed down Xena's shift to reveal the puffy red slice curving around her upper right side to her back. Pus oozed from between haphazard stitching.
"Xena," Gabrielle breathed, stunned at her partner's carelessness.
"Yeah," Xena agreed, peering down at her handiwork. "It was hard to reach. And," she continued, her voice trailing off, "I was ... in kind of a hurry."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. She took a deep breath and counted again, then reached for the cup of water she'd placed on some hot coals. She mixed in the herbs from the medicine pouch. "This is your cure-all brew," she said, handing the cup to Xena. She leaned over to brush at the dark strands clinging to her partner's damp forehead. "Drink it all up. I'll go get what we need to do the job right this time."
Xena blearily followed Gabrielle's movements. She felt so warm. She wasn't sure if it was from the fever, the fire, the cup in her hands, or Gabrielle's gentle touch. She wondered for a moment if maybe she wasn't sick after all. Maybe she was just tired.
The cool evening breeze felt good. She welcomed it, along with the reassuring sounds of life under the stars. This darkness was so peaceful, so reminiscent of innocence and bright dreams. Its secrets meant adventures to explore, discovery of lightning bugs and shadowy monsters made of leaves. It promised growth and renewal, new dawns to realize that pitfalls weren't so deep after all and to have another chance at trying to leap them. When did it get so scary, the monsters real and the secrets too ugly to dig up? If you closed your eyes, would the bad stuff go away? Would that work if it was on the inside too? What if you were afraid morning wouldn't come, afraid to wake up and see?
Sighing, Gabrielle shifted her eyes from the stars above to the figure tossing and turning in the bedroll near the fire. Xena was obviously in the throes of some nightmare, but Gabrielle could only begin to imagine what demons were responsible this time. Whatever the source, Xena's fever probably made it worse.
Gabrielle adjusted her position against the log behind her back, pulling her blanket up around her shoulders. She'd been sitting like that for a while, mostly watching her restlessly sleeping companion, sometimes gazing into the darkness in search of answers to what might be going on with Xena. She wasn't really worried about Xena's wound, as they'd managed to drain and clean it before the infection had gotten too bad. Her own neat little stitches would probably hold, unless some unexpected danger jumped out to provoke the warrior's protective instincts.
"Could that be it?" Gabrielle gasped, as an image suddenly popped into her head of their recent encounter with the bandits. She recalled disabling the last of them, then checking on Xena before turning to make sure they stayed down this time. Xena was looking at her, seeming to confirm the warrior's awareness of the leader sneaking up behind her. Gabrielle remembered being surprised Xena seemed to hesitate, but never once doubted her friend's lightning reflexes would respond in time.
"Unless she was focused on something else," Gabrielle murmured to herself. "Something more important to her than her own life." She sat very still, though her mind was churning. She thought about Xena's odd behavior lately, wondering if it was all somehow connected. The only common thread Gabrielle could find was herself. "Oh, Xena," she sighed finally. "I thought we were past all that, but I guess I was wrong. We can't afford for me to be wrong anymore, not if I could get you killed."
Warm, but not too warm. Almost as much itching as pain. Hungry. Xena twisted slightly as her nose sought to catch the aroma of something - fish? - cooking. She winced. Still a little stiff, but that was to be expected. She rolled to her good side and cracked open her eyes. Gabrielle.
"Hey," Xena croaked, grinning.
Gabrielle looked up from her frying pan. "Hey, yourself," she answered, smiling at her friend's obviously improved health. "About time you joined the living. How do you feel?"
"Pretty good," Xena said, pushing back her furs and gingerly sitting up. "You took good care of me, as usual."
Gabrielle's smile dimmed. "Did I?" She turned back to her frying pan. "I guess I have gotten good at sewing you up. I'm not sure that's the same thing." At Xena's puzzled frown, she added, "Breakfast's almost ready. Hungry?"
"Um, yeah, I am." Xena studied her friend a moment. "Everything okay?"
Gabrielle poked at the fish. "Sure," she responded, busying herself with other preparations for their meal. "I was just worried, is all." She stopped when she heard rustling from Xena's direction. "Xena, I'm glad you're better, but it doesn't mean you're ready to do flips. We've got enough food here to last a few days. Let's take it easy for awhile, okay?"
"Xena, I know you're stiff, hurting and weak. You've been out a couple of days. For once, let yourself heal before you start throwing yourself around like a rag doll."
Something in Gabrielle's tone curtailed Xena's usual protestations. It dawned on the warrior they hadn't dealt with why she'd gotten wounded, that maybe Gabrielle was leading up to that now. "Can I at least polish my sword?" she asked, needing something to do with her hands if she was indeed in for a sensitive chat.
Gabrielle walked over to their bags and retrieved the pumice stone, which she handed to Xena. "First, we eat," she replied, settling back down by her cooking fire. "You can even bring your bedroll over here and sit up against this log, if you want. I could use the company."
Xena regarded her companion a moment, then got up slowly and moved to the spot indicated. Soon Gabrielle was handing her a steaming dish. Afterwards, Xena did work on her sword, but was surprised to find the conversation focused on some of the more humorous moments of their travels. They laughed to exhaustion, whereupon Xena napped and Gabrielle worked on her long-neglected scrolls.
The next day passed in similar fashion. Xena had mixed emotions. Gabrielle seemed to be enjoying their relaxed time together and genuinely ready to let sleeping dogs lie. Still, it wasn't like her young partner to so easily dismiss something that bothered her. She was almost too nonchalant. On one hand, Xena felt relieved. On the other, her paranoia barked like crazy.
It felt like another beautiful day ahead. Xena, still in her bedroll with her eyes closed, stretched languidly, noting she felt only a slight twinge in her injured side. She turned over to begin the process of waking her companion, only to find Gabrielle not there. Frowning, she sat up and looked around, surprised to see most of their things packed.
"Gabrielle?" Xena hastily began dressing, continuing to look for signs as to where her partner had gotten to. "Gabrielle!"
Twigs being crushed underfoot caught Xena's attention. Picking up her sword, she whirled toward the direction of the sound she'd heard.
"Whoa!" Gabrielle emerged from some bushes, startled to find herself about to be skewered. She put up her hands. "Sorry if I woke you." She glanced at the raised sword. "Um, were you expecting someone else?" she asked, smiling, though Xena noted the smile didn't quite reach eyes.
"Uh, yeah. I mean, no." Xena let the sword drop. "You're up bright and early. I didn't hear you. Must've been more tired than I thought." She watched Gabrielle walk over to douse the smoldering embers of their fire. "Everything all right?"
Gabrielle hesitated a moment before answering, "I just wanted to make sure Argo was in whistling distance."
"Yeah, I notice it looks like we'll be heading out soon," Xena said, going over to roll up her sleeping furs. "I guess that means my nurse thinks I'm healthy enough to discharge?" she teased.
Gabrielle continued staring into the fire pit. "Yes. For once we're in agreement on that." She coughed slightly and wiped at her eyes, as though the smoke was getting to her, then got up and went to check inside their bags for something. "You said you thought it was time we moved on," she reminded.
"Gabrielle?" Xena studied her partner's rigid back. "Are you sure you're okay? Did you want to stay here a little longer? I mean, it's not like Dehlia's message sounded desperate or anything. Whatever help we can give, another couple days shouldn't hurt."
Gabrielle wiped at her face again before turning around. She sighed and sat on the ground, still clutching the saddlebag. She fiddled with its strings, then turned red eyes to Xena. "We need to talk first."
If the heavens had erupted in a torrential storm, or a hundred armed men had come crashing through the woods, Xena wouldn't have felt the queasiness she did at those words. "I'm listening," she said quietly.
"I ... I think you should go on to see what Dehlia needs."
It took a few moments for Xena to absorb "you," rather than "we," for some reason not feeling particularly surprised. "I see." She waited until Gabrielle finally looked at her. "And ... you?"
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "We ... I didn't really get to experience much of Torbis. I'd heard it's sort of a way station for bards, that the competitions can be quite good." She forced a smile. "Not to mention the great shopping."
Countless questions ran through Xena's mind - "Why now?" "Is it because of how my dark side came out when we fought the Horde?" "Do you doubt how much you're family to me, how much I love and admire you?" "Can I do anything to change your mind?" "How long?" But she could come up with only one response.
"Sure, we can do that."
Xena rose, briefly laying a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder before going to retrieve her bedroll. She whistled for Argo. "You deserve a vacation from ... from life on the road." She turned her attention to the Palomino who soon came cantering into the campsite. "If you don't mind, I'd like to accompany you back to Torbis. Not because you can't take care of yourself," she quickly added with a small smile. "You're kind of like henbane. Once you get in a person's system, it's hard to quit cold turkey."
Xena walked beside Gabrielle on their journey back to Torbis. Both pretended a cheerfulness that belied heavy hearts. Gabrielle floridly described the tales she'd been wanting to tell about her travels with the Warrior Princess, how much more authentic they would be now that she had experienced so much herself. Xena laughed about how she hoped Dehlia wasn't counting on the "old" Xena to ride to the rescue with an army, that the woman would probably be shocked if Xena tried talking first before resorting to "kill `em all!" Neither wanted to voice what couldn't be, what she'd be missing. It was as though they sought to leave their friend "whole," each by emphasizing how much her own life had become richer because of the other.
When they stopped to rest, they fell into their familiar routine, perhaps finding comfort in what they still had. Xena fussed over Argo a bit, then found a shady spot to sit sharpening her weapons. Gabrielle appraised the surrounding vegetation, before lying on the grass in the sunlight, hands and lips moving slightly, ostensibly creating a story. Each woman smiled with wry sadness when she caught the other gazing at her.
Gabrielle couldn't help but be struck by the irony of her decision. All her fears Xena would feel responsible if anything happened to her, and now she felt the same fear she'd get Xena killed. All that time worrying about losing Xena to death, yet she herself seemed to be the one who kept leaving in life. She recalled that first year together, when she'd left for the Academy, mistakenly thinking it could fill the void she didn't yet realize Xena had already begun occupying in only a few months. When she'd frozen in battle and feared she'd become a liability to Xena. When she thought Ares was Xena's father Atrius, so didn't want to come between them. And then, most recently, her ill fated decision to marry Perdicus.
She knew now she was family to Xena. She had much more confidence in her ability to hold her own when the usual trouble found them, or they found it. No, it was Xena she was beginning to question - the warrior's judgment, her blind spot when it came to protecting those close to her. She'd witnessed Xena gripped in mindless rage at the villagers she thought had killed "Atrius," her cold determination to defeat the Horde. Her unforgiving dismissal of her fiancé Petracles and of Meleager, whose innocence she refused to accept despite Gabrielle's certainty - both of whom Xena feared would hurt her gullible young friend. Well, Xena knew she was a long way from helpless or innocent now, yet it seemed the warrior was the one who could be hurt by not accepting that.
Gabrielle glanced Xena's way once again. The blue eyes she caught looking back were as vulnerable as she'd ever seen them - a mixture of uncertainty and resignation that almost knocked Gabrielle's own resolve to Tartarus. Almost.
"Ready to get going?" Gabrielle asked, rising and brushing dirt off her skirt.
"Sure," Xena answered, her shields back up, only a slight sliver of pain showing through. She began gathering her gear. "Were you putting the finishing touches on anything interesting?"
Gabrielle's hands stilled. "What?"
"Looked like you were having a bardic moment. I thought maybe you might want to test it out on me before ... before we get to Torbis."
"Oh." Gabrielle concentrated on shaking out her clothes. "Um, no, my muse must've been too busy sunning herself." Gabrielle smiled. "I don't think her mumblings are worth repeating."
"Well, here we are," Xena stated unnecessarily.
"Yep, this looks like Torbis, all right."
The two stood in the twilight, surveying the ordinary town accoutrements as though expecting to see something remarkable.
"So ... um ... you'll be staying at the inn?" Xena finally asked.
"The inn?" Gabrielle turned in that direction. "Yes, the inn," she said, starting toward it, glad she had somewhere to focus. "What about you? You could stay tonight, get a fresh start ... before you set out for Dehlia's."
"No," Xena said, continuing along side her. "I'd just as soon get on ... get going. You know me. If I stay here, I'll only get into trouble." She hitched Argo outside the inn. "Let's make sure they have a room for you first."
"Sure." Gabrielle chuckled, giving her companion a light slap on the arm. "And maybe mop the place of any undesirable elements, while you're at it?"
"Nothing's too good for my bard," Xena retorted, nudging Gabrielle aside and striding in front of her through the door.
Xena couldn't find much to her disliking. The place was packed, not with drunks, but with patrons who had their eyes riveted on a small platform where a young man stood gesticulating and contorting as though in pain.
"Why, it's Stallonus!" Gabrielle gasped.
"You know him? Where'd he escape from?"
"Xena, hush. He's one of the bards I met at the Academy. You should love him. He likes to do fight scenes."
Xena's head was tilted, her mouth open. "Fight scenes between what? Flies?"
"You're hopeless. Come on," Gabrielle ordered, taking hold of Xena's arm. "Maybe you're right about seeing if they've got room."
They headed for the proprietor, who indeed had a room available. He haggled with the little woman, finally settling on a price when the tall one reached back to scratch her shoulder a little too close to her sword for his comfort. At first the women grinned at each other, apparently pleased with the deal he'd given them. Then their smiles faded. They stared at one another as though they'd just met or maybe suddenly realized what they'd been bargaining for.
"Hey," he said into the silence. "You still want the room or not?"
They seemed startled. They glanced at him, then back at each other, ultimately nodding their heads. The little one handed over the agreed upon dinars. "Women," he muttered to himself, watching them make their way tothe door. "Ain't never satisfied."
Once outside, Gabrielle unburdened Argo of her few possessions. "I guess that's it," she concluded, not quite sure what to do next.
Xena pulled her into her arms and rested her chin on the red-gold hair. "I'll miss you," she acknowledged softly. "I wouldn't have traded your mouth or stubbornness for all the world."
Gabrielle chuckled, despite the tears in her eyes. "I love you too, Xena. It won't be the same without you."
Xena swallowed. "That's the point, isn't it? You know I only want what's best for you."
Gabrielle pushed away enough to look in Xena's eyes. "I didn't say that was best for me. It may be best for us." She pulled her friend close again for a big hug, then backed away. "I'll probably go see my folks after this. I'll leave messages for you wherever I am, so you'll know where to find me. Will you get word to me too?"
Xena nodded, though in truth she wasn't sure where she'd go after Dehlia's.
"Be well, my Warrior Princess. You'll always be in my heart."
"You too, my bard."
Gabrielle touched her fist to her heart, then her fingers to her lips, turned and walked unseeing through the inn door. Xena stood motionlessly for a moment after Gabrielle had disappeared inside. She repeated her friend's gestures, mounted Argo, and rode off, unseeing, into the darkness.
The main room was quieter now, Stallonus having left the stage to join some other young men, apparently bard wannabes. Gabrielle had ordered some cider and sat staring into her mug at a table near the front. Unable to face the reality of being alone, she sought solace in the murmuring of the patrons around her.
Her head snapped up at the sound of her name. She bit her lip at the surprising pang she felt as she watched the gangly Stallonus approach, nearly tripping over himself in his eagerness to reach her. She smiled at him and got up from her seat.
"I thought that was you!" He came around and gave her a hug. "You look great! What are you doing here? Are you still writing? Did you -"
"Stallonus!" Gabrielle interrupted, shaking her head in amusement. "Hold your horses, okay? I see you haven't lost any of your energy."
The young man grinned sheepishly. "Nope. But I'm learning to put it to good use. People say they love the 'mindless distraction' I give `em." He straightened himself proudly. "I'm one of the most popular bards here." He pushed Gabrielle back to her seat. "Enough about me. I want to hear all about what you've been up to. We guys at the Academy missed you so much, but we envied you too. No fake fight stories for you! You told about the real thing."
Stallonus looked expectantly at Gabrielle. He frowned when finally realizing she wasn't exhibiting the same exuberance he remembered. "Oh," he whispered, brightening. "Are you on some secret mission? Is Xena gonna come crashing through that door any minute to take out some bad guy?" He glanced furtively around the room, unable to pick out the villain from among the ordinary-looking townsfolk and occasional drunk.
Gabrielle reached across and gently caught one of his gleefully balled fists. "No, Stallonus, you're not interrupting anything. I'm actually sitting here minding my own business. And Xena .... Xena is off minding hers."
"Oh." Stallonus tried not to look too disappointed. His enthusiasm returned. "Well, then, that just gives us time to talk. You start. I don't know what to ask first."
Gabrielle laughed. She reached across and rumpled his shaggy brown hair. "I'm so happy to see you. Your timing is perfect."
Stallonus beamed. "Yeah? My teachers said I needed to work on that. See, I punch when I should be talking and talk when I should be punching. It's hard to figure out -"
"Don't worry about it. It'll come. Right now, just know you're here when a friend needed you."
"You? Need me?" His mouth dropped open. "You're still the best I've seen. Pffff! What could someone like me do to help you?"
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Just by being you, Stallonus. Reminding me what youth and dreams are all about. I ...." She looked away. "I did go back to Xena right after the Academy. We've had the adventures I wanted, as well as some I didn't expect. I didn't think I could ask for anything more." She turned back to him. "Sometimes you don't know what you want until it's there," she mused quietly. "Until you have to let it go."
Stallonus fidgeted in his chair. "Gabrielle, you know I do action. I'm not so good with drama and all." He ran his fingers nervously through his hair. "I can tell you're not the same old you. I think you're saying you've lost ... something, but I'm not sure what."
Gabrielle tilted her head, studying him. "You're doing surprisingly well at this," she assured him, patting his hand. "I haven't exactly figured it out myself."
Stallonus' forehead crinkled. "Did you get frustrated being a bard, watching Xena do all the fighting?" He did a few feints and jabs. "I know I'd rather be in on the action myself."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Actually I've done more fighting than writing. I've gotten pretty good with the staff. I've learned a lot from Xena about strategy and different ways to defeat opponents - sometimes physically, sometimes by outsmarting them."
"Wow. So you're, like, Xena's partner?" Stallonus slapped the table. "Gods, Gabrielle, how can it get any better than that?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes, seeming to go somewhere far away. "She did worry about that at first. But she's seen me get myself - her too - out of all sorts of jams. I even had to hit her with a pitchfork once ...." She paused bemusedly at Stallonus' gasp. "When she'd given in to her dark side. I think she counted on me for that, as much as backing her up."
"You stood up to Xena the Warrior Princess, who can kill just looking at you? Gosh, it'd be like I died and went to Elysium to have a great warrior be my friend like that."
"Yes," she sighed. "It has been wonderful. At least I thought so. But great warriors aren't used to having someone like me tagging along. They have to stay vigilant on one hand, be prepared to die at any moment on the other. Caring too much for someone can affect their priorities, their judgment and focus. It can get them killed."
Stallonus was hanging on Gabrielle's every word. He'd spent hours watching people fight and practice the martial arts, listening to them talk about their battles, but he'd never gotten inside their heads before, the way Gabrielle had. He started to ask a question, when something behind her caught his attention. Looking puzzled, he started to get up, then plopped back in his seat, his nervous hands and silently working mouth seemingly unsure of what to do.
"Something wrong?" Gabrielle started to turn around, but Stallonus grabbed her arms.
"Uh, nnnnno," he stammered. "Just ... just ... someone .... There was ... a fight. Between him and me." Stallonus began calming down. "Yeah, we fought, all right. Over ... over this beautiful girl. They're at a table in the back, but she doesn't want to see me. I really bloodied that wimp. Um, well, he's big and tough, but I made him look like a wimp. And now she sees me with you, so she's probably doubly mad."
"Oh, that's too bad. I think," Gabrielle said, not sure whether to feel genuine sympathy for Stallonus or amused indulgence at an embellished account of an aborted romance.
"Ah, I'll live." Stallonus crossed and uncrossed his limbs until he found a comfortable position for the next minute or so. He glanced over Gabrielle's shoulder one more time before hunching down with his eyes glued to her face. "So, go on with what you were saying about warrior mentality. How they have to be careful not to lose their focus. How can you tell?"
In contrast to Stallonus, Gabrielle suddenly felt leaden, exhausted and not particularly interested in conversation. "Stallonus," she said, preparing to beg off answering right then, but his expression .... "Gods," she thought to herself. "How many times must I have gazed at Xena with that same starry-eyed wonder, practically begging her to let me soak up everything she knew? How many times did she suck it up and let me?"
Stallonus continued to wait with eager anticipation.
"Okay," she relented, sighing. "But I'm just about out of words for once."
He smiled, nodding.
Gabrielle leaned back and placed her hands side by side on the table. "I guess it really hit me a few days ago. We were fighting some bandits who'd attacked a family on the road. I came upon them after Xena had gone on ahead. When she rode up, I was a little surprised she let me take care of most of the bandits by myself. She usually likes the action as much as you do." She gave Stallonus a teasing smile.
"I'd nearly taken care of my guys when I glanced over to where Xena was. One of the bandits lying behind her was getting up, ready to stab her in the back. Xena was looking at me, but I could tell she knew."
"You could? Without her saying anything?"
"It's very subtle. A slight change in her stance, with her weight shifted to the balls of her feet. A twitch of her sword thumb. The way her eyes harden and one brow arches just a hair. The corners of her mouth curl a little. If I didn't know better, I'd say her ears even move like some kind of cup that catches sound. The air around her becomes very still, yet charged at the same time."
"Gods, Gabrielle, this is great!" Stallonus dug around in a pouch at his waist. He smacked his forehead when he couldn't find what he was looking for. "I thought it was silly carrying around quills and ink and scraps of parchment, like my teachers said. 'You never know when an idea might strike you,' they said. Heh. A fist or sword maybe, but an idea? I finally have something I want to record, and I can't," he moaned. "Maybe I'll remember. You'll help me, please?" At Gabrielle's feigned exasperation, he grinned. "So, just when he was about to strike, she sprung into action, right?"
Gabrielle took in a deep breath before answering, "When it was over, he was lying on the ground with his knife in his heart. Later I found out he'd wounded Xena and I recalled t she seemed to hesitate for a split second."
"Maybe her reflexes have slowed?"
"No, I think she was focused on me."
Stallonus looked puzzled. "But you said she let you fight by yourself, that she knew you could take care of yourself."
"Yes. But her love for me over-rode her focus on what she needed to do to survive."
"Hmmm, I can see where that would be a problem for a warrior," he said thoughtfully. "Can you do something to fix it?"
"I don't know, but we're giving it a try."
Gabrielle swallowed. "I'm here. And she's ... not."
Stallonus stared at her, trying to comprehend what she was saying. "You're here and she's not?"
"We've ... split up," Gabrielle explained tightly. "I'm not sure for how long."
Stallonus seemed to get something caught in his throat. "Sssorry," he gasped between coughs. "I'm - just so ... surprised. That would be awful, if it went on forever."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess we'll see." She pulled her hands back and straightened. "I think it's about time I went on up to my room. I'm tired enough now to sleep, even with you down here doing sound effects for the Trojan War. We can talk more later, all right?" She bent down to retrieve her bag and staff.
"Wait!" Stallonus stood abruptly and came to her side. "Um, I mean, yes, yes, you get some rest, but first ...." He hesitated, looking wildly around the room, until his eyes rested on a couple of young men chatting near the performance stage. "First, I'd like you to meet some of my friends." He pulled Gabrielle to her feet, taking her bag from her and quickly guiding her toward the stage.
"Stallonus, really, I'd rather -"
"It won't be for long," he assured, planting her in front of the two young men. As they turned to him, he greeted them with, "Hi, fellas. This is Gabrielle, the bard I told you about. Keep her company for me, will you, while I go check on something?"
The three stared at each other, as Stallonus dashed off.
"Um, hi," Gabrielle finally said, feeling a little like a trick pony. "Are you bards too?"
"The Gabrielle?" one of her admirers gasped in awe. "The one who records the exploits of Xena?"
"And got the Academy to change its rules so more farm boys like me could apply?" the other added.
"And taught Stallonus all he knows about -"
"Please," Gabrielle interjected, throwing up her hand. "Don't give me credit for that. Stallonus is purely self-made."
"I am?" Stallonus reappeared, flushed. "Awww, Gabrielle, I'm just a dumb guy who likes action. Everybody through talking? Good. Gabrielle needs her rest." He began leading her away. "Told ya it wouldn't be long. I'll make sure you get to your room okay," he offered, ignoring his friends' indignant nonverbals and gallantly placing Gabrielle's hand on his arm. "You won't flip me or anything, will you, for treating you like a lady?"
In response, Gabrielle chuckled indulgently, leaning her head on his shoulder. "Stallonus, of all the young men at the Academy, I never expected you to be the courtly confidante of damsels in distress."
Stallonus stopped to let a raucous group pass them on the stairs. "That's a good thing, right?" he asked uncertainly.
"My friend, on this night it's about as good as it'll probably get."
Gabrielle pushed open the door and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. She soon saw the outlines of a partially shuttered window in front of her, the source of faint light from torches below. A small bed and nightstand adorned the left wall. She reached for the candle that had been left outside for her, which she could light from the brazier burning in the hallway. "Why bother?" she thought, chuckling humorlessly, pulling her hand back. "I've seen all I need to anyway."
Closing the door behind her, she continued with no problem over to the bed. She dropped her bag and staff beside it, eased out of her boots and lay down, her eyes already closing on their own.
"Did you really mean what you said?"
Gabrielle's heart fluttered. Not only was she asleep already, but as luck would have it, she was dreaming about Xena.
It sounded so real. Almost like Xena was in the room with .... Gabrielle's breath caught. She ran her hands lightly across the spread beneath her, then up and down her arms. They felt so real. Slowly she opened her eyes. She rolled her head toward the door, where the voice seemed to have come from. There. Against the opposite wall. Something shadowy - a figure? Whatever, it too looked real.
"Xe ... Xena?"
Silence, then, "Yes?"
"Am I .... Am I hallucinating?"
"Don't know. Had any henbane in the last few candlemarks?"
Gabrielle sat up, irritation beginning to overtake wonder. "Listen, this hasn't been one of my better days. I can't tell if I'm in a nightmare, a dream or a reality I can live with. If you're really over there, say so. If not, let me dream in peace."
Gabrielle heard a chair creak, then a low, "Yes, I'm here."
Gabrielle swung her legs over the side of the bed. "Why?" she asked cautiously.
The chair creaked again.
"I heard what you told Stallonus. About why you wanted us to separate. What you thought was going on in my head. Did you mean it?"
"Wha-? How? When did you come back? No, let's get back to my first question. Why?"
The dark figure loomed larger and moved towards Gabrielle, dragging something. Some long, roundish objects dropped into her lap.
"You forgot these. I figured you'd be needing them." The figure became shorter again. The chair creaked, but this time much closer. "You know, for the bardly career you were supposedly pursuing in this artistic Mecca."
"Never mind the sarcasm." Gabrielle leaned forward, squinting. "What are you wearing?"
"I can barely tell it's you. Why do you look so ... shapeless?"
Xena sighed. "My cloak." She untied it and let it fall away. "It was cold and starting to rain. I stopped to pull it out. That's when I found those scrolls. I intended to leave them for you, but you were talking with Stallonus. You seemed to be .... I didn't want to interrupt."
Gabrielle gasped. "Did he see you?"
"Not at first. I had my cloak pulled up. I was close enough to hear some interesting things. I let him know I was there."
"Ha! You mean you let him know he should keep me talking." Gabrielle pulled her legs back up on the bed and scooted against the wall. She folded her arms across her chest. "I can't believe you did that. Sneaking in, spying on me. Enlisting poor, innocent Stallonus as your accomplice." She turned her head in Xena's direction. "Well, was it worth it? Did the universe shift? Or did you simply confirm you were right as usual?"
"I want to know if you really left because I got hurt. Because you believe I care so much about you I can't think straight anymore. That no matter how competent you are, I'll get myself killed worrying about you."
Gabrielle brought her knees to her chest and circled her arms around them. "Was I wrong?" she asked softly.
Xena got up and walked to the window. She leaned against the closed shutter and peered out through the open half. "Some of it is true," she admitted. "But not the way you think." She paused, waiting for Gabrielle to rescue her as usual from this jumbled mess of emotions, to articulate what she herself was only beginning to recognize, let alone understand. Moments passed. And passed. She accepted that this time she would have to be the one to fill the silence. Sighing, she turned from the window and faced her friend.
"You say my priorities, my judgment, my focus have changed because of you. That's true. You say it means I might not do what I need to survive. That's not true. You are what I need. Not just to survive, but to live. You give me a good reason to value my life, so I don't get myself killed if there's another way."
"Then what happened the other day? You knew that man was coming after you. Why did you hesitate, if you weren't thinking about me?"
Xena grinned in the darkness. "You're something, you know that? I was stunned when I heard you describing my warrior mode - every little detail even the best fighters never picked up on." Her grin faded. "I should've known. It was stupid to pull a stunt like that, when you had no way of anticipating I'd break routine."
Gabrielle swung her legs over the bed. "By the gods, Xena!" she nearly shouted in exasperation. "Stunt? What on earth are you talking about?"
Xena gritted her teeth, afraid the truth might do more harm than what Gabrielle already thought.
"Xena, whatever it is, it's bound to better than what I was thinking. Just tell me."
The warrior lowered her head. "I was letting you save me," she mumbled, fully aware of how much more ridiculous that sounded spoken than thought.
Gabrielle stared at her, baffled. "Save you? But you didn't need saving." She frowned, as something else registered. "What do mean, 'let' me save you?"
"It was stupid, okay? Can we leave it at that?"
"Oh, no. Uh uh." Gabrielle hopped off the bed and strode over to the window. "You got to hear my confessions, Xena: Warrior Spy," she said, dragging Xena back to the chair and pushing her into it. "You owe me."
"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena pleaded. "I don't know what got into me. It won't happen again. Promise."
"Good. I still want the whole story." Gabrielle prepared to perch on the bed, then changed her mind. "Stay put," she commanded, heading for the door. She opened it and stepped out. A moment later, she reappeared with a lighted candle, which she set atop the night table. "And I'll need to see those baby blues for confirmation."
Xena sat uncharacteristically hunched over, as though caught between a rock and a hard place. She yearned for the rough-tough clarity of her encounters with Ares. "You'll laugh," she grumbled.
Once again Gabrielle found herself confounded by the warrior's logic. She suppressed both the grin and groan that threatened this delicate moment. She cleared her throat, praying her serious expression looked convincing. "I won't laugh."
Xena regarded her friend a moment, finally shrugging in defeat. "I wanted to prove I have faith in you. Respect you as fully capable. Someone I trust completely to protect my back. Yeah, I knew what that fool was about to do, but I saw you did too. You'd laid out your guys. You were close enough to take out my guy, so I tried to pretend ...." She snorted. "Well, you know the rest."
"So, in other words, you were thinking about me after all," Gabrielle concluded softly.
Xena looked stricken. "Wait, that's not what I -"
Gabrielle left the bed, walked behind the chair and wrapped her arms around one startled warrior. "Xena, that is so sweet," she sniffed, resting her chin on Xena's head. "Stupid," she chuckled, "but sweet."
Xena tilted her head back in astonishment. "You're not mad?"
"That you love me that much? Have so much confidence in me?" Gabrielle lightly grasped the upturned forehead. "As a famous bard recently put it, I feel like I died and went to Elysium."
Xena gazed into eyes that reflected the fullness of her own. "Thank you," she whispered, giving Gabrielle's arm a gentle squeeze.
Gabrielle straightened, yawning. "You've got to be as tired as I am, and you'll be as stiff as that chair if you sit in it any longer. We've got this room you scared that man into practically giving us. Come on," she coaxed, pulling Xena to her feet and over to the bed.
Xena eyed both Gabrielle and the bed with suspicion. "You sure this isn't a prelude to more sensitive chatting?"
"Xena, Xena, Xena. So paranoid." Gabrielle helped Xena out of her armor and boots, then patted the narrow bed. "You first."
Xena rolled her eyes, but did as instructed.
Gabrielle blew out the candle. She settled in, with Xena serving as most of her mattress. "I'm glad I wasn't dreaming," she said, patting the long arm that encircled her waist. "This turned out to be so much better."
"Mmhm. Me too."
"Thought we were through talking."
"Hmmm. I don't recall actually agreeing to that. But," Gabrielle hastened to add at Xena's growl, "we are. Tonight. Isn't it wonderful we have tomorrow again?"
Xena smiled above the head resting against her chest, wise enough to know when she'd been outmaneuvered. Still, she didn't like going down without a shot. "Oh, yeah. Like I died and went to Elysium."
Stallonus tossed his cup in the air for the tenth time. When he caught it and surveyed the main room, nothing had changed. The same lone man sat chowing down on ham and eggs. The same lone serving girl leaned against the bar, picking at her nails. The same empty tables mocked him with their utter lack of activity. He sighed. Maybe running around the room again might help.
"Where are they?" he grumbled to himself, deciding to stick with the cup. "They should be down here by now. Unless," he considered, his expression brightening, "they had a fight. Not a big fight, where one of `em got hurt. A little one."
Excited, he jumped to his feet. "Heeyah!" he shouted, swinging an imaginary staff. "I'll not be taken so lightly, ever again!" He turned to face in the opposite direction, now pantomiming a sword blocking a blow. "Yiyiyiyi! I didn't take you lightly! I just think about you too much for my own good!" He turned and placed his hands on his hips defiantly. "You don't scare me, you big softie. I whacked you once, I can do it again." Spinning once more, he growled, "You just watch it, bard. Don't forget who the warrior is here."
Stallonus suddenly halted, his impromptu performance interrupted by his favorite sound - next to swords clashing, of course. Applause. Grinning, he gathered himself into a bow and turned to acknowledge ....
"Gabrielle!" he squeaked "And ... and Xena!"
The two women on the stairs stopped clapping only long enough to wipe the tears from their eyes. Their cheeks were puffed out like they might burst at any moment. Xena nudged Gabrielle to continue her descent. When they reached the bottom, they stood with their lips puckered, speechless.
Stallonus stared at them, torn between horror and hope. "Gabrielle? Xena? I didn't mean to .... I was just ...." He slapped his hands over his eyes. "I told you I don't do drama!"
Gabrielle bit her lip, knowing she had to say something to ease her poor friend's misery. "Oh, no, Stallonus. It was .... It was ...." She looked desperately at her partner.
"Yes! Exactly! Incredible."
Stallonus peered through his fingers at them. "Really? Does that mean it was okay?"
"I think you captured Gabrielle's essence superbly."
Gabrielle pursed her lips, before glancing up at Xena with an expression so sweet it could kill. "Not to mention Xena's lethally understated warrior mystique."
"And the fighting styles? Did I get those right?"
"Undoubtedly," Xena said, rolling her tongue around in her cheek. "Especially the hands on hips part."
Gabrielle held her own tongue, with some difficulty, before addressing Stallonus again. "Let's just say you gave us the performance we deserve. I'm sure we'll remember it on many a dark night when we feel ourselves slipping into such scenes again."
"Whew!" Stallonus wiped his brow, beaming. "I was afraid after all that time waiting for you.... Well, I'm glad you're finally up and not mad at me. Especially you, Xena." Suddenly his eyes widened. "Ohhhh. You are Xena, aren't you? I mean, I wouldn't know for sure, not having met or talked to you ever before in life, except Gabrielle's told me so much about you, and I just figured - you being tall and armed and all - that you must be ...."
"It's okay," Gabrielle said, smirking. "I know all about your and Xena's own little performance last night. Your acting isn't so bad either, my friend."
"Oh, man, and under such pressure too! I almost fell off my chair, when there I am staring into the most dangerous eyes in Greece. And the most famous warrior is signaling she wants my help. My brain froze at first. I couldn't talk, let alone come up with some story to fool the most famous bard in Greece. Then come up with another one to give Xena time to get upstairs." Stallonus smacked a fist into his hand. "Wait'll I tell the guys about this! I got to do my best work and be part of the action on top of it!"
Xena shook her head, laughing. "Come on. Let us treat you to breakfast for being such a good sport." She led them to one of the tables.
"Super! Gabrielle, can we talk some more like we did last night?"
Stallonus and Xena seated themselves. Gabrielle remained standing. "You know what? I have a better idea. Why not hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak."
"Gabriellllle." Xena shot her a warning look.
"What, Xena, dear?" she asked innocently. "I want to shop, which you hate. You two love to go on about weapons, which I hate. It's perfect. Meet you back here in a couple of candlemarks?" She winked, tossing back a kiss and a "buh bye" as she nearly skipped away.
Xena hunched morosely over the mug in front of her. Stallonus speared at the insects attacking the crumbs left from the humans' breakfast. Conversation had been pretty minimal, once they'd ordered the food and wondered a couple of times what could possibly make shopping take so long. Stallonus at least seemed to find some distraction in the serving girl. Xena hadn't even bothered looking up when their plates were removed.
"So. Xena," Stallonus ventured. "I guess you got upstairs okay last night?"
Xena nodded, acknowledging the obvious.
"Patched things the way you wanted, huh?
Xena nodded again.
"I'm glad. Life would've been a lot duller, not having you two to think about. Together, I mean. Gabrielle wasn't herself without you." He ducked his head. "And, um, you didn't seem to be either, even though I'm not sure what you're really like."
Xena pushed her mug away. She sat back in her chair, regarding Stallonus. "Don't ever underestimate yourself, Stallonus. You've got a lot more on the ball than most people I meet. And the heart to go with it."
"Heart," Stallonus repeated. "You mean 'heart' as in brave? Or 'heart' as in that caring stuff Gabrielle was talking about?"
"Both. You need both to be a true warrior. Gabrielle was wrong about it being a problem that I care so much. She's made me stronger, wiser, more of the kind of warrior I wanted to be in the first place."
"And fun too."
Xena's eyebrow arched in astonishment. "Fun?!" she snorted. "Gabrielle must be rubbing off on you."
"Nope. I don't know much about serious things, but I'm an expert in fun."
"I see." Xena noted he seemed a bit hesitant to say more. "Go on. I won't kill you," she encouraged dryly. "Being such a 'fun' person and all."
Stallonus grinned and leaned forward. "Well, like the way you let me help out last night. You could've stormed in and - whap! bam! - knocked me over, grabbed Gabrielle and stormed out. Nobody'd've stopped you, what with your reputation. Instead, you sat there all cloak and dagger, smiling at me and letting me be part of your secret plan. It was awesome! Fun!" Stallonus started laughing. "See? Every time I think of you sneaking up those stairs - the baddest warrior around, trying to fix things up with sweet little Gabrielle - it cracks me up. You've got a great sense of humor. You didn't know that?"
Xena shook her head, partly in continuing amazement at Stallonus, partly because she couldn't wait to get her hands on the "sweet little" party responsible for her amazement. "Yes," she sighed. "I am aware I have a sense of humor. I even let it out sometimes. I'm just careful about it." She grinned. "I do have that 'baddest warrior around' reputation to maintain, you know."
"Except with Gabrielle, huh?"
Xena's smile dimmed. She toyed with her mug. "Especially with Gabrielle," she revealed quietly. She looked at the young bard across from her with an expression that made his chest hurt.
"Stallonus, I love Gabrielle more than anything. I want her to be happy and always filled with joy. Nothing gives me more pleasure than making her laugh, having care-free moments where all we worry about is which of us will play the best prank."
Stallonus frowned. "That's good, isn't it? Being able to have fun like that?"
"Too good. I'm a warrior. A warrior who's done some terrible things. Who's capable of tearing your throat out this very minute, if I thought I had to."She gazed at him with a coldness that chilled him to his toes, before her expression softened into sad resignation. "It's what I am. I can't ever let myself forget that. I can't lull Gabrielle into forgetting either, into hoping this 'fun' person won't live and probably die by the sword."
Stallonus pondered her words. "She wants to be like you, you know," he said soberly. "You're a hero to her, not a killer."
"I know. And that pains me too. I teach her what I can. I want her to be, to feel self-sufficient. She's very smart and has always had a mind of her own. One day she'll understand why I don't want her to be like me. I'd rather it be because I've let her see my flaws, than because she's done something to experience that for herself." Xena sighed heavily. "But, then, I suppose she'd've stayed at the Academy if she could be satisfied with that. Gabrielle has to be who she is too."
Xena stared into her mug again. Lost in her ruminations, she was startled by a gentle pressure on her shoulder. Her gaze traveled up from the hand lying there to a pair of affectionate green eyes. "Oh. Hi. Back already?"
Gabrielle came around and perched on the table. "You two seemed to have fared even better than I expected." She noted the nervous smiles that quickly appeared on her friends' faces. "I think."
"Sure we did," Stallonus piped up. "We could go on forever talking about warrior stuff, huh Xena?"
"Well, then, Stallonus, I have to thank you twice. First, for helping me and Xena get back together. Second, for keeping Xena occupied so ... quietly."
Xena smiled in agreement. She grasped Stallonus' arm in a warrior's handshake. "I owe you one, my friend."
"Awww," he responded, blushing. "It was nothing compared to what I've learned from you guys. You were right, Gabrielle. Xena's a great teacher."
Xena squirmed in her chair, scowling at Gabrielle's obvious enjoyment of the situation. "Thank you, Stallonus. We'll have to do this again some day." She looked obliquely at Gabrielle. "Two days in a row. Gee, and to think I was beginning to forget what it could be like having so much ... fun."
The road from Torbis to Dehlia's village seemed tame, compared to the road into Torbis. Mostly tree-lined, it so far had not spewed forth any marauders intent on spoiling the journey of the two travelers. At least, not of the young blond woman humming along. The tall one on horseback appeared less content, scanning her surroundings as though disappointed the sounds produced thus far belonged to creatures on four legs rather than two.
They had stayed another night in Torbis before setting out. The bards had convened a gathering of sorts, mostly to show off their talents, once Stallonus had spread the word someone famous might join them. Most didn't know much about the "famous" Gabrielle, other than by reputation and rumor spawned at the Athens Academy. Some secretly believed her to be a myth used by peasants to put some of the more elitist students in their place. Others doubted the accuracy of her supposed relationship with the infamous Xena. Even those who hoped it all to be true admitted it was hard to believe.
Until they heard Gabrielle. And saw the dark warrior sitting in the shadows staring menacingly at anyone who dared interrupt. Not that many would have anyway. Most listened spellbound, as much captured by the real emotion in Gabrielle's voice, as by the fantastic accounts involving giants, kings, gods, and villains or heroes of every stripe. And there was something about the armored woman in their midst that gave credibility to every word.
Xena herself would have been surprised at the part she played in that. On the few occasions she'd heard Gabrielle recite before an audience, she never identified with whomever that was Gabrielle portrayed as riding courageously about the countryside, bringing freedom and happiness to strangers. She simply admired Gabrielle's ability to breathe life into almost anything and make it seem worth treasuring. Her praise was as genuine as everyone else's; it just had little to do with seeing herself in one of the main characters.
Still, she had to force herself not to bolt from the room when Gabrielle's fans dropped by their table. She didn't like the way they covertly tried to dissect her, to discern Gabrielle's Xena within the grimly unapproachable woman they feared to face full on. Gabrielle appreciated Xena's indulgence, but sensed when the warrior had had enough. She'd begged the well-wishers' pardon, saying she was tired, that they had a long journey ahead of them tomorrow. The whole room gaped in awe as the gentle bard whispered something in Xena's ear, then led her by the arm to the stairs as though the great, imposing warrior were but a little girl.
Xena hadn't slept well that night. It was all she could do to keep her restless limbs in check, hoping not to disturb the even breathing of the friend at her side. She lay with her eyes open, not realizing that soon Gabrielle did too. For some reason the darkness they'd begun trusting had once more become foreboding.
"Are you on a ship?" Gabrielle reached up to tap Xena's thigh.
Xena shook her head, blinking. "What?" she asked, glancing down at her companion.
"Are you on a ship? Or maybe back in Tartarus?"
Xena pulled up on Argo's reins. "Ship? Tartarus? What're you talking about?"
"Wherever you were, it wasn't here." Gabrielle gestured toward the cloudless sky and empty road ahead and behind. "Don't appear to be any storms approaching here or ghouls about to pop out. You seemed to be expecting something like that from somewhere."
Xena scowled. "So maybe I was thinking. Can't I do that every now and then without it being headline news?" She kneed Argo into a slow walk. "Like you said, things are peaceful at the moment."
"They didn't seem that peaceful in your head," Gabrielle prodded, continuing to examine her friend as she paced alongside. "Want to let me in on it?"
"Oh, goody. More 'fun.'" Xena snorted. "I was just thinking, okay? You were humming, I was thinking. Perfectly normal ways to spend a nice, peaceful morning, far as I know."
"Xena, you've been twitchy since yesterday evening. You were starting to seem like your old self again. Was it having to sit through those performances?"
Xena halted Argo. "Which 'old' self? The one we don't like dropping in on us for dinner? Or the one we hide under the bed and pretend isn't there?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "No, Xena. The one we had for a while until our encounter with the Horde. The one I could tease without her snapping at me. Or without her snapping people's necks for looking at me wrong." Gabrielle felt her words getting away from her, but couldn't summon the will to stop them. "The one who didn't have to prove I'm a grown woman by nearly getting herself killed!" She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, before turning to stride in exasperation up the road.
The anger Xena'd been working on suddenly dissipated. She urged Argo forward. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle kept walking.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, hold up." Xena steered Argo in front of the stern-faced bard. Gabrielle glared up at the warrior and sidestepped around.
"Hey, come on, don't be like that." Xena got a gleam in her eye. She rode in circles around Gabrielle, who kept walking anyway. "If you don't care about me, what about Argo's feelings? See," Xena said, dropping the reins, "she thinks you're trying to avoid her."
Gabrielle pursed her lips, trying to maintain her stern demeanor, determined not to let Xena get away with this tactic.
Xena conversed with Argo, who "neeeeighed" on cue. "What's that, girl?" she asked the Palomino, continuing to circle the striding bard. "No, honey, you've got the sweetest breath of any horse I know. That's not it." The horse "spoke" again. "Too tall? Well, yes, she does complain about that, but she doesn't mind once she gets up here."
Gabrielle's lips twitched.
"That's it, keeping talking, girl. I think you're getting through to her. What?" Xena leaned over the horse's head, as though listening to something being whispered. "You think so? I don't know, she still looks pretty scary." Xena halted in Gabrielle's path, blue eyes apologetic. "Argo thinks I should take it from here," she said softly. "What do you say? Should I get down, maybe walk with you awhile?" She stroked Argo's neck. "You don't know how upset she gets when we fight. There's many a night I've had to give her most of our apples before she calms down."
Gabrielle crossed her arms and glowered at Xena, though the glower had just enough twinkle to lose some effect. Finally she reached up and patted Argo's head. "Only for you, girl. I sometimes forget how sensitive you are." She turned and started walking again. "You may join me, Xena," she threw over her shoulder haughtily. "But you may not interrupt any humming I might engage in. Got that?"
Xena rolled her eyes, but dismounted. She caught up to Gabrielle and matched her stride, close enough to brush shoulders. "Gotcha," she answered agreeably. Smirking.
The warrior had just returned from a refreshing early swim. They'd managed to recover from yesterday's spat without a sensitive evening chat. Gabrielle had surprised her with some sweets purchased in Torbis, which they were going to have at breakfast. All in all, Xena was feeling pretty good.
"Let's try again."
Xena frowned slightly. She squatted next to their fire, toweling off. "I thought we were already doing that."
Gabrielle added some seasoning to the soup she was brewing. "I was referring to something else. Although, now that you mention it, it is kinda related to a few things we haven't gotten around to finishing."
"Curses," Xena muttered, mentally slapping herself for opening her big mouth. She reached over to grab her shift from the pile of clothes on her furs. "Can't whatever it is wait?" she asked plaintively. "I'm feeling kind of 'tried' out. If it's about me being my recently old 'no snapping' self, I'm doing the best I can."
"Yes, you are," Gabrielle agreed, bestowing an approving smile. "And a wonderful job it is." She came over to help lace up the back of Xena's battle bustier. "I just thought you could have a little more fun doing it."
"Fun?!" Xena snorted. "You bards give new meaning to the word. I'd rather stick to my own definition, if you don't mind."
Gabrielle patted Xena's shoulder to indicate the lacing was done. She rose and went back to her chef duties. "And just what is your definition, might I ask?"
"Well, it doesn't include 'drama,' that's for sure."
"Heh, look who's talking," Gabrielle pointed out, rolling her eyes. "Who else would be worried about lulling somebody into their fun side?"
Xena's fingers paused in pulling on a boot. "What did you say?" she asked incredulously, suspecting she knew the answer.
"Isn't that what you said?" Gabrielle stirred the soup, as though completely unaware her partner was the one about to boil over. "That you have certain issues with your fun side?"
"You spied on me?!"
"Hmmm." Gabrielle tilted her head, pondering this. "I'm not sure you could call it that exactly. I merely helped that poor serving girl - you know, freeing her up to wait on all those patrons who hadn't shown up yet, but were surely on their way. Could I help it if you were so engrossed in your sensitive chat with Stallonus?" She shook her head. "That boy must have a gift. I'll have to get him to give me some tips."
"Of all the ...." Xena jumped up. She paced back and forth, muttering to herself in indignation. "I don't believe it. She set me up. Used that little twit to ...." Whirling, she glared in outrage at her companion. "How could you?!"
Nonplussed, Gabrielle dipped a finger into her soup, then licked it. "Ummmm. I learned from the best." She raised a brow at Xena. "What's a few secrets and a little eavesdropping between friends?"
Xena stopped in her tracks. Caught again. Feeling it might not be such a good day after all. Once more fearing she'd be called on to explain the inexplicable. Blowing out a long breath, she stalked over to her bag and took out her sharpening stone, retrieved her sword and lowered herself glumly to her furs.
"Breakfast's ready," Gabrielle chirped. "Let's eat. You'll have plenty of time to do that later."
"That was pretty good, if I do say so myself." Gabrielle patted her full stomach contentedly. "How'd you like the sweets?"
Xena puckered her lips, sorry she couldn't recall what "sweet" tasted like, thinking - not for the first time - that Gabrielle had an unfortunate knack for torture. She sat her plate down, little appetite left for the remaining pastries. She looked at Gabrielle grimly. "Let's get this over with, all right? I can see I'll have no peace until we do."
"Wanna get your sword and stone first?"
"I think it's better if I don't," Xena answered, mumbling something unintelligible.
Gabrielle smirked knowingly. "Your dark side just begging to come out and play with me?"
Xena winced. She started to get up but felt a tug to stay put.
"Xena, I'm sorry." Gabrielle kept her hand on the warrior's arm. "I shouldn't make light of this, when it's so important to you." She scooted closer and touched Xena's clenched jaw. "I just want to understand, to get past this," she said softly. "Okay?"
Head lowered, Xena picked absently at the uneaten sweets. "Gabrielle, you're a big sister. You know how it is to have somebody following in your footsteps. It can feel so nice sometimes, but it carries a lot of responsibility. I'm sure you taught Lila a lot of things you wanted her to know and some you didn't mean to or wish you didn't have to. You did some things she thought were fun, but you put on a serious face and told her 'no,' because she wasn't ready or it wasn't right for her." Xena looked up at Gabrielle. "As much as you believed life in Poteidaia wasn't good for you, that you were destined for something else, I bet you never encouraged her to follow you, did you?"
"Well ... no...," Gabrielle answered, considering Xena's words.
"And if you'd stayed, you'd see her finding her own way, sometimes listening to you and sometimes feeling she'd outgrown your advice. Wanting her to test things for herself, fearing she'd do it at a bad time. Hating to watch her get hurt. Wondering where maybe you'd failed her. If you should've let her see your weaknesses more, instead of being the 'strong' one all the time. Waiting for the day she learns she's more than she thought." Xena swallowed. "And that you're ...less."
Gabrielle studied her companion, for the first time realizing how much Xena had invested in the role she herself had given up when she left Poteidaia. And that Xena was making some good points.
"You say you chose to follow me," Xena continued. "To leave me and come back. But even with all we've been through, you still have no idea what I'm capable of, what you might become capable of if you stay. Gods know I want you with me. I'm filled with such joy those moments I'm someone you can look up to, find pleasure in, learn from. Part of me doesn't want either of us to forget you see that person inside me. I ... like that person. But then I remember the part I never want you to follow. That can ..." -- Xena snapped her fingers -- "just like in the past."
Silence descended on the camp like an uninvited visitor who knew too much and had no qualms about revealing it. Xena felt strangely relieved. It had been hard enough on her own trying to reconcile what she was with who she was trying to become, without the added weight of what she wanted to be for her young companion. She glanced over at the uncharacteristically quiet Gabrielle - so close, yet obviously lost in listening to previously unspoken thoughts, maybe finally realizing life with the Warrior Princess was far from fun.
Gabrielle stared into the embers of their fire. She recalled those early days when all she'd cared about was the good she saw in Xena, the excitement life with the warrior promised. When she'd always be behind Xena during a fight, perfectly willing for the protection of Xena's shadow. How that began to change when she had to live those few days believing Xena was dead and gone forever. She'd surprised even herself in her resilience.
But the separation she felt during their battle against the Horde felt even worse in its way - not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. She shuddered, the coldness of that Xena chilling her even now. Unlike when under Ares-inspired fury, the ruthlessly calculating woman who had commanded the Athenian forces knew exactly what she was doing. And would always be there for Xena to call upon - as necessary to who she was as the part that enabled her to put her darkness to good use.
"Xena," Gabrielle began carefully, finally looking up to meet the warrior's gaze, "I don't need you to prove to me what you're capable of. I know it's there, whether you act on it or not. Whatever I haven't seen with my own eyes, I've seen in yours. I'd be a fool not to fear what petrifies the bravest person I know. Are you saying that, after all that time not letting somebody close to you, you upped and decided, 'I know what I should do - find a fool to travel with?'"
Sucking the insides of her cheeks, Xena confined her response to a raised eyebrow. Whatever fight she had left in her probably wasn't sufficient anyway. She reached back for her sword and a polishing rag, figuring she might as well get ready for the battles she could win against lesser foes. She glanced at her friend as if to say, "I'm all ears."
"Good answer. Now, as for me," Gabrielle continued, "I am not your little sister." She held up a hand at the warrior's impatient scowl. "I know what you meant. I did see myself as that at first, but not any more. I've learned what I'm capable of - some of it good, some of it not so good. You can't pick and choose which to take credit for, Xena. Either I had the potential in me when we met or I didn't. You know, you have a habit of putting me on a pedestal, just like you accuse me of doing to you." Gabrielle paused to check on her audience's attention span. "You still listening?"
"We're both going through growing pains. I'm sure this won't be the last time we make mistakes along the way. The question is, what're we going to do about it?"
"Well, let's see now." Xena held her sword up to check for dents. "I stop worrying so much about my fun side, let you take more blame for you dark side, we mix `em up, do the hokey pokey, and that's what it's all about?"
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. She couldn't decide whether awe, irritation, a hug, or a victory lap was in order. Maybe all of them. "A bit simplistic, but I suppose you hit the high points," she conceded dryly.
Xena shrugged, resuming her polishing. "I have many skills."
"Then you should have no problem trying again."
Xena counted to ten, after which she was able to pry her fingers from around the sword hilt. She lay the weapon down carefully and slowly pushed it away. "Gabrielle, I can't begin to imagine anything more 'trying' than this. Please, enlighten me."
"You know, when we got interrupted by those bandits? You said we could try again when we didn't have to worry about being attacked."
"Don't count on it." Xena stood and glowered menacingly. "In fact, my gut says an attack of some kind may be imminent," she added, slowly advancing on her companion, "unless I protect us now by running screaming into the forest." She halted inches from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle rose to stand toe to toe. She put her hands on her hips. "You don't scare me, you big softie. I whacked you once, I can do it again."
"Oh, yeah?" Xena got even closer, her breath warming the top of Gabrielle's head. "You just watch it, bard. Don't forget who the warrior is here."
Gabrielle's lips trembled. Xena's lips trembled. Soon they had both fallen to the ground, rolling in the grass, holding their sides and gasping for air.
Finally Gabrielle struggled to her feet. She went over to the saddlebags and pulled something out to drop in Xena's lap. "Please?" she begged. "It's a perfect day. I'm not so good at it, but I love when you do it."
"I don't know that I'm in the mood," Xena replied a tad pompously. "You know - relaxed enough. Besides, it's not something I usually do for kicks. There are practical applications. Certain conditions to consider. You have to have the right reason."
"You didn't need a reason the other day."
"Oh, yeah? What?"
Xena grinned and leapt to her feet. "Fun." She took off for the meadow nearby, Gabrielle running giggling behind her.
A few aborted attempts at success later, a triangular-shaped piece of parchment sailed in the sky, maneuvered by a leather-clad figure with a long piece of twine in her hand. Gabrielle sat watching with a huge smile, not sure which she enjoyed more - Xena's childlike frustration at the aborted attempts, or her equally childlike glee at success. Nothing was too silly or impossible for her hero, she decided, and she wouldn't have it any other way. No, "big sister" definitely didn't describe what the magnificent woman with clay feet had come to mean to her.
Gabrielle brought herself back from where her mind had wandered and looked over to see Xena carrying the parchment, her face screwed up in disgust.
"Eeeew! Out here?" Gabrielle nervously examined the area where she was sitting.
"No, I mean I think I broke it," Xena said petulantly, shoving the parchment at Gabrielle and poking her finger through a small rip. She plopped down on the ground. "Fun sure ain't what it used to be," she grumbled.
Gabrielle patted her partner's hand. "Not to worry. We can fix just about anything, you and me, if we put our heads together, keep working at it and -"
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Xena held the parchment up and peered through the rip at Gabrielle. "Damn well better have fun trying."
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