Gabrielle relaxed on the swinging bench they'd erected on their front porch. The overhanging roof would provide shade later on. For now she enjoyed the early morning sun on her face, but mostly its warm glow around the tall figure toiling in the yard. If she squinted hard enough, she could picture the figure leaping, tumbling, a whirling blur of leather and whipping dark hair. No gray of course. A bit slimmer perhaps. Certainly less ... serene ... than the current version. Gabrielle chuckled. But no more focused.
"Grrr." The figure in question continued her attack on a particularly resistant clump of dirt, determined it would give way like it was supposed to. She glanced disdainfully at the water pitcher someone had suggested she bring along just in case — to her mind, a last resort.
"Beautiful out, huh? So fresh," Gabrielle observed, inhaling the scents of spring. "Reminds me of our life on the road. Waking up to a new day. Wondering what it would be like."
"Yeah!" Xena chortled, the clump having finally crumbled in defeat. She raised her head, a triumphant grin on her face. "Sorry, wondering what?"
"I was thinking of the old days." Gabrielle fingered the tablecloth she'd been mending. "You know, imagining being young again?"
"Huh?" Xena frowned. "What'd I forget this time?" She patted herself down. "Got my smock on." She checked her gardening basket. "Think I got all my seeds. Am I missing something else?"
Gabrielle laughed. "No, you're fine. Memory's almost as good as ever." She blew out a breath. "It's just .... When I look at you ... . Ah, it's silly. Go on with your work."
"I should think so. Ya been bugging me long enough." Xena knelt to examine the conquered territory, secretly anticipating leaving her mark, now that she'd begun this task. She'd mapped out what would go in each row. Planned to start with .... Her brow crinkled. "Hey, whaddya mean, 'silly'? You're the one — ."
"Not you, silly. I am looking forward to seeing or harvesting ... whatever you decided to plant. Don't mind me. Just reminiscing. You don't sometimes?"
"Eh, you know me. 'In the moment kinda gal.'" Xena snorted. "Thanks to a certain dreamy kinda gal, I've got plenty enough to do the moments I'm in." She stood and leaned on her hoe, surveying the precisely delineated area she'd had her sights on the last couple days. She shrugged. "Why worry about what was, when I've got all this?" She raised a brow. "Wasn't that the point?"
"Yes, it was." Gabrielle shook her head, smiling wryly at the woman she hadn't expected to see tilling the soil as though never destined for anything else. "Like I said, it was silly. Seems old habits are harder to break for us 'dreamy' types." She prepared to resume her sewing. "Please, carry on." She smirked. "Who knows how long this green-thumb moment'll last."
A wagon pulled up to the large open-air market. Two women hopped down, each honing in on a different sector.
"Okay, I'm gonna — ."
"Pick up new tongs for the fireplace, while you're at it, will you? I'll — ."
"Don't forget the twine I need for — ."
"I won't. Oh, I'd better get some — ."
"Yeah, good idea. I'm a little worried about that too. Meet back here in — ."
"I'll do my best." Gabrielle snickered. "I doubt the shipment came in yet of — ."
"One can only hope. Never seen anybody get so lost in — ."
"Excuse me? What about your obsession with — ."
"Yeah, yeah." Xena pointed to the sundial near the food stalls. "How 'bout we both keep an eye on — ."
"Sounds like a plan. Before we leave, maybe get —."
"Works for me. While we're eating, we can even — ."
"Oh, I'd love that! I heard a traveling troupe from — ."
"Uh huh. Figured you'd wanna check 'em out." Xena headed off. "See you later."
"Hey!" Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
Smirking, Xena came back for a quick kiss. "Just testing."
"Humph. You'd better be." Gabrielle gave her soulmate a hug. "Some things shouldn't have to be said." Smiling, they nodded to each other and went their separate ways.
Pacia watched the small blonde weave between the tables. Though no spring chicken, the woman projected the air of one. Curious. Youthful face crinkling with pleasure at knickknacks and oddities. Moved like one too, but with the certainty of someone who knew what she wanted — picking through merchandise with a practical eye, experienced enough to know a good bargain. At the moment inspecting a stack of some woven items Pacia couldn't quite make out. She squinted to get a better look, suddenly finding herself caught in the woman's warm green eyes.
Pacia blinked, a bit embarrassed, and turned quickly to the stall behind her. It featured fabrics from other parts of Greece and distant lands. A fiery red swatch peeked out from under other samples. Pacia pulled it out, immediately appreciating the whispery weight, smooth texture and gold embroidery around the edges. She held it up. It was longish and narrow — bigger than a neck scarf, too small for a skirt. She was about to ask the proprietor about it, when she felt a hand on her arm.
"May I?" The woman Pacia had been observing took the material and draped it over Pacia's head and shoulders. "They wear it like this in India."
"T-thank you. I ... um .... It's beautiful." Pacia gaped at the woman. "You've traveled there? To India?"
"I've been a few places here and there. How about you?"
"Outside of Thrace, but not that far." Pacia smiled shyly. "Except maybe in my mind."
"Oh, you can go farther there than anywhere else." The woman positioned Pacia in front of a mirror hanging on the side of the stall. "Imagine warmth enough for such delicate covering. The sights, scents, music to accompany such vibrant colors." She smiled as Pacia's eyes closed. "See? You could imagine yourself there now."
"Mmmm. You're right. Um .... Any ideas for what I might be doing?" Hearing no response, Pacia opened her eyes to discover her benefactor gone. She scanned the area with no luck, wondering if the woman too had been a figment of her imagination.
"She'll be back. Maybe not today, but soon."
Pacia turned to the proprietor. "You know her?"
"Gabrielle? Sure. Always stops by when I get a new shipment. She loves fabrics, that one. Can usually tell where they're from. How people use them." The man chuckled. "Doesn't buy much. Fine by me. We have nice chats."
"I can understand." Pacia nodded. "Gabrielle. Quite an enchanting person. Is she ... taken?"
"She seems so ... free. I just wondered if ...."
"Ah. I get your drift. Not from around here, eh?"
"I am fairly new to this part of Thrace."
"Gabrielle's her own woman, all right. Not the sort just anybody could 'take.'" The proprietor snorted. "Definitely off limits nonetheless. You ever hear of — . "
"Thank you." Caressing the material draped over her shoulders, Pacia had already moved around to the side of the stall. "She said herself, there's always imagination." She gazed again into the mirror. "It can do wonders with the right challenge."
Gabrielle rested on the swinging bench with her legs stretched out and covered with old scrolls, quill poised over a new one. Normally she'd be enjoying the early morning sun's warmth, cooled perfectly by a light spring breeze. The sounds of birds chirping and rustle of rabbits playing in the tall grass. The sight of her ever-magnificent soulmate doing just about anything. But not today.
"Whoosh! Plunk! Whoosh! Clatter! Whoosh! Thud! Whoosh! Ping! Ping! Ping! Whoosh!"
No, today something else stirred the air, light glinting off its shiny surface. Its source hunched on a crate beside the garden, glaring at the neat rows as though commanding the appearance of defiant green sprouts that insisted on marching upward at their own rhythm. Providing a cadence of her own, both to signal determination to wait out the rebels and amuse herself in the process.
"Whoosh! Plunk! Whoosh! Clatter! Whoosh! Thud! Whoosh! Ping! Ping! Ping! Whoosh!"
"Throw that one more time."
Wrist cocked, Xena peered over her shoulder at Gabrielle, not quite sure how to interpret the even tone. "This bothering you?"
"Not my biggest concern at the moment."
"Listen, if it's bothering you — ."
"I need a good defense. You know, for killing a legend? One more throw oughtta do it."
"Sorry." Xena wiped the chakram on her pant leg and placed it in her lap. She glowered at her garden. "Thought I'd be seeing more by now. When you do it — ."
"We've had less rain this season. I plant what comes up early. You were more ... ambitious."
"Yeah, well, not exactly what I had in mind." Xena replayed the images of springing up, ready for action. Tending shoots. Plucking something ripe for the table. Anticipating the blossoms of exotic flowers the merchant claimed would 'thrive' in this climate. "Only so much satisfaction eradicating weeds, bugs and varmints. Pfft. Got enough of that in my pre semi-retirement period."
Gabrielle put her scrolls aside and swung her feet down. "What's really going on? You seemed happy about time to relax. Doing some of those little things you remembered growing up. Chores that gave you 'a sense of home and accomplishment,' which you didn't necessarily appreciate at the time."
"I know." Xena grinned ruefully. "I'm beginning to remember why."
"Maybe because you've done such a good job?"
"What? Like this?" Xena asked, waving her hand at the garden.
"Xena, look at our house. Not one leaky board. The painted shutters and porch. This wonderful bench. Our cobbled walkway. And not just outside. Nearly every piece of furniture is because of you — chopped and carved and constructed to your superlative standards." Gabrielle smiled. "Could it be you've put yourself out of work?"
Xena looked around. She'd been so focused at the time. If she took a step back to survey her work, it was usually to find faults. She'd fix them and move on to the next project. It was true she'd done well. In fact, everything she'd planned. "Yeah, I suppose." She scowled at the garden. "Almost."
"Then there's the militia. Any bad guy with sense knows not to mess with it. Thanks to the merchant council, we've had only minor disputes or complaints. The new irrigation system has done wonders for village crops. Also because of you. And you're moaning over a few uncooperative sprouts?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Okay, so maybe I have been a busy little beaver."
"Uh huh. And maybe the real question is, what next?"
Xena surveyed again the environment she'd helped create. The corner of her mouth twitched. "My sledgehammer's been idle awhile." She rubbed her thumb over the chakram. "Or maybe the militia's gotten soft. Who better to test it than the former Destroyer of Nations?" She added an evil sneer for effect.
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Typical," she muttered. "One extreme to the other."
"That's me, all right." Xena stood and stretched. "Lekum's been nagging me about his horses. I've been noodling an idea for those rockslides at Mt. Thermopolis pass. Don't worry. Something'll come along." She walked over to the porch and leaned against the rail. "Speaking of which, you've been mighty occupied lately."
"All those trips to the market. Digging out your old scrolls."
"Oh." Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "You know me and shopping. Can't stand missing something new. As for the scrolls .... I like meeting new people. Sometimes sharing what I've learned. You know, from our travels."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Oh, stuff you've heard me 'yammering' about for years. Can't imagine there's a detail left you wouldn't already know." Gabrielle snorted. "Must be as annoying as that chakram whooshing around here with nothing better to do."
"Nah." Xena smirked. "Not so's I'd wanna kill ya anyway."
"Well, that's a relief." Gabrielle lifted her legs back to the bench. "Here's an idea. Maybe it'll take your mind off those rebellious seeds for awhile."
"Does it involve kicking, smashing or riding?"
"Um, one of those." Gabrielle got comfortable. "Thepedes said he was expecting some cloth I might like. I meant to finish these notes before I went back. Mind going for me today? I'd hate somebody tempting him with a better price."
"Sure. I'll stop by Lekum's while I'm at it."
"And no doubt see how those rockslides are doing," Gabrielle murmured.
"Hey. 'Idle hands' and all that, remember?" Xena held up a fist. "We know what kinda story that can lead to, eh?"
"Mm." Xena grinned, anticipating her bard's response.
"I wrote it." Gabrielle leaned back, closed her eyes and puckered her lips. "Now, before you go, prove you paid attention to how it ends."
Pacia hovered near the fabric stall, as she'd done nearly every day the couple weeks since meeting Gabrielle. Her reward had been more chances to converse with the intriguing woman. On a particularly nice day, they'd shared a meal and tidbits from their lives. Gabrielle's, of course, were more tantalizing. The far-off lands she'd visited. People from orphans to emperors. Opportunities to make a difference. Not so much the details, but the purpose, emotions or lessons learned. Gabrielle in her modest way illuminating the ideas or events that shaped her philosophy about life.
Just as she began worrying Gabrielle wouldn't come, Pacia's attention was drawn to another woman who seemed equally free and experienced, but very different. Taller, dark hair. Much more reserved, despite the easy smile bestowed on those she seemed to know. Completely disinterested in knickknacks or any of the other merchandise in the area. She surprised Pacia by striding straight for the fabric stall.
The proprietor blinked. "I must be seeing things," he said, hitting his palm against his forehead. "Or maybe too much ale last night."
The woman chuckled. "No, but only 'cause I'm on a mission. I'm supposed to keep you from selling a certain item to someone other than the rightful party."
"Ah. You're in luck." Thepedes reached under his counter and pulled out a roll of heavy dark cloth with large patches of gold coloring and white markings. "It's from the continent of Africa. Very rare in these parts."
"It's wonderful." Xena ran her hand across the rough material. "And she says I like extremes."
Thepedes laughed. "The perfect customer. She keeps me on my toes. Always looking for something unique, but never counting anything out." He snorted. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm in business more for her than myself."
"Heh, me too." The woman reached into a pouch at her waist. "How much?"
Thepedes put up his hands. "No coins from you, my friend." At the woman's puzzlement he clarified, "No, it's not free. The price is ... shall we say ... negotiable. That's half the fun." He shook his head. "And hoping I'll win for once."
"I don't envy you. Glad it's not me though." The woman stuffed the cloth in her carry bag.
"Tell Gabrielle I hope to see her soon."
"Pfft. As if wild horses could keep her away. Take care."
The woman moved so quickly, Pacia had to hurry to catch up. "Excuse me?" she said, tapping the woman's shoulder. She found herself snared in blue eyes that took in far more than they let out. "I-I don't mean to intrude. It's just, I couldn't help overhearing .... Gabrielle. You know her?"
The woman's eyes softened. The corner of her mouth twitched. "Doesn't everybody?"
Pacia detected humor in the woman's question. She smiled. "I wouldn't be surprised. I bumped into her at the fabric stall. She was very helpful. Quite knowledgeable about various material and their use."
"Yes, she is."
"I take it you're not similarly inclined? Um, about material, I mean?"
"Mm. We're differently inclined about a lot of things. Comparing fabrics with strangers among them."
"Oh." Pacia brought a hand to her mouth. "Please forgive me. I didn't intend .... Permit me to introduce myself. I'm Pacia." She mock curtsied to lighten the mood. "Clothing fanatic and pest to strangers."
The woman regarded Pacia a moment. "Xena. Weapons fanatic. No stranger to pests." She smiled thinly. "Especially in my garden."
"Weapons?" Pacia studied the other woman. "Yes, I can see that. Um, not so much the gardening."
Xena shrugged. "Chalk it up to that individual who knows everybody and everything."
"Yup." Xena cocked her head. "Sorry, but I have other business. Something in particular you wanted?"
"Again, my apologies. You see, I'm new here. I haven't made many friends. Gabrielle has been so kind. It was nice discovering someone who shares my interests in ...." Pacia ducked her head. "I thought .... Well, because you know her .... But you don't seem to have that much in common."
"True, we're like day and night in many ways." Xena rubbed her chin. "There's always dawn, which seems to matter most. But, yeah, to be honest, you'd do better sticking with Gabrielle."
Pacia sensed Xena about to leave. "You say you prefer weapons?"
Now at full attention, Xena nodded. "I'm a warrior."
"Ah. Then perhaps we have something in common after all."
Xena yanked open the cupboard doors. She stood frowning at the shelves before pulling out the drawers. "Where in Tartarus did I put that — ."
"On your desk," Gabrielle said, dropping down into the rocking chair. "Where you left it last night."
"Oh. Thanks." Xena walked to the desk and picked up the crudely drawn map she'd been searching for. She hesitated before heading for the door. "How —."
"You saddled Argo. Packed some road rations. Pretty good indication you have some long-range task in mind." Gabrielle looked pointedly at Xena's weapons and armor. "I am a bit curious about what trouble you're expecting. And why."
"Um, you were asleep. I meant to leave you a note." Xena bit her lip. "In my head, I did." She leaned against the doorjamb. "Figured I'd check out the pass. Not rockslides. The area north. I haven't been there in awhile. The forest — ."
"Could be cover for unwelcome visitors?"
Xena nodded. "Best to be prepared."
"And when did you plan on returning home?"
"Well, this was just a preliminary reconnaissance. I could be back tonight. Maybe go out again tomorrow if I see anything suspicious."
"Doesn't sound very efficient." Gabrielle smiled. "It's okay. Take whatever time you need."
"Sure. You've been itching for some action. I can catch up on my — ."
"Reading, writing and sharing?"
Gabrielle's mouth dropped. "How — ."
"You're not the only one with many skills." Xena smirked, eyes cutting toward the old and fresh scrolls underneath Gabrielle's desk. She shrugged. "No sense going to that trouble without the chance to chat about it."
Gabrielle's cheeks reddened. "It's no a big deal. Just a way to pass the time." She snorted. "You know, in between helping your garden grow? I have to go to the market anyway, so — ."
"You could use a break from all the Council stuff. Windbags coming to you with nothing but problems." Xena raised a brow. "I don't imagine the plants make an appreciative audience for your musings."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Well, they don't interrupt. They could do better with questions or comments."
Xena blew out a breath. "Okay then. I'd best get going."
Gabrielle got up and went to her desk. "Be careful," she said over her shoulder.
Xena started to blow a kiss, but realized it would be to her partner's back. Smiling, she shook her head, strode out, flipped off the porch, and was on her Palomino by the time Gabrielle turned that way. Shaking her head, Gabrielle dropped into her desk chair, scrolls in hand. She gazed at the one she was working on. It was for Pacia. It summarized Eli's teachings — the power of love and nonviolence, as well as the difficulties.
A part of her wondered why she'd been reluctant to tell Xena about the conversations with Pacia. To tell Pacia about Xena. Another part had a pretty good idea. It felt good. Like reintroducing herself to herself. What she remembered. Enjoyed and anticipated. Missed. In many ways, Pacia was like a clean scroll. Young and inexperienced in the world. Sheltered from lore or prejudgments about a certain legendary duo. Similar to a certain naïve peasant girl from Poteidaia. Their conversations somehow freed Gabrielle to see the world again through the eyes of innocence — full of possibilities and good answers. Everything with the significance and wonder of a first time. Now with hindsight to know just how precious it really was.
She told Pacia she'd traveled with a companion. Pacia never asked who that person was or what had happened to her. She inquired instead about what Gabrielle got out of whatever she chose or happened to do. How it shaped her loyalties, desires, fears, confidence. Her ability to discern truth or the right thing. Gabrielle had found it difficult at first — recalling the origins, distinguishing herself from the soulmate whose life filled and completed hers. She loved that, of course. Wouldn't have it any other way. Yet she admitted to herself an exhilaration in once again contemplating the unknown. Exploring it with someone who waited on the edge of a chair to learn how she felt. What she would say.
On the other hand .... She was sitting there precisely because Xena knew. Not the details, but enough to give her space. As she'd given Xena hers. Her heart quickened. She could invite Pacia to visit! Talk as long as they wanted. Appreciate mementoes from her travels. Renew old times in the present, in the presence of all that had built this home. Wouldn't that be nice!
Gabrielle's head rolled back. She beamed at the ceiling. By the gods, she could kiss Xena! She winced, remembering she hadn't today. Too focused on preparing for Pacia. She shrugged. She'd be sure to make up for that later. Taking for granted, naturally, there would always be tomorrow.
Xena couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so alive. The old fire and purpose. Skin tingling at what might lie ahead. Blood pumping in anticipation of some action. Possibilities, like the chakram, zinging around in her brain. Riding like the wind. Alone.
It did feel a bit strange, she admitted, reining Argo to a slower pace. Not so much doing this by herself, as neglecting to tell Gabrielle. She'd attributed it to wanting to spare her partner unnecessary anxiety. They'd worked hard to achieve their current domesticity. Experimented with ways to balance their needs for adventure and a home of their own. To fit Xena into village life without sacrificing what made her tick. She'd surprised herself — felt pride even — at how well she'd adjusted. Throwing herself into "settled" life as she did most everything else. And she'd been fine until bumping into Pacia.
Now that was weird. Who would've thought a trip to the fabric merchant might lead to an old-fashioned mission? That a Gabrielle groupie would end up requiring the services of a cobwebbed Warrior Princess? Not that Pacia seemed to know more than her prowess as a seasoned fighter. Curious in itself, considering the young woman's acquaintance with Gabrielle. But not as interesting as Pacia's problem. She'd said her people recently settled north of Mt. Thermopolis pass, in a cleared section of the forest. They'd received threatening messages from a former self-proclaimed "governor" named Melop — whom Gabrielle had thwarted some years back, after Xena's death in Japa.
In reality, Melop was more bark than bite. More suited to the illusion of power than the effort to achieve or maintain it. Xena probably could've dissuaded him and his band of miscreants without breaking a sweat. But what was the challenge of that? The fun? Like whipping troops into shape. Devising strategies. By example, showing her protégés how things should be done. Free to be herself again. Not that she'd ever be free of who she'd become since Gabrielle. Or wanted to.
But Gabrielle had a position, a reputation to maintain in the village she'd founded. Obligations and protocols she had to follow because of the Alliance she'd established between neighboring communities. She had enemies like Melop unrelated to Xena or her past. Gabrielle's vision and determination made possible their home. Xena respected all that, at the same time welcoming a brief respite from the constraints. If she could help Pacia's people without bringing Gabrielle into it, she could have her cake and not ruin Gabrielle's. Even if Gabrielle knew anyway. Not the details, but enough to give Xena space.
"She's something, huh?" Xena acknowledged to Argo. "I would've kissed her, if I hadn't been so anxious for a chance to kick butt." She patted the horse's neck. "Not to worry. I'll rectify that when I get back. Everything'll be okay," she concluded, spurring her mount on with the absolute certainty she spoke the truth.
Pacia practically skipped from her uncle's house, ecstatic at the progress of their plan. Glad she'd overcome her reservations about seeking his input. She hadn't met her local relatives before her caravan decided to settle near Mt. Thermopolis. Most were farmers seeking more fertile land. Her uncle knew the area well and had become their guide. She figured him her best bet for learning more about the people. But he frequently espoused "traditional" values that suggested he would not approve her feelings for the older woman she'd met at the market. Initially he hadn't. But when she said the woman's name, his attitude changed.
"You've chosen well," he'd said. Turned out Gabrielle held high standing, beloved especially among the common folk. Apparently this factor tipped the scale toward her uncle's favorable opinion. He warned her Gabrielle lived with Xena, a formidable warrior legendary for her crimes as well as good deeds to atone. Like many, he couldn't understand the relationship between the two. He agreed Pacia would be much more suitable, if only Gabrielle had the chance to know her better. He'd come up with an idea to facilitate such an opportunity.
"Xena trained most of the militias around here. She could do the same for your settlement. That would get her away awhile. Give you time alone with Gabrielle."
"But why would she go? Leave Gabrielle to help strangers?"
"It's in her blood — battle lust. She's just as committed to proving there's more to her than that. Probably because of Gabrielle."
He'd acknowledged there hadn't been much need for heroism, since the two had managed to forge peace and stability. Xena would need incentive.
"Tell her the settlement's being threatened. It'll have to be someone credible. Perhaps a former opponent. Someone powerful until pushed into the shadows."
Thanks to his advice, Pacia would soon be in Gabrielle's home. Possibly even staying over until Xena's return. Longer, if what Pacia had imagined became real.
Xena checked out the settlement's perimeter before riding in. "Which one of you is Oleandros?"
A burly, bearded man approached. "I am. You Xena?"
"At your service." Xena dismounted and glanced around the sparsely populated camp. "This everybody?"
Oleandros nodded. "We were expecting your arrival." He gestured toward a small group of able-bodied males. "Afraid you won't have much to work with."
"Mm. I don't see much worth somebody trying to steal either. What exactly does Melop hope to gain from this?"
"Not sure of the particulars." Oleandros shrugged. "All I know is, we've been threatened. We heard you'd be the best to get us ready for whatever. With whatever we got to give you." He looked their prospective savior up and down. She was older than he'd pictured, though the way she moved and stood bolstered his confidence she could back up her experience. "That right?"
"I've done it with less than this." Xena sauntered to the center of wagons, tents and partially constructed huts that formed a rough circle. "Any weapons?" Bows and a few swords were displayed. "Military experience?" A handful of older men stepped forward. "Okay then. We'll start simple. How're your emergency stores?"
"We took care of that right away." Oleandros pointed toward a small wooden structure partially obscured by trees. "Got another one underground. Enough for two, three days." He raised his chin with some pride. "We're used to natural trouble, if not from the two-legged sort."
"Good. There's a couple areas where we may post sentries later. I want a closer look." Xena strode toward her horse. "I wouldn't worry too much for now. Carry on as usual until I get back."
The corner of Xena's mouth twitched. She waited for the ex-soldier who had spoken.
"I was a lieutenant." The man saluted. "I can assist with the inspection. Maybe with the training. If that's to your liking."
"You have a horse?"
"All right." Xena bemusedly watched him trot to a pen occupied primarily by wagon hoses and a few mules. Her brow rose when he came back leading a finely saddled black stallion.
"I ... um ... took 'im with me," the man explained a bit nervously. "When I ... left ... the army."
"I see." Xena didn't bother inquiring further. Truth was, a lot of other questions had already taken the blush off her mission. Beginning with why Melop would bother squeezing blood from this turnip. On the other hand, the settlers could stand taking a few basic precautions, regardless of whether the threat was real. She was here now. Might as well do what she could. "What's your name, soldier?"
The man grinned in relief. "Rilius."
Xena mounted, indicating for Rilius to do likewise. "Follow me, then."
"Aye, Commander." Rilius patted the sword he'd stuck in his belt. "Been kinda missin' the old days more'n I figured."
"Goodness! I had no idea it had gotten so late."
Pacia came to stand beside Gabrielle at the window. "I could do this forever, and it would never be too late."
"Ah, the eternity of youth. Wait a few years. Time'll fly by so fast, you'll swear the same things're coming 'round again." Gabrielle snorted. "Like Xena's chakram."
Pacia chewed her lip, continuing to gaze outside as Gabrielle walked back into the room. "There's one subject we haven't discussed yet. I'd, uh, like to get to it today. Just in case."
"I can't imagine what's left, but sure." Gabrielle raised the lid on a pot hanging over the fire. "Hungry yet? We could do early supper while we talk."
"Okay." Pacia returned to the chair opposite where Gabrielle had been sitting at the small dining table. "Do you ... um ... miss her?" she asked, eyes on a scroll she absently rolled.
Gabrielle was rummaging through a cupboard drawer. "Now where did I put ...." She turned to Pacia. "Do I miss her? Xena?"
"It's just .... You've mentioned her a lot. You know, this afternoon."
"Have I?" Gabrielle found the tablecloth she wanted. "Well, I guess that's to be expected, eh?"
Pacia blew out a breath. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly?" Gabrielle laid the cloth on the table. She noted Pacia's change in mood. "How so?"
Pacia gathered her courage. "Before, it was just ... us. Your experiences. My questions. You didn't mention her name until today."
"Ah." Gabrielle dropped into her chair and folded her hands on the table. "More intimate, huh? I enjoyed that too. Xena and I are sometimes like 'old hat' to each other. It was nice to get a fresh perspective. On myself included. As I was. Still am, but sometimes lose sight of."
"Was it just that? I mean, don't we have a lot in common? How we like to imagine things? Our interest in beauty and philosophies? Understanding more of the world?"
"Why, of course. You have wonderful insights. Ask insightful questions. I've loved chatting with you for yourself. Learning from what you bring to it."
"More than Xena?"
"I don't ...." Gabrielle stared at the young woman in puzzlement. "There's no comparison. I mean," she hastened to clarify at Pacia's expression, "you're both unique. You have different qualities. Yes, you and I share many of them. But what Xena and I do share far outweighs the differences. The differences only make us value each other more."
Pacia slumped back in her chair. "I'm such a fool."
"Pacia, please. What on earth are you talking about?"
"Today. This chance for you to get to know me. Maybe see how things could be."
Gabrielle reached across to touch Pacia's hand. "Haven't we?"
"No." Pacia looked up with a trace of bitterness. "Not if you still think of her instead of me."
"Oh, Pacia." Gabrielle bit her lip, comprehension finally dawning. "I'm so .... It never occurred to me .... Maybe because of the age difference ...." She closed her eyes a moment. "No, Pacia, I'm who should've known better."
"How could you? How could you know the effect you have? I felt it that first day in the market. And when you .... When you wrapped me in that ...." Pacia's head dropped. "I believed. I imagined and believed you'd see the same."
The two sat in silence awhile before Gabrielle rose to light candles in preparation for sunset. She dished out small portions of stew, though she suspected the plates would not be clean soon. She poured tea before finally dropping tiredly into her chair.
"We've been together so long. I guess, for us, it's like being used to your skin. So confident — comfortable — in it, you forget it's there unless something reminds you. Maybe the elements — a nice breeze, too much sun or cold. An insect." Gabrielle smiled wryly. "A piece of cloth or a blade edge."
Gabrielle nodded. "It's rare, meeting someone who doesn't think of us as extensions of each other. Kinda nice for a change." She smiled her appreciation. "Some things aren't so nice. We've certainly had our share of those. Not always from the outside. In all this time — whatever the source — nothing has changed that being together feels as natural to us as our skin."
Pacia moved a leaden hand to the cup in front of her. She gazed into her tea before taking a sip, then set the cup down carefully, so as not to spill the contents — accepting she needed to calm herself as well. "I'm to blame as much as anyone. You didn't have to say anything. I heard it in your voice. Pfft. Listened to him instead, because I wanted to believe he was right."
"My uncle. He agreed you were wrong for each other. Encouraged me to spend time with you. We both thought you'd see we'd make a better match."
Gabrielle sat back, rubbing her arms as though hit by a sudden draft. "This time together. Are you saying you had a hand in making it happen?"
Pacia leaned forward, anxious to dispel the unease she saw on Gabrielle's face. "We meant no harm. My settlement really could use someone with Xena's experience. She seemed glad for the chance to be the warrior she is. In the meantime, you and I would chat as we'd intended anyway. Except with more privacy."
"So that's what Xena ...." Gabrielle frowned, not liking how the pieces to this puzzle might fit together. "Your settlement. Is it north of Mt. Thermopolis pass?"
"Uh huh." Pacia sensed Gabrielle contemplating some action. "Xena's okay. Truly. Probably enjoying herself. Sure, things have changed now. Does it mean you and I can't still — ."
"Your uncle — he's from around here?"
"Well, yes. That's why I thought he knew — ."
"Who is he?"
"Oh, sorry. His place is west of Mt. Thermopolis. Not far from the settlement. Uncle Melop used to a governor or something. He — ."
"Get your things." Gabrielle picked up their plates and dumped the food back into the pot. "We're going to see just how 'okay' Xena is."
Too late, Gabrielle realized traveling to the pass would be no easy matter. Dusk had already fallen by the time they'd ridden double aboard Largo to borrow one of Lekum's horses. Pacia's minimal equestrienne skills gave Gabrielle second thoughts about bringing her along. But she wanted to learn more about Melop's plan and Pacia's intended role in it.
Pacia dodged yet another branch that nearly unseated her. "Gabrielle?" she said, struggling to regain her balance. "It's so dark. Shouldn't we wait until — ."
"We'll rest in the next clearing. The water skins and travel food I packed should hold us until we're there."
"But you said yourself Xena could handle ... whatever you think my uncle might be up to. Why the urgency? Is there a reason you —."
"My skin. It's tingling. Every hair standing on end. I won't be satisfied until I know for sure."
Pacia stayed fairly quiet after that. She might be foolish, but wasn't stupid. The soft-spoken woman of ideas Pacia saw in her dreams had vanished, replaced by a single-minded hunter on the scent of quarry. She shivered, realizing she'd hoped to be the object, now relieved she'd been deemed not worth pursuit. But what about Xena? How would she react to Pacia's deceit? She shivered again. No, that was definitely not where she wanted her imagination to go. She concentrated instead on arriving at the settlement in one piece.
"We've made good time." Gabrielle pointed to tiny lights below the forest. "Is that it?"
"Yes. Most will be turning in now."
Gabrielle reined Largo to a halt. Squinting. Listening. "Xena would've posted sentries." She urged the horse forward again, confirming no one around to stop them. "Where would I find this Oleandros?" she asked as they neared the settlement's boundary.
"That's his tent. The one in front."
Gabrielle swung down. "Tether your horse. We'll walk the rest of the way."
A few settlers sat around a fire talking quietly or absorbed in some task. They greeted Pacia as if it were perfectly normal she'd returned that late and with a stranger. She nodded back.
"Oleandros?" Pacia rapped lightly on his tent. "It's Pacia. I ... need to speak with you."
"Pacia?" The front flapped opened. "Thought you'd be staying in .... Oh," Oleandros said, noticing the other woman, "didn't realize you had company." He pulled the edges together of the shirt he'd been about to take off. "What's goin' on?"
"I'm Gabrielle. Xena's partner. I've come to help her."
"Xena?" Oleandros glanced between the women with a blank expression. "Help her?"
"I understand you received threats. Which is why she was supposed to come. Did she?"
"Uh, she did. Looked things over. Said not to worry for now. Then she left."
"Left? For home?"
"Scouting. It's been awhile, but didn't seem she expected trouble." Oleandros frowned. "Why? You know somethin' different?"
"Just being careful. I'd feel better if I knew where she was."
Oleandros shrugged. "Maybe she did head home. Figured everything'd be okay a day or two."
"I suppose. If so ...." Gabrielle wondered why they hadn't crossed paths. Although Xena might know another route back.
"Gabrielle? You could stay the night with us. Sort things out in the morning."
"Yup." Oleandros smirked at the folks sitting around the campfire. "May not be the most entertaining group, but we're pretty harmless."
"Thank you. I ...." Gabrielle looked over her shoulder in the direction they'd come, not quite sure yet what to do.
Oleandros lay a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "From what we heard, Xena can take care of herself. Besides, she's got back-up with her."
"A vet'ran. Rilius."
"Rilius?" Pacia tried to place the name.
"He's new. Your uncle sent him. Said we might need — ."
"Her uncle? Melop?"
"Uh, yeah. He's the one told us about a threat from some warlord. Recommended Xena and Rilius. Good thing, 'cause Rilius volunteered to go with — ."
Gabrielle was halfway to her horse before she remembered her manners. "Thanks again, Oleandros. Sorry, but I have to go."
"Gabrielle?!" Pacia jogged after the determined woman. "Shouldn't I go with you? Help clear this up?"
"No." Gabrielle mounted Largo. "Fill Oleandros in on my history with Melop. Pray he's become as 'harmless' as those folks over there."
Melop sauntered around his compound, for once not snarling at the disrepair. The guards lounging about snapped to attention when he passed. They too anticipated a return to better days. A few weeks ago they'd clung to shreds of their former power, wallowed in the bitterness of glory long gone, accepted as final the pitiful trappings of their fall from the pinnacle of provincial rule. All because of her. Her do-good moralizing and interference. Melop sneered. How fitting the last refuge for his vengeance would be "love."
He hadn't recognized his good fortune at first. Agreed to help out his sister's clan more from ego than anything else — not wanting to let on he wasn't the Big Man they'd heard. He viewed his niece as a particular nuisance. Her idealism and interest in the arts reminded him way too much of his nemesis. But when Pacia spoke of her attraction to the person he most despised, it suddenly occurred to him she could prove useful after all.
Jealousy. Suspicion. Desire. These were emotions he understood. Exploited to divide and conquer when force would not work or required too much effort. Gabrielle had beaten him at his own game. Convinced former enemies to rely on cooperation and common goals instead. Now he would beat her at her game. Drive a wedge between her and that rightfully dead demon she shouldn't have resurrected or been with in the first place. He'd use Pacia to show Gabrielle a proper alternative. To draw Xena into a mission her bloodlust couldn't resist. Or, if lucky, cause them to turn on themselves.
Capture Xena? Kidnap Gabrielle? It didn't really matter. Once they were apart somehow, he could use one to bring the other to her knees. He believed his chances better snaring the less physical of the two. Had sent Rilius to distract Xena, never counting on him to accomplish so much more. The ex-"governor" rubbed his hands together in anticipation of — .
He spun around, peering into the darkness, as did his men. He signaled them to remain where they were. They watched a woman emerge from the trees.
"Where is she? I know you have her. That's her horse in the corral."
Melop took a torch from the wall behind him and walked to the border fence. He needed to see her face better, her to see his. "Been a long time. See what trouble you made me go to? To interest you in a reunion?" His eyes lit up as she took a few steps forward. "Oh, you wish to engage my welcoming party?" He snickered. "Think you're up to it? No age-defying miracles this time. A bit out of practice, from what I hear."
"I see you haven't changed. I could have l00 more years on me and be up to beating you. All by myself."
Melop's lip curled. He raised his fist, bringing it down with a shout of "Get her!"
Pacia couldn't remember being this afraid. Not so much of the dark forest's invisible dangers, but that she'd been used as a pawn in some cruel game. Gabrielle revealed having differences with Uncle Melop in the past. That he'd resented the Alliance she formed to replace his rule. Judging by Gabrielle's behavior, Pacia suspected there was more to it than that. If so, could he really be the type to seek vengeance through emotional manipulation? By hurting Xena physically? Or Gabrielle?
She dismounted and tiptoed toward the compound, wincing each time a crunch or snap might announce her presence. She had to take the risk. She needed to know Gabrielle was all right. To do something if things really had turned bad. She soon heard voices. Peered through the leaves to see men illuminated by torches, prepared to pounce on the solitary visitor facing them. Then heard the order to attack. Throwing all caution to the wind, she started forward, her lips forming a scream.
Pacia felt a hand clamping her mouth. She struggled in vain against a strong arm. A finger at the end of her captor's other arm pointed toward the corral.
"See that horse? It's a signal the owner's tucked away for safekeeping. Now, be still. Your uncle's been waiting a long time for this. Let him have his day."
A dozen against one might not seem good odds, but evidently didn't discourage the one in question. She decimated her opponents so fast, their employer had little time to decide whether to join them or flee. She stepped over the bodies to where Melop stood frozen in her unrelenting gaze.
"I'm not asking again."
"I don't know!" Melop backed up at the flare in her eyes. "It's true! I wouldn't be stupid enough to bring her here. My man has her. Hidden somewhere in the forest. He sent her horse so I'd know."
"I'm betting he's near. Call him. And Melop? If he's harmed a hair on her head — ."
"I wouldn't've minded a couple of these gray ones, actually. Otherwise, the only ones I lost were from me harming Melop's man."
Melop had been banished to his compound, this time under observation of guards from the Alliance. The Council would decide what else to do about him at their next meeting. After giving profuse apologies and receiving forgiveness, Pacia confined herself to the settlement. Between tying loose ends and busying themselves pretending they'd returned to life as usual, Xena and Gabrielle had managed to avoid thorny issues around how their innocent intentions had gone so awry.
Gabrielle relaxed on the swinging bench, observing Xena's renewed enthusiasm for gardening. "I must say, your floral choices were quite bold. They're coming along nicely. Should be wondrous in bloom."
"Uh huh. Thanks." Xena inspected her vegetables. "Seems it wasn't rain they needed after all."
"Oh? You use some secret fertilizer?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Given your glaring and my fussing, I suppose a little breather didn't hurt." She took a sip of tea, appreciating its soothing warmth on this cool, overcast morning. "You sorry about your absence in other regards?"
"Heh. You mean the supposed purpose of it?"
"Uh huh. No butt kicking at the settlement. You missed your chance at Melop's."
"Um ...." Xena busied herself binding a stick to one of the taller shoots. "I didn't."
"Miss my chance."
"Rilius? Surely he didn't give you much — ."
"Idiot almost got me when we stopped for water. I suspected something, but not then. He wasn't half bad, considering he worked for Melop. Passable exercise." Xena continued fiddling with her task. "But I meant at the compound." She cut her eyes at Gabrielle with a sheepish grin. "Me and Pacia had a ring-side seat."
"What?!" Gabrielle gawked at her soulmate. "You let me think you'd been —."
"No, no. Not at first." Xena sat back on her heels. "See, Rilius admitted Melop considered him a 'bit' player. He was supposed to keep me away. Lead me into an ambush if possible. Meanwhile, they'd send others to kidnap you. Melop would've settled for whichever one of us he could get his hands on."
"Argh! Did the man learn nothing over all these years?"
"Dumb as they come."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Let's get back to the 'ring-side seat' part."
"Rilius had higher ambitions. Was peeved he couldn't bring me in by himself. I gave his reputation a leg up, so to speak." Xena smirked. "Four, in fact."
"You sent Argo in?"
"Yup. Had Rilius write a note, stick it under the bridle. I tied him up. Was on my way to the compound for some reconnaissance. You know, to make sure they hadn't snatched you while I was gone."
"Those dolts?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, really. I may be a little out of practice. Not quite as young — ."
"Yeah, yeah. I know." Xena raised a brow. "Same here."
"Ouch." Gabrielle winced. "Guess we both got ... overly cautious."
"Nothing new there." Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Not with that part of it anyway."
Gabrielle sighed. "I admit, I let my guard down with Pacia. I never dreamed she .... I mean, my only interest in her was — ."
"I know. She reminded you of someone." Xena smiled wistfully. "Somebody we both liked. Wished we could've kept around longer. I was glad if Pacia could bring her back."
"Xena, I could never regret —."
"Who she's become? Me neither. I'm eternally grateful I've had all of her. She has more than enough to share with anyone she wants. Anyone who needs her."
Gabrielle bit her lip, eyes full. "And she's eternally grateful she's had you to share it all with." She studied her cup a moment. "Know what's funny? I did enjoy my talks with Pacia. Having a reason to rehash memories. Be that girl from Poteidaia again. I felt ...."
"Like yourself? Not joined at the hip with a delinquent from Amphipolis?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "It was sweet, living in my imagination again. But it paled in comparison to ...." She shook her head. "You'll laugh."
"Try me. Compared to what?"
"To feeling like a warrior again. Not for the sake of it or anything." Gabrielle looked into the distance. "The moment I sensed you in danger, the bubble I'd been in with Pacia burst. I felt alive. Real. Absolutely certain of my purpose. Why I'm here — in this place — breathing, eating, sleeping." Gabrielle grinned. "Fussing over those plants."
Xena nodded. "The butt kicking too."
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Yes, that too. And knowing ...." She scowled. "Thinking ... it was for you, made every whack that much more satisfying."
"Yeah, well, I'm not laughing, 'cause I've got something even funnier."
"Reminding me how rusty I've gotten?"
"Realizing I enjoy watching you whack bad guys, more than doing it myself."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped. "You can't be serious."
"Oh, I was primed, all right. Soon as Pacia mentioned Melop. Couldn't wait to strap on the battle gear. Shout orders. Knock some heads. Then I'm at the compound. A few feet from his fence. I look up and see this gorgeous blonde appear — all menace and fire. Out of habit I start to join her. Next thing I know, I've bumped into Pacia. She wanted to barge in, but I wouldn't let her."
"She did? I told that girl — ."
"She couldn't believe it. That I wouldn't help. That you didn't need it. Rusty? Your staff could've been another arm. So natural. Precise." Xena shook her head. "Me, I do extra stuff just for the heck of it sometimes. Not you. There's purpose in every blow. Makes you the most focused, efficient warrior I've ever seen." She sighed with deep contentment. "When it's for me? Defending as my warrior? I could punch Melop until the cows come home, and it wouldn't be better than that."
Gabrielle stared at her soulmate — living proof wonders never ceased. "You know, as much as it swells my heart to hear that, I have to say it also gives me pause."
Xena's head jerked away from where her mind had wandered. "Say what?"
"It's quite possible you've gotten even crazier with age."
"Excuse me?" Xena uncurled to her feet, a hint of outrage on her face. "I bare my soul. Give you one of the best sensitive chats ever. Profess my undying admiration for you and your butt-kicking prowess. This is the thanks I get? You call me crazy?!"
Gabrielle struggled mightily not to laugh. "Uh huh."
Xena stalked to the porch rail and crossed her arms. "Crazier than Pacia? I didn't hear you call her crazy, when she elevated you to near goddess status."
"Hmmm. I didn't, did I? But what does it matter?" Gabrielle sucked in her cheeks with a hint of smugness, on the verge of eliciting something else she didn't mind hearing. "Unless maybe you were a tad ... jealous?"
"Jealous?! Of that green twit? Because she popped in, convinced of her special line to your deepest thoughts? Your biggest dreams? Like your partner of lo these many years must be some gnarly ol' stick in the mud?" Xena snorted in disgust. "Yeah, I saw it from the get-go. That 'ooo, I'm falling in love with Gabrielle' look. I've witnessed it often enough. From a lot better competition than her. If she'd ...."
Xena suddenly realized she was working herself into a snit she'd studiously avoided. Had hurdled with some success to prove her open-mindedness and transcendence of petty egotism. Rationalizing her eagerness to help Pacia as purely altruistic. Justifying the satisfaction she felt as connected to her obvious need for warrior action, rather than, "If Gabrielle can blithely go off and be 'herself,' two can play that game."
She raised her chin. "Please, give me some credit. Feel threatened by Pacia? I'm way too secure for that."
"My apologies. I take it back." Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. "You're no crazier than you've always been."
"That your idea of a compliment?"
"I could chat with Pacia until the cows come home, and it wouldn't be better than that."
The two gazed fondly into each other's eyes, acknowledging they'd stumbled, as usual, into falling the right way.
Gabrielle frowned at the gray sky. "It's not such a beautiful morning today." She stood, stretching languorously. "Know what I'm in the mood for?"
"I'm right there with you," Xena said, springing over the steps and flipping onto the porch.
Gabrielle paused at the door. "Oh, I forgot to — ."
"Took care of it before I came out." Xena nudged her partner forward. "Of course, we still haven't — ."
"It can wait another day." Gabrielle entered their front room. "I would like a — ."
"I'll make some while you — ."
"Okay. Don't take too long. You know how something always — ."
"Not this time." Xena barred the door and headed toward the fireplace.
"Ooo, my thoughts exactly." Gabrielle walked in the opposite direction to their sleeping chamber.
Each paused a moment to look over her shoulder and blow a kiss, simultaneously promising, "See you soon."
Outside, a sudden gust blew open a scroll lying beneath the bench. Gabrielle had been working on it a few days before, originally intending it for Pacia Of all her summaries, this had been the most difficult. She'd wanted to capture some of the diverse thoughts and feelings of the first trip to Japa. Imagining their future before learning the threat to Higuchi. Revelations on the journey there about another phase of Xena's dark past — kidnapping, opening herself to and beheading Akemi, then inadvertently honoring the dead girl with flames of destruction. Arriving only to discover Xena's atonement for this horrific accident required a sacrifice far greater than any previously endured.
Gabrielle still couldn't quite summon words adequate enough to put that life-changing "adventure" in perspective. The only lines she could come up with weren't even hers. She'd gotten them from Xena, but they weren't Xena's either. The warrior admitted she'd been rather dismissive of them at the time, not truly understanding their import. Gabrielle felt touched at first hearing, though the words had been uttered long before she'd met Xena, by a woman who broke Xena's heart and, years later, Gabrielle's.
And yet, the exquisite poem Akemi recited to a young Xena hadn't been so ephemeral after all. It seemed, ironically, to foretell the wondrous destiny of future partners anguished by Akemi's actions. To describe an improbable relationship no force in the universe could sunder. Gabrielle now judged the sentiment so fittingly simple that, once she'd committed it to parchment, she didn't worry about who said it, whether it made the scroll complete, any more than she saw fault in how Xena finished her lines, or in herself finishing Xena's.
"In a flurry of snow, two breaths of wind unite and become as one. And then disappear into each other."
If it felt all right as is, what else need be said?
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