Disclaimer: Characters from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are not owned by me, to my regret. This is written purely for enjoyment with no thought to monetary gain. There are women in love (eventually, as Gabrielle is a bit miffed) and if that is illegal for you or where you live, move on or simply move.
Post FIN, I guess, though I have kept specific references to a minimum.
Mail is always answered and appreciated at Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
My website is at http://dreamcatching.netfirms.com/kam/index.htm
Thanks for corrections and encouragement to the members of the Bardic Circle and Tavern Wall, especially Extra, Jaden, Dawn, JLynn, Jordon Falconer, and Sue. More thanks to Claudia, Morgane, and for rereading this countless times, Abardreader. And my thanks as always, to the great Mary Morgan.
As they continued their apparently nonchalant stroll, Xena glanced at her companion and said, “You look good.”
Gabrielle nearly paused in mid step. “What? Oh. You mean Numai looks good.”
Irritably, Xena responded, “No, if I'd meant that I would have said it. I mean, you look good. The way you walk, the way you crinkle your nose, the glint in your eye, that's you. No one else.”
“Well, you too. Couldn't mistake you for anyone else.” At that moment, Gabrielle became aware that she was holding Xena's hand, and with a growl of frustration, flung it away. “This damn body!” she exclaimed.
Xena glanced about to make sure that no one was listening. “What?”
“This damn body. I'm used to having this ache in my knees, and I had this numbness along my arm since, I can't remember… Now, the taste buds are alive… the eyesight is so clear and the colours it sees…”
“And all that's bad?”
“It's not just that, it's all very young and it has…” Somehow Gabrielle did not look like an old woman while blushing and waving clenched hands.
“Juices?” Xena mocked lightly.
Gabrielle glared at her, but managed to keep her voice low and unheard by the passing Roman soldiers making their way to the mob gathering around the base of the Coliseum. “It's an unneeded complication.”
Xena continued walking, nothing in her manner indicating that the comment hurt. Until she replied, “It wasn't juices that made you hold my hand.” Frustrated, annoyed and more than a little hurt that the warrior was once again blasé about her emotions, Gabrielle shot her another glare that Xena evaded by ducking deep into the hedge. “Anyway, we're here. You're on watch,” she said, as she began scrabbling around.
“Got it.” Trying to appear relaxed and alone, Gabrielle's gaze wandered over to where the growing crowd outside the columns of the Coliseum seemed to be hotly debating what should be used in a sacrifice to show their gratitude to Mars. She breathed a sigh of relief that there was no one looking in their direction. Nevertheless, as an excuse for her presence, she bent over and began collecting some of the red poppies that were sprouting between the bracken at her feet. Behind her, she heard Xena give a grunt of satisfaction, and then she heard the heavy, scraping sound of concrete being moved along concrete. “So,” she murmured from the side of her mouth, “Where are we going to go where we can't be seen?”
To her increasing annoyance, Xena didn't answer, but continued to drag something along the ground behind her that Gabrielle couldn't see. In frustration, when their rear ends touched for a moment, she gave Xena's ass a hard backwards shove.
But when she turned about, she found she was all alone. She stood there, in stunned solitary amazement by the shrubbery for a moment, before admitting out loud, “That was impressive, I have to say.” Then she saw in the short brush, a stubby bit of brickwork extruding from the ground with what seemed to be a cover lying beside it. Whatever it was, it led downwards, was dark inside and had to be where Xena had disappeared.
“Xena?” she called down into it tentatively. “Are you okay?” The darkness did not reply.
She leaned further over the opening and said into it heatedly, “Xena! What's happened?”
From the darkened depths she heard a rueful, “Nothing.”
“NOTHING?” There was a moment of unrepressed fuming. “Okay, Warrior. Unless you want to know what nine hundred years of anger exploding on your head feels like, tell me what's wrong!”
“Ow.” The sound reverberated off the underground walls for a moment.
“Uh huh. I hurt myself… trying to show off.”
Gabrielle shook her head wonderingly. “I don't believe I've ever heard you say any of those words, at least not in anything near that order before.”
“Part of the all new improved me. Isn't that what you want?”
There was silence from above. Xena called up again. “Gabrielle?”
“What I want is getting very complicated. And I wish we could stop talking about it.”
“Well, I want and need you down here. There was a glass window in the vent, and I think I caught a few splinters as I slid down butt first.”
“So you're telling me you have glass in your ass?”
There was a ghostly wry chuckle. “Ah, there's something else I've been missing all these years. Your way with words.”
“There's an old curse I heard once. May you get what you asked for.”
“Cute. You know, sooner or later some God-worshipping Roman is going to ask you why you're talking to a bush.”
“And let's not forget the glass in your ass.”
At the muttered curse, Gabrielle found herself wearing a grin. After taking a quick look about to make sure that all attention was still on the crowd on the other end of the square, Gabriel lifted one leg over the edge of the concrete ingress and prepared to drop down. “How deep is what ever this is?”
“You can lower your legs and put your feet on my shoulders.”
As she did so, she couldn't put off asking another question. “That doesn't answer what this is, or was?”
The answer was another echoing growl. “Get down here and I'll tell you. And while you're still up there, slide the cover back in place.”
It took a bit of balancing, but she managed to pull the heavy cover over her head, leaving them both in Stygian darkness, before allowing herself to be slowly lowered to the ground. Gabrielle carefully disentangled herself from the strong shoulders and awkwardly moved away from the Warrior. The temperature in the darkness was considerably cooler than outside, but the air, though stale, was dry. Her mood also seemed to darken, as if reflecting their latest circumstances.
Off to her left, she heard Xena scrabbling along the walls, apparently searching for something. Answering the bard's unspoken question, she said, ‘We'll need some light. Should be something to help with that along here. And I'm hoping that was water in the flask you have on your belt.”
“Water and a flint and don't forget my satchel. Always trained my Amazons to be prepared.”
“Before or after you were dead?”
Gabrielle tried to keep her voice nonchalant. “My time, being dead, it's getting a bit hazy, but it was a bit of both.”
“You kept busy, I'll bet.”
“I think so. I mainly did the meet and greet. Newly dead Amazons, tried to find someone they would have known. Talked them through the dying.”
“I don't want to get on any nerve, but that doesn't quite sound like a job for this sour, dried up, emotionless hag you've been telling me about.”
Gabrielle's didn't respond, so Xena tried again. “Weren't there a few old friends that didn't see you as The Great Queen?”
“Ephiny was the worst! I practically ordered her to call me Gabrielle and she refused. She said it felt like she was calling Artemis by a nickname. All she saw was the things I'd done and the old body… I had no friends. And you weren't… I became what they expected, to survive, Xena.”
“And you did. Survive, I mean.”
“Survive? I was dead! In more ways than one…” The angry retort might have continued when it was cut off by an exclamation from the darkness where Xena was standing. “Sconce with a torch still in it.”
“So hand it here so I can light it up. I want to look at that ass.”
“More things I was wishing to hear but again, not quite this way.”
“Bend over and be quiet,” Gabrielle ordered. After only a few attempts, she got the torch burning. In the flickering light, Gabrielle could see that they were not in some abandoned temple or cave as she'd first thought, but in a tunnel of some kind. And not a hurriedly dug, earthen one, but one with decorated plaster walls that stretched off in opposite directions for some distance. She ran her hands through the contents of her satchel, until she found the strigil she'd picked up in the Vestal's washing quarters. An unfamiliar object was hooked onto it and she examined it for a moment, trying to decide if it would be of any use.
She turned to Xena and said, “Someone's been putting things in my bag.”
“Like this. Not the sort of thing someone would just throw away.” She raised a piece of glittering jewellery.
Xena glared at the Victory pin that she'd last seen crushed and broken in the amphitheatre. “You'd be surprised how hard that is to throw away. I've been trying to do it all day.”
“Might be useful. Looks like it's worth a lot.”
“It's worth nothing, Gabrielle. Trust me.”
Gabrielle dropped it back in the bag with a shrug and picked up the strigil. Once Xena had propped her arms on a bench and positioned herself under the torch, she began the delicate task of pulling out the shards. Though used by the Romans to scrape oils and dirt from their skin during bathing, she'd noted that the strigil had a fine enough point for other uses. She also observed that although Xena might have changed sufficiently to say ‘ow' earlier, throughout the painful process of removing the splinters, her breathing stayed steady and even.
She worked carefully, methodically and silently. Occasionally there was an almost unheard grunt from Xena when a shard required some digging to free it, but that was the only sound for a while. Finally Gabrielle was satisfied there were no more fragments and stood to stretch. “As much as I liked the rhyme, it's not glass. It's thin slices of marble from the wall decorations. I need to sluice everything down once more to check, but I think that's it. If you think it's worth while, I can stitch it up as well.”
“Well, you don't really think we're going to have these bodies long enough to heal, do you?” Gabrielle tried to sound matter of fact, but some bitterness tinged her response. She moved a little, the better to see by the weak light of the torch.
To her irritation, Xena said lightly, “Probably not. But if you don't have anything else planned…” Gabrielle found herself fighting a somehow familiar urge to stick out her tongue at her.
Gabrielle pulled out thread and a needle from her seemingly inexhaustible pack and worked for a time in silence. In her final years she had grown to enjoy quiet, but the stillness of the tunnel was becoming oppressive. Without thinking, she broke it, asking, “You missing that talkative little girl around now?” She cringed as the words slipped from her mouth, but waited for Xena's answer. The waiting only increased her irritation for some reason.
“Nope,” she said finally. “I was thinking I'd promised to tell you what this place was.”
Gabrielle kept her eyes on her work. “Go ahead, I've got a few minutes.”
“I get to tell you a story?” Gabrielle didn't respond to the forced enthusiasm. She was careful as she stitched in the flickering light, but occasionally pulled the thread taut with swift, grim strokes.
There was another pause while Xena shifted her upper weight on her hands. Then she began. “Once upon a time there was a crazy little Emperor named Nero. All this area above us was his personal possession. He had a lake about where the amphitheatre is now, and where your Temple of Venus and Rome …”
“It's not my Temple …” Gabrielle interrupted, her words were garbled through teeth that were holding one end of a thread.
“Before it was all built, there was this huge statue everyone called the Colossus. So the area around it was called…”
“The Coliseum,” Gabrielle inserted.
“Got it. Anyway, he built this mansion on the opposite rise, covered it with gold and filled it with the greatest art in the world. They called it the Golden House. But by tradition, he still had to have a place on the Palatine . After all…”
“It's where the Emperors live. That's where the word comes from. Palatial, palace, from having a place on the Palatine .”
“…but he wasn't the most popular guy at times, so in order to go safely from one house to another…”
“He built a tunnel. So this goes to the top of the Palatine Hill?”
“It used to. I'm betting that after a century or so it's probably caved in or blocked at either end. But I figure that there'll be more of these ventilation ducts along the way. With luck, there'll be a vent right before they walled it up and we'll get out there.”
“But wouldn't A… you-know-who know about it?”
“He's got so many people working for him now, he's stopped thinking for himself. And it's not like he can track people like a dog. If we don't call on him and none of his stooges see us, we'll be safe enough.” There was a hardening of Xena's voice, “Unless, that's not part of the plan.”
Gabrielle cut the final thread and stood up. “You're done. According to my reading, the Romans now consider dried bull's dung the latest therapy, but considering the injured area, that might be redundant.”
“There must be enough cobwebs in here to cover even an ass this big.”
Ignoring the abuse, or any pain she might have been feeling, Xena turned and stood, facing her former partner. “And all that hard work was not just in case there's more than today for us?”
Gabrielle shrugged, though Xena's rising to stand over her had increased the claustrophobia created by the tunnel and consequently her tension. “Just want to do the job right.”
Xena tilted her head to so that she could see Gabrielle's eyes in the torchlight. Before they darted away from her gaze, they seemed uncertain. “What's really going on? There's something you haven't you told me. What is the job you're really here for?” she asked softly.
Gabrielle moved away. In her mind, she could hear her conversation with Aphrodite in the Temple ; “And with tests, there's rules, right?”
“Yup. And rule one is, you can't tell Xena. ”
To be continued...
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