Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: None
Sittin' in a
The warrior looked up from where she was piecing together the fire for their campsite, and spotted Gabrielle walking around the perimeter. Gentle hands plucked flowers, lifting them to sniff and hugging herself in turns. Her smooth face, framed with golden hair, was tilted up, green eyes taking in the canopy of leaves and the patches of late afternoon sky. From here, the warrior could hear the deep, contemplative sigh.
Xena couldn't get enough of watching the bard. It had only been a handful of days, barely half a moon since she'd been reunited with Gabrielle. From time to time, the warrior still had to swallow back the suffocating panic attacks that had regularly consumed her during the loneliest moon of her entire life. Xena kept the bard close at night and on Argo's back with her as they rode through the day.
The warrior watched Gabrielle stir her fingers in the water of the lake. A slow smile played on the blonde's face. Then she stepped out of her garments and walked out into the lake, drawing her fingers through her hair after rising from beneath the surface. Xena admired the sleek lines of the younger woman while giving the mare her evening oats and a rubdown.
Drawing a deep breath, Xena drew in the smells of honeysuckle, horse, leather, and fresh water. For the first time in a long while she truly felt alive, like awakening from a long sleep. The sights, scents and sounds of the world around her were heightened and invigorating.
She'd sought the bard among the dead, to find she'd not actually been there. But the bard's fight back to her still had been treacherous and filled with pain. They were finally victorious.
Gabrielle now swam in the lake, expecting to rise from it in a few minutes to dinner. Xena was doing the cooking. "Me cooking," Xena sighed and laughed deprecatingly as she moved from Argo back to the fire. Still surprised she had suggested it, Xena had known that she would give the bard anything. She'd even try cooking to remind the bard that Xena meant it when she said she'd never to take her for granted ever again. Laughing lightly, but touching the warrior's shoulder with a gentle caress, Gabrielle had quietly suggested starting slowly -- a soup.
Now, Xena slipped down to the lake, rinsing her hands and filling the pot. Gabrielle caught sight of her. "How's it coming?"
Xena looked up and saw her rise from the water. In the waning sunlight Gabrielle's tanned wet skin sparkled. The warrior was swept back through a tide of emotion, to the moment she was faced with Gabrielle's real return. The bard, looking uncertain, even weathered and a little weary, had been surrounded in light, emanating the purest happiness in her tentative smile. The moment Xena had known it wasn't Hope but truly Gabrielle had halted her driving blade, stopped her heart, brought tears to her eyes, and almost drove her to her knees. Just the memory made the warrior's knees weak again. She left their dinner pot on the bank, drifting out in the water toward the bard.
"Xena?" The voice was the same, curious, entreating. It called to Xena's soul and she was helpless to ignore it.
Locking her gaze on green eyes and lashes glittering with water, the warrior reached out and tentatively caressed the bard's cheek. "Gods, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle covered Xena's hand on her cheek, feeling the lightning reaction between them. She understood Xena's need; it echoed her own. They had truly been lost to one another for nearly a full moon. The touches, the looks, and the constant nearness, was to make sure it was all still real, keeping them together.
"Promise you'll hold me tonight?" The warrior's voice broke on the request, half hidden to the night by the chirp of cicadas and crickets. Mercifully, Gabrielle put her fingers over Xena's lips, sparing her the loss of control.
Sometimes Gabrielle regretted jumping, leaving Xena behind to face her heart, and the emptiness all alone. Then there were these moments, more frequent since her return, when the warrior let her heart free. "I promise."
The warrior smiled tremulously and Gabrielle let her go back to the shore. The warrior returned to her dinner preparations. Soon though, the young bard smelled the succulent aromas of the soup. It drew her out of the water and to watch Xena in her own turn.
Not ever truly on the other side, Gabrielle had been unable to feel Xena, see her, or otherwise refresh her memory and soothe her heart's ache. The long separation, even for the time when she was uncertain who or where she was, had taken its toll on her too. She'd regained her strength only slowly, without the warrior's presence to spur her on to full health. When she finally recalled her own name, Xena's had followed quickly, and she'd sent out a message, hoping the warrior would find her. But nothing came back.
At that moment, fully healed, and truly alone, after everything, Gabrielle had come to the conclusion that perhaps Xena was dead, killed by Dahak, or her own sword, in the aftermath of Gabrielle's fall down the chasm. So, she'd set out on the road, aimlessly, but as the days passed, she knew it was on the way to Poteidaia.
She remembered seeing the warrior's silhouette across the way in the forest. Xena. Her heartbeat picked up, but fear fought down the speed she wanted in her limbs. Slowly, she'd crossed the distance separating them. When the warrior burst from the trees, arm raised, sword pulled back for a killing blow, Gabrielle had been willing to die just for the split second of meeting those crystal blue eyes just once. One last time.
A hiss of water against hot rocks brought the bard's mind back to the present. As she worked over the soup, Xena's dark hair shined like midnight, catching the fading light as it fell forward over her shoulders. With the armored shoulder guards off, her strong body appeared pale, slender... breakable. She sat over the pot, dropping vegetables in and stirring. She had dropped one from too high; the splash burning her hand. Endearingly she popped the thumb in her mouth and looked over her shoulder.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle dropped her towel and tied on her skirt and top.
"Fine." Xena pulled her thumb free and reached up to hold the bard's elbow as she sat down. "Did you have a nice swim?"
"Pleasant." She tilted her head to the side and rubbed the towel briskly through her hair.
"You want a rub before bed?"
Gabrielle smiled. "No. Just dinner." She put both hands on Xena's shoulders. "But," she felt the tension. "You could use one."
The warrior tried to shrug noncommittally. While Xena finished the soup, spared any more hot water splashes, Gabrielle worked her palms and fingers over and into the thick muscles of Xena's neck and upper back. The warrior uttered a tentative sigh when she finally announced "Dinner's ready."
The bard sat back, reclining against her bunched blankets and received a small bowl of soup. Xena served herself and sat back as well, waiting to hear the verdict before diving in. Gabrielle spooned some of the soup and tasted it carefully. The vegetables were soft, but not mushy, and she detected the barest hint of the last of their beef stock. "Thank you." Xena nodded and moved to eat her own soup. They sat in companionable silence, sharing their meal, listening to the night sounds all around them.
Until they heard a crash in the woods to their right.
Xena dropped her bowl, splashing the soup against her legs, and hopped up, grabbing her sword. Gabrielle set her bowl aside and climbed to her feet, grabbing her staff. She charged into the woods after the warrior. She could already hear Xena diving through the underbrush toward their unexpected intruder.
When she broke through the bushes, she found Xena bracing her own fist from plunging the sword's point into the man pinned to the earth under her foot.
"Xena?" The warrior stepped off Joxer's back. The man sat up, brushed dirt off his arms and spit the leaves and detritus which had become shoved in his mouth from the sudden slam against the ground. She lowered her sword only after he got to his feet. "Great to see you guys!"
Gabrielle stepped forward, resting her staff against a tree. Surprised plainly, she couldn't hide it from her voice when she greeted the pale face. "Hello, Joxer."
Joxer spared her a cheerful smile and waved in a half-twitch. "Hiya, Gabby."
The bard cringed at the diminutive of her name and Joxer's cheery disposition. "What's news, Joxer?"
The warrior drew himself up and patted his chest proudly. "I'm getting married!"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged surprised looks, stepped close and then just stared at Joxer mouths agape.
Gabrielle's mouth opened, but nothing came out. Xena found her voice first, surprising both Gabrielle and Joxer when she said, "Who?"
The bard studied Joxer as he easily replied, looking squarely at Xena. "Meg." Xena frowned, bit her lip, half-smiled, then frowned again and sat down on the ground. "I've had a few different reactions, but that wasn't one of them," Joxer commented.
The brunette's shoulders rolled under her armor. She didn't look up when she asked, "When did you run into Meg again?"
"I've been keeping tabs on her. That tavern of hers is doing nicely."
"Are you going to help her run it?"
"Haven't decided yet, but probably, yeah. I'm ready to settle down."
"You're ready to settle down?" Gabrielle sat down next to Xena as she looked up at Joxer, who seemed to have grown a few inches taller than she remembered. He stood more imposing, and confident. Must be a trick of the light, she decided, looking away from him. Her gaze shifted to Xena. The warrior looked like she'd swallowed a persimmon. She couldn't seem to take her eyes off Joxer's face. "Xena?"
The warrior looked away from Joxer to Gabrielle and closed her eyes tightly. Joxer blithely asked, "Your camp around here?"
Absently Gabrielle pointed back over her shoulder. "That way." Taking that as an invitation, clanking slightly in his armor, Joxer walked away toward the women's camp. When alone, the bard felt Xena stir against her shoulder and turned back to see Xena rubbing her forehead and muttering. "What?"
"He's going to ask."
"Ask us to attend. I can't do it."
"Why not? He's a friend, and at the moment he seems to be a very happy friend. Meg should be tickled to have us there."
"I can't watch her marry him."
Gabrielle laughed. "Why? Did you want to instead?"
Xena groaned and turned the corners of her mouth down in distinct disapproval of that image. "He's going to marry my lookalike."
Gabrielle was beginning to see where Xena's mind was going. "Oh. Umm. I can see where that might feel a little weird. Uh hmm. Watching her kiss him and stuff." Xena groaned. Gabrielle's fertile imagination conjured up the scene and then she too, groaned. "Well, at least you won't have to sleep with him."
That elicited a huge groan from Xena. The warrior hung her head between her knees and pulled her arms over the back of her neck. Still smiling, Gabrielle patted the warrior's shoulder soothingly.
The two women returned to their camp to find Joxer already sacked out. He'd pulled off most of his armor, and balled a blanket under his head. The bard and warrior settled on the other side of the fire, which had been thoughtfully rearranged and restocked so it would burn through the night.
"Marriage just might agree with him," Gabrielle commented. Xena settled on the blanket, stretching out. The blonde moved her arm out before Xena could lower her head. Surprised, Xena braced herself on an elbow and looked into her partner's green eyes. "I didn't forget," was all she said. Xena smiled and closed her eyes lowering her head against Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle kissed her brow before pulling the blanket up over them. Together they fell asleep.
"Rise and shine!" Joxer yelled. From right above their heads it sounded like. Both women groaned and opened their eyes together. While they untangled themselves from each other, Joxer cleared his throat, then shrugged. "Was pretty cold last night." He fumbled for something at his feet. "I fetched breakfast." He displayed a pair of fish proudly, fingers stuck in their gills.
Gabrielle nodded and smiled, pushing the blanket off their legs. Xena just nodded, getting to her feet and collecting her sword and chakram from where she'd laid them last night. Joxer's voice interrupted her slow-to-start thoughts. "Going to practice?"
"Yes," Xena replied dryly.
"Mind if I spar with you this morning?"
"Yeah. Well, unless you can't be disturbed..." He put the fish down on a rock next to the fire.
Xena frowned, looked at Gabrielle, who shrugged, and then back at Joxer. "No, I'll ... Fine, come on. Gabrielle'll fix breakfast." She turned to the bard and put a hand on her shoulder before brushing her cheek with the back of her knuckles. "We'll only be gone a half-candlemark."
Joxer and Xena walked off shoulder to shoulder into the woods. Gabrielle shook her head. She could have sworn Joxer was shorter than Xena, but just then, the two were of the same height. Sighing, she picked up Joxer's catch.
Xena and Joxer stepped apart in another clearing. Eyes on one another, they rolled their necks and shoulders, stretching to limber muscles and tendons. Xena watched the pale thin man stretch and finally found her tongue. "Joxer?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
Joxer stood straight, flipped his sword in the air and grabbed the pommel again, swishing it in the air. "Shoot."
"What's happened to you?"
"Me? Nothing." Disbelieving, Xena put her hands on her hips. "No, really. Well, maybe Meg happened." He circled the clearing for a long moment, Xena just watching him in silence as he tried to put his thoughts together. Finally he turned to her. "After... Well, after Gabrielle died... I, well..." His voice trailed off as he studied his boot while scuffing the toe in the dirt. Finally he swallowed hard, and looked back up at the warrior's expectant gaze. "I didn't feel so great and you weren't interested in sticking around me, so I wandered around a while... kind of lost, y'know?" Xena nodded. She knew the feeling very well. "Well, I ended up at Meg's place. The tavern?"
Xena nodded again, remembering full well the time she'd met yet another young woman who looked like her; Leah, the virgin High Priestess to the goddess Hestia, and found Meg running a tavern and brothel. All too easily she remembered Leah's frequent words on the subjects of virginity and purity.
"Well, anyway, Meg and I... talked... for a while," Joxer went on. "I realized that she was very special to me. She'd become more than just a random friend... like you or Gabrielle. So I popped the question."
"She said 'yes'? Just like that?"
"No. I had a Hades of a time convincing her. She figured I'd want her to mind home and hearth, give up her business. Stupid stuff like that."
"It's not unreasonable for her to think that. Most men would ask her to give those up."
"I couldn't do that, Xena. It makes her happy to be providing for herself. To be her own person, not beholding to anyone. I couldn't take that away from her."
Xena contemplated the warrior's rather long-winded answer. It all comes down to what you want for the people you love doesn't it? "You have changed, Joxer."
"You're welcome." She pulled her sword back and swished it in the air in front of her. "Ready to have your tail whipped?" Her voice was light, teasing, and comfortable for the first time around the generally insouciant man.
He laughed and drew his own sword. "You always this competitive?"
"Yep. Gabrielle despairs ever getting me to retire gracefully. I'll probably have to kick somebody's butt and then shake hands offering him my old job."
Joxer laughed. "All right then. Let's go." He gave a few practice circles with his sword and then feinted low to her right. Xena parried the blade back up toward his shoulder.
"Nice attack. You've been practicing." She flipped over his head and landed behind him.
Joxer's blade was still level with her chest. His face remained set with grim concentration. "A little."
She smiled and gave him an easy thrust, at chest level. His blade was there to parry the shot, and while the strength behind it was unimpressive, he was certainly more skillful than she remembered.
He flipped his sword so that the flat of the blade was presented. With a backhanded swing, he slammed the blade toward her shoulder. She blocked it easily, but found his aggressiveness pleasant.
"Good job." She dropped her blade, quirked an eyebrow and shoved him back with her hands. Expecting him to stumble if not completely fall over, she was surprised when he executed a back rollover and came up standing, blade in a blocking stance, which easily countered her incoming downward thrust. She stepped back. "Very good job. What's the difference, Joxer?"
"I've finally been paying attention," he replied. "To you, to Iolaus. To Autolycus, too, though I doubt he'd appreciate that." He moved backward a step before flipping sideways and coming up on Xena's left side. He thrust at the same time. Though she blocked it -- the move being quite elementary -- the warrior winked at him, a sure sign of approval.
"Are you only up on swordplay?" Both Xena and Joxer turned as they disengaged. Gabrielle pushed away from the tree where she'd been leaning. In her hands she tossed her staff back and forth. The white merkin fluttered slightly with the motion.
His brown eyes lit with interest. "Are you suggesting you take me on?"
"Staff versus sword if you like." Gabrielle gestured toward his weapon with the casual swing of the tip of her own.
Joxer smiled. "You're on."
Xena retreated to the tree line and sheathed her sword in the scabbard secured to the back of her armor. Leaning with her arms crossed over her chest, she watched Gabrielle and Joxer circle. Gabrielle did not rein in her power when she struck. The bard had a considerable level of strength but anything less than her utmost and Joxer would probably feel cheated.
They traded parries a few times and circled. The bard balanced expertly on the balls of her feet, and Joxer stepped easily around, keeping his sword up for the occasional trading of blows. Having felt each other out, the combat heightened a notch further in intensity.
The resounded crack of wood against metal filled the clearing and Xena watched both, noting Joxer had indeed gained a significant amount of technique, though he still tended to go for the power strike over the finesse.
Xena watched Gabrielle's shoulders roll. Having practiced with the bard before, the warrior knew what was coming next. She watched Joxer to see how he handled the bard's favorite move.
Gabrielle struck out, plowing toward his right shoulder with one end of the staff and then while his sword was coming up to block it, she reversed the motion and swung the low end toward his stomach. The technique usually left her opponent flat on his back, feet knocked up in the air.
Joxer didn't have time to drop his sword, so he did the next best thing: he leapt over her staff. The staff swung harmless under his feet as he pushed himself nearly a full body length off the ground. Gabrielle pulled her staff to the resting position and applauded. He landed and the smile on his face was pure delight. "Is that it, Gabby? Wanna go for more?"
The bard watched him catch his breath efficiently. "What did you do? Sell your soul to a weapons master?"
Joxer shook his head while sheathing his sword. "No, really, I just decided it was time to stop fooling around. I took a few lessons with a blacksmith, yes, but mostly I just stopped thinking I already knew how to do it and studied people who could teach me." He turned to Xena. "But who usually wouldn't. I discovered I'm a reasonably quick study if I just pay attention."
The warrior nodded. "You planning to become a professional?"
"No. Just going to defend hearth and home."
"Meg's very lucky." The bard came up behind him and patted his shoulder.
"Thank you, Gabrielle. That means a lot."
"Well, I guess this means we're going to the wedding?" Xena looked from Gabrielle to Joxer. She offered a frown then finally shrugged. "Oh, Hades' left foot! All right. I'm happy for you, Joxer."
The uncharacteristic outburst made
Gabrielle laugh; Xena turned red, then chuckled, and Joxer expanded visibly
under his friends' cheer at his good fortune.
"Meg'll be happy to see you. She considers you a sister she never had, Xena." The warrior groaned. Gabrielle chuckled. The trio walked shoulder to shoulder back to camp to pack their things and head toward the road. "We ought to make town by nightfall," Joxer remarked. "Gabrielle can ride with me."
Aware that Joxer didn't usually ride, Gabrielle voiced surprise. "You have a horse?"
"Yeah, my own campsite too. Left him there last night though. Figured you'd prefer not to have Argo near a stallion."
Xena shook her head amazed yet again at the common sense the usually doltish Joxer was displaying, time and again. "Thanks."
"No problem. I'll collect my stuff while you two clean up here. Meet you on the road in a few minutes?"
Gabrielle smiled, watching the man trot over the ridge top and disappear. "Xena?"
"Yes?" The warrior hefted the saddle over Argo's broad back, settling it and then securing it fast.
The bard moved behind the warrior and squeezed her arms around Xena's leather-clad waist. "Is this going to be really weird for you?"
Xena turned in the embrace and put her own arms around Gabrielle's back. She shrugged and frowned. Then kissed the top of the blonde head nestling under her chin. "Let's go."
Xena swung onto Argo's back and Gabrielle seated herself behind, clasping her hands together at the center of Xena's stomach. She felt the warrior's stomach muscles ripple as Xena tapped her heels into Argo's flanks.
The two women joined Joxer on the road. Gabrielle declined his offer of a saddle seat for the trip. "You take the lead," Xena offered to him as his stallion danced in place when Argo approached. Xena laid a tight rein against her mare's neck and waited for Joxer to turn away.
Xena kept Argo only a neck off the stallion's right flank.
"Meg'll be happy to see you guys again," Joxer remarked.
"I know we haven't written in a while," responded Gabrielle.
"She understands," he answered quietly, not looking back.
The group fell silent as they rode south. The roadside was quiet for a change. No thieves jumped out as they passed merchant caravans.
After another candlemark Joxer pulled up his mount outside the town's small tavern. Tossing the reins around the hitching post, he dismounted and waited for Xena and Gabrielle to do the same.
The warrior had already slid from the golden mare's back. Gabrielle kicked a leg over and dropped into the Warrior Princess' arms. The bard's hands lingered on Xena's chest, and the soft green eyes looked up steadily into Xena's. Joxer felt a very small twinge of regret, then a voice resounded behind him, making him spin on his heel.
"You're back!" Meg launched herself at Joxer, wrapping her arms around his neck and spinning him around as she planted a hot, wet kiss on his lips.
Gabrielle and Xena turned, witnessing the end of this moment. Joxer put Meg from him in slight embarrassment as the bard and warrior walked up.
"I didn't expect to find them," he told his bride-to-be as he stepped aside.
Bright blue eyes were sparkling with admiration. "You can find anybody."
He shoved the toe of his right boot into the dirt and then looked up smirking. "Well, yeah."
Xena smirked back and shook her head. "So, you sent him to find us."
"Yeah. Good to see you." Meg smoothed her skirt and came up quickly to embrace Gabrielle.
"Gods it's good to see you." The bard hugged back, hiding tears against the taller brunette's shoulder. Meg said nothing else, just pulled the bard under her shoulder and guided her into the tavern's shadowed entrance. Joxer and Xena followed.
"You've done well," Xena commented, looking around. The interior of the tavern was clean and adequately lit to maintain the ambience of an intimate dining room. She saw fewer girls on the stairs and hoped that meant there were fewer prostitutes in the woman's employ.
The tavern owner looked back to her duplicate and smiled. "Thanks for noticing." She looked at Gabrielle, still tucked under her shoulder. "Leah was worried when we didn't hear word of you after your journey north."
"Leah?" Xena queried.
The tavern owner let Gabrielle go, gestured up the long staircase, and replied, "She's here. Upstairs resting before she does her afternoon prayers."
"Xena, it's good to see you again." Having apparently done away with her gaudier wardrobe, Meg pulled at the pleat of her full-length tan skirt.
Xena surveyed her look-alike and knew pride. Whether by herself or some intervention by Joxer, Meg had indeed changed. The brunette wore her hair down in a smoothed, well-tended tumble across her shoulders. The top of the dress modestly covered her shoulders and bosom. Meg still could talk like a sailor, though, Xena realized with a small chuckle as the other woman grabbed Gabrielle around the shoulders and pulled her close with a confidential gleam in her bright blue eyes.
"So, been without for a while, huh, Gabrielle? Glad to have ya back. Ol' Joxer moped for a whole moon under this here roof. I musta spooned a caseful o' spirits down his miserable throat."
"Hey!" Joxer stepped up and defended himself. "I was grieving."
Meg shot him a doe-eyed look. "Could ya get us a pile o' firewood for the main room, luv?"
Joxer smiled silly and nodded. "Coming right up. You have your famous stew on for tonight's new arrivals?"
"O' course I do," Meg assured him as he headed for the back door.
"Did someone cast a spell while I was gone?" The bard watched Joxer disappear without mishap out the narrow door, not even banging his sword sheath along the doorjamb.
"Nah, honey. We're just settling a few things we've been meanin' to do."
"Like getting married?"
"Yeah." Meg's eyes lit up and the smile on her face was completely devoid of her usual calculating curl of lip. A suspicious flush of red Xena could've sworn the woman was about to stammer, but she recovered. "It kinda took me by surprise, but it makes sense, y'know? We're suited, Jox and me."
Gabrielle smiled and asked for the grand tour. "Can you show me the place?"
Xena declined when Meg asked if she wanted to come along too. "Oh, well. You can have some of the stew. It's over there on the hearth." The tavern-keeper pointed before leading Gabrielle out of sight up the stairs.
Joxer returned with a large armload of wood, setting it carefully down in the brassiere next to the hearth. "Hey, Xena, so... what d'ya think?"
"It's nice. So, did you help her clean it up?"
"Nah, Leah did."
"So, Leah's been here a while?"
"Well, yeah. The Hestian temple is here in town," he remarked as if the warrior should know that. Which in fact she did, she'd just had nothing better to say. "She comes over almost every day and sits with some of the patrons at the bar, or down at the storyteller circle." He gestured to a lone stool surrounded by a semi-circle of chairs and tables. "You think Gabby'll wanna tell a story here tonight?"
Xena felt a funny jolt at hearing the shortened form of the bard's name. She wasn't the young child that name suggested anymore. "You should ask Gabrielle."
"I'll do that." He worked with the fire. "Xena?"
"Are you two going to stay a while?"
"Through the wedding, but probably not much longer."
To Xena's ears the man sounded distinctly disappointed. Curiosity reared its head and she found herself asking, "Why?"
"Well, your mother is a tavern-keeper. I thought I might be able to persuade you and Gabrielle to watch the place while I took Meg on a honeymoon to Carthage."
"A honeymoon?" The words brought an uncomfortable image to the warrior's mind. "Joxer, I don't know --"
"Please say yes."
The warrior studied the angular face and sighed. "Yes. Fine. Gabrielle and I will watch the tavern while you and Meg take a holiday."
"Whatever." The warrior reached behind the bar counter and pulled out a stoppered jug of ale. Snatching down an earthenware mug from the shelf, she quickly poured and downed a full cup of the potent liquor. She was thankful for the burn down her throat and the tears that sprang to her eyes.
"Hey, watch it. That's Meg's best stuff."
Xena shrugged while pouring herself a second mug. She looked around the large room and sipped the ale. Over the unlit hearth, there was a big rack of deer antlers she didn't remember being there the last time. She eyed Joxer. Xena suspected the man's newfound talents probably acquired that trophy too.
Xena looked at sounds from the stairs. Gabrielle and Meg returned, with Leah. Xena watched the trio of women come down the main staircase, arm in arm, Meg and Leah on either side of the smaller Gabrielle. The tableau created an odd shifting in the warrior's chest, and she set aside her ale mug, taking a strong step forward. Leah was leaning close whispering something to the blonde bard, who laughed and patted the Hestian priestess' shoulder.
Meg leaned close on the other side and added a remark herself, eyes on Xena the whole time. Gabrielle put her hand over her lips and stifled her reaction. From this distance, the warrior could not tell if it had been a laugh or dismay. The bard took her hand from her mouth as the trio came upon Xena. She smiled up at the warrior's face. "This place is really nice."
"That's good news." Xena eyed Leah, and nodded toward Meg. She noticed Joxer had departed, probably to fetch something more for the fire.
"Leah's been trying out her decorator touch. She's got two adjoining rooms upstairs and it looks great." The bard put her hand on the warrior's arm, stilling the lift of the mug to her lips. "What're you having?"
"Some of Meg's ale."
"Pawtying a little eawy, Xena?"
"Leah." Xena took a quick swallow of the ale and put it aside. "It's been a while."
"How goes the Hestian life?"
"Quite well, pwaise be. We have new members join all the time."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "They inducted five new intendants just last week."
Gabrielle stepped away from Leah and Meg and with a gentle pull, tugged Xena after her. "What's up?" she asked when they were alone.
Xena looked from the pair of brunettes to the blonde at her elbow. "I'm just tired."
"Xena, you are never tired."
"Well, I am."
The warrior bent close and confided softly, "This is so weird."
The bard nodded and tapped the warrior's bicep. "They are sweet. Meg said she was worried while I was gone. Leah said she missed me."
"Well, so did I."
"Yes, I know you did."
Xena dropped her chin slightly. "Are we going to be able to have a room together here?"
"I don't know. I'll find out."
Gabrielle sighed. "Maybe you'll be in a better mood after some of Meg's stew. Leah's swears -- you know how often she does that -- she swears it's the best she's ever had. Even with all the finely prepared foods they have at the temple."
Xena forced a smile and nodded. "I don't doubt it. Lias didn't have her appointed his cook back in Treus for no reason."
"King Lias. And Diana. I'd forgotten about them. I'm going to find out if Meg invited them to the wedding."
"I did," Meg responded having walked up and overheard. "The whole royal party'll be here tomorrow. They can't travel really fast. Diana's expecting again." The former tramp snickered at that. "Philemon's doing his job to assure a royal line."
"Ooh, how soon?" asked Gabrielle. Beneath her hands she felt the muscles in Xena's arm tense.
"About another moon," Leah answered.
"You've met the princess?" Gabrielle turned to the Hestian priestess and watched the blue eyes light up in a face so familiar it sometimes disoriented the bard. Having Diana here as well tomorrow... Gabrielle wasn't sure how'd she'd tell all four of them apart.
"Oh yes. She visited Meg about four moons ago, asking for a recipe for King Lias." Leah beamed. "She looks very happy."
"Philemon has a lot to do with that, I'm sure," Meg chuckled. "That one's a steak."
"Hey." In front of the fire, Joxer pushed to his feet and dusted his hands. "What's that make me?"
Meg put both hands on his crossed arms, soothing them to drop at his sides then gently pressed a kiss to his lips. "Spiced ham." She smiled broadly.
"Better." He nibbled her lips briefly before kissing her soundly back.
Xena felt a flush creep over her cheeks at the display. Meg's attraction to the lanky warrior was as strong as ever. What surprised her too was Leah's ease around the couple, and Gabrielle's laughter.
"I think I'll go settle Argo." Xena pulled away from Gabrielle and headed for the tavern's door and a well-manicured path to the stables. Gabrielle watched the warrior go, torn between following her and reacquainting herself with her friends. Finally she decided she'd better remain, allow Xena her space, and keep Leah, Meg and Joxer from wondering too hard.
"Well, I really like the way the place has shaped up, Meg. Tell me more about the wedding."
Meg led everyone over to a table, sliding onto a bench with her usual flamboyance. "With Kingie and the princess here, Joxer and I figured it would be nice if we could do a little flash. I've been working with a seamstress in town --" She paused and dropped her voice in frank confidence, "I can't sew a straight stitch to save my life." She finished up in her normal voice. "The dress is awful nice."
Leah picked up the conversation. "I've worked with Joxer on the vows."
Joxer grinned broadly. "I wanted to make sure it was perfect."
Gabrielle grinned seeing that despite all his outward changes, along with Meg and Leah, he was -- they all were -- still essentially the same. It must've been nice not to change so much over the events of the last year.
She bit back a sigh. She felt a world different from the young bard who'd started the last sun cycle chasing a mad Xena through the woods as she went insane, cursed by the Furies.
Everyone had fallen silent as Gabrielle mused, and she found herself uncomfortably the center of concerned attention. She spoke up quickly. "I'm really happy for you Meg. Joxer. I'm excited about being here for this."
"We're glad you could be here too, Gabrielle." This came soberly from Leah. "Xena really had us all scared she wasn't going to make it."
Gabrielle nodded, pulled to sobriety quickly. "I know. There wasn't anything I could change about what I did though. We both did what we had to -- to fix things."
Meg, Joxer and Leah sat for a long time in silence and then leaned back. Meg looked around and noticed one of the serving girls had arrived to work the evening meal. She waved her over. "Cat, could you bring us a round of mead?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Water for me please." She rubbed her throat.
"I'll have tea," Leah corrected. "It's too early for mead."
Meg scoffed. "It's never too early for mead, Lee."
Leah shook her head, her straight black hair shuffling forward over her shoulders, and smiled. "But remember, sobriety until the vows begins at daybreak."
Joxer nodded. "We remember, Priestess. I'm not interested in fathering two-headed gorgons."
Cat returned and passed around the drinks. Swallowing her water, Gabrielle laughed. "Two-headed gorgons?"
Leah puffed up importantly. "Hestia disdains overimbibing. She has been known to punish offenders by giving them wild, deformed children of satyrs to raise."
The bard swallowed another sip of water, and shook her head. "Okay," dubiously she drew the word out and exhaled.
In the stables, Xena quickly found where Argo had been quartered. Busying herself to rearrange things, Xena then turned to currying the mare's golden hide, and pulled a bristly brush through the off-white mane. The mare nudged her arm, and ducked her big head under the warrior's elbow. Obligingly Xena removed one hand from her mane and scratched under her chin. The horse blew a satisfied snort out her nostrils in a rush.
Xena laughed. "All right. Feeling a bit neglected, huh?" She nudged the mare's nose toward her belt pouch. "Wanna treat?" She lifted away the covering flap and withdrew a short, thick chunk of carrot. Smiling she held out her palm and watched as the mare stretched her neck muscles and extended her lips to retrieve the chunk.
The steady crunching of the fresh vegetable in the mare's grinding teeth was the only noise to break the silence, which suited Xena just fine. Her mind was quite content to mull over nothing, and everything, treating herself to a rare period of introspection. She was smoothing the coarse hairs of Argo's mane when she paused, resting her palm against the side of the golden mare's neck. "Who's there?"
"I'm sowwy to bother you."
Xena squared her shoulders and turned. "Hello, Priestess."
"If I may say, you don't seem vewy happy."
Without any inflection, Xena responded, "Thanks."
"Oh, I don' mean to make that sound negative. Hestia knows you'w a pretty douwah pewsonality to begin with." Xena pursed her lips and said nothing. "Gabrielle looks well." The warrior nodded. "I haven't had a chance to ask you about that."
Xena stiffened her back, and squared her jaw against a biting comment to the priestess to mind her own business.
"She looks none the wose for her awdeal."
"But, wawwioh, you look like you'w still lawst."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Priestess..." Her voice held a touch of warning.
"Oh, now, you have to face things, hmmm?"
Xena turned. "Do you have a point?"
"Where did you go?"
"I went looking for her."
"To the Land of the Dead if Joxer's t'be believed." The priestess crossed her arms over her chest.
Xena felt her hackles rise at the bite of censure she saw in those narrowing blue eyes. "Yes."
"Hadn't Gabwielle taught you enough about life?"
Xena pulled up stiffly, looking down her nose at the priestess, fighting the instinct to curl her lip into a snarl. Her voice was merely tight when she responded. "It's not your business."
Leah raised her eyebrow with an air of superior knowledge and said nothing. The Hestian turned on her heel and left the Warrior Princess to her thoughts.
Xena sank to a hay bale, running her fingers through her hair. She pulled her fingers free and studied them, shaking. Argo nudged her muzzle into the warrior's back and Xena dropped her head forward over her knees, bracing her elbows and crossing her hands over the back of her neck.
A candlemark later, having collected herself, Xena stepped back into the tavern. She found Gabrielle sitting at a table, facing the storytelling circle, a mug in her hand as she stared at the empty chairs. Xena looked around for Meg, finding the tavern owner mingling with some of her guests. Joxer stood at the end of the bar, arms crossed, laying one palm over the hilt of his sheathed sword. He was scanning the crowd periodically. He nodded to her when their eyes met.
Xena was relieved to find Leah not present. She wondered if the priestess was up in the second level, or had departed for her temple. Preferring not to bother figuring it out, she turned back to study Gabrielle's profile in the firelight.
Golden hair caught the flicker of flames, bursting out in red highlights. The shadows danced across her face giddily, which made the absence of a smile on her slender features stand out more obviously. Concern propel Xena forward.
The bard shifted her gaze slowly from the empty story circle up to Xena's face. She cleared her throat and tossed her head slightly, then asked, "Argo all settled for the night?"
"Um hmmm. Warm hay, cool water, and a bellyful of oats. What more could she want?" The warrior pulled out a chair and dropped onto its seat, reaching out a hand to cover Gabrielle's. "Did you have a nice chat with Meg and Joxer?"
The bard nodded. "Yeah." She looked from her mug to the story circle and then back at Xena's face. "They asked me to tell a story tonight."
It was Xena's turn to nod. "Yeah, Joxer asked me about it." Gabrielle's face took on a distinct cast of distress. Instinctively, Xena squeezed the hand under hers. "You don't have to if you don't want to."
"I know," Gabrielle replied quietly, looking away toward the circle. "I want to." She looked back up at Xena. "But I don't know what to tell." Xena pursed her lips against offering advice. This was Gabrielle's domain. She had no right... The silence lengthened and Gabrielle's shoulders dropped. "Well, I guess I'm going to turn in."
Xena nodded. "All right. Want me to come upstairs with you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "You don't have to." She stood.
Meg noticed the bard rising to her feet and quickly disengaged from the party of men she was involved in. "Gab?"
The bard turned quickly. "I'm tired. I'm going to turn in."
Meg looked to Xena, who shrugged from behind Gabrielle's back. "All right, then. I'll show you your room."
Xena walked up the stairs behind Meg and watched the bard's shoulders drop lower with every step. Xena realized Gabrielle was really bothered by her lack of storytelling. She resolved to at least consider a few suggestions, should Gabrielle ask. At the top of the stairs, as Meg went ahead, Gabrielle paused, her boot barely touching the landing.
Xena could see the shift in the bard's throat and before Gabrielle could turn around to find her, she stepped close enough to drop a hand to the small of the younger woman's back. Gabrielle's shoulders came back up a notch and she completed the steps, emerging onto the landing even as Meg turned around looking for them.
"Well, you two c'mon now." Meg put her hands on her hips and bestowed a great smile on Xena and Gabrielle. Bard and warrior followed her down the hall. When the tavern owner pushed open a door, Gabrielle entered, and Xena started in behind her.
Meg's hand on her arm gave her pause.
"Take care of her, Xena."
"I plan to," replied Xena without looking back. "See you in the morning."
Meg moved off, Xena watching her go. Then the warrior entered and closed the door.
Gabrielle had already settled to the end of the big feather bed, bending over to remove her boots. She was tugging the laces on her left boot loosening them. Without a word, Xena settled next to her and began her own undressing.
"You don't have to."
"I'm tired too."
Gabrielle sat up straight for a moment, one boot still on. "Xena..."
"You're coddling me."
"I'm not. I haven't said a thing."
"No. You haven't."
"You know me. The strong, silent type." Gabrielle's mouth creased into a very small, very endearing smile. Xena bent close and kissed the upturned corner, running a finger lightly over the down-turned side, coaxing it up as well. She smiled against the bard's soft lips, and deepened her kiss while gently circling her palm on Gabrielle's cheek.
Xena kept her hands to herself otherwise, until she felt the bard's small, tentative hands slide up against the skin just above her gambeson. Then she let her hand slip from soft cheek to the top of Gabrielle's shoulder, and brought her other hand up to the bard's near side.
"I missed you," she whispered softly. She felt Gabrielle's hand caress her cheek. She reached up and grasped the hand gently, pulling it down to receive kisses from her lips. She lifted her eyes to meet Gabrielle's gaze. The bard's eyes were worried, glistening with unshed tears. Xena lightly brushed her cheek again, loosening a tear and catching it as it rolled down her face.
"I'm so sorry," the bard said, her voice breaking.
"Shh," Xena laid her finger against Gabrielle's lips, effectively silencing her. "It's a mystery, yes. I don't know how you came back to me. I am just so happy that you did." She followed her words with a gentle kiss.
Gabrielle's hand returned to the skin above Xena's gambeson, and she whispered, "I need to feel us again."
Nodding, Xena pulled away long enough to slide her gambeson off her shoulders. Gabrielle's eyes watched her, green eyes glittering with golden fire. Then she swallowed and looked up into Xena's face. She reached out as the leather slid away and caressed the warm soft skin.
The touch was so gentle, so reminiscent of the bard's tentative touches of their first nights together, Xena found it easy to close her eyes and pretended it was their first time. Under her lips, the bard's moved with promise, warm and soft as the breeze on a summer's day. The kiss ended and Xena opened her eyes. Gabrielle had shed the remainder of her garments, Xena unaware of any moment when their hands or lips had ever been apart. One of Gabrielle's many skills, she mused with a smile.
"You are my heart," she murmured. "Please let me love you."
Gabrielle shyly looked up, obviously feeling the same sense of newness. "All right."
The words brought a smile to Xena's face, and Gabrielle's own soon answered it. They slid onto the bed and shed the rest of their clothes. Bodies entwined and though this was not the first time, Gods, Xena thought. It feels like it.
She worked to love every inch of Gabrielle's body, finding the younger woman's body tainted with the harsher signs of their life together marring her smooth porcelain skin. Small scars, a stretch mark here and there from her rapid pregnancy, scratches and old gouges on her arms and legs, evidence of her falls and terrors. Xena kissed at the corners of Gabrielle's eyes where they had begun to pinch from the sun's constant kisses. She traced her fingers over sleekly muscled thighs, kissing the bard's small instep and the soft, sensitive skin at the back of her knees.
Gabrielle whimpered, moaned and convulsed under the loving hands, feeling her heart and soul reawakening. Following the peak of fulfillment, as her mind drifted in the sea of sensation, her mind began to awaken again to the stories. The first vision of Xena, in that forest glade, swamped her again with as much emotion as the hours of lovemaking. "Xena," she whispered, as the warrior cradled her and they began to drift into sleep.
"Mmm?" the warrior murmured lazily nuzzling an ear.
"I love you."
The pair heard noise outside their room and paused, glancing toward the doorway. When the noise moved on past, they looked back at one another.
"Probably some patrons leaving," remarked Xena.
"Um hmmm," Gabrielle replied. Perversely she contemplated, "But wouldn't they be going the other way?"
"I suppose." At the same moment they both remembered what they were here in town for, and connected that to the low chuckles of feminine laughter and choked gurgling laugh of a certain inept warrior fellow. They both shook their heads to clear the image of Meg and Joxer, and turned their faces into the pillows. "Oh Gods," Xena groaned burying her face in Gabrielle's hair.
Gabrielle groaned as well. "Maybe we should go."
Xena murmured. "Good deed strikes again. I offered our services to watch over the inn while they go on their honeymoon."
Gabrielle's brow knit and she curled her lips in a sad expression. "You didn't."
Xena nodded into her pillow. "I did."
Shaking her head and laughing because she felt rather like crying, Gabrielle reasoned, "Then I suggest we get some sleep. We'll need our strength."
The two rolled over together, until Gabrielle's back was cradled against Xena's chest and stomach. The warrior wrapped her arms securely around the bard's middle, her cheek rested against the top of Gabrielle's head. She kissed the near earlobe, whispering, "Sleep well."
Priestess Leah knelt at ease on the dais at the altar to Hestia. Vestal robes, in an array of soft hues and fabrics cascaded from her shoulders to cover her body down to the simple leather soft-sole sandals on her feet. Head bent and eyes closed as she crossed her palms in front of her on the platters of food and swept her hands out over the sweet-smelling incense cups, she murmured prayers, requesting favor, love and provisions at the hands of her goddess.
"Sweetest Hestia," she whispered. "You have a knowledge of the frailties of mortals and love us still. You have a love of the struggle and a promise for those who succeed.
"Bless now the mortals I will join before you at sunset. Give them strength this day to follow your strictures." She glanced over her shoulder than returned to her position of obeisance. "That they may learn your love and protection is the only reality to which they need cleave." She touched her forehead, then her lips and finally her heart. With a glance up at the small statuette of woman and child, a depiction of Hestia and an orphan receiving a hug from the goddess. "All this we ask in your name." Slowly the priestess rolled to her feet and turned to the doorway. "Joxer. Meg," she called the marriage-bound couple forward.
The mystically identical Meg stepped forward first, fidgeting with the length of her diaphanous blue gown. Twice, as Leah watched, the bride-to-be tugged the gown off her shoulders. A step behind and to the tavern owner's right, Joxer kept adjusting his walk, first a purposeful step, then a swagger, then he seemed to settle for just putting his hand over the hilt of his weapon hanging at his belt.
"You have come today to ask me to forswear a union between you. According to Hestia, the great goddess of heart and home, you have fulfilled the requirements to arrive at this day." Meg and Joxer shifted on their feet and then looked at one another, nervousness evident. Finding relief in the other's gaze, they reached out and took each other's hand. "Tonight as the sun sets," Leah continued, "I will complete the journey according to Hestia's will. Go now and think on the blessings of the goddess for your life to come."
The two knelt at Leah's feet and she placed her hands on their left shoulders. Both looked up at her slight squeeze. She smiled and winked at them. The worry fled their faces and she gestured for them to stand as smiles spread across their expressions.
"Thanks, Leah," Joxer said, reaching out to take the priestess' hand. She shook it briefly and then shooed them with a quick shuffle of her hands in mid-air.
"C'mon Joxer, we've got plenty to do back at my place to get ready."
Joxer smiled, thinking about the abundance of food that would accompany the entertainment set for after the wedding. Several of Meg's employees had promised him they were going to have a great show of support for their employer's good fortune.
The market was full. The cacophony assaulted Xena's sensitive ears. Gabrielle had just ducked through a throng when Xena found herself wrapped up by an eager shopper, leading away a newly purchased pig.
"Come on," Gabrielle's voice drifted back. "Where'd you get off to this time?"
With a sigh, Xena kept smiling, all the while untangling the pig's leash line and trying to give it to the apologetic man. By the gods, she thought, I hope this finishes up soon. "Coming," she called out, knowing the bard could tell her voice from the rest of the crowd.
She caught up to the bard at a mintner's cart. Gabrielle was sniffing a small vial. From her position a full pace behind the blonde, Xena could tell the contents were curing spices. "I'm sure Meg has plenty of things for her kitchen," the warrior interjected.
"Oh, yeah." Gabrielle put the vial down quickly.
Xena chuckled and leaned close. In a low pitched voice only for her bard's ears, she asked, "You weren't thinking that was a body fragrance were you?"
Gabrielle's gaze darted upward and Xena rubbed her rapidly reddening cheek.
"Trust me. I love the way you smell."
"All right then. Do you have any ideas for Meg's present?"
"Get something for both of them," Xena said off-handedly. "It is their wedding after all."
"You're no help," the bard said with an exasperated sigh.
"Housewares are out. Delicate stuff seems kind of silly if we're getting it for both of them." Gabrielle continued ticking off all the inappropriate gifts. "Pigs," she gestured to the hog pen, "are out."
"You'd never get it back to the tavern unnoticed," Xena remarked.
Gabrielle gave Xena a mean look. "Okay, smartie princess. What would you give them?"
"We already are... A week away from the tavern."
Gabrielle sighed. "How very unexceptional, Xena."
"What? I thought it was a good idea."
"This is a wedding gift."
"I haven't mentioned payment once," Xena replied reasonably. She was having trouble keeping a straight face. It was so much fun drawing Gabrielle like this. The blonde was startlingly beautiful in her agitation.
Gabrielle caught the twinkle just before her companion burst into laughter. "Oooh, you're terrible." She playfully pushed the warrior's near shoulder. "Seriously. Did you have something in mind?"
"With all his newly acquired skills there's still one Joxer doesn't have," Xena mused. She steered Gabrielle away from the mintners and toward the other side of the market where the hardier goods were lined up. "I think a pair of wedding glasses would be perfect," she confessed. "As far as I know I've never seen Joxer blow glass."
Gabrielle marveled at the beauty of Xena's idea, and gushed even more over the delicate work of the glass blower. He finished selling a pair of lamp globes, but turned his ear attentively when Xena asked for a special order. Then she stepped aside and let Gabrielle open their money pouch to negotiate the price of two fine tube drinking glasses with the etchings: "Bride" and "Groom"
Continued in Part 2
Return to Main Page