Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
Violence: Were mixing Xena, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Octavian here. What do you think?
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: email@example.com
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." (Actually, "The Sixth Sense" falls between this story and "A Solstice Treaty," but Sixth Sense is a bit of graphic fluff. If you dont enjoy that sort of thing and prefer the PG-13 stuff, you can skip Sixth Sense, as it has absolutely nothing to do with plot. <G>) Ive taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, so you have been warned.
Gina Torres: Shes Hal on Cleopatra 2525 and she was Nebula on Hercules. For a visual, she was also Cleopatra on one of the more Xena-free episode of Xena ("King of Assassins").
CLEOPATRA 4 A.D.
(posted April 6, 2000)
"Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
Behold, I would wander far away,
I would lodge in the wilderness.
I would hasten to my place of refuge
From the stormy wind and tempest."
- Psalms 55:6-8, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.
It was, she reflected, one of those times when she wished she could take back her words. Well, I did say wed have to make the best of it, didnt I? She reached up and deftly pushed a soggy lock of hair out of her eyes and tugged at the edges of the oil-treated tarp they were huddled under, in a vain attempt to pull it even more tightly around their rain-drenched bodies. I never promised it would be fun. At least I dont think I did. She sputtered with disgust, as the bow of the boat rolled down hard, slicing through an uprising swell and sending yet another arc of cold salty water washing across her face with a powerful stinging slap . . .
So far, the journey to Egypt had been a complete bust. And after the week they had spent in the paradise of Zakynthos, the contrast was a shock that neither of their systems had been able to adjust to. The first bad omen had been at the docks at Pirgos. Xena had steered her boat into port a few candle marks before dusk, and had spent a short while talking to her cousin, getting caught up on family gossip, before shed reluctantly pulled out Octavians message to re-read it. The sealed piece of parchment had arrived by carrier pigeon on Zakynthos four days into their vacation. Things were just as they had heard. Mark Antony and Cleopatra had joined forces in an attempt to defeat Octavian and take over the entire Roman Empire. Octavian would need some time to move a large force of ground troops from Rome to Alexandria, so he would indeed need the warriors services in trying to persuade Cleopatra to re-consider her course of action. Hopefully by the time the troops arrived, they wouldnt even be needed. And if they were needed, well, theyd cross that bridge when they came to it.
Xena had walked the lengths of the time-worn wooden docks in Pirgos twice, trying to book passage for herself and the bard to Alexandria, but to no avail. Cleopatra had launched her navy onto the waters of the Mediterranean, and no passenger boats were being allowed entry into any of the Egyptian ports. Only trading vessels were permitted to cross the lines that her royal boats patrolled. After much haggling and many threats, the warrior had managed to find them a spot on a large Spartan trading vessel, whose main cargo were several herds of cattle and sheep. No food or water came with the booking, so shed sent Gabrielle on a hasty trip through the local market to buy provisions for their passage, while she had secured several skins of fresh water.
The vessel was slated to set sail at midnight, and they had boarded it well after dark. The warrior had taken a surreptitious look around at the crew of ruffians and thugs that were topside, noting the leers and whispers that followed them as they made a brief tour of the main deck. The Spartans may own this boat. She mused. But they sure didnt hire any of their own to work it. Musta stood outside the local prison and hired newly-released inmates as the crew on the cheap. Spartans were known for being the best-kempt and most-disciplined sailors on the sea, and these men were no Spartans. She made a quick decision to retreat immediately to their assigned quarters. Which turned out to be a very small berth a few decks below water level, with no portholes and only a short narrow bunk that was really designed for one person to sleep on. A small person. And to make matters worse, it was next to the stairwell that lead down to the cargo hold, and the smell of fresh heated cow manure and sheep dung wafted through the dank air to permeate their tiny nest.
While Xena studied the door to their quarters, trying to determine how best to secure it from intruders, Gabrielle tugged the linens off the bunk, raising a cloud of thick musty dust across the small space and sending both women into a fit of sneezing and coughing. "Gods." The bard rubbed her irritated eyes and sniffled. "I dont think that blanket has ever been washed. "Xena, this is disgusting."
"Yeah." The warrior could feel her grumpiest side emerging as she used the back of her hand to wipe away some grainy dust that had settled on her own sweat-covered cheek, and made a conscious effort to try to push the foul mood back down. "Well it could be worse." She opened the door for a brief moment to try and get some fresh air into the room to dispel the dust. As if fresh air were a commodity to be had this far down in the bowels of the ship.
"How?" Gabrielle placed both hands on her hips and tapped one foot. Her irritation rising in equal measure to her partners grumpiness.
Just at that moment, Xena spotted a medium-sized rat scurrying by in the passageway and quickly closed the door again lest her partner see it too. She shuddered internally and unconsciously rubbed her hand up and down against the prickles that rose on her arm, remembering a crawl through the drainage tunnels of Sisyphus castle, and an escape from a prison on Shark Island. Rats. I HATE Rats. "Well at least there arent any mice in here. And ..." She picked up the filthy blanket the bard had dropped to the floor and carefully inspected it. "... despite the dust, it doesnt appear that we have any lice to keep us company." She practically snarled as she flung the blanket into a corner.
"Oh. Well thats just great. Thanks for putting those thoughts into my head right before bedtime. Now Ill probably imagine things crawling on me all night long." The bard turned and marched all of the three steps it took to cross the tiny compartment, and leaned against the wall, slowly sliding down the rough wooden surface until she was crouching on the floor, her knees drawn up to her chest with her arms wrapped tightly around them. She laid her forehead down on the tops of her knees and a soft trembling sigh escaped from her lips.
"Hey." The warrior moved over and knelt down next to her partner, reaching out with a hesitant hand to stroke the pale blonde hair. "Im sorry."
A sniffle replied as Gabrielle buried her face even further down, drawing her forearms up on top of her knees.
"Gabrielle." Xena continued with the tentative strokes. "Every last one of my nerves is on edge, but its not because of you. This boat, that crew, they give me the heebie-jeebies. I know Im going to have to keep my guard up for our entire passage, and after the week we just had, Im a little out of practice."
"It was a nice week wasnt it?" The bard turned her head to one side, resting the side of her face on her arms, and exposing a tear-stained cheek to the warriors view.
"Are you kidding? It was the best week of my life." Xena brushed the tears away and ran her fingertips across her partners soft skin.
Gabrielle looked over at the narrow bunk and let out a wry chuckle. "Big difference from last night."
The warrior smiled. Was that just last night? It seemed like it had been a moon since their final evening on Zakynthos. They had decided to sleep on the beach in a secluded cove near the inn where they were staying. And they had ... well there just werent adequate words to describe what they had done. Made love with reckless abandon for the better part of the night? Yeah, but it was so much more than that. The things we did ... Xenas eyes closed for a moment, remembering a profound moment of closeness with her partner, and reaching levels of trust she had never experienced with anyone before. They had spent a lot of time immersed in each other during their week alone on the island, getting to know each other better than they ever had before on many different levels, and had come away much closer than they had been when they arrived. And that last night had been ... just ... "That was the second-best night of my life, love."
"Second best?" The bards voice held more than just a minor note of insecurity. "Wh ... what was the best?"
"The night I asked you to be joined with me." Xena's eyes sparkled as she tilted her partners chin and her thumb caressed her full lips.
"Oh." Gabrielle kissed the tip of the thumb. "Id say both nights were pretty incredible." The bard blushed at a few of her memories. "Xena, I love you."
"Love you too, sweetheart. More than ever." The warrior's fingers reached up and traced the pink path from the bards chin, across her jawline, and down her neck.
"Im sorry I got so bent out of shape. Im just scared." Gabrielle blinked, sending a final scattering of tears down her face. "I always get sick on boats, and this looks like just about the worst boat Ive ever been on. I think Cecrops boat was in better order than this one. At least it smelled better."
The warrior wrinkled her nose in sympathy. "If you think it smells bad here, you gotta feel sorry for the cows and sheep."
This finally elicited a genuine laugh from the bard, who leaned against Xenas side. "I guess sleeping top deck together isnt going to be an option, huh?"
Xena draped an arm loosely across her soulmates shoulders and pulled her into a warm side-hug. "Fraid not. If we tried it, we might end up being the evening entertainment. I think we need to keep to ourselves as much as possible on this trip. I dont like the looks of the other ... um ... passengers."
"Me neither." Gabrielle felt the boat swaying a bit more than it had been, and looked grimly at her partner. "Guess weve started to pull out of the slip."
"Yeah. Feels that way." The warrior stood up and moved over to the pile of bedroll, water skins, weapons, and bags theyd dropped next to the door. She picked up the bedroll and turned to study the tiny bunk that took up all of one wall of the room. "Tell you what." She inspected the straw mattress and decided that it was fairly clean before she unfurled their sleeping furs onto the bed. "Why dont you take the bed? Im gonna sit next to it on the floor where I can keep my eye on the door."
"Xena." The bard protested. "You cant go without sleep, love. We could just curl up real tight."
The warrior smiled. "Id love to curl up with you, but I have a feeling if I do I still wont get any sleep." She moved to the door and wedged the lone stool that was the only other piece of furniture in the room under the door knob. "That might slow someone down in trying to get in, but I dont think itll stop em. Not if they really want in."
"Well." Gabrielle stood up and moved in behind the warrior, wrapping her arms around her waist. "Thats true. But with your keen senses, youll hear them the minute they start trying to come in. If you keep your sword on the floor right next to the bed, youll be able to grab it before anyone could get break through. That way you could sleep in the bunk with me."
Hmmmmm. Xena cocked her head as she thought about that and then leaned back a little into her partner. "That might work." She turned in the bards arms and looked down into green eyes shiny from crying. "Means you have to sleep squished up next to the wall."
"Long as youre the one doing the squishing." Gabrielle stood up on tip-toes and kissed the warrior on the forehead, and laughed with delighted surprise as the warrior raised her head, meeting her lips and teasing them for a long moment before pulling her into a tight hug.
They had pulled out a knee-length sleep shirt for the bard, while Xena chose to sleep in her leathers, even refusing to take off her armor until Gabrielle pointed out that removing the armor gave them a few more inches of precious space. Once they had changed and washed their faces with a piece of linen and some of the fresh water from one of the skins, the bard plopped down on the bed while Xena went to blow out the one candle which rested in a sconce on the wall next to the door. She crept across the floor and sat down on the edge of the bunk before she laid down on her side. The warrior chuckled, as she realized they would have to literally curl up, as the bunk appeared to be a few inches shy of her six-foot length.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her partner, pulling her back against her stomach, and smiling as she heard Xena let out a contented sigh. The bard giggled. "Good thing youre not feeling frisky tonight. Theres no room to maneuver here, even if we wanted to."
"Gabrielle." The warriors voice was a low rumble against the bards body pressed against her. "I ... am ... tired. But you have no idea how creative I can be if the situation calls for it." Suddenly she rolled over so that they were facing each other, their legs tangled together and their eyes only separated by the length of their noses. She turned her face and laid a searing kiss on her partners lips while running one hand up and under the bards sleep shirt, not stopping until she had been rewarded with several tiny whimpers.
Xena smiled into the darkness and then turned back over until they were spooning again. She chuckled as she felt the small body at her back heaving slightly, as Gabrielles breathing returned to normal. "... but then, Im not feeling frisky tonight, so youll have to wait and see. Plus, I think Im going to have to invoke our rule on this boat. I think Id feel safer sleeping in the middle of an open field next to a blazing bonfire to attract everyone for leagues around than I do here."
"Wherever I am, as long as Im with you, I feel safe." The bard resumed their earlier position, placing a soft kiss on the warriors shoulder before she closed her eyes.
The warriors eyes popped wide open into the darkness, and she blinked for a moment before she felt the rocking of the boat and remembered where she was. What woke me up? She listened intently and heard only the water slapping the other side of the hull next to the bunk. The small body behind her stirred and she realized Gabrielle was making a vain attempt to crawl over her without disturbing her. "Whats wrong?"
"Oh. Xena. Sorry. I just .... I need to get up. Need ... pressure points." The bard felt her jaw clenching and then breathed an internal sigh of relief as she found herself sitting up with a strong pair of fingers gently working the pressure point on the inside of her wrist that helped control nausea. "Thank you."
"How long you been feeling sick?" The pale eyes regarded her sternly in the inky blackness.
"Not sure. Maybe a candle mark."
"Gabrielle." Xena admonished. "Next time just wake me up, okay? The sooner you start using the pressure points, the better."
"But you were sleeping so soundly. I felt bad. Youre usually such a light sleeper that I figured you must be really tired to be that far under." The bard bit her lower lip.
"Maybe." The warrior continued massaging the pressure point. "But I cant afford to be that far under here. Need to be more alert than that. Its too dangerous."
"Wish I could just go to sleep." Gabrielle looked across at her partner, barely able to make out Xenas features. "Xena. Could we go topside, just for a few minutes? I could use some fresh air."
"Well." The warrior picked up her partners hand and wrapped Gabrielles fingers around the bards own wrist. "Take over for a minute while I get my armor on."
"Does that mean ..?"
"Yeah." Xena was already buckling the last few buckles. She picked up her scabbard and strapped it on and then dropped the chakram onto its loop at her waist. "This might actually be the safest time to be up there. Crew's probably all asleep."
"Thank the gods." The bard stood and retrieved a cloak from their bags by feel alone, and tugged on her boots, dropping the sais into place on the outsides.
Xena moved the stool and opened the door, peering into the passageway in both directions before she took her partners hand and led her quietly through the dark maze and up the rusty stair rungs to the next deck. They maneuvered yet another passageway and another set of rungs and then emerged into a stiff salty breeze. The warrior looked around and was relieved to find no one else on deck except for a few sailors busy working the wenches, and the captain. She nodded at him and then steered her peaked partner over to the railing and looked up uneasily at a cloud-filled sky, that only allowed a few scattered stars to shine through. She turned her head back again toward the wheel where the ships captain was standing, one leg propped against a wooden crate while his hands made small idle turns, guiding the large rudder under the boat.
"Gabrielle. Lets go talk to the captain for a minute." She draped one arm protectively around the bards shoulders as they walked toward him.
They approached the portly man with cautious steps and the bard leaned into her partner as they walked, the wind blowing her cloak in swirls around her legs and whipping the warriors long tresses around in no particular direction. "Evening." Xena drawled unconsciously, in an effort to sound friendly.
"Aye. Evening to ya lasses." The captain reached up and politely tipped his hat.
"You expecting bad weather?" The warrior gestured up toward the main sail and the gaff-headed foresail in front of it, both of which were luffing swiftly in the breeze.
"Aye." The captain leaned over and spit tobacco juice into a small can, using his hand to block the wind less he splatter his company and possibly chase away a rare opportunity for late-night conversation. And with two attractive women at that. "Passed another cargo vessel bound back toward Greece bout a candle mark ago. They signaled theres some squalls up ahead."
"Figured." Xena looked around. "You the only captain on board?"
"Aye. That I am." The older man smiled, his face crinkling up beneath a long white beard. "I takes the helm at night and me first mate takes it during the day."
"Well." The warrior continued to drawl. "If you need any help, Im an experienced captain myself."
"Are ye then?" The captain appraised the leather-clad body before him with a chuckle. "Thought ye was probably more of a fighter, specially after the way ye bullied yerself onto me boat." The timbre of his voice held no malice, but more of a friendly teasing note.
"Sorry bout that." Xena softened her features. "I have an important mission to accomplish in Egypt. I was pretty desperate."
"What sort o mission?" A white bushy eyebrow raised in question.
"Thats where the fighting part might come in." The warrior flashed a feral smile.
"So yer a warrior and a lady o the sea." The captain returned the smile with a cheeky grin. "What else are ye good at?"
"I have many skills." Xena purred, raising a coy eyebrow in return.
"Do ye then?" The captain turned to look at Gabrielle. "And what does she do?"
"Her." The warrior winked at the captain. "Shes my first mate."
The captain winked back in understanding before he reached out with one arm. "Names Ronan, and ye would be?"
"Xena." The warrior grasped the offered forearm with a firm grip and drew her partner around a bit with the other. "And this would be Gabrielle."
Ronans brows furrowed. "The Xena? The warrior princess? That Xena?"
Xena sighed. "Yes. That Xena."
He regarded Gabrielle with a serious expression. "Then ye would be Gabrielle, the bard, aye?" The crinkly grin returned.
Huh? The bards eyes widened with surprise. Thats different. She was so used to people reacting to Xena while not having a clue who she herself was. "Um ... yes. I am." Gabrielle blushed while a bemused warrior looked on, enjoying the rare turning of tables as her partner experienced the reception she usually received everywhere they went.
"Aye. I heard some of yer stories from another bard. Said he studied at the academy in Athens while ye were there." Ronan tugged at his whiskers. "Good stories, they were. Bout your partner here, and about Hercules."
"Oh. And where did you hear those stories?" Gabrielle smiled, unconsciously squeezing her arm a little tighter around the warriors waist.
"Eire." Ronans eyes took on a dreamy faraway look. "Thats me home. Ive met Hercules, ye know. And that lady hes in love with."
"What?" Both warrior and bard spoke in unison. Gotta do some catching up with Herc. Xena mused.
"Aye. Pretty little thing. Feisty. And tiny. With short red hair and sparkling green eyes, kind o like yours, lass." The captain peered into the bards eyes. "Morrigan was her name. Hercules had been in Eire on some ... mission as ye call it. I was captaining the boat he took back to Greece. They were saying their goodbyes on the dock. Thought he was never going to let go o her, but he finally did. I think I actually saw him shed a wee tear as we pulled out of port. Then a few moons later, Morrigan boarded me boat bound for Greece. Not sure what happened to her after that."
Hmmmm. Definitely need to catch up with Herc. Glad he found someone after that whole mess with Serena. "So howd you end up running cargo to Egypt?" Xena tacitly changed the subject.
"Used to just run regular long passages between Greece, Gaul, Britannia, and Eire. Passengers, cargo, livestock, just anything to earn meself a dinar. Then I met some Spartans and they hired me to run cargo back and forth to Egypt. They owned the boat but were tired o keeping it up themselves, so I worked out a deal with them that earns me a lot more profit than the old gig did. Boats Spartan in name only. There be no Spartans on board this vessel."
"I see." The warrior nodded. Figured. "Well. Good evening to you. We just came up for some fresh air."
"Aye. And a good one to you lasses." Ronan tipped his hat again before bending over for another spit.
Warrior and bard made their way back to the railing, where after a half candle mark of the cool ocean air, Gabrielles stomach was feeling much more settled. Xena spent the time in pensive silence, eyeing the gathering clouds with a growing wariness that made the hair at the nape of her neck prickle and stand on end. She draped her arm more tightly around the bards shoulders, pulling Gabrielles cloak closely around her small body.
The bard felt the tension in her partners body and observed the tight set of the warriors features in profile. "Xena whats wrong?" Gabrielle still had her fingers pressed firmly against the pressure points.
"I dont like the looks of those clouds." The warrior rubbed her hand idly up and down the thick material against her partners arm. "Storms and sailing dont mix. Makes navigation damned near impossible, and ...." She trailed off as she saw the fear growing in Gabrielles eyes. The tsunami. Damned idiot. There you go scaring her to death. Cant believe either of us ever got on a boat again after living through that. She made a conscious effort to lighten her voice and attempted a half-smile. "But theres no need to worry. Just means the trip will take a little longer. Be a little more unpleasant. Well get to Egypt just fine, though. No problem."
"You're sure?" The bards voice trembled.
"Yeah." Xena looked around. "Hey. We could sleep the rest of the night up here. Crews below deck. Comeon." She tugged at her partners arm, dragging her toward the bow of the boat. The warrior poked around in the life boats that were lashed to the railing, retrieving a couple of cushions that served as flotation devices, along with a large oil-treated tarp. Little did she know the tarp would become their best friend over the next few days.
She led the way to the very front of the boat, where the bow came together in a v-shape, tossing the cushions down and gesturing toward the deck. "Your topside bed, your majesty, as requested."
Gabrielle smiled and plopped down on the hard wooden surface, resting her head on one of the cushions. "Join me?" She patted the other cushion.
Xena smiled a lopsided grin and removed her scabbard, laying it beside her as she stretched out next to her partner, drawing the tarp over them and tucking it under their bodies to keep the wind from blowing up under the edges. "Not as cushy as the furs, but your stomach will probably fare better."
"Oh yeah. For sure." The bard curled up against the warriors side, not even minding the imposing armor that pressed against her as she laid her head on her partners broad shoulder. "Down below, every time Id try to take those deep breaths to help settle my stomach, like you taught me, I kept getting a lung-full of air scented with cow and sheep manure. Defeated the purpose."
"Sorry this is so hard on you." The warrior kissed the fair head.
"Ill live. Its only a couple of days, right?"
Oh Tartarus. "In good weather, yes. If we get storms, well, it could be a bit longer." The warrior felt her muscles tense up again, anticipating her partners reaction.
She wasnt disappointed. Gabrielle sat straight up and turned, pinning her partner with a deadly stare and poking her in the cleavage just above the seam of her armor. "How ... much .... longer?!" Another poke for emphasis.
"Cant say for sure." The warrior gently grasped the finger, drawing it up and playfully nipping it between her teeth, and with relief, watched the bard smile in spite of herself. "Comere." She tugged Gabrielle back down next to her. "Lets get some sleep, okay?" Might be the last decent night we get for a while, she mused ruefully.
"Xena." The bard slowly laid her head back down against her human pillow. "Next time you need to take a boat, will you just tie me up so I cant follow?"
"Are you kidding me?" Xena chuckled. "And face your wrath when I get back? Oh no, my bard. I promised you Id never leave you behind again, and I dont break my promises. If you stay behind, its going to be of your own free will. Although tying you up could be kinda fun." Long fingers playfully tickled her partners middle.
"Hey!" The bard squirmed until the light touches ceased. "Thought you werent into that kind of thing."
"Said I wasnt into whips and chains." The low voice growled. "Im into pleasure, not pain."
"So being tied up can be pleasurable?" The blonde eyebrows furrowed in the darkness.
A deep throaty laugh was her answer, as the warrior lightly pecked her on the lips.
Hmm. Guess so. Maybe Ill find out someday. "Mmmmm." Gabrielle snuggled up . "Rockings not as bad up here."
"Thats because of the shape of the boat. Its more compact up here, and you just dont feel it as much as toward the back, or down below. In fact, the lower you go on a boat, the more you feel the rocking."
"Oh." The bard closed her eyes. "Goodnight, Xena."
"Night sweetheart." The warrior kissed the fair head one more time and grudgingly allowed herself to drift into a hazy twilight, somewhere between sleep and consciousness, part of her brain never completely shutting out the sensory input around them.
"Well, well. What have we here?" A loud gravely laugh rang out across the ships deck.
Xenas eyes flew open, and then immediately shut against the early morning sunlight. Damn. Musta fell asleep. She forced here eyes open again and looked up into the leering face of a burly sailor, his cheeks and chin covered with week-old black stubble, and his teeth, what few he had, an ugly shade of yellow.
"Hey fellas, we gots us a couple of cuties on board. Looks like we gonna have us a little fun." He shifted slightly, tilting his head to get a better angle on the still-slumbering bard. "Nice." He licked his lips as a bit of drool dribbled down his chin.
"Just like you better be." The warrior flung the tarp back and was on her feet in an instant, her sword drawn from the scabbard laying on the deck as she twirled it around a few times before assuming a defensive stance.
"Xena ... what ... oh." Gabrielle backed up as far as she could before standing and retrieving the sais where shed tucked them into the very bow of the boat lest they poke her partner while they slept. She also took up a defensive posture behind the warrior, her feet in a wide stance to keep her balance on the rocking boat, as her eyes warily watched Xenas back, waiting to see what would happen.
"Oh. You wanna fight before we have our fun. Okay." The sailor drew his own sword, a single-edged curved saber. "We can do that." He lunged forward, surprised at the strength in the warriors return-parlay, which forced him backward a bit into more open space.
"Fighting is how I have fun." Xena grinned evilly, forcing him back further and circling him, her sword drawn back and up, her other hand extended forward as she watched the remaining sailors that had gathered around in her peripheral vision, while still keeping her main focus on her attacker.
The sailor moved again, this time swinging low, and losing his balance as the warrior jumped over his blade and leaped up into a flip, flying over his head and landing behind him. He landed on his knees and turned around in swift surprise as Xena shook her head from side to side and laughed heartily from her gut. "Youre gonna have to do a whole lot better than that."
The stubbled face twisted into furious rage. "Help me out, boys!" He bellowed as he rose up, his red cheeks puffing out with his effort as he swung blindly, moving forward, while the other six or seven sailors joined in with swords, daggers, and clubs, or whatever else they could get their hands on in the way of a weapon. The warrior found herself surrounded, and looked up, grasping a rope hanging from the mast. She wrapped her hands around it and took flight, hanging on tightly and swinging around in a wide arc as she kicked and pummeled the angry mob, sending several of them flying out in all directions, their weapons skidding across the deck as their bodies landed hard on the wooden planks.
Her main attacker returned with a vengeance, and she lit into him, forcing him back and around the deck as she went on the offensive, striking with clean precise blows born of years of drilling, making up every imaginary scenario in her head as she practiced, so that when reality hit, she would be ready for anything. She laughed again, obviously enjoying herself, and looked over to see her partner easily fending off another attacker with her sais, striking back so quickly that the small dagger-like weapons were a blur in the bards hands. Thats my girl.
Xena smiled and re-focused, realizing that one of the recovered sailors was coming at her from the side. Without missing a step, she tucked into a low roll, just as he lunged at her, and he went sailing over her back and then over the railing, landing with a loud splash in the water below. The warrior rolled her eyes. "Man overboard!" Her voice rang out as she continued her attack. As she dipped and swayed, turned and kicked, sliced and punched, she found herself one-by-one taking on the sailors she had fended off earlier from her sides, as she continued to fight with the large man who had started the whole thing.
As she turned again, she could still hear the swift metallic strikes of Gabrielles sais as she fought her opponent, who was attacking the bard with a small saber. Xena turned to plant a round-house kick in her own attackers gut and looked across to see another sailor perilously close to her partner, sneaking up on the bard behind her back with a vicious-looking serrated dagger in his hand. With horror, the warrior realized that the bard was so intent on the man in front of her that she had no idea she was about to be attacked from behind. In a split second, Xena planted her kick in her own attackers groin, and at the same time removed her chakram and let it fly, cleanly slicing the head off the man behind Gabrielle, sending a shower of warm blood spraying across her surprised partner and the man she was fighting with.
Gabrielle shrieked as she felt the warm sticky substance hit her back and shoulders, and the boat shifted, sending the decapitated head rolling between her legs where it came to a stop with a squishy sickening thunk at the feet of the man who was attacking her. He looked down, let out a shriek of his own, and then fainted in a heap. His sword fell with a clatter to the deck and then skittered across the weathered wooden planks until it was stopped by the side of the boat.
The other sailors looked over at their dead friend and slowly, one by one, they began to lower their weapons and back off until only the original attacker was left. He continued to try to take on the warrior, who decided she had had enough of the whole thing. She launched into an advanced set of offensive challenges and finally managed to fake the sailor out, ducking below his blade and going to her knee. She swung her sword up over her shoulder with all her strength as he completed his arc, knocking the weapon up and toward his own body, causing him to twist his arm and forcing him to let go or else slice himself with his own blade. The saber flew through the air, becoming an offering to Poseidon.
Xena stood up, and this time there was no smile on her face. She moved slowly forward, taunting the large sailor with the point of her sword as she waggled it in front of his face. "Had enough, or do you want to end up like your friend over there?" The warrior inclined her head toward the front part of the deck, which was now liberally awash with drying blood.
"Pl ... please. N .... no. I .... I never meant no harm. Honest." The terrified man dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in front of his chest. "Just wanted a little fun, thats all." The stubbled chin quivered in fear.
"You know." Xena leaned down until her face was inches from the sailors, and smelling his breath, thought better of it and pulled back. She poked him in the gut with her sword tip, just enough to apply a little pressure. "Its not fun unless everyone involved in the game wants to play. Now ..." She turned and made a slow circle, pinning each of the onlookers with a lethal gaze, her lip curling up in a snarl. "... my partner and I dont intend to play any games with any of you ... or otherwise be involved with any of your filthy stinking hides. So ... you have two choices. Leave us alone, or go the way of your comrade over there. Ya got me?"
A chorus of mutely nodding heads affirmed that the sailors understood, as most of them suddenly found reasons to move toward the back of the boat or go below deck. The warrior sighed in silent relief as she allowed herself to relax just a little. She made her way back to the front of the boat and retrieved her scabbard, attaching it to her back before sliding her sword back into it. From there she mutely moved toward a life boat, where the chakram had embedded itself, splintering the wood and splitting it all the way from one end of the small craft to the other. With a tug and a grunt, she yanked the weapon out of the weathered hull and absently wiped the blood off of it on a piece of rag that was inside the life boat.
Rather than replacing the weapon back at her side, she shuffled toward the railing, leaning with one foot against it while she rested her weight forward on her forearms, studying the chakram as she held it in both hands. She idly turned it over and over and felt a small hand come to rest on her shoulder. Without thinking, she shied away from the touch and immediately regretted it. "Sorry." She couldnt bring herself to look into the green eyes. Not yet.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and pushed down the hurt that small action had caused. Its not you. "You okay?" Her first kill since ..."
"That lifeboat was the only thing between this and the sea." Xena continued to look down at the shiny object. "Glad it was there. Id hate to lose this."
"Youd have gone in after it." The bard smiled a small timid grin as she looked up at the tormented profile.
"Yeah." The warrior finally turned and looked over Gabrielles shoulder out to the water. "Guess I would have." She let out a breath that contained a hint of a brief chuckle before she forced herself to look at her partners face. Which was splattered with blood. "Hey. Lets get a bucket of water and get you cleaned up." She started to move away and felt herself stopped by the same small hand on her arm. This time she didnt cringe.
"Xena. You saved my life. Theres no need to feel bad about that." The bard tentatively stroked the firm biceps she held on to.
The warrior looked down at her feet and leaned back against the rail again, replacing the chakram in the process. "Thats just it." She quickly glanced at her partners concerned face before looking away again. "I dont feel bad at all."
Okay. Gabrielles mental wheels began to spin. "Yes you do."
"I dont." Xenas voice was stubborn.
"Yes. You do. You feel bad that you dont feel bad." The bard continued with the light movement of her fingertips against the warriors downy skin.
Huh? Gods. Shes right. Xena placed her head in her upraised hands.
"Xena. You think I expect you to feel guilty or bad about killing that man, dont you?"
A silent nod of acknowledgment from the dark head, that was still cradled in the long fingers.
"Well I dont." Gabrielle smiled as the blue eyes timidly looked around and up at her.
"You dont?" One black eyebrow arched in disbelief.
"No. If you had killed him in cold blood, yes. But I know you." The bard reached out and cupped a chiseled cheek in one hand, rubbing her thumb back and forth on the tanned skin. "Even in the middle of your own fight you were looking out for me. And despite that, you looked up, saw me in danger, assessed the situation, and you threw that chakram, knowing that your only clear shot was his neck, because if you had tried to hit him anywhere else, you might have hit me. And if you hadnt killed him, he probably would have killed me. Am I right?"
Xenas eyes squinted as she replayed the scene in her head and suddenly a genuine smile crossed her face. "Yeah. Thats exactly what happened."
"Then you shouldnt feel bad about that, and I dont expect you to. On the contrary. Im grateful you took him out. I might not be here if you hadnt." She leaned in and pecked the warriors forehead. "Come here." She took one of the large hands and dragged her soulmate back to the very front of the boat where they had slept, tugging at her until they were both seated side by side, their legs stretched out in front of them as they leaned back against the hull with their shoulders touching.
The warrior briefly looked up and noted that the sailors were busy swabbing the deck, while one of them ceremoniously dumped the headless body over the rail before gingerly tossing the head after it. Uggh. "Glad weve escaped clean-up duty."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Yeah. Xena." The bard intertwined her fingers with those of her tall dour partner. "When we died, that was a profound experience. And it changed us some. Like this." She smiled and held up their clasped hands before dropping them down between them again. "And like the fact that on some level, Im not afraid to die anymore because I know what to expect. Except that I wouldnt want to leave you behind. Or be left behind." She smiled again.
"Me neither." The warrior squeezed the small hand she held.
The bard squeezed back. "But there are some things that didnt change. You and I are basically the same people we were before. Youre still a warrior. And Im still a bard. You didnt feel bad about the unavoidable kills before, and you shouldnt beat yourself up that that hasnt changed. You once told me that as a warrior, if you didnt take the necessary kills when they presented themselves, then you needed to find something else to do. Do you want to quit being a warrior?"
"Um ... no. I still think thats an integral part of my path in this life." Xena looked over at her partner. "Its a second life, I guess, but I feel like its just a continuation of the other life, so my path should be essentially the same. Except that my primary path is you now. The warrior path is secondary. But sometimes they kind of go together."
"Then be a warrior, Xena." Gabrielle lifted their hands and placed tiny kisses on her partners battle-scarred knuckles. "And be my lover. Because I fell in love with you. And with everything that you are. So if you are a warrior, I love you. And if the day comes when you lay down your sword, Ill still love you."
Xena leaned down and kissed the shoulder against hers. Her heart suddenly felt lighter, redeemed once again in a way that only her soulmate could accomplish. "I love you." She sat back and appraised her partners still-blood spattered form. "Now. Lets get you cleaned up." She stood and offered her partner a hand up. The warrior retrieved a bucket attached to a rope and tossed it over the side, filling it with salty sea water and hauling it back up. She found some relatively clean rags in one of the life boats and made quick work of scrubbing the dried blood off the exposed parts of the bards back, shoulders, arms, face, and legs. She stepped back.
"I think that tunic is history. Well have to go below and change your clothes. Dont know what we can do about your hair unless you want me to dump this bucket over your head. We may have to wait until we can take a real bath." At just that moment, a loud clap of thunder rolled across the sky followed by several streaks of lightening that spider-webbed through the clouds. The skies opened up, and they suddenly found themselves in a torrential downpour. "Guess your gonna get a shower after all."
"Hey." The bard looked down and realized her sleep shirt was fast becoming soaked. And translucent. "I think we need to go get me changed. Quick."
"I dont know." Xena cocked her head as a sexy little grin played at her lips. "A few more minutes and I think Im gonna be enjoying the scenery around here a whole lot more."
"Maybe so." Gabrielle smiled coyly. "But so will they." She inclined her head over her shoulder toward the motley crew they had so recently fought.
"Good point." The warrior bent down and picked up her partners cloak from the bench where theyd laid it the night before. "Here. Put this on."
"Afraid those sailors are gonna get an eyeful when we walk by?" The bard giggled.
"Told you. I dont like to share. Not even the view I enjoy so much when were alone." Xena tucked the cloak around her soulmate and wrapped a protective arm around her, steering her toward the stairwell that led down to the lower deck area, and helping the bard balance as they walked on the now slippery deck, which was also pitching up and down quite a bit more than it had previously, and guiding them down the slick metal rungs to the blackness below.
When they reached their berth, the warrior opened the door and peered inside first, to make sure no one had invaded their space in their absence. She stepped inside and the bard followed, shedding her cloak and her rain-soaked shirt as soon as the door was closed. Gabrielle made her way to their bags and pulled out a small towel and began to dry off her wet body. And found herself enveloped from behind by long arms and hands that began a leisurely exploration of her bare midsection while the warrior nipped and kissed the back of her neck.
"Mmmmm." The bard closed her eyes and leaned back, frowning as she felt cold armor pressing against her shoulder blades. She turned around and reached up to unbuckle the armor, waiting for Xena to invoke her rule. The warriors hands continued to wander and tease the naked skin in front of her as Gabrielle removed the armor and then unlaced the leathers and peeled them down. She smiled and then buried herself against the tall muscular body, inhaling deeply of the leathery spicy scent that was Xena. "You suspending your rule?"
After they had become physically intimate, early in their relationship, the warrior had decided that in potentially dangerous situations, they could make love, but only Gabrielle could get naked, and basically, only Gabrielle could be the recipient of most of the activity. Xena reasoned that if they did get attacked during a compromising situation, that if she at least were dressed and had her senses reasonably about her, she would be able to protect both of them. The bard sometimes tried to push the limits on that rule, but so far, the warrior had held firmly to it.
"Well." Xena ran her hands lightly up and down the smooth muscular back as she ducked her head and nipped a convenient earlobe. "I figure after the demonstration we just put on topside, theyll probably leave us alone for a while." The warrior reached down and behind her partner, grabbing their bedroll off the tiny bunk and tossing it to the floor.
"Not going to show me how creative you can be in that little bed, huh?" The bard teased as she tasted a salty expanse of warrior shoulder, and then moved up, sharing a long exploratory kiss with her partner.
"No." Xenas voice vibrated low in her chest. "Im going to show you how creative I can be on the floor of a rocking boat." The bard gasped as a strong thigh slid between her legs, and the warrior urged her down to the bedroll. "Youve never made love on a boat, have you Gabrielle?"
"Um .... no." The bards voice squeaked as she sank back into the soft nest and her partners lips closed around a particularly sensitive spot.
"Its ... um ...." Xena laughed sensually as she wrapped her arms around her partner and kissed her way down Gabrielles middle, feeling the bards firm stomach muscles contract at her touch. "... one of those pleasure-enhancing things we talked about back in the cave. Something about the motion of the boat."
"I ... see." The bard sighed and then shivered, as the warrior went to work, and soon more than the boat was rocking.
It would be their last enjoyable moment until they reached Egypt.
Xena woke up in a pleasant tangle of bodies and limbs. She smiled and kissed the bare shoulder that was pressed against her chest, and the bard murmured incoherently in her sleep, nestling closer against the warriors long frame. Xena extended her senses and then frowned as she realized how much the boats rocking motion had increased since they had gone below. She carefully unwrapped her arms and legs from around her partners body and rose to her knees, taking a moment to steady herself and then decided she should try to get most of her dressing done before standing up.
"Hey." Two green eyes slowly opened and Gabrielle turned around and sat up. "Whoa!" She laid back down just as the boat lurched roughly to one side, and her eyes grew wide with fear. "Xena ... whats going on?"
"Shhhh." The warrior reached down, gently rubbing the blonde head in a comforting motion. "Storms gotten a little worse, thats all." Xena sat back, tugging on her boots and fastening her leg armor behind her knees before she stood and buckled on her scabbard with one hand while she held onto the bunk with the other to keep her balance. "Get dressed as best you can. Im going up top to check things out and then Ill be right back. Um .... put on something more substantial than just a tunic, in case we have to make a quick escape or anything."
The bard nodded in mute understanding and sat up, reaching for their bags and feeling a familiar clenching in her stomach. "Xena."
"Yes?" The warrior was picking her way carefully toward the door of the cabin.
"If you can find one, better bring back some kind of basin."
"Huh?" Xena studied the bards face, and realized it had taken on a slightly ashen green tinge. "Oh. Use the pressure points. And stay put til I get back. Here." She tossed the sais over on the bedroll next to her partner. "Use em if you have to."
"Okay." Gabrielle looked up and bit her lip. "Xena. Be careful."
"Always." The warrior smiled and then disappeared, closing the door firmly behind her.
It took a while to get to the top deck, as Xena found herself propelled from one side of the narrow passage to the other, until she fell into the rhythm of the rocking vessel, lightly pushing off one wall and then the other until she reached the last set of rungs she had to climb to reach daylight. What little she could see pouring through the small porthole above her, that is. She grasped the first rung at chest level as she tentatively placed her foot in the lowest one, and felt stinging spray hit her face.
She emerged top side to find the upper deck awash in heavy salt-tinged rain, the waves all around the boat rolling in two to four meter swells. Sailors had lashed themselves at various stations across the deck, working wenches, blocks, and sheets*, as the captain continually barked out orders to tack or jibe, as he attempted to maintain a close-haul to the continually changing wind direction. The first mate had bravely climbed up to the crows nest where he was buckled into a harness, looking out across the dark churning water for any potential danger or obstacles.
The warrior managed a small inward smile, even in the face of danger. At least Ronan seems to know what hes doing. She moved toward the center of the boat, hitting the deck as the captains voice shouted out the order to tack, and the large boom of the foresail swung around mere inches from her head. Xena crept the rest of the way to the wheel on all-fours until it was safe, and she stood up next to the captain. "Hows it going?" She squinted into the driving rain that pelted her face.
"Aye. Ive seen better." Ronan turned and smiled. "But Ive seen much worse too, lass." He deftly turned the large wheel. "Tack!" Sailors scrambled to action at the firm command.
"Any idea where we are?" Xena shuddered, remembering days of wandering aimlessly through storms on her own boat, ending up leagues from where she wanted to be when she could finally see the sun or stars again to navigate by.
Ronan smiled a broad toothy grin, spitting away from the warrior, not even bothering with a can in the strong wind and rain. He turned back. "Aye. Gots me a new toy." He gestured toward a large round brass instrument that was lashed onto a small platform near the wheel.
The warrior moved over, holding onto a nearby pole for balance as she peered down at the interesting novelty. The top was round and flat, covered with clear glass. She brushed away a coating of raindrops and saw a tiny dial turning back forth slightly on its face. The dial had a pointed arrow on one end and the face had various letters painted onto its surface. "Whats that?" A curious black eyebrow quirked in question.
"They calls it a compass." The captain turned the wheel again. "Picked it up in Egypt a while back. See the tiny arrow?"
"Yeah?" Xena studied the face of the instrument again.
"Always points north."
"Really." The warrior was intrigued. "How?"
"Dont know exactly how it works, but it hasnt failed me yet." The smile grew wider. "It has some kind of charged metal inside it that draws the arrow toward the north. I dont likes to depend on a machine, and Ill take the sun and stars when I have a choice, but Ive been glad to have that there little gem a few times, I can tell ye that fer sure."
"Wow." Xena continued to study the instrument for several long moments. Gotta get me one of these. She stood up tall again, continuing to balance against the pole. "Any idea if this is gonna get worse, or how long its gonna last?"
"No, lass." Ronan spit again. "We havent passed any other vessels since the one that signaled me last night. But its been bout the same for over a candle mark. No worse, no better. Best get yerself below and stay outta this nasty mess."
"Yeah." The warrior turned and paused. "Dont forget. If you need an extra pair of hands, you know where to find me."
"Aye. Gotcha lass. Go take care o yer pretty little friend. Ill get ye if we need ye." The captain winked and then rose up and bellowed. "Tack!"
Xena looked around in a few cabins below deck, and found a bucket in a utility closet. Still going with the motion of the boat, she made her way slowly back to their berth and opened the small door to find her partner dressed in her light leather armor and curled up in a tight ball on the bunk, her eyes closed and her hand fiercely squeezing the pressure point on her wrist, while her knees were drawn up firmly against her chest.
"Hey." The warrior quickly knelt down beside the bunk and wiped a few beads of sweat from the bards brow.
The blonde eyelashes fluttered open. "Gods."
"Here. Found this in case you need it." Xena set the bucket down on the floor next to the bunk and then sat down on the edge, pulling the small body around until Gabrielles head was in her lap. She brushed the bards hand away from the pressure point and took over the job herself, while she slowly riffled her fingers through the short blonde hair with her other hand. "Not doing so good, huh?"
"Um ..." The bard winced as another wave of nausea rolled through her gut. "No." She let out a long breath as the wave passed.
Xena leaned over and picked up a water skin from a peg on the wall where shed hung it the night before. "Can you drink a little? The fresh water might make you feel better."
Gabrielle meekly drank a few sips from the skin as the warrior held the spout against her lips. "Ugh." Her stomach rebelled and she swallowed several times, keeping the water down by sheer will power alone. "What time is it?"
"Not sure. Hard to tell with no sun. It feels like its about noon or so." Xena suddenly realized that they hadnt eaten since before they boarded the boat the previous night. Meant to get something in her stomach when we came below after the fight. Damn. Got distracted. "Gabrielle. Sweetheart. Do you think you could try to eat a trail bar?"
The bards face grew white as a banshee just at the mere thought, and her stomach heaved a bit.
"Okay." The warrior could see her partners reaction. "You need to try to eat in a little while, though. Weve talked about dry heaves before, and believe me, theyre not any fun."
"Xena." Gabrielles voice was barely audible. "I can try, but its not going to stay down, I can tell you that right now."
Xena sighed and sat back until her shoulders were leaning against the hull wall, carefully rearranging the bards body so that her head was still resting in the warriors lap. She continued working the pressure point and the light stroking against Gabrielles head, in hopes that maybe her partner would fall asleep.
It was well after dark when the warrior finally admitted defeat. She had tried to no avail to get Gabrielle to eat. She herself had changed into a dry tunic, and had consumed three trail bars and half a water skin, while the bard had managed only ten or twelve sips of water during the time that had elapsed. Xena was afraid if the bard didnt eat something, she was going to get a more long-lasting sickness from weakness and dehydration, combined with the sea-sickness. To make matters worse, Gabrielle hadnt slept any more, and they had passed the time in short snippets of quiet conversation mixed with longer spans of time in which Xena watched helplessly while the bard fought with her convulsing stomach. She hadnt thrown up, which was good, but she was still feeling miserable.
"Gabrielle." The warrior ran her hand softly up and down the bards well-defined arm. "If you had a choice between feeling like you do right now, and being cold and wet, which would you choose?"
The bard rolled onto her back, her head still pillowed on her partners thigh, and peered up into the pale blue eyes with confusion. Thats a weird question. "Cold and wet."
"Thats what I figured." Xena carefully scooted around and off the bunk, replacing a pillow under the bards head for her leg. "Heres what were gonna do. Remember where we slept last night?"
"Uh-huh." Gabrielle rolled onto her side and watched her tall partner, as the warrior began to don her still-damp leathers and armor, followed by her boots and weapons. "Xena. You shouldnt put those back on until theyre dry."
"Where were going, its not going to matter." The warrior attempted a half-hearted smile as she dug around in their bags, tossing a few things aside until she found a small belt pouch, which she filled with trail bars and attached to her leathers at her waist. She slung a full water skin over her shoulder and then retrieved her and the bards cloaks.
"Xena. What in the name of Artemis are you doing?" Gabrielle was quite certain the warrior had lost her mind. "Are you telling me youre going topside again? I can tell just by the feel of the boat that its still storming."
"I know. And we are going top side." The warrior moved over and knelt down next to the bunk, resting a hand against her partners forehead. "Gabrielle. I think youll do a whole lot better up there. We can go back up to the bow where the motion is least felt. Well probably get soaked, but lets try it for at least a little while, to see if you can get some food down. Comeon. Lets get your boots and cloak on."
After a bit of protest, the bard complied and they were soon moving cautiously down the dark passageway, the warrior supporting her puny partner as the boat lurched and rolled. When they got to the upper deck, Xena insisted that they practically crawl to the bow, fearful that Gabrielle might lose her footing and fall overboard. A few sailors looked at them, sure they had gone mad, but left them alone, as they were too busy working the ship. Once they reached the bow, the warrior used some sturdy rope to lash them against the hull in the v-shaped space, tying the rope off on some cleats designed for that purpose. She made sure both of their cloaks were snugly in place and then she pulled the oil-treated tarp over and around both of them to keep as much water out as possible.
They sat huddled together that way for what seemed like a life-time, but which in reality was only a few candle marks, and finally Gabrielle felt her stomach ease. "Xena." The bard reached over, fumbling at the warriors waist. "I think I can try one of those trail bars now."
"Good girl." Xena dug into the pouch and pulled one out, unwrapping it from the wax-treated parchment she had packed it in, and handed it over. They were completely covered with the tarp, only a small hole open near their faces so they could see out and breath. The warrior was sure it was after midnight, and surprisingly, they were staying mostly dry. Shed had the foresight to toss some of the flotation cushions down for them to sit on, so that even their backsides stayed relatively dry. Only their feet poked out a bit and were getting wet as waves washed over the bow every now and then.
The bard munched silently on the trail bar, a home-made mixture of raw grains, nuts, and raisins held together with a glaze of honey mixed with wheat germ that hardened to hold the bar in shape. She sighed with contentment as the much-needed food began to ease some of the weak feeling in her body. After a while she finished it, and snuggled up with her head against Xenas chest, her arms wrapped around the warriors waist.
Her breathing deepened and Xena realized her partner had finally managed to fall asleep. She chuckled to herself. Only Gabrielle could sleep through a storm like this. The warrior hunkered down, holding the bard securely against her body, and tried to doze off herself. After about a candle mark, she acknowledged that sleep was not going to be an option, and she kissed the pale head before resting her cheek against it, allowing herself to at least soak in the warmth and closeness she felt from her partner.
They tried several times to move back to their cabin, and each time, the bard threw up any food she had managed to consume top side. The warrior finally gave in, and they spent the next two days and nights camping out in the bow of the ship, as the storm continued to blow with relentless fury. They were somewhat wet and somewhat cold, but at least Gabrielle didnt feel sick as long as they stayed up there. Xena occasionally left their soggy nest to talk with the captain and to help out as needed, always returning after a while to share her body heat with her partner lest the bard catch the coughing sickness from being too cold.
. . . and now here they were. Xena had started to wonder if Poseidon was getting her back for helping Cecrops to outsmart him. She puzzled over that and then wondered if Poseidon were simply getting her back for outsmarting him during the tsunami when they had rescued Autolycus from incarceration. Maybe that was my time and Poseidon is mad cause I managed to get out of it. Or maybe hes angry that I helped Ulysses escape the sirens. Maybe thats why this storm wont go away.
"Xena." A small hand made light circles against the warriors toned stomach. "Im sorry youre having to go through all of this because of me."
"Its okay." Xena stroked her partners back. "Ive had worse." The boat slammed down hard again, and a large wave washed over them. The warrior spit out a mouthful of sea water and groaned and looked down. "You okay?"
"Dry as can be expected." The bard was completely under the tarp, practically curled up in Xenas lap, and the taller woman was taking the brunt of the rain and waves as they hit.
A long scream followed by a splash interrupted their solemn thoughts. "Man overboard!" The cry carried toward them on the wind, and reached the warriors keen ears quite clearly, while the bard heard it as a more muffled sound from under the tarp.
"Be right back." A firm hand wrapped around Xenas wrist as she attempted to sit up.
"Xena. Dont you dare go in the water after whoever that was, please?" The bards tone took on a pleading note. "Please."
"But Gabrielle. I ..."
"You promised me. The greater good has changed. Remember?" The hand tightened its grip and shook the warriors arm.
"Yeah. I remember." Xena knew it would be madness to dive into the waves, which were still rolling under them in two-meter swells. Whoever had fallen in was probably already dead. "Let me at least go see what happened. Ill be right back. I promise." The warrior kissed the pale head and got up, careful to tuck the tarp around her partner to keep her dry while she was gone.
She made her way back toward the wheel, where the captain had been steering the boat for most of the three days the storm had raged. "Get up there you yellow-bellied coward!" Ronan was yelling in the face of a rather large sailor, who was looking up at the crows nest as his knees visibly shook.
"No sir, capain. Ye can just leave me in Egypt if ye want, but I am not going up there."
The warrior held onto a pole and looked up at the empty crows nest. "Wheres your first mate?" She peered over at the weary captain, whose face was lined deeply with strain and loss of sleep.
"Damned fool undid his harness to come down to get some food. Wouldnt wait until we could send somethin up to im in a bucket. Lost his footing and fell over. Hes gone. No way we coulda rescued him in this mess." Ronan gestured up at the sky. "Now I cant get none o these sissies to go up there an take his place."
Xena studied the crows nest for a long moment. She understood their peril. Without a lookout, they could crash into other boats or rocks. Visibility was too limited for the captain to see trouble from deck level in time enough to steer clear of it. She turned back and looked at the worried man. "Ill go up there."
"Thank the gods." Ronan scowled at his crew. "See there. Womans braver than the lot o you put together. Ye should be ashamed of yerselves." He spat out a large wad of tobacco juice for emphasis, barely missing the feet of the nearest sailor.
"Yeah. But shes not like most women." A muffled comment from one of the sailors, heard only by Xena, who grinned briefly.
"Let me go talk to Gabrielle for a minute and then Ill go up." The warrior carefully made her way back to the bow of the boat, picking her way from one hand-hold to the next until she knelt down next to her huddled partner.
"Gabrielle." A small face appeared in the opening of the tarp. "The first mate fell out of the crows nest. Hes the one we heard go overboard. No one else will go up there, so Im going to."
"No." The bards chin jutted out defiantly.
"Gabrielle. I have to." The warrior looked down at the deck, unwilling to face the stubborn green eyes.
"No. You could fall down and die. And by the gods Xena, you are not going to die and leave me here on this gods-forsaken boat without you." Too late. The eyes had made contact.
Xena felt her defenses lower a bit, and tried to steel herself for something she knew she had to do. "But Gabrielle. Sweetheart." The warrior laid a hand on the outside of the tarp on what she guessed was her partners shoulder. "I dont have a choice. If I dont go up there we might crash and die anyway. I have to."
The tarp flew back and the bard rose to her knees, untying the rope she was lashed with, and was quickly as soaked as her tall partner.
"What in blazes are you doing?" Xena scrambled around, trying to pull the tarp back around the bard, only to have her hands slapped away.
"Im going with you." The bards face took on a hard expression. One the warrior recognized as a defiance there was no arguing with.
"No. Its too dangerous." Blue eyes flashed in anger.
"If its too dangerous for me, its too dangerous for you." Green eyes flashed with an equal measure of anger.
They waged a silent battle of wills before Xena simply rose up and stalked toward the main mast. And found herself followed by her stubborn partner, who had half-walked, half-crawled her way over the slippery deck behind the warrior. "Gabrielle. I ... am ... going ... up. And ... you ... are ... not. Now you get your stubborn wet butt back over to the bow right now before I spank you right here in front of everyone." The warrior pushed a lock of wet hair out of her face and laid a firm hand on the bards shoulder.
The bard turned, careful to keep one hand on the mast for support, until her back was to her partner. "Go ahead." She wiggled her rear-end. "Get it over with cause Im not going anywhere but up that mast with you."
Xena couldnt help but laugh before she quickly bit off her amusement. "Fine." Gods she is more relentless than Hera in pursuit of Hercules. She gave a stinging slap to the leather-clad backside offered to her before she proceeded to wrap a sturdy rope around her partners slim waist.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle jumped. "That hurt. Oh ..." The bard realized what the warrior was doing. "Does this mean I win?" She grinned over her shoulder as Xena finished tying off a few knots, lashing Gabrielle firmly to the warriors own waist.
"Yeah." The warrior let out an exasperated breath before briefly finding her sense of humor. "You win. Guess I get to tie you up after all, although Id sure rather it be under different circumstances." She waggled an eyebrow before growing serious again. "Listen to me. Im gonna climb up first. You follow behind me and take the same hand and footholds that I do. When we get to the top, Im gonna buckle both of us into the harness thats still up there, and you are gonna sit tightly against my chest between my legs. And once were in place, dont you dare lean over or even move. You got me?"
"Got you." The bard watched as her partner hesitantly grasped onto a handhold, while stepping into a lower rung with her foot. The holds were round metal rings, similar to the ones used in the stairwells of the boat, which had been nailed deeply into the wooden mast at intervals which were fairly maneuverable for the warrior, but a bit of a stretch for her shorter partner.
Xena started to argue again when she realized this, but decided it was pointless. "Be careful. And take it easy. Ill go slow myself to give you plenty of time."
"Okay." The bard followed as the warrior made steady but slow progress up the mast, looking down every now and then to make sure Gabrielle was doing okay. As for the bard, she kept her eyes firmly planted on the rungs in front of her, refusing to look down lest she lose her nerve. They were halfway up the mast and it was way too late to back out.
They were almost to the crows nest, and the warrior was starting to relax just a bit. She reached out for the next rung when the boat lurched suddenly, rolling way over to one side. The rung, she realized too late, was loose, and it came off the mast in her hand just as her feet slipped from the rain-covered rungs they were planted in. She found herself hanging on with one hand, her feet dangling helplessly in space, when the boat rolled keenly to the other side, and suddenly she was falling through the air and past her trembling partner, who couldnt even find the breath to scream.
Gabrielle had felt the boat start to tilt on the first roll, and had simply held onto her rungs with both hands as tightly as she could, pressing her body against the mast and squeezing her eyes closed as she realized Xenas predicament. It happened very quickly, but seemed to move in slow motion, as the warrior cried out and went tumbling past the bard. Gabrielle braced herself and re-doubled her efforts on her grip, as she felt the warrior jerk to a stop, held up only by the rope which was still tied firmly around the bards waist. The warrior easily outweighed her smaller partner by some forty pounds, and Gabrielle felt the strain as her body screamed at the sudden addition of weight to her already over-taxed frame.
"Gabrielle." The warrior swung back and forth trying to grasp onto one of the rungs. After a few fruitless attempts she yelled up, pulling the breast dagger from her cleavage. "Im gonna cut myself free so you can get down from there."
"No." The bard looked down, forcing herself to look no further than the terrified face of her soulmate. "Dont ... you ... dare."
"Im gonna weigh you down and then well both fall anyway." Xenas eyes pleaded with her partner.
"No. We wont." Gabrielle took an even firmer grip on the rungs, and forced herself to ignore the straining rope pinching her around her waistline. "Xena. You put that dagger back and you get yourself back on this mast now. Cause Im not moving until you do. You cut yourself loose and I will dive down after you. And my spirit will hunt your spirit down and I will torment you for eternity."
The warrior managed a lop-sided heart-wrenching smile and tucked the dagger back into her cleavage. She called upon all her reserves, and with the next roll of the boat, she swung toward the mast and managed to get her hands on two rungs just below the bards feet. She scrambled until her feet were also planted on two more rungs and looked up. "Okay. Climb."
Gabrielle felt the weight leave her waistline, and with legs that shook like jelly, she finished closing the distance between them and the crows nest, dragging herself up onto the flat platform and holding out a hand as Xena hefted herself up over the edge right behind her. The warrior went into rote mode, quickly working leather straps and buckles, harnessing them both onto the metal railing around them and then collapsing against it as she felt the bard crawl into her appointed spot between Xenas legs.
The warrior reflexively wrapped her arms and legs around the small trembling body, as she felt Gabrielles arms slide firmly around her waist. "Its okay." Xenas own body was shaking from exertion and residual fear. "I got you." The bard was sobbing against her chest. "I got you now. Everythings okay. We made it."
"Thought Id lost you there for a minute." Gabrielle let out a long quivering breath. "Xena. If I hadnt gone up with you, you might be dead."
"I know." The warrior tightened her grip and felt her partner wince. "Hey. Are you hurt?" She gently probed at the bards back muscles and Gabrielle yelped with pain.
"I think Im gonna be really sore tomorrow." She smiled ruefully as Xena completed her cursory examination.
"Thank the gods." The warrior resumed her light embrace of her partners body. "Youre muscles are really knotted up, but your spines fine. Everythings still in place. Im surprised, actually, considering you had my hefty butt anchored around you."
"Sokay." Gabrielle sniffled. "Didnt hardly feel a thing."
"Yeah. Right." Xena kissed the pale head. "I think youve earned yourself an ultra-deluxe full body massage. A real massage."
They laughed briefly together at the little joke between them. Most of their massages ended up becoming preludes to other pleasurable activities.
"Xena." The bard looked up at the chiseled face. "When we reach dry land, can we stay a while before we go back to Greece? I dont think I can stomach getting back on a boat again any time soon."
"Me neither." The warrior looked up and realized that the rain was starting to lighten up in intensity. She gazed out in front of the boat toward what she could only assume was the horizon, and realized that way off in the distance, the waves seemed to be a lot calmer. "Hey. I think the storms letting up."
The bard wiped her face with one hand and shifted until her back was resting against Xenas chest. The long arms enclosed her waist and Xenas legs were drawn up against her partners sides, holding her tightly in place as they watched the dark water and sky ahead of them. "Its kinda neat up here, isnt it?" Gabrielle relaxed a little against the warm body behind her.
"Yeah." The warrior kissed the pale head again. "I used to like to sit in the crows nest on my boat. I felt free and powerful up there. Like I could do anything." She ducked her head and kissed the bards cheek. "By the way. Thank you for saving my life."
Gabrielle turned her head and briefly pecked the warriors lips. "After all the times you saved me. Just consider it payback."
The warrior reflected for a moment, remembering a time when Gabrielle had been high on henbane, which she had unknowingly consumed when she had scarfed down an entire loaf of nutbread that had been laced with the mood-enhancing herb. Xena had to rescue the bard from a well, and had become a human climbing rope as Gabrielle snaked her way up Xenas body to safety. I kinda enjoyed that. And Gabrielle was such a hoot that day. She mused and laughed gently.
"Whats so funny?" The bard turned her face slightly to the side.
"Oh." Gabrielle smiled. "Guess I just got a dose of how you felt that day. You know, Xena. I never told you this, but it was really sweet of you to tell me you were loving every minute of that. It must have hurt, especially some of the places I had to put my hands and feet to get out."
"No. It didnt hurt." The warrior grinned broadly. "I ... um ... really was lovin every minute of it. Especially the view once you got above me."
"Huh? Oh. Xena!" The bard playfully slapped one of the thighs that currently encased her body. "You are incorrigible sometimes."
"That I am." Xena nipped at her partners shoulder. "You inspire it in me."
Lets see. Gabrielle thought for a minute. That was our first year together. So she was already watching me like that then? Gods. Cant be. "Even way back then?"
"Oh yeah." The warrior let out an evil little laugh. "After that brief look straight up your skirt, I think I musta said several thank yous to whatever god had seen fit to put us in that position, even if it was Icus One God."
"Good grief, Xena. How long did you torture yourself like that? And why in Hades did you never do anything about it?" The bard laid back again, resting her head on a strong shoulder.
"Well if youll recall, the first time I ever saw you I lost my concentration and took a smack on the head for it. And then we went swimming together that day after we left Amphipolis, so I got to see you naked pretty early in the game. At first I just kinda allowed myself to watch you, and figured it was harmless enough. As far as I was concerned, you were just a naive kid and I had no intention of acting on any of my thoughts."
"What kinds of thoughts?" The bards voice was soft.
"That first year, I sometimes fantasized about you ... you know." Xena smiled. "Then when you left to go to the Athens Academy, I knew Id miss you, but I had no idea how much. And then you came back. And then you left again to go home. And then you came back. By then I couldnt deny anymore that you were my best friend. Or my only friend for that matter. So I continued to sometimes let myself have my little fantasies, but you were becoming a lot more to me than I realized. Until I almost lost you at Thessaly. That was when I knew I couldnt live without you."
"Oh Xena." Gabrielle knew it had taken her a lot longer to reach that point. She had gotten married to Perdicus before she realized her mistake. "I think I thought of you as my best friend after only a few days on the road together. And I had some of those feelings too. But ... I ... I didnt have a frame of reference for them. I didnt understand the concept of women loving women until we had made several visits to the Amazons."
"I knew that." Xena began a light tracing against the bards middle. "And I knew I did have those feelings. But by then I cared about you too deeply to let those feelings get in the way. I didnt want to lose you or our friendship. I look back now and sometimes I wonder why someone didnt just knock me up beside the head. You and I were acting like lovers for a long time before we acknowledged that we were in love. We just werent engaging in the physical aspect of it. At least not completely, but we were touching each other all the time."
"So you just kept fantasizing, thinking that nothing was ever going to come of it?" The bards brows furrowed. That must have been really hard.
"No." The warrior pursed her lips. "I started to feel guilty about that. So I forced myself to push those thoughts way down deep inside. I couldnt let myself keep it up. You and I were getting too close and we did too many things where I would have eventually pushed things too far. And you werent ready for it. Think about some of the things weve done, Gabrielle. Aidens hot tub. The mehndi painting session in India. Those were some incredibly erotic moments, in a way, but they were completely innocent on the surface."
"Yes. I know." Gabrielle turned her face, nuzzling Xenas neck. "When we were painting with the mehndi, I remember these looks we kept exchanging. There was this incredible chemistry between us and it scared me to death because I didnt understand what I was feeling. Did you feel that then, Xena?"
"Yes. And it was a good thing we had a limited amount of time to work with. Because I was having a really hard time holding back." The warrior rested her cheek against her partners head. "I think I felt that chemistry almost every day of that last season before Caesar crucified us. So I forced myself to concentrate on the love I felt for you. The sisterly kind of love that wanted to protect you and take care of you. It was just a lot easier to deal with that way."
"What made you decide to take that leap?" Gabrielle kissed the soft skin on her partners collarbone.
"You did." Xena ducked her head and quickly brushed the bards lips with her own before continuing. "I guess its more complicated than that. In the Elysian Fields there was no doubt anymore about how I felt. Or how you felt. So when we came back to life, I just decided that I would go with that and not fight it anymore. I think at that point I was too overwhelmed and too emotionally weak to do anything else anyway. That first day or so after Eli brought us back, it was like I couldn't stand to be separated from you, not even by a few inches. I just wanted to curl up somewhere and hold on to you and never let go. And we kept dancing around the issue, yet it was so obvious where we were headed, at least I thought it was. Hoped it was. And then that morning when you woke up and started asking me all those questions about feeling different, I figured you were thinking the same way. I was scared to death that first time I kissed you, but I thought that we had been through so much together, that even if I was completely wrong, we could probably get past it and keep being friends."
The bard nibbled softly at her soulmates lips, returning the small kisses and sighed. "And I knew when I came back from the Fields that I really wanted to re-capture the feelings we had shared there. I was so glad when I realized you were going to kiss me, because I was trying to work up my nerve to kiss you."
"You know." The warrior smiled. "I never intended for things to go as far or as fast as they did that morning. I ... um ... thought it would probably be a long time before we ever consummated things. And I would have been willing to wait. But ... you .... just ...." Xena shook her head and smiled again, unable to come up with words for her feelings. "Anyway, once we got started, there was no more holding back for me. I couldnt. Everything I had been feeling for so long came bursting up from where I had buried it, and it wouldnt be denied anymore. One part of me kept thinking, what in Hades are you doing?, while another part was thinking, why in Hades did you take so long?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I remember my mind racing a million leagues ahead of me, and all these thoughts were whizzing around in my head, fear, love, concern, worry that I wouldnt know what to do. Or that I wouldnt be any good at it. And then all of a sudden I just quit thinking, and let my body get caught up in all those feelings between us, and then after that it was just easy. As if we had been together for a long time. Does that make sense?"
"Complete sense." The warrior closed her eyes. "That was the most comfortable first time I have ever had. Its like we both already knew each other, how to please each other. It was easily one of the most beautiful and profound moments of my life. It felt like coming home."
"Me too." The bard shifted slightly, until they were gazing deeply into each others eyes, and she smiled as she saw the love reflected back at her from the warriors pale blue orbs. Xena closed the distance and they shared a long sweet kiss, one that re-affirmed that those feelings they had discussed were still firmly in place. Gabrielle pulled back and reached up, running her fingertips across her partners face. "Guess we should probably be paying more attention to the water, huh?"
"Water? What water?" Xena chuckled and kissed her partner one more time before they relaxed, sitting silently together and looking out ahead of them for any obstacles. After another candle mark, the rain finally stopped, and they drew in a collective sigh of relief as the constant annoying pelting of water against their soaked skin finally ceased. Another candle mark, and the clouds began to roll away, and a candle mark before dawn the sky had completely cleared, as hundreds of twinkling stars sparkled above them. The warrior looked up and studied the pattern, and realized with great relief that they seemed to still be right on course. I have definitely got to get one of those compasses.
A tugging sensation at her shoulder straps interrupted her thoughts and she looked down at her partner. "Xe ...." The bards voice trembled in fear. "Xena. What in Tartarus is that?" Gabrielle pointed a shaking finger toward a giant fireball in the sky ahead of them.
The warrior smiled. Finally. "That, my bard, is the lighthouse at Alexandria."
"The what?!" The bards eyes grew wide as a long low wailing noise sounded across the water from the direction of the light.
"Its a tall tower built on the rocks just outside the city." Xena rubbed her partners leg in a comforting motion. "At night they keep a big bonfire blazing up there to warn ships so they dont crash on the rocks."
The wailing noise sounded again. "What was that?"
"Rams horn." The warrior continued the light caresses. "They blow it periodically from the top of the lighthouse as an extra warning."
"Oh." Gabrielle relaxed again, peering ahead. "Its really beautiful, isnt it?"
"That it is." The warrior turned and looked down toward the back of the boat. "Captain Ronan, land ho!"
"I see it, Xena." Ronan grinned broadly as he continued to turn the wheel, steering them on a course slightly east of the lighthouse.
"Gabrielle, welcome to Egypt." Xena rested her chin against the blonde head as they watched the lighthouse grow closer.
*In sailing, "sheets" is the term used for the ropes or lines that are used to control the sails.
Continued in Part 2
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