(or what happened between the episodes)

by Texbard

For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"


2.11 Masquerade
(post "Here She Comes, Miss Amphipolis")

Artifice: "You really don't get it, do you? I guess being born a woman, you wouldn't. This is a chance to use a part of me most people usually laugh at -- or worse. The part I usually have to hide -- only here that part works for me-- you see?"
Xena: "I think so."
Art: "Look -- I don't expect you to understand. And I'm sorry I got you steamed. I just hope you let me quit the pageant in private instead of going public with it."
X: "No way. May the best person win."

- Here She Comes, Miss Amphipolis


It's a beautiful night. We hiked up away from the village where they held the pageant, and found a nice spot to make camp, on a cliff, overlooking the beach and the ocean. It's a little chilly out tonight, and we've built up the fire nicely, with a healthy supply of logs stacked over next to the rock wall that rises up behind us. I can hear the waves crashing against the shore way down below us, and see to the edge of the world, where the darkness of the rolling sea touches the night sky.

Gabrielle is across the way, working on her scrolls, writing out the story of the contest, I assume. I love to watch her at work -- her face is so expressive, it almost tells a story as she's writing it. One minute she will be smiling and even giggling, the next she'll be frowning, that little crease between her brows that tells me she's either searching for the right words, or pondering what something means. The best part, other than I get to watch her and she's too distracted to be inhibited by that, is that I will get to hear a new story when she's done.

Of course, I love watching her anytime, but this is an especially fine evening, with a light cool breeze and lots of little stars twinkling overhead. It's growing later, and colder in the year, and if I close my eyes and inhale deeply enough, I can smell snow up there in the clouds to the far horizon. It probably won't fall down here, but up in the mountains, they are likely already getting a dusting of it.

I love snow. It might be cold and wet, but I love the silence, and the soft crunch of it beneath my boots. Everything is sharper and clearer, somehow. I love the cleansing feeling that comes over me when I'm surrounded by it -- the fog of my breath in the air and I especially love being alone in it. But not this year. This year, I think I'm going to enjoy having someone to snuggle up with while we watch it fall.

Gabrielle gets cold a lot easier than I do. Even now, she's wrapped up in a blanket and has her cloak on beneath that. I'm still amazed that two people as different as she and I are, got together. I'm discovering love is one of life's greatest inexplicable mysteries.

Like this pageant. Once we were in it, her competitive side came out full force. By the gods, she wanted me to win, to the point I think she forgot why we were there. She certainly forgot she hates beauty contests. I shake my head a little, and smile.

Me -- I didn't give a rat's ass about winning, except I had to stay in until the end to get to the bottom of who was trying to harm those women, and why. It was nice to help some of them see they didn't need to stake their future and their fortune on their faces and figures. Most women never make it past their home villages -- they go from being cared for by their fathers, to being cared for by their husbands. That's a sad fact of this world -- most women never get the chance to find out what they're really made of and very few realize they have choices.

I'm glad I was able to give that to Gabrielle -- glad to give her an option other than life in Potadeia, and I'd feel that way even if things hadn't turned out the way they have between us. And I'm glad she got the chance to see those women stand up for themselves. She was, after all, a part of that. It's one thing to save lives, and quite another to help change them as part of the bargain. It feels good to know we did that.

And it felt damned good to watch Miss Artifice walk down that runway. I think everyone got what they wanted, when all was said and done. Funny -- of everyone there, Artifice and I had the most in common. Neither of us were what we appeared to be on the surface, both of us masking our more masculine sides and trying to be some perfect example of femininity that neither one of us will ever be, once we're stripped of all the trappings.

Sure, I can look at my naked body, and see that I'm a woman. I don't think there's any doubt of that. And I feel like a woman. It's not like Artifice, whom I suspect feels like the gender she wasn't born to. I don't know what that feels like, but I do know what it's like to be different, and to have people look down on you for not conforming to what they expect you to be.

It takes guts to strike out in the world and fight to be what you feel you should be. In that regard, Artifice has a strength greater than anyone else in that pageant -- it must be a lot harder to be a man trying to be a woman, than a woman trying to make her way in a man's world. At least I think it probably is. Sure, I left home to become a warrior, and I don't want to dwell, tonight, on how badly that spun out of control. But I didn't leave home because I was brave. I left because I had no choice. Maybe Artifice did the same. Maybe she was driven away because they couldn't stand to have her around anymore.

Maybe we are even more alike than I originally thought.

Among the children in my village, I was the tall, strong one, quiet and dreaming dreams that were far removed from those of the other girls in Amphipolis. None of them would ever believe I represented our village in a beauty pageant, much less that I won, even if I didn't accept the title. I grin, and then chuckle quietly. Too bad we don't have a painting of me in that gown, just to prove it. Mother may never believe me. Guess I'll have to rely on Gabrielle's story to convince her.

I can dress up and play the part, but it never feels completely right, until I'm back in my clothes -- my leathers and armor, and my weapons at my side. That's who I am. It's what I'm comfortable being -- a warrior. But it was nice, for a short time, to just be thought of as a woman.

"Xena?" I look up and smile, and see that smile reflected back at me. And that feels better than anything I felt during that pageant.

"Yes?" I lean over and pour her up a cup of tea. She looks cold.

"Why do you think Miss Artifice dresses like a woman?" She nibbles on her quill, that little frown of puzzlement etched across her forehead.

"Well --" I step across and sit down next to her, and hand her the warm cup. She looks up at me gratefully and our eyes meet, and I know my face must look as goofy in love as hers does at this moment. I tweak her nose.

"Thanks." She inhales the steam. "Mmmmmm. Honey and mint." She takes a sip and my heart is warmed, just by the simple pleasure on her face as she swallows. "Why?" She opens her eyes, her question not forgotten.

"Hmmm." I trail a fingertip lazily along her thigh, while I talk. "Sometimes, I think people are born in the wrong bodies. They might look one way on the outside, but feel completely another on the inside. Does that make sense?"

She purses her lips and thinks about this for a moment, slowly sipping her tea. "I think so." She looks over at me. "Do you ever feel that way?"

My eyes widen, and I laugh. "Not the way Artifice does. I don't have any desire to . . . um . . . have a man's parts."

She giggles at this. "Good, because I like your girl parts."

"Do you, now?" I reach up and tilt her face toward me, and indulge in a long kiss. "Glad you do. I kind of like yours, too. But I do know what it feels like to not fit in where you live, and feel the need to leave because of it. And I think you do, too, my bard."

Her face grows sober at this. "Oh. Wow. I guess I do." She frowns. "I'm sorry now that I made fun of him. Her. Even if it was just to you, in private. Gods, that must be confusing to Artifice, because it sure is to me." She peers over at me, her eyes a little sad. "Maybe everyone isn't so different, deep down inside. You think?"

"Maybe." I lean over and rest my head against hers. "I think most people want to feel loved for who they are, and when they don't get that, stuff goes wrong inside."

"Wow, that's very profound of you, Xena." She nudges me to take the bite out of her tease.

"Hey, bard!" I wrap an arm around her and my fingers find her ribs, giving her a few tickles and pokes.

"Oh!" She squirms. "Ow! Xena, stop it!" She slaps playfully at my hand and I relent, easing up, just my thumb stroking the baby-soft skin I found inside that cloak. "Better," she whispers, and finds my lips. I love it when she does that, and I eagerly return her affections. After a bit, we end up snuggled together, wrapped up inside her blanket.

She sighs and lays her scroll and quill aside. "Figures you'd be the one to sum up humanity in a nutshell. You have everything -- you're strong, and smart, and so beautiful. It's why I . . ." She shakes her head and trails off. "Nevermind."

"Nevermind, what?" I bump my body against hers a little, urging her to finish her sentence. There's something going on behind those green eyes, and I saw some of it back in our room at the pageant headquarters. She'd look around at all the festivities, and this little expression would cross her face. I haven't quite figured out what it means, but it was often enough I haven't forgotten it.

"Just . . ." She huffs out a breath and twirls the tie to her cloak around a finger in an agitated manner. "I wanted you to win so badly, Xena. You're . . . everything. And me . . . I'm a part of you now . . . it was the only way I'd ever know . . ." She shakes her head again. "I was so proud of you, that you won."

"Why was that so important, sweetheart?" I reach over and touch her cheek, and she trembles a little. "Only way you'd ever know . . . what?"

"Only way I might ever know what winning a beauty contest would feel like." She gestures down at herself. "Look at me. I'm short, and kind of plain, and my ears are too big. No one is ever going to look at me and see a beautiful woman."

Oh, Gabrielle. My heart twists inside. Why didn't I see this before? "You are soooo wrong, my love." She's looking down, and I reach over again, forcing her to look at me. "You are the most beautiful person on earth, in my eyes." I kiss her gently.

"I know that should be enough." She blinks and reddens a little. "And it means so much, to know you see me that way." She frowns. "But I wish . . . sometimes I wish other people saw me, the way . . ."

"The way they see me?" I hazard a guess, finishing her sentence for her. She nods, her eyes still sad. "Gabrielle, I think . . . I'm tall . . . and I wear all this intimidating armor and I carry weapons. I mean, I kind of fill up a doorway, you know?" She nods again, this time with a smile playing at her lips. "So, yeah, people are going to look at me -- I'm probably kind of hard to miss."

"But . . ."

I touch her lips. "Let me finish." I trace her lips with a fingertip, just for good measure. I'll never get tired of being this close to her, but . . . I smile and shake my head at the irony of this conversation. Her beauty drives me to distraction, even as I'm trying to make her see just how drop dead gorgeous she is. "I'm not the only one who sees your fair features, my bard. Do you know how many men . . . and women . . . can't keep their eyes off you, once they see you?" She shakes her head, this time. "How many times I feared one of them would catch your eye as well, and I'd lose you forever? And . . . " I stroke her hair now, feeling its soft silkiness sifting through my fingers. "Did you know Ephiny told me half the Amazon nation has a crush on you?"

Her eyes grow round as saucers. "Really?"

"Really" I chuckle, as she covers her eyes with one hand. then she peeks out between her fingers.

"For real?"

"Cross my heart." And I do so, then I press my forehead against hers. "So don't you ever go thinking you're not beautiful, Gabrielle. You turn heads everywhere you go, people falling over themselves to get your attention. I was just the one lucky enough to actually get it."

"And keep it," she whispers in my ear. A tingle runs down my spine. "Thank you." Her lips press against my neck, and then she makes a lazy path up my jaw line, finding my lips. Gods, that feels good. I take her in both arms, now, and pull her against me, taking my time conveying just how much her beauty appeals to me.

"Hey." She pulls back and looks up. "It's snowing."

I look up with her, and hold out a hand. Sure enough, a few dainty flakes fall to my palm and melt there. She reaches over and dusts a few out of my hair. "Beautiful," she sighs dreamily.

I capture her eyes, then look her up and down once, before meeting them again, holding her gaze, feeling this strong connection between us. "Beautiful?" I kiss her again, escalating things until she's breathing hard against me, her hands wandering leisurely over my body with a mind of their own. I slowly break off our kiss and hold her, with her body dipped back a bit, balanced in the cradle of my arms. I touch her face, an almost reverent gesture. "Beautiful." I repeat myself. "Oh, yeah."


Next in the BTL series - "Death Be Not Proud" (post "Destiny")

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