These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.
Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena: Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.
Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.
Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.
Dark Comes the Morning - Part 26
By Melissa Good
The cheering outside woke Gabrielle up, and she let her eyes drift open, confused by the sound for a long moment. Then she realized where she was, and relaxed, her eyes flicking to the window where the darkness outside was broken by firelight.
It was quiet in the cabin, though, and the candles had burned low, releasing their scent of herbed oil into the air as the breeze make them flicker, and stirred the pale hair resting on the bard's forehead.
Well. Gabrielle took internal stock of things. Her fever seemed to have broken, and her back, though painful, didn't have that hot, swollen throbbing thing going as it had been earlier. She felt a little calmer, too, faintly abashed by the almost unreasoning fear that must have half driven Xena crazy. Speaking of. Gabrielle tilted her head up to study her soulmate, surprised to find blue eyes watching her. "Oh."
Xena's head tilted a little too. "Feeling any better?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah." Her lips tensed. "I think I owe you an apology." She watched a dark eyebrow twitch upward. "In fact, I think I owe you several." The brow lifted higher. The bard lifted her hand off her partner's stomach and pointed at the window. "There's a whole army out there toasting you, and you get stuck in here being a pillow. That was incredibly selfish of me, Xena. I'm sorry."
Xena looked positively charmed by that. A little twinkle entered her eyes, and her face relaxed into a smile. "That's all right. I needed a break." She allowed, shifting the still dozing Dori with her other arm. "It gave me a chance to..um.. sort things out a little." She paused, then continued. "I think I owe you, and Eph an apology."
Gabrielle shook her head. "We owe you one." She rested her chin on the warrior's breastbone. "I'd reconciled myself to accepting whatever path you chose, Xena.. as long as that path ended with Andreas defeated. I did.. I.. " She sighed. "I said to myself, no matter how dark, no matter what violence we had to use, it would be worth it."
Blue eyes watched her intently.
'It was sort of like you always say.. prepare for the worst." Gabrielle admitted. "I did."
Xena cleared her throat gently. "So did I." The warrior confessed. "And then I found myself in the position of having it all in the palm of my hand." She held one up, and examined it. "Everything worked, everything went the way I wanted it to, I was in control and that army would have done anything I asked of it." She turned her head. "Everyone expected me to decimate his army. Everyone expected me to execute him. They would have welcomed it." A touch of wonder entered her voice. "But you know what I realized, Gabrielle?"
"As much as part of me wanted to give into that, and it did." A sigh. "Another part of me just couldnt do it." She shifted. "Weird."
Weird. Gabrielle reflected. "Does that bother you?"
A head shake. "No.. I think it's just maybe it's that I've lived through enough to have learned " Xena fell silent. "I don't know." Her eyes lifted, to study the thatch. "I've been listening to you tell me I've changed for five years. Maybe I "
"Know now you really have?" The bard completed the statement in utter confidence.
"Mm." Xena tucked Dori a little closer, then put her arm behind her head and exhaled. "Yeah."
Gabrielle rolled over onto her belly, and sprawled a bit more over her soulmate's body. "Xena." The blue eyes tipped to meet hers. "You're proud of yourself, aren't you?"
A dazzling smile was her answer. "You know, I am." Xena laughed, then caught her lower lip in her teeth, and shook her head in wonder. "Gabrielle, I was in a place where my darkest instincts were right out there, in a situation where I could have just gone nuts with them, and no one would have blamed me. Not even you." A sigh. "And I didn't."
Maybe that's why Ares was wrong. Gabrielle considered, enjoying the smile on Xena's face. She changed her own fate.. and mine, against all the odds. Wow. "Hey, Xena?"
"Sounds like a great party outside and I'm kinda hungry. You interested?" Gabrielle suddenly found herself wanting to be out there, watching Xena absorb all that justified adulation and sharing her partner's success. "I bet Dori'll be hungry too, when she wakes up."
"Mama!" A tiny dark head appeared over the curve of Xena's left breast, eyes searching for her with interest. "Mama!"
Xena laughed. "Right on time." She ruffled Dori's hair, then for good measure, ruffled Gabrielle's as well. "I think we can find us some dinner, and mom's ale how's your back feeling?"
"Better." The bard quietly replied. "I think I was just over tired stressed just everything before." She flexed her back gingerly. "C'mon hey, Dori climb over here, willya?"
"Gback." Dori clamped an incautious hand on a sensitive part of her beloved playmates anatomy and pulled herself up, getting a strangled yelp from Xena. "Boo?"
"Hey. That's not a handle." The warrior warned her, removing the tiny fingers. "I'll have to start wearing my armor to bed at this rate." She lifted Dori and helped Gabrielle slide off the mattress, holding on to the bard as she caught her balance then following her.
"You going to change?" Gabrielle asked, as Xena moved past her and went to take care of Dori's diaper. "I know you like that one, Xe.. but it's kinda ratty."
"It is not." Xena replied, shifting her shoulders. "It's comfortable."
"There's a hole in it."
Xena looked over at her, then down at herself doubtfully. "I don't see one."
Gabrielle craned her neck, and observed the neatly placed bit of tan flesh showing. "Oh.. on second thought.. nah, dont worry about it." She walked slowly over to the water basin and splashed a double handful of the cold liquid on her face, then dried it off. When she turned, Xena had replaced her tan rags with something in crimson, and had tucked Dori into one of the spare sacks they'd kept in the cabin. "She barely fits in that."
"Mm." Xena had to leave the baby's arms out, and she checked the injured one carefully. The bruises were fading to a lurid yellow on Dori's face, and the baby didn't seem much worse for wear. "I think this is just sprained." She tickled the baby's nose. "You feeling better too, cute stuff?"
Dori clutched the offending hand and stuck it's finger into her mouth, sucking on it vigorously. "Mm cookie!"
Gabrielle let a chuckle escape, the sound of laughter a little strange to her ears. She glanced up at Xena's face, relieved to see a familiar smile playing around her lips, and the lines of strain eased around her eyes. "C'mon, genr'l. Let's go see the troops."
Xena fastened the carrysack to her back and held an arm out invitingly, which Gabrielle took as they eased through the doorway and onto the porch.
They were spotted immediately, almost as if the crowd were watching for them, and a wild cheer went up, almost shaking the wooden boards. They went to the railing and Xena lifted her free hand up, acknowledging the greeting, which changed from wordless noise to a solid, recognizable chant.
"Xena! Xena! Xena!"
They walked down the three steps and across the courtyard, Xena keeping her pace slow to accommodate Gabrielle's injury. There was a huge bonfire in the center of the square, and troops billeted everywhere, between the outbuildings, and around the inn, spilling out of the gates and into the fields beyond. The air brought them the scent of meat roasting, and the tang of ale, and on the faces they approached, there was honest joy, and relief.
Xena breathed it all in. She spotted a familiar face approaching, and turned, to meet her mother, as Cyrene threw her arms around her and hugged her fiercely.
"Thank the gods thank all the gods you're all right." The innkeeper choked out, before she pulled back and turned to the very quiet Gabrielle. "You little scamp " A scolding tone entered her voice, as she gently enfolded the bard in her arms. "I should spank you for not letting me know what was going on."
"Sorry." Gabrielle soaked in the affection greedily. "I couldnt I promised Xena I wouldn't tell anyone anything and let me tell you mom.. it's been a bitch and a half." She leaned back and gazed into the older woman's eyes. "I got word to you as fast as I could when we found Dori."
"Gramma." Dori tugged at Xena's shirt, pulling herself up to see over her parents shoulder. "Cookie?"
"Oh.. look at her.. " Cyrene gasped.
Xena unclasped the sack and handed her over. "Say hi to grandma, Dori." She watched a moment, then turned to return the eager greetings of her captains, who were now clustering around them. Hands timidly patted her shoulder, and her back, and even her usually edgy need for personal space relaxed for the occasion, as she returned the arm clasps of these people she'd led.
These people who had offered up their lives into her hands, and trusted her, and fought their hearts out for her, who'd believed in her leadership even when it looked like things were headed down a dark, death filled road.
"Xena take some ale then, will ya?" Bennu handed her a big mug, then lifted his own, and bellowed. "T'the Genr'l!!!"
The roar shook the ground. Xena lifted her mug, and accepted the accolade with an easy smile. She waited for the cheering to die down, then sucked in a deep breath. "We did it!" Louder cheers answered her, lead, she realized, by the group of Amphipolitians ringed closely around the fire. She felt Gabrielle's warmth at her elbow, and the bard's hand curled around her forearm. "Yeah!" She took a sip of the ale, then offered the mug to Gabrielle, who obligingly stuck her nose in it for a brief moment, slurping up a bit of the cool, heady brew.
"Got a seat over here, Xena." Johan called out, and they made their way through the crowd, stepping over sprawled legs and taking their place by the fire, watching a huge spitted set of roasts turning slowly in the flames.
Gabrielle was content to sit quietly, and just watch the crowd, and watch her soulmate, who at last found herself in a place she'd been trying to achieve since her short cut childhood. She'd left home, conquered nations, traveled the world . All so she could end up, sitting around a fire not fifty paces from where she was born, becoming at last the hero she'd started out to become all those years ago.
Wow. The bard exhaled, finding her thoughts moving off into the patterns that would, she recognized, end in a story someday. One she could picture herself telling to a crowd of enthralled children clustered at her feet.
Maybe Dori would be one of them. Gabrielle tilted her head back and gazed up at the blanket of stars, finding the Warrior among them with ease. Then an arm wound it's way around her, and she turned her head, as Xena leaned back against a log and offered her a backrest.
Of course, the trouble wasn't over. There was tomorrow, and what to do about the enemy army, not to mention Andreas, and the rebuilding of the destruction they'd caused. But right now Gabrielle leaned back against her partner and accepted another sip of ale. Right now, it was time to party.
It was very late, by the time the fire burned low and they headed back towards the cabin arm in arm. A mist had risen, floating lightly through the town, and Xena booted it playfully as she walked, kicking up puffs of ghostly white fog then blowing them out f the way.
Behind them, the troops were sprawling out to get some sleep, full of roasted meat and ale, and even Andreas men had been sent food, and drink, probably the first hot meal for them in a while. Xena made a mental note to visit them in the morning, to feel out their attitude before she had to decide what to do with them.
Next to her, Gabrielle hummed happily, more than a trifle tipsy from the strong ale, one hand wrapped firmly around her partner's waist to keep her balance. "Hey, Xe?"
"Do you know all the words to that last song we did? I want to get them down for my story."
Xena scratched her jaw thoughtfully. "You sure? They're a little.. um.. "
"Spicy?" Gabrielle eyed her in amiable curiosity. "I didn't think so."
"Hm.. what about the part with the tart?"
"What about it?"
"You didn't think that tart part was a little too raunchy?"
Gabrielle kept walking, her brow creased in serious thought. "Oh." She mused. "I thought they meant a pastry." She glanced up as her precious soulmate nearly snorted her tonsils out of her ears, muffling a laugh with one hand. "Well, all those cherries and everything.. what was I supposed to think?"
"Bck." Dori replied sleepily, tugging her hair. "Mm."
"Oh, you heard a word you like, huh." Xena smiled at her daughter. "You like cherries?"
"Well, you can't have your mama's." The warrior informed her.
"Xena, I dont' have any cherries." Gabrielle gave her a puzzled look.
"I know." The warrior smirked quietly, as they mounted the steps to the cabin. "Have to send a wagon train out to the valley tomorrow start bringing stuff back." She closed the door behind them. "Get this place looking like home again."
Gabrielle leaned against her. "Looks pretty homey from my viewpoint here." She nuzzled Xena's chest. "Would you take her off me? Twisting around like that hurts my back."
"Sure." Xena unhooked Dori's carrysack, and lifted the baby up over her mother's head. "You ready for bedtime, short stuff?"
"Boo!" Dori waved her unsplinted arm as she was swung aloft. "Go go!"
"Oh no." Xena removed the carrysack and took the baby into the bathing room. "We can go flying tomorrow okay?"
"Cmon, Dori." Xena scolded her. "It's late I promise, we'll go flying tomorrow."
"We can go every morning now, if you want."
"For as long as I can carry you." Xena leaned over, and rubbed noses with the baby, who giggled. She rested both elbows on either side of the child, gazing down at her with a wistful smile. Dori promptly reached up and grabbed her nose and pulled it. "Ow."
Dori giggled again. "Boo happy go."
Xena's eyebrows rose, and she glanced to one side, where Gabrielle had taken up a place leaning in the doorway. "You hear that?"
"I hear that." Gabrielle limped forward, and leaned over, giving her daughter a kiss on the head. "She's so smart, Xena . " A worried look crossed the bard's face, as one finger traced the ugly marks on Dori's face. "Do you think she'll remember this?"
Xena watched Dori clutch at Gabrielle's finger in apparent unconcern. "I don't know." She replied softly. "They say children this young don't.. but one of my earliest memories is of a.. it's more just images, really. Going fast, and a lot of bumps, and falling it was scary, and I ended up with a few knocks from it." Her eyes lifted to Gabrielle's. "My mother told me, years later, that she and I, and Tor were riding in a wagon and the horses spooked. We ended up going off the road and almost turning over into the river."
"Hm." Gabrielle tickled Dori's bare belly, and the baby wriggled, enjoying her parents undivided attention. "Well, I hope she doesn't remember." She smiled. "I'm glad we're home with you, sweetie." One hand traced a snub nose. "I was kinda worried about that for a while."
Xena looked at her soberly.
"I didn't want all you have l.. " Gabrielle stopped, and swallowed. "Have left to be memories." She finished in a whisper, a wave of horror making her throat close as she rubbed her eyes with a shaking hand. An arm slipped around her shoulders, and she rested her head against Xena's shoulder, waiting for the unexpected surge of emotion to fade. "Gods. Where did that come from?"
Xena patted her back gently. "It happens sometimes.. this kind of fighting.. it just gets to you."
Gabrielle let out a long breath. "You always tell me not to think about what might have happened just deal with what has. That's why, isn't it?" She looked up at the somber face in half shadow. "You can go crazy thinking about what if's."
Xena pursed her lips, and gave a tiny nod.
Gabrielle studied Dori's tiny form for several long moments. "Xena?"
"The next time I complain my life's not exciting enough, toss me in the lake, will you?"
The warrior smiled wryly, and gave her a one armed hug. "Sometimes you dont' appreciate what you have until you lose it." A pause, and a quieter tone. "I've learned that lesson."
"Bck." Dori scowled, realizing she wasn't monopolizing the scene.
Gabrielle smiled, and tucked the ends of her diaper in, then picked her up. "Sorry, honey " She crooned. "It's so unfair that she got hurt, though, Xena." The bard murmured. "All she wanted to do is be with me, and look what happened."
There was a stillness next to her, making Gabrielle look up in question to see a sad understanding pair of blue eyes looking back at her, filled with shared memories of their life together.
All I wanted to do was be with her. Gabrielle acknowledged soberly. And looked what happened. She thought about that for a bit,, then smiled. "I guess when you want to be with someone that badly, all the pain just doesnt' matter." Her eyes slid upward, and met Xena's honestly. "Because it's nothing compared to the joy."
"Gaboo!" Dori had about enough of the mushy stuff. She grabbed a bit of Xena's shirt and pulled. "Cookie!"
Xena laughed softly. "A few cookies go a long way too." She guided the bard's steps back into the main part of the cabin, and took Dori from her, settling the baby into a small box she'd padded with an extra set of furs. "Here ya go." She handed Dori a bit of honey cake, which the baby stuffed into her mouth immediately.
"Tch. That's so bad for her before she goes to bed." Gabrielle knelt carefully next to her, putting a hand on Xena's shoulder for balance.
"Never did you any harm." Xena objected mildly, offering her a bit of the cake as well, and smiling when the bard's lips claimed both cake and her fingers. "In fact, I can recall a lot of pouty bards in bedrolls who hadn't gotten their bedtime snack."
Gabrielle snorted. "Me?" She pointed at her own chest. "Me? I am not the one with those pretty baby blues that get all grumpy when there's no honey balls to be had."
Round, wide blue eyes peered back at her. "Honey balls?"
"Mm." Dori piped up, with much the same expression.
Gabrielle shook her head in mock despair. "The two of you.. like peas in a pod, I swear."
Xena chuckled, as she stood up, and offered her partner her hand. "C'mon damned if I'm not tired." She stifled a yawn as they both removed their clothes and stood for a moment, holding hands and simply being together, breathing in each other's scent. "Lemme see your back."
Gabrielle obligingly leaned against her, sighing as she found herself enclosed in welcome warmth. She kept her eyes closed as her partner peered over her shoulder, careful fingers probing the wound in her back. It seemed to hurt less, though sitting all night at the fire had been somewhat uncomfortable. Her fever had come back a little as well, and the slight chill was an odd contrast to the heat she was absorbing from Xena's body. She sighed. "I'm tired too." Gabrielle mumbled. "Can we sleep late tomorrow, please?"
"Sure." Xena answered absently, worried about the swelling extending up her soulmate's spine. "All day if you want."
One pale brow quirked. "Really?"
"Can I paint you with honey, too?"
"Okay." Xena spread some of the her healing salve on the knife wound, and carefully covered it. Then she paused. "Um." Her face twisted into a puzzled frown. "What did I just agree to again?"
"Nothing you wouldn't enjoy." Gabrielle assured her, kissing her lightly on the collarbone, then laying her head back down. "Or me either, for that matter.. I've missed you."
Xena eased them both down into the bed, and pulled the furs up, their quilts having been sent to the valley. She blew the bedside candle out with a quick breath, and stretched, exhaling as Gabrielle curled up against her. "I missed you too." Xena murmured absently.
She was tired, but so many things were running around in circles in her head, it was hard to fall asleep. The army, of course. Gabrielle's injury. Andreas' leftover troops. Andreas himself, locked securely in the root cellar, with three large forest dwellers to guard him.
He'd been so sure she was going to die. Was it just a game he'd been playing with her, or could he have been wrong this time? Had he realized Gabrielle had tricked him? What deal had he made with Andreas? Xena sighed. For that matter, what was she, Xena, going to do with the bastard? Kill him?
And what about the necklace? The warrior shivered a little, remembering the dark power that had almost taken her over. "Gabrielle?"
"What did you do with that packet I gave you?" Xena could feel the motion as Gabrielle yawned, her jaw moving against the warrior's breastbone.
"It's in my bag." The bard said. "Why?"
"Just asking." Xena replied. "I'd like to study it to see if I could.."
"No." Gabrielle cut her off very firmly.
There was a moments silence. "What?"
"No." The bard repeated. "I'm going to find the deepest, nastiest place in Greece, and toss it down there, because let me tell you, Xena, when you touch that thing, it hurts me a whole lot."
Xena scowled. "Gabrielle, are you saying you don't think I can handle it? I thought I proved that already."
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not saying you can't handle it, Xena. I'm saying I can't." She looked up, seeing faint glints of ,moonlight reflecting off Xena's eyes as the warrior thought in silence. "I don't want to spend another couple candlemarks out cold and I had a stomachache candlemarks even after I woke up."
"Oh." Xena answered, in a very small voice. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't ." She let the words trail off, lapsing into pensive silence. "I didn't know that."
Gabrielle heard the heartbeat under her ear go irregular. "Well, we were sorta busy." She stroked Xena's skin with careful fingertips. "I guess I should have mentioned it." The bard heard an audible swallow. "I was pretty scared for you."
Xena leaned her head back on the pillow, and gazed upward unseeingly.
Gabrielle hitched herself up and leaned on an elbow. "Xena?"
The bard hesitated, then put a hand against her soulmate's stomach. "Can we table this until tomorrow? I think we both need some sleep." Her fingers contracted, giving Xena a little, friendly scratch. "I know I do how about it?"
Xena considered, then exhaled, nodding a little in agreement. "Yeah, you're right." She admitted, lifting a hand to rub her eyes. "I can't change any of that stuff now anyway."
Gabrielle put her head back down and snuggled closer again. She listened to the erratic beat slow and steady, and she focused on the sound, letting it lull her into sleep.
Let tomorrow come when it did, she reasoned. Time enough then to worry about the future.
"Where are we going?" Paladia asked, for the sixth time, as she followed Cait through an annoyingly thick patch of underbrush. "Yo, hey you!"
"Sh." Cait pulled a branch aside, and pointed. "There you go."
"There I don't go nowhere." Paladia stopped and wished she were elsewhere, like under a bit of fur asleep, for instance. "Look. It's halfway to dawn, you kook."
Cait rolled her eyes and reached a hand out, grabbing her friend's leathers and pulling hard. "Get over here. Dont' you want to see where I used to live?"
Paladia glanced at the spot, then at Cait, then at the spot. "Yo, dimwit.. that's a bush."
"Yes." Cait patted a leaf. "Lovely, isn't it? Nice big leaves. I had quite a nice spot all dug out underneath it." She sat down on the ground crosslegged, and peered under the leaves. "Not much left, I'm afraid."
The taller woman scrubbed her cheek. "You lived in a bush?" She felt like slapping the side of her head to see if that would improve the mental picture she was getting, but decided not to. "That explains a lot."
Cait exhaled, fingering a twig. "Yes I did after my parents died, and before Cyrene found me out here she kept trying to get me to come stay by her, but you know, I quite liked it under there."
Paladia considered, then settled to the earth next to her, sorting amongst the leaves in the scattered moonlight and arranging them in patterns with idle, automatic movements. "You stayed out here by yourself?"
Cait remained silent for a moment, the night breeze stirring her pale hair. "I didn't want to be by anyone else. No one understood." She enunciated carefully. "Not a single one of them, you see?"
Paladia sorted a few leaves. "Naw." She shrugged. "I don't get half of what the Hades you're talking about."
Cait sighed. "Look, it's not that difficult." She cleared her throat. "When you kill someone, it makes you all different. Rather like you join a club, you know."
"A club? You are nuts."
"I am not." Cait replied sharply. "I just didn't understand that, not until I met someone else who knew."
"Let me guess." Paladia placed a finger on her head, and mimed thought. "It wasn't oh, like, Xena, was it?"
"Quite." Cait ignored the mocking. "I went by the inn one day, just to see if Cyrene wanted to trade for a lovely pair of rabbits I'd snared, and there she was."
Pale eyes rolled derisively.
"I came quite round the corner and she was sitting there, on the porch, sharpening that lovely sword of hers." Cait remembered. "And she looked up at me, and I knew, right then, someone else did understand."
"Oh yeah. Love at first sight." Paladia snorted.
"No." Cait gazed seriously at her knees. "Relief, actually." She looked up. "It's quite a lovely thing to know you're not alone in the world."
"You always get on me about Xena but you don't understand at all." Cait told her soberly. "She makes it all right, you see. " A pause. "That I'm not crazy, or whatnot."
A grunt answered her.
There was a little quiet. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
Stupid questions. Paladia peeked furtively up, finding serious eyes looking back at her, colorless in the moonlight. Was Cait crazy? Sure. Like a frigging loon. "Naw. You're not crazy. You're just goofier than three week old cider."
Cait smiled at her, and reached out, patting her knee. "Thanks.. that's awfully sweet of you." She pulled aside a branch. "Would you like to see inside? C'mon."
"It's a .." Paladia found herself being tugged along like a bull being pulled by a relentless terrier. "Ow hey damn it.. Cait!!!!" The ground sloped under her and she found herself rolling downwards, tumbling over the leaves and through the scratchy branches in an awkward tumble. "Yeahow!!!"
The smell of rich, fertile earth filled her lungs, and she threw out both hands to stop both of them, landing up with her back against a neatly curving hillock, under a thick overhang of leaves, with a faintly laughing Cait rolled up in her arms. "Nutball."
Cait turned her head, and they were almost nose to nose. "Well then."
Paladia could just about feel her heart start trying to crawl out of her chest. She hated that feeling. "You did that on purpose."
A feral smile. "Quite right."
The big Amazon's nostrils flared, and she took a hesitant breath. "You're gonna get goopy, aren't you?"
Cait leaned closer, studying her with sudden seriousness. "You know, for the longest time, I would really have liked to have killed you."
For once, Paladia remained as serious as her sometimes bizarre friend. "I know that."
"I promised Xena, though, that I wouldn't." Cait advised. "And I think that turned out all right."
"Yes, I do." Cait leaned forward and kissed her unexpectedly. "Do you?"
Pale eyes flicked right, then left, then up at her. "Nah. I'd rather be feeding worms." Paladia stated, with a straight face.
Cait drew back, a furrow making it's way into her brow. "Really?"
"That was a joke."
Paladia rolled her eyes. "You're so weird."
Cait rolled onto her back, and stared upward through the leaves. "I suppose I am." She remarked. "I was quite upset at Xena, you know. I have no idea how she arranged to have everyone but her out of the lovely fighting, but it wasn't fair at all."
Huh. "Yeah, you're right." Paladia agreed, in a surprised tone. "Damned if she didn't even Queeniepoo got shuffled off halfway to Athens you think she did it on purpose?"
Cait considered the question. "I think so, yes." She nodded a few times. "I mean, it wasn't like we didn't have any fun, you know, but she wanted to bring all the baddest bits down on her, I think." Ephiny's group had guarded Xena's retreat, then regrouped and settled into a round of lovely surprise attacks, harrying Andreas forces until they made their final attack on the river defenses. "Rats."
"Cool." Paladia grunted approvingly. "Guess she didn't want to have to be batting the lot of you kooks out of the way every time she got some arrow aimed at her."
A slim, blond eyebrow lifted. "What, exactly, do you mean by that?"
Paladia rolled onto her side, and propped her head up on one large hand. "Aw, c'mon all of you are batty as loons about her woudn't you just love to save her butt? Get a pat on the head? Gimme a break."
"Of course we would." Cait shot back, indignantly. "I"d gladly give my life for her.. that's not anything to be ashamed of!"
"Yeah well." The larger woman shrugged. "I figure she figured she didn't want nobody sacrificing their butts for her, so she just cleared you all out."
Her companion folded her arms over her chest. "You really think so?"
"Bet your butt I do." Paladia replied. "Damn good thing."
Cait scowled at her. "Why?"
"Cause you'd have been the first one to stick their dumb head in front of a catapult.." Paladia hesitated. "And I'm glad you didn't." She watched Cait turned her head and stare. "Don't give me that look. You're the only friend I got, and it would have sucked for you to croak, all right?"
Touched, Cait reached over and patted her cheek affectionately. "Thank you." Her lips twisted into a wry smile. "It's nice when someone cares if you live or die." Her fingers remained, and stroked the strong angles curiously as Paladia remained very still, just watching her. She rolled over, and up onto one elbow, and they kissed again, this time for a longer period of time.
"Mm." Cait found her breathing getting quite strange. "D'you like this?"
"Sure." Paladia responded softly.
"I think it's quite time we went a bit further, don't you?"
Faint apprehension showed in the pale eyes that watched her. "All right." They kissed again, then Cait lifted her head a bit.
"We've got just one problem."
Paladia lifted an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
Cait's elfin face twitched. "I have absolutely no earthly idea of what to do." She admitted frankly.
"What?" Her companion blurted. "You sure have had a clue up till now!"
Paladia covered her face with one hand and groaned.
Cait laughed. "You'll just have to show me, that's all."
Gray eyes peeked between Paladia's fingers. "Show you?"
"That's right. Like I showed you how to shoot arrows, you know. First you put your hand on the bow here, then you grasp the arrow there, that sort of thing."
Paladia stared at her, open mouthed. "You've got to be kidding me." She finally blurted. "I ain't no teacher! It's not like archery, you goofball it's it's " She waved her fingers round. "You just do it!"
"Well, all right then." Cait laid back down, and folded her hands across her stomach. "You'll just have to go ahead and do it to me, then I can see how it goes."
Her friend's jaw dropped again. "Do it to you?"
"Yes you can manage that, can't you?" Cait inquired reasonably. "I did try asking Gabrielle, but she does go off into those descriptions of sunsets and waterfalls and what not, and it's not very helpful when what one really needs is where to put one's hands when, you know?"
"Gurk." Paladia nearly swallowed her tongue.
"And then I tried asking Xena, but she just gave me one of those delightful smirks of hers, and did that eyebrow thing, and that wasn't very helpful either. So it's up to you." Cait concluded. "Where do we start?"
Paladia waited until the distinct sensation of exploding brains faded and she could attempt speech. Then she decided talking wasn't a good idea, and took several breaths instead. She looked at Cait, who was lying there waiting, and considered her options.
But part of her was excited, too.
"All right." She muttered, watching a grin creep across the thin face next to her. "But you listen, okay? I'm going to be, like, touching you and stuff, and I dont' want no furking daggers in my arm or nothing, understand?"
"I'm not even wearing one." Cait replied, virtuously.
"Okay." Paladia took a breath in. Would it work with Cait? There weren't any drugs or nothing. Maybe she woudn't like it.
Worse. Maybe she would, and turn all gooey on her.
"First, you lie down."
"We've got that part done." Cait replied, indicated her prone figure. "What about taking your clothes off?"
"Uh." Her companion squirmed a little closer. "Well, sometimes it's kinda cool if that's part of it."
Cait blinked. "Really?"
"Yeah." Paladia licked her lips, brows contracting in concentration. She focused her attention on the neatly laced leather strips holding Cait's halter on, and reached for one, twirling it in her fingers before she gave it a gentle tug. "Like this." The hide resisted for a second, then relented, pulling free of it's knot, allowing the leather it held closed to open slightly and expose a bit of cream colored skin.
"Oh." Cait sounded very thoughtful.
Paladia pulled another lace free, watching the sudden rise of Cait's chest separate the hide even more. Fascinated, she finished her unlacing, then slid a cautious hand under the leathers, interested in how warm Cait felt under there.
Her thumb brushed across a sensitive point, and seconds later her wind was cut off as a powerful hand griped her throat. "Urk." She felt her eyes start to bug out, then just as quickly as it came, the pressure vanished.
"Sorry." Cait muttered, a trifle hoarsely. "Surprised me a bit there."
Great. Paladia collected her wits. I live through the biggest furking war in Greece, only to die doing this. "Did it hurt?"
"All right. I'm going to do that again, so don't choke me, okay?"
She wondered briefly if old Gabrielle had to go through this. One wrong move with the leather terror and you could lose a bodypart, huh? "Hey." She paused in removing Cait's halter. "Queeniepoo got all her fingers and stuff?"
Cait lifted her head up and stared, both eyebrows completely disappearing into her hairline. "Good gosh, whatever are you asking that for? Of course she does."
"Good." Paladia girded her loins, and ducked her head, capturing one of Cait's nipples in her teeth and nibbling it.
The world caved in as two hands slammed into either side of her head, boxing her ears and dimming her vision as she collapsed over the smaller woman's body with a yelp.
For a moment, silence. Then a sigh. "Sorry."
"Ungh." Paladia moved her jaw, hearing a distinct crack as a joint moved back into place. "The gods are up there laughing their asses off, I bet."
Cait exhaled. "Maybe I better sit on my hands."
"Great idea." Paladia rubbed an ear. "Where was I?"
A hand guided her, then disappeared. She resumed her nibbling, wincing in anticipation for the blow that never came. Instead, a tentative touch threaded through her hair and traced over her ear, and she relaxed a trifle. The surface under her lips rose and fell a little faster, and she slid a hand lower, encouraged by the reaction.
That was better. At least she wasn't getting the crap beat out of her.
This might be all right.
The touch on her head slipped lower, around the curve of her shoulder and beneath the straps of her leathers, exploring curiously.
Neat. Fast learner.
Teeth closed on her ear, and she froze, as a soft, wicked chuckle trickled into her hearing.
Oh boy. Maybe too fast.
It was raining the next morning. Cyrene leaned on the windowsill of the inn and gazed out, as the dark sheets of water turned everything in sight into a gray mass of mud and dampness. Pockets of soldiers huddled under makeshift tents, and the attitude was very quiet and almost peaceful.
Maybe they needed a day just to sit back, and be reminded that humans weren't the masters of everything, Cyrene mused, as she watched the runoff course through the center of the town heading down towards the river. A day to let bodies heal, and minds loose their hold on the violence so recently past.
The emptiness of the room around her settled against her shoulders, and she turned, reviewing the spare, almost painfully clean space as she counted out all the things she had to do now. "What a mess." Cyrene rubbed her temples. Most of the town's populace was still out of the valley, though wagons would probably be leaving shortly for there to bring back supplies, and those people who were anxious to return to their homes and lives.
Most of the inn's stock was out there, of course, nothing much left here save some odds and ends, and what supplies the troops had. She'd scrounged a potfull of odds and ends together for a soupy breakfast, but that and leftover meat, along with hard biscuits were all they'd have until the wagons got back, or the hunters went out.
Not much chance of that in this weather though.
Still, Cyrene turned again, and leaned on the sill, watching the steam from her morning tea rise next to her. It sure could have been a lot worse.
A lot worse. She could have lost her home, her husband. Her children. Grandchildren. She'd bet them all on her trust in Xena, and oh, how that child had come through for her, and all the rest of them.
"I am so proud of her." Cyrene whispered to the old wood of the inn. "After all this time, she finally made it back." Oh, people had died, certainly. There had been damage, both physical and mental to so many people, not the least of which was Xena herself, but still.
Still. The mature mercy, and compassion her daughter had shown in allowing her enemies to surrender in peace, and the heartfelt respect all these soldiers displayed for her went a long way towards overwriting the older, harsher memories of a much younger time.
"I'm going to spank her, I swear." Cyrene shook her head. "That little scamp "
"Spank who?" Johan ambled up next to her, and leaned on the wood as well.
"Gabrielle." The innkeeper replied, sharing her tea. "Letting me think who knows what when she went off with that rogue on horseback."
Johan grunted. "She's a brave woman."
More then most knew. "Yes, she is." Cyrene agreed softly. "They're all praising Xena, but so much of this depended on Gabrielle. She really came through and you know, I was just thinking of the first time I saw her. How much she's grown."
Heavy footsteps outside made them both look up, as the door opened to reveal a large, soggy bog monster, who very carefully scraped his boots off before entering, then stood, dripping vigorously just inside the entrance. "Mornin."
"Hello, Bennu." Cyrene smiled at him. "How's everything going?"
The tall captain licked a drop off his nose, then grunted. "Good weather for t'crops." He allowed. "Was wondering if you'd have something I could take over to the genr'l. Shouldn't have to be out in this messl."
Cyrene raised an eyebrow. "I can see you don't know her very well." The innkeeper remarked dryly. "But I appreciate the offer. I was hoping they'd get a little rest today.. that injury of Gabrielle's has me a little worried."
"Me too." Xena's voice made them all jump, and they turned to see the warrior filling the doorway, her angular face framed in her dark, heavy cloak hood. She eased past Bennu and clapped him on the shoulder. "We've got a lot to get done today." She pushed her hood back and shook her dark hair free. "I want to make sure we clean up the battlefield.. last thing we need is everyone getting sick."
"Aye." Bennu murmured. "Think we'll be needing some healer's supplies too." He added. "I'll get a group up on moving the bodies out."
"Thanks." Xena gave him a smile, then watched him squish out the door before she turned and faced her mother. "Morning."
Cyrene exhaled. "I was hoping not to see you for a few candlemarks yet.. how's Gabrielle and Dori doing?"
"Dori's fine." Xena replied in a clipped tone. "You have anything hot around?" She'd woken up to find Gabrielle clinging to her, tears rolling down her face, her body tense with pain and fever. "I need to give Gabrielle something pretty strong, but I want her to eat something first."
"I have some soup." Cyrene decided now was not the time for her to debate anything. She could see the backlash of the past few weeks hitting Xena, and she knew arguing with the already edgy woman wouldn't help matters a bit. "C'mon in the back.. I'll get you some."
Xena silently followed her through the swinging door, and into the almost bare kitchen, where she took a seat on the wheat supply bin and simply waited as Cyrene puttered about the open fire. She'd woken up more tired than when she'd fallen asleep, and only sheer will had forced her up and out of the cabin, to shoulder her responsibilities regardless of how she felt.
"Mm?" The warrior lifted her head, and blinked, as Cyrene handed over a packet she hadn't seen her mother pack. "Oh.. thanks."
Cyrene bit back several overly motherly comments. "Would you like some tea? I've got some fresh here."
Tea. Hm. "Yeah.. that'd be nice." Xena allowed, accepting a mug of the stuff and taking a sip. Thunder rattled the inn's roof, and they both looked up. "Nice." Xena commented dryly.
Cyrene exhaled silently. "Would you like me to hold on to Dori for a while?"
Xena shook her head. "No.. thanks, but she's fine. She's happier just snoozing with Gabrielle.. and I think it's better for both of them."
What about you? Cyrene thought the words, but didn't utter them. "All right I have to head off to check on the dry storage we cached.. can I walk you back home?"
Xena hauled herself upright and off her seat. "Don't be ridiculous, mother. I can get someone to go over there for you no sense in everyone getting sick in all this." She walked to the kitchen door and opened it, the cold, wet breeze brushing her dark hair back. "Temon!"
A soldier trotted over immediately, and saluted. "Yes, genr'l?"
Xena pulled him inside. "That's my mother. Do whatever she tells you to do." She gave the man a shove, and pulled her hood up. "I'll be back."
The door closed behind her, leaving the dripping soldier and the innkeeper to study each other. "Well." Cyrene reached behind her and picked up another mug. "Suppose we start with some soup for you.. how's that?"
Gabrielle shivered as another blast of thunder shook the cabin. Dori was crawling industriously around the bed, apparently unhampered by her injured arm, oblivous to the sounds around them. "Hey, sweetie." She crooned at the baby, who looked up, green eyes wide open. "What a great day to be inside, huh?"
"Bck." Dori crawled over and sat down next to where her mother was curled up, half on her side with one arm wrapped around a pillow. "Mama."
"Mm mama's not doing so hot, honey." The bard winced, as a bolt of pain traveled up her back. "Mama's hoping Boo finds something really, really nice to give me."
"Boo." Dori nodded. "Good." She put a bit of the blanket in her mouth. "No go."
"No." Gabrielle removed the fabric from it's dousing and tucked an arm around the child, pulling her closer. "Believe me, we're not going anywhere, Dori. Not for a long time, anyway." She gazed at her daughter speculatively. "The owie's going away, huh? Are you like your Boo that way, sweetie?" A smile found it's way onto the bard's face, despite the pain. "Boy, I'm glad about that if you are I hate seeing you hurt."
Dori snuggled against her body and sucked her thumb peacefully. "Mama." She seemed blissfully happy just to be with her mother. "Cow?"
Ah. "You want to hear about the cow well, I.. " Gabrielle considered. "Okay it'll take my mind off things too, I guess." She reached over and took a sip of the warmed cider Xena had left her. "Once upon a time there was an inn."
"And at the inn, there lived an innkeeper." Gabrielle smiled, as Dori stuck her hand inside her cup and removed it, then stuck it into her mouth. "You could have just asked for some, you know." She chided. "Anyway.. one day, the innkeeper that's Grandma, right?"
"Gramma." Dori repeated obediently. "Mm. Cookie!"
"Right." Gabrielle laughed. "One day, grandma was outside feeding the chickens, and along came a big storm, a really big storm, that was so big, and so fierce, it picked up everything and whirled it around just like this." The bard circled her fingers.
"Go! Boo!" Dori tucked her fists under her chin.
"Mm yeah.. sometimes Boo's like a tornado." Gabrielle agreed. "But don't tell her I said so,okay?"
"So the storm was so big, it picked up the pig, and it picked up the chickens, and it picked up the hay.. and then, it got so big it picked up the cow!"
"Oogie!" Dori bounced, naming a favorite toy.
"That's right.. good girl." The bard praised her. "And it picked up Oogie, and dropped Oogie right on the roof!"
"Go go go.. "Dori chanted.
"And you know what?" Gabrielle leaned her head closer and lowered her voice. "Nobody knew how to get Oogie down!"
"Oh." Dori squealed. "Bad!"
"So the people thought, and thought, and grandma thought, and thought, and what do you think they decided to do?"
"Get Boo!" The child warbled. "Get Boo boo boo boo boo!"
"That's my girl " Gabrielle chuckled. "Yep, that's exactly right. Grandma had to go get the best person she knew who could figure out how to get Oogie off the roof. And that was your Boo."
The door eased open, and a familiar figure entered, dripping a huge quantity of water off cloaked shoulders. "What did I do now?"Xena asked plaintively. "I"ve only been gone a half candlemark."
"Boo!" Dori scrambled up and toddled across the bed, making for the edge without slowing down as if she was convinced she'd just keep going in mid air. "Get Oogie!"
"Dori!" Xena bolted across the floor and caught the child as she raced off the edge of the bed. "Whoa!" Slow down there!" She grabbed Dori and swung her up with one arm, setting the basket down deftly with the other. "Dori!"
The baby climbed up her, slipping agaisnt her wet clothing. "Gush!"
"D.. " Xena managed to get both arms around her daughter, stilling the squirming body with some difficulty. "Good grief." She glanced over Dori's shoulder to see Gabrielle watching quietly, the bard's drawn, pale face making her partner wince. "Still bad, eh?"
Gabrielle managed a thin smile. "I was telling her stories to keep my mind off it. We'd just gotten to the good part."
"Where I fall off a roof into a manure bin?" Xena inquired dryly. "Oh yeah.. I always love that bit." She set Dori down, and went over to the desk, unhooking the soup Cyrene had provided. "I've got some soup for you.. then I'll give you the painkiller, how's that?"
A knock came at the door. Xena turned. "Yes?"
Ephiny poked a very damp, curly head in. "Hi." Her eyes went to the bed. "Came to see how my Queen is doing.. and ask if there's anything you need done." She looked at Xena, very straightforwardly. "Bennu's here too. He wants to know if there's anything he can do, and Palimon's behind him, and a few others. So, Genr'l, start spouting orders, so we can get out of your hair, and leave you to your family in peace."
One of Xena's dark brows lifted sharply.
Ephiny didn't even flinch. "C'mon..c'mon we havent' got all day, and it's raining out here."
The warrior folded her arms. "Look.. "
"You look." The Amazon regent shot back. "Xena, you carried us through this whole thing on your shoulders. It's our turn to take the load. So cough up what you want done, and sit your butt down before I have to get rough with you."
It would have been very impressive, Xena realized, if Gabirelle hadn't giggled. But she sighed, and felt her shoulders slump, her body giving in before her mind could get the words of the decision out. "Okay, fine." She took a breath. "All of the bodies need to be burned, or sent down the river."
"Sent down the river. Nothing's burning in this weather." Ephiny stated.
"The wounded have to be taken under shelter, we'll need to build extra space for that."
Xena blinked. "Andreas men need to be fully disarmed find out where they're from. We need to get them dispersed, but not together, and not at the same time. I want them to go back to where they came from."
"Supplies need to come up from the valley. We're about tapped here."
"Riders need to go out, and get trade started back this way. "
"I'll send some out when it stops raining." Ephiny stated quietly. "Anything else for this morning?"
Xena considered. "No.. that'll do for a start."
"Okay." Ephiny nodded. "You guys just relax. We'll take care of everything."
"You know, I really should.." Xena thought of a half dozen things that needed additional doing.
"You really should not make me get maternal on you, Xena. This could get ugly." Ephiny narrowed her eyes. "Please? Get some rest eat something.. I can practically see through you."
There was a moment's silence, then Ephiny glanced at the highly entertained bard resting quietly on the bed. "How am I doing?"
"Spectacular." Gabrielle assured her. "I'm really proud of you."
"Fine. Leave." Xena gave up, and turned back to the soup. She waited for the door to close, then glanced sideways at her watching soulmate. "That wasn't funny."
"No, it wasn't." Gabrielle agreed, keeping an eye on Dori as she rambled around the room. "Thank you for going along with them."
The warrior trudged over, shedding her cloak and dropping down on the bed, cradling a mug of soup in one hand as she sprawled next to the bard. "Here." She held the cup as Gabrielle sipped from it. "After I give you the stuff, I want to open that cut up, and clean it out the stuff will make you sleepy, okay?"
A stab of fear crossed the bard's face. "Do you have to?" She murmured. "Xena, it hurts so much when you do that.. please don't." Their eyes met for a long moment, then Gabrielle's dropped. "I know.. I know.. you have to." She laid her head down on the warrior's thigh and sighed. "I'm glad you're herewith me."
"Cmon drink more of this." Xena urged, easing her up a little. "I'll be as gentle as I can.. then you can relax, okay?"
"With you?" Gabrielle was too tired to keep from begging like a child.
"Of course." Xena glanced down as Dori tugged on her cloak. "With both of us we'll keep you company, right short stuff?"
:"Okay." Gabrielle took several swallows of the soup, and felt her stomach settle a little. "Mm." She gave Xena an apologetic look. "Sorry.. I must sound like a whiney two year old."
The warrior smiled, handing her the cup. "Here I'm gonna get some too, and get those herbs ready." She glanced up as thunder cracked, then they both jumped as lightning hit something close by outside. "Everything's gonna be fine."
Thunder rolled violently, as the candles fluttered in the draft.
The rain had grown from a pattering to a thunder of it's own. Xena eyed the thick thatch roof with some trepidation, as she lay on their bed, propped up against the headboard with Gabrielle clasped in her arms, blissfully sleeping now that the dose of herbs Xena had given her had taken effect.
Dori had decided to take a nap as well, and she was curled up between Xena' knees, one small cheek pressed against the inside of the warrior's calf and a hand clutching the skin, much like her mother's was a little higher up.
It was an immensely satisfying sensation. Xena just wished she was at peace to enjoy it, instead of having her finely honed instincts nearly send her to the roof in question every time the weather shook the cabin. Lightning struck just outside, as if in taunting revenge, and Xena only just kept her body from jerking as a sharp crack, then the sound of something very heavy falling sounded right outside the cabin.
"Xe?" Gabrielle's eyes had half opened, and she peered dazedly upward. "Wh.. whazzat?"
"Storm." The warrior advised her. "It's been pretty loud."
"Oh." Gabrielle's eyes closed, only to reopen a moment later. "Wow what was that stuff you gave me?" She cleared her throat of a sleepy hoarseness. "I feel like a limp rag."
"That was the point." Xena rubbed her back, and watched her lashes flutter helplessly closed. "Your back muscles were pulling on that injured area.. rubbing stuff together. This'll help them heal."
"Ugh." Gabrielle turned a yawn into a very sleepy nibble of Xena's shirt. "It actually doesn't hurt anymore.. not really. I can't believe how wonderful that feels." Her fingers flexed. "But I guess you do, huh?"
"Mm." Xena agreed, then jumped, as a crack of thunder rattled the floorboards. "Damn."
Dori woke up and hiccuped. "Mama!"
"Easy, sweetie." Gabrielle reached down and tousled her hair. "It's just a storm."
Was it? Xena felt a wave of unease sweep over her. "Stay here." She gently eased Gabrielle onto the pillows, and untangled her leg from Dori's grip. "I'm going to go look outside.. something's not right." The floorboards felt clammy against her bare feet and she held back an involuntary shiver as she reached the window, and looked out.
Rain so thick was falling, she couldn't see past the porch of their cabin, no matter how hard she squinted. It was as though the cabin was isolated by gray walls, disturbed only by flashes of lightning. The wind outside was cold, and she jumped as not rain, but hail slammed against the wall near her head. Her danger sense almost exploded into the forefront, and a sense of ugly, haunting familarity tickled her uneasily. She searched her memories frantically to place it, sorting and discarding through a lifetime of dark experiences to figure out exactly which this evil sense belonged to.
Then a hand touched her back, and she turned, to see Gabrielle staring out into the rain, her face set into an expression of bleak understanding.
And she knew.
"He's here." The bard whispered. "It's Dahok."
A cold sense dropped over her, and Xena stepped back from the window, reaching out one hand in reflex for her leathers, and pulling her shirt off in a mechanical motion. "He's here for Andreas."
Wide, frightened eyes turned to her. "Don't go!"
"Gabrielle, I have to. I can't let him win after all." Xena fastened the straps on her armor, and pulled her metal breastplates on, her hand reaching for her sword as she felt a powerful sense of the inevitible settle onto her shoulders. "Not again."
"Xena, no." Gabrielle grabbed her arm in a painful grip. "Let him take that bastard he's not worth you." Their eyes locked. "I mean it."
"And have everything we just did go for nothing?" Xena shot back. "Have those people have died, have suffered, for nothing, Gabrielle? Tell me if that's worth it."
A breath. "You can't stop him, Xena you'll only die trying, and.." Gabrielle stopped suddenly and lifted a shaking hand to her eyes. "Please don't make that dream true." The words came out in a bare whisper. "Please." She gripped her partner's leathers with both hands, and just held on. "Don't go."
Xena blinked, caught offguard. "What happened to the greater good?" Her voice, though, had gentled.
Gabrielle stared at her. "To Hades with the greater good, Xena I'm tired of sacrificing all that I have all that I am to it. Just this once, I'd like to be the greater good." She lowered her gaze, and leaned tiredly against the wall.
Xena absorbed the slight form before her for a very long moment. Then without a word, she unclipped her sword sheath and set it down on the table, the iron lined leather making a light rasp on the worn wood surface. Then she let both forearms rest on Gabrielle's shoulders and waited.
The mist green eyes slowly rose and their souls acknowledged each other in an odd peace that excluded the weather, despite the dire situation.
"Gabrielle." Xena finally spoke. "You've always been my greater good." She hesitated. "Even when you didn't think so."
Gabrielle's jaw tightened, but she nodded. "Likewise." She muttered. A roll of thunder rattled the wood surface she was leaning on, the discord almost sounding like an evil chuckle. "I don't think he's here for Andreas." She finally stated softly.
"Gabrielle " Xena exhaled. "Why else would he be here? "
Truth settled lines into the bard's face. "You."
"Me?" Xena laughed shortly. "He knows better."
The warrior's breath caught in her throat. "What are you saying, Gabrielle?"
"I'm saying why would he come for a loser?" Came the response. "Xena.. think about it. He waited for you to win." The bard took a deep breath, and held her hand out. "And now he's here, challenging you, because he knows you won't back down from him, for you, and most especially, for me."
Xena turned her head and watched the storm worsen, feeling it's pull on her. Feeling his pull. "True." She admitted softly.
"Dont play into his hands." Gabrielle took the warm hand held out to her and curled her fingers around it. "He feeds on violence, Xena." Her voice dropped a little. "I should know."
Xena pulled her closer, until their bodies were touching, feeling the truth in her partner's words. Her eyes drifted over Gabrielle's shoulders, to where Dori was rocking on her back on the bed, her toes clutched in her fingers, blinking at the weather outside.
Was she insane?
Dahok couldn't be allowed to regain his general.. just to start all over again, could he?
Could she stop him? In her mind's eye, she saw a sudden vision of Gabrielle's helpless body, suspended over his flames, and she felt all over again, the rage and shame she'd experienced, knowing she'd failed the one person she'd sworn to herself to never let down.
To let him have his way burned her to her very core. Xena's lips twisted into a snarl, and she hesitated, her body tensing.
Or was this Dahok's aim the entire time?
Xena considered seriously. Their combined armies. Her charisma. The countryside already in tatters. It was a perfect recipe for a decent into darkness, and given how close she'd come already
Damn. If she gave into that, she'd be easy pickings for him, wouldn't she? Gabrielle was right. Violence wasn't the answer.
But what was?
Gabrielle reached a hand up, and caressed her cheek, sensing the turmoil within her.
And stunningly, simply, provided an answer so obvious it almost made Xena laugh. Of course. They were the answer. She leaned into the hand brushing her skin and thought about what it was like to have someone love you as deeply as Gabrielle loved her.
A fury of hail responded, battering the roof in a fit of temper.
So, She could actually do him far more damage by sitting quietly here, couldn't she? Xena smiled. "C'mere." She pulled Gabrielle close and tipped her head back, claiming her lips with a sense of delicious irony. Take that, Dahok. She heard the faint, gutteral sound from within Gabrielle's throat and smiled again. And that.
The storm lashed against the cabin, bits of debris slamming against the walls. Gabrielle's hands slid up her sides, probing through thick leather and edging under the metal armor plates. Xena relaxed, and enjoyed the prolonged kiss, allowing herself to feel the growing intensity betweem them.
The wind roared, shoving against the door. Xena turned and leaned against it, bracing her shoulders against the wooden surface and feeling the anger behind the force battering it. She closed her eyes, and breathed in Gabrielle's scent. "I think we're pissing him off."
"Are we?" Gabrielle was simply glad Xena had stayed. Glad her words had penetrated the wild drive she'd seen in the warrior's eyes. Glad she hadn't had to resort to throwing herself in front of the door. She felt knuckles gently brush her skin and she willingly went with the motion, exploring Xena's thumb with her lips.
Boy, that felt good. Gabrielle circled Xena with both arms and nuzzled her, hugging the warm body gratefully. She felt Xena remove her leathers, and her senses were assaulted by the rich, spicy scent of the warrior's skin. Then the world tipped, and went sideways, as she was lifted and cradled, the rain from the window lashing lightly against her arm as they stood before the opening, the cold wind outside buffeting them hard.
She didn't even feel it. She tangled her fingers in Xena's hair and drew the warrior's head down, her slightly herb muddled mind accepting the warrior's sudden ardor with a sense of pleasant surprise. Xena's lips willingly met hers, and she felt both sets tense into a smile as they explored each other. A pause to breathe, and Xena's head shifted a little.
"I love you."
The hail rattled harder.
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in a smile. "I love you too."
A huge hailstone, half the size of Xena's head, brushed by the warrior's shoulder and landed with a crunch. "Temper, temper." Xena burred, rubbing noses with her partner, before she turned and removed herself from any further targetting, laying Gabrielle back down on the bed and curling around her, as Dori crawled over to investigate.
Xena gathered her family around her, and closed her eyes, blocking out the storm, and the sound of limbs cracking, and the awful howl of the wind.
For a moment, she knew peace.
Then the roof blew off the cabin.
For a moment, they froze, then Xena's eyes popped open and she stared upward, over Gabrielle's shoulder, up into a nightmare her mind could hardly comprehend. Above them, a whirling, dense circle of clouds raced, as though a tornado had chosen their cabin as it's malevolent eye. "Don't look." She grabbed the bard's head and tucked it down against her shoulder.
"Xena." Gabrielle gently wrested her body free and half turned, looking up and freezing in place. "Oh gods "
A long, spiral gray finger was forming, reaching down out of the storm towards them, crooking it's angular length as it rotated.
Gabrielle felt the breath go out of her lungs, as terror gripped her, and her hands encountered a completely unexpected sensation, shivers of fear rippling through her partner's still body. She turned, and stared, seeing the blue eyes wide open, peering up at the oncoming threat with a look of total shock.
Dori coughed, as she stared upward, mesmerized "Mama!"
Her voice seemed to break the paralysis gripping her parents. Xena's head jerked, and she half rolled up, pulling Gabrielle and Dori with her as the wind's howl rose again. ""Cmon!" They both felt a tug against them, as the cabin started to fill with an eerie gray mist, and they stumbled away from it, Gabrielle clutching Dori to her with frantic strength.
They made it to the washing room, before the powerful suction almost pulled Xena's legs out from under her, and she caught the doorframe, resisting the motion and leaning forward as the wind tugged her hair back.
In a sudden motion, she turned, catching the frame from the inside, and blinking as the mist reached out for her, and the long finger closed in, snaking it's first tendrils around her legs and tightening it's hold. She could feel the dark intent behind it, and as though a whisper brushed against her mind, the darkness called her.
And part of her did answer.
Xena's hands shook as she felt the blood craving, so recently awakened in her, surge forward eagerly. "No."
A bloody finger stroked her cheek, and she heard war cries echo faintly, calling her on. Chanting her name.
Nothing can stop you.
Xena felt the truth of that.
But she also knew a different truth. "I can stop me." Her hands tightened on the wood, holding her body in place against the pull, which increased, fluttering the light shift against her body. Behind her, Gabrielle pressed against her back, and she felt a strong arm wrap itself around her waist in powerful comfort. "I can stop you." She told the storm.
Xena sucked in a breath, then wrenched her body around to face Gabrielle, turning her back on the darkness. The bard's face was white with fear, and her eyes were wide, as the gray tendrils circled them and wrapped their body in a slimy embrace. "Xena "
"You know what I figured out about gods, Gabrielle?" The warrior whispered.
"Xena.. " A silver wisp brushed the bard's cheek with quiet familiarity. "No!" Gabrielle jerked her head back frantically.
"Gabrielle!" Xena barked her name, forcing her to look up, and make eye contact. "The only power a god has is the power mortals give them."
"It comes from us " Xena felt the pull slowly dragging her backwards and she clung to the door tenaciously. Dori was clinging to her mother's neck, and started to cry. "If we don't believe in them, they're finished."
"B " Gabrielle forced the words out past the terror. "How can you not believe this, Xena!"
The warrior closed her eyes, and took a breath, her brow crinkling in concentration. The gray mist now covered them, and she felt it start to close in, evoking a panic of another kind entirely. Her mind teetered on the edge of revolt, as she tried to force the knowledge of the horror behind her out.
It was just so hard. Especially since there was a part of her that wanted to follow that call, that was eagerly prodding her towards the whirling storm and away from her family. "Gabrielle help me." She got out from between gritted teeth. "I need you not to believe as hard as you can."
Gabrielle was shivering, watching the gray mist curl around her arms, tightening on her skin and letting a soundless, knowing chuckle run through her. "I I can't."
"You have to."
Not believe in him? The nightmare she'd suffered wrenched itself into her mind, making her relive again the ravaging flames that ripped through her body and soul. Gabrielle felt the forces move them closer to the vortex, as Xena's arms started to give out, unable to keep them both in place. I can't not believe in him, Xena her mind screamed.
The bard sucked in a breath, and let her head drop against Xena's chest, concentrating on a simple, single goal and focusing all the strength of her considerable will on it.
"Atta girl." Xena felt her equilibrium settle, and she gripped the wood of the doorway tenaciously. The howl rose, and Dori screamed, her tiny hands clutching both warrior and bard in desperation. Xena felt her feet start to leave the ground, and she slammed her boots against the frame, twisting her body and holding herself in place by sheer strength.
And inch by inch, her mind painted out the wind, and the noise, and the pulling, convincing herself that the only reality she needed to aknowledge was the warmth of Gabrielle's breath, and Dori's grip, and the fact that she was NOT going to MOVE a single INCH because she willed it that way.
Because Gabrielle was willing it that way, too, Xena exulted, as she painted out the sounds, imagining them fading and fading, imagining the wind dropping, and the pull relaxing into a weak drift.
Feeling the quiet.
Believing in it.
She felt the sun on her back, and a gentle breeze, and heard the sound of curious birds erupting into speech.
A leaf dropped on her shoulder.
Slowly, Xena opened her eyes, and turned her head, studying the brown and green slice of life resting quietly against the damp fabric of her shift. She looked up, to see blue sky and wisps of clouds through the ruined roof of the cabin. "Gabrielle."
The bard drew breath, and raised her head, taking in the silence. "Gone."
Xena nodded. "Yes." She turned back and hugged her partner. "We did it." A big smile crossed her face, and she rubbed noses with a still anxious Dori. "We did it, Dori no more bad stuff, huh?"
"Boo." Dori looked around her with wide, worried eyes. "Go cow!"
Gabrielle let her head drop back against Xena's shoulder. "Wow."
"Good job, sweetheart." Xena rubbed her back. "I knew you could do it."
"I didn't." The bard whispered.
Xena's motion slowed, and she lifted a hand, tipping Gabrielle's head up. "What? Of course you did I could feel it, Gabrielle."
"No." A slow shake of the head. "I couldn't not believe in him, Xena." Now the mist green eyes warmed, and took on a deep, internal light. "But what I could do, was believe with all my heart in you."
Xena gazed at her in stunned silence for several heartbeats.
'So that's what I did." Gabrielle told her, as she shifted Dori in her arms and leaned against the doorway. "It felt great."
"Yeah.. " The warrior turned and put an arm across her shoulders, peering at the devastation inside the cabin. The wind had ripped everything apart, and sent bits of wood and thatch everywhere. But the sunlight was pouring in, and it lit them in warmth as they started to hear yells, and activity outside, amidt a confusion of shouts and alarms. "Well." A sense of exhausted giddiness filled her. "You wanted to rearrange the furniture in here."
Gabrielle laughed weakly, then sighed. "You okay, Dori?"
Dori hiccuped, and stuck a finger in her mouth. "Mama . Go cow?" She pointed at the roof. "Moo?"
Her mother's fair head tilted back. "No honey no cow up there." She slid her free arm around her partner. "Boo scared the wind away, and saved the cow again." Her head rested against Xena's shoulder.
"Moo!" Dori approved of this. "Good Boo!"
Xena stared at the remains of her home, and felt a shiver go down her back. She conciously put aside what had just happened, and turned her mind to the practical. "Let's get outta here before something falls on our heads." She put an hand carefully against Gabrielle's back. "You okay?"
"Hmm?" Gabrielle shifted Dori to her other arm, and edged around a fallen pile of thatch. "I'm fine why?" Then she remembered, and her free hand went to her back in a reflex motion. "Hey ." Her eyes went to Xena's face. "It doesn't hurt anymore."
Another thing not to think about. "C'mon." Xena directed her towards the door. "We'll talk about it later." Much later. She guided Gabrielle through the debris, and opened the crazily swinging cabin door, stepping out onto the porch as a crowd of people rushed towards it.
It was over. Xena exhaled, as Bennu arrived by her side. "Everyone all right?" She could see the devastation across the village, bits of building scattered everywhere, and large gaps showing in the walls of her mother's inn.
"Everybody cepting that Andreas bastard, genr'l celler he was in was far blasted cross the earth in that storm. Parts of him scattered from hear and yonder there." The tall captain told her excitedly, then glanced at Dori. "Sorry, little one.. it was some storm, eh? Was a tornado, it was."
Dori poked her tongue out. "Guff."
Xena took a breath, absorbing the news. "All right." She quietly took charge. "Let's start cleaning up." She straightened. "Coulda been a lot worse."
Gabrielle exhaled, pausing to lean against the table in the inn after another candlemark in a series of countless ones moving debris, and helping the wounded. It was late, the sun had set long ago, and she was very, very tired. Her eyes roamed idly around the inn, taking in the salvaged supplies and the weary bodies settled around the perimiter.
"Gabrielle?" A hand fell on the bard's shoulder, and she glanced up, to see Cyrene standing next to her, the innkeeper's clothing covered in dust and soot, one stripe of mud almost obscuring an eye.
"Join me for some tea?" Cyrene set a stoneware pot down, along with two cups, and let her bones fall into the nearby chair. "God's and Goddesses I feel like I"ve been carrying this damn inn around on my shoulders."
Gabrielle gratefully sank down on a bench, and curled her fingers around the ceramic cup, it's slightly rough surface tickling the skin of her hands. It's cool stone warmed as Cyrene poured steaming, mint scented tea into it, and she drew the cup to her face, breathing in the familiar smell with a sense of weary pleasure. "Mm that smells great." She took a sip, and swallowed, wincing at the faint soreness in her throat.
Was that from screaming? She thought she remembered screaming.
She lifted her head. "Mm? Sorry.. were you saying something?"
"That was a horrible storm." Cyrene repeated. "I've never seen anything like it. You're so lucky none of the three of you were hurt." She reached over and patted Gabrielle's hand. "I was so scared when I looked out, and saw the roof blow off your home."
"I was pretty scared too." The bard replied softly. She and Xena had decided, in a brief, tense conference, not to mention what they'd faced in the cabin. There was, Xena had reasoned, no sense in terrorizing the town, now that the threat was over, and they could begin to rebuild.
Gabrielle wasn't sure about that. Not that she didn't think Dahok was gone, for now at least, she did but not tell them? Was that to spare the villagers, she wondered, or just Xena's natural reticince when it came to the more fantastic of her abilities? "I'm just glad no one was killed."
"Almost no one." Cyrene corrected her.
"Mm." Gabrielle acknowledged that. Part of her was grateful for that, because it meant Xena didn't have to make that decision, or carry that blood on her hands along with all the rest of it. Her partner was running on single focus mode right now - concentrating on getting things put back together, and shoving what they'd been through to the back of her mind, to think about later.
Or not, knowing Xena. Gabrielle exhaled. And for once, she almost agreed with her. All she wanted to do was get her life back to relative normal, and try to forget the last few months as best she could.
"Hey." Cyrene tapped her hand. "I think you need to go off to bed, m'dear you're falling asleep right here at the table." She paused awkwardly. "How's your back feeling? You seem much better."
"It does feel better, thanks." Gabrielle scrubbed her face with one hand. "I was just going gods know where Xena found a place for us to stay, though."
Cyrene snorted a tired burst of laughter. "Where else but my damned barn? "She retorted. "I swear, you'd think that girl'd been born in a horse stall the way she likes to sleep in there."
The door opened, and a dark head poked itself in. "What was that?"
Gabrielle propped her chin up on one fist, wryly examining her filthy, mud covered, scratched and bruised best friend. "We done for tonight?"
Xena leaned against the doorway, and nodded. "Yeah." A hand lifted. "C'mon." Her eyes met her mother's. "Everything all right here? Supply wagons should be back tomorrow noontime."
Cyrene nodded. "We'll be fine. Go to bed, both of you. Dori's already sleeping in the tot's room - let her stay there for now."
So they did. Xena and Gabrielle walked slowly over the muddy ground arm in arm, in the comfortable silence two people can have when they'd lived through what these two had. Xena pulled the barn door open and they walked in, greeted by the smell of fresh, clean hay and horses. Argo put her head over her stall and snorted, and below her, Ares dark head popped up from his comfortable nest.
"Hey guys." Gabrielle lifted a hand and waved at them. "Thanks for putting us up for the night." She stood, wavering a little as Xena dragged off first her tunic, then her own. They looked at each other. "Ugh."
"Mm." Xena agreed, glancing down the length of her long body. "Guess we should clean up."
The bard leaned against her, and exhaled. "Xena. Right now, I would not care if we were both completely covered in pig manure left out in a three day sun." She drew a breath in. "I want to go to bed. Right now." A sigh. "I'm so tired."
"Not a good idea." Xena replied gently, giving her a neck scratch. "C'mon the trough's back there. We'll make it really quick we're both cut up, and I don't want any problems with that." She examined a long, wicked scrape on one forearm.
Gabrielle groaned, but knew her partner too well to protest. "Okay " She trudged in that direction with determination, tugging Xena along behind her until they were at the water trough, where she simply leaned over and stuck her head in the cool, but not harshly cold water, holding her breath until she felt the wetness penetrate her hair. She pulled her head back out and shook it, scattering water everywhere.
"Thanks." Xena wiped her face. "Feel better now?"
A dripping bard smiled through the tiredness. "No.. got any soap?" She let a hand dangle in the water, and it's fingers flicked a handful of water at Xena.
"Hey." Xena growled, a grumpy look crossing her face. "Dont you start that."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle was beyond tired, to the point where threats from intimidating warriors merely made her giggle. "Or what?" She flicked another handful of water. "C'mon, tough girl."
"Gabrielle!" The corner of Xena's mouth twitched. "Cut that out!"
"Ooo.. " Another handful, leaving glistening streaks across the dusty, tan skin. "Make me."
Xena put her hands on her hips, and got a faceful of water for her pains. "Hey!" She blinked, then moved, digging a cupped palm into the water and shoveling it towards the bard, catching her right in the chest with a wave. "All right.. you asked for it."
"Woo!" Gabrielle laughed, ducking, and getting a splash back. She circled the trough and used both hands, sending a minature wall of water across the open space and hitting her partner. "Nyahh nyahh " She dodged as Xena came around the end of the tub and they chased each other for a minute, until she slipped on a patch of wet hay and almost ended up getting splinters in a very painful spot.
Xena caught her, and the next thing she knew, she was being lifted up and dumped in the trough. She spread her arms and flattened her body, though, displacing a huge amount of the water and dousing Xena very throughly from head to foot before she dissappeared beneath the surface, reemerging to shake the wet hair out of her face, and see Xena standing over her, hands resting on the wooden tub edge, her dark hair obscuring most of her features in dripping locks. "Cute look." Gabrielle smiled.
"I'll give you cute." Xena growled, lifting herself up and hauling her body over the edge of the trough, where she joined her partner in the small space in a tangle of wet limbs and the creak of protesting wood.
For a moment it was quiet.
"Xena." Gabrielle finally said, feeling a bit like a sardine. "This trough ain't big enough for both of us."
"Complaining?" The warrior rumbled into her ear, licking the lobe of it lightly.
Such a strange sensation. Gabrielle reveled in the strength of it, a shiver that drove the cold, and the exhaustion from her body like magic, replacing it with a warm energy. "No.. " A creak alerted her. "But I think we're " With a splintering crack, the trough collapsed, sending them tumbling to the straw covered floor in a rush of now muddy water and chunks of wood. "Whoa!!"
"Son of a.." Xena yelped.
The horses snorted, and Ares hid.
Xena found herself flat on her back with a wet bard smack on top of her, in a helpless fit of giggles.
And, she realized, after all that had happened, it was really the only reaction possible. She started laughing herself, ignoring the spikey bits of straw poking her in odd places as they lay there chuckling together. "Oh, gods."
Gabrielle let her laugher trickle off to a rueful sigh. "I'm sorry.. but I needed that."
Xena spread her arms to both sides and gazed up at the thatch. "I think I did too." She admitted. "You wanna get off me now?"
"No." Gabrielle wriggled contentedly and put her chin down on Xena's breastbone. "I just got comfortable."
Blue eyes rolled.
"Just kidding." The bard gave her a kiss, then rolled off, getting to her hands and knees, then standing up and surveying the mess they'd made. "Ew."
"Hm." Xena used a nearby stall divider to pull herself to her feet and brushed muddy straw from various parts of her anatomy. "How come stuff like this never gets in those stories of yours, huh?"
Green eyes turned to peer at her in disbelief, with both attendant blond eyebrows lifting in question. "You must be kidding this would never go with your heroic reputation, Xena." She reached over and plucked an errant oat from behind her soulmate's ear. "And no one'd believe it anyway." She ambled over and pulled a square of linen from the box they'd salvaged from the cabin and returned to where Xena was still standing, using the fabric to dry off the tall, lean body. "You know what?"
"What?" Xena let her arms rest on Gabrielle's shoulders as the bard continued her task.
"I love you." Gabrielle gave her a hug, as Xena removed the linen from her hands and returned the drying favor.
Xena let her touch run over the spot where the bard had been wounded, now just a thin line under her fingers. She pulled Gabrielle closer, and rested her chin against her damp head. "I love you too."
They stood, rocking gently in each other's arms for a few minutes, before parting to pull clean shifts over their heads in deference to the chill air still outside, a good draft of which was whistling through the breaks in the walls caused by the storm. It was a clean cold, though, crisp and dry, and the lack of heavy moisture almost felt good to Gabrielle, as she drew in a breath of air filled with the smells of hay and horses.
It reminded her suddenly of the long winter they'd spent here, the one she counted still as one of the happiest times of her life. "Mm." She hugged herself, as she watched Xena scatter hay over the floor to absorb the water they'd spilled. "Hey, Xe?"
The warrior paused, and hiked a brow. "Yes?"
"I know there's a ton of stuff we've got to do.. to get things back together Josc was talking to me about sort of being his co reeve, and all that."
"Sure." Xena pushed her hair back out of her eyes, and dusted her hands off, then pointed to the loft. "Ready?"
"Would you care if I didn't?"
The dark head tilted. "Didn't become his co reeve? No.. but I thought you enjoyed that."
Gabrielle pushed a bit of hay around on the floor with an idle bare toe. "I think I'd like to really concentrate on my scrolls a lot more." She admitted. "Get more in touch with that side of myself again."
Xena held out her hands, and waited for the bard to walk between them, then let the rest on her waistline as she studied her face. "Everyone's used to coming to you for answers now - it's hard to back away from that."
"You should know." Gabrielle acknowledged. "But I'd like to try it."
A nod. "All right." Xena crouched slightly, then tightened her grip and straightened, turning slightly to toss her partner up into the loft where she landed in the springy hay with a tiny bounce. Then she leaped, and caught the crossbeam, pulling herself up into the small space alongside her. They both settled down side by side, and peered up at the wooden supports just overhead. In tandem, two hands lifted, and traced names engraved there, meeting where the names met, and tangling fingers together.
Gabrielle murmured softly, then rolled onto her side, and snuggled into her favorite spot, smiling a little as the familiar smell of her partner filled her nose. She closed her eyes and spent a moment simply being grateful. Grateful that they were both alive, and relatively undamaged, and together.
She felt Xena brush the top of her head with a kiss, and reflected that no Elysian Fields could hope to equal the sweetness of that simple emotion, and how it made her feel. Xena stretched her body out and relaxed, one hand rubbing Gabrielle's back in an absent, affectionate gesture, and Gabrielle felt sleep already taking her over.
"I think you owe me a late sleep in." The bard murmured. "Don't you?"
"That's gonna be a little tough here in the barn." Xena replied dryly.
"I'll see what I can do." The warrior amended, with an amused chuckle. She felt Gabrielle's breathing slow, and even out, as the bard's body relaxed against hers. In the faint light from the lamp she'd hung carefully near the hay free spot close to the door, she could see the curve of Gabrielle's cheek, and the faint motion as her fingers tightened on Xena's shirt.
She closed her own eyes, feeling her body settle into the straw in weary content, as her mind relaxed into a similar state, satisfied with the long day's victories.
Xena felt her face crease into a smile, which remained there even after she'd joined her soulmate in their dreams.
Gabrielle felt the warmth across the back of her head, and down one shoulder and hip that she knew was sunlight coming in the tiny window that was set into the loft, admitting air and light through it's waxed glass panes.
"Mm." She kept her eyes closed, but smiled, listening to the slow, steady heartbeat under her ear. "You kept your promise."
"Oh yeah." Xena agreed, wiggling a bare foot, and hefting a horseshoe in her free hand. She'd been nailing the barn door with the metal items since just after dawn, whenever it appeared someone was going to try and enter.
It had been a peaceful morning otherwise. Xena could hear a lot of noise surrounding the barn, but she'd had no real urge to get up and find out what it was, at least until she'd fufilled her part of the bargain, and let her partner have her well deserved attempt at laziness. "You thinking about waking up?"
Gabrielle considered the question, then let her eyes drift open as she heard a distinctive growl coming from the surface she was draped over. "Hungry?"
They got dressed and emerged into the courtyard, which was full of workers, villagers and soldiers who had doffed their weapons, and donned the tools of what trades they'd had before they'd taken up arms. Amphipolis was being rebuilt at a rapid pace, and as they watched, a wagon rolled past covered with newly cut thatch.
"That for us?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
"Mm.. yes, I think so." Xena observed the load, then gave the driver a gracious nod. He touched his cap in respect, and maneuvered past. They walked on and entered the inn, which had started taking on a more normal appearance. The large room was mostly full, and the tables were covered in mugs and plates, curious eyes lifting as they entered and conversation falling awkwardly off.
Xena lifted a hand and waved it, then pushed the inner door open, and spotted her mother near the far wall, behind crates of what were obviously newly delivered supplies. "Wagons get here?"
Cyrene glanced up. "Well well." She tapped her shoulder with a wooden spoon. "Have you finished terrorizing the stockmen? I had three of them in here nearly in tears because they couldn't get to their precious horses." She shook her head at them. "And yes, Toris came in with the wagons about a candlemark ago, thank the gods"
"Good." Xena walked over and helped herself to a couple of loaves of thick, dark bread and a pot of nutty smelling cereal, which she lifted and carried towards the door.
"Xena?" The innkeeper called, quietly.
"Yes?" Her daughter turned at the door and gazed back.
"Have you spoken with Toris, since this all ended?"
Xena hesitated, then let out a breath. "No. Why?"
"Just something he said." Her mother replied. "I think he's got some things on his mind he wants to discuss with you."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "He knows where to find me." Xena finally said, before she turned, and walked through the door, letting it swing shut behind her. Gabrielle and Cyrene looked at each other for minute, then both sighed.
"Some things never change." The innkeeper rubbed her temples. "The two of them have been tooth and nail since they got out of nappies." She paused. "Maybe even before "
Gabrielle sighed. "I'll see what I can do." She turned, and followed Xena, hearing Cyrene's weary grunt behind her.
The warrior halted her progress across the river road and turned, to see Joscyln hurrying to catch up with her. She waited for the reeve to come along side, then turned and continued walking. "What's up?"
"I've gotten word from the outer sentries there's a small merchant train coming through from the Po the downriver road."
Xena nodded. "Good to hear it's been a fortnight, long enough for word to spread, I guess." She paused again, and put her hands on her hips, gazing down the road in question. "Not much between us and everything else though long trip for them."
"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." Josc scratched his grizzled head. "Gots some folks who were asking about settling further down wanted to know what you thought about it."
The dark head cocked. "What I thought? If they can support the land, more power to them. What do I have to do with it?"
Josc stared at her pensively. "There's a lot of displaced people here, Xena. They want to settle nearby . The gods know we've got the land around here, but the main reason's because of you. They figure if you're here, it's safer." He told her bluntly. "There's a group who teamed up with what's left of Potadeia they agreed to go back and reform the town, but.. they want assurance if there's trouble..um "
Xena's eyebrows lifted. "What do I look like, a corporal of the Athens guard?" She snorted. "Since when do you get guarantees of anything in this damn life, Josc? If they want protection, they can form a militia just like Amphipolis did."
He sighed. "So you won't help them? I mean, it's not that I blame you, Xena. You've done so much "
The warrior's head dropped, and she studied the earth beneath their boots. "They want someone to direct their lives, Josc I can't do that. If they get attacked.. if I'm here, of course I'll go help but " She rubbed her neck. "They need to learn to defend themselves . Not depend on me to do that for them."
They glanced at each other in uncomfortable silence for a few beats. "I've heard a lot of the soldiers talk about settling here." Josc finally said. "I dont think it's because of the nice fertile fields, either."
Xena remained quiet.
"Whether you want it or not, Xena.. those people want a piece of you." Josc turned, and looked back at the town. "We're going to add a lot of bodies to the land here . Word'll get around about that, and that brings merchants, and trade.. and more growth " He turned back and looked directly at her. "Already heard talk of maintaining the banks that flood cut back down the river it made the channel deep enough for barges, I reckon."
Xena looked away, off towards the grassy plain still littered with bones and bits of armor. Life was a series of tradeoffs, she acknowledged bleakly, having heard the same stories, and knew what they meant.
Amphipolis, the one she'd known from childhood, the one she'd fallen in love with again after all the years of horror, would disappear forever, replaced with city she'd probably never feel at home in.
She could leave. She could take her family, and go elsewhere removing the mystique and the reason for so many of her followers to stay around Amphipolis, allowing the town to keep it's backwoods sleepiness. But was that fair? After so many years of scratching at the earth to make ends meet, at last now her hometown might get a chance at growth, and change.
Could she.. should she deny them that just for her own comfort?
Xena sighed. "Tell them we'll work something out maybe arrange for a regional defense or something." She told the reeve. "And anyone who wants to stick around, better make themselves useful. I don't want a thousand lazy hack fighters taking up space, got me? They got skills, they can stay. Otherwise, let em move on."
Joscylyn let a grin cross his lined face. "I've been telling em they've gotta be at least as useful as you are." He told her. "Never saw so many feckless farmboys scrabbling round to learn them a trade before."
That surprised a laugh out of Xena. "All right then." She folded her arms across her chest. "We'll just make the best of it."
Josc nodded, and paused a beat. "Xena.. may I ask a bit of a personal thing?"
A breath. "Sure."
The reeve hitched his thumbs inside his belt. "Gabrielle tells me she's stepping back from some of her responsibilities is she all right? I know she was hurt in the fight, but she seemed better."
Xena exhaled. "She's fine I think she just needs a break. She wants to concentrate on her scrolls for a while. Give her some time." The warrior's lips quirked into a smile. "With all this going on, she'll be poking around soon enough."
Relieved, he nodded. "Good to hear you know, the council misses her."
The warrior clapped him on the shoulder, and turned to head towards the site of the bridge rebuilding. "Let her know."
Josc watched her walk off, with her distinctive swagger bringing a faint smirk to his face. "Aye. I'll do that, Xena."
Ephiny mounted the familiar steps and padded across the porch, reaching the door and knocking lightly on it. She worked the latch and opened it as she heard the response from within, and pushed the door open, entering and closing it behind her. "Good morning."
Gabrielle was seated at her desk, dressed in a warm, woolen gown with forearm length sleeves in a bright green color. She had scrolls covering the desk's surface, with two ink pots and a scattering of quills, one of which was currently between her teeth as she regarded something she'd just written. "Morning, yourself c'mon in and sit down."
Ephiny neatly navigated around the stuffed toys on the floor and seated herself in one of the comfortable chairs near the fire. "Looks good in here." She tipped her head back and regarded the newly thatched ceiling.
"Mm." Gabrielle rested her weight on her elbows and nodded. "Nice to have our stuff all back it looks a lot more like home again." She smiled, then grinned as she spotted Dori's crawling form. "There you are.. I was about to go look for you, Dori."
"Mama." Dori, covered in dust, got laborously to her feet and toddled over, her tiny boots scuffing against the wood. "Guff!" She turned and pointed under the bad. "Bad!"
Gabrielle wiped a bit of dirt from the baby's face. "Honey, Ares just doesn't like you pulling his tail all the time.. so he hides."
Dori wrapped both arms around her mother's sturdy leg and mouthed her kneecap. All traces of her ordeal were now gone, and she was back to her headlong rambunciousness, except for a tendency Gabrielle had noticed to want to touch both her and Xena more.
Now she ruffled the baby's hair. "Did you say hi to your aunt Ephiny?"
Pale green eyes peered up at the Amazon from between dark lashes. "Hi."
"Aw." Ephiny laughed in delight. "That's so cute."
"Mm.. and she knows it." Gabrielle gazed affectionately at her offspring. "Thank you, Dori."
Dori turned her head. "Cookie?"
Both women burst out laughing. "Oh gods.. I shouldn't laugh.. " Gabrielle muffled her snickers. "She is sooo bad."
A tiny lip poked out. "Mama?"
"She looks just like Xena when she does that." Ephiny chuckled. "I'm just waiting for one of those raised eyebrow looks."
"Here." Gabrielle broke off a bit of the honeycake she'd been nibbling on and handed it over. "You spoiled rotten baby, you."
Dori's face wrinkled into a grin that even Gabrielle recognized as being her image, and stuffed the cake into her mouth, dropping crumbs liberally. "Mmmm."
Ephiny watched mother and daughter, and felt a quiet pang in her heart. "How's it going here? Haven't seen much of you the past few days."
"Oh." Gabrielle twirled a quill, smiling easily. "I've been working on an outline.. I want to get the details down right before I start writing about the war." She leaned back in the comfortable chair and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankle. "How's it going out there? Did the upland Amazons decide to head back yet?"
"Hm." Ephiny leaned against her chair arm. "Flatteringly enough, a number of them want to come back with us I talked to Pony and some of the others, and we've got enough space for them. Looks like we'll be gaining some valuable skills."
"Great." The bard smiled, then glanced down. "I dont I mean, I feel horrible, in a way, Eph it was my fault really, that both of their nations lost their leaders."
"Gillen can rot in Hades. She tried to kill you, Gabrielle." Ephiny shot back. "I never trusted her.. she gave me the creeps from day one, and frankly " Her hands flexed a bit. "I wish it'd been me who spilled her blood."
Patient, mist green eyes reviewed her. "Well, it wasn't." Gabrielle reminded her. "Those nations came and joined in battle with us, Eph. I want to make sure they don't lose because of it. Do they have everything they need?"
Ephiny face twitched. "Yes " She conceded. "They've taken over the whole back section near the ravine.. the hunting's good back there, and frankly, I think they like it."
"Good." The bard nodded. "I heard we've got merchants headed this way finally it should be a good trade market." Mostly, she acknowledged, because Andreas war coffers had been captured along with his command staff, and provided a large stock of coin and trade goods pilfered from the gods only knew how many wrecked villages between his home city and here.
"Mm." The regent picked up a quill, and examined it. "It's so hard to believe it's over, and we won." She glanced up at Gabrielle honestly. "I figured we all did that it would end a lot worse for us, Gab. Pony and I talked about it. We didn't expect we'd all survive." A thin smile tugged her lips. "Here we were, all ready to make the ultimate sacrifice."
Gabrielle nodded in silence, her fingers sorting through Dori's dark hair. "Yeah. Me too." She looked up. "Feels like a dream sometimes. I expected to lose everything." A breath. "Maybe all my luck finally caught up to me." She nudged a scroll. "I think that's why I want to go back and get all this down finish up some other writing projects I was working on."
"Let someone else worry about running the world for a while?" Ephiny smile gently.
"Mm." A nod.
"Hey.. that reminds me." Ephiny discarded the discussion she'd meant to have and changed the subject. "This little kiddo's birthday's coming up." She held out a finger to Dori, and watched the baby tug it industriously. "I was just thinking "
"Let me guess." Gabirelle burst into laughter, her momentary dark thoughts dismissed. "A party."
"Hey!" Ephiny shook a finger at her. "It's a legitimate reason. Her and Gran's two are darn good um.."
"Excuse." The bard supplied helpfully. "Uh huh."
"Gabrielle." Ephiny glowered at her.
"Just kidding I think it's a great idea." Gabrielle relented. "How about it, Dori you want a party?"
Dori looked up inquisitively. "Bck."
"All right, a party it is." The bard lifted her up and set her in her lap, giving her a hug, and sighing contentedly. "I think we're due a party anyway, Eph. Invite everyone."
The Amazon's jaw dropped slightly. "Everyone?"
"Everyone." Gabrielle decided. "Amazons, Centaurs, forest people, whoever's still around from the soldiers those merchants are headed this way.. let's do it right."
Hazel eyes shifted around the room, then fell on her again. "Gabrielle, that's not a party. That's an invitation to chaos."
"You." Gabirelle pointed. "Suggested it, and I'm sure the Amazons, being the party experts, can handle all the details." A smile. "Right?"
"Oh boy." Ephiny covered her eyes. "What did I just get myself into."
"Guff." Dori tossed a quill at her.
Xena kept her eyes closed, and concentrated on the sounds around her. She could hear water nearby, rippling over stone, and the dried leaves of winter rustling overhead. She could smell the spring, and the dusty earth she was lying on, and the rich pungent scent of the tree bark on the roots that cradled her head.
A bird chirped. She could hear the faint scratches of his claws against the tree branch as he moved down towards the end of the limb, and heard the soft fluttering as he twitched his wings into place, the quills making just the merest rasping sound.
The breeze blew over her, raising goosebumps in it's wake, and brought her a hint of something familiar. Xena cocked her head and concentrated, hearing at first nothing, then an almost inaudible percussion, a scuff of leather against earth, bearing a weight her instincts could measure with exactly precision.
But any two people could be the same weight. She conceded. She counted the footfalls, moving to an internal rhythm that spoke of strength and agility, and youth. Light enough to be female. Heavy enough to be those of a fighter. The length between them indicating someone shoulder height on Xena, with a compact, athletic body and a neat, rhythmic little swagger.
The warrior smiled again, stretching her body out and inhaling deeply, catching her partner's very distinctive smell on the wind.
Ooo. And she had lunch with her.
Xena let her eyes open, and rolled her head to one side, in time to see Gabrielle climbing the last small rise up to the spring, leaning forward and digging her steps into the soft earth, a neat basket slung over her shoulder by a leather strap. The sun backlit the bard, outlining her form in gold, and almost dazzling Xena's eyes as the rays peeked around her.
"Hi there." Gabrielle seated herself, seemingly oblivious of her partner's bemused regard. "Thought I'd find you up here."
"Whatcha got there?" Xena hiked herself up on her elbows and peered at the basket. "Thought I'd take a break for a few minutes we've been moving bridge supports all morning."
"Just some sandwiches." Gabrielle set the basket down and stretched out on her side, crossing her booted feet at the ankles. "Dori's playing with her cousins I just had a sudden urge to be with you."
"Did you?" Xena reached a lazy hand out and traced a line up Gabrielle's leg, encased in it's woolen covering. "Good." She leaned over and kissed the spot, then nibbled the inside of Gabrielle's knee for good measure.
"You know, Xe?" Gabrielle ran her fingers affectionately through the dark hair, smiling as Xena rested her chin on the bard's thigh and gazed up at her in question. "You really make my day sometimes."
Xena's head cocked curiously. "I do?"
"Mm." Gabrielle paused, and remembered a day very long ago, memories of a young girl she hardly connected herself to anymore.
I know I can do it. Gabrielle had convinced herself, for the tenth time. She'd very carefully measured out the herbs, combining them with unsure fingers in a wooden cup whose dimensions stretched her still growing hands.
Across the fire, a dour, dark visiaged form was crouched, intent on the neverending task of sharpening the long, frightening sword that kept them safe.
They'd had a long day, no fighting, but struggling through a deserty wasteland, whose loose sands taxed even Xena's stamina, and actually had put Gabrielle at a rare advantage, being much lighter than her companion.
Xena had been very grumpy. She hadn't said a word all day, and now was hunkered over her weapon like a lion over a kill, her very posture rejecting any contact with Gabrielle or anyone else who happened to come along.
There. Gabrielle put the cup down, and carefully poured boiling water over the herbs, blinking a little as the steam rose up and filled her nostrils, heavy with spice. She got up to get a spoon to mix it with, picking up her little bag and bringing it back with her, then sitting down and pulling out her supplies.
A slip of her hand, and she grabbed at a small bottle that had popped out, it's cork working loose as she juggled it over the still steaming cup. To her horror, some of the contents spilled out and into the liquid before she could recover control of the jar and get the top back on.
Oh no! Gabrielle had been devastated. The herbs were in very short supply, and this had been her only real chance now she'd have to tell Xena what had happened, and probably discard the hot drink she'd tried to make for her. Anxiously, she'd put the jar away and retrieved her spoon, stirring the mixture hesitantly.
Well. She'd sniffed at it. It smelled okay. She'd glanced furtively at Xena. Maybe she wouldn't notice. Gabrielle had girded her adolescent loins, and taken the wooden cup in both hands, then stood up and walked across their campsite, carefully skirting the neat pile of Argo's tack, until she was at Xena's side.
The scraping went on for a minute, then stopped. "Yeah?" Cold blue eyes had flicked to her face. "What is it?"
Bravely, Gabrielle had held out the cup. "I made you some tea."
One inky brow moved up. "Again?"
"I think I got it this time, Xena, really." She'd insisted earnestly. "I know the last time I messed up, and put those pepper leaves in, but "
Xena had sighed, and taken the cup. "Okay. Great. Thanks."
With her own, silent sigh, Gabrielle had let her hands drop, and turned around, to walk the long, lonely trek over to the far side of the fire, where her borrowed blankets mutely waited. She'd gotten halfway there, when a low, growly voice stopped her.
She'd turned, and held her breath. "Yes?"
"What did you put in here?" Xena had asked, peering into the cup before pinning her with a direct stare.
Oh piggy wonks. Gabrielle's shoulders had dropped, and she'd tangled her fingers together. "I it was an accident, Xena.. really.. I was just getting a spoon out, and there was this jar.. and the top came off.. just a little got in there, honest.. I didn't.. think you'd even notice." A breath. "I'll listen, tell me where to find the herbs.. I'll go find them.. and make you another one okay?"
Xena had, with remarkable patience for her, waited through all the stammering. "What." She asked crisply. "Was it?"
Gabrielle had inhaled. "Um honey." She'd mumbled. "Just tell me where I can find.. that kind.. or maybe, hey.. wasn't that a town we passed just before we stopped for the night? I can go back there.. and I.."
"I like it." Xena had lifted her voice slightly. "It's good."
Gabrielle had just stared at her. "What?" She'd taken a hesitant step back towards the seated warrior. "You like it? Really?"
And Xena had looked up from the cup, right at her, plain as day in the firelight, and smiled.
At her. It had been one of the most beautiful things Gabrielle had ever seen. She'd felt an incredulous smile of her own answering it, as she watched Xena take a second sip, then amazingly, wink at her.
It had made her feel so good, she hardly knew what to do with herself.
Gabrielle traced along one eyebrow with a fingertip. "Smile for me." She asked, watching Xena's face obediently crease into a sexy grin. "Sure is a lot easier now."
Puzzled, Xena's brow creased. "Easier than what?"
Her soulmate laughed, and shook her head. "Nevermind I was just remembering old times. So" She pulled the basket over, and opened it. "Fish, or rabbit?"
"Yes." Xena rolled over and pillowed her head on her partner's leg. "Surprise me."
"Mmm.. .that could get dangerous.. I've got leeks here." Gabrielle warned her, taking one out and tickling the warrior's nose with the end of it. They both laughed, and she relented, removing a round, slightly wrinkled grape and popping it in Xena's mouth.
Xena offered to share, and she accepted, leaning over and retrieving her half in a delicious mix of fruit and lips.
Concluded (really) in Part 27