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 8
The progress was slow, Gabrielle realized, too much so for the restless Xena, who was trotting Iolaus up and down the column of moving people. She had given Hercules over to help haul gear, and was walking, but the night had been a long one, neither of them had gotten any sleep, and she was really feeling it.
So, she thought, was Xena, who despite her restless energy was visibly, to Gabrielle's eyes, forcing it.
She had been very surprised, when they'd said her family was going to come on with them to Amphipolis, to find the rest of Potadeia asking to come too. She and Xena had talked about it for several frazzled minutes in private, and finally the warrior had rubbed her eyes and lifted a hand, and said sure.
So here they were… barely two score men, women and children, straggling along the sloping road that eventually would take them home, and hopefully would provide the tattered remnants of her birthplace some solace at least.
"The caves… we need to be with other people, Gabrielle." Tectdus had told her wearily. "All alone there… I .."
And she'd agreed, after thinking about it. At the very least, they could take over the back clearing, where some older huts, long out of use could be fixed up in fairly short order. She mulled the idea over, then nodded quietly to herself, glancing up as hoofbeats came closer and Xena sidestepped Iolaus through the stragglers to her side. "Not much further, huh?"
Xena leaned over, and offered an arm in silence. The bard hesitated in slight surprise, then put her staff against Iolaus' shoulder and grabbed on, allowing Xena to haul her up in place, and settling her knees on either side of her soulmate's body. She retrieved the staff, and slipped her free arm around the warrior's stomach as Iolaus moved off out of the way of the walkers.
"We should be there just after sunset." Xena commented.
"I had to get up here to hear that?" Her partner protested mildly. "Good grief, Xena."
A faint smile appeared, as the warrior turned her head slightly. "No.. I just wanted you there." She moved a little further away from the crowd.
"Oh." Gabrielle was irrationally pleased with the comment. "Okay." She snuggled closer and gave the warrior a little squeeze. "How are you feeling? You look a little.. uh… tense." The ribs under her arm expanded, held, then released slowly. "Is it the sheep? They make those weird noises, I know."
That got a chuckle. "No.. I don't mind the sheep.. I think I'm just tired." Xena admitted. "There's so damn much to do… where do we start?" She shook her head. "Getting home's just the beginning."
"I know." Gabrielle replied softly. "Well, first things first, I guess… I'll have to get everyone here settled…then we can send messengers out…I think Jess will go out to his people, and he can drop by Cirron too.." She considered, relaxing into Iolaus' steady pace as she leaned on Xena's back. "I'll send Eph out to the Amazons.. and the centaurs… what do you think, invite them all to Amphipolis to a council or something?"
Xena remained silent for a bit. "Not Amphipolis… has to be someplace we can assemble and train troops, and I'm not gonna do that right in the village. There's not enough space, for one thing.. we'll draw too much attention to it, for another." She gazed down the road, bathed in the early gold of sunset. "There's a valley just over that range to the south, though.. it's pretty big, and defensible."
"Mm." Gabrielle considered the changes that would bring. "You planning on us camping out there?"
The warrior shifted a little. "Once troops start coming in, yeah." She answered quietly. "I'm a target anyway, Gabrielle."
The bard laid her cheek against the armored back and gave Xena a little rub on the belly. "We're a target… I've accepted that." She answered. "Do we need to get everyone out of Amphipolis too?"
"Mm… the troops will be close enough to protect it… I'd rather not. They're one of the few sources of supply we'll have." The warrior responded practically. "That's gonna be tough.. they've raided out most of the villages in the area." She considered in silence for a few moments. "However… the people we're gathering.. are used to living off the land."
"That's true." Gabrielle agreed. "The forest dwellers, the Amazons, and the centaurs especially…is it possible to field an army that's self sufficient?"
A few more silent paces forward. "Guess we'll find out. Because this army's not going to raid villages, that's for sure." Xena stated flatly.
The sun slanted more deeply, and the river grew from a flat ribbon to a recognizable motion as they headed for the bridge that would allow them to cross into the outlying regions leading to Amphipolis. Gabrielle spent a moment idly remembering a night ride across this very plain, when she'd ventured out to find a group of frightened young Amazons, and a shiveringly heroic Xena, who had just plunged into an icy river to rescue Ephiny.
"Hey, Xena… "
The warrior turned her head, and gazed over her shoulder. "Yeah?"
"Remember the night you pulled Eph out of the ice?"
"Sure…what brought that up?" Xena asked, curiously.
"Nothing.. I was just thinking about that… we came back this way."
They reached the bridge and Xena crossed first, Iolaus' hooves sounding loud on the wooden planking. She paused on the other end and straightened, regarding the surroundings carefully. "Looks all right." She waved at the waiting group, and they started across. "Should start hitting the sentries pretty soon."
"Mm." Gabrielle felt her mouth go dry, and she cleared her throat. "Hope everything's okay." She felt Xena's body tense under her hands. "I'm sure it is."
"Yeah." Xena murmured, as her heart skipped a few beats. "It's too quiet, though." She urged Iolaus ahead and exhaled as his hooves touched the packed earth roadway, her eyes roving over the softly blowing fields of river wheat towards the slight rise that hid Amphipolis from her vision.
What if. Xena kept her breathing steady. What if you find the same thing you saw in Potadeia? Anxiety gripped her chest, and she knew Gabrielle felt it, from the sudden motion against her back. An ugly, terrifying vision popped into her mind, of burning, and dead bodies…
"Xena!" Gabrielle had grabbed her tightly, and put a hand on her shoulder, reacting to the sudden shifts in her body language.
Get a grip. The warrior firmly smacked herself. Sit your butt down in the gods be damned saddle, and stop spooking everyone. "Sorry." She muttered, relaxing a little, and patting the bard's leg.
"What was that?" Gabrielle whispered, anxiously, as the first of the Potadeians crossed over the river. "You scared the skirt off me, Xena."
"Nothing.. just an overtired mind." Her partner replied tersely, as she guided the stallion down the road, matching the slow pace of the two wagons they salvaged. The first was full of belongings, and the five or six injured villagers they'd rescued. Lennat and Lila walked alongside it, taking turns carrying Gabriel, and keeping a watch on Hecuba, and the other elders who were seated in the second wagon.
The sun fell further, painting the golden grains in crimson. Xena fiddled with Iolaus' reins as they moved along, mentally trying not to force herself into hearing signals that they were really too far away to hear just yet.
If they were there. She could almost count the paces.
She almost wanted to stop, and turn Iolaus, and flee, not ready to face the silence, if it came. Not ready to see Gabrielle's face, if the worst happened.
A hundred paces left. Her heart started to speed up.
She considered praying to the gods, but since when had that ever helped anything? They'd probably laugh.
Fifty paces. Her hands were sweating on the reins, and she had to force herself to keep her breathing even. But she couldn’t do anything about her racing heartbeat, and she knew her soulmate could feel it. Gabrielle had pulled herself up closer, and was peering over her shoulder, her own breathing a short and nervous pressure against Xena's back.
What could she say to her? What should she say? "Gabrielle?"
"Yes?" The bard's voice cracked a little.
Twenty paces, and the wind whistled a little, in the crimson silence. The wagon rumbled behind them.
Ten paces. Xena felt her hands start to shake, and she clenched them on the reins, feeling the leather slick with sweat. "Listen.. I.. um… "
"Shh." The bard slipped a hand up and covered her mouth.
"Mmph?" Xena blinked, startled.
Then she heard it.
A hunting hawk's cry, rising up over the rippling grain.
Gabrielle thought her soulmate was going to fall out of the saddle, which would have been a definite first. She gripped her with one arm, and grabbed at the saddlehorn with the other, holding them both in place. "Easy, tiger." She whispered, feeling the racing pulse begin to slow.
She knew what Xena had been afraid of, the same thing she herself had been forcefully putting from her mind since lunchtime, trying to convince herself that worrying about it made no sense.
"Yeah.. yeah, I'm fine." Xena replied gruffly, shifting and tightening her legs around Iolaus' sides. "Thanks." She tilted her head back and whistled, and was rewarded by an immediate answer, followed by movement as two sentries broke cover and started towards them at an easy jog.
"Ho, Xena!" The closer one lifted a hand and waved it. "Glad yer back!" He slowed as the warrior galloped over. "Been quite a time!"
"Raiders?" Xena asked, instantly, her brows creasing in concern.
"Eh?" The man cocked his head. "Ah.. no..no…ah…" He exchanged a look with his partner, who scratched his ear and grinned. "Erh… you'll be hearing all about it up at the village… but we're glad ye're back."
"Um.. thanks." Xena wondered what was going on, then she shrugged and gestured behind her. "Glad everything's okay… these folks weren't as lucky."
"Ah." He sobered. "We’ll send word.. will they be staying?"
"Yes." Gabrielle answered softly, from her perch behind Xena. "They're what's left of my hometown."
The sentries both came closer in pure instinct, and the first one put a hand on her boot. "Ah.. lass." He murmured softly. "Sorry to hear that."
Xena released one hand off her reins and curled it around Gabrielle's, which was tightly clasped around her stomach. "Let them know up ahead, all right? We'll need supplies, blankets… shelter… Joscyln knows."
"Aye." The man gave Gabrielle's leg a pat. "We will… travel safely." He stepped back a pace to let them pass, then lifted his head, and cupped his mouth, sending a whistle skyward.
The group moved on, as the setting sun brought a cold wind down from the mountains. Gabrielle was glad of the warm body in front of her, but wished the ride was over, and their tasks completed, as she longed for her soft bed, and the comforts of home. She gave Xena's thigh a gentle pat. "Hey."
"Mm?" Xena still had hold of her hand, and didn't seem inclined to release it.
A half turn, and a glint of blue eyes gazing down at her. "Yeah." Xena finally said quietly. "I was… concerned."
Gabrielle stroked her side idly, comforting her. "Me too." A pause. "What do you suppose he meant by stuff going on in the village, if not raiders?"
A dark brow lifted speculatively. "Well…I can only thing of one thing that would be as dangerous as raiders, in that village."
"Hmm?" Gabrielle was puzzled. "What do you……" She thought about it a minute. "Oh." She made a face. "You don't think…oh no, Xena.. come on now.. she's only eight months old."
"Nine." Her partner muttered. "Guess we'll find out."
Gabrielle peered over her shoulder, at the sloping road leading home. "Guess we will."
It was full twilight before they entered the last stretch of sandy road, with the first outbuildings in view. Xena was, frankly, glad to see the familiar outlines, and hear the normal sounds of their home, as residents spotted them and called greetings.
Her eyes went to the inn, central in the village square, and she smiled when the door opened, and Cyrene strode out, leaning on the railing and looking very relieved. She lifted a hand in greeting, and her mother returned it. "Here we go."
Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah… I'll get my family and the others settled…it's going to be so hard for them, Xena."
Xena patted her arm. "I'll go get Dori… then I'll give you a hand as soon as I get the horses stabled."
"And after we say hello to our daughter." The bard reminded her, with a tap on the ribs.
"Well… of course." Xena sounded mildly insulted. She guided Iolaus through the village gates and into the courtyard, seeing Josclyn and a few other elders heading her way as she did so. "Ho, Josc."
"Xena." The reeve nodded. "I hear there's trouble." He watched the group as it came to a silent, weary halt.
Xena swung her leg over the stallion's neck, and slid down, then turned and lifted Gabrielle down as well. The bard slipped in front of her and went to Josclyn, taking a breath as she did. "Josc… these people need a place to stay."
The reeve nodded. "Aye..so they said."
Gabrielle exhaled. "Okay.. let me introduce you.. " She led Josc over, and began to speak softly.
A patter of feet warned her, and Xena turned just in time to catch Ares as he hurled his furry body at her and growled in ecstasy. "Hey.. hey.. take it easy." She caught him , and knelt, hugging him and petting his fur. "Glad to see you too, boy… " She accepted his kisses, and rubbed his ears. "Go on.. go say hello to your other mom." She pointed out Gabrielle's retreating form, and the wolf loped off.
Xena caught sight of Ephiny and Eponin heading their way, making a beeline for the bard. She stepped into their path and held her hands up. "Whoa." She peered at them, blinking at their haggard looks.
"Don’t' whoa me." Eponin growled, starting to go past. "I need to talk to Gabrielle."
"Me too." Ephiny added, joining her in bypassing the warrior.
Xena reached out and grabbed them, hauling them to a stop. "Hold it." She pulled backwards. "Let her do what she's doing." She told them quietly. "Those people are what's left of Potadeia."
A soft gasp made her turn her head, and she exchanged a quiet look with Cyrene, who had walked over. She turned back to see the shock on the Amazon's faces. "Gabrielle's father was killed yesterday."
"No." Ephiny groaned softly. "Damn it." Eponin dropped her gaze in silence, studying the ground.
"Mom.. I think Hecuba could use a friend right now." The warrior added quietly. "She's in the second wagon."
The innkeeper squeezed her daughter's arm. "Are you both all right?" She asked, in a low voice.
"Yes." Xena replied.
Her mother nodded. "All right.. let me go find the poor woman." She hurried off into the torchlit shadows. Xena let out a breath, and turned to Ephiny. "So if you'd got some beef or other, put it on me, not her. Not now, got me?"
The Amazons looked at each other, then at Xena. "Actually.. " Ephiny murmured.
"Yeah." Eponin agreed. "It's her fault."
"My fault?" Xena's brow creased.
"Definitely." Ephiny gave a brisk nod. "Absolutely your fault, don't you agree, Pony?"
"Oh yeah." The dark haired Amazon tugged her hooded cloak a little closer.
It had been too long a day. Xena felt herself losing her grip on her temper, and she closed her eyes, counting to ten. "All right. Well, I need to go get my daughter, then if you want, you can yell at me." She pushed past them and stalked towards where the nursery was. She got three or four paces, when she was flanked by the two, who remained prudently silent.
The nursery was a small cabin, filled with bright colored fabric, and made baby proof. Xena pushed the door open, and glanced around, spotting her daughter resting in her cradle, and squirming around restlessly.
Dori spotted her at the same moment, and let out a yell. "Boo!!!!!!"
Guess she remembers who I am, all right. Xena walked over and gazed down at her, as the infant's face lit up, and felt a little sad, knowing herself to be a far different person than the playmate Dori had known last. Or who I was. She dropped a hand down and let the baby clutch her finger. "Hey cutie."
Dori gripped her forefinger, and held her other hand up. "Boo!" She kicked a little, wanting Xena to pick her up, puzzled when she didn't. "Boo?"
"She missed you." Ephiny said quietly, from behind her. "She called for you.. and for Gab too, of course, a lot."
"Bck" The baby tugged her hand impatiently.
"But especially you… in the mornings." Ephiny's voice was faintly testy. "Very… early… in the mornings."
Dori's face wrinkled up unhappily. "Boo?"
Xena knelt, unable to maintain her distance, and gently cupped the baby's face. "Hey…"
Both hands clutched hers, as Dori tried to pull her closer, and Xena found herself picking the baby up and cradling her against her armored chest instinctively, feeling a tiny, warm fist clutch at her throat. "Hello, honey… have you been a good girl?"
A slight cough was heard behind her.
"Sure ya have, huh?" Xena felt a tug on her cloak, and saw the baby chewing on the fastening of it. "You wanna go see your mama?"
The chewing stopped, and green eyes blinked at her. "Mama?"
"Yeah… c'mon." Xena stood, rocking her daughter gently, then turned.
And stopped dead, staring at the two Amazons perched on the worktable in the room. "What in Hades happened to you two?" She blurted.
"Bck." Dori added.
"What… oh this?" Ephiny held up a lock of green tinted hair. "Or this.. " She indicated a large bandage around her neck." A pause. "Or that?" She glanced at her lover, who, now that her cloak was thrown back, displayed an arm in a sling.
"All of it.. " The warrior stated. "Did we get attacked? I thought the sentries said it was quiet."
Ephiny folded her arms over her chest. "Attacked? No..no.. no one attacked us." She replied, scratching an ear. "We did encounter one of the most persistent and diabolical adversaries I've had the misfortune to face in my hoary years as an Amazon, however."
"Yep." Ephiny folded her arms, and gave the warrior a stern look.
Xena tried, she really did, but her mind was just too tired. "What in Hades are you talking about." She finally asked.
"Your kid." Pony stated, succinctly. "Is one huge, honking, Amazon boatload full of nothing but trouble."
Xena blinked. "Dori?" She peered down at her daughter, who was nestling contentedly against her, chewing on a bit of her cloak. "Are you trouble?"
Dori looked up at her. "Boo!" She let out a little laugh. "Mama!" She added, kicking a little and sucking on a finger, looking far from troublesome. In fact, she was the very epitome of cuteness.
"C'mon.. " Xena shook her head. "She's a nine month old child… you're telling me a couple of Amazons can't keep up with her?" She paced to the door. "Unbelievable… c'mon, Dori.. let's go find your mama."
"Mama!" Dori gurgled an amiable agreement as the door closed behind them.
Ephiny looked at Eponin and scratched her chin. "You know. I'm going to have to kill her. "
"I'll help." Her lover let her head rest against Ephiny's shoulder. "Tomorrow." She muttered. "Hey… we can actually sleep tonight."
Ephiny nodded wearily. "Uh huh." She exhaled in utter relief. "Pony, this has been the longest month of my life." She considered. "It was even longer than my last month being pregnant with Xenon, which let me tell you, lasted at least half a year."
"Really?" Pony asked, distracted.
"Yeah, really." Ephiny sighed. "You wanna try it?"
"No!" Eponin's eyes snapped wide open. "No..no, I mean.. uh…listen, kids are great.. I love em… I think they're swell.. but I'm not..ah.. no." Shake of a dark head. "No."
Ephiny chuckled softly. "Okay… " They were both quiet for a bit.
"Poor Gabrielle." Pony finally said. "Losing her father, and all." She looked up when Ephiny didn't answer. "Were they close?"
The Amazon Regent studied the floor of the now silent nursery. "It's complicated." She finally replied.
"Oh, that's new.. for them." Pony commented.
Ephiny exhaled. "Pony.. I can't… I can't talk about it… I know some stuff that I'm not supposed to know.. and Gabrielle probably doesn't know I know it."
"Mm." The weapons master grunted. "Okay…I overheard Menelda talking about something with her, and her family, and it not being so great…she thought that was why Gabrielle stuck around Xena, cause that's what she was used to."
Ephiny was silent for a bit, thinking. "You know, except for after Solon's death, I never even considered that…and that time was only because I was so scared for her, and Xena was so out of it." She ran her fingers through green tinted curly hair. "I've seen relationships that were like that… remember Ardris?"
"Mmph." Eponin nodded. "Yeah. That was sad.. but they're not like that." She stated. "At all."
"No." Her lover agreed. "Well, come on.. let's get things settled and get some dinner.. then I hear a nice, soft bed calling me."
Eponin led the way out, and held the door. "Eph?"
"Hmm?" The Amazon regent paused, and looked at her in question.
"If it'd been Xenon.. would you have forgiven Gabrielle?"
Ephiny stood motionless for several heartbeats, staring off into nothing. Then she let out a held breath and tensed her lips into a grim, half smile. "No." She answered softly. "I don't think I could have." Her eyes met Pony's. "And that's why I was so scared for Gabrielle."
Pony merely nodded, and followed her out the door.
"I know it's a lot of people, Josc.." Gabrielle murmured, as they watched the group slowly start to move around the clearing, entering darkened worn doorways in the flickering torchlight. "I just couldn’t say no."
"Aye..lass.. no one would have expected ye to." The reeve put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We'll make a way for them…glad I had the bit of warning, to get some folk in here to clean up a bit. The back well's been reopened, see?"
Gabrielle gazed into the shadows, then nodded. "Thanks…" She looked around. "Where's Lila… I thought she.."
"Ah." Josc put an arm around her shoulders. "Cyrene's come t'get em, yer sister, and the child, and all, and took em up to the inn." He gazed at the tired bard. "She always takes care of family, that ye know well."
Family. Gabrielle let her head drop, as she studied the leaves underfoot. "Yes, she does…I had to bring them here. I couldn’t leave them out there alone." She wiped at her face, clearing the tears with an impatient hand. "Gods.. look at me. Here I go again."
Josclyn hugged her a little. "Gabrielle, it's right ye should be sad… ye've lost a lot this day." He sighed. "We'll take good care of them, don't you worry."
Gabrielle remained silent for a moment. "This is just the start, Josc… it's worse than we ever imagined." She murmured, feeling him tense.
"Aye, well.. time enough for that tomorrow." The reeve decided quietly.
The sound of boots crunching on the path made them both look up, and Gabrielle felt a tired smile cross her face at the dark haired form ambling towards them. She released Josc and turned towards her partner. "Hey."
"Mama!" Dori warbled, seeing her, and squirming in Xena's grasp. "Mama!"
"Here I am, honey." Gabrielle took her daughter and hugged her, exulting in the feel of the tiny, warm body squiggling against her own. "Hey.. I missed you too!" She laughed as the baby gave her a wet kiss on the neck. "Good grief.. you grew!" She held the baby out and examined her. "Wow… check her out, Xena!"
Xena smiled, watching them. "I did." She let her eyes flick over to Joscyln's face, as the reeve also watched the young mother and child. "Everyone settled?"
"Just about." The man answered, with a sigh. "Best we can tonight, at any rate. Be easier on first light tomorrow." He studied the warrior. "Bad news, eh?"
Xena nodded. "That'll wait for the morning too." She put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Mom's getting your family bunked down in the inn… let's go change, and we can meet there."
The bard nodded, and cradled her daughter. "You're getting heavy, honey…" She laughed. "What's grandma been feeding you?"
"Grama." Dori repeated with a squeal.
Xena chuckled. "Oh.. that's new.. wish I'd been there to hear mom hear that." Then she fell silent, reflecting on just how much more she was going to miss in the coming months. She kept her arm around the bard as they walked, feeling Dori clutch at a finger. "She did get bigger, huh?"
Gabrielle tickled the baby's belly. "She sure did.. I think she got taller, too… she used to fit along my arm, now she doesn't, and I don't think my arms are getting shorter." The sounds of the courtyard fell behind them, and now their footsteps were louder as they headed up the short path that led to their home. Gabrielle let out a little sigh as they mounted the steps. "Gods, I'm glad to see this place."
Xena reached over to pull the door open for her, allowing Ares to trot in also. "Me too." She murmured to herself, following Gabrielle inside and letting the door close behind her. The soft sounds, and smells of home were almost overwhelming, and she leaned back against the door for a moment, simply absorbing them. Someone, her mother she suspected, had lit a fire in the fireplace, and three candles, which flickered gently in the breeze from the window and brought the smell of warm beeswax to her.
Home. Xena looked around, seeing the familiar interior with newly appreciative eyes. Never thought I'd let myself get so attached to a place… damn, it would have hurt if it'd been gone.
"Hmm?" The warrior looked up, to see her soulmate gazing at her.
"Are you guarding the door, or something, honey?" The bard inquired. "You can take your cloak off, at least."
"Sorry." Xena muttered, shoving away from the surface and unclasping her cloak, swinging it from her shoulders and hanging it on the hook nearby then starting to unbuckle her armor.
Gabrielle watched her a moment, then she set Dori down in her cradle, and straightened, walking quietly across the wooden floor and reaching for a clasp. "Thanks for sending mom to see my mother." She told her partner. "I really appreciated that."
Xena lifted her chest armor over her head and suspended it from the hooks on the wall. "Seemed like a good idea." She admitted, starting on a bracer.
"Here." The bard slapped her hands gently away and worked on the laces herself. They heard a thump, and jumped, glancing towards the crib. "Dori!"
Xena's eyes widened, as she watched the infant get up from where she'd climbed out of her cradle and fallen to the floor. "Hey!"
"Bck." Dori toddled over, bumping into Xena's leg and grabbing her armor.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Uh oh." The warrior murmured. "I think we're in trouble."
Gabrielle bit her lip, gazing down at her inquisitive child. "No.. she just wants to help, right honey?" She knelt down, and showed Dori the buckles behind the warrior's kneecaps. "Here… pull here.. that's right.. " She laughed gently as the baby tugged on the leather, a fierce frown of concentration on her face. "Good girl!"
"Gabrielle." Xena put her hands on her hips and shook her head.
"Okay, Dori.. now the other one.. " The bard ignored her. "That's right.. and if you do this.. " She tickled Xena behind the knee, making her jump.
"Yeow!" The warrior barked.
"Uh huh.. now give me your hand.. .." Gabrielle coaxed.
"Don’t you dare." Her soulmate growled, then yelped. "Yow.. Gabrielle! Cut that out!"
"It’s not me." Mischevious green eyes peeked up at her, as the bard wiggled all ten fingers at her.
Dori giggled again, and repeated her new trick, making her beloved playmate hop backwards like a large, leather clad bunny. "Boo!" She pointed up with delight.
Xena knelt, and unfastened the straps, giving both mother and daughter a dire glare. Dori toddled over and pulled on her nose. "Cut that out." The warrior scowled at the baby, who scowled right back with an almost identical expression.
Gabrielle fell back over onto her back and started laughing, startling Ares who hid under the bed. Then she yelped as she found herself pinned to the ground, and the cabin's soft breeze brushed against her now bare midriff. "Xeeeennaaa…"
"Yes?" A dark, sexy voice answered. "C'mere, Dori…lemme show you one of mommy's nicest spots."
"Yerghg.." Gabrielle struggled, to no avail against her much stronger soulmate. "Nooo…..eeeeee…"
Dori toddled over, fascinated by the sounds. "Goo?" She reached out and patted her mother's bare skin.
"No.. like this." Xena drew one finger teasingly down the center of her soulmate's belly.
"Arguh!!!!" Gabrielle bit her lip and squirmed.
"See? Like that.. " The warrior drew a circle around the bard's navel, eliciting a muted squeal.
Tentatively, Dori copied her, and giggled as her mother let out a yell. "Mama!"
"I give! I give.. I'm sorry!" Gabrielle wailed, sighing in relief as she was released, and could tug her shirt down. "You… you…. "
Xena was lying on the floor, her still booted feet crossed at the ankle. "Paybacks are tough, huh?" She chuckled a little.
Gabrielle shook a finger at her. "I'll get you for that." She looked up as Dori imitated her, shaking a tiny finger back. "Oh.. that's so cute." She shook her finger, the baby immediately copied her. "Xena.. isnt' that adorable?"
The warrior wriggled closer, and draped an arm over Gabrielle's body, seemingly oblivious to the hard ground. "It sure is." She stretched out and let her head rest against the bard's shoulder.
Gabrielle let Dori play with one of her buttons, as she turned her head and studied her quiet partner. One hand lifted and brushed a bit of dark, disheveled hair from Xena' s eyes, which lifted and met hers. "Tired?"
Xena hesitated a few heartbeats, then nodded. "Yeah.. what do I have to do to get out of a group dinner?"
The bard was charmed at the admission. "I think you just did it." She leaned over and kissed the sleek, dark head. "I think a quiet night with just us three is a good idea." She commented. "Especially if we get off the floor."
Xena gently kissed the shoulder she was resting on, then hauled herself up. "Good idea…c'mon, Dori." She picked up the baby then offered her soulmate a hand up. "C'mon… "
Gabrielle got to her feet and brushed her shirt off. "Why don't you get out of those leathers.. I'll run over a pick up a pot of whatever mom's got going, and just check on my folks, okay?"
"Sounds good to me." Xena agreed, putting the baby back in her cradle. She straightened, and watched her partner as she left, closing the door behind her. "Don't be long." Her words stirred the silence the bard had left behind.
Dori stayed in her cradle this time, rocking it gently back and forth and watching her playmate as Xena slowly walked around the cabin, touching it's contents with absorbed interest.
Her carving collection. Xena laid a finger on the back of a turtle, twin to one she knew Gabrielle carried in her belt pouch all the time. The sturdy furniture shaped by her hand. Painted mats on the walls, a foray into expression by Gabrielle that had turned out far better than the bard had expected.
A tall case with drawers that held Gabrielle's scrolls, neatly sorted into subjects, with a special drawer for her quills and ink. That had been a gift from the Amazons at their joining, along with the beautiful set of matched, carved daggers mounted on the wall nearby.
Gabrielle's desk, built by her soulmate during her pregnancy, to allow her to work in comfort with it's deep chair and movable top.
The large bed, covered in the woven quilt that had been Cyrene's, and had been made by Xena's grandmother long before her birth.
The comfortable couch facing the fire, with it's down stuffed pillows that she and Gabrielle loved to snuggle in. Xena exhaled as she sank down onto it, letting her elbows rest on her knees, and lacing her fingers together.
She'd never expected to have any of this.
If this war came, the chances were overwhelming that she'd lose it all. She looked around. They were just things, right? Things can be replaced.
She stood and crossed the room again, standing before the full length mirror that reflected back a dark shadow of herself to her. No. She met her own eyes in the mirror. They were more than things… they represented a wonderous, miracle she'd hardly believed had been possible.
"I'm not giving this up." The reflection in the mirror warned softly. Xena let the words fade away, then she turned deliberately away and unhooked the straps on her leathers, letting them fall from her and stepping out of them, then pulling an old, soft shirt from the chest of drawers and pulling it on over her head, letting the folds fall over her body and settle cool against her skin. Then she moved into the cleaning room, and set the leathers down on the small worktable there, intending to clean them the next day. She added her boots to the pile and stretched, lifting her hands over her head and catching the doorframe as she passed through it, hearing her shoulders pop into place with a dull snap. "Ow."
Dori looked up at her, sucking a finger contentedly. "Boo."
"Uh huh." Xena agreed, picking her daughter up and sitting down on the couch, putting her legs up and leaning back on the sturdy, cushioned arm. "Boo.. I'm pretty scary, huh?"
The baby crawled up her chest and pulled at one of the laces on her shirt. "Gabu."
Xena smoothed the soft, dark hair on the baby's head. "There's a bad guy out there, Dori." She murmured. "And he doesn’t like me at all."
"No… he doesn't.. and I'm going to fight him, so I can make it safe for you, and for grandma, and for mommy, okay?"
Dori looked up at her. "Grama."
"Yeah.. grandma, and Uncle Toris.. and Aunt Gran… the bad man's gonna hurt all of them if I don't stop him." Xena picked up a tiny hand, and examined it, her brow tensed in thought. Finally, she sighed. . "Dori.. I didn't want you to know about this part of me." She told the baby sadly. "I swear it."
Trusting green eyes followed hers. "Goo." Dori chewed on one of her playmate's fingers, squirming a little higher on Xena's chest and hiccupping.
The warrior traced a tiny brow. "I'll always be your Boo, okay? No matter what?"
"Boo." Dori repeated contentedly, with another little hiccup. Her eyes closed and she released the lace she'd been pulling, closing her fingers on Xena's shirt instead.
Xena put a hand protectively over the baby, and turned her gaze to the fire, losing herself in it's hypnotic flames.
Gabrielle pushed the door to the kitchen open, and peeked in side. "Hi mom." She smiled, as Cyrene turned, and motioned her in.
"C'mere, cutie." The innkeeper stated, putting a spoon down. She waited for Gabrielle to cross over to her, then she gently pulled the bard into a warm hug. "Welcome home."
The bard returned the hug, and exhaled softly. "Thanks, mom." She released the older woman. "And thanks for helping out my family."
Cyrene laid a compassionate hand on Gabrielle's cheek. "Honey, I'm so sorry about your father." She waited, as the bard dropped her gaze to the floor. "I… know… you had mixed feelings about him, but I'm sure it still hurts."
"But I didn't… " The bard admitted softly. "Not anymore… mom, I'd forgiven him, and I never told him that." She shook her head slowly. "You'd have thought I'd learned better…you don't hold things back like that.. waiting for a.. a right time." Her lips tightened. "You don’t' always get a second chance."
"Now.. Gabrielle." Cyrene put both hands on the bard's shoulders, firmly. "Don’t go down that path… there's nothing there but pointless heartache. Believe me.. I know." Her voice gentled as she saw the bard swallow. "And it's a natural human thing we're talking about here… you know, there are things I have in my heart that I need to say to Xena.. that I haven't found the strength to say yet."
Startled green eyes lifted to hers.
"And I know..that it may be that I might not get the chance." Cyrene stated quietly. "Your father knew you loved him."
"Did he?" There was a touch of wonder in Gabrielle's voice.
"He did… because Xena told him so." The innkeeper responded. "And he knew that was the only reason she let him live… so he believed her."
The bard's jaw dropped a little and she staggered back a step. "She never told me that."
Cyrene sighed. "No.. she never said.. but your father did.. when I visited after your sister's wedding." She took Gabrielle's hand and chafed it. "You know, she's very protective of you, honey."
A long, quiet sigh. "I know." So. Gabrielle felt a gentle relief flood over her. "Thanks, mom."
"Don't thank me." Cyrene smiled. "And where is my daughter, anyway? We're looking to serve dinner in there.. Toris isn't back yet, but.."
Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. "She's back at our place… I kinda promised I'd get her out of having to come over here. She's really exhausted.. enough for her to say something to me."
Cyrene blinked. "Goodness."
"Mm.. so I said I"d get some of whatever you have, and bring it back.. and I wanted to check on how my family was doing."
The innkeeper nodded. "All right… I put your mother in Toris' old room, and your sister is up on the second floor, in the back, in that big double size room on the left hand side." She gave the bard a gentle push. "Go see them, and I'll have something ready for you to take back when you're done."
A nod. "Thanks." Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "I'm going to tuck her into bed, and make sure she gets a good night's rest… tomorrow's going to be rough."
Cyrene's lips compressed into a grim line. "It's that bad, eh?"
"Yes…and we don't have much time." The bard confirmed. "I'm going to start sending out messages in the morning… I just hope we can get enough troops together."
Gabrielle nodded. "An army.. to fight what's coming."
Cyrene looked truly shocked. "Lead by Xena?"
The innkeeper sat down on the edge of the worktable abruptly, and remained silent for a long instant. "By all the gods." She finally murmured.
Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. "Cyrene.. it's not like it was then… she's not the same person."
A soft sigh, as the older woman gazed at her. "I wasn't worried about that, Gabrielle…it was just that I've just gotten my little girl back…. I'd hate to lose her again." She got up and went to the fire, stirring her pot with her back turned to the bard. "Go on… let me get this finished."
Gabrielle recognized the brusque gruffness for what it was, having lived with the woman's daughter for so many years, and she quietly left, closing the kitchen door behind her as she made her way down the corridor. She knocked on the door to Toris' old room, and heard a soft voice answer.
"Mother?" Gabrielle slid the door open and looked inside. Hecuba was sitting in the comfortable chair by the fire, a glass of what smelled like mulled cider in her hands.
"Come in, Gabrielle." Her mother sighed, looking tired, but not nearly as distraught as she had been. "I'm glad you stopped by.. I know you must be tired…it was such a long day for you."
"For everyone." The bard admitted, sitting down in the chair opposite her mother and glancing around. "Is this all right for you?"
Hecuba gazed wearily at her. "Of course.. it's .. goodness, Gabrielle…it's fine." She took a sip of her cider. "Cyrene has been wonderful… and very kind."
Gabrielle felt very awkward, unsure of what to say. "She's always been really nice to me, too." She murmured. "When I first came back here… with Xena, I was… really nervous, and uncomfortable.. but she made me feel like I belonged here."
"She's a very sensible person." Hecuba stated. "I like her very much." She stopped speaking, and cleared her throat. "It has been a long day."
The bard took the hint. "Let me let you get some dinner and sleep… I'm taking some back to our place." She stood up "Maybe we can talk tomorrow." She sighed inwardly, recalling the strained relations during her last visit home, and realized it was going to take time to rebuild her relationship with her mother. "Let me know if you need anything."
Hecuba looked at her. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
The bard paused, with her hand on the doorway, meeting her mother's eyes. "I'm sorry about da."
Hecuba looked suddenly very small, and very lost in the spacious room. "So am I." She murmured. "The gods know it was never easy with him, but…" She looked around the room, and exhaled. "It's so quiet now."
Gabrielle was hit suddenly with a stark, overwhelming memory of that quiet loneliness. "Yes.. I know." She paused, awkwardly, remembering that long, silent trek down the mountain, and how empty she'd felt. The first night she'd spent alone, she'd cried until she'd gotten sick, and then retched until she was so exhausted, she couldn’t do anything other than lie curled in a ball, gasping, praying to the gods that the next time she'd squeezed her eyes open, that damn casket would be gone.
They hadn't listened.
Gabrielle took a breath and crossed the room again, kneeling beside her mother, and surprising Hecuba with a hug. . "I do know what that feels like."
Her mother returned the hug, after a moment's stiff response, and patted her back. "Thank you, Gabrielle… and… I am so glad you happened by.. I don’t' know what I would have done if you hadn't." She murmured. "There would have been nothing left of us."
The bard nodded, not letting her go. "I'm so glad too." She finally exhaled, and backed off, leaving her hands on her mother's arms. "I’m glad you're here."
Hecuba tentatively reached up and touched her cheek. "Get some rest, daughter."
Gabrielle nodded, and stood. "You too." She walked back to the door and slipped through it, glancing behind her and giving her mother a smile, before she went on her way.
It had taken a while before she'd gotten through talking to Lila, and returned to the kitchen to retrieve the basket Cyrene had waiting. "Thanks, mom." Gabrielle sighed, as she tucked the handle around one arm.
"I put some of those honey cakes in there.. you make sure she shares." The innkeeper gave her an indulgent look. "And you two get a good night's rest, hear?"
A nod. "We will… thanks." The bard ducked out the back door, avoiding the now noisy crowd in the main room and headed across the courtyard, shivering a little in the cold wind. She broke into a trot as she reached the cabin, and bounded up the stairs, pulling open the door and getting inside the cabin's comforting warmth quickly. "Brr."
"Chilly out there?" A slow, quiet voice answered.
"You bet." Gabrielle put the basket down on the table and smiled, spotting her soulmate reclining on the couch, with Dori snoozing on her chest, the baby's arms and legs sprawled over her in blissful abandon. "That is so cute."
"Mm." Xena smoothed the dark hair down and smiled at her tiny resident. "She is, isn't she?" She looked up. "How are things over there?" The time alone with Dori had allowed her to relax, and she felt a lot more peaceful than she had before her partner had left.
Gabrielle perched on the couch arm, and riffled Xena hair affectionately. "More or less okay… my mother's having a tough time.. but I think mom really helped there. Lila's pretty shaken up, though."
Pale blue eyes gazed up at her. "How are you doing?"
The bard hesitated, then nodded quietly. "I'm okay…it's going to take a while, though.. I need to think about some things."
"Mm… how about dinner, for a start?" Xena replied, cocking her head. "I can hear your stomach rumbling from here." She rubbed her knuckles against the soft skin under the bard's shirt. "Whatcha got?" She slid over on the couch, swinging her feet down, and patted the warm cushions next to her.
Gabrielle slid down and pulled the basket over. "Not sure… " She opened the top, and a rich, savory fragrance spilled out, making her swallow in reflex. "Mmm… stewed duck."
"Huh." The warrior's brows lifted in surprise. "Is that herb bread down there?" Ares' ears perked up and he sidled over, putting a furry jaw on Xena's knee.
The bard broke off a bit of the warm loaf and dunked it in one of the two stone crocks of stew Cyrene had provided. Then she lifted it and offered it to her soulmate. "Here."
Xena took a bite, and chewed it, savoring the tasty flavor. "Hmm." She was suddenly aware of being hungry, for the first time that day. "More?"
Gabrielle smiled, and divided up their portions, carefully putting down Xena's so she could eat it one handed, her other hand curled around Dori's sleeping body. They ate in friendly silence, occasionally trading mouthtfuls and the odd kiss while the fire burned cheerfully in the fireplace.
"I told mom a little of what was going on." Gabrielle finally said, sipping on her cup of ale.
"Ah." Xena was working on her second mug, and she chewed the lip of it pensively. "She say anything?"
Gabrielle studied her out of the corner of her eyes. "She's a little scared." The bard admitted quietly.
"Of me? I'm not surprised." Xena's voice was even, and affected an unconcern her partner knew damn well she wasn't feeling.
Oh, Xena. "No.. afraid for you." Gabrielle corrected her, draping an arm over her shoulder. "Afraid for all of us, really.. but she said she doesn't want to lose her little girl." She tangled her fingers in the dark hair, and tugged it gently. "I think she's really gotten used to having you around again."
A faint, hesitant smile crossed the warrior's face. "I was just thinking before… about how hard it was for me to believe how used to this place I'd gotten to be." The blue eyes searched the room, then pinned themselves on Gabrielle's face. "And how much I'd miss it if it were gone." She leaned into the bard's touch. "Crazy, huh?"
Gabrielle thought of the charred husk of what had been her birthplace. "Not at all." She scratched the warrior's neck gently. "Close your eyes."
A dark brow hiked.
"C'mon." The bard urged, watching in veiled amusement as the blue eyes fluttered reluctantly shut. "Good.. hold on." She reached into the basket and broke off a piece of honey cake, then paused. "Open your mouth."
The tanned face tensed a little, and the nostrils flared , but Xena obeyed, trusting her younger partner as she had no other in her life. A tantalizingly sweet smell rose up, and she closed her teeth on the flaky pastry, it's familiar flavor bursting onto her tongue. "Ooo.." Xena chewed appreciatively, enjoying the nuts and honey. One blue eye appeared, and she peered at the bard inquisitively. "Any more of that?"
"Maybe." Gabrielle grinned, reveling in the comfortable teasing. "What's it worth to you?"
The blue eyes widened and took on a sad, pleading look.
The bard screwed her eyes closed. "Stop that." She peeked. "Augh… do you really think all it takes to push me over is a flash of those baby blues?" Another peek, which revealed a charming, sexy smile. "Or that cute smirk?"
"Yes." The warrior replied, smugly.
Gabrielle sighed, and offered up the rest of the cake. "You're right." She admitted, brushing a bit of pastry off her soulmate's lips. "I'd do anything for you."
Xena's jaws stopped moving, and she swallowed hastily, taking a sip of the ale. "Anything?"
The bard nibbled a bit of the cake. "Anything."
The warrior's dark head moved to rest against hers, bringing the familiar spicy scent that clung to her skin to drift around the bard. "Can I coax a back rub from you?"
Gabrielle grinned at the request. "Sure." She fed her soulmate the rest of her cake, then took Dori from her, rocking the baby a little before she walked across the room and settled the sleeping infant in her cradle. "In bed with you too, honey."
Xena tidied up the remains from dinner, then padded over to the bed, and dropped down onto her stomach on it, stretching her arms out over her head and sucking in a lungful of clean, fire warmed linen scent. "Ungh." She exhaled. "That feels good." The bed's surface shifted a little and she felt a draft of air hit her bare skin as the bard slid her shirt up.
"I bet." Gabrielle answered quietly, running her fingers down the smooth, tanned surface. "You've got a nasty bruise here, love." She circled the injury with a finger, tracing a roughly circular patch near her partner's spine.
"Mm… arrow…as we were going past the bees." Xena recalled, resting her chin on her forearm. "Glad I put that extra piece back in there."
The bard ran her finger across a faint, ragged scar. "Me too." She sighed, and put a little fragrant oil on her hands, before she started to work, beginning with her soulmate's lower back and working upward. "Wow.. that's really tight."
Xena nodded. "Yeah…I could feel it when I was riding today." She closed her eyes as the strong fingers worked their magic, digging deep into sore muscles and sending a tingle of relaxed warmth through her. "Mmph." She curled a arm around her pillow and let her mind drift.
By the time Gabrielle had reached the long, sloping muscles at the top of her soulmate's neck, which connected to her shoulders, she could sense her slipping into sleep, the body beneath her relaxing as she finished her task, and spent a few moments simply rubbing her fingertips in gentle circles across the warm skin.
With a quiet smile, she slipped off her partner's back, and snuggled up next to her, pulling the covers over both of them. She let her cheek rest against Xena's back, and tucked an arm around her stomach, allowing a sense of peace to settle over her.
Tomorrow, she knew, would be rough. But right now, there was just her, and Xena, and their sleeping daughter, and the wonderful smell of home around them.
The inn was full to the rafters, a low murmur buzzing against the walls as Gabrielle slipped in, blinking a little at the crowd. She ducked into the kitchen to find Cyrene and Johan sipping cups of mulled cider. "Morning."
"Morning, there, Gabrielle." Johan greeted her with a quiet smile, reaching behind him to grab a cup and pouring the bard a hot drink. "Here ye go… it's cold enough to freeze a cow's teat outside."
Gabrielle winced, imagining that. "Ow." She just kept herself from crossing her arms over her chest, and took the cup, sipping at it. "Crowded in there. "She indicated the outer room with a nod of her head. "Guess everyone's heard."
The innkeeper nodded. "That they have… they're waiting to hear what Xena has to say." She glanced behind the bard. "Is she headed over here?"
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "She's just um… " The bard paused, considering how to describe her partner's actions. "I guess she's trying to figure out how to put things."
"Hm." Cyrene sighed. "I know this can't be easy for her." She murmured. "It's not easy for a lot of us to hear." She nodded towards the inner door. "Let's go inside."
Gabrielle followed them through the swinging door, letting it close behind her and leaning against it. The room was full of villagers, with Amazons scattered here and there, and Jessan's tall form visible against the far wall. The atmosphere was tense, and it got tenser as quiet bootsteps were heard outside, and the outer door was pushed open, revealing Xena's tall, imposing form.
Everyone turned to look, and an awkward silence fell. Xena let her eyes roam around the room for a moment, before she moved inside and made her way across the crowded room towards the front, where Gabrielle usually stood when telling stories.
The warrior had considered for quite a length of time before she'd left the cabin, trying to decide what impression she wished to give. She was bringing violence back to Amphipolis, and she knew it, and to that end, her armor and leathers would have given silent support to her intent.
So she'd worn a simple, worn, blue tunic, and her work boots, appearing as she had to them for the prior year.
And still, Gabrielle found herself shaking her head a little. Even in rags, even without the menace of her weaponry, their eyes were drawn towards her helplessly, fastened on an animal magnetism that gathered them in with unconscious ease.
She herself was prey to it, the bard realized, as her body reacted to her soulmate's presence, that little prickle heading up her spine as Xena stopped, and turned, facing them all with a still, inscrutable expression.
Heartbeats. She could hear hers, and almost convinced herself she could hear Xena's, in all that silence.
Xena took a deep breath, and held it a moment, then released it slowly. "I don't have anything good to tell you." Her voice, when it came, was low and even. "Most of you know we went north to find out what was going on… with all the rumors we'd heard about attacks."
"Well, we found out." Xena glanced down, then hooked her thumbs through the belt on her tunic. "There's a man named Andreas who's assembled an army… close to three thousand men.. and he intends on conquering every square inch of Greece."
A sense of shock rolled over the room.
"He… is ruthless, and smart." The warrior continued, steadily. "He uses unscrupulous methods… he kills without remorse… his men have orders to burn opposing towns to the ground and slaughter their inhabitants."
"Dear gods." Cyrene murmured, in the stillness.
"What are we going to do?" Josclyn stood, near the center of the room. "They'll get here eventually, Xena."
The warrior gave a tiny nod. "Yes, they will." Xena stared at the floor, very aware of the dozens of eyes on her. She'd rehearsed this little speech in her head a dozen times, but it hadn't helped. "He has small raiding parties that have gotten… " She looked over at the quiet, grim Potadeians. "Almost here."
A low, dismayed murmur broke out, then died off as Josclyn raised a hand. "What can we do?" He looked around. "Run?"
That would be the easy way out, Xena sighed inwardly. Take herself, her family, and the entire town, and vanish southward, into wild areas that Andreas wouldn't bother with. Sure.
But that didn't help the rest of Greece, did it? And while Xena knew she couldn't make that decision for Amphipolis, she could, and had, made it for herself. "You can." The warrior replied quietly. "I've… chosen to stand and fight."
Shocked silence. "Xena, that's insane… you can't hold off an army." The reeve blurted.
Xena gazed at him quietly. "I can't let him destroy this place." Her lips tightened. "But I…I know I can't ask for help.. from… here." The pain was evident in her voice for an instant. "That's a choice you have to make on your own." She hesitated. "All of you." Her eyes touched Jessan's pensive face, and Ephiny's, then she exhaled, and simply left, gliding through the room and slipping out the door before they even realized she was gone.
The was a moment of quiet, then a buzz of conversation rose. Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest and leaned against the door, watching the crowd and swallowing against the lump in her throat. Ephiny made her way across the floor and paused before her, meeting her gaze for a long instant.
Then the hazel eyes dropped. "I'll start for the village." The regent spoke quietly. "It'll take me… a week.. probably to get everything packed up and moving this way."
Gabrielle studied her. "Ephiny… just because I've chosen to stand and fight.. doesn’t mean the Amazons have to." The bard whispered.
A faint smile. "I know…and if I thought it was a fight for the wrong reasons.. I'd keep them out of it, and just show up here myself." The regent cleared her throat a little. "But it's not…and if it's one thing I've learned from you over the years, Gabrielle.. it's what the words 'greater good' mean." She sighed, and glanced around. "We'd seen enough on the way here to at least suspect what the news would be.. I've had lots of time to think about things."
The bard exhaled softly, and finally nodded. "Leave tomorrow… I think you should hear what the plans are."
A faint nod. "So there are plans."
Gabrielle's lips tensed into a grim smile. "With Xena? Always." Privately, she felt a wave of relief, at having at least the Amazons at their side. "I need to send runners to the other nations in the area…they have a stake in this as well."
Ephiny nodded slowly. "Some will come.. some won't… I'll send messengers out as soon as I get back there." She paused. "And I'll visit Tyldus.. but I think that's all going to need your touch.. how about if I gather them all in the village, then you come up?"
Against her will, a prickle of anticipation traveled up Gabrielle's back. "All right." She agreed softly. "I'll give you a fortnight, then head out." Behind Ephiny's back, she saw Jessan slip out the front door, then her attention was drawn by loud voices nearby. "Let me go see what that's all about." She edged past Ephiny, and moved towards the center of the large room, to the knot of people around Josclyn.
"It's how it started then, Josc." One older man was saying, in a low, urgent voice. " You remember."
Voices stilled, as Gabrielle joined them, and received furtive looks. "It's all right." She'd caught the man's words. "It's on her mind too."
They looked at her uncomfortably. "Look… Gabrielle… " The older man held up a hand, obviously embarrassed. "I've got nothing against her.. she's proved her worth to the village for a year and more now.. that's not what this is about."
"I know." The bard edged to the center of the circle, and gathered their attention. "Look…I understand how hard this is." She studied them. "Trusting is a scary thing… especially when that trust has been betrayed before."
They watched her.
"Xena knows that.. it's why she didn't ask for Amphipolis' help." The bard let out a breath. "Knowing what happened the last time…knowing the legacy she left… she doesn’t feel she deserves the trust of the people here."
"Gabrielle.." Josclyn put a hand on her arm. "We can't help remembering."
The bard looked down, then back up. "I know."
"What could she hope to accomplish alone, anyway?" The older man asked.
There was a little silence. "She wont' be alone." Gabrielle answered softly, aware of the press of bodies around them, as the villagers gathered to listen.
"You'll follow her to Hades' doorstep." The man answered, in a dismayed voice, as other voices murmured objections.
"Probably." Gabrielle agreed quietly. "Where she goes, I go."
A short, breathless quiet followed that. "What about your daughter?" Josclyn finally said.
That, Gabrielle readily acknowledged, was the hard part. "I've thought about that a lot." She admitted. "I guess what's important is that I want her to be able to grow up, in safety.. not having to worry about people like Andreas." She felt her throat close a little. 'And maybe that means she has to grow up without her parents." A pause. "But I'm willing to make that sacrifice for her."
Uneasy silence, now. "But.. what can even two people hope to accomplish against an army, Gabrielle?" The reeve asked her, very gently.
The bard sniffled a little. "What can two people do? I don’t know… two people can… " She took a breath. "Recapture Titans.. chain Prometheus.. stop wars…turn back the Persians…free lost mariners…save dreams…" She paused. "Change lives." Her eyes found Joscyln's. "Fight for the greater good, no matter what it costs."
They looked at each other. Finally the older man put a hand on Joscyln's arm. "Josc.. let's go back to your place and talk.. so people can speak their mind."
The reeve gave Gabrielle an apologetic look, but nodded. "Aye." He led the way out, followed by most of the responsible elders in the village, leaving the younger people, the Potadeians, and a few others to mill around in agitation.
Gabrielle exhaled softly, and sat on the edge of a nearby table, feeling a lump form in her gut. An arm circled her, and she glanced over to see Cyrene's compassionate gaze looking back at her. "Hi, mom."
"That was a good speech, Gabrielle." Cyrene told her quietly. "Even though it hurt to hear it."
The bard looked down at the floor and nodded. "I know."
The innkeeper glanced around, and sighed. "Look… the militia here.. they won't really be a factor one way or the other Gabrielle, I.."
"It's not that." The younger woman told her. "If Amphipolis turns it's back on her, it's going to really hurt." Gabrielle scrubbed at her face with one hand. "And she's already hurting."
Cyrene rubbed her arm gently. "So are you." She murmured. 'Why don't you go keep her company out there.. hmm?"
Pale green eyes lifted and met hers, then Gabrielle nodded, and stood, twitching her long sleeves straight as she walked over to the door, and passed through it.
"Tis a hard thing." Johan sighed, as he came to stand by Cyrene's shoulder.
"Mm." The innkeeper agreed, leaning back against him.
"Ye know what the choice will be then." Johan glanced at her.
"Yes." Cyrene responded, with a deep sigh. "I do."
It was cold on the porch. Gabrielle rubbed her arms a bit as she crossed the wooden surface towards the lone figure seated in the corner. Xena was leaning back, with one foot braced against the railing as she peered out over the gray, dismal morning. "Hi there." She took the seat next to her partner.
"Hi." Pale blue eyes met hers briefly. "Jess is heading out for home."
The bard nodded. "So's Eph… she's going to bring everyone she can get to the village.. then I'll go up there.. see what I can talk everyone into."
Xena nodded briefly. "Good." She fiddled with a bit of wood she'd taken from the porch railing, turning it over and over in her fingers. "You'll go with an escort." The blue eyes flicked over her face briefly. "It'll take a while to get messages out to everyone else anyway."
Gabrielle stood, and switched perches, settling on the arm of the chair her soulmate was sitting in. She draped an arm over her shoulders but kept quiet, watching a few brightly colored chickens strut across the courtyard, pecking viciously at the ground. "You know something, Xena?"
The warrior started, having been deep in thought. "Hmm?"
The bard's brows were furrowed. "I'd really, really, really hate to be a worm."
Xena looked at her sideways.
"There you are.. crawling along.. minding your own business…doing whatever it is worms do.."
"Right.. and out of the blue.. whack!" The bard pecked at the top of her partner's head with one hand. "The beak of doom ends it all."
A finely arched brow lifted.
"What do you suppose the chicken would do if the worm fought back?" Gabrielle wondered.
"How?" Xena responded, intrigued despite herself, knowing the bard was only trying to distract her. "It has no arms, Gabrielle."
"Oh.. I don't know.. maybe the worm…finds a way to wrap it's body around the chicken's feet, and trip it." The bard responded. "Or maybe it figures out how to build a defensive.. uh… dirt mound." She leaned against her partner. "What do you think the chicken would do?"
"Die laughing." Xena smiled in pure reflex. "Which would achieve the worm's purpose, I suppose."
They both chuckled, then fell silent.
"They're not going to go for it, are they?" The warrior finally asked, looking up at her partner with almost painful openness.
Gabrielle found herself gazing back into those big, blue eyes and trying to breathe against the painful grip around her heart. She reached out and touched Xena's face, the skin warm under her fingers. "I don't know…they went to talk about it. in private."
Xena's shoulders moved as she inhaled, then released the breath, giving her soulmate a little nod. "Well.. two out of three ain't bad, huh?"
Ow. "Xe… these aren't fighters… and they're scared." The bard told her, gently "It doesn't mean they don't love you, and trust you.. they're just afraid."
"I know." Xena acknowledged, letting her head rest against the bard's hip. "I don't blame them…. I just hope they'll agree to trade with us.. otherwise this efforts going to go nowhere fast." She looked up at her partner. "You should be a part of that decision, Gabrielle.. you are Josc's deputy."
The bard smiled wryly. "They know I have a.. persona agenda… I guess…it's not really fair for me to be there, honey." She sighed. "Besides.. I've said my piece already."
Footsteps approached, and they both looked up to see Josclyn's burly form nearing the inn. His grizzled head was down, and he seemed to be searching the earth intently, only glancing up as he hit the steps, and had to climb up onto the porch.
Gabrielle watched his face as he approached, then glanced at her partner, who was quietly waiting, outwardly as composed and relaxed as she'd ever seen her.
A perfect act, and it would have fooled the bard as well, if she hadn't had her arm over Xena's shoulders, and could feel the pounding heartbeat under the skin, and the awful tension in the warrior's muscles.
Josclyn walked over, and leaned against the railing, regarding them solemnly, his gnarled hands resting on his thighs, and his lined face still, and quiet.
He drew in a breath to speak, and Gabrielle felt a tremor run through her partner's body.
"We're yours." The reeve stated simply.
Xena's eyes widened in a startled surprise she was unable to hide, and the bard felt the tingle of reaction down her own spine in response. "Ah." The warrior slowly released the breath she'd been holding. "Good."
Josclyn smiled. "Didn't expect that, did you?"
The warrior shook her head. "No." She replied honestly. "I didn't." A wave of relief spread through her, and she felt the soft motion as Gabrielle gave her an absent scratch on the back of her neck. "I didn't expect that at all."
The reeve nodded, satisfied. "Aye, well… there you have it." He paused. "Cyrene wanted me to tell ye both to come in.. breakfast is on, and it's getting chilled." He pushed off against the railing, and held out a hand to them.
Gabrielle gave him a quietly grateful look. "We'll be right in Josc… thanks." She watched him nod, and disappear inside the building, then turned her attention to the still stunned warrior beside her. "Wow."
Xena shook her head. "Wow." She repeated, exhaling audibly. "Nice way to start the morning."
The bard smiled, and simply hugged her in response.
"All right." Xena spread her hands over the map sprawling over the worktable in the hastily commandeered stable. Around her stood the militia leaders from Amphipolis, the Amazons, Jessan, and some of the elders.
And Gabrielle, of course, who was perched on a stall divider, watching with curious eyes.
"Here's the valley opening… there's a short mouth, then it opens up here, with sheer walls on either side." The warrior traced the path with one long finger. "There's a deep water lake here, fed by runoff from these far southern mountains…they're unclimable as far as I've ever been able to tell."
"Mm.. " Ephiny leaned over the table. "What are these?"
"Caves." Xena responded. "Mostly unexplored… some… well, these here have been mapped." She pointed them out. "Big enough to shelter troops in.. we won't have to build temporary camps."
"Nice." Jessan murmured. "Only one way in though.. .that's sort of dangerous."
Xena smiled. "It only looks that way." She put her finger on one cave opening. "There's a clear path through here.. " She traced. "Out this side of the range, to a series of lower steppes that drop down to this outer valley here. "
"Ahh… nice." The forest dweller scratched his furry chin. "Good."
Xena nodded, and braced her knuckles on the table. "First thing.. we need to send a group out there to make sure everything's still like I remember."
"I'll go." Toris answered, quietly. "I'll take ten of the watch…we can check out the caves, and see what we're going to need to secure the place." He nibbled his beard a bit. "If it looks good, Xena… I think we'd better plan to bring the children, and the elders there." His eyes found his sister's. "Especially Dori, and mom."
They looked at each other, and after a moment, Xena nodded grimly. "Right… good idea.. I don't want to risk any hostages." She pointed at him. "That means you be careful too."
Everyone turned and looked at Gabrielle, who was sitting quietly on her perch. The bard gazed back at them evenly. "I'm a lot safer with Xena." She stated mildly.
"That's the truth. "Eponin snorted. "Besides, asking you to stay out of trouble is like asking the River Styx to flow backwards." She paused, seeing Gabrielle's raised eyebrows. "No offense."
Xena chuckled softly, shaking her head. "All right, Toris… you take your group out. Ephiny and Eponin are heading out to Amazon lands tomorrow, and Jessan is going to pay a visit home."
"Right.. I'll drop by Hectator's too." The forest dweller stated. "We're far enough out in the outlands to have missed most of the raiding parties… at least I hope we are."
The warrior nodded. "Head everyone you can this way… we'll assemble troops in the valley. One good thing about it being so remote.. it's not hunted out. We'll be able to support a pretty large force in there." Her eyes lifted. "Johan.. tell any merchants heading out.. we're in the market for supplies, and horses."
"What about weapons?" Ephiny asked, quietly.
Everyone looked at Xena, who gazed at the map, then reached out and tapped a large cave with one finger. "Toris, if you go in here.. you'll find a cache… should still be usable."
There was some uneasy shifting. "Yours?" Toris finally asked.
Xena nodded. "Yeah… not sure how good the supplies are, after all this time, but the weapons should be all right." She rolled the map up. 'That's all I've got for now.. let's just relax and take it easy for the rest of the day."
They exited, murmuring amongst themselves, leaving only Xena, Gabrielle, and Toris standing there. "So." Xena tapped the rolled parchment on her neck absently. "It starts."
Toris walked over. "Didn't know you had a camp that close."
The warrior shrugged. "Yeah, well… maybe there was a part of me that always wanted to come home." She wandered over to where Argo was munching hay, and scratched her ears. "Hey girl…"
The mare butted her in the stomach and scattered hay over her boots, shifting her hooves and disturbing Ares, who was curled up in the straw with his tail tucked over his nose.
Toris exhaled, then gave Gabrielle a smile, before he turned and left, leaving them in the quiet, dusty peace.
The bard waited a moment, then she walked over, slipping an arm around Xena's waist and stroking Argo with her other hand. "Everything's going pretty good so far, huh?"
The warrior smiled wryly. "Oh yeah.. not bad for a couple of candlemarks." She half turned, and rested her arms on Gabrielle's shoulders. "You know… "
"Don't you even start, Xena." Steady green eyes met hers unflinchingly. "Don't go there, don't mention it, don't even let the thought cross that sharp mind of yours."
Both dark brows lifted. "Y'know, Gabrielle.. you don't ALWAYS know what I'm thinking." Xena told her.
"You mean, you weren't going to suggest I go to the valley with Toris, and help set up the nice, safe camp?" Gabrielle inquired dryly.
"Actually.. no, I wasn't." Her partner told her. "What I was going to say was.. 'You know, Gabrielle…this barn holds some very special memories for me."
Blond lashes batted in surprise. "Uh….oh." The bard found her gaze flicking unconsciously to the hayloft. "Ah.. yeah… yeah, it does for me, too." She lifted her eyes to Xena's, and searched the endless blue depths. "You really weren't going to ask me to stay behind?"
The dark head cocked slightly. "Gabrielle, we're past that." Xena told her, very gently. "I could ask you.. sure.. but you'd never say yes, and even if, by some miracle you did, I'd be a nervous wreck the entire time we were apart, wondering what was going on with you." She smiled. "So.. what would the point be?"
Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "You're right." She finally said, with a tinge of surprise in her voice. "You know, I lived with that hanging over me for such a long time, it's just so weird to realize…or maybe it was because the last time you did… it hurt so much, I.."
Xena leaned forward and touched her forehead to her partner's. "That hurt me too. I never thought I'd see you again.. you know, I stayed on the deck and watched you until I couldn't see you anymore."
At least, Gabrielle mused, they could talk about it now, removed as it was from their current lives, the pain faded into the past. She sighed, and put her hands on her partner's waist. "We've been through so much together."
"Yes, we have." Xena agreed. "And as tough as this is, there's no one else I'd rather have at my side in it than you."
The bard smiled in reaction. "Thanks." She tilted her head and met the waiting lips, tasting the hint of apple on them. Her hands shifted over the soft fabric covering her soulmate's body, and she moved closer as Xena's arms closed around her. "Mm."
Xena drew her head back a little, and gazed at her from under half lowered lids, a hint of mischief in the quirky grin on her lips. "Bet I can still toss you up there." Her head indicated the loft.
"Oh, c'mon." The bard laughed.
A challenge. Xena's eyes lit up with a devilish glee and she clamped a hold on her soulmate's waist, lifting her a little and chuckling.
"Xena, now… okay, let's just be reasonable here.. you're going to hurt.. yow… hey… Xena!!!" Gabrielle felt herself lifted up, then the barn was moving around her, and a powerful surge sent her flying upward, into the springy, fragrant pile of hay. She bounced once, then fell back into it's comfortable embrace. Damn. She giggled softly to herself. Hasn't lost a step, has she?
A soft whoosh of air gusted into the cozy space, as Xena leaped up and caught the railing, then neatly powered her body up into the loft and dropped into the hay next to the smiling bard. "Soft landing?"
Gabrielle laughed, and shook her head in admiration. "You know… " She rolled onto her side, as Xena settled next to her, lying on her back with her legs crossed at the ankles. "I remember that night like it was yesterday." She exhaled softly, running a fingertip along Xena's arm. "I was so… I wasn't sure if it was nervousness, or excitement…my insides were shaking."
The warrior cocked her head and regarded the beam ceiling, carved with many years worth of indentations. "How did I feel… " She mused. "I was.. curious…and a little scared, I think."
"Scared?" Gabrielle moved closer. "Why?"
"Well… " Xena reached out and tangled her fingers in the bard's hair. "Sometimes sex changes things… and I didn't want… anything to change. "
"And what if you decided you didn't like it?" Xena eyed her wryly. "With a woman, I mean… that could get kind of sticky."
"Ooo… hadn't thought of that." Gabrielle made a face. "Yeah… that would have been a problem." She propped her head up. "You'd have had to rent me a stud."
Xena convulsed in sudden, unexpected laughter. After a moment of watching her with an indulgent and affectionate look, Gabrielle joined her, until they both relaxed, exhausted into the straw. The bard snuggled up next to her partner, throwing an arm over her stomach. "I love you."
Xena ruffled her hair gently. "I love you too." She tilted Gabrielle's chin up a little and kissed her, rubbing a thumb lightly against the soft skin of her cheek. "And that night.. " She let her hand slide down the bard's arm, and felt her body press closer. "I wanted you to know that."
Gabrielle felt her heartbeat pick up as her body responded eagerly to her soulmate's touch. "I knew." She slipped her hands inside the loose, worn tunic Xena was wearing and touched skin, easing her touch around familiar contours. She leaned forward for another kiss, enjoying the sensation of nibbling as Xena nipped at her teasingly.
"Did you?" Xena unhooked her belt one handed, and slid a hand up against her chest, tracing a line across her belly that sent a ripple of contracting muscles in it's wake. "I remember thinking… I hope I don't scare her." She nudged her soulmate over on to her back, and felt the smaller woman surrender to her completely, her hands wandering and touching, urging the warrior closer.
"Never." Gabrielle murmured huskily, reaching for her, every nerve tingling with the closeness, and the warm scent, and the need for the slow, teasing touch that was stroking across her ribs, making her breathing shorten.
"Good." Xena breathed the word into her ear, then nibbled around it's edges, hearing the soft, incoherent sound forced from her soulmate's throat, as she lowered herself down, and their bodies touched, bare skin brushing bare skin. Gabrielle's powerful legs tangled with hers, and she abandoned herself to the passion between them, content to spend their last, quiet day in a place where, in a sense, it had all began.
Gabrielle lifted a hand, and gently traced the engraved letters of her own name, in the wood just over her head. It had started raining outside, and she was listening to it patter, as her other hand stroked light circles on Xena's back.
The warrior was asleep, her head pillowed on her partner's stomach, and one arm wrapped around her body. Gabrielle had no desire to wake her, in fact, she was enjoying the quiet interlude very much, and reckoned there wouldn't be many of them in the days to come.
So why not let her rest? If it was one thing she knew about her soulmate, she rarely slept unless her body was demanding it, staying up after the bard had gone to sleep on many a night, simply gazing at the stars, and thinking.
Dreaming daydreams, maybe, in a waking state where she could dictate their content. Gabrielle glanced down at the warrior's peaceful expression, and found her lips pressing into a fond smile. What do you daydream about now, Xena?
It had been a warm, spring day after they'd spend weeks traveling in the mountains, enduring rain, and mud, and the occasional hailstorm, and gusty winds, and very hard ground to sleep on. She was grumpy, Xena was morosely silent, and they'd both been glad to see grassy fields, and open sky for a change.
So they'd found a spot near a nice little stream, and spent half the afternoon in scrubbing themselves, and their clothes, to get the rock dust, mud, and more evil dirt out of everything. Of course, she'd reflected, not for the first time, a long skirt was really not the best thing in the world to be traveling around in.
When they'd finally finished, and she'd put up a pot of soup for dinner, they'd laid out everything in the sweet grass to dry, and she'd forgone even her scrolls, preferring to find a warm, dry spot and simply lie there, gazing up at the passing clouds.
And so she had, for candlemarks, until the sun had dried her skin, and her mind had drifted lazily, conjuring up some pleasant memories of her childhood, few though those had been, including a romp with Lila at the seashore that she was almost too young to really remember at the time.
Then she'd looked at the sun, and sighed, knowing her companion was probably impatiently sharpening something, or fixing something, or doing some chore or other that she was supposed to be doing, and she rolled over and pushed up onto her elbows, looking around for Xena.
But the warrior hadn't been doing any of those things. She'd spotted her nearby, sprawled in the grass and leaning against a boulder, one knee raised and a tanned elbow leaning against it, a fist propping up her head.
Gabrielle had had to look twice, then blink, and look again before she could absorb the gentle, far off look in the warrior's eyes, so very different than anything she'd ever seen on her enigmatic companion's face before.
Fascinated, she'd crawled closer, thumping down next to Xena as the warrior started a little, and turned towards her, the familiar wary, cool expression descending on her face and replacing the dreaminess.
"Hey, Xena.. what were you just thinking about?" Gabrielle had asked, curiously. "You had this… really intense look on your face, and I could tell you weren't thinking about the usual stuff, like hunting, and what we're going to have for dinner, and where the next town is… right?"
The warrior had made a noise somewhere between a snort and cough. "Nothing. I was just waiting for my leathers to dry."
"Oh." Gabrielle had been vaguely disappointed, hoping that at last she was going to get a tiny insight into the cold, sometimes frustrating woman. "Sorry.. I thought… well, I mean, I was over there, and I was watching the clouds… and just thinking.. I remembered a time when my sister Lila and I.. you remember Lila, right?"
Xena had sighed. "I remember Lila."
"Right.. so, we were outside the village this one time, and there were these squirrels.. I mean, they were great, Xena.. they were all white, and brown, and they were running around together in the trees.. it was amazing!"
Gabrielle had gazed at her, exhaling a little. "Oh…well, it was amazing to me." She'd murmured, a little embarrassed. "Probably not to you though, huh.. well.. anyway… I'll um.. go fix the soup."
She'd gotten up and scrambled over to the fire, getting her long wooden spoon and carefully stirring the pot, hoping she'd gotten the spices right this time. She'd felt sort of foolish, and wished she'd kept her mouth shut, rather than bother Xena with yet another in a long series of dumb, babbling remarks. Especially since Xena had been in such a bad mood the whole day.. she should have known better.
A hand had fallen on her shoulder, scaring her half to death and almost sending her pitching into the fire. "Yow!"
Xena had grabbed her, and pulled her back, kneeling beside her and scowling. "Watch it… you're gonna get burned."
"You startled me." She'd told the warrior abruptly, pulling back.
Xena had released her, then sat down in her shift, tucking her bare feet under her. "I'm sure the squirrels were great." The warrior had muttered.
Well, it had sort of been an apology, Gabrielle had realized. "Yeah." She'd gone back to her stirring. "They were great." She'd waited for Xena to get up and leave, but the warrior hadn't, and after a few minutes, she'd glanced over at her, just to see what she was up to.
Strangely, the woman was just sitting there, playing with a bit of bark, that same look of pensive sadness on her face. "Hey, Xena?"
The dark head had turned, and those blue eyes had looked right at her. "What?"
"Don't you ever daydream?"
"No." Cold, and remote.
"C'mon." Gabrielle had persisted, putting her spoon down and seating herself cross legged next to the warrior. "Don’t' you just.. think of things sometimes? Nice things? Maybe.. uh… " Her brow had furrowed. "Getting a new dagger or something?" She reached out, and touched the warrior's arm. "You were thinking of something, just a minute ago, weren't you?"
Xena had paused for so long, Gabrielle had been sure she wasn't going to answer at all, but then finally, she took a breath in and spoke.
"I was thinking about my brother Lyceus."
"Oh." Gabrielle had felt bad. "I'm sorry.. I know you were really close."
Xena hadn't denied it. "Yeah…." She'd answered quietly. "I was just thinking about some of the stuff we used to do… and one day, when we'd… run off into the woods, and mom caught us bare naked running around in a meadow." She' looked around with quiet reserve. "Sort of like this one."
"You got in to trouble , huh?" Gabrielle had smiled, tentatively, finding it really hard to imagine her cool, reserved companion frolicking in the grass.
A shake of the head, "No.. Ly came up with some outlandish story and she bought it." Xena had actually smiled. "Anyway." She'd looked down, at the wood chip in her hands.
Gabrielle had chewed her lip, unsure of what to say, now that she'd actually gotten the darn woman to talk to her. "He sounds.. like he was a good friend." She'd finally murmured.
"He was." The warrior had responded. "He was… full of wonder… he had a great imagination.. he was brave, and honest… "
And then those blue eyes had lifted, and looked right into hers. "A lot like you, come to think of it."
Gabrielle had been so stunned, she'd only been able to look at her companion for what seemed like at least a candlemark. "M.. me?" She'd stammered at last. "Um…t.. thank you.. I… hope I can be as good a friend to you as he was."
Xena had smiled a little, and gazed at the fire, then exhaled. "Gabrielle?" She'd said, softly.
"About the squirrels?"
"Oh.. um.. yeah, well, nevermind.. it wasn't really that interesting.. I was.. I always just sort of wondered why they were all going crazy, and all that.. I never did figure it out." Gabrielle had given the pot a stir.
Xena had cleared her throat. "They were mating."
"Mating." Dark brows scrunched. "You know, they..um.."
"Oh!" Gabrielle had felt her face turning brick red. "Uh.. sure.. yeah.. I know all about that.. uh.. yeah. Birds, bees, squirrels.. I got it."
Now there had been a hint of fun in those eyes. "You do, huh?"
"Absolutely.. I mean, sure.. Xena..I grew up in a shepherding community.. I mean, you don’t get to be very old before you figure out where lambs come from, you know?" She'd still been blushing, and she'd known that..
And Xena had leaned forward, catching her eye and holding it.
"Baa." The warrior had stuttered, making them both laugh, and turning the day into a bright one as the sun marched to the west over their campsite.
Gabrielle chuckled softly in memory, and gazed down as her partner shifted, rolling over and looking up at her with sleepy blue eyes. "Hey, cute stuff."
A dark brow hiked. "Hey.. what's so funny?" Xena nibbled the soft skin her cheek was pillowed against. "You let me fall asleep… we've got so much to do, Gabrielle." She gave the bard an aggrieved look.
"You needed it." Gabrielle replied, unrepentantly, as she reached over and pushed the hair out of her partner's eyes. "Besides, it's raining… and we've got a little while before we need to pick Dori up."
Xena yawned, and didn't bother refuting her soulmate's words. It was far too comfortable where she was, anyway, and she could privately admit that what the bard had said was probably true, since she'd had to force herself to get up that morning.
She gazed up at the fondly watching bard and found herself smiling. "We should be ashamed of ourselves.. rolling around in the hay like a couple of kids."
Gabrielle grin broadened, crinkling the corners of her eyes, and exposing neat white teeth. "Hey… you can make me feel like a kid annnyyytime you want, Xena." She sighed happily, and reached up, tracing the letters of her name with an idle finger. "I remember when you carved this… I used to lie here looking at it all the time because when I saw it, I realized all over again that it was real." She shook her head and glanced down at the watching Xena. "That we were real… that it wasn't just some daydream of mine."
The warrior scratched the soft surface she was resting on with gentle fingertips, causing Gabrielle to close her eyes in contentment. "Did I figure in your dreams before that?" She asked, curiously.
One green eye appeared, opening wide and lifting it's attending brow in disbelief. "You're kidding me, right?"
Xena smiled quietly. "I stopped daydreaming for a long time." She mused. "Because the only images I could come up with were ugly ones." A gentle sigh, which warmed the bard's skin. "Then I met you… and that changed."
Gabrielle was silent, absorbing the words. She reached up and folded her fingers of her partner's, and gave them a little squeeze. "Wow… I'm glad I could give you that back, Xena... must have taken forever, though. I know I wasn't anything to dream about when we first met."
And Xena's eyes twinkled gently, as she returned the squeeze, and uttered a soft, burring. "Baaa."