A Matter of Pride
The road kicked up a cloud of dust, surrounding the lone figure trudging up it’s length. A small mule clopped slowly behind, bringing it’s own cloud along with it, past wheat heavy fields that spread out to either side.
To one side of the road ran a broad river, it's waters moving steadily under the surface of two barges making their way upstream. Across the river was the sprawling buildings of the city, reaching out along the banks to either side and bracketing the large docks where four or five barges were already being unloaded.
The man paused, and regarded them, wiping the sweat off his brow, then he glanced up to the high point on this side of the river where a sturdily built town with a strong protective wall guarded the approach. He shook his head. "Place sure looks different, huh?"
The mule didn't answer.
The man continued his journey, up the slope of the road and past two fragrant orchards whose fruit sent a sweet, rich scent blowing past him. He licked his lips, but resisted the temptation and kept on walking, right up to the gates of the town. He was greeted there by a tall, thickly built man with salt and pepper hair dressed in leather half armor. "G'day."
"Bit hot, but sure." The guard agreed amiably. "Something I can help you to find?"
Polite guards. The man almost laughed. "I'm looking for work." He explained. "I heard there might be some here."
The sentry studied him. "Maybe." He confirmed. "Depends on what you do."
"I fight." The man stated, with a grin. "Something that's always in demand."
"Okay." The stocky guard scratched the back of his neck. "And? We got plenty of fighters here. This place attracts them like a bee to flowers. What else you do?"
The newcomer regarded him stolidly for a moment, then sighed and went to his mule, unstrapping the large pack draped across the animal's back He drew out a crossbow and turned., holding it down and displaying it's unloaded state before he crossed back over to the guard. "Something useful. I make these."
"Huh." The guard tilted his head. "Not for me to judge." He shrugged. "G'wan up to the armory and show the chief."
The man put his weapon away, and lead the mule past the gates, up a neatly bordered road and into the bustling activity of midday. To one side a path lead up to a two story inn, with a wide porch and open windows that allowed the scent of venison stew to escape across the square. To the other side, rows of cabins stretched, neat walks between them, and to the rear he could see the peaked roof of a well built stable.
He passed the communal well, giving the two women there a smile, and kept walking. One of the women, slim and dark haired, watched him go, hazel eyes speculative. The armory was a squat building to one side of the inn, and he made for it, giving his surroundings an approving nod. As he paused by the watering trough to let the mule take a drink, the back door to the inn opened and a young woman came out, shouldering a linen bag as she headed his way.
Hm. He watched her without seeming to. She wasn't tall, but something about the way she carried herself caught his eye. Dressed in a pretty sleeveless tunic, which was belted in at her slim waist, she appeared little different than the rest of the women moving about the place. Except to his eyes. The soft fabric covered a smoothly muscled body whose rolling, powerful walk clearly denoted a person who spent more time moving than sitting still. The man smiled in approval at her as she met his gaze, a little surprised at the intense power of the mist green eyes he found pinning him. "Ma'am."
"Hi." The woman detoured over to him and stopped a pace away, cocking her fair head to one side and studying him. "Looking for something?" Her face was open and engaging, a curious mix of youth and experience, a pleasant smile that belied the quiet shadows that lurked behind those pretty eyes.
The man debated whether to give her a saucy answer, then decided against it. "Guy at the gate told me to go to the armory. I'm looking for work." He pulled the crossbow partially out again. "And I make weapons."
The woman absorbed this. "Okay. You want to see Xena." She decided "C'mon." She turned and started walking, clearly expecting him to follow her. He was still frozen in place though, by that one single name. "Xena?" He asked, hesitantly, putting the mule's reins down and belatedly chasing after his new guide. "Is she here, now?"
An impish grin briefly transformed the woman's face, making her seem much younger than he'd first thought. "Of course she's here. You're not scared of her, are you?"
"Well.." He cleared his throat. "No, no, of course not, but I.." He hadn't expected to run into her, not this soon. Not ever, if he was honest, all he was looking for was a little work, and a bed.
"Don't worry." His guide told him kindly. "She won't hurt you." A pause. "Unless you're a troublemaker. Are you a troublemaker?"
"Me? Oh, no. No." He quickly shook his head.
"That's good." The woman stated, opening the door to the armory. "She hates troublemakers. Hangs them in the stable naked and lets the bugs eat them alive."
He stopped dead in his tracks and turned his head, his eyes going round as he stared at her. Then he looked back around, to the doorway in the back of the armory, where a tall, shadowy figure was just visible.
"Go on." The woman gave him a gentle push. "It's okay. She's already had lunch."
He swallowed hard, and took a few steps towards the open doorway, stopping again when the shadowy figure leaning over a workbench turned and straightened up, peering his way. He shivered, seeing the ice pale eyes of legend, and realizing even from this distance that she would tower over him.
A very dark eyebrow lifted in his direction. "Yeah?" The low, vibrant voice made his knees shake.
He swallowed again and forced himself forward, approaching the intimidating figure cautiously. He was vaguely aware of the fair haired woman's presence at his back and he just barely resisted the urge to dash back to her much more reassuring presence.
Xena was wearing a set of leather armor and heavy riding boots, and as he got closer, she seemed to get taller, the muscular body under those leather shifting with fluid grace as she walked towards him and raked him with her eyes. "What do you want?"
"Uh…" He tried to collect his thoughts, finding his head tilting back as she came closer. By the gods, she was tall, with broad shoulders and large, powerful hands. Her face was striking, high, planed cheekbones lending it a hawk's sharpness capped with thick, dark hair that matched the evenly tanned skin.
"Well?" She growled, putting her hands on her hips.
He thought about the stories. His teeth started to chatter. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he dropped without a further sound, crumpling at Xena's feet in a sodden, helpless lump.
Xena studied him with a perplexed look, then glanced up at the doorway. She spread her hands wide. "What the Hades was that?" She demanded. "I didn't do a damn thing to him!" A scowl. 'Will you stop laughing?"
"Bwahahaha…" Gabrielle slipped inside and skirted the poor victim as she slid her arms around her partner, giving the powerful body a squeeze as she regarded the lump on the floor. "Ah.. the power of your personality, Xena. It just overwhelms people." She tugged on a bit of Xena's leathers playfully. "You're such a knockout."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Give me a break.. who the Hades is this, Gabrielle?"
Her partner studied their new friend. "Well, he's a soldier…"
"Another one?" Xena sighed. "Gods."
"Honey, did you really expect to attract tailors?" Gabrielle asked reasonably. "Anyway, he's a weapon smith, and from the looks of the crossbow he pulled out, a pretty good one."
"Mmmph." Xena grunted, mildly mollified. "Where were you headed?" She turned her attention from the unconscious man to the bard at her side, nuzzling her hair a little.
"Here." Gabrielle told her. "I thought maybe you’d agree to take a break and join Dori and I for lunch." She paused and tilted her head, kissing the warrior lightly on the lips. "Since I haven't seen you all day."
Xena exhaled, and glanced around, giving the room an approving nod. The new armory had just been completed to her specifications, and well made weapons lined the walls, and rested in various stages of becoming on the worktables. The crew she'd been training were on a break, and it seemed like a good time for her to do the same. "Agreed." Xena stuck her head outside the window. "Bennu!"
Heavy boot steps approached, then the door was filled with Xena's second in command, a very tall, very broadly build fighter with curly red hair and a square, earnest face. "Yes, Genr'l"
Xena pointed at the lump on the floor. "Get him a place in the barracks."
Bennu ambled over and took hold of the unconscious man, pulling him up and slinging him over his shoulder with very little effort. "Right you are, Genr'l." The big man boomed. "Got that training session set up for ye a bit later. Lads are looking forward to it."
Xena chuckled. "So am I." She offered a hand to Gabrielle. "C'mon. I hear a certain two year old yelling for us."
The bard gladly took her hand as they followed Bennu out of the armory, watching him trudge off towards down the long path that headed through the orchards and exited down the slope where the militia barracks had been built. Something else new, Gabrielle mused, as she paced alongside her partner, their hands clasped warmly between them.
Xena seemed to be deep in thought, so Gabrielle remained quiet , as they walked between all the new construction, around the other side of the inn to where the newest building was having some final touches put on it's thatch roof. It was a long, low structure, with large, square windows, and from them laughter and squeals were drifting out.
Gabrielle reached out and opened the door to the schoolroom, allowing Xena to precede her inside. She followed and closed the door, standing quietly for a moment to absorb the scene inside. A dozen children of various ages were playing, some with stuffed toys, some with blocks hand hewn from fallen wood. The room itself was very colorful and bright, chests against the wall held toys and books, and there were sturdy tables where the children could work with bits of charcoal on forming letters.
She spotted her daughter almost immediately, in the corner with some of the youngers, her thatch of midnight dark hair shaggy and vivid. Dori was playing tug with a knotted rope, her face intent and serious as she held her ground against the three other children pulling against her.
Tall for her age, and possessing a sturdy frame that promised a lot of future growth, Dori took advantage of her greater size and strength and pulled hard, letting out a tiny grunt as she successfully gained possession of the tug toy, and sent her three competitors sprawling on the rush covered floor.
"Got!" Dori chortled, holding the toy up.
"She's such a brat." Gabrielle sighed. "Dori!"
The dark head turned and spotted them, big green eyes widening in delight. "Mama!" Dori dropped her prize and bolted, rambling across the floor. "Boo!!!"
"Cmere, honey." Gabrielle knelt down and opened her arms, gathering in her daughter and hugging her as she threw herself at her mother. She stood up and hefted the tot, glancing up at her partner. Xena watched with a quiet smile, reaching out and letting Dori capture her hand as the child giggled in delight.
"Boo!" Dori warbled. "I got rocks!"
"You did, huh?" Xena chuckled. "Where are they?"
Dori pointed at a pile of stones on a nearby table. "Dere." She wriggled in Gabrielle's arms, as though she could fly to the table. "Mama, go dere."
"Good a place as any for lunch." Xena commented as they complied, thought the seats were on the short side for the tall warrior. She settled down, though, extending her long legs out along the floor and watching benignly as some of the other children climbed over them. Xena and Gabrielle were a common sight in the schoolroom, and their presence didn't excite that much attention, though the two children's keepers waved at them from where they were preparing lunch for the rest of the kids.
"What do we have for lunch today, huh Dori?" Gabrielle opened her sack and poured out it's contents. "Ah ah ah… you save the cookies for later."
Xena chuckled, filching one of the nut pastries for herself and popping it into her mouth.
"Stop that, you bad influence." The bard shook a finger at her. "Here." She gave Dori a small dish of vegetables.
"Want now." Dori argued. "Mama, no like that." She sat down on the table and pushed the dish away, then changed her mind and picked up a carrot, studying it seriously before she looked up, spotted a likely target and flung the carrot at it.
Xena lifted a hand lazily and swiped the item out of mid air. "Dori, that's not nice." She drawled.
"Not nice." Dori repeated seriously. "Want cookies."
"Maybe if you ate that carrot, she'd copy you." Gabrielle suggested pointedly. "Boo."
Blue eyes flicked her way, then Xena smiled and popped the vegetable into her mouth, crunching it and swallowing obediently.
They both looked at Dori, who was staring at Xena with utter absorption. Xena lifted an expressive eyebrow. Dori got to her knees and crawled over to where her beloved playmate was sitting and leaned over, bracing one hand against Xena's leather covered body. The tot boldly grabbed Xena's mouth and pulled, peering inside when the warrior obligingly opened it, trying hard not to laugh.
Gabrielle had no such compunction, and she giggled heartily. "Oh, Dori… you just did exactly what I was thinking."
Xena picked up Dori and put her on her lap, laughter shaking her own body as she plucked a bit of beet from the bowl and offered it to the child. "So." The warrior addressed her partner. "How's it coming?"
"Eh." Gabrielle portioned out some meat and grain filled pastries, handing Xena one and taking one for herself while setting a smaller one aside for Dori "I don’t like some of what's going on down in the city, Xena." She took a bite of her pastry, and watched the warrior do the same. "There's an element drifting in down there, especially near the market that's just up to no good."
Xena considered this, as Dori reached up and snatched a handful of her pastry, cramming it into her mouth with a happy gurgle. "I don't want to send the militia down there." She stated. "Council's gonna have to name a constable, Gabrielle. Get a magistrate in here, and start putting in some laws. We can't just on like this."
Amphipolis' growth had, Gabrielle wryly acknowledged, definitely turned out to be a two edged sword. While she was glad her adopted home town was doing well, and growing, each new influx of people caused problems, most of which eventually involved either her, as the city's chief Arbiter, or Xena, who had accepted the task of being in charge of the militia .
They still called it the militia, of course, even though now with a force large enough to defend the vastly expanded territory Amphipolis and it's outlying hamlets now covered, it was truthfully an army in fact if not in name.
Gabrielle knew why Xena refused to change the name, though. She watched her partner's angular profile as she shared her meal with Dori, thinking about the changes time had wrought in both of their lives. Xena, surely, had never dreamed she'd end up being asked to command the largest military force for many leagues. Gabrielle herself had never intended on controlling the legal fate of the now substantial populace in her hands.
But here they were. A year after Xena's defeat of Andreas, squarely in the midst of the onrushing stream of progress that was reshaping their familiar world, and making the peace of their sleepy hometown a thing of the far past.
Gabrielle wasn't sure if it was all a good thing. "All right. I'll call a council meeting for tomorrow morning." She told Xena. "Will you come convince them?"
"Like that?" Xena smiled as Dori smeared some of her lunch across her chubby cheeks.
"Mm.. like that." Dori giggled. "Where's Boo?"
"Right here." The warrior put a fingertip on Dori's small nose. "Gonna show me your rocks?"
Dori shoved the pile towards her buddy. "Look." She picked up a round, speckled specimen. "Dis was near fishie."
"Mm." Xena picked up the rock and studied it seriously. "Did you catch the fishie?"
Gabrielle munched on her pie, and just watched them. Xena and Dori were so cute together, the two dark heads bent close together as their daughter earnestly explained how rocks and fishes were the same things. If nothing else, the year past had solidified them as a family, the responsibilities they'd taken on grounding both her and Xena in a way far different than they'd ever been before. It had brought a veneer of comfortable normality to their lives and given them both the time, and the space to heal parts of themselves she'd long thought past healing.
"Next time, you should catch the fishie." Xena was saying, wiggling her fingertips a little. "Like this."
Dori waved both her hands in mimicry, and they all laughed.
"Well, it's a start." Xena leaned back, after ruffling Dori's hair affectionately. "Right, short stuff?"
"Yes." Dori agreed solemnly.
Xena leaned back and sighed, resting an arm on the table, her eyes regarding Gabrielle. "Know what I feel like doing?"
Green eyes twinkled gently. "No, what?" Gabrielle asked, watching the expressive face opposite her. "Taking the afternoon off?" She hazarded a guess, reading the faint sense of twitchiness present.
A half grin appeared. "Let's take the munchkin and go find some quiet space." Xena said. "My nerves are rubbed raw today for some reason." She played with Dori's foot, inside it's leather bootie.
"Sure." Gabrielle readily agreed. Xena had been too quiet lately, going about her tasks with a sense of stolid determination, but lacking, to the bard's eyes, a certain spark that she missed. She wondered if all the responsibilities and tasks weren't getting to be just a bit too much for her partner's sometimes wild, and often restless spirit. "Gods, I'd love to… hey, want to spend the night out?" She suggested. "We can take Dori's knapsack, and teach her to count stars. What about it?"
Xena's eyes lit up, though her expression remained casual. "All right." She nodded. "What about it, Dori.. you want to go ride with us?"
"Horsies?" Dori squealed. "We go now?" She scrambled to her feet and flung herself at Xena, who caught her in mid air and tossed her up. "Yes!"
"Looks like it's unanimous." Gabrielle laughed. "C'mon, let's go pack. I'll stop by the inn and tell Mom and the Amazon posse we're taking off."
Xena cradled her daughter in the crook of one arm and stood up, stretching out her body with a few soft popping noises. "Don’t bring dinner." She told her partner. "I'll teach Dori how to catch fishes.. how about that, huh Dor?"
"Fishies." Dori sucked her thumb. "Mm."
"Uh huh, then I'll have to teach her how to cook them." Gabrielle teased gently, as she slipped her arm around Xena's waist, and they left the school. Xena's idea had surprised her a little, but in a pleasant way, and the more she thought about it, the more she liked it.
Xena realized, of course, that having Dori splashing alongside her was going to make actually catching any fish a tough ride. So she left the tot to 'help' Gabrielle gathered wood for the fire and slipped off, stripping out of her armor as she headed for the cool, blue/black water.
The chill was a slight shock, but she waded on, allowing the surface to creep up her body until she was submerged to her waist. For a moment, she merely stood there, absorbing the wild feel of the current against her skin, and the relative silence, the sounds of the wood around her brushing lightly across her hearing with something almost like relief.
It was ludicrous, she reasoned, that she could actually miss having to scrounge for her supper every night. She cocked her head to one side and listened, as the sounds of Dori's laughter and Gabrielle's clear voice faded and she focused down tight, listening for ripples, feeling the shift of the current against her legs…
A wry smirk appeared. Xena waited patiently, eyes half closed, acknowledging the almost primal pleasure that swept over her as her prey swam within her reach. A sobering thought suddenly occurred to her. What if she missed? One blue eye peeked over her shoulder, checking to see where her beloved soulmate and their child were. Gabrielle was swinging Dori over her head, and neither seemed to be watching closely.
Reassured she wasn't about to make a complete fool out of herself, Xena returned her attention to the water, fixing her focus once again on the motion below the surface. She allowed her reactions to settle, then pounced, her hands slicing through the water towards a target pinned with every sense she had save vision itself.
The slick, scaled surface scraped along her skin and she clamped down hard, anticipating the struggle. The fish didn't disappoint her, it's body twisting powerfully inside her grip as it fought to escape. "Ahhh…. Gotcha." Xena growled at it, as she flexed her legs and pulled backwards, yanking her furiously fighting dinner from the water.
"Oooo… " A voice almost made her drop the damn thing. "Nice one!"
Xena swiveled her body and heaved the fish from her, out over the surface of the water towards the bank which now held an interestedly watching Gabrielle and a completely fascinated Dori. "There ya go." The fish flew over both of their heads and landed on the ground, where it flopped and grunted.
This was way too much for Dori, who wriggled free of her mother's grip and bolted towards it. "Mama! A fishie!!!'
Gabrielle laughed. "Yes, honey.. it sure is." She glanced back at the water, where her partner now standing easily, watching the show. The afternoon sunlight poured across Xena's body, unnecessarily gilding her skin and reflecting off the droplets of water clinging to it. "Say thank you to Boo for your supper, okay?"
Dori touched the fish, then jerked back as it flopped. "Bad fishie"! She slapped it wit a small hand. "Go shhh!"
Xena watched the action contentedly for a moment, then returned her attention to the river, knowing one fish wouldn't be enough to satisfy all of them. She wiggled her fingers and went back to the hunt, allowing herself a guilty enjoyment now seldom indulged.
Gabrielle neatly dispatched the fish and hung it up outside of her daughters reach. Dori wasn't pleased with this, however. She hopped up and down and reached up with one hand, making a sound of childish frustration. "Dori, now stop."
"Mama! I want fishie!" Dori wailed. "Gimme!"
"Dori…" Gabrielle put a finger to her lips. "Shh… Boo won't catch another one if you make so much noise."
"That never stopped you." A voice rumbled behind her, and the bard turned, to see Xena dripping on the leaf litter, her leathers slung over her shoulder and a huge trout depending from it's gills in one hand. "Sounds just like you used to at the end of a long day, matter of fact."
"Very funny." Gabrielle took the fish and poked her partner in the belly. "It's not my fault you used to run us both ragged." She held the fish up out of Dori's grasp and hung it near it's fellow victim. "Now put your dinars where your mouth is and show her how to catch one of these suckers."
Xena chuckled, as she laid her leathers down and picked up the outraged Dori, cradling her against her damp skin. "Hey, shortie.. wanna go swimming?"
Dori accepted this distraction amiably. "Go swim." She agreed, tugging on Xena's dark hair. "Go swim, and get a fishie." A pause. "Now."
Xena laughed. "Yes, ma'am." She turned and headed back towards the river with her imperious offspring, leaving Gabrielle to finish getting the campfire laid. "Ah." The bard knelt beside the neatly stacked wood, striking the sparks that would light it. "Don’t' tell anyone, but damn, I miss this." She addressed the fire as it started, blowing gently on the sparks to catch the tinder. "Not so much the dirt, and the bugs, and the work of it, but just… " She sat back with a sigh, regarding the two figures now playing in the water. "The depending on ourselves for everything part."
She wondered if that wasn’t' what prompted Xena's idea. Gabrielle allowed her eyes to linger on her tall soulmate's frame in quiet speculation. Then she sighed and brushed her hands off, crossing her legs and starting to untie the laces on her boots.
"Okay." Xena watched Dori splash enthusiastically through the water, her strong body making mincemeat of the light current. The baby had been swimming since she'd been only months old, and she adored the water, treating it with a complete fearlessness that sometimes worried her more cautious parents. 'Now, c'mere."
Dori swam to her arms and grabbed on, her legs continuing to move until Xena slid a hand under her and supported her in the water. "Boo, love you." She burbled happily, clutching Xena's arm and giving it a sloppy baby kiss. "Can we go fly?"
Xena grinned. "Which do you want first, fishies, or flying?" She asked pragmatically. "Can't do both." She slipped into deeper water and held Dori's hands, swinging her around. "Gotta choose, Dori."
The little face scrunched in thought, looking so much like Gabrielle that it brought a smile to Xena's face. "Both." Dori decided. "Go fly, and catch fishies."
"You just want everything, don’t'cha." Xena gazed at her.
"Yes." Dori splashed her parent enthusiastically.
Blue eyes looked carefully around, then Xena bent her head closer. "That's okay." She murmured. "Cause I do too.. you get that from me, y'know." She informed her daughter.
Dori giggled, and grabbed Xena's nose, tugging hard. Then she turned, at the sound of more splashing. "Mama!"
"That's me." Gabrielle joined them, swimming over with quick, powerful strokes. "What are you two up to? Making trouble?"
"Yes." Dori assured her. "Boo trouble."
Gabrielle snickered. "Oh, honey, you just said a mouthful and you don't even know it." She kidded her soulmate, who snorted.
"Nah." Xena shook her head. "Not anymore." She flicked a bit of water at Gabrielle. "Despite your tormenting newcomers with wild stories about me." She handed Dori over to her mother, then disappeared under the water, leaving the bard to quietly speculate.
Was that really true? Gabrielle floated on her back and played with Dori, who had found a bit of underwater fern she was busy decimating. Yeah, maybe it was, she decided, feeling a little surprised. Xena had, without question changed this past year, just as she had. The warrior had accepted her new role of military commander easily, but it had changed the way she was regarded, in Amphipolis and in the surrounding lands.
The Warrior Princess was fading into the mists. It her place stood the stalwart Defender of Amphipolis, respected throughout the region for her planning skills and military acumen. There were people living here now, Gabrielle suddenly realized, who had only known Xena as champion and hero, who hadn't heard or didn't know about her dark past and the potential for violence still coiled behind those pretty blue eyes.
Weird. Though certainly there were many who remembered the past, their visitor from earlier among them. But over time, the bard mused, the majority would accept the Xena they knew now, the captain of their guard, the loving mother, the faithful friend.
"Wow." Gabrielle said aloud. "That's cool."
And of course, she was swamped by cold river water seconds later. She surfaced spluttering, wiping the pale hair out of her eyes and glaring around, to see mischievous azure eyes sticking up above the river's edge, watching her . "You… you…. You….. "
Dori giggled. "Mama's wet!" She pointed. "Funny!"
Gabrielle got her feet under her and stood up, letting the water sheet off her in the waist high river. "Just for that, madame, no cookies for you." She pointed at Xena.
The warrior also stood up and waded over to her, towing Dori along by one hand. She stopped as they came face to face and tilted her head, capturing Gabrielle's lips with impudent expertise. "Sorry." She breathed as they parted. "I couldn’t resist."
"Oh." The bard replied, leaning forward and accepting another kiss. "So you think this'll make me forgive you?"
"Uh huh." Xena brushed lightly against her, a tingle of heat amidst the chill waters. Then she lifted Dori up and slipped past, letting her free hand slide across Gabrielle's skin, ending with a tweak in a very sensitive spot.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and waited for the splashing to stop. Then she opened them and released her breath, feeling the flush rising to her skin. "Whoo." She addressed the river, glad at least that was one thing that hadn't changed. With a sigh, she ran her fingers through her damp hair and turned, slogging out of the river and up onto the bank as the breeze brought goosebumps to her skin. "Hey, Xe…" She almost got the words out before her shirt hit her in the chest, and she grabbed it. "Thanks."
"Here." Xena handed her one of the soft, woven towels they'd gotten at the last big market. She took a second and carefully wiped Dori off while Gabrielle got one of the baby's jumpers out of their gear. She handed the jumper to her partner as she used the towel she'd been given to dry Xena's back instead of her own.
The smooth surface moved under her hands, and she glanced up to see Xena watching her over one shoulder. "Hi."
Xena put Dori down and turned, using the towel in her hand to start drying Gabrielle off, wiping carefully around her ears and down her neck, all without saying a word. The fire crackled softly in the background, warming their skin, and Gabrielle found the combination of chills and heat very….
She looked up into Xena's eyes, and smiled. "Thanks for suggesting this."
A quick grin, then Xena wiped her ears and winked at her, glancing over her shoulder as they heard a rustling in the nearby bushes. "Ah." The warrior chuckled, as Ares, their pet wolf trotted into the firelit circle, shaking his head and scattering some small feathers as he did so. "There you are. Didn't like the idea of fish for dinner, huh?"
"Gruff." Ares sat down and panted, as Dori scrambled for him with a delighted squeal. The wolf quickly laid down, having learned from experience it was easier than being knocked down by the toddler's enthusiasm.
Dori wrapped her arms around the wolf's neck and warbled a greeting. "Guff, guff guff.. bad guff. Go bye bye, bad."
Ares gave Xena a plaintive look, then sighed and started licking Dori's face, cleaning the river water off it as Dori tugged at his thick, black fur.
"Now that the family's all here, I guess I can start dinner going." Gabrielle laughed, as she pulled a linen shift over her head and let it settle over her body. "Any chance of you… " She started to ask Xena, then realized the warrior had vanished after donning a tunic of her own. "Getting some greens to go with it." The bard finished, with a sigh. "Guess we'll just have to see what Boo comes back with, huh Dori?"
"Cookie." Dori looked up from her chewing of Ares ears. "Boo get cookies."
Gabrielle just chuckled to herself, as she pulled out her knife set, a long ago gift from Xena, and started working on the fish.
The fire had burned nice and low, it's heart a solid red glow sending a wash of crimson across the campsite. Dori was snoozing peacefully in the clever, collapsible hide cradle Xena had dreamed up a few months back. Xena was leaning back against a granite boulder and Gabrielle had taken the spot between her outstretched legs, comfortably wrapped in her partner's arms as she shared out their dinner.
Xena had, actually, remembered the greens, but she'd also found a sackful of nuts, berries, and the most delicous plums Gabrielle had ever seen or tasted. She cut a sliver of one now, and handed it back over her shoulder, smiling when she felt soft lips exploring her fingers after removing it. "These are even better than cookies."
"Mm." Xena rested her chin on Gabrielle's shoulder. "More."
The bard provided another slice. "You're starting to sound just like Dori." She kidded her partner gently, as the hold around her middle tightened. She felt Xena exhale. "You all right?"
Xena was momentarily silent. "Yeah, I'm fine." She answered, in a normal voice, leaning back and pulling Gabrielle with her. "Why?"
Why. Good question. "You just seem very quiet tonight." Gabrielle felt her way carefully. "I mean, not that you're ever really noisy, Xena, unless you're fighting, and you make those grunting noises and that yowl you do." She felt the surface she was leaning against shake slightly as Xena laughed. "You just seem like you're thinking hard about something." She glanced over her shoulder at the half shadowed face behind her. "Are you?"
Xena regarded her quietly for a long moment. Then she shrugged lightly. "Nothing special." She gently moved a bit of Gabrielle's fair hair out of her eyes. "Just how much things have changed."
Gabrielle half turned so she could see her partner's face better. "I was thinking about that too." She said, knowing the one way to get Xena to talk was to start talking herself. "I was thinking about how much Amphipolis has changed, and how our lives have changed because of that, because of the responsibilities we've taken on in the last year."
Xena nodded. "Yeah."
Okay, so maybe not. "It's a lot of work." Gabrielle added, then fell silent herself.
The still, tanned face twitched a time or two. "Worthwhile, though. If you let things just grow out of control, it's a mess." Xena stated finally. "It's just… strange for me to find myself in the position I.. " She paused. "When Lyceus and I used to talk about what would happen, after Cortese, this is what we thought it would be like."
"Mm." Gabrielle considered that. "So, it just took a little longer than you expected?" She hazarded quietly. "I think you do a great job, by the way. Everyone is in awe of your knowledge and planning skills."
"Thank you." Xena smiled. "Damn good thing it took so long, because I didn't have those as a fifteen year old." She reminded her partner wryly. "You do a damn good job yourself, y'know. I heard two of the councilmen talking the other day about you."
Nice change of subject. Gabrielle almost made the comment audibly, then decided to give it a rest for a bit and find a different angle to prod later. "I try to." She answered modestly. "It's going to be nice when we finish the performance area.. we've got six or seven singers and poets who can't wait to start, and with the size the town is now, they should be popular." A pause. "And, um.. I've got a few new stories I'd like to try out there too." She smiled as she added the last, feeling again the tingle of anticipation.
Xena grinned at her. "Can't wait to hear you." She slid a hand around the bard's neck and pulled her closer, planting a kiss on the top of her head and hugging her tightly. "I always wanted this kind of life for you." She murmured. "I just never figured on being there to see it."
Tears stung Gabrielle's eyes unexpectedly. She clenched her jaw and swallowed, then drew in a shaky breath. "I wouldn’t have wanted any kind of life if you hadn't been there to see it." She felt her hair stroked gently, and her body relaxed under Xena's familiar touch. "We deserve the lives we're living, Xena. We went through Hades twice to earn them."
"I know." Xena affirmed. "I think we should enjoy every minute of it." She lifted Gabrielle's chin up and kissed her. "I intend to make sure you do."
What about you? Gabrielle asked silently, searching the depths of Xena's eyes. Seeing no shadows lurking there, she relaxed and leaned in again, tasting the sweet tinge of plum and a hint of wild berries on the warrior's lips. "With you here, everything else is just nice frills." She brushed a thumb over one planed cheekbone. "You're all I've ever needed, Xena."
The blue eyes warmed and gentled at the statement, all the more so because it was the simple truth, and they both knew it.
Sometimes, life just worked out. Even when all the odds said otherwise.
I must be going insane. Xena mused silently, as she watched the first rays of dawn creep across the thick, green grass leading towards their campsite. She could, she knew, have been lying in complete comfort in their cabin, on their bed. Gabrielle had surprised her by adding a thick padding of quilted down to it several months back, after she'd twisted just the wrong way during a melee drill with the militia and thrown her back out.
She'd been in agony, and to come home and find that little bit of pure consideration waiting for her had almost brought tears to her eyes. It had made the pain almost irrelevant, lying there cradled in Gabrielle's arms in that soft comfort, listening to the bard murmur a favorite story to her until the muscles finally loosened and released her from that fierce grip.
So, she could have been curled up in that comfortable nest with Gabrielle, but instead here she was, lying on cold, hard ground, with dew coating her face, and a rock for a pillow under her cloak. And she was completely contented, enjoying the warmth of Gabrielle's deeply asleep body draped over hers, and the sharp, clean smell of the earth and grass so nearby.
It made her think about the years she and Gabrielle had spent on the road, alone together and wandering the world in search of her redemption. They'd been hard times, no doubt about it, and many long nights spent shivering and hungry, but somehow… Xena glanced down at the bard's profile, seeing the faint crease of a smile pulling at the edges of her lips. Life had been so much simpler then. A day was just getting up, finding breakfast, and wandering off to find some new adventure, some new problem to solve, or sometimes, just a new road to walk down and explore.
Now, it was different. Xena sighed. Not that different was bad, really. She didn't have to worry about either of them being killed or maimed on a daily basis, for one thing. That was good. They could count on shelter, and three meals a day, and that was good too, because it meant there was much less chance of either of them getting sick. Gabrielle hadn't had a bout of coughing sickness since Dori'd been born, in fact, and they both had put on some solid reserves and were mostly strong and healthy.
Xena still got to fight everyday, as part of the training for the army. That kept her nerves in good order, and burned off the energy reserves she tended to hoard. So that was good. Gabrielle was in charge of the school, and heavily involved in the new theatre, and she'd just finished a bound volume of new poems, her bardic muse fully restored now that she didn't have to spend half her time fighting for her life.
That.. that was very, very good.
So, Xena. Her conscience prodded her. What the Hades are you doing out here lying on the ground with a rock under your head, and a spider crawling on your shoulder? She blew the insect off with a puff of breath and scowled at the trees rustling softly overhead. She knew soon her little jaunt would be over, and they'd head back to town for breakfast and the start of another long day.
Was she going insane? Or was it just that she truly cherished these moments when her family was together, and … Xena's brow creased. Could it be that she liked the self sufficiency? The fact that out here, her family could depend on her, and her alone for all their wants and needs, even Gabrielle, who was perfectly capable of sustaining herself?
Oh wow. Xena let her eyes close, at this very complicated and not very productive thought. Besides, there was no going back, and she knew it. That era of her life was over, and she wasn't either a rampaging warlord or a penitent wanderer anymore.
The fire crackled a bit, and Xena opened her eyes, seeing the faint reflection as Ares did the same, curled up as he was right next to Dori's cradle. Oh well. She regarded the lightly fog tinged campsite with a faint smile. There were always nights like last night to be had for the asking, and when Dori was older, longer camping trips on the horizon when Xena could teach her the woodcraft skills she'd spent a lifetime acquiring.
That would be fun. Xena relaxed, and shifted her hold on Gabrielle's inert body, pulling her just a bit closer as she closed her eyes again. Then another thought occurred to her, and she let her eyelids drift open, at a far more sobering picture. What if Dori wanted to learn her other skills? The ones that involved steel, and blood, and killing?
She'd refused to teach Gabrielle those skills, in her misguided efforts to keep her young friend innocent, and look what happened. Xena gazed at the bard's profile with a sense of residual, distinct sadness, an ache she knew she would always feel, for as long as they both were alive and together. The world, her world, had gotten too dangerous, and Gabrielle hadn't been ready for it.
So. Xena eyed the cradle. You know, Xena, you're gonna have a few years before you have to make this decision. Her more pragmatic side tapped her on the shoulder. I don't think Dori's going after the chakram any time soon, so why not shelve this, and think about something more productive like what to scrounge for breakfast?
It was that moment when she realized she intended to draw out their excursion for as long as possible, and had to wonder again at what was going on inside that thick skull of hers.
"Hey, sweetie?" Gabrielle's voice was husky with sleep.
"Mm?" Xena gazed down at her partner, whose eyes were still firmly closed.
"What would I have to bribe you with to get you to go berry picking with me for breakfast, then sneak off to our spring for a day of hedonistic sunbathing and self indulgence?"
Whatever it was, seemed contagious. Xena mused. "Oh, not much. Some of those apples, maybe." She replied, with a grin. "But I thought we both had a full schedule today."
Gabrielle sighed, a warm gust of air that Xena could feel even through the rough, linen tunic she was wearing. "We do." She admitted. "And the responsible thing would be to stick to it, right?"
"Right." Xena agreed.
They were both quiet for a moment, then they looked at each other, in a wordless understanding so profound it made them both smile.
The innkeeper looked up from her ledger. "Afternoon, Josc."
The town reeve entered and crossed over to her, taking a seat across the table. "You have any idea where Gabrielle is? She's missed two council meetings this morning, and that's not like her."
Cyrene gazed innocently at him. "Sorry, Josc. I don't have a clue. Haven't seen her since last night."
Josclyn drummed callused fingers on the table.
"Or Xena either, so it's safe to assume that whereever she is, Gabrielle is probably pretty safe." The innkeeper smiled.
"Well." The reeve shook his head. "I don't know. Those merchants walked out today and they were very upset."
Cyrene shrugged. "They'll live, I'm sure."
"That's not the point." Josclyn stood up and paced back and forth. "Cy, you know how long we've been working to get that market consortium going. The winter season depends on it, and it looks like we're finally close… now this happens."
"Too bad." Cyrene told him bluntly.
Josclyn stared at her. "What?"
"I said, too bad." The innkeeper repeated. "There are things more important than the market."
He put his hands on his hips. "Like what? I thought we were all part of a team here, Cyrene. What's your beef?"
Cyrene stood up herself. "What's my beef? Same as it's always been. It's great that Amphipolis is going up in the world, but you forget whose shoulders it's being carried on." She snapped back. "Sometimes I want to smack you people, and remind you that you don't own either of my daughters, and they have a right to take time off for themselves sometimes."
Josclyn sat down slowly, and exhaled, scrubbing his hands through his grizzled hair. "I know." He admitted.
"No, you don’t know." The innkeeper sat down as well. "No one really understands, Josc. Not even me." She went on, softly. "Just, please. If they ask for some space, give it to them, and don't ask questions." She regarded the ledger soberly. "They're taking the day off. Leave them alone."
"Okay." Josclyn nodded. "I'll just tell everyone to sit tight until tomorrow." He stood up. "Sorry, Cy."
Cyrene watched him leave, her head shaking slowly. Toris entered, obviously having overheard. "You were a little tough on him." Toris commented, as he leaned against the post next to her table. "He's just trying to keep a handle on things, mother."
Cyrene merely grunted, and went back to her task.
"Xe's fine. She's been fine for a year." Toris went on.
"She's too quiet." Cyrene stated flatly. "I've known her longer than you have."
Toris rolled his eyes. "Mother, give me a break. Maybe it's just time for her to join the rest of us, okay? I don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and this one gave me my sister back. The one I remember." He sat down. "The one who played with me and Ly. "
His mother looked at him.
"She's finally just becoming one of us, again." Toris argued. "What's wrong with that?"
"One of us?" Cyrene leaned on the table and pinned him with her gaze. "Toris, you're not the brightest candle in the inn, but even you have to realize Xena's never been one of us."
Toris sat back, hurt.
"One of us doesn't come back from the dead." Cyrene went on, mercilessly. "One of us doesn't leap across mountains, or fight gods." She slapped the table. "Name another girl from Amphipolis who fathered a child."
"What are you saying?" Toris asked, in a quiet voice.
Cyrene exhaled, and gave her head a tiny shake. "I don't know what I'm saying." She murmured. "Toris, I would love for your sister to be exactly as you say. Shedding her past, settling down, becoming one of us." She stared at the table. "I just don' know if it's as easy as all that."
Toris fiddled with one of the quills on the table. "I think you're wrong, mother." He finally told her. "I think Xe's found some of the peace that's always evaded her." He hesitated. "And I'm damned glad for her if that's true, and more glad for us. I know what she's capable of."
"Do you?" His mother replied, in a whisper. "I wonder if any of us really does."
"Ready, Dori?" Gabrielle stood near the edge of the spring, and held out her arms. "C'mon.. come to mama." She laughed as her fearless offspring leaped off the small, flat rock she was standing on and into the water, splashing vigorously towards her until she ended up thumping against the bard's chest. "Good girl!"
Xena swam over with long, lazy strokes and ducked under the surface, twisting underneath them and coming up on the other side of Gabrielle in a spray of clear, cold liquid. She shook her head to clear the wet hair from her eyes, and offered a hand out. "Want me to take her for a swim?"
"Booo!!!! " Dori squirmed out of Gabrielle's arms and chugged over towards Xena, grasping her outstretched fingers as the warrior backed away, pulling her through the water. "Gogogogogogogogogo…"
Xena turned and let Dori climb up onto her bare shoulders, then she took off across the spring, swimming with powerful strokes of her arms and smooth kicks as the baby hung tight and drummed her small feet against Xena's back.
Gabrielle watched a moment, then she turned and put her hands on the rocks, pressing her body up and out of the water into the warmth of the sun in a single motion. The rock's heat felt good against her skin, and she stood and stretched, absorbing the light before she climbed up onto a taller boulder and paused.
The light breeze blew against her, and she took a moment to simply revel in how wonderful it felt. Then she took two steps forward and launched herself out into space, curving her body and ducking her head as she dove into the clear, clean water head first.
It was always a shock, just hitting the surface, but she'd taken a breath before entering, and now she opened her eyes a bit, ignoring the sting as she watched a school of trout move frantically out of her way. The reflected sunlight glanced off their scales as they moved, and she smiled, hitting the bottom of the spring and kicking off it back towards the surface.
She kicked rhythmically and erupted from the water with a splash, sucking in a big lungful of air as she spread her arms and looked around, spotting Xena not far off. Her soulmate was swinging Dori around in a circle, to the child's utter delight. Gabrielle watched indulgently for a moment, then started swimming back to the rock for another dive.
"You like that, huh?" Xena asked, as she slowed her circling and pulled Dori close, cradling her on one arm. "You're getting to be a big fishie, huh?"
Dori clutched her arm and giggled, her face breaking into a happy smile that wrinkled her tiny nose. "Boo so funny." She slapped the water. "Make fishie, Boo."
"Ah, so you think I’m funny, eh?" Xena leaned back against the sun warmed rocks and gazed at her daughter, who hiccuped and plunged a fist into the water, searching for booty. "Hey Dori?"
Dori looked up at her, blinking her pretty green eyes.
Dori immediately turned her head and peered across the spring, then pointed with one small finger. "Dere." She indicated the lithe form standing on the diving rock. "Mama up dere."
"Right." Xena tilted her head back and regarded her partner, a fond smile tugging at her lips as she watched Gabrielle close her eyes and revel in the sun, her strong hands flexing a little before her dive. "Y'know what, Dori? Your mama's very beautiful."
Dori looked back at her, blinking in amiable agreement. "Go mama." She pointed. "Mama fly!"
Xena watched the bard execute a perfect plunge into the water. "Yeah.. that's sorta like flying." She agreed, sparing a moment to dredge up the memory of Gabrielle's first tentative attempt at diving.
It was a scorching hot day, after a long string of scorching hot days, and muggy nights. They'd traveled across the sun blanched scrub until late afternoon caught up to them as they trudged down a road more thin dust than anything else.
Xena had resigned herself to just enduring it, walking along in silence next to Argo while Gabrielle trailed along behind them, the girl's normally open and curious nature seemingly shut down tight by the heat, and the grime, and the weariness of the road. But then, Argo's head had lifted, and the mare nickered softly. "What is it, girl." Xena had asked, getting a brisk nudge in the ribs towards the side of the road that sloped up a little. "What? Oh all right."
Xena had dropped the reins, and told Gabrielle to stay put, then climbed up the shifting slope, using her hands to grab bits of grass to pull herself up. When she'd gotten to the top, she'd just seen… more dust. More grass. She'd almost just turned and jumped down, but a gust of hot air had brushed across her senses, and her nose had detected what Argo's had moments before.
And at that moment, Xena had wanted nothing more on earth than to be out of her leathers and armor, and rid of the dust that seemed to have caked every square inch of her body including her tongue. So she'd turned around and leaped down, then strode over to where Gabrielle was bribing her horse with a bit of green grass she'd found somewhere. "Cmon." She'd said brusquely. "There's water up there. Small pond or something."
"Water?" Gabrielle had visibly squared her shoulders under their covering of dirty linen. "Wow. That would be great. I really could use a drink, and I bet you could too, huh?" She hadn't waited for an answer. "And we could wash, and have some soup, I think I've got some stuff we can make soup from, and… "
Xena had just started walking, leading Argo up a gentler part of the slope and trusting that Gabrielle would follow along, which of course she had. They'd cleared the small stand of trees and rounded a patch of tumbled down boulders, and found not the small pond Xena had predicted, but instead a deep, clear spring that gushed out of the rocks.
"Wow." Gabrielle had sighed. "I feel like I could drink all of that." She'd wiped a dusty hand across her forehead, moving her fair hair back and leaving a smudge of dirt behind. After a month traveling with Xena, the road had knocked some of her bubbly enthusiasm off, and she regarded the water thankfully.
"Well, if that's what you want, g'wan." Xena had dropped Argo's reins, and pulled her saddle off, then unbuckled her armor and tossed it down on top of the horse's tack. "Help yourself." She'd pulled off her boots and unhooked her leathers, before she'd looked up at Gabrielle.
Who 'd had her eyes firmly fixed on the rocks, a faint blush on her face. Xena had rolled her eyes, sparing an amused thought for her new friend's modesty. "I’m going swimming. You want to join me?" She'd stepped out of her leathers and chucked them, then jumped up onto the rocks, and dove in, exulting in the crisp cold of the water.
When she'd surfaced, Gabrielle had removed her skirt and blouse and entered the water nearer the end of the spring. She'd watched as her young friend ducked her head under the surface and scrubbed the dust out of her hair, then straightened up with a look of almost pathetic relief.
"Feel's good, huh?" Xena had decided to spare a few words for the kid.
"It sure does." Gabrielle had responded. "I don't think I’m used to being dirty all the time yet. " She'd paused, and blushed. "Not that. I mean, I don't want you think I think you're.. um.."
Xena had snorted softly. "A pig?"
"Um. No, of course not." Gabrielle had hastened to reassure her. "I mean, well, we're traveling all the time, and we sleep on the ground, mostly, and it's not like we keep a bathtub with us, and places like this don’t' happen really often and.. um.. but I'll get used to it." She'd finally finished, in an earnest voice. "Really."
Oh kid. Xena had sighed to herself. Give up, and go home. "Yeah. Right." She'd just shook her head and swam to the side of the rocks, pulling herself out of the water and climbing up onto a shelf of granite just above it. She'd dove off again, and this time, when she surfaced, Gabrielle was treading water uncertainly nearby.
"Not really a swimmer are ya?" Xena had asked, wryly.
"Um.. we didn't do much of that in Potadeia, no." Gabrielle had admitted. "Or what you just did."
Xena had eyed her, realizing again the huge gulf between them. A sarcastic remark trembled on her lips, but as she was about to issue it, her eyes had met Gabrielle's unexpectedly, and she'd gotten hit broadside with that open, innocent, far too trusting look.
What that didn't do to her. Xena had groaned inwardly. What in Hades was it about this kid? "Well, c'mon. I'll show ya how to do it." She'd swum over to the side and turned, glaring at Gabrielle until the girl started swimming awkwardly towards her. Refusing to either think about or rationalize what she was doing, Xena got up out of the water.
"C'mon." She'd turned and offered Gabrielle a hand. The girl had taken it hesitantly, and scrambled out of the water with an adolescent awkwardness to stand self consciously at Xena's side, her still growing body with it's pale skin and light layer of puppy fat in stark contrast to the warrior's.
"I.. um.. " Gabrielle had swallowed a few times, as she paused near the edge of the rocks. "I'm not sure I.. "
"Come here." Xena had ordered, pointing to the rock next to where she was standing. When Gabrielle reluctantly obeyed, she'd bent her knees a little, and held her arms over her head. "Just do this, and go in head first. "
"Yes. It's not hard." Xena had told her, with a touch of impatience. "Just do this, and jump. Head first." She'd demonstrated, launching her body up and out in an effortless arc, then cleaving the water cleanly and surfacing. "Now. " She'd ordered. "Cmon, just remember…"
Poor Gabrielle. Xena had seen the brow scrunch from where she was, as the girl threw first mental, then physical effort into the task. She'd taken a step, then leaped awkwardly into the air, trying her best to throw her body forward as Xena had done.
Xena had realized, halfway through the jump, that the girl was in trouble. Her body had tensed in sympathetic effort as she'd seen Gabrielle become disoriented in mid air, her body frantically trying to compensate and just not having the skill or the strength to accomplish what she needed to. She'd twisted over and landed on her back on the water, with a wild yell that made nearby birds scramble into flight and startled Argo.
Xena lunged forward in pure reflex as Gabrielle fell, then only barely gotten out of the way as the girl's body plunged into the water next to her. She'd grabbed for Gabrielle just as Gabrielle was panicking, and she was unable to avoid her frantic clutching. They'd both gone under, as Xena used her greater size and strength to shove off from the bottom, and they'd ended up tangled together, and nose to nose, drenched and breathing hard.
"Head first, Gabrielle." Xena had finally sighed, blowing the sodden hair out of her eyes with an impatient breath. "Head first."
"Hello? Anyone in there?"
Xena looked up with a start, pulled out of her memories by Gabrielle's voice not a body length from her. The bard was standing in the waist high water, hands on hips, regarding her with bemusement. The gawky adolescent had disappeared completely, replaced by this attractive, self confident young woman, whose cleanly sculpted body was clearly under her control. "Sorry." The warrior gave her a quiet smile. "I was just remembering the day I tried to teach you to dive."
"Oh gods." Gabrielle covered her eyes and laughed as she waded closer, ruffling Dori's hair with her free hand. "You have no idea how many weeks I stayed up at night agonizing over that, and hoping I hadn't made you so disgusted with me that you'd just drop me off the next village we came to." She slid into a seat on the submerged rocks next to Xena, and took Dori. "What a little dork I was."
"Nah." Xena draped an arm over her shoulder. "You were never a dork, right Dori? Your mama's great, huh?"
"Yes." Dori finished mouthing a bit of rock she'd recovered from the bank.
Gabrielle smiled. "Who can argue with that?" She gave Xena a gentle poke. "Race you?"
Xena pushed the door to their home open and entered, cradling Dori in the crook of one arm. She set the toddler down and closed the door behind them, watching Dori amble over to her toy box with an indulgent look on her face. "Didja have fun today, Shortie?"
Dori paused in the act of pulling out her favorite toy, and sat down. " Yes." She grinned. " Like fishies. Boo like a fishie." She hugged the toy to her, a ragged, almost formless doll dressed in what might have once been a tiny leather outfit. " Go take Bittyboo fishing, too."
Xena put down their gear and walked over, dropping down to crouch next to Dori. " Oh yeah? I don't think that's a good idea. I don't think Bittyboo can swim." She touched the doll, but. Dori scowled and wrapped her arms around it. " You don't want the fishes to eat Bittyboo, do ya?"
Xena ruffled her hair and stood, moving back over to start unpacking. She shook the furs out they'd slept on and took them into the washing room, slinging them over a wooden partition. Then she went back out into the cabin and removed the tools and gear, their flint and tinder, the good iron pan Gabrielle treasured for grilling fish just so, and the worn pot they made tea in.
These last she ran her fingers over, smiling a bit over the memories they called up, before she opened the cedar trunk near the door and set them inside, where the rest of their traveling gear was neatly packed. Two more sets of sleeping furs, the rest of Gabrielle's carefully hoarded cooking kit, her camp tools, and the well used hatchet she'd used every night for firewood.
Xena hefted the ax and checked the head, pleased that it had still kept it's edge. " At least one of us has." She remarked, with an easy smile, then she put the tool back down. Gabrielle's carry sack was there too, much mended and neatly stitched, the front and back covered with her partner's laboriously acquired talent for beadwork, which at first had looked formless to Xena's eyes until she one day realized the pattern matched the one on her own armor. Xena chuckled, even now, thinking of it.
She closed the chest and stood up with a sigh, pausing as she considered her next move. It was late afternoon, and she usually spent some time sparring with the militia about this time every day, just before dinner. Xena leaned on the windowsill and gazed out towards the barracks, the sounds of grunting and the clash of weapons coming faintly to her ears.
" Not tonight." She murmured. It had been a long, active, wonderful day, and she had no pent up energy to release, having spent it on hours of swimming, and diving, and taking Dori for runs, and even a little hand to hand wrestling with Gabrielle. That was always fun. Xena found herself smiling at a pair of squabbling robins.
For her size, Gabrielle was very tough, and very strong, more so than most of the men in militia, or even in the rest of Amphipolis for that matter. Her lower center of gravity, and her fierce determination made her a formidable opponent, even the Amazons treated her with a very healthy respect.
Despite all that, she wasn't, truly, a true challenge for Xena, who, after all, was tough and strong all out of proportion to her actual size as well She outweighed Gabrielle considerably and stood almost three quarters of a foot taller than her partner.
So that meant Xena had to continually come up with ways to counter Gabrielle's inventive attacks that didn't involve merely body slamming her to the ground. Sometimes it was a matter of using speed, sometimes she had to find a way to get inside her soulmate's guard, which was tough because her compact form didn't leave much in the way of angles, where Xena's taller body did. So they'd tangle with each other, and scrap, and roll around, and it would almost always end the same way, with Xena letting Gabrielle get a solid hold on her, then using their intimate position to turn the bard's thoughts from fighting to loving.
And that, Xena exhaled. Was what she intended on doing tonight, instead of sparring. She had a nice, intimate dinner in mind, a bath and bedtime for Dori, then maybe a bath and bedtime for her and Gabrielle. Tomorrow was soon enough for her to get back to the business of running her army.
Army. Xena never misidentified her force to herself, only to others. This group of soldiers who word tabards bearing her hawks head insignia, and followed her rule of law was an army. She was teaching them solid defensive strategy, true, but she was also teaching them how to be an innovative and aggressive attack force, and she knew every one of them to a man or woman would follow her out from Amphipolis to take on whatever target Xena could think of.
It was a very heady feeling, and she was honest enough with herself to admit she liked it.
" Boo!" Dori ambled over and whapped her in the back of the knees with her doll. " Come play!"
Ah. Paradoxes. The general of the army straightened and turned, putting her hands on her hips as she regarded her tiny assailant. " Dori, that's not nice." She warned. " You shouldn't hit people." A pout. Xena crouched down and put a finger on Dori's nose. " At least not until you're big enough to learn what to do if they hit you back."
Dori mouthed Xena's knee, and looked up at her from under dark lashes.
Xena sighed. " Am I a sucker for a cute face, or what." She sat down and picked Dori up, cradling her in her arms and rocking her back and forth. " What do you want to play, Dori?"
Dori was giggling, enjoying the swinging. She kicked her arms and legs out, smacking Xena's chest with her doll. " We go fly!" She begged, curling up and tucking her fists under her chin.
"Figures." Xena stood, and took two steps and launched herself into a flip, then reversed into a back somersault, accompanied by squeals of pure toddler joy.
"Gabrielle!" Halfway across the courtyard, Gabrielle stopped on hearing her name, and turned to see Josclyn hurrying to catch up to her. A pang of guilt hit her in the gut as she belatedly remembered all the things she was supposed to have been doing that day, and she squared her shoulders as the town reeve closed in on her. " Hi, Josc."
The older man studied her for a moment. " We missed you today."
Gabrielle thought a moment before she answered. What excuse did she have, really? That she wanted to spend the day playing with her daughter and her partner? Did she even have a valid reason for just running out on everyone? " Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." She murmured. " I should have sent word back here."
Josclyn hesitated, taken aback by the ready apology. "Well." He patted her arm awkwardly. " I know things do come up, after all." A pause. " Is everything all right?"
Loaded question. " Oh, sure." Gabrielle smiled a bit. " We just… " Decided to spend the night sleeping under the stars for old time's sake? " Needed a break, I guess. Xena wanted some time out."
"Mm." Josclyn nodded. "Been a busy season for all of us, after all. But those merchants were pretty upset when we had to cancel the meet this morning."
A gust of wind sent a shiver up Gabrielle's back, it's cool touch chilling her sunburned skin. She was physically tired out, and her temper suddenly surged. " They'll live." She heard the edge to her voice. " We can just reschedule the meeting. They have more to lose than we do if they don't show up."
The reeve turned and started to walk her towards the inn. " Well, now I know that, Gabrielle, but the point is.. "
"The point is." Gabrielle stopped and faced him. " My family needed me to do something, and I did it, and that's always going to be the way it is, Josclyn. I thought we talked about this when I agreed to start helping you out again."
Josc paused, and looked at her. " We did. I mean.. but I thought you understood… "
Gabrielle took him by the shoulders and looked intently into his eyes. " I understand that Xena asked, and I gave, and Amphipolis will always take second place to that." She spoke clearly, aware of the stares of several passing people. " Do you get me?"
He sighed. " I do understand, Gabrielle." Josc admitted. " I just want what's best for the town, and sometimes that means I have to put the groups needs before individuals."
"Well, that doesn't work for me." The bard stated flatly. She turned and walked away, mounting the steps and pushing open the door to the inn, leaving a stunned Josclyn behind her. The crowd called out to her as she entered, but Gabrielle continued on through the inn and into the kitchen, releasing a small sigh of relief as the swinging door closed behind her.
Thankfully, Cyrene was alone in the room and she turned as the bard entered, giving her a warm smile of greeting. " Hey there, cutie."
"Hi." Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. "You going to yell at me too?"
Cyrene stared at her, then put down the spoon she was mixing with and walked over to where Gabrielle was standing. " Honey, why would I yell at you?" She asked in a concerned tone. " Are you all right?" The innkeeper guided her daughter in law to a bench at the large kitchen table and sat down beside her.
"Yeah." Gabrielle selected a pear from the bowl on the table and nibbled it. " Sorry." She went on. " Josc just caught me outside and I lost it a little."
Cyrene produced a noise somewhere between a sneeze and a curse. " Stupid fool. I told him to let you two be." She scowled. "That's the whole trouble with you both giving so much of yourselves to this place. Everyone gets to be expecting it." She examined Gabrielle. " Got some sun, did you?"
The bard nodded.
"You have a good time?" Cyrene asked, gently.
"Yeah." Gabrielle admitted. " I don't know, mom. It seems so silly when I think about it, much less if I tried to explain to anyone, but we… " She fell thoughtfully silent. " We both love it here, but every once in a while, something just… " Her mind flipped to the long afternoon spent in total immersion in each other and their daughter. " I don't know." She hesitated. " Sometimes I think we just went through too much, and all this normality is hard to absorb."
Cyrene looked dismayed. " Honey, I thought… " She paused, then started again. " It's been a good year." She put an arm across Gabrielle's shoulders. " I can't tell you how happy it's made me to have you both here, and see you at peace, and raising my rapscallion granddaughter."
Gabrielle bit into the pear, worrying off a piece of the fruit and chewing it. It gave her a moment to think about what Cyrene had said, and she felt herself relaxing a little. " You're right." She smiled gently. " It has been a great year.. and I've loved being here, watching Dori grow, and just being able to have a consistent, normal life with Xena."
A small silence fell. " But?" Cyrene asked, quietly.
Gabrielle stared off across the kitchen, trying to find words to articulate an emotion she scarcely understood herself. " Sometimes I wonder if it's enough." She stated softly. " If it's enough that we're just living our lives, helping our friends and family. Not out there doing more."
" Haven't you done enough of that? Good gods, Gabrielle!" Cyrene protested. " How much can you give of yourselves, of your lives just to.. " Here, she stopped.
"Just to atone for Xena's past?" Gabrielle continued the thought with a faint smile. " I don't know." She fingered the pear. " But what I'm afraid of is that Xena's made the choice to trade her redemption in for us, for Dori and I, to keep us safe."
Cyrene stayed quiet for a moment, obviously collecting her thoughts. " Well." She murmured. " Honey… "
Gabrielle curled her fingers around Cyrene's and squeezed her hand. " That question has no good answer." She admitted. " Because neither of us know the future, and we can't tell what's going to happen. Xena's faced with risking our lives for a forgiveness she'll never allow herself, or risking our eternities in some place so dark it makes this life seem like a picnic." A pause. " Because she knows whatever her fate is, I'll share it and she knows that."
"Even if that's a thousand years in Tartarus?"
"Even if." Gabrielle answered evenly. " Especially if, because she'll need me there more than in the Fields."
Cyrene stood up and walked over to the oven, picking up her spoon and stirring whatever was in the pot. She kept her back turned to Gabrielle, but the bard knew it wasn't from anger. Gabrielle continued to eat her pear, feeling oddly better just for having articulated what she was feeling to her mother in law. " I've accepted that." She commented. " The problem is, Xena feels she can't let me accept it."
Cyrene turned, and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes impatiently. " Probably because she thinks she doesn't deserve what you're offering to do for her."
True. "Yeah, maybe." Gabrielle sighed, regretting the sudden decent into morbid seriousness. " Anyway, I came over to tell you we were going to clean up, then probably be over for dinner. I got a little sidetracked, I guess."
Cyrene looked like she was about to protest, but after a moment of studying the bard's tired features, she merely exhaled, and shook her head. " Okay, cutie." She murmured. " We'll be glad to see you. Looks like you all had a good time."
That brought a smile to Gabrielle's face at last. " We did." She agreed. " I even managed to win a swim race out of a dozen, which ups my previous score of zero to one." The bard stood up and stretched out some very sore muscles. "Mind if I steal this fruit basket and take it back with me? I see some plums I know a certain buddy of mine loves."
Cyrene forced a smile. " Go on. I know she likes them." She nudged the basket towards Gabrielle, and watched as the bard lifted the handle and slung it over her arm. " Tell her I've got lamb roast for dinner, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle smiled. " See you in a bit." She turned and escaped out the back door, letting it shut behind her as she disappeared into the crimson sunset light.
"Where's the baby?" Xena called out, diving for the floor and pressing her body against it. She heard a giggle, then spotted small hands and knees crawling behind the bed. "Dori… Dori Dori.. where are you?"
An impish face peeked at her from under the bed. "Boo no catch!"
"Oh yeah?" Xena squirmed along the wood floor in a sinuous wave, circling the bedposts with unlikely speed, reaching out as she cleared the last one to grasp a small, retreating foot. "Gotcha!!"
"Ugh! Ugh!" Dori tugged on her foot. "Bad Boo!" She rolled over and sat down, fiercely pulling on her leg to free it from Xena's tenacious grip.
The warrior propped her head up on one hand while she held onto her prize, tickling Dori's sole with a long finger. "That'll teach you to run away from me, huh shortie?" She laughed as Dori gave up pulling, and crawled over to her, tangling her fingers in Xena's hair and pulling on that instead. "Hey!"
"Boo come!" Dori stated imperiously.
Damn. Xena caught the tiny hand, and untangled it, but had to release Dori's foot to do so. With a victorious squeal, Dori scrambled away, squirming under the bed where she knew Xena could not follow her. "Hey!" Xena repeated. "You little stinker!"
"All right." Xena edged forward, squeezing her broad shoulders under the bed's surface. "You just wait, Doriana. I'm gonna set the dust bunnies after ya." She crawled further, then lunged as Dori crawled away, catching her with her outstretched fingers and clamping on.
Then she realized she was stuck. "Dori." She sighed. "Get over here."
The baby complied, inching over and coming nose to nose with her. "Bbbbboooo.." She gave her parent a sloppy kiss on the nose. "Good."
"No, Boo's stuck." Xena informed her daughter. "Now listen. I want you to crawl on out of here, cause I gotta move this thing and I don't want you to get hurt. Okay?"
"Otay." Dori agreed, not moving an inch.
"Move." Xena repeated.
"Boo." Dori started playing with her beloved playmate's hair.
Xena let her forehead rest on the wood floor. "Dori, I really need you to get out from under here."
"Go fly." Dori whispered in Xena's ear. "Boo, go fly, and catch fishies."
"No, we can't." Xena replied. "Not unless you go out that way." She pointed a finger. Dori grabbed it amiably and pulled. "No, huh?"
"No." Dori confirmed, curling up and putting her head down on Xena's forearm. "Love my Boo." She mouthed the tanned skin, drooling happily all over her parent.
"You know something?" Xena rolled her head to one side, and regarded her offspring. "You're just like your mom."
"Mama?" Dori burbled.
"Never make it easy." Xena steeled her body, then gathered her strength and pressed upward, lifting the huge bed as she extended her arms. Dori watched in amazement, reaching up towards the now fairly far off bottom of the bed with one hand. "Ready?"
It was all really in body control. Xena heaved upward, clearing the bed off her shoulders and at the same time twisting and snatching Dori, while she arced back and rolled out of the way as the bed slammed back down with a distinct crash. She ended up on her back with Dori sitting on her belly, green eyes wide in amazement. "Hi, there." Xena crossed her ankles, glad to be out of the tight spot. "What brings a cute little girl like you to a place like this?"
Dori pointed at her. "Boo!" She bounced up and down . "Boo Boo Boo Boo…"
Xena chuckled, and tickled her belly. "That's me." She gazed fondly at the child, studying the round face, and sparkling green eyes. "Want to play clap with me?" She held up a hand invitingly. Dori squiggled forward and patted Xena's palm with her own. "Atta girl." They both laughed.
Gabrielle wandered across the courtyard, deep in thought as she dodged other residents with automatic skill, responding to their greetings absently. The argument with Josclyn troubled her, and she wondered if she shouldn't seek him out and try to smooth things over.
Not that she felt she was wrong in her views, exactly, but she knew Josc only had the good of the town in mind.
Didn't he? Well, Gabrielle squared her shoulders. She had the good of the town in mind also, because it was tied up with the good of her partner, it's protector and defender. Xena was her responsibility, and that responsibility took precedence.
The bard slowed her steps as she approached their home, and mounted the stairs. A low, vibrant voice distracted her and she went to the window, peering inside to see her soulmate flat on her back on the floor, with Dori perched on top of her playing pattycake with childish glee.
Xena's face. Gabrielle felt a smile forming on her own as she watched the look of unbridled joy on her partner's expressive visage. The blue eyes glinted with warm highlights, and a playful grin shaped her lips as she played with Dori, matching the baby's clumsy pats with her own.
Maybe she was right, and maybe Xena had chosen this route, regardless of it's ending consequences. But watching her partner and their daughter at play was so priceless, Gabrielle could understand at a gut level a truth both bittersweet and inevitable.
She would risk her future for the happiness she saw in those blue eyes, and never regret a moment of it. If it meant she endured Tartarus at her side… well, then, she would. Gabrielle leaned her chin on her hand as she watched the play, glad of the rare chance to observe her soulmate unaware. Dori decided pattycake was too tame for her, so she gurgled and launched herself at Xena's face, squealing and throwing her arms around the warrior's neck as her feet drummed against Xena's chest.
Arms that could break a man's back closed over the child, and squeezed her with tender gentleness, as Xena murmured something into Dori's ear, and chuckled. Then the pale eyes lifted and caught Gabrielle's, still warm and full of love that only deepened as she took in her soulmate's face.
No. Gabrielle smiled back at her, and waggled her fingers in greeting. Never regret a moment. "What are you two up to on that hard floor?" She asked. "Good grief, Xe. Can't you at least go sit on the bearskin?"
"Eh." The warrior sat up, then launched herself to her feet with a powerful flip while still holding Dori in her arms. "Dori and I were exploring under the bed."
"Ah." Gabrielle decided to forgo the door and climbed in the window instead, carrying her basket of fruit with her. "Is that where.. "She plucked a feather from Xena's dark locks and held it up. "This came from?"
"Mama!" Dori clutched after the feather. "Mine! Go make box!"
"No, honey.. it's not a quill." Gabrielle laughed. "Here.. give me her.. she's covered in dust balls, Xena.. what on earth were you two doing?" She handed over her basket and took Dori, plucking the debris off the child's playsuit. "Were you chasing dust bunnies, Dori? Hm?"
"Sort of." Xena put the fruit down on the table. "We were playing hide and seek, and she chose to hide under the bed. I had to go drag her out."
Gabrielle eyed the bed, then tilted her head sideways to study the space. "You got under there?" She asked in an incredulous tone. "Amazing." She took Dori over to the linen press to retrieve a fresh playsuit. "Mom made lamb stew for dinner.. she wanted me to make sure you knew that."
"Ah." Xena chuckled, as she dusted herself off. "Well, how about I go over and get some, and we have dinner here? I'm not really in the mood for all the noise in there."
Gabrielle glanced at her, a touch surprised. "Um.. okay, sure." She finished changing Dori and put the toddler down, watching her make a beeline for her neglected doll lying on the rug. "It's been a pretty long day, I'd have thought you'd have had enough of just us for a while." She smiled as she said it, taking any sting out of the words.
"Never." Xena came up behind her and riffled her fingers through the bard's pale hair, letting her fingers slide through the soft strands and begin a gentle massage. Gabrielle dropped her head forward, allowing a soft sound of pleasure to emerge from her throat. "Got a couple knots there."
"Mm. I know." Gabrielle mumbled, abandoning herself to the strong fingers. The thought of spending a quiet evening in the cabin was sounding better every moment, now that she considered it. Maybe she'd get some work done on her poetry, in fact.
Teeth nibbled casually on her earlobe, sending a jolt of sensation straight to her guts.
Then again, maybe not. "I think I have knots all over."
"Guess we'll have to fix that." The low rumble tickled her ear. "Still want to go to the inn?"
Gabrielle turned her head and met the soft lips nibbling her jawline. "You're kidding, right?" She gazed up into the darkened blue eyes. "Want me to start warming up the bath?"
Her answer was a very sexy grin.
Gabrielle slipped through the now thinning woods around the town, letting the rich, summer green leaves brush against her body. It was dark, and the night sounds tickled her ears as she prowled through the underbrush, following a sweet, almost intoxicating scent.
"Ah." She rounded a large, gnarled tree and found what she was searching for, large clusters of silky white gardenias that released a gorgeous bouquet into the air. She gathered them up into the light wicker basket on her arm, leaning over to get the prettiest ones she could find. Why Xena wanted them, she had no idea. Scented bath water, maybe, since the warrior had been setting buckets by the fire to warm, or just to put in a bowl in the cabin near their shared mirror.
With her head near ground level, she glanced over and spotted something else, which caused a grin to appear. On the next bush, somehow forgotten by the town’s conscientious gatherers, were heavy clusters of blackberries. "Oh boy." Gabrielle made room in her basket and scuttled over to the hedge, carefully collecting the berries and only stealing a handful for herself as she did so. "Mm." She munched in delight as she settled the basket back on her arm and straightened, dodging around the thorny bush and heading back towards the path into town.
On the way, she passed a familiar brook, where once upon a time she’d walked knowingly into trap, and if she traveled up the less beaten path just to her right, it would take her to Xena’s hidden dell, where they loved to spend the hottest part of the day, and where she’d walked unknowingly into a trap that turned out to be her last adventure with Solon.
Gabrielle tensed her lips a bit, as she sidestepped a rock. It still hurt, thinking of that. Thinking of Solon, a boy she’d taken into her heart and soul and started to think of as a child of hers, as well as of Xena’s. He’d been so brave, and so very much like her soulmate, and they’d come so close to being a family together.
The bard exhaled, and allowed the memory to slide past her. It was one of the things in her life she knew she’d always live with, and one of the things she knew she could never forgive herself for. It had given her a more profound understanding of how Xena felt, and one day she and Xena had talked about it, and Xena had told her if she didn’t hurt when she thought about it, she’d be really worried about her.
It made sense, and it had helped Gabrielle to come to terms at last with a very sad, and very dark part of her life. An owl hooted softly and she paused, looking up at the branch over her head, seeing it’s large, fluffy outline against the moonlight. "Hi there." She greeted the bird, an old friend of theirs.
The owl blinked at her, and shifted sideways along the branch, raising it’s viciously clawed feet one at a time to move over. "Hooo."
"Want a berry?" Gabrielle offered, holding one up. The owl looked suspiciously at her, then rattled it’s feathers and sunk down into a huff. "No? Oh, that’s right. You like bugs, don’t you?" The bard made a face. "You can keep them. I’ll take the berries." She popped the treat into her mouth and continued on up the stairs, the wooden surface echoing her footsteps as she crossed the porch. The door opened as she reached it, and a gust of fragrant air blew out, full of stew and fresh bread and the crisp, green scent of spinach.
Amazing. She’d finally found a vegetable that Xena would eat willingly, and of course it turned out to be one she wasn’t that fond of. Then she glanced up at Xena and forgot all about the spinach.
The warrior had found somewhere a very sheer piece of fabric and fashioned it into a wrap that was just barely modest. Her skin held a scent of their bath soap and Gabrielle felt like she was being immersed in a bath of sensuality herself as her partner took the basket from her and hooked a finger in the neck of her shirt, pulling her forward. "Figured you went all the way to Potadeia for those flowers." Xena remarked. "I was about to come looking for you."
"Like that?" Gabrielle lifted a hand and let her fingers trail down the filmy fabric, stroking the powerful body beneath it. Her eyes lifted to Xena’s. "You’re gorgeous, you know that?"
It earned her a pleased smile. "Glad you think so." Xena tugged her slowly across the floor, setting the basket down. "Now it’s your turn."
Xena indicated a tiny piece of silk draped over the back of the chair. "Your turn."
Gabrielle looked at the bitty thing, then at Xena, and wondered at why, since she saw Xena naked all the time, the sight of her dressed in a light lace covering was overwhelming her with a sense of sensual delight. "Okay."
The warrior grinned rakishly at her. "Bath first." She continued through the cabin, past Dori’s crib where the child was already asleep, towards the bathing room.
Gabrielle followed in a dreamy haze, her eyes taking in the candlelit space and the gently steaming water. "So.. what did I do to deserve all this?" She murmured.
Xena began unfastening the laces that held Gabrielle’s shirt closed. "Well, for starters, you were born… " She untied the first lace and went on to the second, exposing the bard’s collarbone. "Then you grew up and picked a wild, half baked ex warlord to go chase after." She continued to the third tie, pulling the lace free while Gabrielle started exploring the folds of cloth covering Xena’s body. "And after I let you catch me…"
"Let me?" Gabrielle felt the belt on her tunic release, and the warm air brush across her bare skin. "Why do I sense some revisionist history here?" She nibbled her lower lip, and gazed up at her soulmate.
"After I let you catch me…" Xena repeated blithely, sliding the tunic off and tossing it into the corner. "For some reason you stayed around."
"For some reason?" Gabrielle lifted her hand and laid it along Xena's planed cheekbone. "Honey, I fell in love with you the moment I saw you. You would have had to sell me to a pirate going across the Aegean to get rid of me and you know it."
"Yeah, I know it." Xena tilted her head and kissed the bard's waiting lips with deep and passionate sincerity. "Still amazes me."
It was always surprising. Gabrielle relaxed as Xena slipped her arms around her and lifted her up, swinging her over the edge of the tub to lower her into the warm water. She knew Xena was strong, very few people knew that better than she did, but even though she knew, experiencing the power that resided in her partner's tall body still always gave her a little tingle of wonder.
Only for a moment, though, until the bath claimed her, and Xena's hands went from supportive to teasing as she took their sponge and started cleaning Gabrielle's skin. The slightly rough surface of the sponge left behind a pleasant feeling, and she tipped her head back as Xena scrubbed under her chin. "I could probably do this myself." She commented softly.
"Do you want to?" Xena inquired, watching the green eyes flutter closed at her touch.
"No." Gabrielle admitted. "You bring out my most hedonistic impulses." She leaned into the pressure.
"Thanks, I think." The warrior chuckled softly, as she scrubbed in tiny circles down the bard's back and down her spine. Gabrielle straightened and lifted herself up as she did so, nibbling at Xena's neck with curious, warmly damp lips. "Mm… hungry?"
"Yes." Gabrielle whispered into her ear. "For you."
Xena's nape hairs prickled in pure reaction. Gabrielle didn't articulate her earthier thoughts with that precision often, but the warrior always loved when she did. "Nice to hear." She growled back. "Cause the feeling's mutual."
"Good." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and tugged fiercely, as though she could pull the taller woman over the edge of the tub and into the water with her. Much to her surprise, that's exactly what happened, and the wooden basin was suddenly filled with the both of them as water sloshed over the side and went everywhere.
She almost laughed, but just then Xena's lips found hers, and a touch circled her breast, and the entire River Styx could have been pouring in the window and she'd never have noticed. Her fingers brushed against the now drenched fabric Xena was wearing, and she impatiently pulled at it, tearing it loose across Xena's shoulder and pushing it away as their bodies intertwined.
Mmm. Xena's skin definitely felt even better than a sea sponge. She slid her hands down her partner's sides, tracing lazy circles across Xena's chest as her ribs expanded sharply. Then she was cradled as the room spun and she found herself settling on top of Xena's now submerged form, their legs tangling together. "Woo." She murmured against the lips exploring hers. "That was fun."
"Wanna make sure you don't drown." Xena chuckled wickedly.
"Drown? " Gabrielle inhaled, uttering a soft groan as Xena's hand eased up the surface of her inner thigh. "Too late…" Her whole body was tingling now, responding to the relentless stroking of hands whose owner knew her better than she knew herself.
A deep shiver ran through her at a more intimate touch, and she wondered, just for an instant…
Just how long Xena could really hold her breath.
"You know… " Gabrielle exhaled in contentment as Xena tucked a fold of the soft woolen blanket around her shoulder. "We should do this more often." She and her partner were both quite naked, very clean, and completely entangled in each other in front of the small fire in the fireplace. They were sharing a large bowl of stew, a smaller one of spinach, and a loaf of very fresh bread and honey butter between them.
Xena settled back and slid an arm around the bard's waist, resuming her comfortable position behind her. She accepted a forkful of warm stew and chewed it, swallowing it before she answered. "Nah."
Gabrielle turned her head and peered at her. "Huh?"
"That would make it less special." The warrior explained, picking up a slice of bread and offering it to the bard's lips. The room was lit with warm candelight, and she'd made a comfortable nest of pillows and furs next to the fire for them to cuddle in. The fire wasn't really necessary, since it was just pleasantly cool outside, but something in Xena liked the snap of the flames, and always had.
Besides, Gabrielle was roasting apples in it, which were emitting a savory sweet fragrance of nutmeg and honey into the air. Xena sniffed appreciatively, and decided her plan had worked out to perfection. It was a gorgeous night, they were both relaxed and sated, they had good food and a nice skin of wine, there were apples roasting…
Perfect. Xena closed her eyes and gave Gabrielle a little squeeze, smiling as she heard the bard utter a soft grunt. Who needed Elysia? She doubted it could ever equal this, and she had every intention of soaking up every moment of mortal joy her life afforded to her because chances were anything that came after wasn't going to be this good.
What she had here, right now, was everything. Life, love, a family, a community… everything she'd thrown away when she walked down that dark path so many years before, and though she believed she really didn't deserve most of it, she wasn't about to throw any of it away.
"Hey there." Gabrielle ran a finger along Xena's jawline. "Dinar for your thoughts?"
Xena captured the hand and clasped it, then lifted it to her lips and kissed the bard's knuckles. "You're worth more than a dinar."
Gabrielle's eyes brightened at the compliment, then she grinned wryly. "Bet Josc doesn't think so. I got yelled at today when we got back."
One dark eyebrow lifted expressively.
"I had a meeting with the merchant's guild today." The bard admitted.
Xena's other eyebrow lifted. "You could have said something." She frowned.
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I could have. But I decided not to." She replied. "I wanted that time out as much as you did, and it was worth it to me to blow them off." She offered Xena a rolled spinach leaf, watching bemusement as her soulmate munched on it. "You really like that?"
The warrior nodded, opening her mouth for another leaf. She chewed on it as they gazed at each other. "Josc really give you a hard time?"
Gabrielle used a mouthful of bread and stew to give herself a moment to consider the question. "He was mad, yeah." She dipped her bread into the fragrant bowl and bit off another piece. "But, I mean, what can he do, relieve me of the position? He's the one who came and begged me to take it back in the first place." She selected a large chunk of lamb and offered it to Xena, who accepted it with a flash of white teeth. "Sometimes I think everyone just forgets.. we've been here so long, people take it for granted that we'll just do things like everyone else will."
Xena chewed thoughtfully, and responded with a tiny grunt of agreement. "If he gives you any grief, tell him you'll quit and come be my lieutenant." She decided. "Help me knock these farmboys into shape."
"Mmm…. " Gabrielle smiled her full smile. "I like that idea… then I could wear one of those snazzy tunics that match my tattoo." She indicated the hawk's head patterned on her shoulder. "And walk around telling all your soldiers stories about you.. yeah…mmf." She suddenly had to deal with a mouthful of spinach, which she hurriedly chewed and swallowed. "No, huh?"
Xena kissed her. "They already know stories about me. That's why I've got so many of them coming around here." She reminded her partner, as she was offered another piece of lamb. "Besides, aren't you out of stories already?"
Gabrielle returned the kiss with loving intensity, then she untangled herself from her partner and stood, her sturdy form outlined in firelight as she picked up a platter and moved towards the hearth. "No." She knelt, aware of the eyes on her, and removed two large apples, their centers stuffed with nuts and drizzled in honey. "I just started on a new one, as a matter of fact." She straightened and turned, meeting the pale blue eyes. "I’m getting a chance to go back and finish some of the older ones I started."
Xena held the blanket open as Gabrielle returned and settled back down into their nest. "Older ones?"
"Mm." The bard dug a spoonful of the fragrant apple up and fed it to the patiently waiting warrior. "It's a lighter piece."
A wince. "Not that Solstice thing."
Gabrielle chuckled wickedly.
Another spoonful followed the first. "It's a cute story. I’m sure you'll love it when I'm done.. or at least Dori will." Gabrielle teased.
Xena gave her a long suffering look, which was somewhat ruined by the pink tongue that flicked out to clean her lips of honey. She imagined a series of equally cute stories, drawn on the somewhat lighter adventures they sometimes had encountered, and winced.
Maybe she'd have to do something to give Gabrielle something new to write about.
Continued in Part 2