A Matter of Pride
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, Gabrielle asked me to..”
“Where is Gabrielle?”
“She’s with Pony, and..”
“What are she and Pony doing that Dori can’t stay with her?”
“Look, she can’t just run around down here, one of these walking horse carts could fall on her.” Xena rasped. “What the heck did Gabrielle think she was doing?”
“It’s not a fair in Amphipolis, damn it!”
“XENA.” Ephiny trotted out her Amazon regent’s tone, reserved for very special occasions.
“WHAT?” Xena’s aggravated ex warlord tone, not saved for any special occasions whatsoever countered it with stunning effectiveness, making Ephiny jump.
“Stop acting like such a fussy mother, wouldja?” Ephiny poked the warrior. “She just needed both hands free, and asked me to hang on to her for a minute.” They were near the back of the pit, behind the ring of fighters waiting to take their turn. She gazed up at Xena’s angular profile. “So just relax, huh? You know Gabrielle better than that.”
“Mmph.” Xena eyed Dori’s now contented face, as the baby lay in the cradle of her arms. Her pretty green eyes watched the boxing in wide amazement, one small fist waving as though she was picking up pointers. “You wanna go box, shortie?” She murmured, wiggling a finger at her daughter. Dori clutched it and tugged, then looked up at her with an adorable, wrinkle nosed grin.
Ephiny observed the tall, dark haired walking goo pile next to her with bemusement. She’d known Xena had a soft spot for Gabrielle from almost the very first time she’d met them, though she hadn’t really understood why for quite a while. She’d suspected the depth of that soft spot the night after Xena had come back from the dead, when she’d spied the two of them sleeping together, Gabrielle wrapped up in the warrior’s long arms. She’d known Xena was head over heels in love with the bard on that rainy day in the centaur village, and she’d chuckled with the rest of them when the warrior had, at last, stepped within the boundaries of their society, accepting the gentle shackles of commitment for Gabrielle’s sake alone.
But she’d really never expected Xena to be such a damn mushball over a kid. Even if it was a very cute kid. Ephiny peered at Dori, who was now mouthing Xena’s knuckle. Gods.
“Yeah, I know my partner better than that.” Xena said, unexpectedly. “Sorry.”
Xena hugged Dori to her and sighed, as she leaned back against the pit wall and watched two guys pummel each other. She stroked the baby’s soft hair with idle fingers and remembered suddenly the first few days after Dori’s birth.
Xena sat outside on the porch of their cabin, in the cool air of a brand new dawn. It was very quiet, and she sat there absorbing the peace of the surrounding village, broken only by the chuff of a waking bird nearby and a flutter of wings.
The door to the cabin opened, and Gabrielle edged out into the soft, coral light, a wrapped bundle in her arms. She walked over and sat down, stifling a yawn as she did so. “Wow.” The bard said. “What a pretty morning.”
Xena nodded, her eyes sneaking over to the tousle headed infant tucked into the curve of Gabrielle’s arm. “Sure is.”
“Do me a favor?” Gabrielle asked.
“Oo.. I’ll have to remember that.” Gabrielle teased, as she got up. “Would you keep her company while I go scrounge up some breakfast?”
“I’ll go.” Xena started to get up, but had to stop when Gabrielle placed Dori in her arms.
“Oh no. You got away with that the last few months I was pregnant. No way. Sit.” Gabrielle said. “I need to walk around.”
Xena cradled the tiny bundle in her arms as Gabrielle turned, and made her way down the steps and out across the grassy sward in front of their home. She waited until the bard disappeared into the early morning mist, then turned her attention to the baby.
The baby. Xena carefully moved the cloth that covered Dori and exposed her face. Sleepy, blinking bluish eyes gazed up at her, and the tiny mouth blew a bubble in her direction. “Hey there, Doriana.”
The baby’s head tilted.
“What’s it like, to be so brand new, huh?” Xena smiled, putting her finger out and letting the baby clutch at it. “Are you glad to be here? I know your mama’s glad you’re here.” Her mind could not prevent itself from bringing up images of another baby of Gabrielle’s, and the blanket of guilt she always carried about that settled over her.
Despite her excitement on the day of Dori’s birth, since then she’d backed off a little. Left Dori to her mother. Even though she knew the bard wanted her to be there, wanted her to be a part of Dori’s life, there was still a barrier there and they both knew it.
Knowing that hurt. Xena touched the cap of dark hair and smoothed it back. Dori was so different than Solon had been, as a baby. She’d hardly had a chance to know him, he’d been only days old when she’d given him up, but he’d been shorter than Dori and his hair had been a much lighter shade. She hadn’t really been in a place in her own mind that allowed her to remember him with clarity, but she did remember the way he clutched after her and the way his eyes had watched her filled with so much trust.
Like little Dori’s did.
How would Dori view her, as she grew up? Xena felt a little depressed.
“Bck.” Dori rustled around and her fingers clutched the edge of Xena’s shirt. She blew another bubble at her.
“You hungry again, little one?” Xena touched the baby’s face, tracing the skin. It was now pink and smooth, and contrasted with her dark hair and eyelashes. “Well, you’ll have to wait until your mama gets back.”
The sound of footsteps crunching up the nearby path made Xena look up. A tall man was heading down towards the inn, and as he glanced up and met the warrior’s eyes, he stopped.
“Dace.” Xena lifted a hand. “Didn’t know you were back in these parts.” The trader had been gone for most of a year, since just before they’d come back home.
“Just back.” Dace walked over, paused, with one hand on the railing. “Well! What’ve we got here?”
Xena motioned him up onto the porch. He mounted the steps and took the seat next to her, looking at the baby with interested eyes. “That’s a young’un!”
“Just a week.” Xena said. “Cute, huh?”
“She’s a beauty.” Dace admired the child. “What a face.. and those’ll be gorgeous eyes.” He looked up at Xena, with a half smile. “But then, that’s not so surprising, now is it? I have been gone a while, Xena. I had no idea you were with child.” He patted her knee. “But I am glad, and she’s perfect.”
Xena blinked, and took a breath. “Ah..”
Dace chuckled. “Your mother must be happy as a hen. I”ll go congratulate her.”
“She’s not m..” Xena felt the words just die off in her mouth. “I mean, I’m not her mother.” She said, quickly. “Gabrielle is.”
Dace looked at her, then looked at the baby, then looked back at her. “You’re joking, surely? Xena, she looks just like you, I thought…”
“Does she?” Xena murmured, taken aback. “Well, just luck, I guess.”
“Luck?” Dace seemed bewildered. “Xena, you are joking aren’t you?”
“No.” The warrior shook her head. “Gabrielle’s her mother. I…” All her carefully chosen words about Toris drifted off unsaid.
Dace nibbled his lower lip bemusedly, then got up and gave her a tentative pat on the arm. “As you say, Xena. She’s a lovely child.” He turned and made his way down the steps, and, giving her a little wave, headed back down towards the inn. “Woulda taken bets she was yours, though!” He called back over his shoulder, with a wry grin.
Xena gazed down at Dori’s face with a troubled heart. She could see what Dace saw, her own image in the shape of the tiny baby’s face, young though she was. Her heart knew the truth but her mind questioned her right to believe in it. “Dori.” She whispered.
“Bck.” The baby seemed to find her voice fascinating.
“You are beautiful, you know that?” Xena confided to her. “You’re the most beautiful baby there ever was.” She smiled, then tucked her knees up under her and just sat for a while, gazing at her, lost in memories.
She remembered, vaguely, the short time she’d spent with Solon as a newborn. He’d been so small and helpless, wrinkled and fitful but she’d found herself loving him despite all that. He’d stopped being an inconveniece in her life the moment she’d felt him moving in her hands and there had been that long, very lonely night she’d spent almost on the edge of just running off with him.
Would it have been different for both of them? Xena had always told herself that she hadn’t been ready to be a mother then, and it was best for Solon that he’d been raised by the centaurs and for most of her life, she’d believed it.
Now she had a second chance, only this child wasn’t hers, it was Gabrielle’s, and she wondered if she’d ever come to a point in her life where she could get past that, past her own history and their shared one, to consider this child as much a part of her as Solon had been.
She didn’t hear Gabrielle come back. She was just suddenly aware of a presence to her left, and she turned her head to see Gabrielle leaning on the railing, her green eyes picking up the warm dawn sunlight and reflecting the golden flecks in their depths. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle replied softly. “Whatcha doing?”
Xena drew a breath. “Just watching her. What are you doing?”
“Just watching you.” Gabrielle pushed off the railing and came up the stairs to join her. She ignored Xena’s effort to return Dori, settling on the arm of the chair the warrior was in instead, and draping an arm over her shoulders. “The two of you look pretty cute together.”
Xena glanced thoughtfully at the baby, who had fallen asleep in her arms. “We do?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle rested her chin on Xena’s shoulder, exhaling lazily. “You do realize everyone we meet is going to assume you’re her birth mother, right?”
“You really think so?” The warrior asked, glancing at Gabrielle with a touch of uneasiness.
“Xena.” The bards fingers gently arranged the baby’s hair. “With that hair, and those eyes, what do you think?”
“She’ll look different when she gets older.” Xena disagreed. “I think she’ll have your eyes, and be more like you.”
Gabrielle eased down into the chair, nudging Xena over until they were just a squash of soulmates cuddled in the warm wash of sunlight that was now creeping over the porch. “Hey, Xe?” She asked, stifling a yawn.
“Mm?” Xena rested her head against the bard’s, obscurely pleased that Gabrielle had left Dori where she was, asleep in Xena’s hands.
“What are we going to tell people?”
“About her.” Gabrielle said. “I don’t really want to lie about it.”
Xena pondered. “You don’t have to lie, Gabrielle. You can just tell everyone she’s your daughter.” She said, reasonably. “I mean, she is.”
The bard was silent for a bit. “I know that, Xena.” She said. “But what are you going to tell everyone?”
Leave it to Gabrielle to pin her right to the cabin wall, huh? Xena somberly eyed the tiny, sleeping form tucked in her hands. As though sensing this, Dori squiggled, then woke, her eyelids blinking open as she looked up at the warrior in perfect trust, a tiny fist clutching at one of Xena’s fingers.
Their eyes met, and in that one sunlit moment, something changed. Xena saw herself reflected back in those round orbs and between one heartbeat and the next, her reservations evaporated as the child in her arms became her own.
She drew in a breath. Her eyes shifted a little, and found gentle green ones close by as Gabrielle leaned against her. “I’m going to tell everyone she’s mine. Just like you are. Let em think what they want.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly at the low, growly tone, and rubbed her cheek against Xena’s shoulder with a sigh of contentment. “I wonder if she realizes just how lucky she is?”
“I know I do.”
“Hey, Xena?” Ephiny tugged on her shirt. “Xena? They’re calling your number.”
Xena shook her head to clear it, then glanced around, a trifle embarrassed. “Sorry.” She handed Dori over. “Here, Dori, keep your aunt Eff company, okay?”
“No! Go with Boo!” Dori protested, hanging on to Xena’s tunic.
“Shh, I’ll be right back.” The warrior untangled herself and headed towards the impatient judges, aware of the curious stares around her. “This won’t take long.”
Ephiny edged over, to get a clear line of sight, trying hard to keep hold of an unhappy and wriggling Dori. “For my sake, I hope not.”
Gabrielle flexed her hands and felt her body slip into a faster rhythm. She was getting into the fight, curiously glad to have an opponent that was more on her skill level than was usual for her.
Fighting with Xena was… it was exciting, she had to admit, and a little scary because she always knew if she made one little mistake, she’d be caught, and usually dumped playfully on her butt as Xena took advantage of it.
Besides, Xena was so much stronger than she was, and was such a skilled fighter that even when she did catch her out of position, or with her defenses not quite in place and got a hit in she half suspected it was more because the warrior had allowed it than anything else.
Eponin, on the other hand, though a very good fighter, was a lot closer to her size and speed and she found the bout a very intriguing challenge. “Ahah!” Gabrielle slipped in and hooked an arm under Pony’s and levered, throwing the Amazon over her shoulder and leaping neatly over her as she tucked and rolled, kicking out where the bard’s legs should have been.
“Rats!” Pony grunted, as she popped to her feet and aimed a sweeping leg kick at Gabrielle’s knees just as she was landing.
Ow. Gabrielle winced, as the blow landed. She let the joint buckle as Xena had taught her, though, and dropped down, then took advantage of her position and got in two swift jabs to Pony’s ribs.
The boxer was good.
Xena, however, was Xena, and she ducked a savage uppercut, then got past the man’s defenses with a swift jab. It was like hitting a steer, but even herd animals had weaknesses, and the warrior figured she’d just found one.
To test her theory out, she slid to one side, letting a solid punch just graze her cheekbone, then took advantage of the man’s arm extention and put a blow right in his gut.
He got mad.
Xena grinned at him.
He swung at her, again and again, with furious energy, and she merely moved around him, eluding his hands with a sinuous grace borne of many years practice. Sometimes, she reflected, experience did really matter and she’d lost count of the times she’d won fights with stronger, larger, sometimes younger opponents merely because she could outthink and outmove them.
It was all a matter of muscle training. When moves came faster than actual thought, and allowed her to beat his longer reach by coming in closer, only to escape his return hits with faster footwork and a higher degree of agility.
“You…” Frustrated, the man lunged at her, punching hard at her face and at her guts in rapid succession.
Xena let the rush of sensuous fury infuse her, and she stood her ground, taking the hits, absorbing the impact and letting her powerful frame spring back, one hand knocking his retracting arm aside as she drove the other one in, rotating her fist as she whapped him right between the eyes.
His head rocked back and forth, and he stumbled back, blinking. Xena resisted the urge to just take him down, seeing the judge hovering nervously. She waited, planning her next attack, a sexy smile shaping her lips.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked, for the sixth time at least, as she rinsed out the piece of linen and handed it back to Eponin. “I’m…”
“Gafprbil.” Pony held the wet rag to her face, which was covered in blood. “Ith okay.”
They were sitting down on the lowest level of stone benches, a little distance from the crowd clustered around the boxing pit. Cheering reached them, and Gabrielle glanced over to see lots of people jumping up and down in the air. “Guess it’s over.”
“Ump.” Pony winced, unable to open one eye. She’d weaved when she should have ducked, and ran her head right into Gabrielle’s elbow just as the younger woman was turning. The blow had all of Gabrielle’s solid weight behind it and her momentum, and she’d been knocked backwards with enough violence to send her sprawling to the ground with lots and lots of little stars wheeling over her head.
“Wonder who won?” Gabrielle mused wryly.
“You dif.” Eponin spat out a mouthful of blood. “Wh were ya gonna askf?”
Gabrielle was saved from having to answer as the crowd broke apart a little, revealing Xena’s tall form as she climbed out of the pit with, as expected, her usual decoration of leaves. As she straightened, the warrior’s gaze swept the crowd, then fastened on her. One eyebrow lifted slightly, then the pale blue eyes shifted to the bloodied Eponin and both brows ascended fully.
Gabrielle felt oddly awkward, and suddenly found she couldn’t meet Xena’s eyes.
“Pony!” Ephiny had set Dori down, and now she broke into a run towards them. Xena hesitated, then followed, after scooping up the toddler. “Gods, what happened!” The Amazon regent dropped to one knee and examined her battered lover. “Show me the bastard who did this.”
“Um.” Pony wriggled away a little. “Eph, relax.”
“I will not relax!” Ephiny retorted, angrily. “I’ve had about enough of this damn place, and I’m gonna kick some ass. Point em out!”
“DO what I tell you!” Ephiny roared, thoroughly upset.
Eponin lifted one finger and pointed.
Ephiny turned savagely to find herself face to face with an apologetic looking Gabrielle. “Excuse me.”
“Damn it, Gabrielle, just get out of my way.” Ephiny shoved past her and kept going in the direction Pony had indicated, her eyes searching the field. “Just let me take care of this.”
“Ephiny.” Gabrielle’s voice lifted.
The Amazon ignored her, her eyes raking the crowd. Finding nothing, which made her slow and stop. There was nothing in front of her, except for an empty track, and a milling crowd of harmless looking citizens. “Wait a minute.. she said..” After a moment, she turned and looked back at Gabrielle, then at Eponin. Her eyes slowly tracked back. “You?” She asked, incredulous. “You did that?”
Xena reacted as much to the sudden jolt through their connection as she did to the expression on Gabrielle’s face. She walked over and slipped her free arm around the bard, giving wordless comfort with her touch as she cast an eye on the battered Amazon behind them. “What were you two up to?” She asked, keeping a touch of humor in her voice.
“Gabrielle.” Ephiny moved back towards her. “I can’t believe this. How could you, of all people?
Gabrielle stiffened inside the circle of her partner’s arm. “We were just sparring…”
“Like that?” Ephiny pointed. “What the Hades is that? What did you think you were doing? Proving something? What..”
Very deliberately, Xena stepped in front of Gabrielle and let her voice drop into cold, no nonsense tone. She locked her eyes on Ephiny’s.
“Xena, now just you..”
“STOP IT.” The warrior repeated, in a very flat tone. “Eponin’s a big girl. Are you saying she can’t handle a sparring match?”
The Amazon regent watched her intently. “What would you do if you came back and it was her all bloody, Xena?”
“I’d kill whoever did it to her.” Xena answered, with startling, blunt honesty.
“You bet.” The warrior didn’t back down. “But that’s me, and that’s who and what I am, and everyone knows it.” She turned, as Gabrielle shook off her momentary paralysis. “Besides, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on purpose, was it?”
A tiny shake of Gabrielle’s head.
“Was me.” Eponin finally got a word in edgewise. “Like a jerk I threw my stupid head into her elbow. So wouldja freaking siddown and chill out, Eph?”
Ephiny put her hands on her hips, and let her head and shoulders drop. “Sorry.”
Xena shifted Dori a little, and returned her arm to it’s place around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “You okay?” She could see the bard was truly shaken, her lips and eyes had a pale tension around them, and she was breathing far more quickly than normal. Her hands had traces of blood on the knuckles, and suddenly, the situation made itself far more urgent than anything else going on in the arena. “C’mon. Let’s go talk.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle whispered.
They walked together into the shadows, leaving Ephiny and Eponin facing each other, alone in the now curious crowd.
“Sit.” Xena perched on a low wall, out of the stream of people and waited for Gabrielle to do the same. “Hon?”
Slowly, the confused green eyes lifted to meet hers.
“Breathe.” Xena looked at her compassionately. “You’re okay. Eph just saw the blood and went a little nuts, just like you’d have.”
For once, the words were just the right ones. Tension flowed out of the bard’s sturdy frame and she relaxed against the stone behind her. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.” She whispered. “Not like that.”
Xena set Dori down, and watched her toddle over to her mother, hugging her leg with enthusiasm. “I know.” She reached out and tousled Gabrielle’s hair. “She knows it too. So does Eph.”
“I know.” Gabrielle thought about that for a bit. “Would you really have done what you said, if I’d been hurt like that?”
“Killed Eponin?” Xena asked, in a mild tone. “No.” She scratched the back of the bard’s neck. “Because I know her, and I’d know she didn’t mean it, or that it’d been an accident.”
A slow nod of the pale head. “But if it hadn’t been her? Would you?” Gabrielle gazed at her, in grave, and bemused wonder “Just if someone hurt me? Or Dori?” Almost absently, the bard lifted Dori up and set her on her lap.
A very quiet expression settled over Xena’s angular face. “Yeah.” She answered softly.
Xena’s eyes widened a little at the unexpected answer.
“Because I would.” Gabrielle went on, in a very thoughtful tone. “If someone did something to you, or to her.” She exhaled a little. “So I understand how Eph felt.”
“Mm.” Xena hitched herself closer and leaned against her soulmate. “What the Hades were you two doing, anyway?”
“Sparring.” Gabrielle replied. “For a bet.”
With a sigh, Ephiny walked over and sat down. “Overreacted, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” Pony dabbed at the still leaking blood around her nose. “Think I’d know better, yah? Hades, she’s got fast hands.”
Ephiny folded her fingers together and rested her chin against them. “I should go make up with her. I think she’s due an apology.”
For no apparent reason, Pony snorted in painful laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Ephiny took the linen, and cleaned some of the blood off. “Great Hera, Pon. Looks like you rammed a tree.”
“Owe her more than a pology.” Pony muttered, letting her head rest on Ephiny’s shoulder. “She got me good. Real good. Had a bet on.”
“Aaaahhhhh…” Ephiny hummed in understanding. “She won.”
“Uh huh.” Pony sighed. “Made me promise to have our kid.”
Even in the chatter of the now crowded stadium, Ephiny could feel the silence, as stunned sensation overcame her. “Uh.”
“Good ol Gab. Never easy.”
“You what?” Xena resisted the urge to rub her ear, so sure was she that she’d heard wrong.
“Well, you know they were arguing about that.” Gabrielle watched pensively as Xena wiped the dried blood off her hands.
“Gabrielle, you coulda just let them work it out.” The warrior said, with a mildly exasperated look in her partner’s direction. “Flip a coin, draw straws…” She let her voice trail off when there wasn’t any answer, and looked up to see a tired, somewhat lost expression on her soulmate’s face. “Hey.”
“Never thought I’d see this.” Gabrielle murmured.
“What?” Xena asked gently.
“You, cleaning blood off my hands.”
Xena was momentarily struck dumb. The air went out of her chest with a soft grunt, and she could only sit there, gazing at Gabrielle in hurt silence.
After a few heartbeats, the bard shook herself, and reached out to clasp Xena’s hands. “Gods, I’m sorry, Xe. I don’t know what the Hades got into me there.” Her brow creased. “I think I need a cookie or something.”
“Cookie?” Dori plucked at Gabrielle’s tunic.
“What exactly did I do to deserve that?” Xena asked, abruptly, removing her hands from Gabrielle’s.
Or she tried, anyway. As though anticipating the motion, the bard simply went with it – her fingers gripping tightly and refusing to release.
“Boo?” Dori looked anxiously at her.
“You didn’t do anything. I did.” Gabrielle lowered her voice, but gazed into her partner’s eyes with intense sincerity. “Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I…” She nibbled her lower lip. “I’m having to reconcile the image I have in my mind of who I was with the reality if what I am.”
Xena blinked a few times, her eyes flicking back and forth for a second before she looked up again. “Something wrong with what you are?” She asked, with a frown.
Gabrielle’s expression cleared, the tension falling from it in a visible ripple. “No.” She let her free hand fall to tousle Dori’s hair. “Nothing at all.”
The warrior let a breath out.
“Forgive me for being a clueless, self indulgent brat?”
“I was. I am.” Gabrielle edged over, pressing her leg against her partner’s. “And you’ve lived with me long enough to know it.” She added, in a much lower voice. “The fight with Pony shook me up. I didn’t really expect to beat her.”
Xena snorted. “Gabrielle, Eponin’s a great fighter, and a kick ass Amazon.”
“Well, that was my point.”
“But you passed her in skills years ago.”
It was Gabrielle’s turn to be struck dumb.
And now it was Xena’s turn to gentle her voice. “I know it’s hard for you to think of yourself like that.” She visited her soulmate with a look of quiet compassion. “Almost as hard as it is for me to think of myself as some kind of half assed hero.”
“You’re not a half assed hero.” Gabrielle bristled, then her face scrunched into bemusement as she found an ironic eyebrow lifted against her. “Okay.” She sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
They sat quietly together for a few minutes, watching the crowd go by, pretending not to look at them. The wall was short enough for Xena’s feet to touch the ground, but Gabrielle’s boots were an inch or two higher, and she kicked them against the stone surface in a gently rhythmic way.
Finally, the bard exhaled. “Two more, huh?”
“Two more.” Xena agreed, wiping her brow with her forearm. She’d battled through three bouts, and was glad her last opponent had forfeited halfway through. The heat was bothering her more than she’d expected, and this bit of emotional intensity with Gabrielle hadn’t helped.
A cold droplet of water hit the skin on her thigh, and Xena looked up to find a waterskin being held out to her. She took it and pulled the cork, sucking the liquid out gratefully. When she finished, she let the skin drop. Gabrielle had Dori in her lap, and she was hugging the toddler to her, a look of peace finally on her face.
“How’s your knee doing?” The bard asked. “Looks a little swollen.”
Surprised, Xena looked down, then grunted. “Yeah, a little. I twisted it during the last mix up in there.” She thumped a fist against it. “Not too bad, though, considering.”
“Considering it was broken a couple days ago? No.” Gabrielle agreed. “You going to be okay, though? Isn’t the last one the tough one?”
“Mm.” Xena scowled.
“You could let…”
“Me give you a backrub.” The bard rose deftly, and piled Dori onto her partner’s lap before circling her and leaping over the wall. She laid her hands on Xena’s shoulders, feeling the tension in them before she flexed her fingers and started to work.
She felt a little conspicuous, since they were getting a lot of curious stares, but she was a bard, after all, and should be used to that. Besides, she discovered a knot just to one side of Xena’s spine and concentrated on that instead, her fingers gently coaxing the heavy, banded muscles into loosening.
Gabrielle had learned, over the years, that sometimes all the talking in the world just didn’t do the trick, especially with someone like Xena. Touch. Contact. Closeness. Just the act of her being right up against her partner’s body, stroking her, letting their senses merge together relaxed both of them.
“The atmosphere’s a lot different today.” Gabrielle murmured, after a few minutes of comfortable silence. “They were cheering you in the pit.”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. “Better than getting rotten fruit tossed at me, I guess.”
“Isn’t that sort of strange, though?”
The warrior shrugged. “What isn’t, here?” She asked wryly. “You probably have a lot to do with that.”
Me? Gabrielle frowned to herself, then realized what Xena meant. “Oh. Last night.”
A nod. “Don’t you see all of them looking at us?”
“I’ve been trying not to.”
Xena rolled her head around and gazed back over her shoulder, a very droll look on her face. Dori, who was wrapped in the warrior’s arms, also turned around to watch her. Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at both of them, and continued her kneading.
“Did you see what your mama just did?” Xena asked Dori, in mock disapproval.
Dori stuck her tongue out in imitation.
Xena chuckled. “She’s your daughter, all right. Look at that face.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle had to agree, laughing a little herself. “That’s my girl.” Beneath her hands, she felt the last tension loosen and reduced her kneading to light, gentle circles of her thumbs. “You ready?” She asked, seeing the crowd start to meander back to their seats.
“I’m ready.” The warrior agreed. “This is an easy one. Just me and the discus.” Privately, she hoped her confidence was justified. She didn’t have to fight against anyone else, but this event would test her injured knee to it’s limits.
Xena and Gabrielle both looked up, to find Pony and Ephiny looking back at them. “Hi.” Xena drawled in response. “Siddown.”
The two Amazons seated themselves on the wall, one on either side of the warrior. They glanced at each other, then up at Gabrielle.
Sensing a sensitive chat impending, Xena readied herself to rise. “Well, time to..”
Ephiny put a bold hand on her thigh, holding her down. “Hang on a minute.”
With an imperceptible sigh, Xena sat back down, feeling the silent chuckle as Gabrielle leaned against her. Indulging in emotional scenes with her soulmate was one thing, and Xena had come to accept that.
Doing it with other people, on the other hand, made her itch.
“Go, Boo.. Boo gogogogogogogo…” Dori burbled, articulating her parent’s feelings with startling precision. “Boo, too hot. Go wet. Can we go get fishies?”
“Listen.” Ephiny was, unsurprisingly, the chosen spokesAmazon. “Your majesty, I’m sorry I overreacted the way I did.”
“You didn’t.” Gabrielle interrupted her speech. “I’d have probably just waded in and started slugging people.”
Ephiny gave her a look. “That doesn’t say much about either of us as leaders.” She remarked wryly.
“No.” The bard shrugged lightly. “But we’re both mothers, and that’s what mothers do – they take care of people they love.” Her eyes twinkled gently at Eponin. “You’ll see.”
Her regent sighed. “Gabrielle, please don’t take any offense, but do you know how galling it is for me to have to take lessons in life from your twenty two year old self?”
“Sorry, Granma.” Gabrielle replied, smiling as her hands felt the silent snickers shaking Xena’s frame. “I was lucky. I had a great teacher.” She circled the warrior’s shoulders abruptly and hugged her. “So, are we all right now?”
Ephiny shook her head, then nodded it. “Yeah.” She riffled her fingers through her curly hair. “Except for one thing.”
Two sets of green and one set of blue eyes fastened on the Amazon regent’s face. “And that is?” Xena spoke up first, in a low rumble.
Ephiny exchanged glances with her partner, then put on a martyred look as it became apparent Pony wasn’t going to let a word past her clamped lips. “Since you’ve got the answer to everything, my queen.” She let a smile take any possible sting from the words. “Got any ideas for a father?”
The words fell, and a silence crept after them, filling the space between the four friends.
Gabrielle’s head cocked in thought for a long moment. “Well.” She finally pronounced. “I’m sorry, but you can’t borrow Xena.” She waited patiently for the various choking noises and warriorlike chortles to cease. “But… you know, maybe I do.” She thought about the idea, and grinned.
Xena stood near the far gate of the stadium, watching the light turn crimson – her back to the crowd. She was dressed in her leathers and armor – in this, the last event, all pretenses to being a game were dropped and the combatants were just that.
Her sword was clipped to her back in it’s worn leather sheath, but she’d left the chakram with Gabrielle and slipped her two daggers into her boots instead. The coming twilight had lifted a breeze across the city, and she was faced into it – enjoying the coolness that brushed across her face and whipped her hair back.
Behind her, the excitement was rising perceptibly. The crowd knew what was coming next, the pit fight, and through their veneer of civility, the urge for blood was now showing.
Her sensitive hearing picked up eager voices, placing bets. Resolutely, she twitched her ears forward and leaned against the gate, absorbing the scant moments of peace she would have before the final battle started.
In silence, she took stock of herself, as she usually did before a fight. It had been a long day, but she’d seen longer. She’d done a lot, but compared to a full day’s battle, it amounted to not much at all. Her knee hurt a little, twisted in making her winning discus throw, but it still felt solid, and she wasn’t worried about it failing her now.
She’d had a bellyful of water, courtesy of Gabrielle and her waterskin, and two very juicy peaches from the same source, and a roasted duck leg with a little too much pepper on it. Xena licked her lips. And a small, very tasty cake that had cherries and nuts in it.
A whiff of burning oil reached her, and she knew if she turned, she’d see the torches being lit, around the stadium that was packed so full of people it seemed more like a mass of robes and wagging jaws.
The dropping sun touched the tops of the buildings, and spread a golden blanket over them. Xena felt it wash over her, bringing her destiny with it. To her right, she spotted her chief adversary emerging from the tunnel, his body draped in well made armor and his skin glistening with oil. From her peripheral vision, she saw him turn to watch her, and she held her casual pose, indulging herself in a slow, jaw cracking yawn.
He moved on towards the pit, and Xena smiled into the sunset. As the competitor with the highest ranking, she knew she had time – and to her advantage she’d only have to fight in the last rounds.
A prickle at her back made her stiffen, though, and she set her jaw as a familiar presence popped into view just to her left. With studied patience, she turned her head, letting a coldness settle over her features. She remained silent, only lifting an eyebrow.
“Xena, Xena, Xena.” Ares circled her, then leaned against the wall, folding his arms across his leather covered chest. “What am I going to do with you, huh?”
“Nothing.” Xena turned her eyes back out to the sunset, and ignored him.
“Oo… we’re cranky, huh? Are we a little tired?”
“Of you? Always.”
Ares circled her and blocked her view, forcing her to look at him. “C’mon, Xena. We didn’t used to be like this with each other.”
“Things change.” Xena told him steadily. “I have a natural dislike of things that attempt to kill me. Call me crazy, but there ya go.”
“Oh, Xena.. Xena.. no one was trying to kill you.” Ares lifted his hands and let them fall. “Just get you cooped up for a little while, that’s all.” He said. “You’re the one who set the place on fire.”
“Rescuing Gabrielle, who was beaten half to death.” Xena growled softly. “Didja forget about that part?”
The god of war rolled his eyes. “Does it always have to be about her?” He asked, plaintively.
Xena shifted her eyes again, this time studying a nearby market wall.
Ares watched her for a long moment, then sighed. His eyes flicked around, then he took a step closer to her, pausing as he saw the muscles shiver into alertness, and the intoxicating aura of danger lift around her.
She was one of a kind, and he had to smile in acknowledgment of it, before he cocked his head and put his hands on his hips. “All right.” The bearded face managed a somewhat contrite expression. “I’m sorry.”
A dancing Cerebus in a toga would have been less surprising. Xena’s head swiveled and she looked right at him, both eyebrows hiking up. “What?”
He rolled his eyes again. “I said, I’m sorry. Okay? She wasn’t supposed to get hurt. They were just supposed to arrest her.”
Blue eyes blinked at him, warily.
“Look, it was the best idea we could come up with.” Ares said, a trifle desperate. “Nobody was supposed to get hurt, you’d just be out of the way and a little ticked off.”
Ares gave her a look.
Xena judged the intelligence of continuing to provoke her old mentor, and realized if he was holding out an olive branch, maybe it was a smart idea to take it. “Ares, I didn’t come here to mess you up, so I’m sorry it turned out that way.”
“Yeah.” He snorted softly. “Taxes, right?”
The God of War leaned against the gate next to her, so that they were side by side, their heads on a level, in almost the same posture. “For want of some taxes, my sword was lost.” He mused. “Lousy ring to it, Xena.”
“Don’t bother with the guilt trip on me, Ares.”
A shrug. “Could be worse people to have that sword, Xena. At least you know me.” He told her. “You’re not stupid enough to believe you won’t be of interest to whoever has it, are you?”
They looked at each other quickly, then away.
“Beat up old over the hill ex warlord?” Xena taunted him with his own words. “Why would they be?”
Ares smiled enigmatically. “Careful you don’t lose by winning, Xena.” He told her, then raised his hand and snapped his fingers, disappearing in a faint blue flash.
Xena let out a held breath, feeling a trifle unsettled. Ares had that effect on her – though she felt confident in her abilities when she challenged him, in the back of her mind was the knowledge that he was, after all, a god.
A god who had always – Always – had an intense interest in her. Xena gazed somberly into the fading light. At first, she’d put that down to the natural interest of a god in a talented acolyte. She’d always had a warrior’s mind, and the budding skills to match, and it had never seemed strange to her that it was Ares who laid his eternal hand on her.
Was it still that?
Was it ever that? Her conscience nudged her, and she firmly put the thought aside, as she always did. Unfortunately for Ares, she decided, she’d outgrown him at some point – she’d gone past his narrow focus and become someone, something he had no idea what to do with.
Well, she had no intention of telling him. Xena pushed off the wall and took a moment to compose herself, before she turned, and lifting her head in stolid confidence, strode back into the stadium.
Gabrielle wormed her way forward, between surprised citizens and guards. Her eyes were fixed on her destination, though, and it would take more than the gathered masses of Athens to keep her from it.
“Excuse me.” She got past a last obstacle, a very large woman who smelled disconcertingly like figs. “Sorry.”
“Well, I never!” The woman gasped, as she was cut off.
“Then you should.” Gabrielle muttered, ducking a man’s arm and ending up right against the wall around the fighting pit. It wasn’t the best place to watch from – that was reserved for the seats behind her, but it was the closest you could get to the people inside the clay hole so for her, it was perfect.
She leaned against the wall and rested her elbows on the top of it, content with a view that featured a tall, dark haired woman in brown leather standing silently to one side. There were ten competitors in the pit, and the other nine, all men, were busy flexing and pacing, self consciously wrapping and rewrapping armor as they waited.
Not Xena. The warrior made a point of being just that – obvious in her experience, battled hardened nerves lending her body a poise more common to the Athenian guards standing around the perimeter of the pit.
Gabrielle let her partner’s form fill her vision, concentrating on her alone, and blocking out the many distractions of the stadium. Xena was leaning against one of the clay walls, her arms folded and her long, muscular legs crossed casually at the ankles.
Her leathers, freshly brushed and spiffied up by Gabrielle’s own hands, seemed to absorb the light, making her armor plates stand out even more than they usually did. The clasp on her breastplate shifted slightly as the warrior turned her head to watch something, and Gabrielle caught a tiny glimpse of the tattoo just underneath it.
Just then, the roving blue eyes captured hers with an almost palpable intensity. Gabrielle watched Xena’s angular face crease into a smile, and felt her own lips move into a returning one automatically. Slowly, the warrior’s arms uncrossed, and she shaped a casual hand signal.
Aw. Gabrielle mimicked the motion. I love you too, honey. The hunting hand signals had been one of the later things Xena had taught her, and learning this particular one remained one of her fondest memories.
It had all started with a sore throat. A very sore throat, in fact, that belonged to a very miserable Xena. Two weeks of rain, a fall chill in the air, and she was glad they’d found a nice, dry cave to hole up in until the sickness racking her aggravated friend passed.
Gabrielle added a few more fragrant leaves to the soup on the fire, and stood up, dusting off her hands as she walked back over to the neatly made bedroll on the other side. She knelt beside the still form lying on them, and hesitated a moment, rubbing her fingertips a little before she reached out and put a hand on Xena’s forehead.
They’d been traveling together for years, of course, but this was the first time they were out on the road since the stay in Amphipolis when their relationship had changed, becoming intimate.
She still had to think twice, even though she knew Xena welcomed her touch. Hades, even the thought of Xena welcoming her touch still caused a chill to go up and down her spine, and she often fought down the urge to pinch herself every time those blue eyes she’d admired for so long warmed sensually when they fell on her.
Well, there wasn’t much sensuality right now, unfortunately, more bloodshot misery in the look she got as her fingers fitted themselves to the warrior’s forehead. “Hey.” She said. “How are you feeling?”
Xena swallowed, producing a wince, then one hand emerged from the furs and closed into a tight fist, before releasing and lifting up to touch her throat.
A thumb up.
“I’ve got some soup on.”
Thumb down, then a swift clenching and unclenching of that long fingered hand.
The hand slowly closed into a fist.
“What hurts, Xena?”
Open hand, fingers spread.
“Aw.” Gabrielle eased closer, sitting down and running her fingers through the warrior’s disordered hair, part of her marveling yet again at the open acceptance of the intimate touch. “How about if I make you some tea, with lots and lots of honey in it, and those nice mint leaves I found the other day?”
Xena smiled faintly. Gabrielle’s eyes dropped to her hand. After a pause, it lifted and tapped it’s owner’s chest lightly, then turned upward, cupping empty air in a curiously gentle gesture. Then it shifted, and a thumb pointed towards her.
Gabrielle frowned, racking her brains for the unfamiliar second hand sign. She couldn’t recall Xena ever using that one before, even during the long nights they’d spent around the campfire when she’d learned the silent language.
Finally she looked down, to find Xena watching her. “Okay.” She admitted. “You got me. I don’t know that one. I don’t think you showed me that… have you used it before?”
Xena’s hand dropped to rest on Gabrielle’s thigh. The expression on her face was a mixture of wistfulness and joy, and she slowly shook her head in answer to the question. Then she repeated the second sign, the cupping of her palm. She captured the bard’s hand after that and brought it to her lips, then looked up, one eyebrow edging up in question.
Gabrielle felt like melting into a puddle, just right there. “Oh.” She cupped her free hand and gazed at it. “That means love, right?”
“Oh. Wow. That’s so cool.” Gabrielle blurted. “Now I can use it too.” She started to make the sign, then found her hand held still. Surprised, she looked down at Xena, puzzled as the warrior untangled her other hand from the furs and lifted it to touch her face gently, just next to her eyes. The tired blue eyes twinkled. “You mean, I don’t need it, right?”
“I wear my heart on my sleeve, is that it?”
Gabrielle leaned closer, feeling the joy of the moment, despite everything. “Well, I’ve got news for you, Xena.” She said, watching those eyes fasten on her, the soul behind them open to her at last. “So do you.”
Xena grinned wryly, touching her fingertips together in the sign for a successful hunt.
Gabrielle grinned back, putting her hand on Xena’s head without a second thought now.
Gabrielle propped her chin up on her fist and wished the bouts were over. She had no doubts at all that Xena would win in the end, but as many times as she’d watched her soulmate prove her fighting prowess, and as many times as she’d seen her emerge victorious, she still found herself tied in knots.
You just never knew. Maybe in the back of her mind, she wryly acknowledged, she still remembered that swinging log out of nowhere, and the sickening crunch of shattering bone, and the blood, Xena’s blood, on her hands as she cradled her.
With a sigh, she shifted, glancing around her at the crowd closing in. Xena had made one request of her, and she’d honored it – to take Dori out of the stadium for this, last, event and not let her watch. Dori, of course, had fiercely protested, but Gabrielle had understood.
She understood that this was different. That there was risk here.
That she had the very unfamiliar weight of the chakram hanging quietly at her belt, with the knowledge of when, and exactly how to use it.
Given that she had an excellent chance of cutting her own thumb off, she hoped it was knowledge she’d never have to use. Xena was rested, she was in great condition and she had a plan.
It should just be a piece of cake, right?
Gabrielle found Xena still watching her. She lifted a hand, and made another sign, getting a slight grin, and a nod in return.
By the time it was Xena’s turn, she was twitching. It was a trifle embarrassing thing to find out, at her age, that she still couldn’t watch a fight without wanting to jump into it. It was an impulse she only barely kept in check when she was training the troops in Amphipolis, and now she had to put her hands behind her back and lean on them as she watched the bouts in front of her.
She’d always been that way, even as a kid. How many times had her mother come outside, cursing and wiping her apron to find a scrabble of village children tussling in the dusty yard outside, with her right in middle of the worst of it.
Now, the clay circle emptied, and she brought her hands to the front, flexing them as a surge of pleasant anticipation flowed through her. She walked towards the marked off area, which was surrounded by a short, brick wall, and stepped over it with a jaunty little bounce.
She could feel the crowd above her. Hear the buzz, smell the excitement and she let herself react to it as her opponent entered the ring and stood for a moment, watching her warily.
He was tall, and reminded her eerily of Palimon, with scruffy blond hair and an almost identical scar bisecting his face. He was wearing a nicely detailed set of well made armor, it’s joints worn enough to her skilled vision to indicate someone who knew his business and who was worthy of the leather he was wrapped in.
Good. Xena moved to the center of the circle, settled her boots, and felt her center of balance come up over the balls of her feet. Then she just let her hands rest against her thighs, and waited.
For good measure, she graced her opponent with a lifted eyebrow, and grin.
He was scared. She could smell it. But he girded his loins, and came towards her with determined courage plastered all over his face, earning him a solid point with Xena. He squared off against her, and now he waited also, glancing back at the judge.
The bell chimed.
Xena allowed her focus to narrow down to this young man opposite her. His breathing quickened, as he reached back and drew his sword out, a long, well made weapon with an iron hilt. He shifted it in his hand and paused, waiting for her to do the same.
With a smooth motion, Xena did so, shaping her fingers around the well worn hilt of her own sword and drawing it with a sense of almost seductive pleasure. With a few subtle shifts of her fingers she positioned the blade just so, then went very still, her eyes locking with his.
And then she struck. Her legs uncoiled and lifted her body up as her arms moved, bringing the sword down, drawing him to the stroke before she planted her boots and shifted direction. Their blades clashed and she powered through the motion, driving through his defenses and up, in a full body swing that ripped the sword right out of his hand and sent it flying out of the ring.
It crashed against the far wall, and fell to the ground with a dull thud, in the shocked silence that followed. Xena smiled, and relaxed, twirling her sword hilt in her hand and letting the blade roll over her forearm before she caught it. “Think you lost something.” She indicated the blade with a jerk of her head, just before the crowd recovered, and let out a roar.
A boy ran over and grabbed the sword, dragging it back with him to the ring and offering it to its owner.
Xena’s opponent rubbed his hand on his leg, and flexed the fingers before he took the hilt, hefting it and giving a shake of his head before he turned and faced her again. He took a deep breath, re-squared his broad shoulders, and returned to the fight.
“Boy, she sure is on.” Eponin thumped against the wall next to Gabrielle.
“On what?” The bard ripped her eyes from her partner’s figure and glanced to her right, then to her left as Ephiny bracketed her other side. “Where have you guys been?”
“On as in hot.” Pony observed, watching Xena avidly. “Would you look at that move? How does she do that?”
“We were arguing about names.” Ephiny folded her hands and gazed down at the fight. “Gods, yeah, that overhand slice?”
“Names?” Gabrielle spluttered. “You were fighting about them?”
“Yeah, for the baby.” Pony grunted. “Oo! He’s got her.. no, wow! She just pulled straight up from that!”
“Didn’t you guys?” Ephiny asked. “Names are rough.”
Gabrielle worked hard at sorting out the various threads of this conversation. “You know how she does all that. She works at it.” She said. “And sure, we discussed names.”
“See?” Ephiny shrugged.
“We did wait until after I was pregnant, though.” Gabrielle added. “For a few months.”
“Mm.” Pony edged up against the wall. “Oo!”
Gabrielle turned her eyes back to the pit for a moment, suppressing a grin as Xena gracefully ducked a roundhouse slash and used her opponents momentum to gain an advantage, her blade whipping around and slamming him full on in the ribs with a very audible crack.
With the flat. The bard knew her partner was just playing with him at this point, and she suspected he knew that too. She could see the sweat gathering on his brow as he recovered, and struggled gamely on as Xena bounded away from him, all quicksilver motion as her blade moved with blinding speed. “So, what did you decide?”
“Hasn’t lost a step.” Ephiny murmured.
“Odd name for a kid.” The bard remarked dryly.
Ephiny chuckled. “Eh, you know how it is. We’re thinking of maybe Melosa, or Terreis, one of the traditional names.”
Gabrielle mused over that. “What if it’s a boy?”
“Miles.” Pony stated, with certainty.
Her queen gave her a skeptical look. “Miles? What kind of name is THAT?”
“Cause that’s how long she’s gonna hafta run if I gotta go through this whole damn thing then not get to keep it.” Pony replied, with a growl.
“Oh.” Gabrielle patted her on the shoulder. “Gotcha.”
“These guys are so out of their league.” Ephiny muttered. “Gods, I’d forgotten just how brilliant a swordswoman she is.”
“How couldja forget that?” Pony shook her head. “Aw, crap.. she just jumped right over his head. That poor kid.”
Ephiny watched for a moment, as the torches light flickered over Xena’s tall form. The warrior had just executed a figure eight sword stroke, the tendons on her wrists standing out visibly as she directed the weapon with pinpoint precision. “Perfect.” Her opponent’s sword went flying again, and this time Xena sent the man flying out of the ring after it with a roundhouse kick.
The crowd roared it’s approval, as Xena flipped her sword over, catching it in mid air and whirling it through a couple of fancy designs.
The bell rang.
Ephiny could feel the crowd’s excitement rising, as the next man entered the ring. The favorite, she remembered, as she heard the whispers around her.
Or was he? Her ears caught conversations, half hushed, and she frowned. “Gabrielle?” She turned, to see her friend gazing quietly at her own hands, a curious expression on her face. “Gab?”
The bard’s head turned, and darkened green eyes met hers. Ephiny drew in a breath as her skin prickled, completely unused to the kind of expression she now found on Gabrielle’s face. But after a moment, the fair lashes fluttered closed and then open, and the look was gone, replaced by a gentler, more familiar one. “Can I ask what you were just thinking about?” She blurted.
Gabrielle considered for a moment. “No.” She replied quietly.
“Okay.” Ephiny ran a hand through her hair. “Listen, you know this crowd’s really going for Xena.”
The bard nodded. “Yeah.” She glanced around. “Go figure.”
“Yeah.” The Amazon regent murmured. “Go figure.” Something, she realized, wasn’t right.
She just didn’t know what it was.
Xena found a ledge to perch on, and took possession of it, resting her elbow on a second as she watched her enemy fight. She was happy with her bout, and she felt good – nice and loosened up and ready for more.
For a long time, after the war with Andreas, she’d been ambivalent about her reborn urge to fight. She participated in the training with the troops, of course, but she’d felt guilty doing it, part of her remembering that year when her weapons had stayed locked in a trunk, and she’d imagined she’d left that darker part of herself behind.
And, too, the violence she’d experienced during the war had haunted her – she’d come so close to letting the demon inside her take over again that it had made it hard for her to take the same joy in fighting that she did in days past.
To her surprise, it had been Gabrielle who had gotten her past that. After dinner one night, her partner had come to her as she sat out on their porch, watching the sunset. The bard had asked her to start back up their sparring sessions, saying simply that Xena was the only one she felt she really learned from.
How could she say no to that?
They’d started slowly, but after a while, Xena had found the evening bouts something she strongly looked forward to, as working with Gabrielle, sharing her knowledge with her, brought her love of the battle back out and let her enjoy fighting again.
Maybe it was just that she loved doing most anything with Gabrielle. Whatever the reason, Xena was grateful to her partner for it, and had been very pleasantly surprised when she’d realized that Gabrielle was having as much fun as she was.
Xena watched the bout, her eyes taking in the fighter’s forms with intent interest, knowing she’d have to counter the larger of the two in not too much more time.
He was good. She realized. Extremely good. His motions were fast, and very strong, and she could tell by the way he fought that his experience had been gained on the battlefield, not the practice yard. He had a way of swiping his blade sideways that was very rare, speaking of extreme strength in his shoulders and he was far more light on his feet than she’d expected.
Denus. Champion of Athens.
So, Xena. She leaned back against the stone wall, feeling the rock warm her back through her leathers with it’s sun retained heat. You sure you can take this guy? Be a Hades of a thing to go through all this crap just to get your ass kicked, wouldn’t it?
That was not something she ever expected to hear from anyone else but herself. No one else would dare question her skills, not even Gabrielle, who came closest when she’d tried to get Xena to let her box earlier. That was more of an attempt at getting her to rest, though. When it came to this kind of one on one combat, her partner’s confidence in her was absolute.
But Xena tried to be honest with herself. She knew she was a very skilled fighter, with almost any weapon, and that she could do a lot of things that almost no one else could. However, she also knew, that on any given day, she could be beaten by a combination of her opponents skills, and luck, and when she had an opponent this skilled, it bore thinking about.
He had a lot at stake. His life. His liberty. His pride. Xena exhaled thoughtfully, considering whether she’d have thought about losing deliberately if things had been different.
Her eyes fell briefly to the clay floor, then lifted, with a good dose of self deprecation in them. No, she wouldn’t. If he won fair, then he did, but she knew she wasn’t capable of doing anything other than her very best in this particular arena.
Part of it was ego, she freely admitted. But maybe part of that was also a lurking need to reassure herself that the skills she spent so many long hours honing were up to the task when she really needed them. In any case, the challenge of facing off against the big ox in front of all Athens, not to mention Gabrielle, was stirring up all sorts of excitement inside her.
And so, she watched carefully, soaking in his moves and choices, committing to memory subtle shifts in footwork and quirks of technique as she was sure he’d done for her while she fought the bout before.
He was rapidly overpowering his smaller opponent, the curly haired man gamely trying to hold his ground, but giving way step by step as he was driven towards the edge of the stone circle. As he reached it, he blocked a blow desperately, throwing his body and all his strength against Denus’ sword.
As though it were nothing, the bigger man merely locked his elbows and swept his blade through, it’s edge slicing through the other man’s chest and sending a thin spray of blood over the ground.
“Augh!” The curly haired man stumbled, and dropped to the earth, one arm clamped over his middle. He dropped his sword and curled up into a ball, rolling away from the ring. Denus snorted, and stepped over him, wiping the tip of his blade on the man’s leather armor as the bell ending the bout hastily rang.
The crowd loved it. Xena could smell the sharp tang of blood rising, and she felt a distinct change in the watching eyes. Two other contestants edged around the moaning man and entered the ring, giving Denus wary looks as they passed him.
The champion resumed his seat and spread his arms out as two young boys toweled his legs off. His eyes, though seeming casual, never let her out of their peripheral vision and Xena now felt her own competitive nature surfacing in a big way.
So. He had two little attendants, eh? Xena started to get up, but was halted by a gentle hand on her shoulder, and the soft sensation of cloth whispering over her skin. Since only one mortal being could get that close to her without triggering her reflexes, she settled back against the wall and allowed Gabrielle to have her way with her. “Didn’t see you come down here.” She commented.
“I didn’t like the way that creep was looking at you.” Gabrielle explained. “Besides, all these guys have their cute little minions, so I figured you deserved one too.”
“You’re not a minion.” Xena protested, her ego contented with the eyes now watching her and her attractive caretaker.
“Am I cute, at least?” The bard teased.
Xena slid an arm around her partner’s conveniently placed thigh and rubbed the soft skin with the edge of her thumb. “No, you’re adorable.” She said, keeping her eyes on the two fighters, but aware of Denus’ stare to her left. “And gorgeous.”
“Really?” Gabrielle finished wiping Xena’s face. She tucked the piece of cloth she’d scarfed from Ephiny into her belt, then she set to work threading her fingers through the warrior’s long, dark hair, sorting the strands, and twisting them into a neat braid.
“Yeah.” Xena folded her hands over her stomach, and crossed her ankles.
“Mm.” Gabrielle leaned against the wall behind her and continued her task, a pleased smile appearing on her face. “That last fight you were in looked pretty easy.”
Xena grunted, and one shoulder lifted in a modest shrug.
“You should have heard Eph and Pony.” Gabrielle leaned closer. “They spent the whole time telling me how spectacular a warrior you are.”
A blue eye rotated in her direction.
“Why they felt they had to tell me this, I have no idea.” The bard went on, very blithely, very aware of the little pricked ears all around her. “I’ve crossed Greece, not to mention half the known world telling stories about the amazing, incredible things you do, how you win every fight, outwit the gods, battle minotaurs…” She paused, and bit her lower lip as a long forefinger ran itself very lightly down the back of her thigh. “Defeat armies single handed.”
The finger twitched.
“Conquer feckless bards.” Gabrielle felt the shoulder under her hand shiver as Xena chuckled soundlessly. “Steal unsuspecting hearts.”
Xena didn’t look up at her at that, but her breathing caught, and her nostrils flared, just a little. “Steal?” She asked, in a studied, casual tone.
Gabrielle sighed exaggeratedly. “Okay, so who could blame you for picking something up that was offered to you on a silver platter.”
They were the very center of attention in the pit. Xena wiggled a boot contentedly. Denus was scowling, and apparently decided he wanted the spotlight back. Ignoring the two men now fighting in the ring, he stood up and threw off the light piece of linen his servants had draped over him.
With only his loincloth on, he strutted over to the small warm up area and picked up a weighted pole, stretching it across his shoulders and twisting his body in the torchlight. He definitely had a gorgeous body, Xena noted, with just enough scars to make the point that his skills had been earned the hard way.
Spartan. The squared shape of his head, and the angles of his body marked him as that. How ironic it seemed to have him here in Athens, fighting for the people of his city’s greatest enemy.
He motioned one of his attendants in the ring, and the boy joined him, picking up another warm up stick and facing off against him bravely. They started a light sparring, the clacks of the practice sticks echoing over the ground.
The audience was torn, between watching the somewhat lukewarm bout and this more interesting diversion.
“That’s not really fair.” Gabrielle said, leaning on Xena’s shoulder. “He’s hogging the lamplight.”
“Mm.” Xena agreed. “You’re right.” She got up, stretching her body out fully. Narrowing her eyes, she reviewed the fighting pit for a moment, then she held a hand out to Gabrielle. “Care to join me for a little warm up?”
Gabrielle glanced up at the wall of faces peering down at them. “Warm up?” She queried.
“With those.” Xena indicated the sticks, with a grin. “Not these.” She touched her sword.
The bard studied the weapons, then her partner. “We’re doing this just to show off, aren’t we?”
Xena nodded, watching the bard’s face with quiet interest. The little smirk she saw was a bit of a surprise, but a welcome one. Without a further word, Gabrielle took her hand and let the smirk expand to a grin as they threaded their way through the watching fighters.
It wasn’t a big area. Denus and his boy took up quite a lot of space, but there was a corner available near the back of the pit, with two large torches almost overhead. Xena picked up two of the longer sticks, used by some of the men to emulate the body long broadswords. She hefted them, then turned gracefully and tossed the lighter of the two in Gabrielle’s direction as the bard joined her.
Gabrielle caught it in one hand with a smooth, natural motion. She spread her hands out across it’s worn surface and let her body become used to the feel of it. Not that different from her staff, really. She tightened her fingers around the width and felt her body respond automatically, her balance changing, and her focus shifting from the eyes watching her from above to the tall, leatherclad figure across from her.
She felt a little… Gabrielle shifted her shoulders, as a half pleasant, half startling shiver went down her spine, a sensual reaction she hadn’t really expected. Was it a vestige from what she’d felt when Xena was fighting earlier?
The warrior twirled her staff, and settled into a wider stance, and it became irrelevant. Gabrielle recognized the opening move, and as Xena leaned forward and the stick came towards her, she let that interesting feeling flood through her.
It started slow, almost teasing, as Xena’s staff hit hers with light, rhythmic taps. They circled each other in a pattern well known to both of them, using the initial testing moves to loosen up. Gabrielle took a quick look behind her, judging the distance to the wall, then she slid to one side and ducked in, moving the end of her staff in quickly towards her partner.
Xena parried the move and eased past her. Gabrielle turned in exact time to meet her next stroke, deflecting it, and leading into a return that Xena caught neatly on the end of her staff.
It was almost like dancing. These weren’t the hard, sharp strikes they often used during their practice. Gabrielle found herself enjoying the motion, the synergy between them as they traded strokes and stepped around each other, eyes locked.
She threw a double, one end of the staff hitting and then the other, in very rapid succession. Xena grinned, and wrapped her hand around her weapon, sweeping it backhanded as she crouched. Gabrielle set the end of hers down and blocked the sweep, then used the staff to vault up and over the return stroke, pulling it up and whipping it backwards neatly.
Oo. Almost got her. Gabrielle found her nifty move countered by a downward block, which trapped her staff and forced her momentum to carry her back towards Xena. Their bodies brushed, and she prolonged the contact for a moment, feeling the heat of Xena’s skin against hers. Then she untangled her weapon and brought the other end around just as Xena swept hers upward.
They met with a solid crack, hers on top, with Xena caught in an awkward position to prevent her from taking advantage of that. For a moment Gabrielle hesitated, then spotted a pair of darkened blue eyes coaxing her on and followed through, bearing down with all her weight as Xena fought to hold her balance.
She leaned over, pushing down, getting almost nose to nose with her partner, hardly aware of the crowd around them.
Xena tilted her head slightly and kissed her, then with a surge of impossible strength, she lifted Gabrielle’s body right up off the ground, then threw her up and over her head.
Whoa! Somehow, she managed to keep her sense of up and down straight and as she tumbled in mid air, righted herself so that she landed on her feet a few steps away from Xena. “Oh, that was wicked.” She scolded her partner, suddenly wanting to do it again.
Xena cradled her staff in the crook of her elbows and lifted her hands, motioning Gabrielle forward. “C’mere and say that.”
Gabrielle felt a laugh coming, and she let it bubble up out of her, as she launched herself back towards Xena and they started to spar in earnest.
It was all quicksilver motion, and the rattle of staves meeting, their hands moving so fast it was just a series of blurs. This time, Gabrielle almost welcomed the surge of feral joy she got through their link, allowing herself the sensual warmth it brought.
It was wonderful. She took a breath and ducked, whirling to meet Xena’s attack with a sure motion. After a moment of blocking, she took a step back, giving way as her partner now stalked her with dangerous intent.
She could hold Xena off, but never for long. The warrior worked her with consummate skill in the small space, a smile playing around her lips as she forced Gabrielle into a last, furious flurry of strokes, so fast the hits matched her thundering heartbeat as she fought to keep up, to stay with her teacher’s attack, holding out to the very end when her breath was coming so fast and heavy she almost went lightheaded.
And then the bout ended, with one last crack, their staves crossed just in front of them, both of them leaning in, balancing each other, so close they were breathing each other’s exhalations.
In all that heat, Gabrielle felt chills running up and down her back as she stood there, captured in Xena’s gaze, sweat rolling off her – totally unaware of her surroundings.
Then Xena winked at her, and smiled, and they relaxed. Gabrielle eased back off her toes and settled the end of the staff into the sand, curling her hand around it as she swept her sweat soaked hair back out of her eyes and looked around for the first time.
Well. She felt her eyes widen a little. Guess we stole back that old torchlight, huh?
Even the two men inside the ring ostensibly fighting were standing there, staring.
Xena slung an arm over her shoulders and leaned back against the pit wall, as motion started again around them and the bout continued. “You okay?” The warrior asked, in an undertone.
The chills were still warring with the heat, both her own and now Xena’s, where the warrior’s body was pressed against her. But her heartrate was slowing, and Gabrielle took a couple of deep breaths, aware of a rising blush now that she realized what a spectacle they’d been. “I think so.” She murmured back. “Did that work?”
Xena’s eyes slid to her opponent’s. Denus was watching her, with dark, set anger plastered across his face. “Oh yeah.” She said. “It worked.” Her choice of weapons had been deliberate. She’d drawn the crowd’s attention, disrupted Denus’ intentions, and hadn’t revealed more of her own technique with a sword.
Now, all she had to do was beat him.
The bell rang.
It was time.
Ephiny felt the press of humanity behind her, and she exchanged mildly nervous glances with her partner. “Getting tight in here.”
Pony had her arms braced against the wall, ensuring herself some breathing space. The crowd was clustering around the pit now, the atmosphere tense and elevated. “There’s a lot of dinars at stake.” She muttered. “Didja hear those people?”
“Yeah.” Ephiny studied their surroundings. “Gonna be ugly if they get disappointed.”
“Think that’s in doubt?” Pony gave a man leaning against her an evil look. “I don’t care how big that lug is.”
Ephiny didn’t answer immediately. She watched the judges, whispering together as the fighting ring was cleared for the final match. Xena should have had one more, but the winner of the last bout had forfeited, citing an injured knee that didn’t seem at all evident to the regent’s sharp eyes.
That left Denus and Xena to face each other for the top spot, and as she watched the big man ready his weapons, putting a final edge on a sword at least a foot longer than the her friend’s, she wondered.
Xena herself was standing to one side, her arms folded over her chest as she waited, a serious expression on her face.
Ephiny studied her objectively. She remembered the gaunt, battered figure that had ended the war with Andreas, and saw little similarity to the sturdy, powerful form that filled Xena’s leathers now. The year in between had added layers of solid muscle to the warrior’s body along with a slight bit of soft padding that had taken the stark edge off her features.
The armor she wore outlined a very formidable figure and despite her opponents larger size she wasn’t dwarfed in any way by him. Denus was now covered in well made, pale tan hardened leather – an overtunic that fell halfway down his thighs, with mail covering his most vulnerable areas. He also had a gilded metal breastplate, and plates that covered his lower legs and forearms.
Better protected than Xena, Ephiny realized, but the weight of the armor would slow him, and one advantage Ephiny knew her friend had was her speed and blazing fast reflexes. Those, in fact, had been very evident in her little sparring round with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle. Ephiny shifted her eyes to the bard, who had eased her way up through the crowd and now stood at the edge of the fighting ring, her hands wrapped around the practice stick she’d used earlier. She’d staked out her spot, her face quiet and intent as she waited for the fight to start. The torchlight flickered over her body, shadows shifting as she took a deep breath and released it. “She’s really grown up, hasn’t she?”
Pony snorted. “You see those moves before?”
“Mm.” Ephiny leaned on her elbows. “Fighting wasn’t bad either.” She dryly remarked. “Xena’s definitely taught her a lot of things besides quarterstaff.”
“Had me sweating.” Pony admitted. “Remind me not to mess with her anymore, k?”
Ephiny gave her a mildly surprised look, but returned her gaze to the pit without comment. The judges now broke apart and took up their positions, motioning the two fighters to enter the ring.
Xena stepped over the small edging wall, the powerful muscles in her thighs flexing smoothly and very visible in the torchlight. She stood waiting, her pale eyes catching the odd flicker as she watched her opponent approach.
Ephiny suddenly noticed the flash of color near her, and she turned her head to see two militia from Amphipolis nearby. As she glanced around the crowd, she spotted more of them in a rough circle around the pit. Their gold and black surcoats mirrored the strips of cloth around Xena’s upper arm, and as the regent watched, Xena’s head lifted and a tiny smile appeared as she spotted them as well.
Of course, they were vastly outnumbered by the Athenian guard, in their teal and white uniforms, but their intent was obvious as they stood by their fellow townswoman and general.
Perhaps a score of them, Ephiny counted. A score of trained farmboys and two Amazons, and down in that pit, Xena’s first line of defense in the body of a slight, blond woman holding a nice big stick.
Would Athens risk it?
Ephiny checked her weapons, and readied herself to find out.
Xena felt a sudden sense of foreboding, as though something were wrong at the very edges of her perception. Her eyes went to the crowd, then to her opponent, then to the judges as she tried to identify what set off the warning bells ringing in her head.
A threat? She caught a flicker of motion in the tunnel that ducked under the stands and lead underground. Her eyes fastened on it, and she recognized the elder of the Athenian council standing in the shadows. As she watched, he met her eyes, and smiled.
And as the bell for the fight rang, Xena felt the steel doors of a trap close around her, pieces falling into place even as she returned her attention to her large opponent. A hundred details came into blaring focus as she heard the crowd start to roar her name, and she realized the magnitude of the trick she’d stumbled right into.
Denus laughed, as he drew his sword and came at her.
He wasn’t he favorite, Xena groaned to herself in silence. She was. If she won, Athens won, the spirit of the city already building behind her and bolstered by Gabrielle’s talent and skills.
Son of a Bacchae. The warrior ducked under the first blow and reacted, deflecting Denus’ sword to her right as she circled to her left. The strength behind the blow left nothing to her imagination as to the quality of fighter she was facing, and she could see two things now that worried her.
One, that he loved fighting the same way she did, and two, that he wanted to win in the worst way.
“I’ve waited for this.” Denus told her, twirling his sword before he executed a quick attack, slamming his weight against her as their boots scuffed against the rock. “You’re the only thing standing between me and freedom.” He brought his hilt down, and she caught it against hers, grips straining against each other. “Between us and freedom.”
“Us?” Xena rasped, gritting her teeth as their combined weight surged against her thigh muscles, and she shoved him back.
“My price.” Denus grunted. “The slaves they brought here. I win, we all go free.” He chopped his blade down at her, and knocked her hands out of position. “And all the gold I can carry if I leave you dead in this ring.”
“Nice.” Xena took a breath.
“You made too many enemies, Xena.” The gladiator told her. “The gods hate you. The powerful hate you.” He whirled and kicked out, catching her in the leg and knocking her backwards. “And I will conquer you.”
For a bare moment, through the pain, Xena could hear only her own heartbeat. She could hear the Fates laughing at her, as the meaning of what was happening hit home. Time slowed, and she almost saw things in slow motion – the crowd roaring, shouting her name. The council, smirking in the darkness. The slaves, their one hope facing her.
Coldly, her tacticians mind took hold of the facts and laid them out, even as her body reacted in reflex and fended her attacker off. If she won, everything she’d fought for would fail, Athens would go to war, and Ares would win. If Denus won, there would be no war, Ares would lose, and the slaves would go free.
It seemed like her course of action was clear. The greater good demanded, forced her down the lesser of two paths which, after all, only asked one real thing of her.
Thousands of Spartans and Athenians lives would be lost in war. Hundreds of slaves would be kept in bondage. Wasn’t what she’d learned over the last six years that doing good sometimes demanded sacrifice?
Could she talk Denus into merely accepting victory? “No one has to die here.” She diverted a savage swing.
“You’re wrong.” Denus powered through the blow and his sword clipped her arm, sending a light spray of blood into the air. “I’ve heard all about you. About how many people you’ve killed, and all the destruction you caused… even if I wasn’t getting a dinar, I’d kill you. You’re evil, Xena.”
There was, a small voice quietly said deep inside her, a truth to that.
Did she deserve to live, knowing that? Knowing this man, regardless of how it came to be, was in the right?
Xena looked hard inside herself, accepting a buffet on the side of the head that made her ears ring as she struggled with a decision she hadn’t expected to make.
She could taste blood in the back of her mouth.
She heard, in faint echo, Ares laughter.
In a moment’s clarity she turned her head, her eyes searching for Gabrielle, an overwhelming need to warn her slashing through her. The bard’s figure came into view, and with a sense of shock, Xena realized there was no need to tell her anything.
By her very posture, the bard knew. Her head was bent, and as Xena turned, it lifted and their eyes met for an eternal moment.
And in that moment, Xena chose her path.
Denus yelled in triumph, and brought his sword up, leaping forward and bringing his arms down. His blade flashed in the torchlight, then he stumbled as it struck the ground, it’s target no longer there.
A slash along his back made him whirl, to find a dark shadow stalking him, it’s flickering blade moving now with dangerous speed. He managed to parry the first blow, but the second knicked his arm. He stepped back to regain his composure, but his opponent didn’t give him the grace period to do so, and he found himself on the defensive as Xena came at him with a savagery he’d never expected.
He’d thought he had her.
Now the eyes boring into his had gone icy cold, and all traces of humanity were gone from her face. The slices came fast, and unstoppable, and his heart started to pound as he called on all his skills to meet hers.
Their swords met again, and again. He went for every trick he’d been taught, and every skill he’d honed in years of war before and after his capture. His freedom was so close, and only this woman was keeping him from it. He fought tenaciously, seeking holes her her defenses, seeking a crack in the quicksilver darkness facing him.
She was driven by a fire as bright has his own.
He didn’t see it coming. One moment he was looking to get the tip of his sword inside her reach, the next moment his world exploded, something hitting his head with tremendous force and sending him to his knees.
His hands went numb, and he felt his sword drop from his nerveless fingers.
Then something hit the side of his neck, and darkness took him as quietly and instantly as that.
Gabrielle heard the yells. The roar of the crowd that surged over her in a wall of noise that rattled her back teeth. She had her eyes closed, her head resting against the stick clamped in fingers so tightly they ached.
The noise sorted itself out into something recognizable – her soulmate’s name.
She lifted her head then, and let her eyes open, turning them towards the pit for the first time since she’d understood what the stakes were in this stupid, hateful contest. It took a moment, and several blinks of her eyelids before her mind recognized what she was seeing.
Denus lay on the ground, covered in blood. Xena was straightening up over him, the warrior’s body also stained red, as she lifted a sword that dripped with it.
Gabrielle let her eyes close again, and she leaned on the fighting staff, her body shaking so hard she almost fell, as a dire sense of guilty relief surged through her. After a moment, a hand touched her arm and she moved towards it’s owner, her fingers touching cold metal and warm leather as the scent of sweat and blood surrounded everything.
“Let’s go.” Xena’s voice was quiet, and very calm. “We’re done here.”
Slowly, the numbness wore off, and she found it easier to breathe. The noise above her became a chant, and she was suddenly aware of Ephiny and Eponin next to and behind her, as she circled Xena with her arms and looked around.
The pit was filling with happy Athenians, who jumped off the walls and clamored around Xena. A wall of yellow and black swirled towards them, and then they were surrounded by their neighbors, who were as fiercely happy as anyone.
All they could do was follow the flow of humanity down the long tunnel and hope there was a moment of peace to be found at the end of it.
Xena slipped out of the huge common room onto the front steps of the stadium, facing a now empty street full of oil smoke and starlight. She found a spot at the base of a large, naked statue and sat down, letting her elbows rest on her aching knees.
So much had happened so quickly, she just needed a moment to catch her breath. It was quiet out here, and there was a cool breeze, and she let her head lean back against the statue’s stone thigh as she listened to the clamor still audible behind her.
Footsteps. Very welcome ones, detectable even in all the noise. Xena rolled her head to one side and glanced up as Gabrielle came even with her and they spent a few moments just looking at each other.
“Let me take care of that cut.” The bard said finally, in a very quiet voice. She unclasped the warrior’s armor on the right side, then leaned over to get the left, lifting the breastplates off and setting them to one side.
Xena merely sat back and watched as Gabrielle took the cloth and small bowl of water she’d gotten from somewhere and carefully cleaned the painful gash on her shoulder. It wasn’t really a dangerous cut, but Xena appreciated her partner’s need to care for her and didn’t resist, finding it easier to simply relax under the ministration as the day started catching up with her.
She thought about thinking about what she’d done, and decided she didn’t want to. It was easier just to gaze up at the stars and curl her arm around Gabrielle’s leg, savoring the familiar feel.
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the smooth skin she was washing off. “That was pretty scary.”
“Did you realize what was going on?”
The bard worked in silence for a bit. “We screwed up, didn’t we?”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “Shoulda seen that coming. We walked right into it.” She shifted a little. “Lose by winning. Ares warned me. I shoulda listened.”
“Did I hear him right… did he say they were going to let all the slaves go if he won?”
“He wanted to kill you.”
“He thought he was doing the right thing.”
“Yes, he did.” The warrior admitted softly. “I think he was.”
There was absolute silence from Gabrielle for a very long time. She kept working, putting a few neat stitches in the warrior’s skin. “If you really thought that.” The bard finally said, her voice lightly strained. The fingers that touched Xena’s shoulder were shaking.
Oh, sweetheart. “I do.” Xena said. “He was fighting for his freedom, Gabrielle. For those other slaves, for a better life for himself… and I knew by winning I’d let the council win. Athens will go to war. Ares got what he wanted.” She paused, watching a donkey cart slowly cross in front of them. “I won. The greater good lost.”
A horn sounded, far off, and cheers followed. As they faded, Gabrielle put her supplies down, straightened, then laid a hand on Xena’s cheek, gazing at her seriously. “We’ve been fighting for the greater good for six years, Xena.”
Xena felt curiously peaceful. “I know.” She agreed readily. “But in everyone’s life there are things that go beyond the greater good.” Her eyes lifted and captured the bard’s. “And that’s what you are for me.” She waited for Gabrielle to take a breath to protest and she spoke over her, covering the hand still cupping her cheek. “I saw the look in your eyes, Gabrielle, I felt what you felt when you knew what was happening. Don’t tell me you wanted me to do anything else.”
She felt the jolt, as though she’d taken a hit to her own guts. But this wasn’t the time for anything but the truth, and they both knew it.
The bard sat down next to her, studying her clasped hands, while Xena waited patiently. She could see the shifting muscles in Gabrielle’s face and sensed the confusion almost radiating from her soulmate.
An eternity passed, with her on the nervous edge of folding Gabrielle up into her arms and just brushing the question away.
“No.” The bard whispered at last. “I didn’t want you to do anything else.” She sucked air into her lungs. “But I don’t want my selfish desires to be the reason you turn your back on redemption, either.” She barely got the last words out, her throat closing as she let her head rest in her hands. “No matter what it costs me.”
Xena put an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, hugging her close as she acknowledged a truth about her she never would have suspected before. She’d always taken it for granted that of the two of them, Gabrielle was stronger emotionally than she was.
In that one eternal moment in that ring, when their eyes met - she’d found out that wasn’t true. Gabrielle needed her like she needed air, and water, and food, and in that one moments revelation everything else became irrelevant and her choices narrowed only to a single one.
She’d promised Gabrielle she’d never leave her, and the bard believed in that. Believed in her.
So. If that was selfish, then it was. She couldn’t help that. There was nothing in her past she could change. But there was something in her present that might create for her a different future.
“Gabrielle.” Xena pulled her partner’s head close, so that her lips were close to the bard’s ear. “I haven’t turned my back on anything.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked at her, their noses almost brushing, her gaze open and trusting, yet questioning all the same.
“You… are my redemption.” The warrior whispered, brushing the backs of knuckles across the bard’s soft cheek.
After a moment, the bard blinked, then started breathing again. “Oh.”
“So.” Xena leaned her head against Gabrielle’s. “How about we find a nice quiet spot, and a bathtub, and a jug of something that’s gonna make us forget we own this town tonight.”
Very slowly, a smile found it’s way onto Gabrielle’s face. “All right.” She said. “Let’s do that.”
Without further debate, they stood up and clasped hands, then started down the stairs towards the road, under the stars watchful twinkle.
Ephiny shoved her way through the crowd, with Pony right behind her. Annoyed looks in their directions quickly turned to a respectful movement out of the way, and they finally got through to the athletic housing area.
Here, it went from chaos to bedlam. The athletes filled the space, some celebrating, some bitching, all seemingly glad the games were over at last.
Ephiny sure as Hades was glad. They’d lost track of Xena and Gabrielle after they’d left the arena, and while she was sure her queen and her queen’s consort could more than take care of themselves, the situation was just too wild and unsure for her not to want be… well, sure. “Now where?” She stood up on her toes and peered over the crowd, searching for Xena’s tall form.
“C’mon. They’re not in here.” Pony pulled her arm. “They’re probably in their quarters.”
“Think so?” Ephiny still kept looking.
“Pick between this nightmare zoo and being alone with each other?”
Good point. Ephiny allowed herself to be towed along down a side corridor, and they headed towards the back hall that held the room her friends had been issued. Going round the next corner, however, they both almost plowed right into one of the subjects of their search. “Whoa.”
Gabrielle pulled up quickly enough to avert a collision, and put a hand on the corridor wall to steady herself. “Hey.” She said, after a breath. “Sorry we disappeared on you.”
“You guys okay?” Ephiny asked cautiously, studying the bard’s face in the flickering light of the oil lamp. Gabrielle met her gaze, and for a moment, Ephiny swore she was catching a glimpse of the kid she’d first met in the forest, all those years ago. “Gabrielle?”
A blink, a rub of the eyes, and it was gone. “Yes, we’re fine. Xena’s got a few cuts, but it’s nothing. Her knee’s killing her, though. She’s just soaking.” Gabrielle replied. “You guys get out of there all right? What a mess.”
“We’re fine.” Ephiny said. “Where are you headed?”
“Get something to eat, we’re…” Gabrielle paused, as though reflecting on the words. Her lips shaped unconsciously into a smile. “Both starving.” A breath. “And I wanted to go check on Dori.”
“Right.” Pony turned and left, without so much as a twitch from Ephiny, and headed back down the corridor towards the main room.
Gabrielle frowned after her, giving Ephiny a puzzled look. “What’s that all about?”
The Amazon regent put a hand on her queen’s shoulder, feeling the sturdy bone and muscle shift and straighten. “She’s just doing her job. Taking care of her queen.” She explained. “And leaving me the task of getting Dori for you.” Ephiny’s eyes twinkled.
“I can do that.” Gabrielle stated.
“Sure. But where’s the fun in catering to your every whim if you don’t let us?” Her friend countered lightly. “It’s been a long day for you.” She added, with at touch more seriousness. “I’m glad it’s over.”
Gabrielle looked at her, the bard’s expression suddenly wide open. “Me too.” She admitted in a soft voice.
Ephiny followed her instincts and stepped forward, enfolding her younger friend into a hug. She half expected Gabrielle to resist, but to her pleasure the bard returned the hug fully. There was a hint of brass, leather and blood about her that Ephiny could just sniff, and the smoke of the torchlight clung to the pale head tucked next to hers.
She rubbed Gabrielle’s bare back gently, and gave her another squeeze. She felt the bard’s body relax, then hand patted her side as they parted and she took the liberty of cupping Gabrielle’s face and looking into her eyes for a very long moment.
There were no words needed. The memories they both held in common were plain in the air between them. Ephiny leaned forward and gently gave her queen a kiss on the forehead, then released her. “So let me go get your terrible two.” She said, with deliberate lightness. “Go help the tall, dark and dangerous one wipe her ears.”
Gabrielle gazed gently at her for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” She smiled as Ephiny winked at her, then she watched the regent turn and leave, disappearing into the shadows of the corridor.
They were such good friends. She reflected. Sometimes they didn’t understand the complex relationship between her, and Xena, but they were always there, ready to help if they could. A brief memory surfaced, of the three days she’d spent with the Amazons after Solon had been killed by Hope.
She remembered clearly wanting nothing more than to die.
The pain of what had happened, of what she’d caused was so great, it was burning her from the inside out, and the echo of Xena’s furious words were like a never ending sound that nothing could block out.
“Gabrielle! Listen to me!” Ephiny’s voice held a note of angry desperation. “You’re not alone in this!”
And Gabrielle looked up at her, knowing she could never really understand. “I could be in the middle of the village, surrounded by every Amazon in the world and I’d still be alone here.”
Yells of alarm outside.
Pony’s voice. “Ephiny! She’s coming!”
“Did you hear that, Gabrielle? Do you know what that means?” Ephiny shook her.
“Yes.” Gabrielle whispered. “It means one way or another it’s going to stop hurting.”
Hoofbeats drumming the only salvation she could hope for.
No, Ephiny had not understood that. Gabrielle exhaled, acknowledging the long faded ache, coated over by longer, happier memories since then. But she’d tried to help, tried to be there for Gabrielle then, as she had the time before.
As she doubtless would have been had it all gone wrong tonight.
Gabrielle finally faced that thought. She knew how Xena’s mind had worked, saw the sweeping realization come over her partner as the stakes suddenly changed in the middle of all that chaos.
All those slaves. All those soldiers. Ares triumph. She knew it all. Gabrielle knew it all, and she knew what the hero’s route would be out of that stinking pit.
The oil lamp flickered on one side of her, and Gabrielle looked up at it reflectively. Would have made a good story, wouldn’t it? That bad old ex warlord Xena finally redeems herself by sacrificing her life to liberate Athen’s slaves, and prevent a war with Sparta by bankrupting the council’s coffers and foiling the God of War.
Nice endcap to a life. Good moral to the story.
But she didn’t do it. Gabrielle let her head rest against the wall. She didn’t do it not because she couldn’t. Because of me. Because it was more important to her to stay with me, and live, and love me, than it was for her to be that hero.
Her conscience knew how wrong that was.
Her heart was soaring with the knowledge.
For a moment, she stood there, her arms crossed over her chest, before she turned and went back the way she came. She reached the door to their room and pushed it open, slipping inside and pausing just to look.
The plain room was lit with warm candlelight, turning it’s white stone walls to buttery gold from the candles spread all over the place. Xena’s armor was piled neatly in one corner for later cleaning, and there were two light shifts laid out waiting for both of them. The large tub had two candles at it’s head, and it was currently filled with faintly steaming water and a peacefully sprawling warrior, whose arms were draped over the sides as she lazily regarded the ceiling.
“That was fast.” Xena commented.
“I was intercepted by some very solicitous Amazons.” Gabrielle walked over and rested her forearms on the tub’s rim. Through the water’s ripples she could see Xena’s body, it’s tanned surface marred by several small cuts and bruises, but otherwise intact. Experimentally, she stuck her hand in the water and touched one of the slices, across the lower part of her partner’s ribs.
Xena reached up and tugged her hair a little. “C’mon in here with me.”
Mist green eyes lifted to hers. “Ephiny and Eponin are going to be back in a few minutes.”
Yeah. So? Gabrielle straightened, then knelt to unlace her boots and shake them off before she stripped out of her skirt and top, tossing them over to rest by Xena’s discarded leathers. “With Dori.”
Gabrielle eased her now naked body into the tub, relishing both the warm water, and the even warmer skin as Xena pulled her to a spot between the warrior’s legs and wrapped a pair of long arms around her middle. She leaned back against Xena’s body as her hands drifted down to the powerful thighs, stroking them lightly. “How’s your leg?”
“Keep doing that and I wouldn’t care if you amputated it.” Xena purred into her ear.
That made Gabrielle smile in pure reflex, and she glanced up over her shoulder at her soulmate. She decided she liked the view, so she half turned and put her head down on Xena’s shoulder, content to just look at her profile.
The warrior returned the look briefly, then lifted a hand to wipe a smudge of something of Gabrielle’s face. “You doing okay?”
“What makes you ask?”
“You’re not talking.”
Gabrielle couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle. “I’m just thinking about a lot of stuff, that’s all.” She admitted. “And I’m really tired.”
“You look it.” Xena’s thumb dropped to touch just under her eye, where shadows were evident. “Me too.”
The bard batted her lashes at her, and reached up, carefully poking a finger in her own ear and shaking it, then removing it. “Sorry, must have had water in my ear. Didn’t hear that last bit.”
One of Xena’s eyebrows started crawling up her forehead. “I spend an entire day running, throwing, battling off ambushers, and pit fighting. Don’t I have a right to be tired?”
“Yes, honey, you do.” Gabrielle found the warmth of the water, and of Xena’s body enfolding and relaxing her. ‘It’s just weird hearing you say it.” She lifted her hand out of the water and traced Xena’s jawline, feeling the muscles shift under her touch. “I’m so damn glad this is over.”
Xena hugged her closer and they floated there together in silence. After a few moments, she took the soap and started to lightly scrub Gabrielle’s skin, releasing the soap’s spicy fragrance into the air.
The bard seemed content to just curl up against her and accept the attention, her expressive face still and reflective. Xena had to admit she was a little worried, since the last time Gabrielle had retreated into self introspection had been after her return from the lava pit, and her silence had frightened the still emotionally shaken warrior badly.
Not surprisingly, since the time before that had been in the heart of their estrangement.
Xena rubbed her partner’s damp hair with the soap, then cupped water in her hand and rinsed it, finally retrieving a smile as the bard blinked the drops out of her eyes and rubbed an itchy nose against her shoulder. She blew in the pink ear near her, and got another smile, this one broader and extending up to crinkle the bridge of Gabrielle’s nose and the skin on either side of her eyes.
Gabrielle finally exhaled, letting her eyes flutter shut for a brief instant before she looked up again. She reached up and pulled Xena’s jaw over, then lifted herself up and kissed her on the lips with heartfelt passion.
Okay, so maybe sometimes words were just pointless. Xena responded to the welcome advance, and gazed steadily into Gabrielle’s eyes when they separated to take a breath.
“Thank you.” Gabrielle said, simply.
Xena felt herself smile.
“My heart, and my conscience were having a fistfight.” Gabrielle explained. “And my heart won by a landslide, and I was just sort of getting used to that feeling.”
Xena regarded her solemnly. “Used to it now?”
Gabrielle nodded firmly. “Yeah.” She said. “Whatever happens from this, we’ll deal with it.” She rested her chin on Xena’s bare shoulder. “You and me.”
Xena dabbed a bit of soap on the bard’s nose. “You bet we will, my love.” She agreed softly.
The bard exhaled contentedly. “Should we get out of this bathtub before we have half of Athens in here?”
The warrior bent her neck and they kissed again. Gabrielle’s body pressed against hers, and the bard’s arms wound around her, pulling her closer in a sudden surge of passion.
They both drew in simultaneous breaths as the door opened, and slammed against the stone wall. Blue and green eyes met.
There was absolutely no reason for them both to be grinning.
“What is going on here!”
Xena leaned an arm on the edge of the tub and peered over it, keeping a hastily assembled look of irritation firmly in place. “What’s the matter, been a while?” She asked, meeting the eyes of the elder judge she remembered from the race start. “What does it look like?”
Gabrielle had taken the high road, that of submerging almost completely and hiding her face against Xena’s shoulder.
The intruders included the elderly judge, two attendants, and six big, husky men dressed in the tunics of the stadium guard. The guards, all younger men, looked a cross between embarrassed and bored. “We’ve got a serious complaint against you.” The elder said.
“Me?” Xena propped her head up against one hand. “Boy, do you have a line to stand in.”
Tiny little bubbles emerged from Gabrielle’s just under water mouth.
“A fellow athlete has represented to us that you are not what you seem to be.”
Xena scratched her jaw. “Okay.” She exhaled. “You got me. I’m not.”
“I’m really a centaur.” The warrior informed him. “I was separated from my back half at birth.”
More tiny bubbles.
“That is not what we were told.” The elder stated firmly. “The woman who raced against you claimed foul because you are a man.”
Xena was caught fairly by surprise. “Huh?”
“Yes.” The elder said. “As we all know the men will give allowances to our women, and the women treat each other differently, pretending to be a woman will disqualify you.”
The warrior rubbed her forehead, unable to quite believe what she was hearing. “I’m not a man.” She muttered, watching Gabrielle almost bite her lip through to keep from laughing.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“I said.” Xena gave him a dire look. “I’m not a man.”
“That’s what you say, of course.” The elder waved his fingers at her. “The evidence is quite clear.”
With a long suffering sigh, Xena put both hands on the edge of the tub and pushed herself to her feet, amidst a tinkling of water as it sheeted down off her body and sprinkled Gabrielle. “I said..”
She stepped over the edge of the tub and sauntered over to them, pausing as she reached the group and shaking herself vigorously like a dog. A spray of water coated their faces, dripping off the hanging jaws with satisfying splats. “I’m not a man.” She spread her arms to either side, and lifted her eyebrows. “We clear on that, now?”
“Er.” The elder covered his eyes with one hand, though his spread fingers ruined the effect. “Could we… check?”
Xena let her hands rest on her hips. “Only if you don’t mind spending the rest of your life with one hand and a stump.” She let her eyes fasten on the nearest guard, who had big, round hazel eyes. The promptly rotated and found the ceiling, as the man dropped like a stone, his limbs flopping on the ground like a selection of very dead fish.
“Guess you cut off the flow of blood to his brain, hon.” Gabrielle’s voice drawled from behind her.
“I’m terribly sorry.” The elder stammered. “The woman seemed so sure. She said you told her… and after the fight we saw, it…” Deciding he was getting himself in deeper with every syllable, the man simply turned and shooshed his retinue out ahead of him. “Forgive me, forgive me, never mind, terrible mistake, sorry.”
“Hey, can’t we… “The youngest guard spoke up suddenly.
“Shoo! Out ! Out!” The elder smacked him in the butt. The boy jumped, and squeaked. “Out!” He shoved the guard out in front of him. “I don’t understand this. I don’t I am too old for this. I must rest. I must go home. I must have wine. OUT!”
“Hey, watch who you’re shoving!” Ephiny evaded the outgoing beefcake, and slipped inside, stopping short on confronting the equally unexpected naked warrior in front of her. “Hera’s left tit! What the Hades are you doing?”
“Posing for my winner’s statue.” Xena told her dryly, as the last of the men left and slammed the door closed behind them. “This angle good for me?”
“Boo!” Dori squealed in delight, struggling to free herself from the Amazon regent’s grasp. “Booboobooboobooboo!”
“Xena.” Ephiny released her armful and straightened up, looking around the room. She spotted a pair of green eyes set in a sleekly damp head peeking at her from over the edge of the tub. “What are you two up to?”
Xena scooped her daughter up and tossed her in the air, then caught her. “Hey, shortie.”
“Booooooo.” Dori hugged her with enthusiasm.
“So.” Ephiny looked first at the disembodied head in the tub, then at the very embodied naked woman. “You going to fill me in, or am I left here to start rumors?”
Xena chuckled, and shook her head as she walked over to their gear and retrieved a linen towel. She managed to juggle Dori and the towel and get one wrapped around her while keeping hold of the other in a display of truly remarkable coordination. “He was questioning my sex.”
The utter silence behind her made Xena’s ears prick. She turned her head and looked back over her shoulder. “What?”
Ephiny carefully cocked her head to one side. “What was the question?” She asked, holding back a grin. “Or was the old goat just looking for pointers?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Someone told him Xena was a guy.” She lifted herself out of the tub and shook her hands, shedding droplets of water everywhere.
“A g..” The regent perched on the arm of the low couch and slapped the side of her head. “You’re not serious.”
“Mama!” Dori suddenly realized the identity of the damp person on the other side of her current perch. “Gimme!” She scrambled up over Xena’s shoulder and into Gabrielle’s waiting arms “Mammmmmma.
“I dunno. I think these city people need to get out more.” Xena was ruffling her dark hair dry. “All the stink in this place musta gone to their heads.”
Gabrielle wrangled her daughter skillfully. “Honey, could you… ah, thanks.” She gave Xena a grateful look as the warrior toweled her off, consciously or unconsciously stepping between her and Ephiny to provide a modicum of privacy.
Since Xena was, of course, bigger than she was, it worked out pretty good, and Gabrielle took the opportunity to lean over and give her a kiss. She felt Xena’s hands pause for a moment, then continue their task. “So, what did you do today, Doriboo?”
“Go go Cat.” Dori advised her seriously. “Go see horsies.”
“Cait took you to see the horsies? That’s great.” Gabrielle eased herself into a shift, then took Dori and sat down on the couch, extending her bare legs across the stone floor and flexing her toes. “Sit down, Eph.”
Ephiny joined her on the couch, leaving Xena to finish retrieving her clothing. The warrior listened to them chatter for a bit as she tugged a comfortable shirt on over her head and let it’s folds settle over her tired body.
As always, now that it was over, and the excitement of battle drained from her, the injuries she’d taken were starting to make themselves known. Denus had gone for her knees, evidently knowing her weak point, and the joint was now once again swollen and throbbing from a vicious kick.
She also had, she figured, at least two cracked ribs and she’d wrenched something in her back that was making it hard to bend over.
With a tiny sigh, she sat down on the window sill to pull her soft indoor boots on, then left one booted foot crossed on her knee and leaned her elbow on it. She rested her chin on her fist and just watched Gabrielle and Dori.
Things were all right. She nodded slightly to herself.
“Hey, Xe?” The bard turned her head and looked behind her. “What are you doing way over there?”
Xena stood up and walked over, not quite able to suppress her limp. Gabrielle scooted over and she settled on the end of the couch, easing her leg out straight and trying not to breathe too deeply. “Still a mess outside?” She asked Ephiny.
“Oh yeah.” The Amazon nodded. “So, now, tell me. They didn’t really think you were a man, did they?” She gazed at the warrior in amusement. “I mean, Xena, for Zeus’ sake even in armor you’d have to be stone blind to think that.”
“Thanks.” Xena replied. “I think.”
The door opened again, and Eponin struggled inside, her arms full of a huge tray and a basket hanging from her arm. “Son of a freaking butt sucking…”
“Hey.. there’s a kid here.” Ephiny warned.
Pony managed to peek over the top of the tray. “Aw, c’mon.. I’m sure she’s…” A pause. “Oh, y’meant Dori.” She muttered, as she managed to get the basket and tray onto the table.
Gabrielle snorted. “Are you two looking to be made elders early or something? I am NOT a kid anymore, okay?” She held out a lock of her damp hair. “I have grays, even!”
Ephiny had gotten up to help Pony unload, and now she peeked back over her shoulder. “Do ya?”
“No.” Xena disagreed.
“You don’t.” The warrior grabbed a handful of pale hair and tugged. “Just a thousand shades of blond.” She said. “C’mere, look for yourself.”
Thus invited, Ephiny ambled over and peered at her queen’s head. “Looks pretty blond to me.” She grinned. “Though.. now that I think of it, I got my first few greys around your age.” Her eyes drifted to Xena’s nearby scalp. “Didn’t you, Xena?”
Gabrielle pulled her hair loose and ran her fingers through it as she leaned back. “She doesn’t have any.” She answered Ephiny in a mild tone. “Never been able to find a one.”
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances, as the weapons master walked over with her basket. “No kidding?” Pony asked. “Wow. You lucked out.”
Xena shrugged, a touch uncomfortable by the three sets of eyes examining her dark locks. She held a hand out to Dori, who crawled agreeably over and sat in her lap.
“Boo, hossie go bap, bap.” Dori slapped her hand against her parent’s. “Go pboffofofofof.’ She blew air out her lips in sloppy spatter.
There was an awkward silence, then Ephiny chuckled, and patted Gabrielle on the shoulder. “Well, I know you two need to get some rest. We heard outside that they made the big ceremony tomorrow, so take it easy, okay?”
“We will.” Gabrielle clasped her hand. “Thanks for everything, both of you. We really appreciate it.”
“See you in the morning.” Ephiny got up, and Pony joined her. “Maybe we can all do breakfast, down where we’re staying.”
“Good idea.” Xena spoke up, her eyes on the small hand exploring hers. “Then we can make plans to get out of here.” She smiled at Dori, who grinned back. “You wanna go home, munchkin?”
“Go.” Dori patted Xena’s hand with hers. “Be good.”
The two Amazons left, the open door admitting the start of a very noisy party outside. Xena made a small sound of grumpy protest, then sighed.
Gabrielle got up and grabbed one of the heavy chairs, dragging it after her until she reached the door. She shoved the piece of furniture up against the latch, wedging it in tightly before stepping back to review her handiwork. Then she walked over to the table and picked up two of the trenchers, loading them down with sliced meats, fruit, and other goodies.
Much as she liked both Ephiny and Eponin, she was glad they’d left. She carefully added two nutcakes to the trencher, their tops dripping with honey. It was hard to describe how she felt – raw -almost as though she were missing a layer of skin. She added a small bowl for Dori to her armful, then turned to carry everything back to the couch, her eyes going to her family as she walked.
Dori was curled up in Xena’s arms, one hand clutching Xena’s shirt, the other with it’s thumb stuck firmly in her mouth. She had her head down on the warrior’s shoulder, and Xena was just giving the child’s head a kiss.
“Mm?” Xena looked up, a smile crossing her face.
Gabrielle completely forgot what she wanted to say. So she just smiled back, and sat down, arranging the trenchers on both their laps.
“Umm…” Dori burbled approvingly. “Good.”
“Here you go, sweetie.” Gabrielle murmured, handing her the bowl. Then she set to work cutting up the meats, picking up a chunk and offering it to her waiting soulmate. “Here you go, sweetie.”
“Umm.” Xena’s eyes twinkled. “Good.” She nibbled Gabrielle’s fingers and gave the tips of them a little lick as she took the tidbit.
Gabrielle caught her lower lip in her teeth, and shook a finger at her. “Ooo…. You little teaser.”
“Little?” Xena made a show of glancing up and down her length, then did the same to her partner’s, as the bard reached over and tweaked her nose. “Scuse me your midget majesty.”
“Pffft.” Gabrielle squirmed closer and leaned against Xena, resting her head against the warrior's shoulder as she continued her feeding. She felt an unusual sense of giddiness, probably compounded from the long day, the stress, and…
"Hey, little piggie." Xena broke a chunk of meat in half so Dori could fit it into her mouth. "Did mama ever tell you the story of when she got an orange stuck like that, and spit seeds out her nose?"
"Don't you tell her about that!" Gabrielle said, biting off another surge of laughter. “She’ll be trying it next…how do you remember all that stuff? That was forever ago, Xena."
The warrior chuckled briefly. "I remember that because it was the first time I tried to get annoyed at you for doing something, and all I could think of was how cute you looked." She admitted.
"With pits coming out my nose?" Gabrielle covered her eyes and moaned.
"Yeah." Xena murmured, hesitating, then continuing in a softer voice. "It'd been so long since I'd let someone into my heart, I'd forgotten what it felt like." She handed Dori another carrot. "But it felt really good."
"I remember it hurting like Hades." Gabrielle admitted, with a grin. "I was so embarrassed… what you thought meant so much to me." She handed over a slab of bread, their eyes meeting as she did so, looking down a moment later as a wash of unexpected emotion came over her. "Still does, you know.”
Gabrielle sensed the touch before she felt it, warm fingers capturing her jaw and lifting it, tilting her face up. The raw, open feeling increased, but she had no option other than to let her gaze travel up from Xena's collarbone until they were looking, once again, into each other's eyes.
“I know.” Xena stroked her cheek tenderly. “That’s why I felt so safe in giving you my heart.”
The sentiment stunned her. Gabrielle was caught there, the connection between them rearing up and taking her over utterly - something that hadn't happened to her in a very, very long time. She could see her soul, very clearly, reflected in Xena's equally spellstruck expression, and for a string of heartbeats, the world just stood still.
Then the both took a breath, simultaneously, as the raucous sounds outside resumed.
"Something's changed." Gabrielle breathed. “Hasn’t it?”
Xena blinked, then gave the tiniest shake of her head. "No.” She uttered. “Something's the same again." Her voice was rough. "Like it was before."
Like it was before.
Before the Furies. Before Britiannia.
Before their world had gained all those shades of somber gray.
Dori sat quietly, her round eyes going from one face to the other, apparently in fascination.
Gabrielle pondered the idea in silence, then her face relaxed suddenly into big, sunny grin. "You're right." She couldn’t even say what exactly the difference was, but she knew it when she felt it. "Wow. I like it."
Xena returned the grin with a wholehearted one of her own. "Me, too." There were, she had to acknowledge to herself, some things it just didn't pay to question.
"Mama do good." Dori patted her mother's face. "Make fun!"
"Make fun?" Gabrielle repeated. "How about this?" She stuck her tongue out and waggled it, making a weird noise at the same time.
Dori giggled happily and tried to grab at the wiggling flesh. "Mama.. mama!"
"Nah hahnnn..offof." Gabrielle found her mouth filled with cake and honey. "Fof!"
"Teach you to be sticking that thing out at little kids." Xena chortled.
Gabrielle made a grab a the remaining cake, and dodged Xena's hands, then managed to get the fistful all over her soulmate's face, evading her snapping teeth by a hair. "Hah!"
Xena's tongue appeared, licking up smears of honey. "Mmm." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, then burst into laughter as Dori stood up and grabbed for cake crumbs, clutching the warrior's lower lip and pulling.
"Good idea." Gabrielle set the platters aside and got up, taking the rest of the cake with her as she joined Dori in assulting the helplessly chuckling victim. "Mmm… " She licked Xena's lower lip and smashed more cake on her, sending a cascade of it all over everything.
"Augh." Xena's eyes opened wider, as a piece of cake the size of her little finger ended up on her cheek, and was immediately snatched by Dori. "Hey!'
"Heh heh.. you started it." Gabrielle sucked on the tip of her nose. "You're ours, and we've got you right where we want you, right Dori?"
Xena slipped her arms around both of them, and pulled them into a hug, squishing them, her, and the cake into a messy conglomeration of laughter and honey. It sweetened an already unbearably sweet moment and right then, if the entire world had collapsed around her - Xena never would have even noticed.