A Matter of Pride
It wasn't long into the day when Gabrielle found herself wishing it would rain again. She blinked in the glare of the sun, and wiped her forehead with a bit of linen she'd tucked into her saddle. "Wow.. it's roasting." Iolaus and Argo were walking side by side, as they traveled down a long and very dusty road without a decent tree or other shade in site.
"Mm." Xena agreed, gazing stolidly ahead. Dressed as she was in dark leathers and armor, the sun's heat was twice as bad for her as it was for Gabrielle in her light, cotton belted tunic.
The bard had seriously debated trading her fawn colored garment for her old traveling clothes, but their joint shortage of aloe convinced her that getting that sunburned over that much of her body probably wasn't the best idea.
Xena, of course, would retain her leathers even if the fires of Tartarus were licking at her boots, regardless of the discomfort. She'd often envied Gabrielle her scant clothing, when they'd suffered through a long day's traveling in the hot sun, but pride kept her from admitting that, and, she discovered to her chagrin, still did.
They had at least another couple hours riding before any chance of shelter. Xena uncapped her waterskin and took a long swallow, then passed it over to the bard. "Here… don't get.."
"Dry." Gabrielle finished for her, taking the water and drinking obediently. "You can survive for a week without food, Gabrielle, but not more than a day without water."
The warrior looked at her, muffling amusement at the excellent mimicry of her own deep tones.
Gabrielle snickered at her, and got a long finger shaken in her direction. They both laughed, as she handed the waterskin back. "Hey, at least I listened and remembered. Did you know I used to write stuff like that down in my diary?"
"Yeah?" Xena relaxed into Argo's rhythmic walk, putting the heat and discomfort out of her mind.
"Oh, yeah." The bard related. "Xena's words of wisdom, the weather, stuff I saw, stuff I didn't want to see.. .I go back and read some of the early parts of that thing, and I gotta wonder… who on earth wrote all that?"
Xena's brow contracted a little.
"I mean, I know I wrote it." Gabrielle lifted a hand. "I just… I try to remember what it was like to be that young and that clueless, and it's so hard."
Blue eyes shifted and studied her. "Good."
Gabrielle was caught in the middle of drawing a breath to continue, and she turned her head, a startled look on her face, as the word penetrated.
Now it was Xena's turn to snicker, and get a finger wagged at her.
"Wench." Gabrielle nudged Iolaus closer, aiming for a tickle spot.
"Oh no." Xena kneed Argo, and the mare ambled off, taking her rider out of reach. Gabrielle trotted after her, and the next thing she knew, they were cantering down the road in an impromptu chase. "Hey!"
"Hey nothing." Gabrielle managed to maneuver Iolaus close enough for her to grab hold of Xena's leathers. "Ahaa! Gotcha!"
The warrior glanced back and took one look at her soulmate's unbalanced position before she clamped down tight on Argo's sides and kept the mare running close. "You got me. Now what are you gonna do with me? Gabrielle, you're gonna fall of that horse."
"No I’m not.. I’m.. yahhh!" It was just a tad too far, and Iolaus dodged around a hole in the road just as the bard lost her balance. She grabbed frantically for a hold, but missed her grip and toppled forward.
Xena swiveled in her saddle and managed to haul the bard over onto Argo's back, pulling her across her thighs as the mare slowed.
"Whoa!" Gabrielle held on, as the world spun around her. They came to a halt, and she found herself half sprawled over Xena's lap, hanging on to Argo's saddlehorn for all she was worth. "Whoops… sorry about that."
"Uh huh." Xena had to chuckle, as she helped Gabrielle sit up, then slide down Argo's shoulder. "I told you not to do that."
"Yeah, yeah." The bard dusted herself off, then went after Iolaus, who had stopped not far down the road, and was now looking quizzically at her as though trying to figure out where she'd gone.
It really was too hot to be playing these kind of games, she acknowledged, as she kicked up dust with her boots along the road. The pale surface gave off it's own heat, and she felt sweat running freely down her body under her tunic. She ran her forearm over her face as she reached Iolaus's side, and gathered his reins up. The stallions skin, too, was darkened with sweat, and she could feel the heat rising off his body as well as her own.
With a grunt, she hauled herself up into the saddle, and settled her knees, then turned Iolaus' head and glanced back, only to find Xena quietly watching her. The warrior was drenched with her own coating of perspiration, and as Gabrielle moved closer, she reached up and tied her dark hair back and exposed her neck to the scant breeze. "Are you half as uncomfortable as I feel?"
One dark brow lifted. "Half?" Xena remarked. "C'mon.. let's get moving. Maybe we'll get lucky and my memory of this area's wrong. Find some trees, or something."
They started off again, but had only gotten several leagues when they heard a soft, pattering thunder behind them. Gabrielle glanced up at the cloudless blue sky, then at Xena in puzzlement. "What on earth…"
Xena turned into the wind and listened intently, tilting her head to catch the vibrations she could more feel than hear. "Something's coming." She guided Argo off the road and reached out to pull Iolaus's bridle along with the. "C'mon.. I can't tell what it is, but it's big, and it's coming fast."
Gabrielle joined her willingly, and they stood well of the road, listening to the sound become louder and louder. The horses grew restless, and Argo stamped, shaking her head as the roar slowly devolved into the rattle of wagon wheels, and the thunder of horses' hooves.
Now they could see a cloud approaching them quickly, with a dark, restless center that for just a moment brought back one of the most hideous memories of Gabrielle's life. She glanced down, feeling her heart skip and her breathing catch, remembering Dahok's formless darkness that had surrounded her, taking from her light, and innocence, and almost, the essence of her soul.
How much she'd lost, in that one moment.
"Hey." Xena cupped her face, and looked intently at her. "Gabrielle." Her voice dropped almost a full octave.
"Sorry." The bard met her eyes. "Just some old memories."
The touch gentled. "We can talk about them later if you want."
Gabrielle gave her head a little shake no, then glanced past Xena's body down the road. "It's a wagon." She pointed. "Xena, look.. I think it's… gods, it's a runaway!"
Xena's head snapped around, and she stared, her eyes narrowing. "Son of a bacchae… " She shifted her legs, seeing the figure on the front of the wagon frantically trying to halt it. "C'mon. "
It was easy to forget about the heat, when you had a job to do. Gabrielle got her seat firmly in place before she guided Iolaus out after Argo, and urged him into a canter. They thundered towards the oncoming wagon, now able to see the horse's frothing mouths as they strained at the tracing. Six huge animals, sweat blowing off them, the heavy wagon behind them careening back and forth and losing bits and pieces of itself along the way.
"Help!" A woman's voice cried out. "Help! Help us!!!"
Xena's pace picked up. "Try to head them off near that fork!" She yelled back to Gabrielle. "Get ahead of them!!!"
"What are you doing!" The bard yelled back, turning slightly to obey. "Xena!"
"Someone's gotta steer that thing or it's gonna go right into those rocks!" The warrior called, pointing to the fork. She settled down in her saddle and urged the mare into a full gallop, racing towards the wagon at top speed.
"Oh ..gods." Gabrielle realized what her partner intended, and had to force herself to hold up her end of the plan. She gritted her teeth and headed towards the fork, running at an angle to the wildly racing team. "Yah!" She waved an arm at them, but she was, as yet, too far for them to care.
Xena was busy figuring angles. She drove Argo towards the onrushing wagon, which was rocking ominously from side to side. The figure on the front was now recognizably a woman, and she was more just hanging on than attempting to control the horses.
They galloped forward, turning as the they neared the road to race alongside the wagon. Xena freed her left boot from her stirrup, glancing up at the front of the wagon. The woman stared back at her in terror, a thin scream emitting from her throat.
No help there. The warrior counted under her breath, timing Argo's strides, and urging the mare up near the front horse. The animals swerved away from her and she cursed under her breath, then dropped back to the second horse, bringing Argo as close as she dared.
One. Two. Three… Xena released the reins and vaulted upwards, standing up on Argo's back for a bare instant before she threw herself sideways, reaching out for the second near horses' neck. The terrified animal screamed and tried to evade her, but he was trapped in his traces, and forced forwards by the rest of the team and she landed sprawled over his back, her hands grabbing for a hold in the harness.
In front of her, she could see the rocks approaching, and to one side, Gabrielle's headlong flight which was now close to intersecting theirs. Xena watched as the bard tried to steer the lead animal over, but the horse ignored her, churning towards the sharp granite as though bound on self destruction.
Xena made her decision and quickly pulled herself up on her horses neck, getting her feet under her and standing up on his back. Gabrielle saw them move and swerved herself, not wanting to scare the lead horse into disaster. "Careful!" She yelled at her soulmate.
"Me?" Gabrielle yelled back.
Xena smiled at the comment, then crouched, and as the horses came within bare wagon lengths of the fork leaped out into space, hurling herself forward and landing on the lead horse's back. She quickly got her legs around his barrel and clamped down, reaching forward to grab the bridle piece.
He screamed and bucked, almost sending them all to Hades as he felt her touch, but that slowed them, and now Gabrielle got closer, urging them off to one side. The lead horse fought her, but Xena had a good grip on the bridle now, and she pulled back with all her strength, forcing his head up and slowing him further.
They thundered through the fork, just barely missing the rocks. Branches scraped against Gabrielle's body, but the bard kept her head down, and kept pushing to her right, forcing the horses down the right hand side path as Xena fought to bring them to a halt.
Finally, the exhausted animals obeyed, and they came to a standstill in the middle of the road, chests heaving, foam escaping from their mouths.
Xena gave the lead horse a pat before she turned and glanced at the wagon. The woman was still huddled on the seat, eyes closed. "Hey." The warrior called out "You can get up now. It's over." She slid off the horses back and walked towards the woman, leaving Gabrielle to hang on to the harness and prevent a repeat.
Behind the seat was a door that opened as Xena approached, revealing a well appointed interior. A broad shouldered man came out, obviously drunk. He stared at Xena for a moment, then before the warrior could react, he backhanded the woman right off the wagon with a snarl.
"Bitch! I to'l ya not t'stop fore we get t'Athens!"
Xena's eyes narrowed.
Gabrielle merely covered hers, and waited for the crunch.
"You can't just leave him tied up there."
Xena looked up from her task, and finished giving the rope a tug. "Sure I can."
Gabrielle walked over and stood next to her partner, folding her arms across her chest and regarding the unconscious man. He had blood all over his face, and bruises, and she suspected a broken arm. "Xena, you can't just leave him here. He'll die."
"So?" The warrior frowned. "He deserves it, the bastard. Did you see the marks on that kid's body?" She pointed at the wagon, where the young woman was huddled watching them.
The bard put a hand on Xena's arm. "Honey, I know. I know better than most people what that feels like, remember?"
Xena stared at her in silence.
"But you wouldn't have left my father lying here, would you?" Gabrielle said, moving a little closer as she felt a sudden surge of upset coming from the warrior. "Xe?"
A breath. "No." Xena admitted, as she straightened up. "But that's different. I don't know this guy."
The bard scratched her ear. "Xena, let me just go at this a different way. You're the chief military leader of Amphipolis."
A dark brow edged up. "And?"
"And we have laws." Gabrielle told her gently. "You should uphold them, not make your own." She rubbed her thumb against Xena's skin as she saw the storm clouds gathering in her eyes. "Xena, I know you're used to being your own law… that worked for us before, because there was no other choice. We have a choice now."
The warrior stood in silence for a few moments, then exhaled. "All right." She gave her victim a dour look. "I guess we can take him to the next town, and hand him over to the law there." She gazed at the man in speculation.
Gabrielle wondered if that speculation was that it might have been better if she'd killed the man outright. Then she felt ashamed at the thought, and glanced down, studying her boots with absorbed attention.
"He can lay there until we're ready to move on." Xena decided. "I don't wanna have to lift his chunky butt until then." She glanced at the wagon. "C'mon, let's find out why they were headed to Athens at that pace."
Gabrielle nodded, then tucked a hand inside Xena's elbow as they walked back over to where the wagon stood, it's horses now merely stamping in the heat instead of exhausted and lathering. "Hi." She greeted the young girl quietly. "Are you okay?"
Wide, dark brown eyes watched them fearfully. "Who are you?" The girl whispered, flinching a little as Xena moved closer, leaning a bracered arm on the wagon.
"Well." Gabrielle consciously modulated her voice. "My name is Gabrielle, and this is Xena. We live down in Amphipolis, and we're on our way to Athens."
The girls eyes became fixed on Xena, and her jaw dropped a little. Xena gazed patiently back at her, trying to appear as unthreatening as a six foot tall armored warrior with blood streaks all over her could possible be.
"Oh." The girl whispered.
"What's your name?" Gabrielle attempted a distraction.
The eyes darted to hers. "M.. my name?"
"Well, yeah. We sort of like to know what people's names are, so we don't go around calling them 'hey you.' Or 'buster' or stuff like that." The bard smiled at her. "So yeah, what's your name?"
Gabrielle, Xena mused, could charm a snail out of it's shell if she put her mind to it. Despite the girls' obvious terror, she responded to the bard's warmth and the gentle smile, and she visibly relaxed and ignored Xena for the moment.
"Leesha." Came the soft response.
"I’m gonna get our passenger into the wagon." Xena interrupted, laying a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Be right back."
Gabrielle suppressed a smile as her partner ducked out of sight, and concentrated on her new little friend. "Leesha? I like that. It's a nice name"
Leesha relaxed a little, and moved closer to Gabrielle, sliding down the wood of the bench. "Your that famous bard, aren't you?"
Me? Famous? Ew. Gabrielle grinned. "I'm not sure about that, but I am a bard, yes." She replied. "And I guess there are folks around here who've heard of me." She added. "So, where were you headed?"
Leesha scooted over a little. "We're going to Athens, too." She said. "Aleki… " The girl paused awkwardly, and glanced back to where Xena was getting ready to hoist the man on the wagon. "He's my father… he's sponsoring one of the entrants in the Games. We were supposed to be there a fortnight ago… but we were late.. there was a storm.. now he's in a terrible rush to get there."
"The games?" Gabrielle's brow creased. "What games?"
Leesha peered at her curiously. "The great games.. the athletic games in Athens. Surely you've heard of them?"
She had, in a far off kind of way. "Oh.. right." Gabrielle nodded. "I've heard of them, sure - I didn't know they were going on right now." The wagon moved suddenly, and they both turned, to see Xena returning from the rear of the wagon, dusting her hands off. The bard noted that she'd taken a moment to clean the blood off her body, and was looking a little less wild and scary. "All set?"
Leesha glanced at Xena with apprehension
"He'll be fine." Xena spoke more for the girl's benefit. "Arm's not broken, just sprained." She glanced at the girl. "He hit you often?"
She shrank back, obviously intimidated.
"It's okay." Gabrielle reassured her. "We're going to turn him over to the authorities in the next town. You'll be okay."
"Turn him… oh, no." Leesha looked horrified. "You can't do that.. what will I do? Please - just leave us alone!"
"Wait.." Gabrielle held up a hand. "He hurt you!"
"NO." The girl shook her head vigorously. "He didn't mean it. It was just the drink, and the heat.. he loves me." She seemed very sure. "He'll apologize when he wakes up. Just please, go and leave us alone."
Blue and green eyes met. "Tell you what." Xena said, with quiet decisiveness. "You two go in back, and I'll lead the horses. We can sort this out when we get to town." She pinned the girl with a glance. "He's gonna need a healer anyway."
Leesha hesitated, staring at the warrior with a mixture of fear and distaste. Finally she nodded shortly. "All right." She said, reluctantly. "But I can drive. He taught me."
"Sure." Gabrielle agreed. "But it's really hot out here.. I sure could use a break in the shade. Why don't you come inside and we can talk, while Xena gets us started? You can take back over later."
Here, little snail. Xena almost smiled, as the girl found it impossible to deny that gently reasonable argument. Having been a victim of Gabrielle's negotiating tactics herself, she felt a certain sympathy.
Not that much though, because the girl was still looking at her like she was an uncaged tiger ready for lunch, and Xena really didn't think she'd done much to warrant that. Especially since the bastard was beating up on the kid. She watched the girl step over the edge of the wagon and enter the rear portion, which was covered in canvas behind the wooden partition that held the flimsy door.
Gabrielle sighed, and put her hands on the wood to lift herself up. She smiled, though, when a grip circled her waist and heaved her upward, and she bounced into place on the seat before turning to face her partner. "Thanks."
A mildly ironic smile answered her. "Good luck." Xena indicated the now hidden girl.
The bard reached out and touched Xena's hair, finding it warm with the sun, and sticky with sweat. "You sure you don't want to ride up here?" She indicated the seat, "There's a little cover.. the sun's blocked by the wagon sort of."
It was tempting. The sun was sucking all the energy out of her, and they had a long way to go yet. "Yeah, maybe." Xena decided. "G'wan inside, and I'll hitch Argo and Iolaus up to the back."
"Right." Gabrielle patted her cheek, then let her hand lie there. "You all right?" She asked, seeing a hint of.. something.. in the pale eyes watching her.
Damn. Xena pushed the doubts back down, and mustered a smile for the bard. "Nah, I'm fine. It's just too damn hot." She told her. "I'll be glad to make town.. I'll take a horse trough if they got it just to cool off."
Gabrielle grinned in relief, and nodded. "Me too." She got up and stepped over the partition, pushing the door open cautiously and going inside.
Xena stood there for a few moments, then pushed away from the wagon and whistled for Argo and Iolaus, who were grazing not far away. The horses trotted up to her and she tied them to the back of the wagon, then trudged around to the front and vaulted up onto the seat, the wooden surface shifting under her weight.
Well. She sat down and gathered the reins, reacquainting herself with the feel of driving a team this size. She sorted through the leather strips, setting them between her fingers, then drew a breath and clicked her tongue lightly, slapping the backs of the animals with only the slightest emphasis.
They shifted their legs and snorted, but started off at a slow walk. Xena winced as the wagon jerked into motion, then eased into a more comfortable position and let the rhythm settle into her bones.
Behind her, she could hear the soft voices murmuring together. Damn. Xena released a breath, resting her elbows on her knees as she tried to analyze just why her guts were in knots, and the kids reaction to her had bothered her so much, and…
Drop it, Xena. Maybe you're about to cycle. She wryly told herself, shaking off the unsettling thoughts, and returning her attention to the road.
Leesha was bending over her father when Gabrielle entered, untying the ropes Xena had left around him. She glanced over her shoulder, her face distressed and angry. "Look what she did to him!"
Gabrielle stepped around the unkempt belongings and crouched next to her, touching a finger to the dark bruise across the girl's face. "Look what he did to you." She gazed evenly at her. "That's why Xena did what she did."
"He didn't mean it." Leesha went back to her untying. "You don’t understand."
The wagon lurched into motion, and they both swayed. Gabrielle held out a hand to steady the girl, then took her other hand and forced Leesha too look at her. "You're wrong." She told her, edging sideways and seating herself on a bale of cloth. "I do understand.. I know exactly what you're going through, Leesha."
Leesha gazed uncertainly at her. Gabrielle suddenly felt far older than her years, looking at that innocent young face, with those haunted eyes that carried a few shadows she was wearily familiar with. "How old are you?" She asked quietly.
"Seventeen. Almost." The girl replied, lifting her chin a little. "I'm not a child." She sat down, glancing at the still unconscious man on the floor. "He depends on me, now."
Seventeen. Gabrielle smiled briefly. "You know, I was your age when I met Xena." She said. "I was pretty sure I was grown up, too. Ready to handle anything."
The girl watched her in silence.
Gabrielle met her eyes. "And I figured.. after having my father do to me what yours does to you… what could I find out here that would be worse?"
"Your f.. " Leesha glanced at her, then at the closed door. "Oh.. I thought you meant…" She fell silent, thinking. "So you ran away."
Did I? Gabrielle tilted her head a trifle. "Yeah, I did in a way." She agreed. "I wanted to find a better life for myself… one where I didn't have to be afraid all the time."
Leesha blinked at her. "So you went to live with a wild woman like that in the woods?" She sounded skeptical. "Oh, that was a good choice."
The bard chuckled a little. "I guess you could look at it that way, but Xena's not a wild woman and we don't live in the woods." She said. "But yes, it turned out to be a very good choice, as a matter of fact."
"Not for me." Leesha replied, with surprising fierceness. "That's all you people ever say. You think you're the first?" She got up and swayed with the wagon's motion. "You're like all the rest of them.. you don't understand. You can't understand… I’m not going to run away from him because he needs me." She turned, straightening. "He's not a bad person."
Kind, green eyes looked back. "Neither was my father. Just a hurting one." Gabrielle said softly. "You know, you could…"
"No." Leesha turned her head. "Just don't. Leave me alone. I'm tired of hearing strangers give me advice." She knelt, then sat at her father's side. "I know I must sound ungrateful.. and… " Her eyes lifted, and studied Gabrielle. "Thank you.. for saving us. I'm sure we would have crashed otherwise, but… " Her fingers straightened a bit of cloth. "I'm where I want to be, okay?"
Gabrielle sighed, and regarded her folded hands.
"See? You don't understand." The girl said. "You ran. I won't." She picked up a cloth and uncapped a nearby waterskin, wetting the cloth and daubing the man's blood covered skin. "You'll see. When he wakes up, he'll feel so sorry… it's so terrible what your… friend… did to him."
This subject wasn't going anywhere, Gabrielle realized, feeling the heat around them slowly increasing. Sweat rolled down her neck, and she found herself wishing she was outside, sun be darned. "Well." She chose her words with care. "That's.. just something Xena does, when she sees someone being hit.. for no reason. She doesn't like that.. and, actually, neither do I."
Leesha glanced at her. "You wouldn't have done this." She stated confidently. "You're not a warrior."
Gabrielle looked at the prone man. "That's not true." She said. "I'm not Xena, but I could do that, and I would, if I saw someone being abused."
The girl went quite still, only her eyes moving, studying the woman who sat quietly across from her, hands clasped, face set in a fiercely mature determination. The silence lengthened, then Leesha shrugged, and went back to her work. "That's not what this is. So you keep your hands off him, and tell your friend the same thing."
"All right." Gabrielle got up, finding her body almost twitching with a need to move, to pace, to relieve the frustration she felt in her failure to get through to Leesha. It was too hot inside, suddenly, and she went to the door and opened it, unsurprised at the lack of surprise in the figure seated just outside.
Xena turned her head and read the very vivid and familiar to her eyes signals of one very wound up bard. "Hi." She patted the rough seat next to her. "Join me?"
It was cooler out here, despite the sun, and Gabrielle sat down with a sigh of relief as she dangled her boots over the front of the wagon. "Xena… "
"Mm?" The warrior tucked all six sets of reins in one hand and leaned back, extending her arm across the back of the seat and coincidentally across Gabrielle's shoulders. "No good, huh? Stubborn kid?"
"Maybe you should let me have a try." The warrior suggested.
Gabrielle's blond eyebrows lifted as she gazed at her partner. "Xena, I love you, but that's one pig headed, stubborn, love blinded kid in there."
Xena's eyes took on a hint of a twinkle. "Really?"
"What makes you think she'd listen to you?" The bard asked, with a touch of exasperation.
"You did." Xena replied. "Eventually."
"Oo." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Xena, I'm being serious, and this is not the same thing."
The warrior smiled. "I know….but I also know that kid reminds you of you, Gabrielle, and you want to do what you think will help her."
"But she isn't you." The warrior went on, seriously. "Maybe what was right for you, isn't for her."
Gabrielle turned her head, and studied her partner. "Xena, being beaten up isn't good for anyone. Don't tell me it is." She remarked with asperity. "She's just rationalizing it.. like I used to. Telling herself it's anyone's fault, hers, the wine… just not his."
Xena's jaw muscles bunched, and moved, sending tiny shadows across the surface of her skin.
"There is no justification for that, and we both know it." Gabrielle went on, sighing and rubbing her temples with one hand. "Don't we?"
The warrior blinked slowly, remembering a long moment of horror waking up in a cave, with Gabrielle holding onto her, covered in her own blood that Xena knew she'd drawn. "No, you're right. There is no justification for that, Gabrielle." She murmured.
Gabrielle felt the change immediately, an echo of gray sadness that trickled through their connection that pushed the problem in the wagon out of her immediate concern. Instinctively, she laced her fingers with the longer ones hanging over her shoulder and squeezed, getting no response. "Xena, what's going on with you?"
The warrior shrugged. "Nothing.. why?"
"That's the second time you lied to me today."
The blue eyes sharpened, and drilled into her suddenly, bright and vivid, open and filled momentarily with hurt.
"Well, it is." Gabrielle gentled her tone, reaching up and touching Xena's cheek tenderly. "C'mon, sweetheart… you know that doesn't work with us, not anymore." She said. "You're in knots, and I feel it."
Sometimes, Xena sighed inwardly, she did forget. "Honestly, I think it's the heat." She glanced up. "It's getting on my nerves… and.. I don't know.. maybe that kid's reaction.. haven't seen that in a while."
Gabrielle leaned over and kissed the warrior's shoulder, giving her a one armed, but comforting hug. "Thought so." She told her. "I felt like giving her a good pinch when I saw that… she's just young, and very confused, Xe. I can imagine how I'd feel if someone just came along like that and bapped you one."
Xena's eyebrows rose immediately.
"Not that they would, or that you'd stand for it, or they'd survive the bapping." Gabrielle corrected herself hastily. "But you know what I mean."
The warrior sighed. "Yeah, I do." She relaxed a little, and stretched her legs out, then glanced at the bard. Gabrielle's skin was flushed, and as she watched, her partner ran her fingers through her hair, which was drenched with sweat. She unhooked the waterskin she'd left by her left boot and handed it over, waiting as Gabrielle unstoppered it.
Then she gave the bag a squeeze, as the water rushed out and fairly gushed over the bard's head with a splash.
"Yeow!" Gabrielle yelped, jumping in her seat and grabbing blindly for the bag. "Xena!!!" She pulled the skin out of her partner's long fingers and wrapped her arms around it, blinking the water out of her eyes and giving her partner a dire look.
Xena grinned at her. "You looked like you needed that."
Gabrielle blew a droplet of water off her nose, then grinned back. "You're right, I did." She shook a finger at her partner. "That's twice today, Warrior Princess. You'd better watch out tonight."
"Oh yeah?" Xena responded to the challenge.
The damp lips were just too tempting. Xena gave into the temptation and despite the heat, enjoyed the closeness as Gabrielle responded, chasing away the discomfort for a long string of heartbeats.
They parted, and rested forehead to forehead for a moment, before the both straightened and faced the road, which stretched on endlessly to the horizon. It was quiet, but Xena's sensitive ears caught the faint creak of footsteps behind them, moving away.
They reached the town just as the sun was setting, as the breeze finally lost it's lung searing heat and the air was just about bearable. Xena skillfully drove the horses over to an outdoor paddock, correctly analyzing the barn space and deciding it wasn’t' sufficient.
The stableman, though, knew a profit when he saw one, and came trotting over, regarding Xena with a look of wary enthusiasm. "Evening, folks.. be needing some space, will you?"
Xena launched herself off the wagon seat and landed on the ground, stretching her muscles out as she walked over to the man. "Yeah. I've only got the two." She pointed at Iolaus and Argo. "Inside if you have it. I'll take care of them. " The looked over her shoulder, to where the wagon entrance was now open, and Leesha was helping her father walk unsteadily out. "The rest of them are his."
The man studied the scene, then glanced at Xena. "Fair enough, warrior. Two dinars for your pair, with bedding and tucker." His eyes turned admiring. "Nice stock, them."
Xena knew when she was being stroked, but didn't mind in this case. "Thanks." She gave him a half smile. "Mother and son."
"Thought so." The stableman chuckled, then moved past Xena to approach the wagon. "Evening there, sir."
Xena turned to watch them, as Gabrielle came from around the other side of the wagon and joined her. The bard looked wrung out like a dish towel, and Xena felt herself wince in sympathy as she heard her partner's soft grunt of pain as she eased a knot in her back. "Glad to be standing still?"
"Ugh." Gabrielle exhaled wearily. "I asked the sentry over there to get a healer for him." She indicated the tall man, who was now sitting grumpily on the bench, holding his arm. "He was mouthing off about calling the law on you."
Xena looked at her, startled.
"I shut him up by saying I'd call the law on him, regardless of what his daughter said." The bard went on, her jaw bunching a little.
The tall man glared over the herdsman’s head, finding Xena and scowling.
"You’re welcome." The warrior drawled, returning a sardonic smile, before she dismissed him from her thoughts and turned her partner. "Bath and something cool to drink appeal to you?"
Gabrielle was watching Leesha and her father, and after a moment, she sighed and looked up. "Yeah." She agreed. "That sounds great…" The stableman swung the big gates open and started to unhitch the team, as Leesha and her father walked away, the man with an arm possessively wrapped around the girl as they headed off. "Xena…"
"Yes?" The warrior looped Argo and Iolaus’s reins over her arm and started walking towards the barn, already sure of what the bard would say. "Let me guess.. .you’ve got a bad feeling about those two."
Gabrielle watched them go a moment more, then turned and trotted after Xena, settling down next to her as they paced together. "Don’t you?"
Xena chewed the inside of her lip a bit, then glanced back over her shoulder, watching the two disappear around the corner of the inn. "Hard to say." She paused, as Gabrielle pushed open the barn door to let them in, then led the horses inside. "I think he’s outta control, yeah. That kid could be in a lot of danger."
Gabrielle walked ahead and pushed the door to a double stall open, then she started pulling hay from a bale and stocking the ragged net already hanging inside. The dry stalks felt rough and sharp against her hands, and she flexed them a little as she worked.
They went through the familiar tasks in comfortable silence, as Xena stripped the tack off the two horses and slung it over the divider wall while Gabrielle took their stuff, and carried back buckets of water she tipped into the calked wooden trough inside. Argo immediately nudged her out of the way and started slurping, and Iolaus joined her, trapping the bard between them. "Hey." She put her hands on her hips. "Is that nice?"
Argo lifted her head and pushed her muzzle into Gabrielle’s chest, dribbling water down her front with evil abandon. "Heey!!!!" The bard squealed.
Xena chuckled. "That’s my girl." She gave Argo an affectionate pat. "Tell me that didn’t feel good?"
Gabrielle took advantage of her height and scooted under Argo’s belly, giving Xena’s leg a slap as she emerged on the other side. She straightened and joined her partner as they cleaned off the animals, brushing their coats and straightening the tangles out of their manes and tails.
They could, Gabrielle acknowledged, pay someone to do this for them. They had more than enough dinars, after all. But she could see the taut lines of Xena’s frame relaxing as she went through the familiar motions, and she knew the soothing effect of the chores were worth more than anything she could have paid to have them done.
Besides, she’d learned to enjoy it too. Gabrielle stroked Iolaus’ shoulder with the brush. It was something of Xena’s love for horses she could share, and she knew taking personal care of the animals was something Xena felt very strongly about. "What a day, huh?"
"Mm." Xena knelt and examined a hoof. "Got a couple more days of this, then we’ll hit forested areas. That’ll be better."
"Yeah… " Gabrielle untangled a bit of mane. "You think those guys are headed the same way?"
The warrior stood up and juggled the brush. "Maybe." She acknowledged. "I don’t think they want company, though, Gabrielle." She said.
"No, probably not." The bard finished up, and put her tools away, slinging her saddlebag over her shoulder. "Well, I think I hear a bathtub calling me… hope they’ve got a room available, Xena, or you’re finding the nearest pond." She warned. "I just want to get clean, and curl up in a corner somewhere."
"I’d go for that myself." Xena held the door to the inn open. "You want to.. "
"Sure." The bard riffled her fingers through her hair to give it some kind of order, then stepped around her partner’s taller form and approached the innkeeper, an older woman with a wary, tense face. "Hi." She set her bags down and tugged out the small pouch she kept her coins in.
"What yer want?" The woman asked, gruffly.
Gabrielle gazed at her, cocking her head in question. "A room?" She ventured, seeing the look of suspicion remain. She held the pouch up. "I can pay for it."
That only helped a little. The woman grunted, then studied the wall for a moment, surprising the bard when her eyes darted back to her sharply. "Where you from?"
Gabrielle felt a presence at her back, but not too close, and she realized Xena had stopped to listen, hearing the woman’s tone. "Amphipolis."
Another grunt, but Gabrielle, who had years of practice interpreting grunts of all kinds, relaxed a little at the sound of this one.
"Got two. One’s a bitty thing, two racks, no bath. T’other’s a double, but it’ll cost yer."
Warm green eyes twinkled. "How much?"
The bard almost laughed. "I wouldn’t pay that in Athens." She shook her head. "Nope.. sorry. .how much is the other one?"
"Gots a big tub in t’other one." The innkeeper countered, with a sly grin.
"For ten dinars, you’d have to fill it with cold cider for it to be worth it." Gabrielle bantered back. "And have silk towels."
"C’mon.. now, pretty girl like you don’t want to be sleeping in no straw pallet.." The woman
"I’ve slept worse." Gabrielle replied. "Five dinars, and that’s dinner and breakfast too."
The bard shrugged. "Okay, what’s the other one? I don’t have all day here.. I’ve got places to go, and a partner to feed… " She heard the soft snorting chuckle from behind her and muffled a grin, as an idea occurred to her, one she didn’t usually invoke. "You wont’ mind sleeping on a pallet, will you, Xena?" She tossed back over her shoulder.
Then slid her gaze around and just caught the wide eyed, slack jawed reaction before the innkeeper covered up and coughed. "Now, what was it?" She inquired.
Furtively, the woman peeked past Gabrielle’s shoulder, then back at her. "Seven, no food."
Seven? Good grief. But the bath was tempting, and she knew Xena would probably end up on the floor rather than the short pallets, which tended to be too confining for her length. "Seven and food, and if you ask nicely, I’ll spin a few tales for the crowd in there after dinner." She held the woman’s eyes and smiled, and saw by the look in them that she’d achieved her goal.
"Robber." But the innkeeper held out a hand. "Taking advantage of an old woman like me.. you aughta be shamed, girl."
Gabrielle counted out the seven dinars and handed them over, as she felt Xena approach her from behind. The warrior laid a hand on her shoulder, and regarded the innkeeper with cool, blue eyes. "Considering you’ll make ten times that on her in there tonight, you should quit your griping." She said. "C’mon, Gabrielle. Let’s go make use of that seven dinar bathtub you just bargained for." She draped an arm over the bard’s shoulders and steered her towards the back of the inn.
The innkeeper watched them go, then turned as an older man entered, and came to her side, peering after the departing forms. "More travelers?"
The innkeeper hefted the coins in her hand, and chuckled. "Thems more than travelers, Sonje. We got us some real live ones, we do, Important folks. Listen, go over to the mill, tell that blabbermouth miller we got us a storyteller, what’s gonna be here at the inn t’night."
"Yeah?" The man wasn’t impressed. "That’s no big deal. We got them all the time."
"Not this kind." The woman shook her head. "Just go on.. tell em they don’t’ want to miss this." She gave him a shove, and got up, pocketing the coins and wiping her hands off. "And tell Stev to go tap another keg… the gods willing, we’ll need it."
Scratching his head, the man left.
The innkeepers eyes narrowed, and she laughed softly.
"So." Xena dumped another bucket into the tub. "Is this worth seven dinars?"
The bard leaned against the wood, and rested her head on Xena’s arm. "You’re more than worth it." She said with quiet honestly. "I wanted you to be comfortable, and I knew you wouldn’t in that other room, so yeah. It’s worth it."
Xena leaned her arms on the tub’s edge. "What about you?" She asked, dipping a hand in and finding the water’s temperature tolerable. "Don’t tell me you didn’t want this tub or that bed." She pointed over her shoulder to a large, fluffy piece of furniture almost as nice as the one they had at home.
Gabrielle gazed at the water, then grinned. "I sure did." In a quick motion, she shrugged out of her tunic, and already barefoot, grabbed the edge of the tub and hoisted herself over and into the water with a splash.
Xena wiped the residue off her face. "Thanks." She tossed the bucket down and unhooked her leathers, stripping out of them and letting them fall to the floor with a thud. Then she joined Gabrielle in the bath, enjoying the wonderful feel of the water cooling her skin as she submerged.
They both ducked under, then surfaced, and looked at each other. "Boy." Gabrielle gave her a frank grin. "I am so not used to being grubby anymore." She grabbed their soap and started scrubbing her arms, direly glad to get the sweat and dirt off her skin. The cool water felt wonderful, and she felt muscles sore from their long ride slowly start to relax.
"Here." Xena slid over and took the soap. "Let me do that." She tugged Gabrielle through the water until she was settled between the warrior's long legs, and started to work, rubbing the soap across the bard's shoulderblades and down her spine.
"Mm." Gabrielle slowly leaned back as the warrior's arms encircled her, and the soap traveled around her waistline and up her belly. "Hey, Xena?"
"Yes?" Xena's reply rumbled softly in her ear from very close range.
"Do you think I’m a coward?"
The warrior actually stopped washing her and peered around her shoulder, making eye contact. "What?" She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's body and rested her chin on the bard's shoulder. "What kind of question is that?"
It was a wonderfully secure feeling, Gabrielle thought, and she allowed herself to float in that for a moment before she answered. "An honest one." She murmured. "Something Leesha said… about me running away from home." Her eyes flicked to Xena's. "Was I a coward to run away from my problems like that?"
Xena's near brow lifted, tickling the side of the bard's face. "Gabrielle, are you familiar with the term 'out of the frying pan, and into the fire'?"
"Yeah." The bard drew the word out slowly.
"If you were a coward, you'd have gone running back home in less than a moon." The warrior stated evenly. "How can you even question that, after all we've been through together? How could you even think it?"
Gabrielle folded her arms over her soulmate's. "You're right." She chuckled a little. "I know I'm not.. I know I've done brave things, and faced a lot worse than my father. I was just… " She paused to consider her words. "That stung, I guess."
Yeah, it would. Xena leaned back, pulling Gabrielle with her and started a gentle light massage of the sturdy body nestled against hers. "Having them look at me like a road brigand stung too." She commented. "I think we're getting too sensitive in our old age."
Gabrielle looked at her, then started chuckling softly. "Yeah, maybe." She ran a finger along the inside of the warrior's conveniently accessible thigh, and watching the well shaped nostrils flare in response. "You're definitely sensitive."
Xena slid her hands lazily up the bard's body and traced circles around her breasts. "Wonder which one of us is more so?"
A slow smile crossed Gabrielle's face. "How about we go find out?" She felt the troubling questions fade, and the tensions of the day ease past her, and she found herself glad to simply be clean, and with Xena, and looking forward to the night.
Everything else could wait.
Xena leaned back against the wall, leaning her elbows on the worn wood arms of her chair, and sipping slowly from the mug of cool, very fragrant ale she clasped between her hands.
The room was packed, and she was glad her shoulders were braced against an open window that allowed a moderately bearable breeze into the inn. All the tables were full, and chairs had been brought in from outside, creating a bustling, overcrowded atmosphere.
The only free space, in fact, was the two chairs on either side of Xena, and the small area in the very center of the room that was currently inhabited by a fair haired, sturdily built figure who was accepting a cup from a smiling waiter as there was a break in the storytelling.
Xena smiled behind her own mug, as she watched her partner play to the crowd, capturing them effortlessly with her steadily maturing bardic skills. She could remember what it was like when Gabrielle was just starting out, and the difference between that eager, but unsure young girl, and this confident woman was striking to her eyes.
Gabrielle had chosen to wear a light, sleeveless linen tunic in rich green, that had a pattern embroidered in red and yellow across it. It was belted at her waist, and fell to her mid thigh, exposing her tanned arms and legs and contrasting with her pale hair, cut short a month or so back after the weather turned hot.
Even Gabrielle's voice had changed, Xena mused, from an adolescent warble, to the deeper, more rounded tones of adulthood. But the mischievous sparkle in those green eyes never had altered, and she still told stories with a smile playing around her lips, enjoying herself, enjoying the reactions of the crowd, telling stories as well known to her as her own name as though it were the very first time.
Of course, Xena was very aware of the attention of the crowd when it drifted to her, as Gabrielle rambled through one of their mutual adventures. Though she had shed her leathers for cloth, and was unarmed, she was who she was, and she knew they all knew it.
So she leaned back, and took a swallow of the very good ale, and quietly digested an excellent plate of beans and mutton, in portions large enough to satisfy her partner, and make Xena herself feel a little sleepy.
Or maybe it was the very long day in the heat. The warrior propped her boot up against the next chair, and let her head rest against the wall. It was nice, she decided, to be out on the road again. She'd missed being in a different place every few days, seeing new people, and having new adventures. Even if the adventures were uncomfortable, and she ended up sleeping under a bush, it still filled a quietly barren spot inside her and she couldn't deny that to herself.
"And then, Xena killed the giant."
Eyes turned her way, and Xena lifted her mug in answer, giving the crowd a gracious nod. Their eyes widened, and she grinned, silently enjoying the reaction.
"In doing that, she saved the village, and took payment for the life of Goliath, her old friend."
Yes, I did. Xena nodded a little in satisfaction. A motion caught her eye and she shifted slightly, focusing her peripheral vision while apparently keeping her attention on her partner. Leesha and her father had entered earlier, and were seated at a table near the front of the inn, keeping a slight distance between themselves and the rest of the people nearby.
Aleki was watching her, Xena realized, his dark eyes hooded and angry as he guzzled the contents of a big wooden mug. Leesha sat quietly next to him, her hands folded, outwardly disinterested, but she couldn't prevent her gaze from being drawn over and over again to the fair haired bard in the middle of the room.
Gabrielle had launched into another story, and was describing a battle. Her voice lifted and strengthened, and she used her hands to good effect as she described the scene, and Leesha's gaze became fixed and interested on her.
Until Aleki spoke sharply to her, and she dropped her eyes to the table, her thin fingers plucking at the wood of it.
Xena slowly turned her head, and waited for Aleki to look back over at her. When he did, she captured his eyes and bored her gaze into them, putting all the menace she could muster into a long, dire glare.
He jerked his head around, and looked elsewhere, a red flush spreading up his neck.
The warrior returned her attention to her partner, with a satisfied smirk on her face. Bastard. She released a long suffering sigh, then allowed Gabrielle's words to snare her in, as the bard's eyes found hers, and her face lit from within with a look of simple, but profound love.
It was the look that had always gotten to her, even from the very start, from that very first time she'd looked up from sorting dried herbs by the side of a small campfire one night to find Gabrielle gazing back at her, a forgotten quill in her hand, with just that same expression on her face.
A moment that, she knew, had changed her life, and altered her view of Gabrielle forever from being one of her life's many challenges to one of it's most precious gifts.
A soft scraping sound broke her thoughts, and she tensed a little, keeping her eyes on Gabrielle but focusing her sensitive hearing to her right. Given the crowded room, the noise would not have been unusual, but to Xena's ears, there was a furtiveness about it that immediately pricked her senses.
The sound stopped, then started again. Xena realized it was outside, and behind her, and coming closer.
Okay. So maybe a kid wanted to peek in the window.
Another sound, and now Xena's whole body shifted, her boots coming down square on the floor and her thighs tensing as she perceived the approaching figure to be larger than any child, and the soft whisper of steel against leather trickled to her ears.
Outwardly, she remained relaxed, her arms folded over her chest, leaning back against the wall. She felt the breeze stir the hair on the back of neck, sending a chill down her spine as she detected the slow, even breathing of someone not a bodylength from her, hidden from view next to the window.
Her heartbeat sped up, a rush of blood warmed her muscles, and Xena felt her breathing change from it's normal rhythm to slower, deeper breaths as her internal pulses synchronized.
She could hear the soft rasp as a palm was wiped on linen trousers, heard the deep, steadying breath.
Heard the light touch of fingertips against the windowsill just behind her shoulder.
Felt the pressure change, as the body behind her shifted, and tensed, the arm bearing the knife drawing back.
She could smell the tang of the steel, and a leather tunic stained with sweat.
Gabrielle finished her story. The crowd erupted in applause.
Xena whirled and struck, on hand smashing aside the knife streaking towards her back, the other, curled into a fist, slamming into the face that had appeared, ghostlike, behind her.
A crack. Blood spattered against the wall, and the attacker gasped, dropping the knife and bolting, his heavy footsteps ringing against the wood. Xena considered chasing him, then exhaled as he leaped on a waiting horses back, and thundered off.
Xena turned and resumed her seat, dusting her hands off against her knee and refolding her arms. Not even her closest neighbors had noticed her sudden move, they were too busy cheering on the now blushing Gabrielle.
The bard made her way through the crowd, returning compliments, and answering a few questions until she arrived at Xena's side, and slid into the chair next to her. "Whew."
"Good job." Xena nudged her mug over. "Thirsty?"
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle took a grateful sip. "Mm.. pretty good."
"Very." Xena agreed, glancing around at the excited, happy crowd. "I think you're a hit."
The bard grinned, then slid closer to her partner, leaning on the table next to her and lowering her voice. "What was that at the end?"
"What?" Xena asked, then produced a wry smile when Gabrielle just looked at her. "The jerk who tried to knife me, you mean?" She directed a thumb over her shoulder. "Didn't think anyone noticed, with that performance you were giving."
Gabrielle felt very unsettled. "They were all looking at me." She noted. "However, I was looking at you, and I almost bit my tongue off when you jumped like that." She laid one hand over the warrior's, running gentle fingers over the scrapes on Xena's knuckles. "Who was it?"
Xena picked up the mug and sipped from it. "I don't know. He rode off.. not anyone I recognized." Her nape hairs prickled, and she let her eyes slid to the right, unsurprised to find Aleki watching her, his expression dark and unreadable. "But I think I may have made a new enemy."
Gabrielle followed her gaze, while she continued her exploration of Xena's hand. "Xena, you saved his life."
"I shamed him in front of his kid." The warrior took another swallow of ale, nodding when the young server offered to refill her mug. "He wasn't there when I stopped the damn horses, Gabrielle, but he was there when I dumped him on his butt and broke his nose. Which would you remember?"
Gabrielle pulled the hand she was stroking over and kissed it, completely ignoring the looks of the patrons around them. "I would remember the good things." She glanced at the mug. "Mind if I take a sip of that?"
"No." Xena handed it over. "I got it filled for you. I"ve had enough." She said. "And we better take a different route to Athens than that bastard is.. I don't want to spend the next two weeks kicking would be assassins out of my bedroll."
The bard stuck her nose in her mug and half drained it in a series of serious gulps. Then she set the cup down, and exhaled. "Well." She propped her chin on her fist. "You don't have to worry about that, tiger."
"No, huh?" Xena smiled.
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "Because to get in your bedroll, they'd have to get past me first, and let me tell you, I don't tolerate nasty, grungy men with daggers anywhere near my furs."
Xena leaned on her arm right next to her. "The other night I was nasty and grungy, and chock full of daggers, and you let me near your mfofg." Blue eyes twinkled over the hand that covered her mouth.
Gabrielle leaned very close. "You don't count." She let her eyes rove over the bustling, and stuffy room. "Think we did our work here? My back's killing me for some reason." She released Xena's lips, and winced. "I think it was riding in that wagon."
"Yep." Xena stood up, towering over their nearest neighbors and attracting a number of covert and not so covert stares. She held a hand out to Gabrielle. "Let's get some rest. We've got a long day traveling tomorrow."
They threaded their way through the crowd, very aware of the curious, interested eyes following them until they cleared the entrance and headed down the darkened corridor beyond.
Xena woke from a vague, but very pleasant dream just a little before sunrise. She blinked her eyes open, taking in the gray, pale light that entered the window. It outlined the room, and spilled across the bed, outlining Gabrielle's bare shoulders where the light cover had slipped down a little.
The warrior spent a quiet moment studying her partner's body, wrapped around hers in a characteristic embrace. Now, it was the most normal thing in the world for her, not like the first time she'd woken up this way.
It had been a very, very cold morning, after a freezing, rain filled night that had forced them into the same sleeping furs in order to get any sleep at all. Xena had woken up with very atypical slowness, climbing up from deep, yet formless dreams and opening her eyes, to a sense of dire confusion.
It had been full daylight, for one thing, which had been shocking enough, but to find someone lying on top of her…
She'd tensed up, not really sure what was going on, half ready to leap out of the furs before her mind thawed out and she realized that warm, relaxed weight draped over her was Gabrielle.
Her young friend, who, in her sleep, had wrapped herself around Xena and was holding her in a close embrace, something that her body was rapidly starting to appreciate now that she'd cleared her mind a little.
That had shamed her, a little. Gabrielle was just a kid, after all, and she felt uncomfortable with the growing attraction she'd found herself developing for her traveling companion.
Especially since Gabrielle had shown interest in every good looking boy they'd encountered since they started off from Potadeia. Xena had known where the kid's interests were, and they certainly weren't a half crazy female ex warlord, that had seemed very sure.
Gabrielle had snuggled closer then, still asleep, and Xena'd only just kept her body still, and her hands at rest, putting a savage hold on instincts she usually allowed free rein to.
Had it been anyone else… she would have taken what she desired.
Xena had looked down at the innocent face nestled against her shoulder. But not Gabrielle. Not this feckless kid who trusted her, and believed in her.
Whose friendship had meant more to Xena than she was willing to admit to anyone, least of all herself.
No, soon enough, Gabrielle would wake up, and…
A soft sound had startled Xena and she'd looked down as Gabrielle stirred, waking in as much confusion as she had been not that long before, the happy, relaxed smile that had been on her face disappearing as she came to her senses.
"Bu.. wh.." Gabrielle had shifted her hold, then frozen in place, realizing where she was. Xena had felt her heartbeat start racing where their bodies were pressed together, then the girl had very slowly lifted her gaze, meeting Xena's eyes with a mixture of mortification and…
Xena had felt the flush even before she saw it color Gabrielle's face a deep crimson.
"I'm… I.. s..sorry.. I.." Gabrielle had whispered, quickly removing her arm from around Xena's waist and pushing herself away. "I…"
"Hey." Xena had felt compelled to interrupt the stammering. "Relax, wouldja? You're making it sound like you woke up with a hedgehog."
Still under the furs, Gabrielle had gone very still again, then allowed her gaze to creep up until their eyes met. "I… I d..didn't m.. mean to do that." She'd murmured softly, the flush still very evident on her face.
"Gabrielle." Xena had been aware of a curious mixture of feelings. "All you were doing was sleeping."
"Yeah, I know." The girl had replied. "But I know how much you hate.. being touched and I…"
Xena had heard her tone gentle. "Gabrielle.. that's not really how it is."
Innocent green eyes gazed at her. "It's not?"
"No." The warrior had shaken her head a little. "I don't hate being touched. It's just that usually anyone wanting to get that close to me wants to put a sword in my gut." She'd told the kid.
Gabrielle had thought about that, a tiny pucker forming on her forehead. "I'd never do that." She'd finally said.
"I know you wouldn't." Xena had replied. "Or I woulda left you out to become an icicle last night."
Gabrielle had relaxed a little, laying back down again, not touching Xena, but very close to her. "Thanks." She had said, hesitatingly. "You know, I.. this is weird, but..I think that was the most in one night since I left home.. I know you think it's silly but I wake up all the time because of all the noises and the.. " The girl had stopped speaking for a moment, then sighed, just a little. "Anyway. Nevermind.. just thanks." She'd looked up at Xena and smiled. "Time to get moving, huh?"
Time? Xena had glanced at the glowering sky. It had been well past time, as a matter of fact, and she'd had to admit, at least to herself…
That it had been the best damn night's sleep she'd had in years.
Ah well, she'd thought at the time. No harm done. Not like it'll ever happen again.
Yeah. Right. Xena bemusedly studied the body wrapped firmly around hers, and had to smile. Which one of them had been deluding themselves more? As she watched, Gabrielle took a deeper breath, then her eyes drifted open and tracked upward, no trace of confusion in them in this time at all.
"Time to get moving, huh?" The bard drawled softly.
"Yep." They had a long day's travel ahead of them, the road stretching through mostly wild barrens before the next stretch of civilization appeared, in fact, Xena wasn’t sure they'd cover it, and suspected they'd spend the night out in the rough.
Gabrielle nuzzled the bare surface she was sprawled over, giving Xena a little kiss just below her collarbone. "Y'know what?"
Things certainly had changed. Xena chuckled silently. "No, what?"
"I… " Gabrielle's hands explored, sliding down Xena's body and tracing a light circle around her navel. "Am having the best time on this trip."
Xena's eyebrows lifted. "Even after getting caught in the rain, sleeping under a bush in the mud, getting sick, baking to death on the road and having to spend seven dinars for this damn bed?"
The bard wrapped her arms and legs around the warrior and gave her a fierce hug. "Yep." She sighed happily. "I just love living life with you."
Aw. Xena grinned. "Likewise." She ruffled Gabrielle's hair, then scratched the back of her neck and felt her partner almost purr with pleasure. "Why don't you go wrangle some breakfast out of our friend downstairs, and I'll get us packed up."
"Okay." The bard agreed. "I'll see if I can find out which route Aleki and Leesha are taking while I'm at it." She gave Xena one last nip, then squirmed out from under the covers and headed for their saddlebags. "You really think he was the one who sent that guy after you?"
Xena slid out of bed and stretched, before she gathered their furs up and folded them. "No one else here had any reason to." She said. "That I know of."
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. "That you know of?"
The warrior shrugged a shoulder. "There's a lot of people out there with old grudges, Gabrielle." She reasoned. "Long memories.. coulda been someone who just saw me, and figured it was a good time to settle an old score." She put on her light undergarment, then slipped her leathers on over it, the armor having been scrubbed thoroughly the day before. "Guess we'll find out."
Gabrielle finished buckling the carved leather belt of her old traveling clothes. "You mean, if they try it again?" She sat down on the bed to tug her boots on.
Xena nodded, as she picked up her own boots and sat down next to the bard. "Guess we'll have to keep our eyes peeled."
The bard nodded, and stood, stamping her feet to settle the leather in place. "Could be dangerous."
"Could be." The warrior agreed, tugging on a lace.
"Just like old times." Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and smiled. "And I am going to be cool today." She told her soulmate. "Meet you downstairs?"
"You got it." Xena glanced up and watched her leave, then shook her head and chuckled as she continued her task.
The innkeeper's attitude was leagues different this morning, Gabrielle noticed. She was greeted before she could even clear the hallway, and she returned the enthusiastic wave with one of her own. "Morning."
"Well, g'morning t'you too." The woman smiled. "Some night we had last night, eh?"
Well mine was great. Gabrielle walked over and let her hand rest on one of the wooden support poles. "It turned out to be a lot of fun. I’m glad everyone enjoyed it." She replied courteously. "Well worth your discount, I think."
The woman laughed. "Too true!" She admitted. "Ye're well worth your reputation, y'know."
Gabrielle grinned. "Thanks. I try to be."
The outer door opened, and a tall, weatherbeaten man entered, with grizzled gray hair and a close trimmed beard. He approached them, and appraised Gabrielle with a pair of pale, gray eyes. "You'd be the great bard, then."
Well. Gabrielle gave a tiny, self deprecating shrug. "I'm Gabrielle." She held out a hand to him.
"Ector." He took her arm and clasped it. "I’m the village reeve." His eyes flicked around the room. "May I be having a word with ye? "
"Sure." Gabrielle followed him into the inn, almost completely empty at this hour, and settled down at the first table while he sat across from her. "What can I do for you?"
He seemed a little uncomfortable, and laced his hands together on the table, twisting his fingers. "It's like this. That pair o'folks you came in with yesterday, they aren't happy."
Gabrielle folded her own hands on the table, very deliberately, and called up the part of her that was the chief arbiter of Amphipolis. "What seems to be their problem?" She had, of course, a very good idea already, but it was always best to let the other person lay their case out how they saw it first.
"Seems like, the older gentleman.. " Ector paused slightly. "Been wanting to lodge a complaint against your friend."
"Xena." Gabrielle nodded. "For hitting him."
"It's true then?"
"Absolutely." The bard stated. "He started beating on his daughter after we saved both of them from a runaway wagon and Xena took exception to that. " She said. "I did too, but she was closer, and she's much better at that sort of thing than I am, so she stopped him." A pause. "Forcefully."
The reeve sat back, absorbing the news. "Well then." He snorted a little. "He didn't bother to be telling me that part of it.. not that I was giving him a sympathetic ear to start with, mind, the man's a pig, and thinks because he's got the dinars he can trample folks down like chaff, but…"
"Well, no." Gabrielle's lips tensed into a smile. "People usually don't tell you things against their own best interests." She considered a moment. "You weren't really going to arrest Xena, were you?"
"Psht!" Ector slapped the table. "Surely not."
Gabrielle exhaled. "Good, because we've really got to get to Athens."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." Ector leaned closer. "That bugger's from there, and from what he tells, throws some weight. He can't do jack nobbin out here in this territory to the likes of her, but there? Have a care, Gabrielle. He's a snake, and don't I know it."
Good point. "I know." The bard nodded grimly. "But we have to go, and I hope by the time we get there, he'll just have gotten over it. Xena didn't hurt him that badly."
"No, his pride more like." The reeve commented cannily.
"Mm." Gabrielle smiled at him in agreement. "Thanks for the warning."
His weathered face creased into a smile. "Least I could do - you've brightened us all up with your storytelling last night.. folks'll be talking about that all season." He paused, and went on a little more soberly. "And I had a lot of good friends who died from Andreas' lunacy.. in fact, you won't remember me, but I used to know your folks way back when, in Potadiea."
The bard's green eyes grew quiet, and thoughtful, remembering her hometown's destruction. "Ah."
His look was compassionate. "You were just a little tyke back then. I lost touch after I moved out here, but I was sorry to hear what happened. Sorry about your pa."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Me too."
"Pity he wasn't here to see you last night.. woulda been proud, I do think." Ector said. "Apple of his eye, you were."
Gabrielle smiled through the ache in her chest. Back then, that might even have been true, at least for a little while. She still didn't really know how to reconcile her feelings about her father, the conflicting emotions of love and hate never really allowing her to put to rest the painful memories of her father's abuse. "They rebuilt the village earlier this year." She changed the subject quietly.
"We heard that… good to know." Ector replied. "Lotta things going good this year, thanks to Xena. Don't think folks don’t' know it."
The bard smiled more easily, glad to switch focus to her soulmate. "I know. We'll be careful… and thanks again for the warning." She glanced over her shoulder. "I've got to go grab some breakfast, so we can get on the road… be well, Ector."
He reached over and touched her hand. "And you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle got up and headed back towards where she'd left the innkeeper, rounding the corner of the entrance and nearly plowing right into Xena, who was headed in the opposite direction. "Whoa!" She put a hand out and grabbed the warrior's arm, steadying herself as she jerked to a halt. "Sorry.. I was about to grab some…Xena?"
"You okay?" Xena asked, glancing around as though expecting bandits to jump out of the walls.
"Yeah.. yeah, I'm fine." Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair. "I was just getting some information on our friends… that's all. We ready to go? Let me grab some bread or something."
Minutes later, they were outside, where Iolaus and Argo were already packed up and waiting. Gabrielle toyed with the idea of asking her partner to start off on foot, then dismissed it for later, and hauled herself up into Iolaus' saddle, settling her boots firmly in the stirrups and arranging herself comfortably.
She'd gotten used to riding in the past year, having developed a fondness for the sometimes saucy Iolaus, and she'd even gone out with Xena on her ranging patrols around the boundaries of Amphipolis. "C'mon, boy, let's get going." She guided the animal after Argo as the started off down the road, quickly catching up so that she and Xena were side by side.
She wasn't the rider Xena was, of course. Gabrielle glanced at her soulmate, who was as relaxed in the saddle as if she was sitting in the rocking chair on their porch. The sun was already beating down on them though, and as she watched, the warrior tugged a leather clip from her pouch and put her hair back, getting it off her neck.
"The reeve was telling me about Aleki." Gabrielle commented, enjoying the slight breeze against her bare skin. She didn't wear her Amazon style garb much at home anymore, and she'd forgotten just how comfortable it could really be, especially in weather like this. "He thinks he might be trouble for us when we get to Athens."
Xena gazed thoughtfully out between Argo's ears. "Could be." She agreed. "I’m not gonna worry about it, though." She studied the ground ahead of them. "Let's cut cross country… I want to bypass the road and take a short cut."
"A short cut." Gabrielle had to smile. "Sweetheart, do you remember what happened the last time you tried a shortcut?"
'It wasn't that bad." Xena urged Argo off the road and down a small slope, towards a stretch of sun bleached fields. "We made it, didn't we?"
"Xena, we almost drowned in that swamp."
The warrior arched an eyebrow at her. "There aren't any swamps around here, so relax."
"You'll find something."
The long, bleached grass closed behind them as they left the road, and the town behind, and disappeared into the wilderness.
A week later, they sat on a ridge overlooking a forested plain, where a white ribbon of road once again intersected their path.
"See?" Xena said, smugly. "Told you it was a shortcut."
Gabrielle had one leg hooked up over her saddlehorn, and was resting her chin on her fist. "How short?" She inquired.
"Two, three days." The warrior said. "Long enough to get a head start on anyone else going the same way." She pointed. "We'll follow the river down to Athens… be easier from now on."
"Great." Gabrielle straightened, and put her boot back in her stirrup. It had been a tough week, as they'd traveled through trackless wilderness, only Xena's innate skill at navigation keeping them on the right path. It had been hot, and dry, and they hadn't seen anyone other than themselves the entire time. Food had been whatever Xena could scrounge from the scrub, and the trail rations they carried with them.
But it hadn't been all bad, the bard reasoned. Aside from the annoyance of sunburn, her body had adjusted to traveling again, raising her energy level as she became reoccustomed to being on the move all day and having to build a campsite at night.
She was tired of the heat, though, and the sand they'd been traveling through, and the thorny brush Xena's short cut had lead them into. Traveling by the river under the trees sounded absolutlely great. "Oo.. does that mean we get something other than berries and roasted grubs for dinner?"
Xena spared her a wryly affectionate look. "I'm about ready for something else myself." She admitted. "I forgot how much I hate the taste of grubs." Her hands shifted on the reins, and a light press of her calf started Argo down the slope.
"Well, we survived." Gabrielle told her diplomatically. "It could have been worse.. remember when we had to eat that snake?" She wrinkled her nose. "Ugh."
"Yeah." Xena agreed. "Though, I don't know, I think the beetles…"
"Xena." Gabrielle interrupted. "We agreed never to discuss the beetles, remember?"
"Mm." The warrior guided Argo around a dip in the ground and settled back in her saddle as she reviewed the path ahead of them. The sun was already angling to the horizon as they gained the road, and she figured they had about another hour or so's good traveling light before darkness covered them.
There were several towns along this road, she knew, and they'd be running into more of them as they came closer to Athens. This might be their last night out rough, in fact. Xena half smiled to herself as she acknowledged her mixed feelings about that, though the past week had been tough, it had also held it's share of sweet moments.
The forest slowly grew up around them, and Xena took a deep breath of the pine scented air, detecting the sharp smell of water and wildlife around them. With the sun heading towards the west, a breeze was rising, and it blew across her skin, bringing a delicious sense of relief. "Feel that?"
"Mmmm.." Gabrielle had her eyes blissfully closed. "Do I ever."
Xena glanced at her, noting that the painful sunburn had faded to a burnished gold on the bard's exposed skin. "You up for some sparring tonight?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes and blinked, in mild surprise. "Um.. yeah." She agreed, with a look of pleasure on her face. "I am.. I was thinking about that last night, but after those thorn hedges.."
Xena winced in reflex, remembering the long period of having the thorns removed from her leg after Argo had stumbled in a crab hole and almost fallen. "All right… " She stopped, hearing something coming behind them. With a frown, she turned. "Aw, Hades. Not again."
Gabrielle turned also. A cloud of dust was advancing on them. "Sheesh. Got any more shortcuts we can try?" She sighed, and moved Iolaus off the road. "At least this time they're going in a straight line on a straight road."
Xena stood a little in her stirrups, and shaded her eyes. "Waitaminute.. it's not them." She took in the unfamiliar outline. "Different kind of wagon." They stood by and waited, as a handsome team of four matched bay horses cantered proudly towards them, pulling a freshly painted wagon of a much higher quality than Aleki's.
The driver was a man in fine, white robes, with gold trim that shone in the sunlight, and as he drew closer, he slowed the horses down to a walk, and then a halt as he drew even with the two of them. "You there!" He addressed them shortly.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Hi." The bard replied politely.
"Have you seen another traveler on the road today?" The man asked. "With horses, like these?"
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "We just hit this road, and you're the first person we've seen in days."
"Very well." The man turned as the door to the wagon opened. "All is well, Demitri."
A tall, very muscular, extremely good looking, barechested man eased partway out, and observed them. "What are you doing talking to peasants? Get moving. I must have time to prepare before the games." He turned and slammed the hatch behind him.
The driver spared them another glance, then lifted the reins and slapped the horses backs smartly, making them snort as they jerked into motion and the wagon moved past, leaving them in a cloud of choking dust.
"Well." Gabrielle wiped the grime off her face and grimaced. "It's so nice to get back to civilization, huh?"
"Oh, yeah." Xena snarled softly. "If that's what we've got to look forward too, it's gonna be a long trip."
The bard frowned, then turned and studied her partner. The warrior was covered in trail dust, sure, but… "Xena, what the heck was he talking about, anyway.. you don't look like a peasant."
"Thanks." The warrior glanced down at herself. "I didn't think so, unless peasants in his part of the world are a lot more aggressive than they are in ours." She shrugged. "No sense in worrying about it.. c'mon. Let's get moving."
They started off back down the road, trailing the steadily outpacing wagon that faded off into the distance. "How obnoxious." Gabrielle said, suddenly. "I bet he thinks he's the gods gift to everyone, huh?"
"Certainly seemed to." Xena remarked.
They paced on a few more moments in silence. "You think he was cute?" The bard asked.
"Who?" Xena gave her a look. "Him?"
"Oh, c'mon, Xena."
"He was all right. Reminded me of Hercules, a little." The warrior conceded.
"Hm." Gabrielle fell silent.
Xena let the silence lengthen for a while, then she turned her head. "Why?"
"Why did you ask me that?" The warrior said, already suspecting the answer.
Gabrielle dipped one shoulder in an offhand shrug. "Oh, you know." She said. "He seemed like your type."
An eyebrow lifted over one slightly widened blue eye. "My type? Gabrielle, get out of here.. he was not."
One hand lifted and ticked off fingers. "Hercules, Ulysses, Rafe, Palimon…"
"PALIMON?" Xena burst out laughing. "Give me a break."
Gabrielle just looked at her.
The warrior sighed. "All right." She gazed down and studied her hands a moment. "You want to see an image of what 'my type' looks like?" Her voice went quiet and serious. "I can show you."
Gabrielle felt an uneasy tickle in her guts, having the distinct feeling she pushed the joke a little too far this time. "Um.. " She hesitated. "Okay." She watched Xena fish inside her saddlebag and tug out a small pouch, which she then handed over, not looking at the bard.
A disquieting wave of insecurity almost swamped her. "I asked, didn't I?" She murmured, as she curled the reins in one hand and opened the bag with the other, feeling something slim and roughly square inside. For a moment, she paused, then resolutely drew the item out, turning it over and peering at it.
Quite surprised to find herself peering back, from a silvered surface of a small hand mirror. A snort of guiltily relieved laughter escaped, as she turned her head and peeked at her partner.
Xena smirked at her.
"You're such a fink." The bard handed her the mirror back in it's bag. "You would have thought I'd learned by now."
Xena snorted. "Besides, you're one to talk." She remarked. "I can remember the days when I could tell, in the first five seconds, if it was going to be another one of those.. 'oh.. he's so cute!' scenes with you."
Gabrielle struggled to maintain a dignified expression. "Hey, I was young."
A round blue eye rolled in her direction. "Hey granny, pass the waterskin."
The bard stuck her tongue out, then uncapped the waterskin and squirted it's contents in her partner's direction. "Anything you say, tiger." She had impeccable aim, and was so close there was no way for Xena to evade the stream unless she was willing to dive off Argo's back. It hit the warrior in the side of the head and drenched her, until she whipped out a hand and snatched the bag from Gabrielle's grasp. "Ooh…. I"ll get you for that, bard."
"Promises, promises." Gabrielle grinned, enjoying the banter.
"Yeah? You just wait." Xena threatened. "Tonight.. when it's dark and you least expect it…." In a flickering motion, she reached out across the space between them and tickled Gabrielle's ribs, despite the bard's attempt at evading her. "I'll get you."
"Yeah?" The bard muffled a giggle.
Xena nudged Argo closer and reached out again, but this time Gabrielle grabbed her hand, and their fingers twined together. Xena pulled her closer and nibbled the back of the bard's hand "Yeah."
Gabrielle could feel a curious energy building between them familiar, and yet.. Her body tingled inside, and she found herself wanting the ride to be over, and it to be that dark night.
She looked over at Xena, and saw the warrior looking back at her, a faint smile pulling at her lips. Their eyes met, and she knew that Xena was feeling what she was feeling and that tonight….
It was going to be great
A hawk soared lazily over the edge of the water, it's sharp eyes searching for telltale ripples that would expose dinner he could dive on and snatch. Usually, this close to twilight, he was alone, the smaller animals tucked in the burrows asleep, and the larger resting before a long night's hunting.
This sunset, however, he had competition, two odd, bipedal creatures far too large for him to either attack, or scare off. Miffed, he soared on downriver, to less cluttered waters.
"Teach me." Gabrielle was waist deep in the current, her legs braced to keep her in place as she watched her partner fishing. "C’mon, Xena. I really think I can learn it this time."
The warrior straightened, one hand clamped around a silvery, struggling form she’d just drawn out of the river. "You do, huh??" She broke the fish's neck and threw it onshore, then held a hand out. "All right, c’mere." It would not be the first time she'd tried teaching Gabrielle this particular skill. The bard was willing, but there were just some things…. Ah well. Xena waited patiently. It never hurt to keep trying.
Gabrielle made her way out carefully into the current and took the proffered grip, coming to stand right next to Xena as the last few rays of warm sun brushed over both of them. "It’s beautiful here." She remarked, glancing around. The river narrowed into swift moving rapids where they’d chosen to stop, and was surrounded by a thick growth of pine trees. The ground was covered in springy needles, and they’d rounded up a good pile of them to put their furs on top of, clearing the earth for the fire already crackling nearby.
It was quiet, and it smelled wonderful, and now there was going to be fish for dinner. Gabrielle exhaled a little as she pressed her cheek against Xena’s damp shoulder. What more could you ask for, really? "Okay, so now what?"
"Okay." Xena crouched. "First, you get closer to the water. That should be easier for you than for me."
"Hah hah." Gabrielle bent over, and leaned her elbows on her thighs. "Okay."
"All right. Now listen."
Obediently, the bard cocked her head, then waited for several long beats. "What am I listening for?" She whispered.
"Just listen." Xena replied. "You hear the crickets?"
"Forget about them." The warrior said. "You hear the wind?"
"Forget about that too. You hear the water?"
"C’mon, Xena.. how could you not hear the water? It’s deafening."
"All right. Just listen to the water. Concentrate on it." Xena instructed patiently. This was the part Gabrielle never got past, as the bard was unable to hold on tightly enough on what Xena was trying to show her.
It was hard. Gabrielle could only hear a formless roar, and her brow puckered as she focused on it. It was just noise.. she wanted to say, but she knew if Xena had asked her to listen, there was good reason behind it, and after all, she was the one who started this. "I hear waves."
"Right." Xena slipped an arm around her back, the skin on skin touch warm and reassuring. "They have a rhythm, don’t they? Whoosh… roar.. whoosh.. roar… "
No…what rhythm.. oh.. wait. Gabrielle drew in a breath. "Yeah, they do." She lifted a hand off her knee and rocked it a little. "Back and forth.. back and forth…. Yeah." The water’s pattern infused her hearing, and now that she discerned it, it seemed so obvious.
"Okay." The warrior agreed, pleasantly surprised. "Now, focus down tighter and tighter, until all you can hear is the rhythm right here, right around you. Let the rest of it fade out." This was, she realized, further than Gabrielle had ever gotten in the lesson. Maybe it was just that they hadn't tried it in… Gods. Xena exhaled. Had it been that long? "Concentrate."
That was even harder. But now that she had an idea of what she was listening for, Gabrielle found she could, with a strong effort, do what Xena was asking her to. She let the further away sounds drift off, and concentrated on the ones very close to her.
It was like vision, in a way. You could look up, look straight ahead, and not focus on anything. You could see a wide range, but nothing really made an impact. Then you could focus on something nearby, and if you did, everything around it would fuzz out a little, and become unimportant. This was like that. Gabrielle nodded once or twice, and stared at the water, hearing now trickles and small surges instead of the far off roar. "O… kay." She murmured. "I hear just the little stuff.. .like.. " She squinted as though that would help. "Like pebbles moving around near our feet."
A grin. "Very good." Xena praised her. "Exactly. Now." She lowered her voice. "You feel the water against your legs?"
"It has a rhythm too."
Surge, whoosh. Surge, whoosh. "Yes, it does." The bard nodded solemnly. "I can feel it against my skin, like a pattern."
Gods.. I can't believe it… "Fish change that." Xena whispered, right into her ear. "They block the current, and you can feel it, then they move the pebbles and things with their fins, and you can hear it." C'mon, sweetheart.. feel it.. I know you can do it.
Gabrielle went very, very still for a long moment, her face blank, her eyes flickering back and forth across the surface as she fought to train her senses to do something new and very alien to them.
She felt the current against her, very regular. Then, suddenly, the pressure lessened against her right knee, and her eyes widened, as she heard a swift tinkle of rocks at the same time. "There’s.. " She hissed. "There’s a fish there.. near my leg.. right?"
So concentrated was she, that she completely missed the look of jubilant pride Xena visited on her. "Yeeahhh… there sure is." She bit her lip as the bard's eyes narrowed in fierce focus.
Gabrielle crouched lower, focusing on the feeling of the water against her skin. She felt a light brush, then the flow was blocked again, and before she could convince herself not to, she grabbed quickly at the spot, her fingers touching something smooth and hard then clamping down with frantic strength.
With a gasp, she jerked upright, bringing her arms out of the water and staring at them in total disbelief, barely hanging on to the large trout struggling fiercely in her hands. "Oh… .my…. gods…." Her eyes widened incredulously. "Xena.. Xena look!"
A soft chuckle. "I see." Xena replied. "Good job, Gabrielle."
"I did it." The bard turned and looked at her in total amazement. "Xena, I did it!"
The warrior started laughing. "Yeah, you sure did.. now let’s get outta here before you lose your grip on him, okay?" She caught Gabrielle around the waist and started leading her out of the water, while the bard maintained her death grip on the still struggling trout. "Nice size, too." She complimented her partner.
Gabrielle was still dumbfounded, trusting her partner to guide her out of the water while she stared at her catch. "Xena, I caught a fish in my hands."
Xena kissed the back of her neck. "Yes, you did." She said. "And boy, am I ever proud of you for it."
The bard stopped walking and turned her head, all the wonder of the moment still in her eyes. "I can't believe I did this." She said. "Do you know how long I've wanted to be able to do this, Xena? Ever since I saw you do it the very first time. I said.. wow…that is so cool."
Xena just smiled at her.
A tiny shake of Gabrielle's head. "But why now? I don't get it.. we've tried this dozens of times."
The warrior lifted a hand and touched her cheek, cupping it gently. "Maybe it was just time." She said. "Maybe you were just ready now."
Gabrielle inhaled, then exhaled, shaking her head a little and smiling. "Maybe." She laughed. "But that was so cool… thanks, Xe."
"It was pretty amazing for me too." Xena admitted, inclining her head and kissing the bard's lips gently. "You're the first person I've been able to teach that to, y'know."
Gabrielle blinked. "Really?"
Xena slid a bare arm around her shoulders and they continued walking towards the fire. She bent down and retrieved their other fish, then exhaled. "Really. Not that.. " She shrugged a little. "Wasn't something I tried to teach a lot.. but the couple times I did.. never worked out."
Gabrielle gazed at the trout. "Until now." She murmured, reliving the moment in her mind. "Wow." A pause, then she turned her head. "You have to eat this one."
"I'm not kidding.. I used to.. oh, gods, this is so embarrassing, but I used to have daydreams about being able to just come up to you one day, and hand you a fish for dinner." The bard told her. "So this one's yours, okay?"
"Okay." Xena agreed. "Tell you what, let me clean these, and you dry off."
Somewhat reluctantly, Gabrielle handed the fish over, then walked to her saddlebag and removed a piece of linen she quickly ran over her body. She threw a shift on, then grabbed her diary and sat down on a rock, removing a quill and her pot of ink and flipping the bound volume open to a new page.
Xena set the fish down on a flat rock and took a moment to dry her own body off and don a nightshirt before she removed her knives from her kit and set to work. After a moment, she looked up, to find Gabrielle looking back at her through the flames, with an indescribable expression on her face. "What?"
Gabrielle's face relaxed into a dazzling smile. "Nothing." She put her diary away and walked over, seating herself on a rock behind where the warrior was kneeling. As Xena started in again on the fish, she laid her hands on her back, and began a light massage, feeling the strong muscles shift under her touch. "Know what I think I'll do?"
"What?" Xena let her eyes close, her hands moving by rote as she submitted to her partner's knowing touch.
"Wrap those suckers up and slow bake them." Gabrielle worked her way slowly up Xena's spine, spreading her fingers out and working out the tension she could feel under them. "I've got those spicy herbs you like."
"Yeah?" Xena finished her task and looked back over her shoulder as she put her tools away. "Let them cook while we spar?"
Gabrielle nodded, removing one hand from her rubbing to trace a gentle line across the warrior's cheekbone. "After that fish, I’m feeling pretty invincible.. maybe I"ll luck out and beat you tonight."
Xena's eyebrow lifted with devastating impact, making Gabrielle simply grin in response. The warrior turned and rose, dusting her hands off. "Put em up, while I get the staves. That challenge I just can't pass up." She tweaked Gabrielle's nose before she stepped past her, heading for their gear.
Gabrielle chuckled to herself as she picked up the fish and carried them to the fire, then pulled her cooking kit over. She removed two pieces of tattered parchment she'd saved for just this purpose and laid the fish on top of them, then dusted them very liberally with the herbs she knew her partner enjoyed.
Satisified, she then took a handful of wild grain and tucked it inside each fish before she folded them closed, and wrapped each in the parchment. Once that was done, she edged closer to the fire and carefully dug into the earth almost beneath it, putting the fish inside and covering it over The heat would be, she judged, more than enough to cook the fish through and soak the grains with their juices, making a tasty dinner for the two of them after they finished their bout.
Now. Gabrielle leaned back on her heels and looked around, spotting Xena nearby in a clear space, one of their staves in hand. The warrior was casually warming up her body, sliding the staff across her shoulders and twisting her long frame to loosen up her muscles. Put your dinars where your mouth is, bard, and go to it.
She got up and dusted her hands off against her thighs, walking over to where her own staff was lying in the grass and retrieving it. The wood felt warm, and balanced in her grip, and she, too, took the time to warm up as she walked in a slow circle around her partner.
They watched each other in comfortable silence, letting the setting sun paint lurid stripes across the ground and their bodies as they moved around each other. As if on a signal, they both stopped, and came to balanced stances facing each other. Gabrielle drew in a breath, and released it, moving that part of her mind into the place it had to be for her to wield a weapon, especially against this particular opponent.
Xena, of course, had no such need. She simply waited, watching, her hands lightly clasped around her staff, eyes flickering over the bard's body in anticipation of her slightest move.
Gabrielle waited a moment for her balance to settle, then she went into motion, closing with Xena in a blur of moving wood and quick footwork.
The rattle of their staves meeting sounded sharp and fierce, and the bard whirled and ducked under the end of Xena's weapon as she spun in the opposite direction, catching Xena on the shoulder but not before she felt a tap on the back of her leg. She didn't even pause, but went into another attack, using her speed and the shorter arc of her swing to keep Xena offbalance while she worked out how to get around the warrior's superior reflexes and greater strength.
A year had made such a difference. Gabrielle knew that now she could claim without hubris her own mastery of the quarterstaff, and in fact, the Amazons readily bowed to her and begged at regular intervals for lessons. A year of intensive, one on one bouts like this with Xena, who had honed Gabrielle's skills to a point where even the warrior had trouble winning against her.
She was fast, and she was strong, and with Xena, she could pull out all the stops and go full out, her hands moving so fast they were a blur even to her own eyes. Fiercely, she concentrated on the rhythm she knew worked best for her, short motions that gave her the advantage as Xena's counterstrikes opened up areas on her partner's long torso for her to attack that simply did not exist on Gabrielle's more compact frame.
"Ah hah!" She chortled, digging in and throwing her weight abruptly in the other direction, almost… gods, almost getting the damn staff out of Xena's hands. She took advantage of the warrior's swift recovery by slamming her staff against the back end of Xena's, then, as Xena recoiled, she set herself and whipped around in a roundhouse kick, this time feeling very sweet success as she saw the warrior's staff go flying.
Anyone else… they'd be toast. Gabrielle scrambled to follow up her advantage but she was moments too late as Xena simply uncoiled into a leap that regained the staff in mid air, then tumbled into a flip in mid air. The next moment she was sliding back in a defense as Xena slapped her staff back from mid air, turning and twisting and presenting an impossible target as the warrior landed, and leaped again and…
Gods! Gabrielle dove under the attack, rolling and coming back up and managing not to trip on her staff as she brought it around just in time to counter a series of cross strokes that backed her up several paces before she could bear down, and let the force roll off the top of the staff, and regain her balance. She ducked under a stroke, then turned and whipped her staff upward, meeting Xena's downward strike as she fell to a knee and the warrior leaned over her.
Wild, glinting blue eyes bored into hers, and a mischievous grin appeared.
Gabrielle felt the thrill of the challenge hit her right in the gut, a fire that called up her competitive spirit, and sent a yell from her throat as she surged up off the ground and incredibly… shoved Xena back just enough for her to escape under the warrior's right arm and spin, whirling her staff towards Xena's and loving the smack as their weapons met again, and again and again, powerful strokes that sent shocks down her forearms and into her shoulders.
Xena was stalking her now, her nostrils flared and sweat starting to rise on her skin. She countered a tricky double sweep and dodged to one side as the bard circled her again, trying to get behind her.
They paced around each other like two jungle cats, Xena all smooth motion and power, Gabrielle all bounce and grunting effort. Staves met again, and again, as they traded blows, and the bard threw in a combination Xena wasn't expecting, allowing her to get inside the warrior's guard. She took advantage of every moment, forcing the warrior back until she finallly got a serious advantage, having Xena offbalance and her staff out of position.
It didn't happen often. She could count on the fingers of one hand how many times she'd gotten the better of her soulmate in the entire year they'd been home, and they sparred almost daily. But it was always sweet when she did, and Xena had finally thumped her out of the habit of refusing to take advantage of it when it did happen.
So now she did. She stopped in mid motion and reversed her swing, and took the staff right out of Xena's hands, then spun around and sent the other end of her staff right at the warrior's head.
Only to have her motion arrested in mid swing, stopping her as though the staff had impacted against the tree Xena was standing in front of. It threw her off balance and she tried to stop her motion, twisting her body around painfully as her staff was ripped out of her hands and tossed in the opposite direction.
Centaur farts. Gabrielle gathered herself and met the grappling hands she knew would come next, as her body collided with Xenas and they struggled to get hold of each other. Their feet entangled, and they tumbled to the ground, fighting for a decent grip.
Here, Gabrielle knew she was at a disadvantage, because strong as she was, she was no match for Xena and she knew it. The only hope was to escape, and escape she did, wrenching loose and rolling away in a ball, only to leap to her feet and whirl, as Xena pounced.
She dodged, and spun, but Xena anticipated her every move and before she could set herself, she was engulfed by long arms and was falling again, landing with a thump with the warrior firmly on top of her.
Struggle? Gabrielle could feel the increased heartrate against her fingers where her hands were pressed against Xena's chest, and felt her own heart pounding in her ears. She opened her eyes and found herself nose to nose with Xena's sweaty visage, and decided she'd had enough for one night. Instead of pushing her back, she took handfuls of Xena' s shirt and pulled her closer, lifting her head and brushing her lips against the ones so invitingly nearby.
She felt Xena's breath, warm and sweet, trickle between hers, and the soft chuckle as the warrior returned the kiss with a firmer pressure. When they broke off, she gazed up into Xena's face, drinking in the strong planes with loving eyes. "Give up?" She asked, cheekily.
"Give up?" Xena drawled softly, lowering her body to press lightly against the bard's "Or?"
"Or I'll have to get rough with you." Gabrielle warned, then took a breath and heaved with all her strength, twisting her body and pushing sideways, giving it everything she had as she somehow managed to flip them both over and she ended up sprawled on top of the warrior. "See?" She gasped, quickly collecting herself and pinning Xena's shoulders down with her weight on both hands. "You're mine, tonight."
A tiny hint of a smirk tugged at Xena's lips, and Gabrielle could see the mind behind the baby blues sorting over her options and deciding whether or not to go along with the bard's claim.
And, of course, Gabrielle knew it was the warrior's choice. Knew that even though she was perched here, ostensibly the victor of their little tussle, she'd won because the warrior had allowed it. At one time, that knowledge would have burned in her guts, making her angry and frustrated.
Now, she just accepted it for the truth, and waited to see what Xena was going to do.
The blue eyes softened. "I'm yours." Xena agreed quietly. "You won, fair and square."
Fraud. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her, enjoying the sensation of being in control nevertheless. She slipped the warrior's shirt up and concentrated on the sensitive spots on her partner's body she knew as well as she did her own.
It was a heady sensation, always, to feel Xena's breathing go ragged under her touch, and hear the soft, almost subvocal sounds her attentions wrested from the warrior's throat. She put her fishing lessons to good use and focused down, allowing the surrounding tall grass to fade out, and the sounds of twilight to vanish.
All she could see was the expanse of tanned skin as she allowed herself to feel, all the way down, the incredible depth of their love, pulling it up and centering her awareness on that, as she touched, and nibbled, and teased a groan from her partner's guts.
The intensity centered, and built and she let it spill out through the connection they had with each other, pouring out all the emotion, and all the wonder she had in her as Xena''s hold on her tightened and she felt the warrior tense, a rush of sensation coming back at her through their link in a dizzying flow as she let her knowledge of her partner's body loose.
It was like riding down a waterfall, and as Gabrielle slid upward, and their lips met again, she felt like she was going to explode. Then Xena's touch claimed her, almost making her pass out as a wave of intensity surprised her with it's suddenness.
Then she was collapsing against Xena's chest, shaking a little, as the warrior wrapped arms and legs around her as they lay still in the sweet river grass, letting their tingling bodies relax, and their hearts slow down.
"Whoa." Gabrielle blinked.
"Mm." Xena grunted. "Damn, I'm gonna have to let you win more often."
The bard chuckled weakly. "Fink ." She felt the rumble as Xena laughed with her, and they both sighed deeply at the same time. "Xe?"
"Hm?" Xena's hands were now rubbing Gabrielle's skin gently.
"Thanks." The bard hugged her. "You made it a darn near perfect day."
Continued in Part 4