A Matter of Pride
The town loomed on the horizon, and Ephiny found herself grateful in the extreme to see it. She wiped the sweat off her brow, and stretched her arms out, working a kink out of her back and reflecting that she certainly wasn’t getting any younger. They'd been traveling the road all day, working their way through the gradually increasing crowds, and everyone, it seemed, was more than ready to stop and rest.
"Decent looking place." Eponin gestured ahead of them. "Think they've got an inn?"
"Ungh." Ephiny grunted.
"Hope they got rooms."
Ephiny glanced behind them, to where the wagon was rumbling in their wake. Far from being argumentative today, the elders had seemed to succumb to the heat, and the dust of the road, and were sitting in morose silence with arms shading their heads from the sun. Cyrene was in her place on the driver's seat, and she had Dori cradled in her arms, the baby taking a blessedly long nap for a change. "Me too." The Amazon sighed. "Though to be honest, I'd be happy to drop this lot off in town, and find myself a nice, quiet tree to sleep in."
"Mm." Eponin's turn to grunt. "I dunno. Eph.. remember what happened to Gabrielle last time SHE slept up in a tree."
Ephiny blinked, then glanced at her. "She had help."
Eponin looked back innocently.
"You volunteering to figure out how they did that?" Ephiny asked, jokingly. "I’m sure if you ask tall, dark and dangerous she'd be glad to give you pointers."
The older amazon peered at her uncertainly, not sure if she were joking or not.
"I'm kidding." Ephiny slapped her shoulder. "I’m reconciled to doing it the old fashioned way." She sighed, and looked ahead, where the first outbuildings of the town were now almost even with them. Kids were a touchy subject between them at the moment, since half a moon prior, when Ephiny had lamented once too often how much she missed Xenon, and wished he could stay with them.
"So," Eponin had said. "Let's have one."
One what, Ephiny had wondered, for a few seconds, then realized what her partner was suggesting She'd paused a moment, trying to compose a suitible negative response, and by the time she'd opened her mouth, what actually had come out was "Okay."
Okay. Ephiny drew in breath of the hot, dusty air. Wasn't unusual, after all. Amazons did it all the time, trading a night's pleasure with some carefully selected man for an addition to the tribe, hopefully a little girl. That was how they grew, after all, and had done so for generations.
She understood that, being the Regent, and in fact, she'd been chastised by the elders not a moon before for not giving her own contribution to the tribe's future.
Xenon didn't count, of course. Ephiny scowled a little, and kicked a rock that skittered down the road in front of her. How many Amazons still looked askance of her, even now, because of that?
As many as looked askance at Gabrielle, she acknowledged bitterly, for choosing Xena, and bringing the warrior into the tribe as her consort.
Well, the heck with them. Ephiny straightened her shoulders. They were gonna do it. She snuck a glance at Pony, who was strolling along, her hands clasped behind her back, eyes watching the surroundings with casual alertness. The only thing left to decide, of course, was which one of them was.. er… gonna do it.
The regent looked to her right to see Cait at her side. "Yes?"
"Do you see those men watching us?"
Ephiny's eyes flicked up the, back to Cait's face. "Yeah."
"I don't much like them." Cait said, seriously. "Do you?"
The group had been standing next to what appeared to be a communal barn, leaning against it's surface and idly talking to each other. They appeared, to Ephiny's eyes, just a regular group of townies, dressed in rough, worn tunics and boots, unremarkable in any way she could tell. "Maybe they're just not used to seeing Amazons." She told Cait. "Not many tribes in these parts, remember. We're probably a little exotic to them."
A little? Ephiny dusted off some trail dirt off her copper wristlets, and smoothed back a feather hanging from her bodice. They were all dripping with weapons and Amazon rank badges, and she was very well aware of the spectacle they presented. In addition, Paladia's towering height, and Cait's blade slim, and pale haired striking looks also guaranteed them notice as they traveled.
"That's so." Cait agreed, reluctantly. "I still get an itch about them, though. I think we should keep an eye on that lot."
"You do that." Ephiny gave the young girl a tolerant grin. "More trouble we sure don’t need on this trip."
"You can certainly say that again." Cait nodded fervently. "Gosh, but I didn't think Dori could quite take off on that horse, did you?"
Ephiny gave Eponin a glare. "We never would have known if someone hadn't had the bright idea to put her on it's back, now would we, Poopoo."
'Hey!" Eponin scowled. "Don't call me that! Wasn't my fault! You said to get her up out of the mud, didncha?"
Ephiny cut off her response as they entered the town, and headed through a small marketplace towards a two story inn she could see behind it. They passed by the watching group, and she kept an eye on them from the corner of her peripheral vision, but they seemed to ignore them after they'd passed, and she dismissed the scruffy bunch, concentrating on reaching their objective.
The inn courtyard wasn't as busy as she feared, and Ephiny felt a sense of relief come over her as she lead the party forward, reaching out to hold the cheekpiece of the lead horse as the wagon slowed to a halt. Cyrene got down, and walked stiffly forward, pausing beside her.
"Here." The innkeeper handed Dori over. "I'll go get us some rooms."
Ephiny found her arms full of slightly squirming toddler. "Um… " Dori's eyes opened and peered up at her, and the small brow puckered in displeasure. "Hey, kiddo… how are ya?" She rocked the toddler a little as Cyrene disappeared into the inn.
Dori turned her head and peered around. "Mama?" Her voice called out, plaintively.
Ephiny winced, a little. "No, honey.. mama's not here. We're going to go find her, remember?"
A pout. "W..want mama." Dori complained. "Want Boo!" She wriggled unhappily. "Mama!!!!"
The Amazon flinched at the volume, which nearly blew the feathers off her leathers. "Shh… shh.. take it easy, Dori.. we're going after Mama, honest. Fast as we can." She attempted to soothe the angry child. "Just a couple more days, I promise, okay?" She struggled to hold on to the actively moving body, which was strong out of proportion to it's size, and completely in character with it's parentage. "C'mon, sweetie…be nice to old Auntie Ephiny, huh?"
"Bck." Dori stopped struggling, and scowled. "Want mama.. no good mama go bye, take Boo."
Eponin snickered, covering her mouth with her hand, which earned her a dour look from her lover. "Sorry." The weapons master cleared her throat. "She talks like that, and when I realize she's talking about Xena, I just have to crack up."
Dori sighed unhappily. "Want Boo." She repeated, in a softer voice. "Love Boo."
Ephiny felt a pang in her chest at the words. "I know you do, little one." She cradled Dori. "Boo loves you too, so don't you fret, okay? We're gonna find Boo and Mama real soon now."
Clear, green eyes peered up at her for a moment, then Dori smiled, her snub nose wrinkling up in an expression so in Gabrielle's image, it charmed Ephiny to the core, and made her return an equally warm smile. "What a cutie you are." She told the toddler. "Just like your mama."
"Mama." Dori stuck her thumb in her mouth and sucked on it, satisfied for the moment apparently. Ephiny sighed in relief, as the rest of the Amphipolis elders climbed out of the wagon and moved towards the inn. "Pony, see if you can get stabling for the horses." She jerked her chin towards the barn. "Doesn’t' look too busy here, maybe we'll get lucky and they'll have enough rooms."
Cyrene slipped out of the door at that moment, and held it so the elders could move past her. "All set." She announced briskly. "They've got six rooms, I took all of them." She dusted her hands off on her traveling tunic, then walked over to where Ephiny was. "Not the best, not the worst, but I think the food won't kill any of us." She tickled Dori's foot. "And by the gods, they've got a bathing room."
"Thank you." Ephiny imagined the touch of warmed water, and soap, after the last four days of cold streams and earthen beds. She handed Dori back to her grandmother as Eponin led the horses off. "I could use something cold to drink.. care to join me?"
"Let me go change her." Cyrene sighed, hefting the toddler in her arms. "Great gods, she's getting big, isn't she? Look at her." She held out one of Dori's long legs.
"Well.." Ephiny smiled at Cyrene.
"I know. I know." The innkeeper turned and walked towards the inn. "I've only myself to blame, is that it? "
Ephiny chuckled, and followed her, with Cait and Paladia right behind her. "I think I'll keep my own council about that one, thanks." She held the door open, and glanced back over her shoulder, where Pony was making her way towards the barn, with Johan's stocky form next to her. The sun was going down, and a somber, smoky peace was settling over the village.
Looks like we're heading for a peaceful night for a change. Ephiny thought, with satisfaction. "Just what we needed."
She followed Cait inside the inn and let the door close behind her.
Gabrielle pushed through the crowd this time, trading politeness for expediency as she hunted out the herbalist's booth again. She was worried about Xena now, knowing the warrior's mental spirits would be sinking to an all time low, and she cast her mind around, trying to think of something she could bring back that might cheer her soulmate up.
Passing a colorful stall, she stopped short, and cocked her head. On the shelves before here were spread a myriad of wooden games and puzzles. "Ah hah." Gabrielle smiled, as she picked among them. One was a tilted board with a maze and a weighted, round wood pellet to guide along it's path, and another was an intricately interlocking latticework to be taken apart. "I'll take these." She handed them to the young woman behind the table. "Do you have any more like… "
"We've got this." The girl had been watching her intently, and now she brought out a beautiful, mahogany ball ."There's a treasure inside, if you know how to find it."
Gabrielle touched the surface, it's warmth gathering in the light and almost glowing. She could barely see any lines of joining on it, and the whorls and natural shadings of the wood obscured even those. It would probably be a bear to figure out.
Xena would love it. "I'll take this too." Gabrielle said, quietly. "It's gorgeous."
"Thanks." The girl's eyes twinkled with pride. "I make them."
The bard blinked in surprise, since the young face across from her seemed barely more than a child. Well, isn't that hypocritical of you? Her conscience mocked her. "Wow." She grinned at the merchant. "Great work!" She extended a hand. "What's your name?"
"Elise." The girl took Gabrielle's arm and clasped it. "What's yours, and where are you from?"
"Gabrielle." The bard answered. "And I’m from Amphipolis."
The girl's face froze into a wide eyed look, then she carefully studied Gabrielle up and down before she leaned forward, and lowered her voice. "Are you 'the' Gabrielle from Amphipolis? The bard?"
Gabrielle also leaned forward, and lowered her own tones. "Yeah." She whispered. "Weird, huh?"
Elise giggled. "Can I have your autograph?"
Gabrielle blinked. "My what?"
"You know, can you sign your name for me on something, so I can show all my friends?" The girl asked, with a charming, somewhat sheepish grin. "They won't believe it, otherwise."
"Um." Gabrielle was almost dumbstruck. "Sure, I guess.. but… " She started laughing a little.
The girl turned, and started rummaging around in one of her boxes. "I guess you're here for the bard's competition, right? That's so cool. I can't wait to tell my friends… some of the stuff they've been doing this year is so.. like, dry, you know?" She pulled out a scroll, and a quill and ink from under her counter. "This is one of yours.. it's my favorite. Hey.. " She stopped in mid motion, as a thought struck her. "Does that mean Xena's here too?"
"Um… yes. " Gabrielle took the quill from her and examined it. "That's who the puzzles are for, as a matter of fact.. but I …"
"No? Yeah?" Elise's voice rose into a squeak. "For real?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle started laughing helplessly, totally unsure of how to react to the sight of the girl's dance of joy. "Um… Elise?"
"That is SOO COOL." She handed Gabrielle the scroll. "Oh, man.. you have no idea."
"I think you're right." Gabrielle scratched her ear, then shook her head as she signed her sigil on the bottom of the scroll. "So you don't like the plays they've been doing?"
Elise rolled her eyes. "Oh, please." She fanned herself with a bit of cloth. "They're like, for my mother, you know?" She pranced around, now attracting the attention of the nearby stall minders. "All "Oh, Mighty Athena, bring your glory down on us and save the wheat!" She turned and regarded Gabrielle. "And the armies. They all have armies this year, with all these big, hunky guys who all smell bad, stomping around on stage and farting. I ask you. Is that cool?"
The bard snorted, and covered her mouth hastily, as a laugh bubbled up. "No, that's not cool." She gasped out. "But they can't all be that bad.. c'mon. They've got some talented people doing this stuff."
Eliese sighed. "No, yeah, that's true, I guess. It's just that all we've been hearing for like.. half of forever is this stupid bard's contest, and who's going to be in it, and what they're doing… it's so boring!" She lowered her voice again. "So.. how come we didn't hear you were going to be here? For sure, like, everyone would have been talking about that.. my girlfirend Janie is a student up at the Academy, and she'd have said, like right off."
Ah. "Well… " Gabrielle considered her answer. "I didn’t know about it, for one thing. We live pretty far from here." She drew a breath to continue.
"And for another, she wasn't asked." A loud voice cut through her thoughts, grating on her nerves. Gabrielle turned, to see Celesta standing there, an unmistakably vicious look on her face.
"So that’s who you are, huh, country cousin?" The taller woman rasped. "Well, well."
Gabrielle felt her nape hairs prickle, and she straightened up, tilting her chin up and squaring her shoulders. "That's who I am, yes." She answered, giving Celesta a direct stare. "And I was asked." She added quietly, aware of the sudden silence around them.
"Were you?" Celesta asked, sauntering closer. "And if you're smart, you'll have said no."
Gabrielle held her ground. "Why would I say no? " She countered. "Being from the provinces… " A touch of a drawl entered her tone. "Why wouldn't I look forward to performing here in the capital."
"Because you'll look like an idiot." Celesta told her bluntly.
"I have before." Gabrielle smiled. "But I guess we'll find out, won't we?"
The taller woman closed in on her, and it was all Gabrielle could do not to shove her back as Celesta invaded her personal space to an extent she didn't allow anyone else except her family. Deliberately, though, she slowed her breathing, and chanted her Xena mantra in her head to maintain her calm facade
"Now, you listen, my provincial friend." Celesta purred. "I don't care who you are, or what you've done, or how many of your little stories are floating around the commoner 's taverns. Keep out of my way, and stay out of that contest, or you'll really, really regret it."
Gabrielle took a breath. "Is that a threat?"
"Yes." Celesta told her evenly. "And I will make good on it." She stared right into the bard's eyes. "Believe me."
Back down? Hit her? Gabrielle leaned closer, surprising Celesta. "If I were you." She remarked, in an almost conversational tone. "I would think very carefully about that."
Celesta laughed. "Oh, you think your great reputation frightens me? That I should be scared off by your 'bardic' talent?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
"No." Gabrielle replied, then blurred into motion, releasing her screaming instincts and reaching up to grab Celesta by the neck of her robe, turning and spinning them both and pulling the taller woman down over her knee. She twisted her fists in the fabric, holding the Athenian bard still as she bent over her. "My storytelling reputation never scared anyone. On the other hand… She tightened her fists "My title of Queen of the Amazons should make you think twice before you try something really stupid."
Celesta struggled fiercly, her arms straining against Gabrielle's grip. "Let me go." She growled.
But the bard merely smiled gently at her, and didn't budge an inch. Finally, Celesta stopped fighting her, and let go of the Gabrielle's powerful wrists. Only then, did Gabrielle stand in a fluid motion, pulling them both up , and release her. "Aren't you late for your rehearsal?" She remarked pointedly, giving Celesta a direct stare.
"You will so regret that." Celesta said, before she turned and strode off, her robes flapping in the hot wind.
Gabrielle felt her legs start to shake as her body released itself from the impending threat of battle, and she leaned against a nearby stall pole as her heartbeat slowed and steadied. She was well aware of the crowd around her, and the eyes that almost went through her with their intensity. Slowly, she gathered her composure around her before she lifted her eyes, and returned Elise' s gaze from across the counter.
The girl's expression was…
Indescribable. Gabrielle shivered a little in it's wondering adoration, and resisted the urge to look behind her to see what the girl was looking at. "So anyway." She managed to get out in a normal tone. "How much did you want for these?" She pointed at the puzzles.
Without a word, Elise put the puzzles in a soft, cloth bag and handed them to her, closing her fists and shaking her head when Gabrielle went for her belt pouch.
"No, I can't do that." Gabrielle disagreed. "They're your work, and I know they must have taken you a long time." She took out some coins. "How much?"
"Man…. " The young man in the next stall finally spoke " You are the real thing, aren't you?"
Gabrielle glanced at him in puzzlement, then patted her self. "Sure, I'm real." She replied. "What's your point?"
The man shook his head. "That's why your stuff is so good." He said. "Cause you don’t' just write about it. You do it." A low murmuring whisper went up in the crowd, as they started to move on, eyes remaining on Gabrielle as they slowly dispersed.
The bard felt a little unsettled. "Well, yeah, I guess." She murmured.
"That bitch is bad news." Elise told her, finally breaking her silence.
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "That's probably very true." She agreed.
"Aren't you.. like, at all scared?" Elise asked, in a wistful , but awed tone.
"No." Gabrielle had to chuckle a little. "She may be bad news, but I live with worse." A breath. "Now, how much?" She felt her equilibrium returning, and had to give herself a little pat on the back on dealing with Celesta.
At least she wouldn't have to go watch her darn rehearsal now.
But it did add another layer of difficulty to their problems. Gabrielle sighed. At the rate she was going, maybe it would be easier to set the city on fire and just run.
Xena had just managed to doze off again when she heard another set of footsteps approaching. Wearily, she let her eyes flutter open, but a moment later her ears recognized the sound and it brought a faint grin to her face. She spent a moment imagining Gabrielle's approach, and the look on her face when she spotted the edge of the chakram poking out of the door's surface.
Sure enough, the bootsteps stopped short just outside the door with a rasp of leather soles against the wood floor, then a very faint sound between a snort and a cough came faintly to her ears. A soft tinkle of broken pottery and a slight scuff meant Gabrielle had to clear whatever it was that broke out of her way, then the door latch worked and the door opened, creaking slightly on it's hide hinges as Gabrielle poked her head inside. "Hi."
"Hi." Xena answered.
The door opened all the way and Gabrielle entered, a sack slung over her shoulder in addition to her carry bag. She paced across the room, stopping to put the bag on the table, then continued on to the bed and crouched next to it. "How are you feeling?"
Icky. Xena shrugged one shoulder in answer.
The bard laid a hand over her forehead, and grimaced a little. "Not too good, honey. " She glanced over her shoulder. "Wasn't the doorknob enough for you?"
"Someone was bothering me." Xena said, with a touch of petulance.
A sigh. "No, sweetheart, that was Mikah bringing you soup." She advised her soulmate. "You probably scared him out of six seasons of growth."
The dark brows knit. "Oh." Xena managed a sheepish expression without moving a muscle. "Sorry." She added. "Wasn't expecting visitors."
"Well, at least he knocked first." Gabrielle sighed. "That could have been catastrophic, and we don't need any more issues, if you know what I mean."
Xena's eyebrows lifted. "Now what?" She asked. "You didn't knock over more carts, did you?" She joked, laying a hand on the bard's thigh and running the edge of her thumb over the muscles she could feel just under the fabric. "Gabrielle, the Terror of Potadeia."
Gabrielle chuckled in reflex. "No." She sighed. "I didn't, but I did run into Celesta, and my identity got blown."
"Yeah, that's how I felt about it. I went over to the games master too, since I was near there, and signed us up." Gabrielle went on. "For two really good reasons."
Xena lifted an eyebrow at her.
"One, because the deadline was sundown." Gabrielle told her wryly. "And two, because when you do that, you get issued a bed in the games compound."
The eyebrow twitched higher. "What, don't you like our fancy accommodations here?' The warrior inquired.
"Mm.. no comment, but you'll like the ones there a lot better." The bard patted her arm. "Trust me." She spared a thought for the cool stone building she'd examined, finding her way through a maze of hallways to where the games participants were quartered, spread over and around a wide, breezy courtyard.
It wasn't luxury, exactly. The yard had been full of sweaty, grunting bodies and she'd been jostled more than once by uncaring, oblivious people as she'd searched for the glyph matching the one on the scrap of parchment they'd given her, but she'd finally found it, and peeked inside the door.
Heh. "So, let's get packed up, and move on over there, partner." Gabrielle advised her. "Maybe we can get settled while the rest of that…bunch… is having dinner."
The thought of getting up and moving didn't agree with her. Xena exhaled wearily and tried to gather up a few reserves. Maybe it would be better if they waited.
"Look." Gabrielle interpreted her reactions with startling accuracy. "I know you don't feel like going right now, but let me get you some mint tea, and we'll make it over there. Honestly, Xe, I think you'll feel a lot better. This place…" She looked around her as the sweat dripped into her eyes. "I think it's making you sicker."
Was it? Xena rolled her head to one side, and juggled the relative miseries involved. "Yeah." She finally said. "Maybe you're right."
"Good." Gabrielle smiled in obvious relief, moving a bit of the warrior's sweat soaked hair out of her eyes. "I'm uncomfortable in here, so I can't even imagine how miserable you must be." Her fingertips ran over the lines of strain at Xena's temples. "Know what I wish?"
Strange, how the discomfort she’d been griping about just a few minutes earlier seemed to have faded. Xena was conscious of her entire body relaxing, and she wondered how much of that was just coincidence, and how much of it was due to Gabrielle’s presence. She’d started to notice recently almost automatic reactions her body had to the bard’s nearness, and while that didn’t entirely surprise her in some cases, in others it was a little curious.
Not that she was complaining. "No, what do you wish?" Xena asked. "That it was winter?"
"Eh." A wrinkle nosed grin appeared. "Sort of. I wish we were home." Gabrielle said. "Out on the mountain, overlooking the river basin, under your tree." A pause. "Or in our spring, that would work too."
Would it ever. Xena shifted a little. "Yeah, well.. sooner we get this over with, sooner we can get out of here. " She started to push herself up off the furs, moving slowly enough not to outrage her already queasy insides.
Gabrielle put an arm around her shoulders. "You’re drenched." She helped her partner sit up, and carefully eased the warrior’s injured leg off the pallet and rested it on the floor. "Let me get you a fresh shirt."
"Hm." Xena leaned back against the wall, the surface cool against her damp skin. It felt good. She watched Gabrielle rummage in their packs, then set a neatly folded piece of cloth down as she opened the bag she’d returned with and drew out some leaves. Xena’s nose twitched, smelling the mint already and hoping it would settle her stomach. "Whatcha got there?" She asked, seeing the larger of the two bags the bard brought out and set aside.
Mist green eyes peeked over one shoulder at her. "Where?"
Mm. Presents. Xena felt a grin pull at her lips. "In the bag." She kept her tone dry.
"Don’t’ make me get up and find out."
"Hah. Like you could at the moment." Gabrielle turned, and put a hand on her hip, giving her partner a mock insolent look. "It’s a surprise." She came over and handed Xena the cup, which now smelled not only of mint but of honey, and a light, fruity wine. "Here, sip on this, while I get us packed up."
Xena took the cup readily, and eased a sip of it past her lips. She held it in her mouth for a moment, enjoying the taste, then cautiously swallowed.
For a second, she thought it was going to come right back up. Then her stomach reluctantly accepted the tonic and settled down, grumbling audibly. "Did you put.. "
"Feveroot in there? Yes." Gabrielle was busy stuffing their things away. "If you think you can sit up after you finish that, I’ll clean you up a bit."
"What?" Gabrielle looked at her. "It’s just like taking care of Dori, y’know. " Her eyes twinkled. "Well, a little size difference, but that’s all."
"Just keep talking, bard.. I’ll remember this." Xena threatened. "Just you wait." She gave Gabrielle a narrow eyed look.
"Ooo.. I’m so scared." Gabrielle had the temerity to giggle.
The warrior released an aggrieved sigh, then stuck her face in the cup and took another swallow of the bard’s tasty, and well considered tisane. After a quiet moment, she looked up, to see Gabrielle looking back at her, with that cute little grin on her face, and she had to grin back.
Damn it felt nice. Xena mused wistfully, considering the unexpected gift of their friendship restored after everything else they’d gone through. Not only the love, which at some level had always been there, somehow, but the liking of each other, that sweet, relaxed companionship she never thought she’d see again. "Hey."
One of Gabrielle’s pale eyebrows lifted. "Hm?"
Xena lifted her cup. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." The bard left off packing and came over, taking a seat next to Xena on the pallet and leaning back, her shoulder pressing against the warrior's. "I wonder how things are going at home." She wondered. "What Dori's up to… how mom's handling her… "
"What parts of Amphipolis have fallen to her rambunctiousness…" Xena finished, with a soft chuckle. "Damn, I miss her."
"Me too." The bard admitted, leaning her head against Xena's shoulder. "I keep thinking we should have brought her with us."
"Gabrielle." Her partner eyed her. "I love our daughter, but doncha think we've got enough troubles?" Xena finished her cup, and cradled it in her hands, feeling a little better for it. The fever was still giving her chills though, and she found herself very unwilling to move.
"I dunno, tiger." Gabrielle patted her arm. "I think she'd have a better chance in those games than we would."
"Mm." Xena rested her head against Gabrielle's. They sat like that in silence for a bit, as a fly buzzed around them "Especially in the discus." The warrior suddenly said. "Did you see her whip mom's meat platter across the kitchen a couple weeks back?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah.. I did… she's really something."
"Yeah." Xena agreed, with a sigh. "I'm sure she's fine… probably out chasing the roosters with Ares about now."
"Mm." The bard nodded. "Or getting into the well."
"Or letting the horses out."
They looked at each other. Gabrielle just covered her eyes.
It was full dark by the time they left the inn, and headed across to the small barn where Argo and Iolaus were being kept. Xena had her light cloak on, despite the still lingering warmth in the air and she concentrated mainly on keeping upright as she navigated over the hoof rutted ground.
She was glad when she reached the door to the barn, and Gabrielle swung it open so they could enter. Inside, it was strong with the smell of animals and leather, and the dust from the straw drifted up and tickled her nose. "Hey girl." She greeted Argo, who was looking at her over the side of a roped off stall.
Argo snorted, and tossed her head.
"Yeah, I'm not that thrilled either." Xena replied, with a wan grin as she limped over to the mare and laid an arm over her back. She eased her pack off her shoulder and turned, only to find Gabrielle already there, lifting Argo's saddle up. "Give me that." She balanced carefully and took the heavy leather from the bard's fingers, hoisting it over Argo's height and settling it in place.
"You saying I’m too short to saddle her?" Gabrielle inquired.
Xena was about to answer, when the barn door opened, and Mikah slipped in, freezing when he saw both of them. "Hey, listen.." The warrior started to speak. "Sorry about the… " Then her eyes registered the damage to the boy's face, and she stopped speaking, her eyes widening in reaction.
Gabrielle had turned towards the door. She heard the catch in Xena's voice, and glanced back, taking in the warrior's expression. "He had a little accident in the market." She spoke quickly, guessing the thoughts racing through her partner's mind. Their eyes met, and she saw Xena's shoulders relax a bit.
"Oh." Mikah seemed stunned. "Are you leaving? It wasn't that bad, was it?" He closed the door behind him and walked across the straw littered floor. "I'm sorry about the old… um.. I don't think she really meant for you to leave."
"Probably not." Gabrielle gave him a reassuring smile. "No, it's not… " Her natural impulse to tell the truth warred with her kindly nature for a moment. "I just… we entered into the games, and they gave us space there… I wanted to get Xena into someplace a little cooler." She explained.
Mikah's brow creased. "You entered the games?" He looked from Gabrielle to Xena and back. "Oh, you did, you mean."
"No." The bard replied. "We both did."
Mikah glanced at Xena. "Oh." He thought about that. "Isn't it going to be a little hard for you to compete with a broken knee?"
"Who, Xena?" Gabrielle answered for her. "Nah.. just think of it as a fairness handicap. That way everyone else might, if they try really hard, have a chance."
"Gabrielle." Xena rumbled.
"Of coming in second." The bard went on, blithely ignoring her.
"Really?" Mikah smiled at her.
"Absolutely." Gabrielle stated, sensing the warmth as Xena moved closer and loomed over her. She tilted her head back and regarded the warrior's angular face. "What?"
Xena just shook her head, then looked over at Mikah. "Now you know how all those damn stories get started." She stated. "Sorry about the soup.. didn't mean to scare you like that."
"It's all right." Mikah answered shyly. "I was hoping I'd get a chance to apologize for being so.. um.. " His eyes flicked to Gabrielle, then went back to Xena's face. "During the dancing."
Ah. Xena managed a smile for him, as her stomach seemed to have settled for the moment. "Don't worry about it." She told him. "It's part of the job, isn't it?"
A blush colored his skin, visible even with the bruising. His eyes dropped. "Not always."
Uh oh. Xena felt mist green eyes on her, and if she looked down, she knew she'd see Gabrielle's eyebrows lifting sharply upward. "I'm flattered." She replied. "And thanks for helping me out.. seeing that I was in that room under false pretenses."
Mikah glanced at her, uncertainly.
"I was looking for information." Xena clarified.
"Oh." He said, simply.
Gabrielle reached out with one hand and caught the clue that had been buzzing around them, and a wry twinkle entered her eyes. "Don't feel bad. " She relaxed, and walked over to Mikah, putting a friendly arm around his shoulders. "Xena has that effect on a lot of people."
"Really." The bard said. "Now, you want to tell us what really happened to you?"
Trapped, he jerked a bit, blinking at Gabrielle in startlement. "Oh…" Now he glanced around, then shrugged. "It was that jerk from the inn.. the one you told off." This he directed to Xena. "He recognized me when I was coming back through the market.. I guess he didn't feel brave enough to come after you, so…"
Gabrielle happened to be looking at Xena as the boy spoke, and she held her breath, as she watched the shadows of a darker time slide down and settle on her partner's planed features. The pale blue eyes went cold and remote, and her entire visiage hardened, all without so much as the twitch of a muscle. Sick or no, hurt or no, the Warrior Princess had just appeared in the barn, and she knew Mikah had seen it, from the stiffening of the shoulders under the arm she had thrown over them.
"Well." The bard said quietly. "Seems like Athens is just full of jerks these days." She considered, then regarded Mikah thoughtfully. "Think we can engage your services for a few days?"
He looked at her, eyebrows shooting straight up.
Xena's did too.
"I’m sure we could use some help… " Gabrielle went on, then realized how her words must have sounded. "Um.. no, that's… ah…" She removed her arm. "Not what I …" She stopped and took a breath, very aware of the sudden blush making the warmth of the barn worse. "Centaur farts."
Xena chuckled. "You can take the girl out of Potadeia…." She let the thought trail off suggestively.
"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle sighed, collecting herself, and facing the now shyly smiling Mikah. "Listen, we've got a lot of things going on, and it's really complicated.." She gave the snickering Xena a dour look. "So we could really use just some logistical help while we're here. You interested?"
"Sure." Mikah agreed easily. "I'll just go tell the old b… " He hesitated. "I mean, I'll be right back." He turned and left, moving quickly through the door and closing it behind him.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and regarded her partner, who was now leaning on Argo's back and resting her chin on the mare's neck. "He's cute."
Gabrielle wandered over and leaned on Argo’s other side. "So." She traced a whorl of golden hairs. "Tell me about this dancing."
"It was just dancing." Xena replied. "Couple of women, some guys, you know."
The bard gazed up at her. "Actually, no I don’t." She remarked. "What was it like?"
"Well." Xena shifted her weight a little. "It was.. um…. " Her hands moved on Argo’s back, describing a circular motion. "First, one girl sort of…started, then she brought in a guy, and then… " Pale blue eyes blinked. "It was…um.. interesting."
"Interesting." Gabrielle rested her chin along Argo’s backbone, and watched her partner through her pale lashes. "I was wondering what you were finding so… " Her lips quirked. "Interesting. I could feel that, you know."
Xena’s nostrils flared, and her eyes widened a bit. "Yeah?"
"Mm." Gabrielle nodded. "Did you like it?"
"It was all right." Xena responded cautiously. "You.. felt something?"
There was a definite twinkle now. "Sure. And now I know you did."
One of Xena’s brows lifted expressively. "How?"
"You’re blushing." The bard snickered.
"I am not." Xena said, immediately. "I have a fever."
"Oh, yeah." Gabrielle teased. "It’s making the tips of your ears red, too."
On pure human instinct, Xena lifted a hand and covered one ear, feeling the heat against her fingertips. She scowled at her partner, not entirely sure if she was being kidded, or not. "It wasn’t like that."
"Uh huh." The bard grinned.
"Gabrielle." Xena’s voice dropped a notch.
Ah. A little too much teasing. "Yes?" The bard replied, in a sultry tone. "Now I wish I’d stuck around."
Xena sniffed a little. "You’d have hid your eyes and squealed." She muttered.
"Probably." Gabrielle admitted, with a smile. "It just was weird." She pushed away from Argo and circled her, ending up next to Xena. "I don’t often feel like that when I’m not with you."
The warrior eyed her thoughtfully. "Me, either." She said, then paused a moment. "You didn’t think I… " Her eyes flicked to the door, and back.
"Weeeeell… " Gabrielle pondered that. "He is cute, and blond."
Xena merely looked at her.
"No." The bard laughed. "C’mon, Xe.. he’s just a kid."
"Ah.. so you’re saying I’m getting old, is that it?" The warrior countered.
"Xena." Gabrielle poked her very gently. "Don’t be so sensitive. I’m just teasing you."
Yeah. Xena mentally slapped herself. Get a grip, already. "I’m sick." She complained by way of an excuse. "Be nice."
Gabrielle slid an arm around the warrior carefully, and gave her a hug. It was dicey for a moment, then she felt Xena’s body relax, and lean against her. "Why don’t we walk Argo outside, and let you sit down?"
For an answer, Xena merely reached up and gripped the mare’s saddle, then pulled herself up into it, settling her splinted leg carefully. It was a relief, she had to admit, to get off the damn thing. "There." She leaned over and ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. "Let that rope down."
The bard did so, and watched Xena guide the mare over to the door, ducking her head with consummate grace as they went through it and out into the muggy twilight air. Gabrielle left her to her own devices as she packed up the rest of their gear on Iolaus’ back and fastened his leading halter, not intending on riding the stallion through the streets of Athens.
She stroked Io's soft neck, then started out of the barn, getting two steps outside before she looked over the horse' s back and let her eyes find Xena's mounted form. The warrior was sitting quietly in the dim, purple light, the shadows from the inn's front torchlight flickering over her dark hair and paler than normal skin. She had her sword strapped under her knee, and as the bard watched, she fingered the hilt with an idle touch, tracing it's worn, brass pommel as she waited.
Be nice. Gabrielle led Iolaus over and paused, tilting her head up to regard her partner. "Okay, Xe.. let's go"
"Mm?" Eyes almost purple in the gloom looked down at her. "We said we'd wait… ah." The warrior spotted Mikah coming out of the inn, quickly shutting the door behind him and slinging a small bag over his shoulder. He looked excited, and a little scared. "Ready?"
Mikah nodded, and fell shyly in beside Gabrielle as they started off, into a gathering night that offered up snatches of music, sounds of laughter, and the flicker of smoky torchlight crossing their path.
Dori was bored. Everyone was just sitting around, not doing anything.
She was hot. A fly had bitten her.
Things were icky. Dori looked around, then tried to stand up, to get closer to the horsies. Something stopped her. She tugged. A rope was holding her down. She sat down and studied it, looking at the round spot where the rope went around the stick on the seat.
Rope was fun. Dori got hold of one of the round pieces, and pulled on it. It squeaked. She giggled, and pulled more. It made a hole for her hand, and she liked that. She put her fingers in the hole and made it bigger. The rope fell down then, and Dori scowled. That was bad.
She tried to stand up again, and found out that she could. That was good. She turned her back on the rope and leaned forward, to where the horsie was. She grabbed his tail, and he moved it. His foot stamped. Dori giggled. "Back!" She said, pulling on the tail.
The horsie came. Dori liked that. The horsie was close enough now for her to get on top of him, so she did. It was warm, and a little prickly. She crawled forward and got hold of the straps.
Boo knew how to make the straps go. Dori loved watching Boo make the horsies do things. Boo always talked to her when she did that, and she liked listening to Boo's voice. It tickled her ears sometimes. That was fun.
Dori pulled against the straps, and made herself go near the horsies neck. She liked it there, because she could sit, and hold on. She thumped her legs. The horsie felt good, all solid.
Like Boo. Dori looked around, wishing Mama and Boo were there. They wouldn't be just sitting around. They would be doing something fun, like swimming, or playing catch me. Everybody else was boring. "Guff!" Dori spotted her friend, and pointed at him. Guff was under a tree, sticking his tongue out, and he didn't come over. "Guff!!" She made a louder noise.
Guff didn't come over. That was bad. Dori didn't like that. Maybe she could go over to him. She climbed off the horsie's neck, and stood on the strips. They bounced. Dori liked that. She bounced. The horsie made a noise. She got closer to the other horsie, and grabbed his tail so she would not fall down.
He didn't like that. The front horsie stamped his foot, but Dori didn't let that stop her. She remembered what Boo did when the horsie's weren't nice. "Bah." Dori slapped the front horsie on the back. "No good!"
The horsie stamped his foot again, and shook his head. Dori climbed up the straps and got on top of him.
He really didn't like that, but Dori did, because he moved and she liked that. She sat on top of the horsie's and hopped up and down. "Go fly!"
The horsie hopped up and down too. Dori liked that. The straps jingled. This was fun. "Bah!" She ordered, tugging on the horses hair. "Go!"
The horsie listened! Dori grabbed hard as the horsie moved, and there was lots of noise. The air went against her, and it wasn't so hot. That was good. The horsie went faster, and she got excited. "Yes!!" She hopped up and down. The horsie hopped up and down and went even faster.
Everyone yelled. Dori didn’t pay any attention to that. This was fun. They were going real fast. She forgot about Guff. This was better, because now they would get to Boo and Mama faster. Not just sit around. "Go! Go!" She told the horsie's.
So they did.
This was more like it.
"Ugh." Cyrene sighed, wiping her brow. "One more day, and we'll be in Athens. I can't believe it."
"Me either." Ephiny agreed, from her perch on a fallen log nearby. They'd decided to stop for the night between the last town, and the start of civilization they could see looming on the far horizon. "I can't believe I’m saying this, but boy, I"ll be glad to see the city."
Cyrene eyed her wryly. "I know it's been tough.. thanks for hanging in there." She lowered her voice, glancing at the circle of tired elders under a nearby tree. "You know, I can't believe my daughters do this all the time."
"Mm." Ephiny nodded. "I know.. and what's worse, they like it." She confided. "Don't get me wrong, I can handle a night or two camping as well as any Amazon, but you listen to Gabrielle talk about this, and you'd think she was on a holiday."
It was true. Cyrene had to agree.
"I guess it's all what you get used to." Johan came over and took a seat next to the Amazon. "Not to mention, she's a little younger than we are." He gave Cyrene a wry look.
"Mm." The innkeeper sighed. "So very true." She shook her head and went back to her task, giving the small pot of stew she was warming up a little stir. "But you know, it's also part of Gabrielle's outlook. She makes the best of things."
The three of them were quiet for a moment. "Yeah." Ephiny finally said. "I want to say she's learned to do that over the years, given everything that's happened to them, but you know.. she was always like that." The Amazon let a tiny smile cross her face. "Artemis, I remember the first time I saw her... what a baby."
"Oh yes." Cyrene said. "She's changed so, and yet... sometimes I look up, and that child is right there again, looking back at me." Her eyes went to Johan's. "Especially lately... they've been so lucky this past year."
"Hope it stays that way." Ephiny said, with a smile. "They've earned it." She reflected over recent memories of her two friends. "But as much as it's been peaceful, you know, I think the both of them miss being out here." The Amazon waved a hand around her. "Roughing it, having adventures..."
"Getting into trouble." Johan remarked.
"That too." Ephiny agreed.
"Well." Cyrene exhaled. "I wouldn't want to see them live the lives of vagabonds again. I know they did good things, and I know.. " Her brow creased. "For Xena, I think it was such an important time in her life. But this is important too. Living." She said. "Loving each other. Having a family." Now she gestured towards the wagon, where they'd securely fastened Dori for the moment.
They all looked that way.
"Is that... good grief, is she on that ho... how.. "Ephiny spluttered and got up. "Hey! Dori!" She started towards the wagon as she heard the child call out gleefully, then bolted into a run as the wagon started moving. "Hey!!!"
"Oh... my.... Gods.. "Cyrene dropped her spoon and looked around. "Cait! Eponin!"
Ephiny saw the wagon gather up speed and she redoubled her own, pelting over the rocky ground as she chased it. "Son of a bacchae... " She cursed as she watched the lead horse bolt into a canter at the urging of the small urchin clinging to his back, and the rest of the team jojned him, sending up a cloud of dust behind them that made her cough as she tried to catch up. "Son of a.. no, daughter of a bacchae and Cerebus, that's what you are you..."
She heard footsteps coming from her right, and turned to see Cait and Pony barreling towards the wagon from an angle, trying to cut it off. They were closer than she was, and she only hoped they caught the damn thing before...
Oh, Hades in a handbasket. Ephiny yelled out in frustration as she saw the approaching river. The wagon was hurtling towards it at a frightening pace, coming at the banks square on as though the horses were convinced they could run right across the surface.
No bridge. No ford. "Dori!!!!!" Ephiny redoubled her pace, gaining ground a little on the runaways. "Dori stop!!!!"
Not that she thought it would work. The damn child had Xena's aggressive personality mixed with Gabrielle's stubborn determination, and nothing short of the end of the world could put a stop to that combination, but it never hurt to try. "Doriii!!!!"
Everyone was yelling. Dori could hear them, but it didn't matter because they were not Boo or Mama, and she knew she wouldn't get in trouble. The horsies were going real fast now, and she held on, like Boo had taught her.
She loved riding with Boo, because Boo always went good places. Like in the water with the horsie. That was fun. The horsies liked water, and Gogo always blew water at her and made her wet.
Her horsie wanted to do that too, Dori thought, because water was coming, and the horsie went faster.
That was bad. Boo never went fast near the water. Dori frowned, and gave the hair she was holding a tug. "No!" She commanded. "No go!"
The horsie didn't listen. Dori didn't like that. The horsies always listened to Boo. "No!" She pulled harder. Now there was a lot of yelling, but Dori didn't pay attention to that. She got a good hold on the hair, and on the straps and pulled real hard, because the water was coming real fast, and that was bad.
Boo would be mad if she was here. Dori didn't like when Boo got mad. "NO!!!" Dori decided she should get mad and she slapped the horsie hard, making it hop. "No go!!!"
The water was almost here. It smelled like green, and fishies. Fishies were good. Maybe she should let the horsie go, even if it was too fast. Dori was hungry, and she knew fishies were good, but fast was bad, and Boo would be mad.
Mad was bad. "NONONONONONONO!!!!" Dori screamed at the top of her lungs, pulling on the hair as hard as she could.
She scared the horsie. The horsie screamed back at her, but he did what she wanted him to do. That was good. The horsie stood right up, and she bounced real hard, but she hung on like Boo taught her, because otherwise Boo would b real, real mad.
The horsie stepped in the water, but not too far. Dori got wet. She liked that. Poopoo and Cat got wet too. Dori watched them fly by, right into the water! It was funny.
Maybe they wanted to play with the fishies, like Boo did. Dori laughed at them, because they were yelling and waving their arms, having a lot of fun.
"You little... " Eponin surfaced and spluttered, the strong scent of the river rising around her. "I'm gonna.."
She jumped as Cait also surfaced, her blond hair plastered down around her head. "Son of a.. "
"Gosh." Cait wiped the hair out of her eyes and tried to catch her breath. "That was quite exciting."
"Exciting?" Eponin growled, and sloshed forward, starting towards the bank they'd both hurtled off of, unable to stop in time when the wagon abruptly did. "I swear, that kid's..." She eyed the laughing child. "Don't you laugh, you... you.... "
Cait swam to the shore with quick, efficient strokes and pulled herself up out of the water just in time to meet Ephiny's out of breath form at the bank. "Good job, your majesty. We should have thought of that, reqlly. Just have her stop them."
Ephiny leaned against the lead horse, who was now cropping the river grass, seemingly uncomcerned. Dori was balanced on his back, kicking her heels up and giggling. "Son of a Bacchae." She gasped. "I thought she was gonna go right in."
"Exactly so." Cait agreed. "Terrible luck for the wagon. Dori can swim, at least."
They both looked at the toddler. "You're just a walking, talking package of trouble, arencha?" Ephiny sighed.
Dori stuck her thumb in her mouth and giggled, batting her dark eyelashed at them. "Poopoo make wet." Dori observed. "Go fishies!"
Eponin had joined them, her leathers wringing wet and her chestnut hair hanging down across her face in damp straggles. "I'm gonna go fishie you, ya... " Her voice trailed off as Dori grinned at her happily. "You... "
The green eyes twinkled.
"Oh, gods be damned it, Eph." The weapons master swore in frustration. "She's got that same damn... "
"Look, yeah Just like Gabrielle." Ephiny reached over and smoothed Dori's windblown hair back, getting a bit of 'that look' herself. "Well, that look charmed the leather skirt off one of the crankiest, most hard assed warriors I've ever known, so I guess we shouldn't feel bad."
"Go fast." Dori stated, pointing to the road. "Go mama. Find Boo"
"Same one track mind, too." Eponin acknowledged, dryly.
Cait wrung her hair out, then took Dori off the horses back. "Come on then, Dori."
"Hungry." Dori stated. "Get fishies."
"How about one of grandma's cookies instead?" Cait suggested, giving the river a wary look. "I don't' think you'd like the fishies from there."
"Cookie." Dori agreed, putting her arms around Cait's neck, and giving her a squeeze. "Good Cat."
"Right." Cait ambled off in the direction of the campfire. Eponin and Ephiny exchanged looks.
"You think we're gonna survive this trip?" Pony asked, plaintively.
"One more day, old friend. "Ephiny put an arm around her, and they started to walk back down the road, leading the team behind them. "Just keep t hinking - one more day."
"Yeah." Pony grumbled, watching the water drip off her leathers. "I wonder of Athens knows what it's in for."
"Wow." Gabrielle paused, as they entered the courtyard where the games competitors were living. The space was ringed with high burning torches, and there were tables of food and drink everywhere. Men and women in white togas clustered around them, and in one corner, a harpist was producing light, tinkling music that was very pleasant on the ears.
She felt.. Gabrielle's eyes lifted to the tall, cloaked figure sitting quietly on Argo's back right next to her. Out
She felt out of place, to be honest. Everyone in the square looked pristine, and in her grubby traveling clothes she'd worn all day, the bard had to resist the temptation to surreptitiously brush herself off.
"C'mon." Xena pointed towards a side arch, where she could see a fenced area obviously meant for horses. She was glad she'd decided to ride Argo over - the distance wasn't that great from the inn up here, but it was mostly uphill, and in crowds, and being on horseback when you had a broken kneecap leant a definite advantage in both cases.
They did attract attention, however. Xena could sense eyes turning to them, watching in wary speculation as they crossed the courtyard, having to pass through several smaller groups to get to the archway that lead to the barn. She twitched at her cloak, and returned a few gazes with her own. Beside her, Gabrielle visibly straightened and moved a bit closer, reaching out and putting her hand on Xena's good knee in unconcious possession.
There were, the warrior acknowledged, comments after they passed, but she decided not to hear them and just kept on going. As they got to the barn, a slim, red haired girl came out, studying them with a knowing eye before she approached. "Hi."
"Hi." Gabrielle responded immediately. "Got a couple of horses here that could use a place to stay." She edged ahead of Xena with Io.
"This place is for the folks who've entered the games." The girl responded politely.
"That's right." Gabrielle agreed. "We have." She offered up Io's reins. "So I guess we're in the right spot.
"You have?" Now there was definite bemusement in the girl's tone.
"Yep." Gabrielle dug the two icons she'd been given earlier in the day out, and presented them. They were examined by a pair of curious amber eyes, then accepted.
"Okay." The girl reached out and took Io's reins. "I'll take this one inside... you want your gear?"
Gabrielle reached up to unstrap their bags, as Xena dismounted. She watched the warrior out of the corner of her eye, noting the smooth, even grace despite the injury and the fever. The cloak Xena was wearing covered the splint on her leg, and there was only the slightest pause in her motion as she walked slowly around Argo, shouldering her own bag and giving the girl only the briefest nod as she motioned Mikah to follow her.
What that must be costing. Gabrielle reluctantly tendered a nod to her partner's stubborn pride, as she paused near the horse tender. "Both of these horses are trained for fighting." She told her quietly. "They don't take to rough handling."
The girl flat out stared at her. "Fighting." She repeated. "Are you sure you're in the right place?"
Good question. "Just be careful with them, okay?" Gabrielle said. "I don't want anyone to get hurt." She reached up and unfastened her staff, letting it drop into her hand and swinging it to a position tucked her arm. Then she gave Argo a pat, and headed for the path towards the building, where Xena's tall form was just visible. She caught up to the warrior as they reached the entrance and slid an arm around her waist, taking part of the weight off her bad side without even thinking of asking permission.
An arm draped over her shoulder instantly, and Xena didn't utter a word of protest. She could feel the tension in the warrior's body, and the warmth of the fever, and she crossed her fingers that they could just get inside, and get to their area without something major happening to make things even worse.
So, of course, as they went around the next corner, they almost crashed right into one of the jerks from the road. He stopped short and stared at them.
"By the gods, what are you doing here!" He roared, pointing at Mikah. "You little... "
"Hey." Xena had swept her hood down. "Still not keeping it up, tough guy?"
Oh oh. Gabrielle put two and two together and got her staff out and into her hand.
"Oh, it's you, smart mouth.. " He advanced on the warrior. "Come to spew your filth in here, have you... you vagabond, what are you... erf. "
"Xena." Gabrielle kept her voice low, and steady, seeing the look in the warrior's eyes just before she grabbed the man's toga and threw him against the wall, then hit two pressure points in rapid succession.
"You were saying?" Xena ignored her, and put a hand on either side of the man's head, as he leaned frozen against the wall. "Hmm? I didn't hear you."
"Cgh." Drool started leaking from his mouth as he stared at her in terror.
"Now, you listen." Xena leaned closer, her dark leanness in stark contrast to his robustly golden body. "You ever touch any of my friends ever again, and I'm going to make sure it's the last thing you ever do. Got me?"
"Urgh." His chest heaved, as he tried to breathe.
"Got me?" Xena repeated softly. "You can nod yes, or you can die. Your choice."
"Xena." Gabrielle said again, her eyes darting around the corridors.
The man stared at her, then he nodded frantically. With a flickering motion, Xena hit the points again and released him. He slid down the wall and collapsed into a huddled ball, one arm covering his head. The warrior gazed at him in disgust, then eased around his splayed limbs and continued down the hall. "Good choice." She remarked.
Gabrielle licked her lips nervously, and followed, catching up to her partner then leading her down one crooked corridor, to a small cul de sac that was obviously not much used. "In there." She indicated a door.
"Ah. We're in the snooty part of town." Xena said, as she pushed the door open, now limping heavily. "Stupid bastard." She added, as they walked into a mostly darkened room, and let the door close behind them. Gabrielle dropped her pack and went to the one lonely torch, taking it from it's sconce and circling the room to light the others. "I still don't know if this was the b... " Her voice stopped as the room was revealed, and the bard returned the torch to it's holder, facing her with a knowing look. "Okay, yes it was." The warrior said.
"Thought you'd think so." Gabrielle smiled tensely. "Please sit down."
Xena turned in a circle first, surveying their new quarters. Three times the size of the old ones, and due to the building's stone walls, blessedly cool inside. One side of the room was taken up by a large, ornately cut stone bathtub, with an incongrous stone cat crouched at it's head, it's mouth obviously meant to issue water. On the other side of the room, a large, though very plain bed was pressed against the wall, it's surface draped in white linen. The rest of the room featured two wooden chests, and racks meant obviously to hold either weapons or other games items. There was a pile of worn stones in the corner, apparently to serve as warm up devices, and a stout table whose worn top bore marks of weapons and tools worked on top of it.
It was plain, but to Xena's senses, blessedly clean and spartan in it's functionality. She gave Gabrielle a look of complete relief and limped to the armchair between the two chests, dropping into it with a mostly stifled little groan.
There was a tiny silence, then they all took a breath at once. "Xena, I .. "
"Sorry about that.." Xena said at the same time.
"That was amazing." Mikah also chimed in.
Another small silence. "Thank you.. for stopping him." Mikah finally said. "Listen, there is a chamber outside. I'll put my things there, then see if I can find some water, and look around."
"Be careful." Gabrielle told him, but he was already gone, closing the door behind him. She regarded the panel for a beat, then turned and walked over to Xena's still cloaked form. "Honey."
"I know." Xena leaned an elbow on the chair arm, and rested her chin on her fist. "But it was the fastest way to get past the big ox." She exhaled. "I wasn't in any mood for a fistfight."
Gabrielle weighed the value of continuing the discussion, then merely reached over and scratched the back of her partner's neck, pulling her head closer and kissing the top of it.
"Mmph." Xena made a small noise, deep in her throat, and rested her head against Gabrielle's hip. Her stomach was doing flip flops, and everything hurt, stressed by both her ride, her determination not to use her crutch walking in here, and her confrontation with the walking fertilizer pile. "I think I'd better lie down."
"I think so too." Gabrielle rubbed her back gently. "Let's get this cloak off, and get you in bed, then I'll get our spare furs out and make you a nice, snuggly nest, okay?"
One blue eyeball appeared, and rotated up to regard her. It's brow lifted.
"C'mon." Gabrielle held a hand out. "Let's get you tucked in. Bedtime for warriors."
"Gabrielle." Xena sighed, as she hoisted herself to her feet. "In case you haven't noticed the difference, I'm not Dori."
"Eh." Gabrielle returned the bantering as she helped Xena over to the bed, and stripped off her cloak. "Like I said, just a little size difference." She patted the warrior's belly. "Lay down."
Half amused, half outraged, Xena did as she was asked, easing her body down on the clean cloth and letting her body go limp. It felt very good not to be lying on a straw and leather pallet, that was for sure. It also felt good to have Gabrielle removing her outer clothes, fevered though she was, and pulling her boots off carefully.
She felt very tired, a combination of the heat, the pain, and the sickness, she suspected, and the utter relief of simply lying down, being cool, and having Gabrielle's hands all over her definitely made things look up. "Hey, Gab?" She murmured, her thoughts a touch muzzy from the fever.
"Mm?" Gabrielle answered, as she shook out their spare furs, sending a waft of home spreading through the austere room. She laid the furs over Xena, and tucked the sides in as she knelt down next to her. "Yes, honey?"
"Those dancers?" The warrior said.
"Yeah?" Gabrielle brushed her fingertips over one of her partner's flushed cheeks.
"Weren't a patch on you."
Gabrielle almost swallowed her tongue. "Excuse me? Weren't a patch on me for what?"
"Making me burn." Xena watched her through half closed eyes, seeing the blush even in the relatively low light. She managed a small chuckle. "Now your ears are red."
"I bet they are." Gabrielle muttered, scrubbing her heated skin. "But thanks." She added, huskily, as she leaned over and kissed the warrior's forehead. "Try to get some rest, sweetheart, okay?"
"Okay." Xena let her eyes close. "You too." She tugged lightly on Gabrielle's tunic.
"I will." Gabrielle waited for the warrior's breathing to slow, and her body to relax into sleep before she gently untwined their hands. But not before she lifted Xena's fingers to her lips and pressed them against the knuckles, hoping that sleep, and time, and Xena's own magic would start to make things better.
With the warrior comfortably asleep, Gabrielle now took the time to arrange their things, and sort out the possessions she'd merely stuffed into their bags in haste at the inn. The familiar activity also let her nerves settle, after the encounter in the hallway and gave her time to rearrange her thoughts regarding their coming here.
What would the big doofus do? It was hard to tell with that type, Gabrielle frowned as she removed Xena's well used healer's kit, and spread out it's contents, mentally making a note of the herbs they needed to replenish. Either he would skulk off and they'd never see him again, or…
Or he would be stupid, and want to recoup his ego by getting back at Xena. One thing in their favor, she considered, was that there were no witnesses other than the four of them.
If Xena had done what she'd done in the middle of the courtyard, the bard was sure it would mean big trouble. But since they'd been alone, and no one else had seen…
She sighed, as she removed a clean shift and set it down. She didn't blame Xena for doing what she did. The jerk had obviously been about to start something ugly, and Xena had ended the threat in the quickest manner she could think of.
Gabrielle dug out their soap, and some linen towels, and set them near the bathtub. It happened, and it was over. If something came of it, they'd deal with whatever that was. Having decided that, she sat on the edge of the tub and examined the big cat. It had a cleverly carved marble bird in it's mouth, and she reach out to fit her hand around, then turned it gently and pulled.
Sure enough, with a faint grinding click, the bird came loose, and released a flow of water into the tub.
Heh. Gabrielle liked that. She stuck her finger into the flow, and found it pleasantly warm to the touch, but not hot. She reached down and moved the stop stone into place, and watched in satisfaction as the tub filled up with water. Her skin had been itching all day, from the heat and the dust of the city, and the thought of being completely clean was just too enticing to pass up.
With a sigh, she reached down and unlaced her boots, tugging them and the socks under them off with a sense of relief. The stone floor felt wonderful against her bare feet, and she got up and dropped the leather footware near Xena's , then stripped off her tunic and added that fabric to the two pairs of socks she'd need to wash later on.
A soft breeze blew in the window, and over her bare skin, and she rubbed her upper arms a little as she stepped over to the bathtub and climbed inside, settling down into the burbling water with a genuine, heartfelt sigh.
The tub was huge, big enough for the two of them, really, or some of the hulking giants she'd seen in the courtyard outside. Gabrielle gazed down her length, and wiggled her toes, taking the soap and raising a lather with it before she started scrubbing her skin. The smell of the home made cake from Cyrene's secret recipe made her smile, as it brought warm, happy memories of home to her; bathtimes for both the two of them, and for Dori where laughter, and splashing fun was never absent.
Gabrielle washed her arms as she mused. She missed her daughter, she realized suddenly. She missed Dori's squeals of joy and her determined, inventive nature.
She missed the way Dori made Xena smile, and the way the warrior would play with the toddler, rolling around on the floor with her in wild games of catch, and hide and seek.
Dori had made such a difference in their lives. Gabrielle sometimes wondered where they would be now if…
If. She washed her kneecap. If Dori hadn't happened.
It had been a short fortnight after they'd gotten home, after their reunion. Gabrielle had noticed a number of new, sad things about Xena since her return from the lava pit, chiefly the warrior's half hidden bouts of depression that worried her, and a reluctance to talk about the past, especially the recent past with anyone.
The bard had realized, as she dropped off to sleep one night, that one thing Xena hadn't asked her about, in fact, was the baby. Not a word. It was as though Xena were afraid that asking the question would bring on an answer she didn't want to hear.
So why hadn't Gabrielle just told her? The bard had gazed out the starlit window of their home, aware of the gentle breathing just behind her and wondered about that.
Had Xena changed her mind? Maybe she didn't want a child, now. It hurt to think that, but Gabrielle knew her partner had been through an awful trial, had been in so much pain… that it was possible she didn't want that risk.
Didn't want to open herself up to yet another potential knife thrust to her heart.
Well. Gabrielle had grimly faced facts. They were going to have to deal with it, regardless of how Xena felt. It made her sad, though, because her memories of their joint happiness when she realized she was pregnant were sharply vivid. To find out that wasn't something Xena wanted any longer…
She hoped that wasn't true. Gabrielle had finally given up the thought, exhausted after a long day of working around Amphipolis, and drifted off to sleep.
Waking at just past dawn, with the warm, golden light of a new day spilling over both of them. Gabrielle had turned and looked up, to see Xena just watching her quietly, a smile tugging at her lips as their eyes met. "Morning."
Xena's smile intensified, then she exhaled, and circled the bard with both arms, hugging her in silence.
But Gabrielle could feel, through the link between them, the melancholy ache that countered that smile and something in her demanded that she do something to ease it. She took a deep breath, as Xena released her, then rolled over to face the warrior. "Hey." Truth was the first step.
"Hey." Xena had quietly replied, blinking eyes outlined still with dark shadows.
How do I start this? Gabrielle had frantically fished for a way, then just said the first thing she could think of. "Um…We need to go shopping."
Xena had cocked her head, a slightly puzzled look on her face. "O..kay." She responded. "Any particular reason you woke up with that on your mind?" She asked. "Something you need?"
"Clothes." Gabrielle said, having seen her way through this.
The finely arched, dark brows knit together. "Something wrong with the ones you have?" The warrior asked, mildly. "I mean.. if you want to get more, sure, but…"
"They're starting not to fit." The bard interrupted her gently, watching the angular face with intent eyes. Not entirely true, really, just a slowly growing snugness around her belt she'd started to notice lately, but…
For a moment, she didn't think Xena was going to get it. The warrior's expression had shifted to one of bemusement, and Gabrielle could almost see the wry remark about to form on her partner's lips, surely a knowing jibe about her appetite.
And then, as she watched, Xena's face stilled, and her eyes narrowed just a bit, only her blinking eyelids breaking a sudden, very tense silence. Gabrielle had found her gaze caught, and held, by a look of such heartbreaking uncertainty it almost brought tears to her eyes.
And so, she forced herself to shrug, and smile, as though her answer didn't mean anything at all. "Well, c'mon, Xe.. I had to start showing sometime, didn't I?" She'd kept her voice light, and watched Xena's reaction, willing it not to be what she feared.
"Sh.." Xena had stopped, her voice trailing off as her eyes widened in realization. She'd stared at the bard for a long moment, then exhaled, her lashes fluttering closed for several heartbeats as her head bowed.
Gabrielle's heart had started to pound. "Hey… d…don't get all mad at … me. " She'd heard the stammer in her voice, as she tried to shove aside the sudden wash of fear. "Xena?"
And then Xena's head had lifted, and the blue eyes had opened, and she'd seen the tears. Huge, silent ones that drenched the warrior's cheeks and caught sparkles of sunlight as they fell. She'd reached out and pulled Gabrielle to her, holding her tightly in faintly shaking arms, rocking them both mindlessly for a very long time.
Finally, Xena had taken a deep breath, and loosened her grip, just a little, enough for Gabrielle to squirm around and look up at her. "It was such a miracle getting you back.. " The warrior whispered. "I didn't think… " She'd just stopped speaking then, and shaken her head.
Gabrielle had lifted a hand and wiped the tears off her face. "Sweetheart, I’m sorry." Shed' said. "We should have talked about this before now." She'd hesitated. "I just didn't know if you…I mean, I know it's been hard.. how much you went through I.." She'd felt the arms tighten around her again in silent emotion.
"Noo." Xena's voice had been ragged. "I just.. didn't have the guts to ask."
It was all right. Gabrielle had felt almost dizzy with relief. "Well." She sighed. "I held my breath after I woke up.. when I knew my cycles were due." Alone in that hospice. Counting the days.
They'd lain like that in silent comfort until the sun inched i's way up the headboard, and the sounds of the stirring village came in the window. Finally, Xena stirred, sniffing a little and clearing her throat. "New clothes, huh?"
Gabrielle had her head buried in the covers over Xena's chest. "Mm.. unless you want me to steal yours."
Xena had chuckled, as she'd slid a hand under those same covers and gently explored the subtly changing contours of Gabrielle's body. "Just barely there." She'd commented, giving the bard's not quite flat stomach a tickle.
Gabrielle had relaxed, in that happy wash of sunlight, basking in a sense of almost ethereal relief. "Look outside, Xena… what a gorgeous day."
"It sure is." The warrior had agreed softly, her breath warming the edge of the bard's ear. "Now."
Ah well. Gabrielle smiled at the memory. They were certainly well past that, and Dori had turned out to be all they'd dreamed of. The bard ducked under the surface of the water, and scrubbed her hair, then emerged, rinsing the suds off.
Okay, more than they'd ever expected. She amended, with a silent giggle, as she put the stopper into the cat's mouth to cut off the flow of the water, then moved the stopper stone, and let the bath begin to drain out. A quick glance towards the bed reassured her that Xena was still soundly asleep, and she kept her eyes on the warrior as she got up and climbed out of the tub, picking up the piece of linen she'd laid by and drying herself off.
She'd just gotten the towel tucked around her body when a soft knock came at the door, surprising her and making her jump a little. After a second's hesitation, she padded across the floor and opened the door a little, standing behind it, ready if it burst inward as Xena had taught her all those years ago.
"Oh." She recognized Mikah's face. "Hi.. c'mon in, but be really, really quiet." She murmured softly, opening the door wider to admit the boy. "What do… oh, wow. That looks great."
'That' was a large platter of fresh fruits, and a half loaf of bread with a round of goats cheese next to it. Mikah was also carrying a flagon, and he brought both in and set them down carefully on the wide table, sneaking a glanced towards the bed before he straightened and walked back over to her. "You really caused a stir." He said, in a low voice. "Someone recognized you."
"Me?" Gabrielle was surprised.
"Both of you, yeah." The boy agreed. "Some women from the west, high class women, who said they'd seen you years back, and knew you from some war or fight you'd been involved with."
"Hm." Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "That doesn't narrow things down much." She said. "Was a time we were fighting just about every day, for a while there."
Mikah blinked, then shook his head a little, averting his eyes modestly from her barely covered form. "I didn't hear more than that.. just that everyone's talking about you out there." He told her. "Some of them aren't happy, and others are…ah.. "
"Rude?" Gabrielle hazarded a guess.
"Sort of, yes." Mikah admitted. "Saying things about how you shouldn't have been allowed to enter the games."
"Why?" Gabrielle leaned against the wall casually, and crossed her ankles.
"Well, they've all been training for so long, and it's so late, I guess." The boy responded. "One of them said they hoped you didn't expect any favors from the judges, just because of who you are."
Just because of who I am. Gabrielle puzzled over that one. Just because of who we are? "I don't get it. We're just going to go out there and do the best we can, that's all. If anything.. we're at a big disadvantage, because they've all had time to practice, and all that stuff."
Mikah nodded. "I think you're right." He said. "I've seen them, for months. They do nothing, really, but exercise, and practice the games, and provide entertainment for the citizens. Maybe that's why they are so upset, because you and Xena.. you're not… you're real, if you understand me."
Real. "I think I know what you mean." Gabrielle said. "It's a pride thing."
"Mm." He nodded. "Yeah, they've all got lots of that."
A smile tugged at Gabrielle's lips. "All of them put together can't come close to touching the amount of pride someone I know has." Her eyes flicked to the bed, then back at him. "It's a heavy weight sometimes."
He gazed somberly at her. "Because she has to win, right?"
"Right." The bard said.
"Not because of your town."
"No." Gabrielle exhaled, a little surprised at the true depth of his understanding.
Mikah nibbled the inside of his lip, and gave his short tunic a little tug. "But… she's hurt." He finally said. "I don’t understand how…. "Then he stopped, and looked at Gabrielle, with a wry little smile. "I guess that's why you have so many stories to tell, isn't it?"
"Yeah." The bard had to chuckle a little. "That does have something to do with it." She paused. "They're not giving you a hard time because of all this here, are they?"
A faint shrug. "A little.. but it's okay. I know what to do for that." He replied confidently. "I'm going to go do the good servant thing, and see what else I can hear." He seemed a little more settled now.
"Good job." Gabrielle complimented him. "And thanks for the platter.. you made great choices."
Mikah was visibly pleased with the remark. "You're welcome." He slipped out the door and closed it silently behind him, leaving Gabrielle to regard it's surface with a faint bemusement.
"Interesting person." She remarked to the thin air, before she walked back over to the table, twisting a grape free and popping it into her mouth, chewing it as she traded her towel for the clean shift she'd taken out earlier. Through the stone walls, she could hear only the faintest buzz of the courtyard, very different from the inn's noisy bustle, and she found herself stifling a yawn as she contemplated her next course of action.
She could update her diary. One hand dropped to rest on the worn surface of the bound parchment. Or she could wash their things, and put more of their stuff away.
Either action would be useful and both made good sense. But Gabrielle was finding her attention being drawn almost irresistibly to the bed, and she gave in to that, leaving her writing behind and crossing the floor to where her partner was now half curled on her side, one long fingered hand draped over the top of the furs and the other tucked under her head.
Almost without thought, Gabrielle climbed onto the bed''s acceptably soft surface, and crawled under the furs. It was warm, but not uncomfortable, and as she eased closer to Xena, the warrior reacted to her presence even in sleep, reaching out for her and gathering her into a cuddle.
Xena's skin still felt warm, but the warrior seemed to be resting comfortably, her muscles almost relaxed under the bard's gentle touch.
Almost. Gabrielle nestled closer, aware of that almost imperceptible sense of presence that was Xena's warning system, maintaining the faintest layer of tension under her skin, and creating the minute twitches in the smooth surface just before her ears and around her nostrils.
Xena could have asked for the painkilling herbs, she knew. But in this strange place, Xena would fight to the very end not to have those senses blurred in any way, afraid of letting her guard down and risking the safety of herself, and of Gabrielle.
It had, Gabrielle had to admit, a perverse nobility to it, despite her frustration at her partner's stubbornness. It wasn't as though Gabrielle were helpless, after all. Not anymore.
And yet. The bard felt her eyes growing heavy, and as she pressed a hand lightly against Xena's chest, found her heartbeat slowing to match the sleeper's as her breathing already had. She let her eyelids droop shut and laid her arm across Xena's body, figuring on a few candlemarks of sleep to refresh her before she got up to finish her chores.
Xena made a low, pleased growling noise deep in her throat, and snuggled closer, releasing a satisfied sigh.
Gabrielle smiled sleepily. So they recognized us, huh? A little bit of her ego preened at that. Well, let them worry. She nuzzled the skin just above Xena's collarbone. Let them think they're not ready to handle us.
Let them loose sleep over it.
A moment later, she certainly wasn't.
It was an utter relief to wake up the next morning, and not feel like she'd fallen off a cliff. Xena kept her eyes closed and simply absorbed her surroundings through other senses, aware only of a dull ache in her leg to remind her of her injury. Her fever had faded, and her stomach seemed to have settled down, and as she took a breath of the cool, pre dawn air she was aware of being relatively comfortable for the first time in days.
Xena slowly arched her body, flexing all her muscles including the ones around her injured knee. With the exception of a slight stiffness in her shoulders, everything else seemed to be in good working order, and she resettled her arms around Gabrielle's body with a definitely satisfied sigh.
So. What was her plan for the day? Xena let her eyes close again as she pondered that. She could, she knew, persist in her quest after the child slaves, and spend another day hobbling around the city. She'd pegged that Athenian townhouse where they'd taken the kids as a place she intended to know a lot more about, cause…
Because what, Xena? Her better sense asked her. What are you going to do? Those kids were bought and sold legally, remember? There's no law against bringing in slaves, so the best you could do is wreck the one place, set a few kids free, and then what?
Get arrested and tossed in the Athenian jail, that's what. And the next shipment will just go to a different townhouse.
Xena chewed the inside of her lip. There had to be a way to not only get those kids free, but keep more from being shipped in. The question was, could she find it? The puzzle immediately occupied her mind, and she worked over it, letting the darkness outside slowly shift to a dull, dark gray. A rumble of thunder heralded the dawn weather, and a wash of damp, cooler air blew in the window, bringing with it a strong hint of rain.
Glad we're inside. Xena idly considered, having sorted out her options as she laid the groundwork of a plan. Her eyes roamed around the now visible interior of the room, falling on the platter Gabrielle had left on the table. Ah. Fruit. She cautiously introduced the idea of swallowing some to her recalcitrant belly, and was relieved at the lack of queasiness at the thought. Now, if she could just…
Gabrielle stirred, drawing in a deep breath and stretching, letting her touch slide over Xena's skin before she ended the motion by hugging her. "Mm." Half closed green eyes peered up at her. "I just had the nicest dream." The bard murmured, her voice still husky with sleep. "You were in it."
Xena gazed fondly at her. "I was, huh?"
"Yeah… "Gabrielle nodded, closing her eyes and nuzzling Xena's skin with her lips. "You let me take all your clothes off, and cover you in honey for my birthday."
"Oh, yeah.. and then I licked.. "
"Gabrielle!" Pale blue eyes snapped wide open, as Xena reached down to take a firm hold on her partner's chin to tilt it upward.
Gabrielle started giggling, her entire body shaking with it. "Just kidding." She snorted, resisting the tug on her chin. "It was a great dream, though. You and I were on a boat, out on the water somewhere.. it was sunny, cool… I think we were going somewhere nice." She finally looked up, to see the twinkle in Xena's eyes. "You were singing to me."
A dark eyebrow edged up. "Oh, I dunno.. that honey was sounding pretty nice… "Xena drawled. 'I can tell you I'd have been singing ithf…" She chuckled soundlessly as Gabrielle reached up to cover her mouth.
After a moment, the bard removed her fingers, and rolled onto her back, stifling a yawn. "You feeling any better?" She asked. "You look better.. not so pale." She touched Xena's cheek. "No fever."
"Yeah, things are pretty good." The warrior agreed. "Just needed some rest, I guess." A flash of lightning lit the room, and they both glanced towards the window. "And get out of that damned piece of Hades inn… thanks, partner. Moving here was a great idea."
Oo. Gabrielle acknowledged the little squiggle of delight those words could still produce in her. Then she remembered Mikah's visit the night before. "Might want to put a hold on the congrats, Xe. Apparently we were recognized coming in here." She told the warrior. "And there are some unhappy folks out there."
"Ahhh… is that so?" Xena absorbed the news. "Don’t' want the competition, eh?"
Gabrielle solemnly shook her head.
Hm. Xena revised her baseline plan. Going out and exposing her weakness to her potential opponents might be a bad idea. That could work for her, or against her - for her, in that they might underestimate her capabilities, against her in the fact that anyone worth his salt as a fighter would go right for the injury to her leg to take her out.
Gabrielle watched the blue eyes flicker, almost able to see the rapid thoughts crossing the warrior's planed face. "Probably a good thing you pulled that too tough for my leathers act last night, huh?" She hazarded a guess at what Xena was thinking.
"Mm." Xena nodded. "Probably a good idea just to hole up here today and let my leg heal as much as it's going to." She pronounced. "Stay off it as long as I can."
The bard put her hand on Xena's forehead. "All right. " She said. "Who are you, and what have you done with Xena?" She almost laughed at the half insulted, half amused look she got. "Let me see.. didn't I hear myself suggesting that yesterday.. or maybe it was the day before…"
"Yeah, yeah yeah.. I know." Xena rolled her eyes. "So, I’m a stubborn, impatient, intolerant pain in the ass." She sighed. "And don't I know it."
Awww. Xena was so charming when she did that. Gabrielle allowed herself to be charmed willingly, and she laid her head down on the warrior's shoulder as she gave Xena's belly a comforting rub. "I wouldn't have you any other way, sweetie." She said. "It's when you stop acting like that, when I get very scared."
A long, loud roll of thunder made the walls vibrate, and they could hear sheets of rain hitting the stone outside. The sill of the window, too, was now damp as the wind brought the weather just a little bit inside, despite the overhanging shelter of the roof.
"Well." Gabrielle glanced around. "At least it’s big enough in here for me to get in some staff practice." Her hands flexed slightly. "Can’t do much about those races, though.. unless you can just give me some pointers."
"Hmm." Xena laced her fingers together and put her hands behind her head. "Give you a strategy, you mean?"
The bard nodded. "Yeah."
An eyebrow cocked in thought. "You could take advantage of the traditional rules. " Xena said. "That might work."
"Mm.. yeah. Dress code. " The warrior responded. "Rules say everyone competes naked."
Gabrielle went very still. After a frozen moment, her eyes very slowly tracked up Xena’s body, until they met the warrior’s. "You’re joking with me."
Solemnly, Xena shook her head from side to side.
The bard crawled up and poised over her partner’s body, getting nose to nose with her and making her eyes almost cross. "Are you seriously telling me you expect me to go out in front of all those people with no clothes on?"
Xena stared in fascination at the incredible roundness of Gabrielle’s eyes, and the gentle flare of her nostrils as she took long, slow breaths. "Sure." She said, casually. "You’ll knock em out.. what’s the problem?"
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped, just a little.
Though she’d spent years as a warlord, and prided herself in keeping her composure under the worst of circumstances, it was too much for Xena. She felt her lips twitch, and a chuckle forced it’s way out of her chest. "Gotcha."
The green eyes narrowed dangerously. "You little…. "
"Ah ah ah.. let’s not get into size comparisons." Xena teased, grinning as she let her hands slide over her partner’s contours.
"Oooo.. you are so toasted." Gabrielle growled, lowering herself until their foreheads touched. "I almost believed you."
"I know." Xena licked the bard’s nose.
"Augh." Gabrielle immediately dropped her head and rubbed her face in Xena's shirt. "That tickles."
"No." Xena wrapped her arms around her and twisted her body, trapping the bard in a solid hold. She then proceeded to lift her shift up and attack her vulnerable ribs with long, agile fingers. "But I bet this does."
"Eerrrrrgghhhh!!!" Gabrielle let out a squeal, twisting to try and get away from her tormentor. "XEEEEENNNAAA!!!!!"
Both hands were occupied, or else the warrior would have surely clapped them over her sensitive ears. In any case, she gave the impression of pinning them back like a distressed filly as the squeal reached the fingernails on slate range.
Finally, she couldn't take it any longer and she tensed her stomach muscles, pulling herself up and surprising the bard with a kiss that stopped her in mid caterwaul.
Of course, that also slowed her tickling down to something less itchy and more sensual as Gabrielle stopped struggling and responded, dropping to lean on her elbows as she returned the kiss. Then she reached around and bit Xena's ear, escaping as the warrior squawked in outrage and rolling out of the bed out of the reach of vengeful fingers. "Haha."
Xena rolled over and reached for the edge of the bed, obviously intent on following her.
"Uh uh!" Gabrielle held a hand up. "You promised you'd stay right there." She warned.
"Now wait a minute, I did not.."
"Yes you did! You promised you'd stay in bed." The bard accused. "All day, remember?"
"Gabrielle!" Xena spluttered indignantly. "That isn't what I meant… I meant I wasn't… I.."
The blond merely stood there, tapping one bare foot, with her hands planted firmly on her hips.
After a moment, Xena exhaled, growling a little as she settled back onto the pillows and tugged the blankets up around her. She gave the bard a grumpy scowl, and folded her arms over her chest. "Fine."
Gabrielle waited a moment, to make sure she'd actually won, then she smiled. "That's better." She turned and headed for the fruit platter. "If you stop making that face, I'll bring you some breakfast."
Xena stuck her tongue out at the cloth covered back. "I’m not hungry."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle busied herself at the table, slicing off a bit of the thick, nutty bread and spreading some cheese on it, then selecting a few pieces of fruit. "My mistake.. I must have confused the thunder with the rumbling I heard from your stomach."
"That's right." Xena closed her eyes resolutely.
"Too bad." The bard commented casually. "Guess these peaches will just go to waste."
A blue eye appeared. "Peaches?"
"Mm." Gabrielle nodded. "Nice, ripe ones." She added. "Know what I think, Xena?"
"I think if you don't bring those peaches over here, I’m going to rope you with these covers and make it a moot point." The warrior stated. "That's what I think."
Gabrielle muffled a grin, and capitulated, stopping to pull a bag from her kit before she walked back over and settled on the edge of the bed, delivering the bread and fruit to her adorable curmudgeon of a partner. "Well, since you put it so nicely." She watched Xena bite contentedly into a peach, which she'd split in half and unpitted, loosing a dribble of juice which made it's way down her chin.
"Sloppy." Gabrielle leaned over and licked it off, then stole another kiss. "So, will you really stay in bed all day?"
"Mmph." The fruit was perfect, not too tart, and gentle on her stomach. "For a while, yeah." Xena admitted. "It'd be senseless to go out in this weather, and I’m not crazy about letting the rest of that crew out there get the idea I've got something to worry about." She nibbled on the bread, finding the cheese, too, very mild. "Not bad."
"No." Gabrielle was chewing on her own piece. "Well, here." She nudged the bag closer. "I got these for you.. just keep your mind busy for a little bit."
Xena glanced at her in mild surprise, then she unknotted the bag's top with one hand, and opened it, then shook out the contents. Her eyes widened a little as the sleek, gorgeously carved wood came into view, and she lifted the first of the puzzles, gazing at it admiringly. "Wow."
A smile appeared on Gabrielle's face.
"Thanks." Xena put her bread down and reached out to touch the bard's cheek. "They're beautiful."
Gabrielle stretched out on the bed and laid her head against the warrior's shoulder, as Xena fingered the puzzle, turning it over in the pale light and admiring the fine grain of the wood. "Yeah, they are." She agreed softly. "I found this stall, in the market.. they had these, and I found out the seller actually was the one who made them. It was really nice."
Xena was already peering at the puzzle, examining it from all angles as her mind went over it's possible solutions. She glanced absently at the bard as a piece of fruit was put to her lips, then took it and bit down. "I love these things."
"I know." Gabrielle was very pleased with her gift. "Tell you what… you start on that, and I’m going to get my diary. I’m days behind… you can help me remember the trip up here, while we finish off our breakfast."
Thunder crashed outside. "Sounds good to me." Xena glanced at the window. "Glad we're not on the road."
"Mm. . I feel sorry for anyone who is." Gabrielle agreed.
Eponin stared morosely at the growing puddle, whose edges threatened the soles of her boots. "Centaur butt hairs."
"Sh." Ephiny arranged the tarp they'd spread over the wagon in an attempt to keep everyone dry. "Not in front of the baby."
Pony gave her a look. "I bet that kid c'n curse fiercer than I do." She glanced pointedly at Dori, who was seated contentedly on a box under the wagon, playing with her favorite toy. "Cause I bet she hears a lot of that stuff going on when she's around."
"Pon." The Amazon regent warned. "C'mon. She's just a kid." Ephiny waggled her fingers at Dori, who grinned at her. "Right, cutie?"
"Boom boom!" Dori waved her hands, one of which held a stuffed dragon. The sky answered with a roll of serious thunder, and a redoubling of the rain.
"Stop that." Eponin growled. "It's bad enough, thanks."
Ephiny chuckled. "She doesn't control the weather."
"How do you know?"
Ephiny chewed her lip on that one, then shrugged one shoulder. It had been raining for hours, and they'd pulled off the road, afraid that the wash of water coming down it, already knee deep, was reaching flash flood stage. They'd climbed up onto the embankment and unharness the team, then rigged up a shelter as best they could in the open range. It wasn't perfect, but it kept most of the water off them, and the elders could huddle in the wagon in relative comfort while the storm raged.
Well, no sense in watching it. Ephiny turned and crawled under the wagon, where Cait and Paladia had also taken refuge. Cait was carefully wrapping a leather strip around one of her daggers, while her friend crouched next to her, head brushing the bottom of the wagon as she sketched in the dirt with a twig.
Ephiny took a seat next to Dori, and watched the baby play with her toy. Dori seemed to be absorbed in a world of her own, as she patted her hand on the box, and moved Flameball along, making him gallop. "What's up, Dori?"
Round, mist green eyes blinked at her. "Go horsies." Dori explained earnestly. "Baba go fast, swim like a fishie.. come up, go down over there." She moved the dragon, making it's somewhat tattered wings flap.
"Yeah?" Ephiny plucked a blade of grass, and chewed it. "You know what you're doing, Dori?"
Dori imitated her, pulling up some grass and tossing it. "Make mess!" She giggled. "Get mama!"
The Amazon chuckled. "You're making stories." She touched the baby's bare foot. "Just like your mama does."
"Mama." Dori repeated.
"She is, isn't she?" Cait commented. "She's quite clever."
"Too smart for her own good." Ephiny sighed. "I keep saying that, and then I realize something very, very scary." She glanced at the two younger Amazons. "Someday, this little Hades on hooves is going to carry Gabrielle's right of caste."
"Mama." Dori looked up at her, recognizing the name. "Mama good."
Ephiny's lips quirked. "Well, she gets a point for character judgement. " She said. "How about Xena, Dori. Is Xena good?"
A small silence fell, as everyone turned an interested ear towards the child. Dori regarded her with a small frown. "Boo?"
"Um hm.. Boo. Is Boo good?"
"Yes." Dori pronounced. "Love Boo."
'There." Cait grinned triumphantly. "See? I've always said so."
Ephiny plucked another piece of grass. Pony came over and settled beside her, taking a drink from her waterskin before passing it to her partner. "What d'you think she's gonna think when she grows up and hears about all the stuff Xena did?"
Everyone looked at Pony.
"What?" The weapons master said. "You know she's gonna… it's not like she lives in a freaking temple of Hestia."
There was an uncomfortable silence. Dori glanced around at all of them, and frowned.
"It shan't matter." Cait finally said, in a decisive tone. "She's Gabrielle's daughter, after all."
Good point. Ephiny had to agree. Gabrielle, who not only knew the worst of the stories, she'd lived in them. "Yeah, you're right." She said. "If she's half as protective as Gab is, we're all in trouble."
"Tubble." Dori slapped Flameball on the ground. "No good make play. Too loud!" She scowled at them.
"Now what?" Pony snorted. "What's her problem??" She turned to Ephiny, who shook her head.
"She's yelling at you." Paladia spoke up for the first time. "Telling you to shut up and let her think." The big Amazon poked the ground with her twig.
Eponin snorted. Ephiny rubbed her face. Cait prudently went back to her knife. The rain continued.
Continued in Part 7