One Wild Ride
Gabrielle woke to the sound of rain thrumming on the ground outside, and on the roof overhead. She could feel a gust of cold, wet wind on her face, and it made her incalculably glad the rest of her was tucked warmly under the covers with Xena pressed up next to her.
There had been many times, in the recent months, when she’d been woken far less comfortably, by streams of icy water washing over them, or once, even, a patter of hailstones that almost defeated even Xena’s ethereal reflexes.
The un-romantic side of traveling on the road. Gabrielle took a breath of air soaked with moisture, and the scent of bruised pine leaves, and wriggled a little closer to her partner. It was still dark out, and by the dim light of the banked fire she could see Dori in her little bed, still curled up asleep.
The somewhat scary side of traveling on the road, as well.
It was true that Dori had enjoyed adventuring with them, there was no way for Gabrielle to doubt that. But seeing her child in the pouring rain, and with dangerous animals around, even with parents as capable as Dori’s were, it had worried her.
No one could be one hundred percent alert one hundred percent of the time. Xena herself had admitted that. There had been some close calls out there, since Dori was so active, and the world was so unpredictable. Xena had taken pains to try and teach Dori what was dangerous and what wasn’t, but her terrible two year old simply didn’t acknowledge anything as un-fun as fear.
Xena had found her one memorable morning facing off against a bear. Not a big bear, to be sure, but it had been twice the size of Dori, and spitting mad since the child had been between it, and a beehive it badly wanted to get to.
Dori, of course, had held her ground and been chucking rocks at the animal, getting it even madder when her parents had bolted up over the ridge, drawn by the bear’s yowls. Without thinking, Xena had jumped right over Dori’s head and flung herself at the bear, who saw a six foot tall armored human yelling bloody murder heading for him and sensibly turned tail immediately and ran.
Bad message. Now Dori thought if she yelled loudly enough at anything, it would run from her. Gabrielle had to smile, though, remembering her toddler’s enthusiastic charge after the bear in her buddy’s footsteps, yodeling lustily all the while.
It had cracked Xena up, and they’d all ended the moment in a laughing heap, before turning back to capture the beehive with it’s much loved treat of honey. Gabrielle could taste the sweetness of the moment on the back of her tongue, in fact, and she smiled in remembrance, acknowledging the balance in her emotions about being out there, still.
Scary, and yet, it had turned out wonderful, as so many of their adventures did.
So many wonderful moments. The bard closed her eyes, and exhaled in pleasure. But this was a wonderful moment too, waking to the sound of rain and the knowledge she was safe from it, the knowledge that Dori was snug in her bed, and they were here in their home, together.
She’d had enough of living rough for a little while. Time to enjoy the little pleasures they’d earned right here at home, even if that in and of itself posed some issues.
Crowds, and mad mom’s, and Amazons. Oh my.
The whisper tickled her ear. “Yeees?” She murmured back. “What are you doing up?”
“No fair. That’s my line.”
Gabrielle turned over, wrapping her arms around Xena’s body and reveling in the closeness and comfort. “Ungh. Hear that out there?” She sighed. “I’m just glad you got the roof done.”
Xena chuckled, soft and low in her throat. “Getting soft in your old age?”
“If that’s what you wanna call it, sure.” The bard said. “I like to think of it as getting smarter as I get older.”
“Never worked for me.”
“Cut the chicken poop, grandma.”
The warrior chuckled again, and pulled her closer. “Not too loud. You’ll wake the tornado.”
“You’re already up.” Gabrielle teased, sleepily. “Cause we both know where she gets that from, don’t we?”
“Same to you, Boo.”
Xena’s arms tightened around her again, as a roll of thunder sounded outside. “Know what?” The warrior uttered into her ear. “I’m damn glad I finished that roof, too.”
Gabrielle laughed silently. “I bet you are.” She answered. “Since I know how much you love lying in puddles of cold water with dew condensing on that beautiful nose of yours.” She settled against Xena with a contented sigh.
“Hurm.” The warrior ran the fingers of one hand through Gabrielle’s blond hair, ending with them cupping the back of her head lightly. “You do know me, don’tcha.”
Yes. She did. Gabrielle could finally say that, at least to herself, and not feel any pangs of doubt about it. She knew Xena. She knew every inch of that tall body, every quirk of her eyebrows, every expression on that very expressive face.
She knew Xena’s soul, now intertwined so closely with her own, in all it’s shades of light and shadow. “I do.” The bard whispered. “Now go back to sleep, so I can, huh?”
Xena pulled her head a little closer and kissed the top of it, then she tucked the covers more snugly around them and relaxed. “Sure.”
The rain outside thrummed down harder, and a rush of wind blew in the scent of the forest clearly. The natural rhythms were soothing, rather than alarming to the two tucked in bed, and they quickly lulled them both back to sleep.
Hours later, the rain was still falling outside, but the occupants inside were up and about, busy at various tasks, some more productive than others.
“What’cha do, mama?” Dori peered over the top of the table at her mother curiously.
“Making stories, honey.” Gabrielle answered, absently sucking on the top of her quill. “Is that okay?”
“Of course.” The bard smiled.
“Boo stories?” Dori queried further.
“Of course. What other kind are there?” Her mother replied. “How about I write a story about Boo and the buppits? Would you like that?” She glanced over to where Xena was attaching a shutter, a rapt furry audience dogging her heels. “Hm?”
Xena turned her head and looked over her shoulder, a skeptical expression and raised eyebrow greeting Gabrielle’s idea.
“That would be fun, right Dor? Boo and the buppits?” Gabrielle repeated, with a grin. “Wouldn’t that be cute?”
“Yes.” Dori edged around the table and came closer. “C’n we go see gramma?”
Thunder rolled overhead. “Not right now, honey.” Gabrielle cocked her head. “It’s still raining. You don’t want to get all wet, do you?”
“Yes.” The child answered. “Go wet, go now.”
Xena chuckled, as she finished one shutter and turned to start on a second. “Silly question, that’s little miss fishie, remember?”
“Yeesh.” Gabrielle wrote another line. “Well, mama doesn’t want to get all wet, Dori, so you’ll just have to wait for it to stop raining. Sorry about that.”
Dori considered that. “Otay.” She turned and went for her toy box. “Play with buppits and Oogy instead. Buppits! C’mere!”
The puppies remained glued to their current target. “G’wan.” Xena nudged the nearest of them with her foot. “Hey, maybe she’s got cookies. Go get some.” She suggested.
“Xena.” The bard shook her head. “You’re so bad.”
“Buppits!” Dori sat down with her toys, and the motion attracted the puppies. They ran over to investigate this new plaything, making Dori squeal with delight. “Good! Good!” She tumbled with them on the floor, a sea of wagging tails and baby toes.
Xena gracefully vaulted out the window and lifted her new shutter, examining the leather straps holding it together with a critical eye. “I’ll have to replace these after the rains, but they’re quieter than that damn iron.” She commented. “No squeaks.”
“Leather squeaks.” Gabrielle answered. “Yours and the horses does all the time.”
“Well, it does.” The bard replied. “Creak crick creak crick.. honey, I should know.” She mock sighed. “Between you and the crickets, I don’t’ know how I got any sleep up there on Argo sometimes.”
“Saucy wench.” Xena put one hand on her hip and peered back into the window. “Who’s being contrary today?”
The bard stuck her tongue out.
The warrior shook her head and went back to her task. The shutters were hastily made things, woven branches in a tight square pattern inside four pieces of old barn wood, attached with the leather straps off an old set of her leathers. But they did the job, which was to keep the cold blasts of spring air from coming in and she was satisfied with them for the moment.
Another roll of thunder made her turn around and look at the landscape, now thoroughly drenched with the heavy rain. The cabin stood on a flat promontory, she wasn’t worried about the ground water rising up over the two steps of the porch, but mudslides weren’t an impossibility either.
So far, it looked pretty secure. Xena decided to wait until the rain stopped, however, and do a tour of the area just to check it out. “Bet they’re grumbling down in town.” She commented.
“Bet they are… not to mention at the Amazon’s camp.” Gabrielle had wandered over, and was now leaning on the windowsill. The rain wasn’t reaching where she was, but a fine mist was, and she leaned into it, wrinkling her nose as it coated her face.
“Weren’t you the short blond woman complaining about the rain this morning?” Xena tacked one of the shutters in place.
“Your point?” Gabrielle sat on the sill, then hopped over it, wandering around on the porch and reviewing the wet scene. “I don’t mind getting a little wet.”
Xena put her tack hammer down and reached behind her, snaring Gabrielle around the waist and pulling her over to her. She leaned back and kissed the bard with lazy passion, taking her time about it until Gabrielle turned all the way round and pressed their bodies together. ‘Really?” She licked a droplet of rain off the bard’s nose. “Only a little?”
“Ooohh.” Gabrielle nuzzled her neck. “There are some awesome advantages to being up here, you know that? Not having six men and a donkey passing our porch is only one of them.” She wiped a mist of cold rain off the warrior’s cheek. “I think that’s what I love so much about being out there with you. It’s just us.”
“And Dori.” Xena reminded her, bending her head for another kiss. “Who thinks we’re entirely too affectionate with each other.”
“Wait. She’ll learn.” Gabrielle assured her. “When she gets old enough to know what this feels like.”
“When I have to chase suitors off our doorstep with my cane?” Xena snickered. “Gwan back inside and let me finish these damn shutters before we both end up soaking wet.” She drew in a breath as she felt the sudden warmth of the bard’s hands under her shirt.
“And your point is?”
“You should know.” Xena leaned against the windowsill and pulled the bard to her. “You’ve got your fingers all over them.”
Gabrielle pressed her body against her partners and ducked her head to one side to peer past her shoulder. “Yes, honey?”
“Mama, buppits made a big mess!”
“Uh oh.” Xena chuckled. “I ain’t looking.”
The bard peeked over the sill. Standing near the window was one dark haired child, with ink smeared across her face, and four puppies with black whiskers and black spattered paws. The newly planked floor of the cabin now sported human and paw prints liberally sprinkled about. “Oh boy.”
“Buppits did it.” Dori assured her earnestly. “Make bad!”
Xena covered her eyes, and tried hard not to laugh.
“Sheesh.” Gabrielle sighed. “Well, at least it’s only ink.”
“Could be worse.” Xena agreed.
“Could be worse.”
Shutters or not, it seemed to Xena to be something of a lost day. Not a bad thing, necessarily. She was lying on her back on the bed, gazing lazily up at the roof as she listened to Dori’s piping voice and Gabrielle’s deeper answers.
Echoes of a younger Gabrielle’s tone made Xena smile. “Yees?”
“Think it’ll stop raining at all today?”
Xena listened to the rain, judged the steady pattern of the drops, recalled the thickness of the clouds over head, and took a wild guess. “Nah.”
“Me either.” The bard agreed. “That means either one of us gets wet as all heck or we eat odds and ends.”
The warrior stretched and put her hands behind her head. “Odds and ends sounds good to me.”
“Thought you’d say that.”
Xena’s eyes twinkled. “So the point of this conversation was… ?” She inquired, idly enjoying the banter. Over the months they’d traveled together before coming home, she’d found their interactions moving to a new kind of gentle intimacy that was comfortable, and surely familiar.
There was a solidness there, that they hadn’t had up until now. It was as though they’d moved past the uncertainty of their early romantic relationship, and past the grief of their growing apart, past the timid joy of their reconciliation to this new level that was a cross between affection and sweet teasing, with a little touch of an almost sibling closeness that she’d never really known before.
Not even with Lyceus, who had, after all, been her little brother. This was a more equal sharing, as befitted their partnership. Xena enjoyed being top dog, and she’d never deny that, but she also found that she liked having someone in her life she could just be who she was with, and that was okay with both of them.
“We could let Dori cook.” Gabrielle suggested innocently. “Dor, would you like to make something good for your Boo?”
“Boo?” Dori looked up with interest. “You gots good?”
“Sure.” Xena amiably agreed. “You get to clean up whatever it ends up as.”
“Warrior Princess Punk to you, Amazon.” Xena wagged a finger in the air in the general direction of her partner. “Count yourself lucky – she’s probably a better cook than I am.”
Gabrielle started laughing. “C’mon, Dor. Let’s go get Boo.” She got up and took Dori’s hand, and they both headed for the bed. “Wooooooo!” She let out her own version of Xena’s trademark yell and pounced on the supine woman.
Xena grabbed them both as they jumped on her and wrapped her arms around them, rolling over into a jumble of limbs. “Who’s got who?” She asked, as both mother and daughter started giggling. “Ah, you couple of lightweights.”
“Boo Boo Boo!” Dori squealed. “No itch!”
“Heh.. she knows you as well as I do.” Gabrielle chuckled.
“Because she’s as ticklish as you are.” Xena answered, demonstrating by skittering her fingertips over her partner’s ribs.
“Augh.” The bard snatched her hands. “Xena!” She let out an indignant yell.
“Not in the ear, Gab.” Xena winced, unable to cover hers. She ceased her tickling, though, to prevent a repeat performance. “Ow.”
“Ah. Sorry.” Gabrielle relaxed, free of her torment. She snuggled back down and exhaled, draping her arm over her partner’s stomach. “I still really like rainy days, you know that, Xe?” She gave Xena an indulgently loving look. “Even if I get tickled on them.”
“Me, too.” The warrior admitted. “Especially if I’m inside during them.”
“Fee to.” Dori sprawled over Xena’s legs. “Boo, you gots cookies?”
No, Xena didn’t have any cookies, but now that Dori mentioned it, she felt like some. “Tell you what.” She said. “I’ll go down the hill and bring us up some cookies. How would you like that?”
“You don’t have to.” Gabrielle protested gently. “We’ve got stuff here.”
“I know.. but that rain’s been pretty hard all day.” Xena said. “I want to make sure everything’s all right down there. River was running a little high.” She tickled Gabrielle lightly on the back of her neck. “Despite what my mother thinks, I do give a damn, y’know.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle hesitated. “You almost gave your life for this town twice in my recent memory. If they don’t know you give a damn, they can all go to Hades. Even your mother.”
Yeah. Xena knew that, in her heart. “I know.” She said. “Maybe that’s why it hurts when she says that. A couple of years ago.. she’d have been right.”
Gabrielle merely shook her head no.
Xena sighed. “Anyway, she damn well knows better now.”
“Maybe I should go.” The bard mused.
Xena patted her on the back gently. “Don’t make me sit here worrying about you slipping and falling all the way down that damn mountain. Stay here. I’ll be right back.” She started to extricate herself from her family’s embrace.
Gabrielle tightened her hold.
“I’ll bring back nut bread.” The warrior coaxed.
“Do you really think that’s all it takes to win me over?” The bard answered. “C’mon, Xena. I’m a little more complicated than that.”
“Hm.” The bard released her, however, and rolled over, sitting up on the bed as Xena got herself up out of the other side of it. “Poke an eyeball at the Amazons on your way down?”
“C’mon, or I’ll have to go down with you just to salve my conscience, and that means we’ll have to take Dori with us, and the puppies, and..”
“Okay. Right.” Xena swung her waxed leather cape over her shoulders and put the hood up. “Do me a favor and have some hot tea ready when I get back?”
“You got it.”
Xena stepped outside and closed the door behind her, pausing to review the path before she stepped out into the rain. The rain had slacked a little, but it was still coming down pretty hard and she felt the mist drench all of the exposed parts of her as she dropped down off the porch and started for the path to town.
Thunder rumbled. Xena kept her head down and drew her cloak a little more closely around her as she started down, placing her boots carefully to avoid the tumble she’d been warning her partner against. The ground was slippery, and the rocks even more so, and she wished she’d borrowed the bard’s staff after just a few minutes of traveling.
There was just no way she was going to fall on her butt. She’d never hear the end of it from Gabrielle, and with all the mud and gunk she’d collect in doing it there was no way to hide it either. “Whose hair brained idea was this, again??” She complained out loud, as her boots slipped on a root and she almost lost her balance.
Everyone thought she had some kind of supernatural control of her body, Xena knew. Everyone except for Gabrielle, now, of course. One time, even the bard had thought that until she’d lived with Xena a little and found out she tripped and fell on her ass as much as any other human being who did the kinds of physical things she did.
In fact, she’d realized just how much she’d come to enjoy their friendship when she discovered she didn’t mind looking like an idiot in front of her every once in a while. Gabrielle had, in fact, taught her it was okay to laugh at herself occasionally.
Only very occasionally, and there would be nothing funny at all if she took a header here with no one to appreciate it but the squirrels.
Xena dodged a fallen log, then changed her mind and leaped up onto it, running along the bark that offered a better footing. She wasn’t supernatural, but she’d spent a lot of years training her body to do what she wanted it to do, when she wanted it to do it.
Unfortunately, she didn’t often have to take into account pieces of what she traveling over breaking off under her feet. “Yow!” As she jumped off the log, her boots hit a piece of shale that cracked off, taking her with it as it separated from the rock underneath and went sliding away.
Oh boy. Xena found herself balancing on the slate, her downward motion too fast for her to step off without potentially disasterous results. A tree headed her in a flicker, and she swiveled her body to avoid it, ducking under a branch that came so close to her head it captured a few stray dark hairs in it’s bark.
Whoa. Too close.
The rain kept her from seeing too far ahead of her, and she wavered, crouching to lower her center of gravity and extending her arms as the piece of slate slipped down the path like a stone over the water’s surface.
Suddenly she was airborne as the slate rocketed off a small slope, flying through the rain until it landed again, spinning her completely around before she started plunging downward. Her cloak swirled, catching on a branch and she grabbed at the throat tie, ripping it off seconds before the tree ripped her off the slate.
Rain hit her full force through the branches, drenching her to the skin. She shook her head rapidly, shaking the hair and rain from her eyes as she focused on staying up right. “This is nuts!”
She looked around, searching for a place she could jump off and do the minimum of damage. The path where she was sliding was surrounded by craggy rock, though, and on one side, a precipice. Neither was really her first choice.
Xena deliberately relaxed her attention, allowing her body to take over her downward motion. Instinct took over from caution, and she felt her muscles loosen as the shaky sliding she’d been doing turned into a graceful glide.
Her boots were still slipping, but her reflexes made up for it, keeping her upright. It was an almost uncontrolled feeling, as though she was flying down the mountain. The leaves were whipping against her, cold slaps that stung where the drenching rain didn’t.
After a moment to get used to the feeling, Xena realized she liked it. The speed excited her, and she leaned forward a little, extending her arms slightly to the side, enough to balance but not enough to catch on the rapidly passing trees.
Wooh. She bent her knees a little, weaving around a small rock outcropping. This is fun.
The path curved around and she leaned to one side, taking the curve as the slate rattled across the path. A fork whipped up on her left hand side, and at the last minute she realized it was the path down to the Amazons. Reversing her body, she tilted her impromptu surf board nearly on end, and somehow made the fork, her speed taking her up and over the small rise that lead to the village.
“Yah!” The Amazon guard jumped out of the way, ending up head first into the mud as Xena whipped past.
Xena grinned and leaned forward, as her speed increased. Check on the Amazons, huh? Ahead of her, she could already hear raised voices and chaos, and as the slope deepened, she was pretty sure she was only going to add to it.
Gabrielle spent a few moments just listening to the rain, and daydreaming after Xena left. It was nice to just be able to lay there in the daylight, with nothing more pressing to do than write in her diary. On the road, they usually traveled from sunup to sundown, and with Dori with them there had been precious little time to just lay back and let her thoughts wander.
Now she had that little time, and she reveled in it, thinking of their new home, and all the plans they had for it, and her family, and their future.
It was a peaceful feeling, akin to the one she’d felt last when she’d been first pregnant with Dori – a gentle disassociation that made her rest one hand on her stomach, her thumb rubbing the soft fabric over it in mild speculation. “Hey Dor?”
“Mama.” Dori crawled over and tugged on her hair. “Go do stories?” She pleaded. “Want some.”
Ah, flattery. The bard rolled over and propped her head up on one hand. “You like my stories, Dor?” She asked. “You like hearing them, and thinking about what they say?”
Dori blinked at her. “Good stories.” She concluded. “Boo save the cow. Like that.”
The bard chuckled softly. “No, you don’t really understand what they mean yet, do you. You just like hearing about Xena.”
“That’s okay. Lots of people are like that, sweetie. They just listen to the stories, and they don’t realize your mama works very hard to make them mean something special.” Gabrielle told her. “Hey listen.. do you think you’d like having a little brother or sister?”
Dori frowned at her after considering the request. “Cow?”
“Hrm.. no.. ah.. like a buppit. A people buppit.” The bard explained. “Someone who you can have be with you and play with you all the time.”
“Pipple buppit?” Dori seemed dubious.
Gabrielle sighed. “I wish I could remember how I felt about it when my sister was born.” She said. “I was about your age, but I don’t have any memories at all about that. Maybe that’s a good thing.” Her brow creased. “Maybe it means, no matter if it takes a little while to get used to it, you don’t remember and it’s all okay.”
“Otay.” Dori at last recognized a word she knew. “Cookies?”
“I never really resented my sister.” Gabrielle mused. “At least, I don’t think I did.”
“Mama, go do stories.” Dori was apparently bored by her mother’s speculation. She crawled closer and butted the bard in the stomach with her head. “You go Boo?”
“Oof.” Gabrielle steadied herself as she was knocked slightly backwards. “Do I go Boo? You mean, did I want to go with Xena?”
“Of course I did.” The bard answered, in a gentle tone.
“So we go.” Dori apparently thought this decided the matter, and she headed for the edge of the bed closest to the door. “Boo Boo Boo..”
“Whoa..” Gabrielle grabbed her by the foot and hauled her down. “Hold on there, bandit.” She got an arm around Dori’s body and pulled her back, knowing from long experience a single foot hold was a precarious thing. “We’re not running out there in the rain, okay?”
“But mama.. you go Boo?” Dori protested. “How come?”
Her mother hugged her. “Honey, Boo said she wanted us to stay here.” She explained. “And sometimes we just have to do what Boo asks us to do, right?’
Gabrielle had to snicker, if only quietly. “Well, this time we do.” She said. “So you just stay right here, no running out the door. Promise?”
Dori sucked on her thumb, batting her dark lashes at her mother.
The snub nose wrinkled into a familiar grin.
“Doriana.” Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing. “You don’t want to make Boo mad, do you?”
“Oh, rats, you ‘re so cute.” The bard squeezed her. “Sweetie, just wait here. Xena will be back soon, and she’ll bring you cookies, okay?” She rocked back and forth on the bed, feeling the child start to giggle. “You’ll have lots of cookies, and I’ll have nutbread, and we’ll have Boo here. How’s that?”
“Otay.” Dori agreed. “Mama, love you.”
Gabrielle kissed her on the top of her head. “I love you too, Dori.” She responded. “You know how much?”
“Dis much.” Dori flung her hands out with a giggle, knowing the answer.
“Right.” The bard swung around and put her legs over the side of the bed. “So how about you and I keep busy finishing my story while we wait for Boo, okay? Then you can help me make some tea.”
Gabrielle got up and hefted Dori in her arms, carrying her over to the pile of furs she’d been sitting on to write. “You sit here, and help me.” She eased to the ground, looking up as a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning lit up the cabin.
“Too loud.” Dori complained.
“Yeah.” Her mother agreed softly. “You sit here, Dori. You sit here, and stay with me until I throw capes over both of us and go running out the door.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Nothing. C’mon.” She dumped a pile of quills on the furs. “Help me sort these out.” She watched the child paw among the feathers. “Put the black ones here and the white ones over here, right?”
Dori picked up one of each color and waved them around. “Doo doo doo..” She directed an invisible chorus, making her mother’s face crinkle into a grin of memory briefly. “Mama, h’com gramma’s mad?” She asked suddenly. “No good.”
Gabrielle paused, surprised at the child’s perception. “What makes you think grandma’s mad, honey?” She asked. “She’s not mad at you.”
The bard considered. “Did you hear grandma yelling at Boo?”
“That’s bad, right?”
“Yes.” Dori tossed a feather at her. “H’come?”
How to explain such a complicated thing to a child Dori’s age? Gabrielle chewed on the top of the feather she’d just caught from mid air and pondered the question. “Grandma is mad that we moved up here, to this new house.”
“H’com?” Dori picked up a quill that had a little ink on it, and started drawing on a scrap of parchment. “Good.”
“Because grandma loves us, honey.” Gabrielle told her gently. “She wants us to be right around her all the time, so she can be with us. You know all about that, don’t you? Just like you want to be with me and Boo, right?”
“Okay, so that’s why grandma is mad. Because she wants to be with us.”
Dori looked up at her. The green eyes opened wider, and a look of understanding appeared. “Oh.”
“At least, that’s why I hope she’s mad.” The bard admitted wryly. “But I think it is.” She grabbed her parchments and held them up as the puppies woke up and came over to investigate. “Whoa.. hold on you guys.. cut that out.”
“Buppits!” Dori greeted them. “Mama, you tell story Boo with buppits?”
“Um.. I was just kidding about that, Dor.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Me and my big mouth. Okay… let’s see. Once upon a time, Boo was out in the forest h..uh, looking for flowers.”
“Yeah, okay. Boo was in the forest running around and having fun.”
“And all of a sudden, Boo heard something squeaking. It was a sound she’d never heard before, so of course, she went off to find out what it was.”
“Woof.” One of the puppies sneezed, as a feather tickled its nose.
“Squeak squeak.. Dori, do you know what a buppit sounds like when it’s a baby? It makes a sound like that.” Gabrielle explained. “So that’s what Boo heard, and she went off to find out where it was. She hunted high and low, she climbed up trees, and she climbed down a hill, but she couldn’t find out where the noise was.”
“Boo Boo Boo.” Dori wriggled. “Boo can find it!”
“You think so?”
“Boo does ever’ting.”
Gabrielle leaned back against the wall, a smile appearing on her face. “You know, I think she can too. So Boo went over the hill, and through the forest and she found a little cave, and in the cave, you know what she found?”
“That’s right.” The bard agreed. “She found four little buppits, with fur, and tails and ears, and one little buppit that looked just a little like you.”
The Amazon village was a sodden mass of scrambling bodies, mud, and virulent cursing. Since the village was on a lower plateau, the deluge of rain had washed through it, drenching the inhabitants of the half finished huts and swamping the supplies left on the groun.
“Get those bags over here!” Ephiny yelled, shading the rain off her face with one hand. “C’mon, move it!” She urged the two Amazons headed her way. “Whose bloody idea was it to put this damn hut here, anyway?”
“That would be you.” Pony reminded her, dragging a heavy sack filled with sand into place, and patting it.
“Oh. Right.” The regent sighed, and swiped her wet curls off her forehead. “What was I thinking?”
“You were thinking dry season.” Pony stolidly went back for another bag. “Same thing we all were thinking.”
Ephiny whirled, her eyes widening as she saw a hut collapsing, the heavy spars leaning crazily over as it toppled down on three Amazons inside. “Son of a b..” She broke into a run towards them, yanking her boots out of the mud with oddly stacatto sucking sounds. “Grab it! Hurry! Get that off them!”
The hut teetered on the edge of collapse, the three women inside it grabbing for the cross- spars frantically as the rain redoubled.
Pony cursed, and dropped the bag she was carrying, racing after Ephiny. She was halfway caught up with her when something caught her eye, and she looked to her left, where the slope came down to meet the plateau.
Something was moving towards them. Instinctively, Pony reached for her sword and turned, arcing towards the motion and putting herself between whatever it was and her partner. She could see it was something big, and dark, and it was moving very fast, with a very strange, gliding action. “Eph!”
Ephiny heard the warning note. She pulled up in her tracks and whipped her head around, searching for whatever threat Pony had discovered. Her eyes widened as she saw the onrushing figure, and she blinked, then scrubbed the rain from her eyes. “What the…”
Soaked with rain, her dark hair flying out in damp tendrils, Xena appeared to be flying down the ridge, her body balanced over a flat piece of material and her body swaying with that incomparable balance and grace that only she possessed.
Even from where she was, Ephiny could see the wicked grin, and with that, she could imagine the glint in those blue eyes as the warrior sped towards them, drawing a straight line towards her right through the center of the town.
Wild. Untamable, always. Ephiny half shook her head. “Look out!!!” She let out a bellow of warning. “Incoming!!!!”
“Yahhh!!” Two Amazons dove out of the way as the fast moving body whipped past them heading for the falling hut.
Ephiny blinked again. “Pony! Move!”
Eponin got a good look at the attacker, and for once did what she was told, turning and running for her life.
“Yeeeeahhh!” Xena aimed for the toppling structure, skimming across the water logged grass on a bare sheet of water as Amazons jumped out of her way in all directions. “Whoohoo!”
“Xena!” Ephiny yelled. “What in the Hades are you doing!”
The warrior jumped off the slate as she reached the hut, lazily flipping into a somersault before she landed with both boots in the water, sending a resounding splash everywhere before she hopped forward and grabbed the hut’s roof spar just as it toppled, the weight of the structure coming down onto her shoulders as she threw her body into supporting it. “Saving your asses.”
The slate thumped to halt near Ephiny’s boots, rocking a little before it settled into the grass. “Ah.”
Xena straightened her slightly bent knees, leaning forward as the hut swayed crazily. “Get out.” She ordered the Amazons. “I can’t do this forever.”
The three women scuttled out hastily, dragging their belongings into the mud after them.
“Grab that! C’mon.” Pony hauled one of them back, throwing them toward where Xena was stolidly standing. “Hang in there, champ.” She got into place next to the warrior, only to realize she was too short to help much. “Gods be damned, Xena.”
“Just get that brace up.” The warrior grunted, her jaw clenching at the effort of holding up the roof. “Prop it near my elbow.”
“Give me a.. oh, thanks.” Pony wrestled the heavy pole into place with a hand from Ephiny. “Hey, get over here you lazy wenches!”
“Move it!” Eponin roared, glaring over her shoulder at the hesitant women. “Chickenshits!”
Thus spurred, two more Amazons rushed into the hut, grabbing the support and helping them to wrestle it into place.
“Damn sorry you’re holding this thing up, Xena.” Pony grunted. “You could just give this thing a kick, y’know?”
The pressure of the wood was grinding into her shoulders, and the weight of the roof was pushing her boots down into the mud. Neither was a pleasant sensation, and Xena just wanted it to be over with. She glanced to her right, then carefully shifted her weight onto her left leg and lashed out with her other, slamming into the support and knocking it into place. “Like that?”
“Oof.” Pony went sprawling as the surface she’d been pushing against suddenly wasn’t there. She ended up on her knees, her shoulders slamming into Ephiny who reeled backwards. “Somethin like.. that.. oops.. Hades… sorry Eph.”
“No problem.” Ephiny looked up from her seat in the mud, spatters of it liberally coating her face.
Xena cautiously eased out from under the spars, holding on until she was sure it wasn’t going to collapse on her. It was still unstable, but she got another support into place with a wrench of her arm, and finally the roof stopped wavering.
“Everyone all right?” The warrior turned around and looked at her audience. She extended a hand down to Ephiny, who grabbed it and allowed herself to be hauled to her feet. “Ephiny?”
“Fine, fine.” The regent didn’t bother to wipe herself off. “Glad you showed up when you did.. thanks.”
“Thanks.” One of the Amazons who lived in the hut added, diffidently. “That was really great of you.” She looked around at the interior of the hut, sadly scattered with mud and bits of grass. “Though I’m not sure it was worth saving it.”
The other Amazon nodded agreement.
Xena shrugged. “I’ve had some get blown out from under me.” She said, casually. “Gotta build somewhere.” She turned to the regent. “Might want to think about building up.. just to keep everyone’s.. um.. “
“Ass.” Ephiny flicked a bit of mud off hers. “Out of the muck.”
“Yeah.” The warrior agreed. “And we have ground slugs here. Hate em.”
The other Amazons came closer, gathering in the downpour to listen. For once, there was no animosity in their gazes, and no dour glares in Xena’s direction. It was new, and different, and Xena felt herself responding to that, straightening up and tossing her wet hair back with a jerk of her head.
The regent looked around, at the sad state of the village. Then she looked back at Xena. “Can I buy you a drink?” She asked, frankly. “I need some advice.”
It was a watershed moment, and Xena recognized that, despite the fact that they were standing in the rain, up to their ankles in mud. “Sure.” She agreed. “Gabrielle asked me to stop by here, see if you needed anything.”
Two messages. One, that their queen was thinking about them. Two, that Xena was willing to do what Gabrielle asked, for whatever her personal reasons were. It always paid to remind them that the oath she’d sworn when she’d been inducted into the tribe was one of loyalty to her partner, not to the Amazons in general.
Just so no one got any funny ideas and started clipping feathers to her or anything. She freed her boots from the muck and followed Ephiny towards her quarters, which were, unlike most of the rest of the village, intact and somewhat snug looking.
Pony stayed behind. “I’m gonna see if I can get this place cleaned up a little.” She yelled after Ephiny, who raised a hand and waggled it in response. “Yeah, you’re welcome.” She turned to the group. “All right, lets get moving with those damn bags,”
“Damned rain.” Ephiny swept aside the beads that were the doorway to her home, and entered. She waited for Xena to follow her, then she turned around. “Want a towel?”
Xena picked a hide covered stool and sat down on it. “Nah.’ She shook her head. “I”ve just gotta go out there and get wet again. No point.”
Ephiny poured something from a skin into two cups, and came over, taking the other stool and handing Xena one of the wooden goblets. “I was up to see your new place this morning.”
The warrior’s eyebrows hiked. “You were?”
The regent nodded. “Yeah, I’m a sucker for punishment, what can I tell you. It was pretty early though.. I didn’t want to bother you guys.”
Xena took a sip from the cup, finding a sweet, white wine in it. “You could have.”
“You build that thing.” Ephiny said. “You did, yourself, didn’t you?”
Xena leaned back and extended her legs, crossing her booted ankles. “I had help.”
“But you put it together, you decided how it would be, right?”
“Sure.” The warrior frowned, unsure of what Ephiny was getting at. “Well, we did.” She clarified. “My partner has some definite opinions of her own.”
Ephiny smiled. “I’m sure she does, but what type of wood to use on the walls are probably not among them. Look.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “This place is all new to us. That’s what’s taking so long, we don’t know the ground, we don’t know the trees around here.. I need a native guide.”
“Everyone would feel better if you took charge here, and scoped out the area. Tell us the best way to set this place up.”
Xena looked around carefully, glanced in her cup, looked at Ephiny, then shook her head a trifle. “Who are you, and what have you done with the damn Amazons?”
Ephiny gave her a wry grin, tipping her cup in Xena’s direction. “A lot changed while you were gone.” She offered, quietly. “I’m not sure why or how it all happened, but one night a bunch of the old girls, not the elders, but the..”
“Gonna be elders soon.” Xena supplied. “The ones who hated my guts and didn’t accept Gabrielle.”
“Mm.” The regent half nodded. “They showed up in my hut one night and just told me they were over it. They finally agreed that the tribe was better off for having you both a part of us. Frankly..” She took a sip. “I thought they were drunk off their asses.”
“But they weren’t. So I don’t know.” Ephiny shrugged. “But all the trash talk stopped, and everyone’s been looking forward to you both coming back here. They want…” She seemed a touch embarrassed. “Maybe they’re just tired of my lame leadership and they see something better.”
The warrior felt suddenly a little out of her depth. This seemed to be teetering dangerously on the edge of a sensitive chat, and she wished Gabrielle were here to keep her right out of it. “Nah.’ She disagreed.
“Yeah.” Ephiny looked honestly at her. “They want you.”
“Gabrielle, you mean.”
“Both of you.”
Xena set her cup down and studied their friend. Ephiny seemed a little tired, and she could see some signs of a quiet resignation in her face. “They only think they do.” She finally concluded. “They always want what they don’t have.”
Ephiny waggled her hand, acknowledging the comment.
The warrior took a long sip of her wine, giving herself a chance to think. “Sure I’ll help.” She said. “Wont’ take much… you’ve got some good people here. They’ll catch on fast.”
Ephiny nodded. “I’d like Gabrielle to come in and boot butt for a while. I need a break.”
Warning bells the size of muskmelons rang in Xena’s head. “I’ll let her know that.” She offered. “You know she’ll be there for you.”
A smile. “Oh, I do know that.” The regent said, sincerely. She paused a moment, then changed the subject. “So, what the Hades were you doing when you came down here? That a new Boo routine?”
It was an accident. Xena’s mind supplied. I took a bad step, broke off a piece of rock and managed to stay on it so I didn’t end up in mud and animal crap up to my eyeballs. “Yeah.” She replied. “New balancing thing I’m trying out. Gotta keep fresh.”
“Eh.” Ephiny toasted her. “Teach it to Pony.”
“I’ll tell her you said that.”
Finally, the regent smile, a warm, genuine expression that lit up her face. “I am glad you’re back.” She admitted, raising her cup towards the warrior.
“Me too.” Xena touched it with her own. “Just hope it stays that way.”
The rain had let up some by the time Xena bid Ephiny goodbye, and continued on her way down to Amphipolis. She had a lot to think about as she walked, so she kept her pace slow as she traveled between two craggy ridges and approached the bridge across the gorge.
Halfway over, a sound made her stop and turn to the side, gazing down into the abyss with her head cocked to one side. For all the years of her memory, the gorge had been a dry chasm, an old creek bed that had lost it’s liquid lifeblood save the barest of trickles, and then only in the deep of the wet season.
Now, for the first time, she could hear the soft hiss and rush of water at the bottom of it. She put her hands on the rope of the bridge and leaned over, her eyes searching the overgrown foliage intently. It was too thick for her to see anything, but the sound persisted and she wondered if it was simply runoff, or something more substantial.
With a faint frown, she released the ropes and continued on, making a mental note to check the slopes below the village. They’d had a wet winter, she knew, and that might count for some of it, but she knew the destructive power of too much water better than most.
Had used it to win a few battles, in fact. Xena reached a lesser slope, and eased into a jog as her boots found surer footing and her body loosened up again after her rest in Ephiny’s quarters. Soon enough, she passed through the back gates to the town, the usual traffic dampened to almost nothing from the weather.
It made Amphipolis a little more familiar to her, being able to walk through the narrow lanes without being crowded, or bumping into people. It felt good, and she relaxed a little.
The inn loomed up before her and she started to walk up the steps, when she heard her mother’s voice inside, a sharply critical note evident and her name attached to the end of the statement. Xena stopped, one hand on the door, then she turned and left the porch, without looking back.
“Cy, will you lay off it?” Johan caught a glimpse of a familiar figure, retreating through the rain away from the inn. “Leave them be.”
“Don’t you start that.” Cyrene told him. “I have to hear it from everyone else.”
“Ever think everyone else might be right this time?” Her husband wryly asked. “I don’t understand you, you know that? I remember you tearing into Josc, way back when, and telling him to leave the kids do what they wanted, and here you are!”
“Damn it, it’s dangerous up there!” Cyrene spluttered in exasperation. “There’s no one to even hear them if there’s trouble!”
“Cyrene.” Johan gripped her shoulders. “Xena and Gabrielle can take care of thesselves. Hades, they can take care of thesselves, and us, and half Greece, and they don’t need no help in doing it. What’s the matter with you, woman?”
Cyrene pulled herself free and went to the window, seeing only rain and sodden trees now. “There’s nothing wrong with me.” She stated flatly. “I just put a lot of my life the last few years in bringing my family back to me, and now this.”
“Cy.” Johan rubbed his temples. “They didn’t move to Persia. Just up the mountain.”
“It’s the idea of it.”
Johan shook his head, and walked back through the inn. “Have it your way, but I’ll tell you, Cy… you keep this up, they will move to Persia.”
Cyrene glanced over her shoulder and frowned, then returned her attention to the window. A motion caught her eye, and she blinked, leaning forward as she recognized Xena’s distinctive form crossing the bridge over to the lower town. “Hmph!”
Xena walked quietly into the market, the stalls still open despite the weather. A few people were even shopping, now that the rain had let up and the ground was just a sodden mess instead of a dangerous sheet of water.
They all knew who she was. Xena returned the polite greetings with a casual wave, her eyes picking among the various wares to find something to bring back home for dinner.
She’d promised Gabrielle nutbread, and Dori cookies. Since the inn wasn’t in her plans, now she had to find an alternate source for them, as well as an explanation as to why she was tossing perfectly good dinars around just to avoid a fight.
“Two of those.” Xena sighed, pointing at a pair of melons she knew her partner would enjoy.
“Sure, genr’l.” The vendor agreed amiably. “Like a basket to take with?”
“How much?” A dark brow cocked.
“Just bring her back when you’re back this way.” The man held his hand up. “We know where you live.”
Xena looked at him.
“Ah.. didn’t mean it like that.” The vendor hastily amended.
“Thanks.” The warrior accepted the basket, tossed the man a coin, and continued her browsing. Generally, she wasn’t into the whole shopping experience, but since this was mostly for her family, she really didn’t mind it too much.
She spotted a leather crafter, and wandered over, admiring the well cured hides tucked carefully under the thatched roof. Their journeys had been tough on her leathers, and she hadn’t had time yet to sit down and patch them up the way she liked them. “How much?” She indicated a soft, supple dark brown hide.
The tanner walked over, furtively glancing at her completely drenched leathers and well made, if equally well worn boots. “Won’t stand hard usage like that, Xena.”
The warrior glanced down. “Probably not.” She agreed. “But it’s not for me.”
“Ah.” The tanner nodded, a little more at ease. “Got something a little brighter, if you’d like.” He flipped over a few skins and exposed one dyed in a deep, rich purple, a color Xena definitely hadn’t seen before. “Got some pigment up near the border.”
“Hm.” Xena touched the surface, letting her fingers evaluate the skin beneath it’s pretty coating. It had a fine texture, and who ever had tanned it, had done a damn fine job. Her lips tensed into a faint smile. “How much?”
“Only if you give me the steer it was wrapping in the bargain.” The warrior replied.
“Pretty piece of hide.” The tanner countered. “That color cost me.”
“Six.” Xena said.
The vendor shook his head. “I can’t let it go for that. Too much put into it.”
Xena’s eyes twinkled a little. “I could send Gabrielle down here to bargain for it herself.”
“Seven.” The man responded instantly.
“Done.” Xena handed over the coins, aware that she was probably spending more than was strictly necessary but satisfied nonetheless. She slung the hide over her shoulder, neatly folded, and continued on. The rain had petered out, save a few brief spatters, and she even caught the hint of wan sunlight near the west as the clouds reluctantly gave way.
She picked up a packet of walnuts, and a few other edibles, then wandered over to the bakers stall where the woman inside was starting to pack up her wares. “Got any sweet breads left?”
The baker turned, surprised. “Wh..ah.” She put down her basket. “Hello, Xena. I didn’t expect any more customers today.. it’s getting late.” She hesitated. “And you don’t frequent the market… not with your mother being such the cook she is.”
Xena pulled a wicker rack closer. “Had to come down here for something.” She lied. “Figured I’d give the inn’s kitchen a break. Gimme two of those.”
The woman wrapped the two honeycakes, one brimming with fruit, without comment. She then waited, as Xena prowled the rest of the offerings. “Have some flatbreads left.” She added hopefully.
Flatbreads. Xena liked them, but it was a staple of theirs on the road, and she’d steered clear of the things since they’d been back. She poked a few of the breads, then sniffed as her nose caught a different scent. “What is that?” She pointed.
“Oh.” The woman sighed. “It’s just a bad experiment of mine, really. Thought folks would like it, but no one’s even so much as nibbled all day.” She pulled a pan of dark, thick looking pastry over. “It’s got nuts in it.. and some new thing, a bean oil extract my husband brought back from the coast.”
Xena broke off a corner and tasted it. It was sweet and rich, and it reminded her of something, some far off place she’d once been to, but she couldn’t remember clearly enough to think where. The one thing she did know was that she really liked it.
And, that Gabrielle would, too.
“Not bad.” She casually commented. “Different.”
“Too much so.” The woman shook her head. “Pity.”
Xena licked her fingers. “Ah, I’ll take it off your hands for you.” She offered. “It’s not that bad, and the kid’ll probably like it.”
The baker beamed at her. “You will? Oh.. how about.. ah.. listen, a dinar, okay? For the whole pan. Your little girl is just so cute.”
Wasn’t the kid Xena had been referring to, but she figured Dori wouldn’t mind the treat either. “Sure.” She handed over a coin and took possession of the pastry, which the woman wrapped into a nice smelling bundle for her.
She had honeycake, and she had some nuts. She had an acceptable replacement for nutbread, all she was lacking was something dinnerlike for dinner. Nothing in the market really appealed to her, and she kept walking.
Maybe Gabrielle’s idea of odds and ends had been right after all. The warrior strolled past the lower town inn, hearing a raucous round of voices coming from the window. She could smell the scent of stale ale already in the wood of the building, and she felt no urge to sample the interior after her first visit when they’d arrived home.
Where she’d once faced an army, now rows and rows of houses had sprung up, lining mud covered lanes that spread out from the bridge like the spokes of a wheel. The market and inn, and some of the merchants were near the waterfront, near where the barges docked and offloaded their cargos.
Further down the huts got a little bigger, a little nicer, as people who had come to Amphipolis after the war became prosperous and put their money into building homes for their families. There was nothing, really, wrong with that and in fact the town had grown along the plans Xena herself had roughed out before they’d left.
They’d dug the refuse pits where she’d told them, and put enough distance between the buildings for carts to pass, collecting the garbage.
But it still stank. That many people with that much waste in that small an area just couldn’t avoid that, and Xena found her nose wrinkling in reaction as she circled the central square area, and headed back towards the river.
Maybe she’d just go catch a fish in the brook near the cabin. Bread and fruit was one thing, but the thought of bringing up anything raw from the town just made her stomach turn. Xena decided to quit while she was ahead, and she lengthened her strides, as the clouds closed in again and the wind picked up.
She paused before the bridge, and went to the river’s edge, looking carefully at the level. It was high, the water was creeping up the bank on both sides, nibbling away at the rock and mud the lined it. Xena tipped her head back and looked at the thickening clouds, and felt a prickle of apprehension, instincts flaring she didn’t often ignore.
Xena looked up, to see Johan on the bridge, heading towards her. She turned her back on the river and walked up to meet him, the planks sounding odd and hollow under their boots. “Rains coming back.” She said, briefly he stopped in front of her.
“I know.” Johan said. “Listen, I wanted to talk to you about your mother.”
Xena sighed. “Do you have to?”
Johan’s lips twitched slightly. “Xena, I’m sorry.” He said, sincerely. “I know you’ve caught the back end of this.”
The warrior shrugged. “I just did what I had to do. I’ve done that all my life. Not sure why it’s different this time.”
He looked uncomfortable. “Justs wants you all close. She’s getting on, y’know.”
Xena looked at him. “Don’t give me that.” She said. “I don’t buy it.”
Johan turned, and gestured back towards the upper town. “No, or me either.” He said. “Pride thing, somewhat I’m thinking.”
“Hm.” A wry expression crossed Xena’s face. “We’ve both got that.”
They walked together across the bridge, as the wind tugged at them. “Didn’t want to come to the inn?” Johan indicated her burdens. “Had some roast birds on, kind you like.”
“Heard my mother bitching about me. Decided to keep going.” Xena replied.
“Ah.” Johan rubbed his chin. “Sorry about that.”
“Not your fault.”
They walked a little further, off the bridge and up the slope that lead to the old town gates. Xena paused in front of them, her hand resting on the twisted iron as she remembered the day they’d won the war. She turned and looked down at the sprawling growth below her, and shook her head. “I wonder who really won?”
“What’s that?” Johan asked.
Xena just shook her head again.
“You don’t like what’s happening here, do you?” Her step father asked. “All this change and new town and all?”
“No.” The warrior answered honestly, as she pushed off the gate and started through it.
Johan put a hand on her arm. “Why?” He asked. “Ye saw this place through the worst of times. Why not enjoy the good?”
Xena studied his face, feeling a little sad. “Because it’s not my home anymore.”
Johan stopped in his tracks and let her walk on alone, a few stray drops making their way into the breeze along with the strong scent of lightning.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and shook her head as she watched Xena enter the cabin. “Didn’t you leave here with a cape?”
The drenched warrior, packages tucked under one arm and fish dangling from her other hand paused in consternation. “I did.” She set the packages down and knelt to greet Dori, who was unfazed by her dampness. “Hey, shortie.”
“I think I left it somewhere.” Xena admitted. “I’ll go out later and find it.”
“Uh huh.” The bard walked over and took the fish. “Um.. this what they’re serving down at mom’s?”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle decided to take care of the immediate concerns first. She took the fish over to the small worktable against the wall and retrieved her knife set while she listened to Xena play with Dori. “Hon, you might want to get those leathers off.”
“I might.” Xena agreed.
“Sokay if I just grill this? Dor’s kinda hungry.”
“Sure. You’re not?”
“Ahem.” Gabrielle smiled, as she heard Xena stand up and walk across the floor, the newly laid floorboards squeaking lightly under her weight. “How are the Amazons?”
“Next time we definitely go wf..” Gabrielle paused, and chewed, a delightful taste filling her mouth. She hastily swallowed and turned towards her partner. “What was that?” She managed to get out.
“Like it?” Round, blue eyes looked innocently at her.
“OH yes. “ Gabrielle licked her lips. “There’s more, right?”
“Mama?” Dori tugged her shirt. “Hungry.”
“There’s more.” Xena leaned forward and gave Gabrielle a kiss. “The Amazons are a little waterlogged, but all right. Eph’s another story.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle was torn between questioning Xena, preparing the fish, or tracking down more of the sweet cake she’d just eaten. “Hold that thought.” She came down on the side of responsibility and tossed the fish onto her biggest pan, held off the fire by a wire grate Xena had installed.
Xena took the opportunity to strip out of her wet leathers, going to the door to the bathing room and tossing them onto a rack inside. She pulled a shift over her head before she came back into the main room, sitting down on the bed to unlace her equally drenched boots.
Dori wavered, then came over to her. “C’n help, Boo?”
“Sure, shortie.” Xena held out a lace. “Pull.”
Dori complied, tugging the lace free with such sudden effort, she ended up sitting down hard on her bottom. “Whoof!”
“Easy there.” Xena handed her another lace. “What have you been doing, helping mama?”
“Mama make good story, Boo.” Dori told her.
“She did, huh?” The warrior tousled her daughter’s hair. “What silly thing did she have me doing this time, hm?” She glanced at her partner’s back as she heard a soft chuckle. “Uh oh.”
Gabrielle rinsed her hands off and wiped them, then she went to the packet Xena had put down. On top there was a mostly wrapped package, which smelled wonderful. Beneath it was a folded hide, and next to them both was a basket. “Did you go into the new town?”
“This is beautiful.” Gabrielle spread her hand over the hide. “What a pretty color.”
“Glad you like it.”
Gabrielle did. “Hm… does that mean your next set of armor’s this color? Cool.”
Xena cleared her throat.
The bard smiled, gently nudging aside the leather to get to the wrapped package. She peeled the top layer off the wrapping and broke off a piece of the contents, examining it with curious eyes. It was a cakelike substance, but moist and dark with a larger grain than the usual cakes they found in Cyrene’s kitchen.
It also smelled wonderful, and she spotted nuts buried inside the pastry. She put it in her mouth and chewed it, amazed at the taste. “This is incredible.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to chuckle.
The bard turned, taking the packet and setting it up on the mantel to keep it from curious fingers and noses. “You have to take me tomorrow and show me where you got it.”
“Mom chase you away again?”
Xena tossed her boots into the bathing room. Then she stood up and faced Gabrielle. “C’mere.” She opened her arms and closed them over the bard as she walked right up into her, fitting her body to Xena’s without saying a word.
Dori patted the floor. “Gush!”
“You got it, shortie.” After many hours of being chilled and wet, the warmth of Gabrielle pressing against her was unspeakably blissful and worth the childish criticism. “Yeah, I wasn’t in the mood for arguments.” She said. “Johan found me though.”
Xena shrugged, giving the bard a hug before she released her, and started moving the rest of her booty off the bed. “They just don’t get it.”
Instead of moving away, Gabrielle moved closer again instead, taking the stuff from her partner and bumping her with one hip. “Relax while I get that fish ready. Dori, come play with Boo.” She set the bundles down on the worktable and dug out the nuts and melons, looking from one to the other in some mild puzzlement.
“Boo Boo Boo.” Dori grabbed Xena’s knee as she sat down on the bed. “Dup!”
Obligingly, the warrior picked her up and put her on the soft surface. She reclined on her side, and held up one hand for Dori to pattycake with. “You need to talk to Eph.”
“Do I?” Gabrielle set aside the melons for a moment and carefully turned the fish in it’s pan, dusting it with a bit of herbs from the jar on the mantel.
Xena watched Dori grab her fingers and examine them, pulling on her hand with a serious expression. “She thinks the Amazons want us to take over from her.”
Unseen, Gabrielle’s eyes popped wide open. “She does?”
“What would make her think that? Xena, you know as well as I do that she’s a very good regent.” Gabrielle tossed a handful of the nuts into the pan with the fish, stirring them around to toast.
“She thinks they’re tired of her leadership, and they want a change. You, specifically.” Xena made a circle of her thumb and forefinger, and put it over Dori’s eye. “See ya.”
“Dee ya!” Dori clutched her hand, giggling. “Goh Boo!” She crawled over and jumped on Xena, who rolled over onto her back and bounced up and down a little. “Go fly!”
“No flying today.” The warrior said. “I’m tired.”
“Did Ephiny really say that?” Gabrielle asked, as she separated the fish into portion and slid it onto their wooden plates.
“Yup.” Xena put her hands around Dori’s hips and lifted her up. “Here, you fly for a change.”
“Eee!” Dori held her arms out as the warrior moved her through the air. “Go go go!”
Gabrielle had to admit the news troubled her. “Come over here, the two of you.” She cut one of the melons into slices, and set it in a bowl in the center, then snagged a skin full of cider and set it down as well. “Tell you what, I should send you there more often. I spent half the day with them yesterday and didn’t get one word out of her about that.”
Xena carried Dori over to the table, and sat her down on her sturdy high stool. She took the chair next to her, and patted the one Gabrielle usually used. “Siddown.”
“Num.” Dori hadn’t waited on ceremony, and was busy moving her fish from the plate to her mouth in the quickest way possible. “Mama, dis is good!”
“Thanks, honey. Thank Boo for catching it for us.” Gabrielle answered absently, resting her head against one fist as she used a utensil and a more decorous method of eating. “That was very nice of her, wasn’t it?”
“Pure self interest.” Xena forked herself up a bit of fish. “Anyway, you scare the Amazons speechless, what can I tell you.”
“Me?” Gabrielle pointed at herself. “Xena, I don’t scare anyone.”
“Sure you do.”
“I do not!”
“Scared the tanner into cutting his price for me just by mentioning your name.” Xena teased.
The bard rolled her eyes. “Give me a break.”
The warrior chuckled and shook her head, taking up another piece of fish and adding a few of the roasted nuts to it. “Anyway, talk to Eph. Maybe she’s just cycling or something.” She said. “Or she needs a few days off from that bunch.. gods know I would.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle took a piece of melon and ate it. “Yeah, we could do that.. hey, Xe? How about we send her and Pon off on a honeymoon?”
“We?” Xena’s brows quirked.
“You’re my consort, in case you forgot.” The bard said. “I figure, if we do that, by the time they come back they’ll be all chilled out, and the Amazons’ll be ready to get rid of us.”
Xena pondered the idea as she finished her dinner. Several things about it were mildly appealing, most notably the fact that it would give her an excuse to stay away from the town for a while. Maybe that would give her mother a chance to chill out as well. “Huh.”
Gabrielle took that as the affirmation it was, and went back to eating.
“Mama, look.” Dori held up a nut, then ate it. “Good!”
“Sweetie, you think everything is good.” The bard replied good-humoredly. “Everything that’s not green or good for you, I mean. Just like your Boo.”
Now Xena had her head propped on her fist as she watched her family finish up. “She eats peas.” She objected. “And carrots.”
“Those are orange.”
“And small insects.”
“Just like you.” Gabrielle gazed across the table, meeting Xena’s eyes and holding them. “Know what she did today while you were gone?”
Loaded question. “Um.. no. What?” Dori was capable of pretty much anything, and she’d recently discovered a new love of climbing things, the higher the better. It was a skill they both knew the child hadn’t gotten from Gabrielle.
“Boo Boo Boo..” Dori patted the table contentedly. “Gaboo and the buppits… bck bck.”
Xena blinked, shifting her gaze to her daughter and then back to Gabrielle. “Ah..you mean..” She twirled her finger in the air hesitantly.
“Serve you right if I said yes.” Gabrielle poked the tip of her tongue out. “No, on the floor. But it was really cute, and she’s definitely got your moves.”
“How do we know that? I’ve never seen you do one.” Xena said.
“You’ve never seen YOU do one. I have. Lots. Trust me.” Gabrielle got up and went to the mantel. “Hey Dori, you want some cookies?”
“Boo got us something yummy.” The bard separated three squares of the pastry and brought it back to the table. “Here. See what you think of this.” She handed Dori the treat, then gave Xena hers, circling the table then letting out a squawk as the warrior snagged her around the waist and pulled her down into her lap. “Whoa!”
“Yum.” Xena wrapped her arms securely around her partner, feeling the shift as Gabrielle took a breath, then a returning warmth as the bard draped herself over the warrior’s shoulders. “That’s my kind of dessert.”
Indulgently, Gabrielle broke one of their pastries in half, and offered it to her. “So what do you think, Dor? Good?”
“Mm.” Dori was absorbed in her treat, a cavalcade of crumbs scattering across the table.
The bard returned her attention to her quiet partner, who was ignoring the pastry, her head leaning against Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Xe?” She set the pastry down, brushing the backs of her knuckles against the warrior’s planed cheekbone instead. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena responded. “Gwan and eat it. I’m stuffed.” It felt nice to just sit there with Gabrielle, absorbing the gentle affection in the green eyes now studying her intently and letting the troubling questions of the day fade off somewhere. “Eph asked me to help them build that place.”
“Ahh.” The bard’s face split into a pleased smile. “Now that’s more like it.” She bit into her half of the cake. “You know, it’ll be good to spend some time with them. I think I’m liking the idea.”
Xena exhaled contentedly. “We’ll make it work.”
“Of course.” Gabrielle tilted her head back, as thunder returned and they heard the rattle of rain again. “Don’t we always?” She popped the rest of the pastry into her mouth and licked her fingers. “Mm.”
Late that night, with rain still pouring down outside and the cool wind rattling the new shutters, Gabrielle lay curled up in bed, her head pillowed on Xena’s shoulder and her arm wrapped around her snugly. Under her ear, she could hear the steady beat of the warrior’s heart, but her breathing was a little to light, a little too shallow for her to be sleeping.
Well, Gabrielle wasn’t sleeping either. “Xena?”
“Mm?” The warrior answered at once.
“Something bothering you?”
A soft chuckle. “No, I was just thinking about things.”
“Like what things?” Gabrielle asked, rubbing her thumb lightly over Xena’s ribcage.
“Amazons. Mom. Somersaults.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed, inhaling a breath filled with the scent of clean linen and her soulmate. It was nice to be surrounded by their woven quilt, she mused, instead of the often musky smell of their traveling furs.
“How you’re gonna look in that purple leather.”
The bard’s eyes opened again, and she tilted her head to peer up at Xena’s shadowy profile. “You’re so funny.” She tickled her partner’s ribs. “Listen, I’m really sorry mom’s being so unreasonable. I’ll go down there tomorrow and see if I can see what the problem really is.”
“Xena, that’s not the real issue and we both know that.” Gabrielle said.
“I told her the town stank.”
“It does, and she knows that too.”
Gabrielle was quiet for a few moments. “Are you mad at her for something?” She felt the warrior shift a little, an almost unconscious tension that spoke more clearly than words. “Still pissed about them coming to Athens?”
She felt the sigh rather than heard it. When they’d returned, they’d both had a big argument with the town elders, one which Gabrielle suspected had led to them asking her not to try and fill Josclyn’s place as reeve. Xena had been her typically blunt self, she’d insulted the elders without apology and Gabrielle had, as usual, backed her up one hundred percent.
Johan had told her later that he’d agreed with them, but they’d been gone so long, memories had faded and self righteousness had taken it’s place as the elders had convinced themselves that they’d gone along to Athens for the best of reasons and ended up getting pushed aside.
Xena had been maddest at Cyrene, because she could have stopped them, and she hadn’t. Maybe that was what had triggered the whole thing when they’d decided to move.. maybe that had something to do with it all. Gabrielle wondered if Cyrene didn’t feel just a little bit guilty herself about it.
About Josc dying.
For one time, she and Xena had no guilt about anything that happened there. They’d gone and they’d done what they’d done for some darn altruistic reasons, and they’d really gotten nothing out of it but some aches and pains.
Well, aside from her winning that bard contest.
And Xena winning all the games.
And them getting the taxes relieved. But they’d done it all for Amphipolis, so maybe that was why they both felt like they didn’t really owe anyone here anything including explanations of why they moved up the side of a mountain.
Maybe they were just growing past their pasts. The bard thought about that, and it put a tiny, wry smile on her face. It was a strange feeling to think that, having been under those clouds for so long.
“Hm?” Gabrielle pressed a little closer, and gave Xena’s collarbone a little kiss.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Ah. Trivial stuff.”
“How much I love you.”
“How amazing my life is getting to share it with you.”
The bard chuckled silently, feeling the heat of a definite blush coloring Xena’s skin. “C’mon, Xe.. don’t you like when I tell you that? You’re the love of my life. Who else can I say that to?”
Xena cleared her throat slightly, her body shifting again, this time in a different way that ended with her curled around Gabrielle a bit more. “I do like it.” She whispered into the bard’s ear. “Just wish I could come up with the words myself sometimes.”
Gabrielle felt the gentle touch brushing against her cheek, tracing her ears, warming her lips. “You don’t need to.” She whispered back. “You talk louder when you don’t say anything at all.”
Ah. Nothing like being married to someone with the soul of a poet. Xena had to smile, hearing a note in Gabrielle’s voice she’d once thought gone forever.
She remembered the first time she’d heard it, all those years ago now, before she’d gone and died when she hadn’t realized all the reasons she’d had to stay alive.
Two days out from any town, in badlands so barren even Xena hadn’t had any luck in hunting. The weather had rolled in and they’d found a small niche in the rock with barely enough room for them and the saddlebags and nothing but a bit of smoked venison and an apple between them.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle squirmed into a more comfortable position, “Wow. It’s sure raining outside, isn’t it, Xena?” She looked at the warrior, and then looked away, a funny half grin on her face.
“Sure is.” Xena agreed. “Good thing we found shelter.”
They were pressed together by necessity, shoulder to shoulder in the small space that was thankfully filling with their combined body heat to combat the chill. Gabrielle’s green cloth top was soaked and so was her skirt, and both their boots were caked with mud.
It was an odd, and awkward intimacy.
“Yeah, that’s for sure.” Gabrielle agreed. “Kinda cramped, though.”
“Hm.” Xena reviewed her long legs, folded into the space by some miracle of her own flexibility. “Yeah.” She lifted one hand and scratched her nose, aware suddenly of every square inch of Gabrielle’s skin touching hers and just how small the shelter really was. “Just big enough for the two of us.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle removed the small utility knife she kept tucked in her boot, and split the apple in half, carefully cutting the center with it’s pits out before she handed one half to Xena. “Might as well start with the good stuff.”
Xena accepted the apple, and bit into it. “What would I do without your cooking?”
Shy green eyes suddenly fastened on her face. “I don’t know. What would you do?”
It was the tone that filled Xena’s ears. A soft throatiness backed with emotion she’d never heard from Gabrielle before, at least, not directed at her. She was almost afraid to look over at the bard, but she could feel the warmth of the smaller woman’s breath on her shoulder, they were that close. “Starve?” She hazarded a guess. “C’mon, Gabrielle. You know I can’t live without ya.”
Their eyes met.
“Likewise.” Gabrielle said, into the charged stillness. They both fell silent, then the bard smiled, breaking the awkwardness. “Hey, can you get the venison from that bag? I don’t think I can reach it unless I climb over you.”
Mechanically, Xena reached for the bag, her eyes still watching her companion’s face. “Climb over me?” She asked, both her eyebrows lifting.
“Or.. um.. get wet.” Gabrielle pointed to the opening.
“Or get wet.” Xena handed over the bag. “Right.”
“You.. don’t want me to get wet, do you?” Gabrielle questioned, a definite twinkle in her eyes now.
Xena was tongue tied for the briefest of moments. Then she bit into her apple. “Get the venison. No one’s getting wet.” She ordered.
“Today.” Xena added, edging over just a little bit to unkink her leg. She glanced to her right, and found Gabrielle looking right at her. They both grinned, and looked away, and Xena had to wonder if she was imagining things or..
Of course, the answer to that had been emphatically not. Xena could finally look back on those times now and not feel the pang in her chest anymore. Yes, they’d been through Hades together, but that was now in their past, and she’d realized lately that it really was in their past.
Maybe that was part of her impatience with the townsfolk, and with her mother.
“Hey.” Gabrielle uttered softly. “You still thinking?”
Gabrielle pushed herself up onto her elbow and leaned over, giving her partner a kiss on the lips. “Stop thinking.”
Definitely not imagining things. Xena dismissed her thoughts for the morning, and responded, rolling over and pouncing on top of the bard, growling softly right into her ear. “Careful what you ask for, shepherd.”
“Oooo.” Gabrielle grabbed hold of the muscular body now poised over hers. “I’m in deep trouble.”
“Yes, you are.”
Outside, the thunder rolled on impotently, sending a petulant spatter of rain that did no more than bounce off the roof.
Continued in Part 3