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Summary - Picks up directly from the end of "The Debt" (I-II) and follows Xena and Gabrielle as they deal with the after-effects of the adventure and prepare for an unusual journey home.
The standard disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong in their entirety to Universal and Renaissance, and to their writers and whoever else owns the property. No copyright infringement is intended, and this is all in fun and/or angst. The other characters in the story originated from my somewhat bored and workweek fried brain, and are not taken from any literary source or any other source whatsoever.
Violence Warning: This is Xena so there will be violence. She is, after all, not Marge Simpson, but she's not Atilla the Hun either (at least not any more). I'd give to a PG.
Spoilers: Makes direct reference to this season's The Debt (Parts I - II). Proceed at your own risk... heh, heh, heh...
Subtext: Its there, you don't have to look for it, you'll find it anyway. If you can't deal with it, mouse clicks back are cheap and I'll give you your first four for free.
This is my first try at this stuff...feel free to let me know if you liked it or disliked it...mail back at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Long Road From China
The crackling of the fire was interrupted only by the hiss of the steam that emanated off the fish as Gabrielle flipped lunch over. Looking up, Gabrielle scanned across the clearing in search of her traveling companion. She could faintly make out the profile of Argo as the horse drew a long draught from the nearby stream. Xena turned just in time to catch the questioning glance of the bard. Glancing back, Xena signaled her acknowledgment that lunch was almost ready and returned to the horse.
"There you go, girl. Take a good drink. I bet you enjoy being back out in the open almost as much as I do, huh?" Brushing the hair out of her eyes, Xena contemplated the latest portion of their journey.
She had been so glad to leave the land of Chin and all that is stood for. The beauty of the area and the fond memories of Lau Ma held no comparison to the violent and painful experiences of the past few weeks.
Long Road From China - Part One
As Xena took Gabrielle's hand and proceeded out of the temple she wondered how the two would be able to travel home together. She had hear Gabrielle's heartfelt "I love you," and understood its implicit apology. Xena's own repeat of the sentence had offered the beginning of acceptance. But Xena still felt a rift between them as they made their way through the town square. She worried at the anger she had seen in Gabrielle's face during her "trial" before the Green Dragon. Xena also worried that the cool exterior that she had to project as she readied herself to leave Gabrielle behind, and take on the roll of assassin, had been misconstrued as anger at the bard for not agreeing to accompany her on the trip to the land of Chin weeks earlier.
Bringing her attention back to her surroundings and glancing around, Xena noted the frightened villagers were bowing and offering thanks for the destruction of the Green Dragon's lair. Word had spread of the leader's cowering before the dark-haired, muscular woman. Xena scoffed internally at the villagers offers of thanksgiving. "If they only knew what really happened, I wonder if I would be quite so approachable, " she mused.
The pair continued to silently make their way toward the harbor and the first stage of their long journey home. After arranging for passage on a ship headed west, Xena suggested looking for an inn for the night's lodgings. "We might as well be comfortable until the ship sails with the tide tomorrow" Xena noted.
"Haven't you been indoors enough for a while?" asked Gabrielle. Her sideways glance revealed the strong concern she had for her companion. "Healing will take long enough, I don't need to add a cabin fever fight into the process," Gabrielle sighed to herself.
Recovery from this adventure was going to take longer on many fronts. Gabrielle was almost glad for the long journey home, as abandoning the feisty bard in this location would not be an option for Xena. "Even though at this point, I really couldn't blame her" Gabrielle thought. "I don't understand how she can forgive me or ever trust me again. I doubted her judgement, I betrayed her to one of her worst enemies and then I worry that she'll end our friendship? I ended it with six different actions and decisions in the last three days and she still walks beside me." Her eyes welled at the thought but she quickly tamped the thoughts down. "For once, I need to think of her and deal with my hysterics later," the bard concluded. Taking a deep shuddering breath she turned to Xena to await an answer to camping question.
"Well, to be honest a night under the stars with some fresh air does sound a great deal more appealing than some stuffy inn" the warrior returned. Xena smiled at the look of relief on \Gabrielle's face as the duo turned toward the outskirts of the city. Arching an eyebrow, Xena began to ask about the sigh of relief. Shrugging, Gabrielle just mumbled "glad to be getting some distance away from the palace, I guess." The crinkled brow on the warrior let her know that the lie was not believed, but Xena didn't press for an answer.
Walking felt good and the elimination of the "Collar of Division" gave Xena a definite sense of freedom. When she had first been locked into the three by three foot collar, she had wondered at the meaning. Fellow prisoners in watery dungeon had explained that separating a person's head from the rest of their body was the first step in separating a soul from the body. The collar made you forget your body's capabilities. It also degraded one's sense of "self" that normally accompanied the vision of seeing your whole body at once. The weight and the pain were minor in comparison to the loss of humanity that began with the shackling. Xena was still regaining her sense of humanity and feelings of worthiness, the collar had been torture. "I couldn't even scratch my own nose for Hades' sake," she thought with frustration.
Gabrielle shifted the satchel that she had grabbed upon their final exit from the palace. It didn't hold much, as most of their belongings were stored back where they had gotten ships' passage to this land. But she had kept a few things with her on the journey and had managed to snag a few food items from the palace on their exit. Xena walked in a purposeful direction into the depths of the forest that surrounded the eastern section of the city. "How come even when she has no particular destination, she still looks like she knows where she's going?" Gabrielle mused.
"This looks like a good place to camp, why don't we set up here?" Gabrielle asked as their pace continued to accelerate into the woods.
"NO. I want to pick up a few things and would like some more distance between the town and our camp before we settle in" Xena replied.
"Well at least let's stop and take a look at your wounds. The scrape on your neck looks pretty nasty and I want to check the other cuts for infection. Why..." Gabrielle got no farther.
"No. Look, I know you want to check me out and I know some of these injuries need attention," Xena began. The admission of the injuries got a quick raised eyebrow from the bard but Xena didn't give her a pause to comment. "I left some items in a cave under that plateau and I'd like to get them before we settle in for the night."
A small smile flitted across Gabrielle's face at the comment. "So much for no purpose..." she thought. Xena raised an eyebrow as her expression asked the "What's so funny?" question. Gabrielle quickly dropped her eyes to avoid explaining her recent train of thought and only commented "I wondered what happened to your things, you didn't have much when I first saw you in the castle."
The pair trudged on for a while longer and then Xena stopped in front of a rather overgrown shrub. Pushing it aside, she revealed a large crevasse in the side of the rock that shored up the plateau. Kneeling, she reached in and pulled out several items. Her travelling bag came first. That brought a sigh of relief from Gabrielle as the medicine in that bag would be sorely needed tonight. The bard wasn't sure if the appropriate herbs grew in this part of the world and had been considering what they would do with very limited medical supplies.
Next, Xena pulled out her cloak and opened the folds. Inside lay her armor and leathers. Finally, out came the boots, sword and chakram. She set the items aside and motioned to Gabrielle. "We can camp in the clearing over to the left. There's stream near by that will provide fresh water. We should be well hidden from the townspeople in case any of the Dragon's men get an idea to come looking."
They fell into the practiced routine of making camp. Gabrielle gathered fire wood, water and cleared places to sleep. Pulling out the food stuffs from her pouch the bard motioned to Xena. At least you won't have to hunt dinner tonight" she stated as she unrolled the scrapes of rabbit meat that were rolled into some kind of leaves. A grateful look was offered from Xena a she sat and began to take off the prison clothing.
"No so fast, Xena" Gabrielle murmured. " If you think your going to quickly change into your own clothes so that I don't see the full extent of your injuries, you'd better think something else." The tone of the bard was gentle, but there was an edge of concern in it that Xena was surprised by.
"Gabrielle, I've fought worse battles then the ones today and certainly had more injuries. I can take care of this."
"So can I," Gabrielle rejoined.
"Now where is this coming from? " the storyteller wondered. "Normally, Xena says she can handle it and I let her alone. Why not this time?" Shaking her head at herself and the injudicious choice of times to stand against the warrior, Gabrielle leaned forward and grabbed a piece of linen cloth and dipped it in the water she had fetched. "I'm usually better at controlling my concerns for her safety and shielding my feelings from showing. I'd better pull myself together or I'm going to create more problems that I have already." Not daring to reveal the strength of her emotions to the warrior was the one rule Gabrielle had managed to keep from breaking recently.
Xena, thinking the head shake was aimed at her, remained silent. The afternoon's fight had taken a great deal out of her and she didn't want to waist the strength on arguing with her companion. "Besides," she mused, "for some reason, I have a harder time staying mad at her these days anyway. Why should this minute be any different?"
Gabrielle, began her gentle ministrations as she removed the burlap overshirt and began to clean out Xena's wounds. She worked silently and kept her head down as she cleaned the wounds, washed the blood soaked cloth and applied salve that she had mixed with the herbs from the medical kit. Finally, she applied fresh bandages from clean linen and wrapped the long strips carefully around Xena's neck where the Collar had bruised and ripped at the tender flesh. Xena pulled on a fresh linen tunic and looked over at the storyteller. Noticing for the first time that Gabrielle still wore the long blue silk tunic that the Dragon had forced upon her in the castle.
Keeping her eyes averted, Gabrielle set back on her heals and began to replace the items in the medical kit. "I'll need to change those bandages later on and apply more of the salve tonight." She murmured.
Xena studied the top of the bard's golden head and noticed how the late afternoon sun brought out the red highlights. "Gabrielle..." she began. When the girl didn't raise her head, Xena gently lifted her face by the chin. Xena started at the variety of emotions she saw wash across the green eyes at Gabrielle struggled to control herself.
Xena took a deep breath and started again, "Look, I'm going to be fine. The injuries aren't that serious and the herbs should hold off any infection. I know this hasn't been easy on you, but we'll get through this. Some food and a good nights sleep will help immensely. Besides, we'll have the boat ride back to work at resting up and rebuilding strength."
"Yea, and what about rebuilding the trust between us that I've destroyed?" Gabrielle silently cried. She was startled by a tightening of the Xena's grip on her face. Although still gentle, the warriors hands had taken on a new feeling. Gabrielle moved her eyes back to Xena's and in doing so realized how tired she had become. Gabrielle also realized in the flash that when exhausted she tended to let thoughts slip out of her mouth that were meant to be kept silent.
Feeling her eyes begin to fill with tears she shut them and began to pull away from her companion. Xena would not release her grip. Instead, Gabrielle felt Xena move one hand and lightly brush at the tears that were trickling down the bard's cheeks.
"Careful Xena", the warriors mind warned her, "When you're tired your personal skills are not the best." But she continued on. "Gabrielle, I'm not going to let you pull away from me. And I'm not going to let you think you've destroyed anything here." Xena took a deep breath, trying to focus her mind on the task at hand when her brain screamed for rest and nourishment. "We're both at fault here, Gabrielle. You didn't destroy the trust between us." Xena paused and then let her hands drop into her lap. "At least, I still trust you."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked into the deep blue pools that were facing her. She saw the guarded look in those pools as the blue started to shift to a painful gray. Xena didn't move a muscle and yet her whole body was screaming for her friend to answer her.
"I still trust you Xena...with my life," she said. "And too be honest, with my heart," she thought. "I only wish that I could trust myself to acknowledge that truth to you and risk your answer. But I won't risk this friendship on a selfish feeling. We need each other too much to lose this friendship over something that you could never want from me."
Aloud, Gabrielle continued. "I gave you over to one of your worst enemies and I used our friendship to try to drag a promise out of you that you could never make. I failed you and in doing that, I failed myself."
"No, Gabrielle. I think we may have failed each other. You can't take the blame for all of this."
Sighing, Xena pulled the bard over toward the fire. "Here let's sit down for a second. This kneeling is getting to my already stiff legs," Quirking a partial smile at her travelling companion.
They re-adjusted themselves in front of the fire. Xena started again, only this time she stared into the fire and not at Gabrielle's eyes. "I didn't exactly give you the full story up front now did I? I didn't explain my whole relationship with Lau Ma or the Green Dragon. I certainly didn't tell you enough about my experiences here to allow you to understand the debt that I owed."
"Xena,..." Gabrielle began to interrupt.
"No, Gabrielle let me finish. I thought I would make your choice easier by only giving you enough detail to see that I wasn't a total monster in my need to quell the Green Dragon. You'd also see that the darkness that's in me was strong enough to commit an act that you would find unconscionable. I didn't tell you the whole story until you came to see me in the dungeon. By that time it didn't matter. You'd seen me as an assassin, a prisoner and a condemned killer. I had nothing to lose at that point."
Xena took a shuddering, deep breath and relaxed a little as Gabrielle rested a gentle hand on her knee.
"You see, Gabrielle, I've also known for so long that one day you'll see something from my past or I'll do something in the present that will force a decision to leave me. I think the anticipation of that event and the loss just got the better of me. I couldn't tell you the whole story before I set sail and left. But, then again, I never expected you to follow me." Xena quirked a smirk at that thought, but didn't relieve her eyes from the fire. Quietly, she continued, " I really didn't want you here."
The warrior heard a small gasp from Gabrielle and pressed on to finish her explanation.
"The time that I spent here was some of the darkest in my life, Gabrielle. I hated Caesar, I hated what he had done to me. I hated the world for what I lost. And I hated myself for what I had become. I didn't want you to see all of that and finally hate me, too." Her voice broke on the last words as Xena fought to control the tears that were now streaming down her cheeks.
Gabrielle's fingers lightly traced the line of Xena's jaw and then moved up to brush at the tears on her cheeks. Cradling the fighter's face in her hands, Gabrielle forced Xena's eyes from the fire and into her own.
"Xena, I want you to listen to me. Nothing you have done, or can do, will ever hurt me as much as the thought that you don't want me with you. Your battles are mine. Your trials are mine. I may not always agree with your methods, but I could never hate you for who you are."
Xena reached up and covered Gabrielle's hands with her own. The bard took a breath and continued. "Let me say three words to you..." She stopped, squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. "Kittamar." Gabrielle saw, and felt, Xena flinch.
"Talosdeia." The warrior closed her eyes.
"Maltous." Xena's head dropped for a moment and then she began to rise and pull away. But Gabrielle was now holding onto the warrior's hands and would not release them.
"Do you want the stories of those battles, Xena?" The bards voice took on a raggedness that was evidence of the control that she was trying to maintain over her tumbling emotions. "Do you want to hear about the great Warrior Princess, the Conqueror of Nations, and how she and her men killed and pillaged in the name of Aries? Do you want the details of her sexual exploits and the favors that she used to get the power she needed? Do you want the finer points of destruction detailed by the blood, the torture and the massacres?"
Gabrielle's' hands slid up to Xena's shoulders and gripping them firmly as she gave the warrior a shake. " I don't know everything about your past. But I know more than you think. I can sit here and tell you those stories. It will be painful for both of us. But I'll do it. And at the end of those tales, I will still be able to sit here and say that you're my best friend; that I don't want to be anywhere else; that I don't want to be with anyone else. If you believe that you can tell me anything worse than those battle stories and change the way I feel about you, I think you underestimate me."
"How, " Xena broke off and took a deep breath. "How did you find out about those battles?"
The question was so far off from what Gabrielle had expected that she it took her a moment to get her mind around it. " 'How' doesn't matter right now Xena and you're not going to pull me off the subject with that question."
"Please Gabrielle, I need to know. Tell me how you found out." The look in the warrior's sapphire eyes was so honest and pleading that, that Gabrielle couldn't help but relent.
"About a month after you saved me from the slavers in Potadeia, we ended up in a small village. It was the first time I had seen a real traveling bard at an Inn. Remember? "
Xena nodded in acknowledgment. How could she forget? Xena quietly smiled at the memory. She remembered watching her friend's delight in listening to the talented storyteller and seeing the audience reaction to the stories. She noted how Gabrielle had tried to absorb everything that the bard did: the story mixes; tricks to drawn the crowd in; the use of words to build excitement. Xena couldn't tell a single tale from that night, but she could remember the pure, open emotion that she had seen reflected in the girls face at seeing talent in action. The love of the art the bard had radiated had touched Xena deeply.
A clearing of Gabrielle's throat brought Xena back to the subject. "Go on" she stated.
"Well, when Letrius, the bard, had finished his stories for the night, I decided to sit for a little while and just watch what happened. You went out to check on and groom Argo at the stable and I stayed at the table. Letrius came over to see me. He had recognized you and asked if I knew who I was traveling with. I think he was trying to see if I was being held against me will. I didn't have the heart to tell him at the time that it was you who was trapped." Gabrielle grinned. Her comment got a raised eyebrow, and she saw the fighter's position relax just a bit.
"Anyway, I assured him I knew what I was doing. But then he said he owed me a story to make certain. He told me the about the battle of Kittamar. It turns out his brother was Claudius, the general who you used to help take the first village. Letrius made sure I got all of the details about your liaison with Claudius and the fact that his wife committed suicide after finding the two of you together."
"Letrius, if you remember, was a very good and detailed storyteller. He outdid himself with his descriptions of Kittamar. He told the story as if his life depended upon it. Maybe he thought mine did." Gabrielle looked up into the now seriously pained eyes of Xena. "He finished the tale and asked me to think about all he had told me. Then he left. You came in soon after that and we turned in to be able to get an early start the next day."
Xena could feel the shock that was showing on her face reflect in her voice. "Are you telling me that 5 minutes after you heard about one of the goriest and most immoral battles in Grecian history you calmly followed the leader of those actions up to a room and went to sleep?" Xena shook her head. "I'm surprised you didn't think I'd stab you in the back you as soon as you closed your eyes."
Gabrielle shrugged. "You didn't need to wait for me to close my eyes to stab me. You would have been able to do it anytime you wanted. I gave you enough reasons those first months - as I drove you crazy with chatter and questions. " She smiled a warm smile up at the warrior. Her eyes grew a little warmer and then she appeared to look directly through Xena's eyes and right into her soul. Xena had to fight the urge to look away.
Gabrielle continued, "You weren't the same person by that time. You were fighting those feelings of violence and trying to change. I saw the changes. And besides, you saved me from those slavers. You'd saved me several times after that when we were attacked in our travels. You gave me no reason to fear you, not then and not now."
This news, Xena reflected, was going to taking some thinking to get use to. She knew Gabrielle possessed more bravery than anyone she had ever met. And she knew the bard had good instincts about people. But Xena found it hard to reconcile her evaluation of the Gabrielle's skills with the bard's evaluation of her. "Gabrielle just doesn't know how close to the surface the darkness is. Or how hard it is to avoid letting it out."
"And then again," Xena mused, "maybe she does and that's ok with her. Maybe she can handle it." Xena felt a few bricks tumble off her well established wall of defense and somehow didn't feel the need to pick them up and replace them.
Placing a hand over the bard's own. Xena blinked and gentled her look at the girl. "That explains Kittamar. What about Talosdeia and Maltous?"
Gabrielle smiled and tried to relieve the still wary look she say in Xena's eyes. "Talosdeia was told to me by a bard in the academy at Athens. We were working on epic poems and Homer really liked one I had created about you. He offered a compliment to me in front of the group. When it broke up one of the other bards came by and said that I must have made the whole thing up because he knew you and what you were capable of. He then changed the subject of his poem and in the next day's class and he told about the massacre at Talosdeia."
"Now," Gabrielle said as she began to stand and stretch. "Rule one of the 'Bard's How To Book': always leave them wanting more. I'll save the story of how I know about Maltous for tomorrow. We both need to eat and you need to rest."
Xena wanted to argue with the bard. However, she also realized how long the day had been and how tired she actually was. Nodding consent, she reached for the pot that Gabrielle had put on to boil and grabbed two cups out of her pack. Adding a mixture of herbs to each she brewed up a tea as Gabrielle pulled more provisions out of the food bag. Placing several strips of rabbit onto each plate, she then pulled out two large cabbage bundles and untied the stalks of each exposing a large serving of rice. Finally, she pulled out two odd looking orange fruit and set one on each plate. "I don't know what these are, but the little seeds in them are very tasty," Gabrielle observed. The sparkle in her eyes brought a swirl of warmth to Xena's midst. Xena smiled in response and took a plate with a look of thanks. She then handed over cup of tea to Gabrielle and they proceeded to eat their dinner in a comfortable silence.
The meal concluded, Gabrielle took the serving items and stood to move down to the river to wash them. "Not that it isn't attractive, but wouldn't you prefer wearing some of your own clothing?" Xena asked with a sweeping look down the blue silk Chinese gown that the bard still sported. Chuckling, the bard began to undue the frogs that that kept the gown closed. Dropping the gown to the ground, she revealed her standard traveling outfit was concealed underneath.
Gabrielle folded up the gown and set it aside. "As much as I hate this lovely ensemble, I probably should keep it until we're out of the land of Chin. I might need it again." Lifting her arms she loosened the tight knot that her hair had been pulled into and shook it out onto her shoulders. She failed to notice the warm smile that washed over Xena's face as she watched the bard regain her natural look. Gabrielle picked up the utensils and moved down to the river to wash them.
By the time she returned Xena had stoked up the fire and laid out the solitary bedroll. Gabrielle eyed the bedroll and blankets. "My traveling gear is still stored in the building attached to the palace. I didn't think about it when we left today. I'll need to replace it when we get back to Greece." She proceeded to move to the other side of the fire and was just kneeling when Xena spoke up.
"Gabrielle, the bedroll is plenty big enough for both of us. If you didn't think I would stab you at that Inn, you can't think I'm going to bite you now." Her eyes danced with amusement at the surprised look on the bard's face. "You didn't really think I'd let you sleep on the ground did
you? I'd take it myself before that happens."
"But Xena, you're the one with the injuries..." her argument was cut off as Xena's body suddenly stiffened. Before Gabrielle could blink, the warrior flashed out and grabbed her chakram and her sword in one hand. She crouched ready for battle and Gabrielle stood stock still and waited.
They didn't have to wait long. Four dark figures appeared in the tree line. Dressed completely in black and looking very similar to the warriors who had accosted the duo in Greece at the start of this adventure, they slid forward.. Glinting eyes could be seen under the closely turbaned brows. Three of the men came in on Xena at once.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi" Xena caroled and the fight began.
Starting with a roundhouse kick, she hit one of the three attackers. The momentum propelled her into a roll. She returned to her feet and she swung her elbow into the second man. A loud crack signaled the collapse of his jaw as he fell back in pain. Turning, Xena met the rebound of the original man with a stout left hook and then brought her booted foot up and slammed it into his swaying body. He collapsed into the darkness as his blood sprayed out onto Xena and the surrounding dirt. The third assailant twisted up a sword with a whoosh. It was met with an upswing of Xena's own sword. She swung the blade back down and caught the end of the assassin's curved blade. "Huhmp" she could hear the energy drain from the fighter as he parried the thrusts. Swinging her sword back up, she met his blade in a clash and sparks flew. Swinging the blade she faked a swing to the right. As the man moved to meet it, she swung backwards and slammed the side of her sword into his ribcage. Slicing through, she quickly pulled the sword and moved to meet the final attacker. Swinging the sword around her arm twice she caught it in mid air and moved toward the man with a lionesque grin. "Come on," came the low growl from her throat.
He bowed and said "The Dragon has been avenged, the Chisari have saved face. Three men for the debt of lost security have been paid. We will take our own and go." Stepping back he disappeared into the forest. Xena spun to see the last of the three casualties being pulled into the underbrush. Taking a step forward, Xena felt Gabrielle's presence near her side.
"Let them go, Xena. Its over and I want to look at your neck to see if the wound has opened and started to bleed again." Coming into the front of her vision, Gabrielle laid a hand on the warrior's arm. "Please." The look in her eyes offered a plea to rest and Xena realized the danger had been extinguished. Chasing through the bushes after attackers who may of may not be dead did not hold as much interest as sitting down and putting salve on her aching neck.
Xena sighed, "All right, for you," and returned to the campsite to sink wearily onto the bedroll. Gabrielle followed and leaned into check the wound and change the bandages. "Its amazing how quickly you heal," she said marveling at the now fading gash. "It hasn't started to bleed again and once I finish applying this salve and re-bandage it you can rest."
Gabrielle picked up the medical items and replaced them in the satchel. Storing everything neatly in its place. She walked back to the bedroll to see an exhausted Xena eyeing her with controlled amusement. "If you're waiting for me to fall asleep before you turn in, you'll be waiting a long time," the warrior dryly stated as she arched an eyebrow. Smiling and shrugging her shoulders, Gabrielle stepped over the warrior and bent down on the blanket. "You need to be closer to the fire to keep from getting a chill with your wounds," she said pertly. Batting her eyelashes at Xena in a sign that she had at least overcome the warrior's propensity to let the smaller woman always get the warmer sleeping place, she curled up on her side. Facing her friend she offered a weary "Good Night" and closed her eyes.
Moments later Xena closed hers and fell into the arms of Morpheus for the first time in three very long nights.
"No please, where is it? I can't leave without it." The moans awoke Gabrielle into a startled confusion. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she placed a hand on Xena's shoulder and began to rub over her shoulders and back.
"Its alright Xena, I'm right here. Everything is going to be alright." Murmuring words of supplication Gabrielle continued to rub Xena's back to try to calm the woman.
"I can't...I can't leave without it... Please we must find it..." Xena continued to quietly cry out in her sleep. Her body did not move. It seemed to be frozen in place. Gabrielle realized that touching the warrior in the state was a risk to begin with and yet it had seemed the thing to do. Shocked that her hand was not shrugged off (or worse) she continued to comfort the warrior and murmur into her ear.
Finally, a thought occurred. "Xena, what are you looking for. If you tell me, I can help you look for it." Gabrielle held her breath and worried that directly entering into the warrior's nightmare would either make it worse or wake her up and embarrass the normally hearty fighter.
"The book, Lau Ma's book. I want it. I promised to keep it safe. I want to spread her wisdom...please, I need the book."
Sighing in relief, Gabrielle hugged the warrior and whispered in her ear. "Its ok, Xena. Really, I've got the book and I stored it in the extra oilskin pouch. Its safe from the elements and you'll have it to take home. I have it right here."
Xena took a deep breath and then Gabrielle felt the warrior's arm slip under her body and pull her closer. "Thank you," she mumbled. "You always find what I lose, even if its my conscience or my soul..." Then she quieted and fell into a deep and restful sleep.
Smiling Gabrielle snuggled closer and held the words close to her heart. Maybe the journey home was going to be alright after all.
The sounds of night melded into the natural awakening sounds of early morning. Xena pulled herself into consciousness. For the briefest flash she froze and tried to assess the situation and why she was being held down so fiercely. Then she recognized the peaceful feeling that had settled into the core of her being and heard the sound of Gabrielle's breathing. Opening her eyes, Xena looked down to see the petite bard's head resting in the crook of her shoulder. One hand was flung across Xena's stomach, the other tucked under her side.
"If only..." Xena thought and then pushed the thought away with the discipline borne out of long practice. She allowed herself the luxury of enjoying the bard's embrace and viewing the serene look that was settled on her countenance. Xena tightened her arm and felt Gabrielle snuggle in closer.
Slowly Xena stretched her body to examine the damage caused by the past few days. She was pleasantly surprised at the lack of stiffness given the circumstances of her imprisonment. Letting her eyes drift to the horizon, she realized that dawn was a few hours off and she settled back in to enjoy her body's call for rest and her heart's all-too-seldom feeling of peace.
Gabrielle's eyes drifted open several hours later. She stopped in confusion and tried to realize how you could awaken from sleep into a dream. "For that's what it must be," she thought to herself. Slowly she raised her head up and found herself looking into the glittering eyes of Xena.
"Good morning," the warrior said as her smiled warmed the crisp morning air.
"Uh, good morning to you to. Did you sleep alright?" Gabrielle asked.
"Never better," Xena replied with the hint of a dare in her eyes. Her raised eyebrow was one step too far for the bard who began to untangle herself from Xena. She sat up and giving Xena an unobstructed view of the ground behind the bedroll, met a curious look in Xena's eyes. Glancing behind her, Gabrielle saw the book that had been of such concern last night.
Shrugging, the bard replied to the unasked question. "You were quite concerned that we had lost the book on our way out of the city. The first time, my words were enough to calm you. After that you wanted to touch the volume before you'd believe that we still had it with us. I brought it over so that it would be easier to grab when you needed it."
Gabrielle saw several emotions move across Xena's eyes: concern, gratitude, embarrassment and something else? She was brought out of her reverie by Xena's question.
"I'm sorry, what?" she asked to stall for time to collect her thoughts on what she had just viewed.
"I said, how many times did I wake you up last night? I don't remember waking at all during the night. I wonder if I sustained a head injury and didn't realize it..." Xena began to review that past twenty-four hours and take a new inventory.
"You didn't wake up at all," Gabrielle interrupted the warrior's dialogue with herself and the self-examination.
"What do you mean, I didn't wake up at all. You just said I was concerned with the book and I..."giving her best warlord "I-AM-IN-CHARGE" look Xena stopped and waited.
"You were dreaming, Xena. Its happened before. The first time I thought you were wide awake except that..." Gabrielle suddenly dropped her eyes and stared at her hands. She started pulling at the fabric on her skirt and tracing its patterns with her index finger.
"Except what?" Xena asked, her clinical curiosity kicking in.
"Except that you talk a whole lot more when you're asleep," Gabrielle felt the blush start at the base of her neck and rise up until it disappeared under her bangs. "The first time it happened we had this whole long conversation about some of the things that you'd seen in Athens: the poets; the art; the concerts and plays. You were actually very descriptive. Then when we got up the next morning you didn't say anything and I thought that I had just dreamed the whole thing." The blush got deeper as Gabrielle realized that she had just confessed to dreaming about Greece's most famous warlord as though it was a common occurrence - which it was. Well for her anyway. Swallow. Gabrielle chanced a glance up a Xena and immediately returned her eyes to her skirt. What she had seen in Xena's eyes confused her even more.
"Anyway, I asked a question about Athens later and you were pretty short. Then several nights went by and it happened again. Only this time, when I looked closely I could see that your eyes were closed. I realized then that you must be dreaming and wouldn't remember much of what had happened." The bard picked nervously at her skirt. "I thought about telling you, but the talking dreams seemed to help somehow. You usually have them after some really traumatic incident and you're always so much more peaceful in the morning. I didn't want to take that away from you. I've always tried to be honest with you Xena and I didn't mean for this deception to happen. Please don't be angry."
Xena sat silently for a few moments digesting the information. She looked up and took the bard's chin lightly in her hand forcing their eyes to meet. "Oh Gabrielle, how could I be angry? You've been soothing my fears and taking so much of my pain, only I had no idea that you were even doing it. I'm grateful to you for so many things that I know about. Now I wonder how much gratitude I owe for things outside my knowledge." Her blue eyes shown clear and the hurt that was usually reflected in their depths momentarily vanished.
Gabrielle took one of Xena's hands and held it to in her own. "This isn't about gratitude. You must know that by now." She stopped and took a deep breath to steady her voice. "You are my best friend, my family. I would do anything to help you. Just as you've done so much for me. Or do I owe you for Thessaly and all of the other times?"
The reminder of Thessaly brought a sharp stab of pain to both Xena's eyes and her heart. She had come so close to losing...no she had lost her friend. Looking back at all the dark points in her life, losing Gabrielle in that way had been the lowest. Part of the guard returned to her eyes, but she couldn't lock out the pain of remembrance. Smiling sadly she met the bards waiting gaze and said "No, I don't think you own me anything. That's not how a real friendship works. You've taught me that about myself. I do things for you because I want to and not to get anything in return." Xena stopped to reclaim her control and once it was firmly in place she added "Its just that I find it hard that someone would want to do the same for me."
Deciding this was a little deeper that Xena wanted to get into at the moment, Gabrielle relented. "Well you better get used to it 'cause I'm not about to start changing it now. And speaking of doing something for me, how about pulling a Warrior Princess Miracle and getting us a fish for breakfast? I saw quite a few in the stream when I got water yesterday."
Smiling up at her perception, Xena rose to go wash up and catch breakfast.
Gabrielle spent her time packing up the camp and boiling more water for breakfast tea. Xena returned a few minutes later with a large fish for breakfast. She efficiently cleaned it and then wrapped it in leaves and placed it on a skewer over the fire.
Xena looked over at her traveling companion. Gabrielle looked lost in thought as she studied the pink and orange dawn sky. The sun had not fully come up over the horizon yet, but the light was streaming in the camp setting everything aglow. Xena watched it wash over her friend and noted how it added dark red, fiery highlights to her golden hair.
"You should go grab a quick swim in the stream before breakfast. It will be your last chance for a while to swim in fresh, clean water." Xena interrupted Gabrielle's reverie.
"Huh, oh, swim, yeah. Good idea." Gabrielle gathered her thoughts together and rose to move to the stream. "Be back in a minute for breakfast. I'd hate to miss a meal." She left Xena standing with a smile and proceeded to the stream.
Xena heard her dive break the water and followed down to the edge of the trees. It would be a good idea to keep the bard in sight. After last evening, she thought it best not to take any chances. The ship would be leaving today and she was determined that they both be on it in decent shape. Xena watched as Gabrielle pulled herself from the water and shook the liquid from her hair. Xena moved back to the fire before being caught in a reproving stare from the storyteller.
Gabrielle joined her shortly and Xena divided up the fish as Gabrielle poured the steaming water over the herbs for tea. "What happened to your staff Gabrielle? I realized that you didn't have it when you went down to the stream."
"Is that why you stood at the perimeter of the woods and kept an eye on me? " Gabrielle's question took Xena completely off guard. The warrior looked up with a startled glance and raised an eyebrow.
"You saw me?" she asked. She started to eat her breakfast. "I must be slipping if I allowed that to happen," Xena thought to herself. "I'm going to have to watch that or we could be in real trouble, real fast. But I didn't enter into the sunlight and the shade of the tree from the angle of the..." her thoughts trailed off as she recognized Gabrielle's voice penetrating her consciousness.
The smaller woman fluffed out her now drying hair and stared at her taller partner. After taking another bite of fish she said, "Must be an interesting conversation. Perhaps you could hold some of it out loud and I could participate at some point?" Gabrielle's eyes took on the sparkle of emeralds dancing in the most beautiful golden setting. "I said, and I don't think that you heard, that I didn't see you. When you hide I can never see you. I'm getting better as you teach me to hear things, but I don't think I'll ever be good enough to catch you out. So don't worry."
"Then how did you know?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle lifted her slight shoulders and pushed the hair out of her eyes. "You didn't tell me to be careful when I left and I knew I didn't have my staff. You wouldn't have taken a chance on something happening while I was away from camp. So, " she dragged the word out and cracked a slight smile, "You had to be close by." "Besides," she thought to herself, "Anymore, I always know if you're within about screaming distance. I can feel it. Kinda like when you feel someone staring at you in a crowd. Oh yeah, that would be a good comment to make right now, Gabrielle. It would be just brilliant."
"So, where is your staff?" Xena returned to the original topic while watching a slight blush cross Gabrielle's face and lifting an eyebrow at the bard's strange look.
"I left it in the palace. They stored my things in a room and gave me clothing suitable to see the Dragon. I..." Gabrielle trailed off. Closing her eyes against the forming tears, she continued in an unsteady voice. "I'm so sorry Xena. I should never have interfered. I should never have come. You were right not to want me here. I just didn't want to see all of the good you've done come to naught." She pulled her arms tightly around herself and tried to hold in a shudder that was threatening to overcome her.
"Gabrielle, " Xena started as she placed an arm around the bard and drew her closer to the fire. "I didn't want you here, because I was afraid of losing your friendship if you saw what happened." Xena took a breath and watched another brick from her carefully constructed defenses tumble to the ground and smash. "Wanting and needing are two different things." Gabrielle looked up at this comment. "I did need you here. And as angry as I was when I pulled back that sheet and found you, part of me was also glad. Glad that I didn't have to go through this alone. Glad that I might get the chance to explain before it was all over. Glad that Lau Ma's wisdom and generosity might still be shared with the world."
Gabrielle shifted under Xena's arm and turned to embrace her friend. She was surprised that the warrior didn't pull away. And yet, as she thought about it, Xena had not been quite so jumpy recently about the Gabrielle's physical gestures. Gabrielle knew that she was a "touchy" person and that didn't sit well with someone trained to kill in the dark without thinking. The storyteller worked hard to maintain distance from Xena. It went against every instinct in her being, but she knew that aside from making her friend uncomfortable, it also could be dangerous. Xena had warned her time and again that well honed instincts and training would kick-in long before her mind ever did. That meant that a simple pat on the shoulder could turn into a broken arm faster than either of them could realize. Gabrielle usually was very careful to make some noise if approaching the warrior from the back or side and to never gesture to her without fair warning.
Now, she had just flung herself into a much wanted embrace without concern for safety or decorum.
"Thank you for telling me, Xena. I promise, I never interfere that way again." Gabrielle mumbled into the warriors shoulder. "I'll argue, I try to persuade you differently, I'll fight with you in anyway I can, but I'll won't go behind your back or try sink you plans again."
She felt the warrior's arms tighten around her shoulders as she sunk into the depths of the embrace. They remained close for some time.
Finally, Xena pulled back and giving the bard a quick squeezed on the shoulders said, "Let's break camp. You put out the fire and we'll walk back to the city. Do you think you can remember the room where they stored your things? We'll go pick them up before boarding the ship."
Gabrielle hesitated, "Yes, I remember, but I don't want you to have to go back into the place Xena. Its not worth it. I'll replace what I need when we hit land again."
Xena turned and began to shrug off the linen shirt and replace it with her leathers. She began to tie up the cords that held the dress in place and then started the process of pulling on her standard armor. Gabrielle came over to assist in setting the buckles on the shoulder plates and watched as Xena shrugged her shoulders to set the items in place. Xena sat on a fallen log and began to pull on her boots. "Gabrielle there is nothing in that palace that can hurt me now. I don't think anyone is going to be stupid enough to try and stop me after yesterday. The Amazon's gave you that staff and I know it means a great deal to you. And to be honest, I don't relish the thought of a long sea voyage with a ship full of men and you without your staff. I don't have eyes in the back of my head, and we can't be too careful."
The last comment got a quiet murmur from Gabrielle, "I'm not so sure, you seem to see through walls and rock pretty well." Gabrielle totally missed the raised eyebrows and startled smile of her friend as she reached down to retrieve the chakram and attach it to Xena's belt.
By the time she looked back up Xena's controlled expression had returned. Xena picked up her sword and smoothly slid it into is scabbard. Gabrielle stepped away and went to put out the fire. Xena carefully looked around and packed up the remaining belongs into her travel satchel. She picked up the "Book of Wisdom" and placed it in its own oilskin bag and slid it into her sack.
Gabrielle picked up her own sack and with one last look to assure the fire was out followed the leather clad figure out of the glen.
Continued in Part 2