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At a Distance - Part Iby: Melissa Good
Well, first off, these characters, most of them, belong to MCA Universal, and whoever else has an interest in Xena:Warrior Princess.
Secondly, There's a little violence involved here. Not too much, and not in Part I, but it's there. Xena is, after all, a Warrior Princess, and not Betty Crocker.
Thirdly, this story is based on the premise that it's about two women who love each other. If this bothers you, click somewhere else. There is nothing graphic involved, but you can't say you weren't warned. And anyway, if love offends you, you have my condolences, and please send me your snail address, so that I may send you some chocolate chip cookies. I feel bad.
For information purposes only, this story takes place sometime after the Quest in series terms..and not long after my last story, A Warrior by Any Other Name lets off. Please send any feedback to the author.
It was a small glade, this. With a fine grassy sward, leading down to a quietly burbling stream that ran off into a misty distance. A neatly made camp was basking in the late afternoon sunlight, which also glanced off the withers of a gold colored horse cropping the grass in some contentment. Occasionally, the horse raised it's head, and peered towards the stream, across the grass where two women with staves were engaged in earnest battle.
"No..no.." Xena said, patiently. "You gotta keep that other end even with your shoulders." She tapped the lower end of Gabrielle's staff with her own. "If you let it get behind you, it's easy for me to knock the top part like this.." Smack. "and get you off balance."
"Ouch." The bard yelped, stepping back and flexing a hand. "That stung." She took a deep breath, and stepped forward again, resuming her stance with both hands wrapped around her staff. "Ok..what about this?" A quick reverse, trying to get through Xena's defenses by countering the warrior's left to right move. Almost. Gabrielle chewed her lip in concentration. Ah.. She shifted her weight to her left foot, and feinted, but swung right, aiming for knee level, then reversed again, sending the top end of the staff right for Xena's unprotected shoulders.
"Better." Xena drawled, blocking the knee shot, but allowing the shoulder hit through, catching it on her armored bracer, and deflecting it, then moving her own staff in a blur, to crack against Gabrielle's, and send it flying.
"No fair." The bard complained, shaking out her stinging hands. "You have armor on. What kind of competition is that?" Knowing it not to be a serious question. "I have enough handicaps, here."
"Uh huh." Xena mused, giving the bard a thoughtful look. "So, you think I have an advantage because of the armor, huh?" A mischievous glint appeared in her blue eyes. One which Gabrielle had long since learned to fear. "Ok." the warrior said, propping the staff against a nearby tree, and reaching for the clips which held on her armor plating. "Let's find out."
Uh oh. Gabrielle watched her warily. I don't like that tone. The last time I heard that tone, I got an unexpected mud bath. But she remained silent as Xena removed her bracers and grieves, then gave her a sly grin, and walked back to Argo, removing a short linen shirt and wraparound skirt from her saddlebags.
"I'll go you one further." Xena commented, as she exchanged her leathers for the cloth items, and tied the ends of the shirt off across her ribcage, making it a fair approximation of what Gabrielle herself was wearing. "Ok. Now we're even." The warrior finished, cheerfully, walking back over to the bard, and reclaiming her staff. "Ready?"
Gabrielle blinked, then swallowed hard. "Uh. Yeah." She gathered her scattered wits, and brought her staff up to ready position. Stay concentrated, Gabrielle.. And she really tried, but something about the sun and that white linen shirt, and the tanned muscles now showing in vivid relief as the warrior moved kept distracting her attention. "Wait a minute." She closed her eyes, and took a breath. Gabrielle, now you stop that this instant. This is a fight. She has a big stick. She's very dangerous. Get your head on straight. OK? Right? Ok. "Ok." she opened her eyes, and immediately met the concern in Xena's. "No..it's ok. Just the sun." she gave her a bright smile, and took a better grip on her staff. "Really."
"Uh huh." Xena responded, crooking an eyebrow at her. "Let's go." She concluded, and moved towards the bard, starting a complex attack, the first few strokes of which Gabrielle actually parried, and stood her ground, but then began to give back, as Xena's moves became faster, and the strokes started cracking against her defenses. "Keep up, now." The warrior grinned, putting feints and some spins into the attacks.
"Augh." Gabrielle grunted, frantically trying to keep her opponent's weapon from reaching her. "Let me guess." She panted, dropping to a knee to avoid a vicious swipe. "you're faster without the armor."
"Uh huh." Xena confirmed, getting inside the bard's defenses, and turning what would have been a stunning blow to the side into a gentle tap. "Be careful of what you think is, or isn't a handicap, Gabrielle." She swiveled the staff, and let it brush the side of her companion's head. Saw the look in the green eyes facing her, and slowed her attack, then stopped. "Hey..you OK?" And just barely, barely caught Gabrielle's staff as it moved with amazing speed towards her head. Catching it in one hand with a sharp smack. Feeling the anger rise, as she twisted the staff out of the bard's hand with startling ease. Taking a deep breath as she fought the anger back down. I told her to do that, right? To test my reflexes? Stop overreacting.
"Close." She admitted, forcing a grin.
Gabrielle sighed. "Never close enough." She grinned back. "I get the point about the handicap, though." Boy do I ever. "By the way..you look..good..as an Amazon." She reached out one hand and fingered the linen cloth.
"Oh yeah?" Xena chuckled. "I just bet." She shook her head. "The Amazons would run screaming,." She glanced over Gabrielle's head, towards the stream. "Time to catch some dinner, I think." Handing her staff to the bard, then walking towards the stream, aware of Gabrielle's stillness behind her. Of the eyes on her back. Erasing a quick grin from her face as she turned and made eye contact with the bard. "Coming?"
Earth to Gabrielle. Hello? "Yeah. Let me just put these down." she finally responded, shaking her head in bemusement. She trotted over to where Argo was picketed, and stowed the staves, then loped back towards the stream, where Xena was already up to her thighs in water, head tilted, waiting for fish.
"Ready." The bard commented, standing well back from where her companion was positioned. She watched as Xena went very still, then moved in a splashing blur of motion. I wish I could do that. Gods. I wish I could...cut that out, Gabrielle. Right now. I mean it. What's gotten into you today? Did we get some funny mushrooms in that last batch, or what? The bard shook her head in amusement and blew out a breath.
"Here she comes." Xena remarked, turning and tossing her catch far up the bank. A very large, sparking river trout, in fact. "Not bad, if I do say so myself."
Gabrielle captured the struggling fish expertly. Then she glanced up at Xena, still in the water, backlit by the lowering sun. "Very nice" she agreed. Aware of the grin that she was unable to stop appearing on her face. "I'll just go take care of this." Like, right now.
Xena splashed out of the water, padding up the bank with unhurried strides. "I'll do it." Surprising the bard. "I remembered, the other day, a way of doing fish that my mother used to use. Like to try it?"
"Sure." Gabrielle answered, handing over the fish. "I'll try anything. Once." Ducking the playful cuff from Xena's other hand. "Well, maybe twice." She relented.
"Oh yeah?" Xena asked, a devilish gleam in her eyes. "Anything?"
Gabrielle's throat went dry. Uh oh. "Well, you know what I mean...not anything...most things..most of the time...Xena, don't you dare...Oh Hades!" Desperate, she took off running. Stay away from the water, Gabrielle. Stay AWAY from the water.
Xena pelted after her, her longer strides heading off the bard every time she tried to veer away from the stream. A low laugh escaped from her, as she chased her companion across the grass skillfully herding her closer and closer to the rippling water. At last, she had her right where she wanted her. "Ayiyiyiyiyi" burst from her throat, freezing the bard in place for a bare instant.
Long enough for Xena to change direction, and drive straight for her, wrapping her arms around the startled woman and not even slowing down. Three more powerful steps, and she launched up, carrying both of them over the edge of the stream.
"Yaaaaa!!!!" Gabrielle yelled. "Noooooooo....." As they both hit the water, and plunged deep underneath, effectively silencing the bard. Gabrielle felt the water close over her head, and held her breath, resisting the impulse to release it caused by the icy current. Xena still had hold of her, and the warrior had kicked off against the bottom of the stream, pushing them both back towards the surface.
"Whoa." Xena gasped, as she broke the top of the water, and shook her head to clear the hair out of her eyes, releasing Gabrielle to float next to her. "That feels nice." She smiled at the bard, who was swiping the pale hair off her forehead, and glaring at her.
"I'm going to kill you." Gabrielle growled, spitting water out of her mouth.
"Who'll catch your dinner, then?" Xena countered, with a grin.
"I'll catch my own." The bard answered, still annoyed.
"Uh huh" Xena replied, studying her. "You looked like you could use some cooling off. Sorry." She added, quietly, and saw the annoyance disappear from her companion's face, replaced by a sheepish grin.
"Yeah. I did. That sun was killing me." She admitted, giving Xena a little splash. "So you're off the hook." In more ways than one. She ducked her head under the water, and came back up, sliding her hands across her hair to wring it out.
Xena just chuckled, and turned, starting for the far shore with lazy strokes. The current wasn't overwhelming, and the cold water felt nice as she ducked under a half sunken log, and turned to start back across the width of the stream. Her eyes took in the surrounding area briefly. Nice. She mused, And it's a beautiful day, too, even starting the way it did. Her eyes fell on Gabrielle, who stood facing the setting sun, riffling her fingers through her pale hair to dry it, and Xena found a smile working it's way on to her face. She watched for a moment more, then, with a little shake of her head, plunged back into the current, and started swimming back, coming to rest a few feet from the bard.
"Hey." Gabrielle grunted, as Xena surfaced, and flipped over on her back, folding her hands across her stomach and trying to float, without much success. "Having a problem, there?"
"Hey yourself." The warrior, replied, giving up on the attempt at floatation. "I don't float well." She acknowledged with a shrug. "Muscle and bone are both heavier than water. " She chuckled. "And I have quite a bit of both."
Gabrielle smirked. "So I noticed." She gave Xena a mischievous look. "Especially in that outfit." Getting a very raised eyebrow from her companion. "Hey, it's the truth. Don't blame me." She exclaimed, waving off Xena's eyebrow and slight splash with both hands.
Xena gave her a sardonic scowl. "Yeah, right...I hate to tell you this, but it's what YOU usually wear, oh Amazon Queen." She flicked a handful of water at the now grinning bard. Do I wanna know where this conversation is going? Probably not.
"Yeeessss..." Gabrielle answered, drawing out the word. "But there's a lot more of you than there is of me." Oh oh..I think I may be getting myself into trouble here. "And you have a lot better tan."
"Oh really." Xena responded, starting to laugh. She allowed her gaze to flick over the bard. "I don't' know..I kind of like your tan." Feeling a little prickle of danger, at the sudden glint in Gabrielle's eyes. The tiny quirk at the side of her mouth. Do I want to start this? Now? Here? Not a good idea, Xena. She turned her head, and gazed across the water, suddenly focusing on a half hidden log not far away. Without a word, she launched herself towards it, ducking under the part above water when she drew abreast of it, and peering intently at a small hollow. Ahh.. Thought so. She retrieved something from the hole, having to pull hard with her strong fingers. She then plucked something off the top of the log, and headed back towards where Gabrielle was waiting, an amused but curious look on her face.
"Xena, what on earth.." the bard exclaimed as she drew near. "What was so interesting on that dumb log?"
"This." Xena grinned, throwing something at Gabrielle, which the bard reflexively caught.
"Yow!" she yelled, eyes widening. "it's alive!" To her credit, she didn't throw the creature right back at Xena, though the though did cross her mind. "Oh!' she continued, peering closer. "it's a turtle!" She grinned at Xena. "I like turtles"
"I figured." Xena answered, smiling to herself. She watched Gabrielle coo at the small animal, and tickle it's tiny feet. The turtle, after a suspicious moment, poked it head out, and sniffed her fingers gingerly, then, liking what it found, extended it's head all the way out, and began to explore the bard's cupped palm. "I think it likes me." Gabrielle a laughed, glancing at Xena, who had moved closer. She looked back at the turtle, then found her gaze captured by the reflection in the water in front of her. She had been standing in a fairly calm eddy, and now the setting sun provided a mirrorlike effect on the surface, reflecting back to her the image of herself, the turtle, and Xena standing at her shoulder. At her light, and Xena's darkness, side by side.
Then Xena's eyes caught the reflection as well, and their glances met. And held for a long moment. Then Xena smiled and extended her hand into the sunlight, in front of Gabrielle. "Here, you might as well hang onto this, also." She said, in a normal tone.
The bard stared at what she held, before extending her other hand to gently pick it up. "Wow..what it is?" she breathed, letting the object catch the sun's reddening rays.
"Amber." Xena answered, casually. "It's supposed to be lucky." She nodded towards the log. "Found it over there."
Gabrielle gazed intently into the depths of the fossil for a moment, then smiled. "Thanks." She said, softly, closing her hand around the amber. She let the turtle crawl around her hand for a little while, then gently deposited him on a rock nearby. The turtle looked disappointed, but crawled into the water, and started for the bank, with determined thrusts of it's tiny legs.
They just floated for a few minutes more in silence, then Xena began pulling for the shore with long strokes. She reached the edge, and hoisted herself out of the water, then turned and waited as Gabrielle followed. "Here." She said, offering a hand to the bard, who took it without hesitation.
"Thanks.' She muttered, as she was pulled bodily up out of the stream. "That's a lot easier than climbing." Once on shore, she shook herself violently, scattering water everywhere. "Brr."
"C'mon." Xena chuckled. "You'd better get out of those wet things before you catch a chill."
The campfire made friendly little snicking sounds in the gathering darkness, counterpointed by the patient scraping of a fish being scaled. Xena sat back for a moment and studied her handiwork. Right. One more skilled slice, and the large trout was split in half, and on it's way to being cooked. She dipped two woven green branches in a nearby pail of water, and placed the fish between them, binding the whole thing up with another green soaked branch.
"Mmm." Gabrielle commented, as she leaned casually on the warrior's shoulder. "Bet that's going to be good." She glanced around approvingly at their camp. Xena had managed to find a nice spot, surrounded by large old trees, and containing a sand pit ready made for a fire. No digging today - nice, because they had spent the day assisting some nearby villagers to rebuild their sacked homes.
After Xena had taken care of the people sacking them, of course. The worst part was that the marauders were local boys, homeless themselves due to some casual raiding efforts by a mercenary troop just passing through. Kids, really - used to bullying the peasants, now faced with a very angry, very unpeasantlike Xena in a very bad mood. It hadn't been pretty.
"We'll soon see." Xena replied, setting the fish into two branches with split ends on either side of the fire. Then she glanced over her shoulder at the still leaning bard, and patted the ground next to her, which was covered with a straw mat for sitting. "Sit down. It'll be a little while."
Gabrielle complied, wrapping her arms around her knees and putting her chin on one of them. She missed the sun's heat now, the cool breeze coming in off the water was raising goosebumps along her arms, and she hugged herself tighter in response.
"Hey." Xena turned interrogative eyes on her. She reached out and touched the bard's arm, feeling the chilled flesh. "Gabrielle." A low warning growl. The bard just blinked at her. "Come here." Xena sighed, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer.
Xena, as usual, was like some kind of heat source. Gabrielle often wondered just how she did that - the woman was never cold. Not that she was complaining, oh no. That warmth started around her neck and down her right side, and spread over her like a comfortable blanket. "Mmm." She sighed in appreciation, letting her head lean against Xena's convenient shoulder. "Much better." She glanced towards the warrior. "Happy now?"
Blue eyes captured hers, and a smile quirked across Xena's lips. "Yeah. As a matter of fact, I am." She replied, "Thanks for asking."
Gabrielle felt a smile creeping on to her face, and took a moment to just enjoy the intensity of the emotion she could feel passing between them. She had always sort of sensed it..but now..now...gods, it was like a bubbling stream that never stopped. She basked in it. And suspected that Xena did as well, though they were both careful not to acknowledge that. Sort of. But lately they had found that it was becoming almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance.. and they had stopped even trying to find excuses for the physical contact that happened more and more frequently. Like now. It's not like Xena couldn't have just thrown her a blanket, right? Gabrielle grinned to herself.
"Anytime." She breathed, closing her eyes. It's...weird. It's...like we both sort of know what's going on, but neither of us wants to say anything about it. I'm scared...her friendship means more to me than..than...than anything. I don't want to mess that up. I don't think she does either, but...I can feel what's starting to happen inside of me. I don't know if I can stop that. I..dont' know if I want to stop that.
Xena freed one arm, and reached lazily across to the fire, turning the fish. Then she returned her arm to it's former position, and let her head rest against the bard's, abandoning herself to one of those sudden waves of giddy warmth that tended to come over her without warning these days. . I think we're going to need to have a talk pretty soon, my friend. An unseen smile showed faintly on her face. Damn you, Jessan. Damn you for being right. I didn't want you to be, you know. I don't care about myself, but..I dont' want her not to have a choice in this. It's not fair. Damn it's not fair to her. Why me, of all people? Why her? She should be in Athens somewhere. With someone who can provide her with a safe home, with love...not with a price on her head, and bloody battles every other day. I don't want this for her. And yet...the only way I could stop what's happening is to cut my own head off. Gods, what a mess.
"Dinar for your thoughts." Gabrielle asked, letting her fingers trail along Xena's forearm, studying the fine pattern of hairs there. Disrupted by a faint scar, no, two of them. Thin straight lines. Knife wounds, probably, she mused idly, waiting for Xena's response.
"Oh, nothing much." Xena replied. Not..yet. Soon, but not yet. "Just thinking." She reached out and removed the fish from the fire, unwrapping it from it's now scorched latticework of branches, and flipping a portion on each of two plates she had handy. She handed Gabrielle one. "Here you go."
"Thanks." Gabrielle replied, waiting for the warrior to settle back against a nearby log, then joining her. "Hey..not bad." She took a bite, grinned, and gave Xena a sideways glance. "Compliments to your mom."
Xena just shook her head, draping her arm across the back of the log they were both leaning on as Gabrielle leaned back and proceeded to demolish her fish, cleaning her plate, then making playful stabs at the remaining portion on Xena's, earning her several raised eyebrow stares from the warrior. "I could go catch another fish." Xena finally chuckled, giving up the last of the fish with an tolerant grin. "Here..here...remind me to get half a dozen next time."
"Hey, storytelling is hard work." Gabrielle chided her.
"Uh huh." Xena answered. "I'll have to remember that line."
Gabrielle sighed contentedly, feeling a warm wash of happiness flowing over her. . "Hey." She commented, glancing up at Xena, whose eyes were on the fire, but had a distant look to them. The warrior shook herself a little, then looked down at Gabrielle.
"Hmm? Sorry.." she gave a short laugh. "Went away a bit there. What's up?"
The bard studied her. "Uh huh. And where did you go to?" she teased, forgetting her original question. "That's twice tonight." She half turned and stared more closely at Xena "What's up with you?"
"Yeah..you're right.." Xena laughed. "I don't know." She shrugged sheepishly, unable to keep a smile off her face. "I guess with all the activity today, my mind is just...blanking out a little." Yeah. Where was I? What kind of alertness is that, I ask you? Gods. With an effort, she refocused herself, and paid attention to what Gabrielle was saying.
"O...K...." the bard drawled, giving the warrior a look. "I didn't think beating up a bunch of kids and rebuilding a village was that much strain on you, but...." She grinned as the blue eyes sharpened and drilled into her own. "Ah..that's better." Now she had the problem, as she realized just how hard it was for her lately to concentrate with Xena in this close proximity. Whatever she was about to say escaped her, so she just let out a short laugh and leaned back, feeling the warmth of Xena's arm against her back.. I think I like this. A lot. Probably more than I should. I keep trying to tell myself to pull back, give her space...but I don't think it's working.
"Now, where did you go off to?" Xena teased, after a few minutes of silence. Would you just look at the two of us? This is ridiculous. Like a pair of damn kids.
"Well, I'm not sure." The bard answered, tilting her head to catch Xena's gaze. "But I think we're both going off to the same place."
Xena chuckled. "I think you may be right." She admitted. "Must be a nice place" The warrior added, stretching and prodding the fire with the end of a handy stick. "So..I wonder what the Amazons are up to, that they've summoned their Queen?"
Gabrielle accepted the change of subject amiably. They had been able to talk..a lot more since..well, anyway..but there were still some very painful subjects out there unexplored. Gabrielle suspected it would be a very long time before they covered everything - and she knew there were some things they'd probably never discuss. By mutual consent. "I haven't a clue. The note was pretty cryptic." She grinned. "Ephiny must have written it." She mentally pictured the slim blond Amazon hard at work over the obscure note. And giggled.
Xena snorted. "Could be. We'll find out in a few days, I guess." She looked down at the bard with a sudden grin, then grabbed her under her knees with her free arm, and stood up chuckling as Gabrielle squawked, and grabbed her upper arm in surprise. What the... the...
"Hey!" she gasped, calming down into a laugh as Xena just stood there for a moment, regarding her. "I could get fear of heights up here!." Playfully, she slapped at Xena's shoulder. "Ow...stop showing off!"
Xena snorted. "You don't weigh that much." She retorted, demonstrating by tossing the bard up a little bit and catching her.
"Yow!! Xena, cut that out!" Gabrielle gurgled. "I weigh more than enough, thanks - now put me down!"
"Oh OK." the warrior relented, and walked over to their spread out bedrolls, and gently went down to one knee, settling the bard in hers. "You really don't weigh that much." She repeated, poking Gabrielle in the midriff. "I have no idea where you put all your food."
The bard snorted. "Right. Between all the walking, the fighting, the building of villages, and the chasing around after you, it's a wonder I don't eat double what I do." She gave Xena a mock glare. "Besides, look who's talking? You eat twice what I do, and I have yet to figure out where any of that goes." She smirked, and punched her companion lightly in the stomach, watching her fist bounce off the muscular surface like a rubber ball. "Ouch."
Xena laughed a little, in self depreciation, and slid down onto her own bedroll, propping herself up on one elbow and facing the bard. "That takes a lot of maintenance." She sighed. "Most of it goes to repair, I think." She commented wryly. "I tend to be pretty hard on my body." She gave the bard a look. . "Do you know how much energy it takes to beat up a dozen punks?" Which came out with more seriousness than she had intended. She tempered it with a belated grin.
"Yeah." Gabrielle managed a grin. "I know...I shouldn't tease you about that." Her eyes softened. "Especially since all that hard work you do usually ends up saving my neck."
Xena studied her, reaching out a hand and smoothing the hair off her forehead, then letting her hand brush the side of the bard's face. "And every time it does, it makes every minute of the hard work worth it." she replied, gently. "A price I gladly pay." She grinned slyly. "And, it's not a bad neck to save."
I'm glad she doesn't talk much. Gabrielle mused, lost in that benign regard. Because she can grab every string in my heart and pull it with the shortest of sentences. I don't think I'd survive if she was a chatterbox. "She leaned forward, and wrapped her fingers around Xena's. "I'll have to remember that the next time you're pounding my head in, sparring." Eyes twinkling. "Right?"
"Right." Xena nodded. "You do that.." She smiled at her companion, and stood up again. "I'm going to check the perimeter. Be back." Stepping swiftly out of the firelight, and towards where Gabrielle knew Argo was tethered.
The bard watched her until she faded into the darkness, sounds already muted by distance and Xena's natural caution, then laid back and snuggled into the fur of the bedroll, putting both hands behind her head and gazing up at the stars.
"Hello, girl" Xena murmured, letting out a bemused sigh as she tickled the mare on her soft muzzle. She felt a grin winding itself across her face again for no reason. "Am I ever in trouble here." She bent very close to the mare's head, and whispered in her accommodating ear. "I'm losing it." Argo snorted, and nipped at her shirt. "Yeah, I know. It had to happen sooner or later, right? I just didn't think it would be..like this" She laughed helplessly. "Well, old friend..they do say that the bigger you are, the harder you fall. " A snort from both horse and human. "Well, I'm pretty big. and I think I've fallen pretty hard." She rubbed the furry ears near her head. "I'm glad you two get along." Another sigh and a shake of her head. "You're a good listener, Argo."
Xena finished saying goodnight to Argo, stroking the mare on her sensitive neck, and scratching her behind her delicate ears. The horse nuzzled her, tickling her shoulder with her whiskers and making the warrior chuckle. Then a gust of wind traveled over the mare's back, and brought the faintest of sounds to Xena's ears. Senses focused, she moved silently into the trees, absorbing the not quite silence of the surrounding forest, filtering out the noises she knew to be natural, zeroing in on the few she knew were not.
Sliding through trees, feeling the damp feathery leaves brush her, getting closer and closer to what she now identified as another person, moving stealthily towards their camp. A few moments more, and she was behind the person, and now, in the vague patches of moonlight, she caught a glimpse of them, and relaxed into a sardonic grin. A slim form, moving with skilled silence, sliding from shadow to shadow with long practiced ease. Moonlight reflected off pale hair, and fair skin, and natural toned leathers. Graceful, and deadly in the same motion.
Chuckling to herself, she stayed behind the intruder, sliding nearer as the shadowy form moved closer and closer to the camp. Finally, the intruder stopped just within the border of trees around their clearing, and peered towards the fire. Xena glided forward silently, and when she was within inches, she finally spoke.
"I'd say the Amazons are slipping." In a chillingly low tone, spoken almost into the intruder's ear.
"Erggh" Ephiny pitched forward onto her hands and knees, startled half out of her wits. She rolled over into the ferns and glared at Xena, who stood there laughing softly. "Xena." She raked one hand through her blond curls, and glowered at the taller woman. "You scared the life out of me."
The warrior grinned and held a hand out to her. "I couldn't resist. Besides, you were sneaking up in the dark on my camp. What did you expect?"
Ephiny sighed, but chuckled herself and reached up to grab the offered hand. "Ok..ok..." she admitted, as she was hauled to her feet. "Point taken. I should have known better." She dusted off her leathers.
"C'mon." Xena nodded in the direction of the fire. "We were just wondering what that message meant. Didn't expect you to be out here personally to explain it."
Ephiny sighed, but started walking towards the camp. "Big troubles, Xena. And I can't solve them. They're demanding the presence of our Queen."
"Mmm." Xena commented. "What kind of troubles?"
"Factions." She threw a glance at the tall dark woman. "You know how we are." She kicked a rock out of her path. "We have my group, which wants peace, and good relations with our surrounding neighbors. Then we have the neutrals, who don't really care one way or the other as long as there's food on the table. " She gave Xena a sardonic look, which the warrior returned. "Then we have the war party. They want us to extend our territory. They feel that without a strong offense against our neighbors, those neighbors will get the idea that the Amazons have gone soft, and come in for the spoils."
Xena grunted in understanding. "So, where does Gabrielle come in?"
Ephiny looked off towards the approaching camp. "I believe..if we don't start building trust and understanding with our surrounding enemies, eventually we'll run out of warriors, and there will be no more Amazons." She gave Xena an apologetic glance. "I know you don't agree, I'm sure. But .."
"Actually, I do." Xena interjected, quietly.
Ephiny paused, sidetracked. Then shook her head. "Anyway, Gabrielle, besides being the true Queen, also has a...unique..talent for getting people to come together. In peace. I'm a warrior, Xena." The smaller woman smiled sadly. "You know how that is. And I have a centaur son. Our neighbors don't trust me because of the first, and the Amazons don't trust me because of the second."
"Gabrielle does have that talent." Xena allowed. "And she is a warrior, Ephiny. Just not the kind you're thinking of." The dark haired woman smiled quietly to herself. "You could be right. She could work with all three factions to bring about a new way of living for the Amazons. One based on peace. "
Ephiny nodded in agreement, not seeing the sudden shadow fall across Xena's face. "That's what I'm hoping."
"But..that's not something I can help with." Xena went on. "In fact, if Gabrielle does take up the rite of caste, she has to do on her own.. If I'm there, everyone will do what she wants because they're scared to death of me."
Ephiny stayed silent, thinking. "You know, I never thought of that." She glanced up at Xena. "But you're right." A slight laugh. "You are intimidating, I'll grant you." They walked in silence for a few more steps. "She's not going to like that." the Amazon stated, frankly. "I think she likes having you around." Ephiny's mouth quirked. Not that I blame her any.
"I don't like that." Xena responded, flatly. "But it's her decision." They reached the line of trees outside the ring of light from the fire. "Gabrielle! Look what I found lurking on the edge of camp." She gave Ephiny a little shove forward into the firelight.
The bard scrambled up from her bedroll, and trotted forward to greet Ephiny with a warm hug. "Ephiny!" she said, surprised. "What brings you out here? We weren't coming fast enough?" She guided the Amazon to a seat near the fire, and pressed a cup of hot tea into her hands. "Here." She added, glancing around for Xena, who had settled to the ground on her own bedroll, and was just watching them both, her chin propped on her balled fists. Gabrielle felt a sudden cold chill, as she sensed the turmoil in Xena's gaze. "What is it?"
And Ephiny told them. About dissatisifed groups of Amazons, some of them Velasca's former followers, some just eager for action, some ambitious - who were determined to tear apart the Amazon nation into bits, because they had no single leader, who could guide them, and turn them onto a peaceful path. There had already been skirmishes with the Centaurs. Ephiny...was regarded as a good leader, but...many Amazons considered her a traitor, because of her son. Others remembered how she sided with outsiders during the whole Velasca fiasco.
"Not like my reminding them that the person I was siding with in the whole Velasca fiasco was their Queen by rite of caste was relevant, right?" Ephiny sighed, rolling her eyes. "The whole thing is just frustrating and ridiculous, but..." She gave Gabrielle a tired and heartsick look. "I just can't hold it all together anymore." She got up and walked around, rubbing her arms with her hands as though she was chilled. "As far as they're concerned, you need to be in charge. After all, you destroyed a god."
"I did NOT." Gabrielle fumed, standing and facing Ephiny, her gestures short and angry. "I'd be dead, and they'd still be very live, very angry gods if it wasn't for Xena." She cast a glance at the silent warrior.
"I know." Ephiny said, with a tired frown. "But that's what they think."
"What am I supposed to do then?" the bard threw up her hands. "I'm not a warrior, Ephiny, in case that escaped your notice." She paced next to the fire, upset etched in every line of her tense body. "Ephiny, you're an Amazon. If you can't convince them..."
Xena now spoke, for the first time, and in a very gentle tone. "This calls for someone who can talk though situations, Gabrielle. A person who can bring people together, and bind them to one purpose." She paused, and continued. "this is not a time for a warrior. It's a time for gentleness, a time for a teacher. Your time."
Gabrielle stared at the dark haired woman for a very long moment, then crossed over to her and crouched down so they were eye to eye. They traded a very intense stare, so much so that Ephiny was obliged to direct her gaze elsewhere, having the uncomfortable sensation of witnessing something very private.
"Excuse us a minute, Ephiny." Gabrielle's chill voice cut across the campsite.
"No problem." The Amazon quickly acknowledged, and escaped outside the firelight, making a beeline for Argo's familiar bulk.
What is it with those two? She wondered, idly, as she patted the contentedly chewing horse. I could never figure them out. I used to think Xena just let her tag along for I can't imagine what reason. Then I thought well, OK, maybe they both have strange tastes in friendships. Then Xena dies, and I get to see a whole nother side of gentle Gabrielle. That was an eye opener. Then, unbelievably, she comes back to life. Now this, and seeing them together, I still can't figure them out. I can't imagine two more complete opposites if I sat down and tried to do it. "What do you think Argo? Do they like each other?"
Argo snorted, and sprayed Ephiny with a mouthful of grass clippings., and gave her an amused look.
"Well, OK - if you say so." Ephiny chuckled a little, and glanced over the mare's back, towards the fire. Gabrielle was now seated next to the warrior, shoulders slumped in an attitude Ephiny could only describe as defeat. "Good old Xena. I can always depend on her." Argo snorted again in agreement. "To tell you the truth, Argo, I'd rather if Xena had the rite of caste. " she murmured to the horse. "Xena may be right, this might be the time for a teacher, but gods...it would be SOOO much faster if she could just go in there and beat some sense into all these idiots." Argo nudged her, and nearly knocked her over. "Ok..ok.." She glanced over at the fire again. Xena had one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and was speaking to her in a gentle manner. The bard sighed, then slowly nodded her head. At this, the warrior raised her hand off Gabrielle's shoulder, and using two fingers, wiped a few tears off her face. Ephiny watched, raising an eyebrow. "I guess I can go back, now." She muttered to Argo, and stepped around the mare back towards the fire.
"What was that supposed to mean?" Gabrielle asked, in a level tone. "You make it sound like I'm on my own for this one." Her heart was beating so fast, Gabrielle was sure Xena could see it. Fluttering along the lines of her neck. She could feel the pulse herself.
Xena took several breaths, started to say something twice, then stopped, and bit her lip. "Gabrielle." Finally. "If, and I mean if..you do this." she stared down at her hands, turned them over, studying the long fingers. "You..can't bring as..potent..a symbol of violence. And hatred. And anger..as me. With you." She finally looked up, meeting Gabrielle's eyes squarely. "Not if you go to bring them peace." A tight smile. "I'm not exactly a symbol of peaceful intentions."
She's right. Oh gods...she's right. I can't preach peace and gentleness to them while holding that kind of weapon over their heads. Question is, do I want to go ? I accepted that rite of caste. Do I even have a choice? I know what my heart wants me to do... She sat down slowly next to Xena, and put her head in her hands. "I..know..I have a responsibility to them, Xena. But if they're so set on violence, what chance to I have to turn them around? Really?"
Xena smiled right into her eyes. "You, of all people, have to ask that? Of ME?" She replied, with a little laugh. "Gabrielle. You have no idea of the affect you have on people, do you?"
"I guess not." The bard murmured.
"If anyone can do it, you can." Xena answered. "Much as that..uhm." she glanced down at the fur of the bedroll, brushing it lightly with her fingertips. "I don't want..you to think...Oh Hades. You know what I mean."
Gabrielle nodded. She did. And the knowlege made a little warm spot in the coldness filling her.
"Are you going to be OK?" Xena asked in a low voice, as she sensed the Amazon moving back towards them. "Ephiny is coming back." She ignored the aching in her own chest in deference to Gabrielle's evident anguish. "Look." She urged. "it's doesn't have to be forever, Gabrielle..you just have to straighten them out." She paused. "Unless you want it to be. You are their Queen."
"I know." Gabrielle replied, sighing. She remained silent for a moment. "So. What will you do? Keep on heading to Athens?" She tried to keep her voice light, unconcerned.
Xena looked back down at her hands, flexing them gently, and rubbing her fingers together. "No." She finally answered, taking and releasing a deep breath before she looked back up at the bard. "No. I..I think I'll just go..home. For a little while. You know. See mother, and all that." She shrugged. "Then..I don't' know. I guess I'll play it by ear."
Gabrielle nodded in acceptance, in understanding. "That sounds like it'll be good for you. " she replied. "You need a break. It's been a rough couple of years, hasn't it." she let a short laugh out. "I thought maybe you'd take this opportunity to get rid of an annoying bard.." A tight smile, which disappeared the moment she raised her eyes and met the intense look coming back at her.
"Gabrielle, you know better than that." The warrior answered, the roughness in her tone leaving Gabrielle with no doubt of the emotion behind it. "You know me better than that." she lowered her voice. "You know me better than anyone living. " she paused., then acknowledged the truth. "or dead for that matter. Is that really what you think after all this time?"
Is it? A last bit of insecurity, little girl? I thought I was past that. Guess not. That hurt, and she didn't deserve it. It's not her fault the Amazons are all screwed up. "No." Gabrielle shook her head firmly. "No, it's not what I believe. It's not what my heart believes. No." she looked up, to see relief facing her. "I'm sorry. I'm just really rattled about this." she closed her eyes and gave a little shake of her head. "I don't know if I can do it, Xena.."
"Sure you can. I have faith in you - you can talk people in to anything." Xena answered, laying a gentle hand on her wrist.
"No." the bard sighed. It's not that..I just don't...gods." She shook her head, looking out at the approaching Ephiny. " I just don't know. Not anymore. Something is telling me that...I don't know."
Xena nodded quietly. "Ok..Ok... But I think you have to try. After all, I'll just be at home, not that far away." Home. Oh, this ought to be a blast. I think I'd rather take my chances with the Amazons.
The bard looked up at her, misty green eyes boring into her clear blue ones. "If I call you, will you come? No questions asked?"
Xena smiled. "Even if the legions of Hades stood between us, I would. Nothing could stop me."
"Probably not." Gabrielle managed a small chuckle. Probably not. She'd scare them all to life. She took a deep breath, and pulled herself together as Ephiny reached them, glancing up at the Amazon with a cool expression.
"All right, Ephiny. I'll go with you." the bard rose to her feet and dusted off her skirt. "I'll give it a try, anyway. But I can't promise you I'll be any more effective than you would."
Ephiny nodded, sparing a grateful, quick glance in Xena's direction. "I have no doubt at all that you will be, Gabrielle.." She gave the bard a hug. "I know you can do it."
"Yeah." Gabrielle answered. "We'll see." She crossed her arms and let her gaze drop.
Ephiny watched her in some concern. "Well, you did say you'd like to come back and learn more about us sometime." She ventured, probing cautiously. "It's a good opportunity." When the bard didn't answer, she shrugged. "Anyway, we can travel together for a few days."
"Mmm." Xena replied. "Probably not the best idea, Ephiny. It would be better for you not to seem to have gone begging for help."
"That's what I like about you, Xena." Ephiny laughed, after considering for a moment.. "You always see all the angles. You're right...I still have to be a leader in my own right, whether I want to be or not. "
Gabrielle smiled for no apparent reason. "I agree. You'd better leave and go ahead in the morning - that way you can get in and get settled before I show up."
Ephiny cocked her head, subtly aware of a dynamic going on that she didn't understand. Something different, about their interaction, that started her wondering. "Ok..good idea." She answered, slowly. "I'll get my gear." She added, passing out of the firelight and towards the surrounding trees.
Gabrielle, through a growing disquiet in her gut, still smiled. "That was slick."
Xena leaned back on her hands, and regarded the bard thoughtfully. "Yeah, well..." A sheepish grin. "We interact a little...differently than we did the last time we saw her.." She gave a little shrug. "You'd have a little explaining to do..to avoid misunderstandings, I mean. " A hint of chagrin in clear blue eyes. "Because I've gotten so used to things, I'm not sure I can catch myself and not do them anymore." She muttered in afterthought.
"Like what?" Gabrielle inquired, seating herself at Xena's side, and propping an elbow on the warrior's' knee, using her other hand to gently trace the lines of the muscles seen clearly under her tanned skin. Xena raised an amused eyebrow at her, then glanced at the bard's hand, and back up to her eyes. "Oh." Gabrielle blushed, and straightened up, putting both hands in her lap. "I see what you mean." She laughed a little, "I didn't...I don't...gods, I didn't even realize I was doing that."
"My point." Xena responded, amused affection in her voice. "Hades, Gabrielle..you know I don't care what people think". And I'm not about to go explaining Jessan and his favorite subject of lifebonds to the Amazons Or to Gabrielle. Yet. ." So..I mean.." She took a breath. Where in the world am I GOING with this conversation? "Well, you can tell her whatever you want to tell her. "
"I will." Gabrielle responded, absently. "But not right now. After I get some things settled."
"Uh huh." The warrior acknowledged. "Good thing I wake up before dawn, then." She let her lips curve into a teasing grin. "Because the way you snuggle up in your sleep would blow that up right out of the water."
Gabrielle gave her a withering look, then burst into laughter. "I can't help it." she sighed. "So stop teasing me."
Xena rolled her eyes, and lay back down flat onto her bedroll, folding her hands across her stomach and crossing her legs. "OK, I stopped." She commented, letting her eyes drift shut as she heard the approaching footsteps. "Here comes Ephiny." she added in a lower tone.
Ephiny strode into the camp, and tossed her kit on the ground on the opposite side of the fire. Xena, she noticed, seemed to be already half asleep, but Gabrielle was sitting up, hands laced around one knee, watching her.
The Amazon hesitated, then crossed over and knelt beside the bard, keeping her voice low. "Look..I'm sorry about this, Gabrielle." She searched the mist green eyes. "I'm sorry I couldn't do this myself."
"it's all right." Gabrielle responded, laying a hand on Ephiny's arm. "We'll get things fixed up." She smiled encouragingly at her. "Get some rest."
Ephiny darted a glance at the sleeping warrior. "My son will be sorry to miss seeing his favorite aunt." She remarked, half smiling. Then turned and caught an unexpected look in the eyes across from her. A look of quiet despair, in the usually bright and positive bard..
"Not half a sorry as I will to not have her be there." Gabrielle answered, honestly. "This is going to be very rough for me, Ephiny. I'm not sure...I'll do the best I can, that's all."
Ephiny grunted in understanding. "I know..it's always so comforting to have her around isn't it? She does impossible things as a routine." She chuckled a little.
"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, looking over Ephiny's shoulder at someplace far away. "Well, we'd better get to sleep." she patted Ephiny on the shoulder. "Go on."
Ephiny nodded, rose, and went to her bedroll, which she assembled with typical Amazon efficiency, and lay down, with her head facing the surrounding forest.
"Xena." Gabrielle said, finally, after watching the fire burn down to glowing embers.
"Yes." Came the answer, out of the growing darkness.
"Is life always this complicated?" The bard sighed.
"Yes." Xena replied, reaching out one long arm and getting a good grip on the bard, and pulling. "C'mere."
Gabrielle didn't resist the pull, and gladly snuggled into her usual spot tucked against the warrior's shoulder, with an arm wrapped around her. "I guess I'm afraid of losing...out." She finished awkwardly. "On some interesting adventures, I mean." .
They paused, and looked at each other, eyes meeting at very close range
"Gabrielle." Xena finally drawled, "That's the very least of your worries." And for once, she got the words right, as she felt the tension go out of the bard. Whoa..Xena..you're getting good at this.. And then there was stillness, and silence, and sleep.
Ephiny woke just after dawn the next morning, blinking a little in the low slanting sunlight, and peering around. She immediately spotted Xena, who was crouched over the fire, mixing something in a container.
"Morning" The dark haired warrior commented, not glancing up.
"Uh huh." Ephiny yawned, looking around. "Where's Gabrielle?"
"Getting washed up." Xena answered, standing up and walking over to Ephiny, holding out a small traveling cup "Tea?"
"Thanks." The Amazon acknowledged, taking the cup. "I think I'll do the same. Wash up, I mean, before I take off."
Xena nodded, and moved off to continue packing up camp.
Same old chatterbox. Ephiny thought, amused. Some things never change. She got up, packed her roll neatly, then headed towards the water she could plainly hear nearby. On the path, she met Gabrielle coming the other way, shaking the water out of her hair. Not for the first time, Ephiny reflected that the youngster she had first known had grown into a lovely woman. Which, she realized uneasily, might cause problems in and of itself. "Good morning." She greeted the bard cordially.
Gabrielle slowed and stopped as they came abreast of each other. "Did you get enough rest?" she asked, kindly, using a bit of linen to wipe the traces of water off her arms.
Ephiny nodded. "Oh sure. We're used to sleeping short. What about you?" She cocked her head at Gabrielle. "I remember you were having some trouble with nightmares the last time we met.." she let her voice trail off, ending in a question. Bright, Eph. Remind her of that whole scene again.
Gabrielle let out a short laugh. "Oh. Well, I found a...solution...for those. I'm just fine now." She grinned at Ephiny. "Thanks for asking, though. You never know when they'll come back."
"Uh huh." Ephiny responded. "hot tea?" she asked, with interest. "I know that helps me sometimes."
"Hm." Gabrielle answered. "Not exactly." She examined the tips of her boots. "Actually, Xena found a way to cure them." Yeah, Eph...I'd recommend it to anyone who as the guts to try it - she' lets me sleep wrapped around her like some earthbound octopus, and the sound of her heartbeat under my ear puts me to sleep like a baby. No problem. "Works like a charm." she added mildly, looking up at Ephiny in all innocence. All it requires is one Warrior Princess, in proper working order. I guess I"d better get used to having them again. For a while. But not forever. I think I know that now.
"Really. well, you'll have to let me in on the secret sometime. " Ephiny responded. "I'd better get going." She continued down the path, pausing to throw a glance back at the retreating bard. "Works like a charm, huh?" she asked no one in particular. I wonder if they finally....huh. Well, that would solve one of the problems I can see rearing it's ugly little head. No one in the village is going to want to take on Xena if they have more than a passing thought about romancing our new Queen. She chuckled wickedly to herself. Won't that tweak Arella the Irresistable..she's counting on being able to influence gentle, innocent Gabrielle. Ephiny let a grin spread across her face. Then she shrugged and got down to business with the soap and cold spring water.
They parted ways not long after, Xena and Gabrielle taking a slightly more northern route, Ephiny the most direct path back. She had left Gabrielle with a set of Amazon clothing and adornments, had briefed her on the current state of affairs in the region, and given her a good idea of the different groups she was likely to encounter on her entrance into Amazon territory. "I'll try to meet you when you get there." The Amazon reassured her. "Or one of my people - you know who they are. Watch out for Arella, though. She's the problem child in the group."
"Arella." Gabrielle repeated, warily. "She's that..."
"Big, kind of show offy one with the bright red hair. Has an attitude. That's the one." Ephiny confirmed with a mild shrug. "Thinks she's the hottest thing to swing a sword in the last three decades. She's the one who's causing most of the friction." Ephiny sighed. "Not that you'd catch her at it. She's sweet as pie to your face. At least she is to mine." The Amazon paused. "Be careful of her, Gabrielle. She's dangerous. To us, and to you. She'll be looking to push things."
Xena had been standing next to Argo, resting her forearms on the mare's high withers, listening. She filed the name away for future reference, but glanced at Ephiny. "She'd better watch who she's pushing." A menacing drawl. Meeting Ephiny's eyes, her intent very, very clear.
Ephiny took the warning as it was given, and gave Xena an almost imperceptible nod in return. And that adds another twist to it. Our Queen's champion. I hope Arella isn't stupid enough to pull a challenge - oh she's damn good, but she's not in Xena's league. But then..who is? "Well, I'm off. Good traveling, you two."
They reached the edge of Amazon territory late the next day, and Xena pulled Argo over to the side of the road, gauging the remaining daylight. "Well, you can keep going tonight, and get there. Or we can camp, and you can go on in the morning." She finally pronounced. "Your choice."
Gabrielle stood in Argo's shadow, her arms wrapped around herself tightly. "No third choice, huh?" Immediately regretting saying it. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
Xena looked at her with compassion. "Yes you did." She sighed heavily. "Look...if you really don't want to go through with this..."
"I have to." The bard whispered.
"I can go in there and just beat up on everyone and tell them I'm going to turn them into milkmaids if they don't cut all this stuff out." the warrior finished, with an ironic grin. "You know I can." She tipped Gabrielle's chin up to look into her eyes. "You know I will"
Gabrielle smiled, a real smile. "I know. And you have no idea what a powerful, wonderful thought that is. But if I'm going to do this, I guess I have to do it my way."
Xena nodded. "Let's camp, then. Morning is better for starting things anyway." She paused. "And, Gabrielle?"
"Hmm?" The bard responded, glancing up.
"They're warriors. Expertise with your staff or no, you aren't, and they use bladed weapons in a challenge. Any of that starts, this time, remember who your champion is, OK?.." Xena reminded her.
"How could I forget that?" Gabrielle laughed, punching her in the shoulder lightly. "That really is the least of my worries." She smiled up into Xena's eyes. "I'm the best championed Amazon Queen in the history of the Amazons."
Xena nodded at her, serious now. "Make sure they remember just who it is." she added softly, a dangerous light in her pale blue eyes. "Anyone there lays a finger on you, and believe me..believe me, Gabrielle, I'll be through that village like..."
The bard laid both hands flat on Xena's chest, leaning forward and looking her right in the eyes. "Ok..Ok..I get the picture." She grinned. "I'll make sure they get the picture. Honest."
"Ok." Xena subsided, lifting their packs off Argo's broad back and heading towards the treeline. "I see a spot we can use for camp."
A cave, actually. Dry, for a change, and empty, an added bonus. Gabrielle nodded in approval. She collected dry wood for the small fire, and got the rest of the camp set up while Xena was out hunting for dinner. Rabbit, she supposed. And was totally surprised when Xena came back in with a small deer slung over her shoulders.
"Goodness." The bard exclaimed, a bit startled. "Did that just jump out in front of you, or something?"
"No." Xena answered, laying the deer down and taking out her sharpest knife. "I went looking for it." She gave the bard a sly glance. "I remember what the food's like over at the Amazon's...I wanted to make sure you at least go in there with a decent meal."
Gabrielle giggled. "Xena!"
The warrior just chuckled, and made a quick incision into the deer's underbelly, butchering it quickly and skillfully. "Tell me you wouldn't like a venison steak." She looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle, who grinned. "Uh huh.Thought so." She turned back to her work, aware of the eyes on her. "This wont' take long." She commented.
And it didn't. Xena knew her craft when it came to butchering, as she often said, though with a sardonic smile. She laid two large steaks, with a flourish directed at the bard. "OK - you can put whatever you like on em." A grin from Gabrielle, who claimed the steaks possessively, and began to dust them with herbs dredged form her pouch.
Xena set up a smaller fire near the entrance, and capped it with a tent of broad green leaves, setting the remainder of the deer meat to smoke. She glanced back, watching Gabrielle's serious attention to her work with a look of amused affection, then crossed over to where the bard was sitting, and settled herself quietly to one side, watching the firelight dance and flicker across her face. And felt as though a fist were tightening around her heart, at the thought of their parting. Just like last time. Only...the tiniest bit of brightness...this time she knew Gabrielle was agonizing over it just as much as she was.
"Ugh." Gabrielle exclaimed, a few hours later. "I am totally stuffed." She glanced over to Xena, who was seated shoulder to shoulder with her. "You?"
"Uh huh." The warrior agreed. "Whatever you put on those steaks was perfect."
They watched the fire for a while, digesting in silence, just enjoying the peaceful crackling of the fire, and the soft cool breeze entering the mouth of the cave. After a bit, though, Gabrielle let out a long held breath, and stared moodily into the flames. You'd think I'd welcome the opportunity to run the Amazons, right? Here I am, always complaining that Xena never lets me do stuff, and I have this great opportunity to break free, and get a taste of being totally in charge. Great! So..why do I feel so lousy? She propped her head on her knees, and rubbed suddenly aching temples, avoiding Xena's concerned gaze.
What am I going to do? I can't leave her like this...Hades.. Xena closed her eyes, shaking her head, her almost overwhelming urge to keep Gabrielle from harm warring with her knowledge that the bard was a grown woman, with the right to make her own decisions. Maybe I should just go down there and beat the daylights out of a few of them. It would make me feel better, anyway. Damn them and their constant bickering and factions...I swear, I'd rather lead an army of 500 men then one of 5000 Amazons.
Gabrielle glanced up, brow furrowing at the intense expression on her friends face. What on earth is she thinking about? Gabrielle felt sorry for whatever or whoever it was. "Hey." She murmured, reaching up and touching the warrior's grimly set jaw. "You look like you want to kill something."
"Good guess." Xena growled, reining in her temper with an effort. "Lots of something's, all of them Amazons." She cast her eyes around the cave, taking in the light sandstone walls and filing it's location away for future use.
"Xena.' The bard admonished sternly. "It's not their fault."
"Yes, it is." The warrior growled. "Squabbling idiots."
"Look." She responded, soothingly. "I'll be fine. I'm sorry I'm a little down. It's just that...well.." A sheepish shrug.."I'm going to miss you. Miss this." she hesitated. "A lot." Another pause. "More than a lot."
Xena tilted her dark head, regarding her. "Yeah." She admitted. "Me too." A short laugh. "And what in all the names of the gods I'm going to find to do in Amphipolis can't figure out." A weary giggle from Gabrielle. "Sure, laugh. When you hear some crazy stories about an ex warlord run amuck out there, you'll know what's going on."
"Xena!" the bard laughed helplessly.
"Yep - probably end up building some kind of fortification out of pressed blackberries, or something." Xena continued, with mock seriousness. "Bored warlords are very, very dangerous, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle just kept laughing, until tears fell. "Oh..." she sighed, finally. "that felt good." Her eyes found Xena's. "Thank you. I needed that."
"Mmm." Xena agreed. "And speaking of which, you watch out for those Amazons." She eyed Gabrielle. "I can imagine that more than one of them will want to ambush you and drag you off into their hut so they can gain some influence."
Gabrielle's brows contracted. "You don't really think..."
Xena raised a very expressive eyebrow at her.
"Really?" the bard asked, disbelief coloring her tone. "But why...I mean...I didn't think I was much to their tastes." She blushed again. "I thought they were into that warrior thing. Now you, on the other hand..."
Xena snorted. "They like variety. And they know better than try their chances with me." She gave an expressive twitch of her eyebrows. "No, it's a power thing. You have it, they want it. That's how it works," A glint in her eyes. "Listen. Gabrielle. It's ok..I mean, you can tell anyone who's bothering you that they'll need to settle up with me, and I won't be in a very good mood, either."
"Xena, I can fight my own battles." The bard answered, with a quiet exasperation. "I'm not a child."
Xena sighed. "I know that." she responded. "but you're going to have a lot on your plate there, Gabrielle. Listen, I've spent a lifetime developing a bad reputation. Let it work in your benefit for a change, OK?" she smiled wryly. "It can't hurt."
She's probably right. The last thing I want is to have to deal with that, on top of everything else. "Well...OK." Gabrielle agreed. "You have a point, there." She grinned. "I'll try not to tarnish your reputation any further."
Xena let out a short laugh. . "Believe me, o bard of mine, anything you'd do to my reputation would only be an improvement." She stood up, and cleared away the remains of their dinner.
Then she wandered outside to check on Argo, who looked up at her approach. She scratched the proffered muzzle, stroking the sensitive skin near her soft nose and moving the mare's pale forelock out of her eyes. "Looks like it'll be just you and me for a while, girl." She remarked conversationally to the horse. Argo peered at her, unconcerned. Xena let her hands travel down the mare's strong neck, idly arranging her mane to fall along one side. "Not like we haven't done that before, right?" A gentle nicker from the mare. "Right." The horse lifted her head, and nudged Xena's shoulder, and the warrior scratched her under the jaw, and laid her face alongside Argo's broad cheek. "This is going to be a good chance for her to..be able to see a life..other than what she has now, Argo." He throat clogged suddenly. "And that's a good thing. I gotta let her know that." The mare snorted. Even she doesn't believe me. Xena sighed. Why should she? I don't believe me.. "Yeah, I'm lying. I know. .." she whispered, where only the mare could hear her. An ear flicked back in sympathy. She remained leaning on the mare's shoulder, until the tight grip on her chest had loosened a little, then rubbed her eyes and started back towards the cave mouth.
Gabrielle looked up as she entered, giving her a brief smile. "I was going to send out a search party." She joked, kneeling down on her bedroll and arranging her staff next to her. A habit learned from Xena, though her weapon was far less deadly than the longsword the warrior habitually kept near at hand.
"Checking on Argo." Xena explained, fiddling with the fire. "Making sure she had enough grass out there." Ok..let's get this over with. . "Gabrielle."
"Hmm?" the bard answered, looking over at Xena's still form. "What?"
Xena stood up and walked to where Gabrielle was sitting. She dropped to a crouch, then sat down cross legged in front of her companion, resting her forearms on her knees, and leaning forward towards Gabrielle. "Listen." Gabrielle waited, her face very quiet. "Um...the Amazons..they're not bad people." A pause. "And you are their queen." Xena smiled at her. "You'll make a very good one, I think.. Anyway. If you discover that you..like..being part of their society.." Green eyes fastened on hers. "Don't feel that you have an obligation to leave." In a rush. "If you don't want to."
Gabrielle studied the serious, composed face across from her, finding the small emotional indicators that she had learned to read over time. "I'm not an Amazon." she answered, simply.
"I know that." Xena replied. "But...it's a stable, regular life. Not....this." she shrugged, slightly. "you..maybe it would be better." She dropped her gaze, then lifted it again. "for you."
"What about for you?" The bard's quiet response.
Xena gave a little depreciating shrug. "What about for me?" she answered. "We're not talking about me. We're talking about you."
"So. You're...suggesting that it would be a good idea if I stayed with them?" Gabrielle questioned carefully. Reading the controlled stillness in Xena's face. The knotted tension in her shoulders. The racing pulse point in the hollow of her neck, which told Gabrielle far more than any words her companion could come up with.
"I'm suggesting that you have a choice." Xena answered, steadily.. "You know you don't owe me anything, Gabrielle, but you accepted responsibility for these people when you took the rite of caste. They can be your family, now. If that's what you want."
A slow nod from Gabrielle. "The Amazons are a fascinating people, Xena.": she looked down and smiled a little. "and I do feel a responsibility for them." A deep breath. "and I was thinking about what life would be like, to be a part of that society. " She glanced up and met Xena's patient, steeled gaze. "But ..with all of their traditions, and what they are...there's something I have to have, that they can't give me. It's...something I can't live without." She paused letting a tiny smile escape. "Not anymore."
Xena gazed back at her. "What's that?" she asked, warily curious.
The bard laughed gently. "You." She reached out and touched the silent warrior's knee. "You're my family." Studying the face across from her, outlined in the flickering light of the fire.
Finally, Xena smiled, and shook her head. "Glad I'm somebody's" She raised one wry eyebrow. But then met Gabrielle's eyes with an open directness that almost caused the bard's heart to stop. And reached out one hand to gently stroke the side of Gabrielle's face. Eyes never leaving hers. "Yeah." She finally answered. "I am."
They smiled at each other.
Morning was a somber affair. Xena went about her usual routine, slipping out before dawn and finding some odds and ends for breakfast, starting some tea on, banking and adjusting the fire, in silence, though that was not horribly unusual.
Gabrielle found her eyes following her companion around the campsite, watching as the warrior glided quietly from task to task, as she herself packed up her personal kit. Not for the first time. Her mind nudged her. I've done this before. And every time, she..lets me go. Tells me to follow my heart. Pulling back,so that I don't feel..obligated, and I know..she'd never ask me to stay. Never. Not if she thought I didn't want to. She sighed, and looked down at her packing. Her hand paused over a selection of shirts, and a wry smile covered her lips as she chose one, and tucked it into her bag. The lamb. Knickknacks gotten in villages across half of Greece. A small whelk she had picked up right after Ares had given Xena her body back, there on the beach. Her scrolls. She sighed again and tucked them away, then added her traveling clothes.
"Nice outfit." Xena commented quietly, appearing at her right side, and resting one hand on the bard's shoulder. "You ready?" She glanced down at the pack, and trailed her fingers over one edge. "Camp's packed up."
"Yeah." Gabrielle muttered softly. "Ok. I'm ready." No, I'm not. She hoisted the pack to her shoulder, and gripped her staff. And tried to ignore the aching in her chest. "Let's go."
Xena walked her to the fork in the road, then paused. Gabrielle looked up at her face, and saw the jaw muscles clench. They both looked off down the road toward Amazon country. "Well, I guess it's time.' The warrior said, slowly. She laid a hesitant palm against the bard's cheek. "Gabrielle..."
It was too much. Gabrielle leaned her staff against Argo, dropped the pack, and wrapped her arms around her companion, squeezing with all the strength she could muster. Felt Xena return the hug, with pressure enough to force the breath from her lungs. Neither really wanted to let go, but they did - and stood for a moment, arms loosely linked about each other.
"Be careful." Xena warned.
Gabrielle nodded., ducking her head. "I will."
"Promise?" Xena asked, meeting her startled look intently.
The bard blinked, then nodded. "I promise."
"Ok." came the response. Xena studied her face for a bit longer. "I'll miss you." she added, very quietly. "More than you can imagine."
Gabrielle felt her throat close on any possible response, and just buried her head against Xena's chest. Where she could hear the ragged edge of her breathing. And feel the pounding of her heartbeat. Finally, she raised her head, and exchanged one last look, and turned towards the forest road. Not looking back until she was at the edge of the trees, and then to see the patient Argo, her rider leaning against her. Watching. It was an image she filed firmly in the forefront of her mind's eye.