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DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and all of their friends and enemies are the property of MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters and the story depicted here are from my deranged mind.
TIMELINE: The events in this story take place sometime between "A Necessary Evil" and "Sacrifice 1 & 2" with one less body falling in the lava. (And definitely before TPTB killed our favorite sidekicks.)
VIOLENCE: Not too much since this is my first effort at a story. It is a Xena story with Callisto, eventually, so who knows.
DEDICATION: This story is dedicated to all the bards whose stories I read after moving to a different state and being jobless for a month and a half. Thanks for the memories. I wish to express thanks specifically to Maggie for depicting humor, to Cat for depicting tenderness and compassion, to Onora for all her help in starting J, and to Susan for her support and friendship. Most importantly, thanks to my husband for those "unsolicited" logic and plausibility reviews and for still waking up next to me after those long nights of creating and typing.
Comments and suggestions are welcomed and greatly appreciated.
Reference to the story "Berries" by Cat is used with permission.
The cool mist drifted lazily through the foliage leaving a gentle kiss as it slipped away from the warm rays of the morning sun. It seemed the normal inhabitants of the forest were in a purposeful hush as a sacrificial gift to the four mortals who currently occupied the clearing near the river.
As usual, Xena was the first to rise. Quietly she gathered her armor and weapons and left to find an area suitable to perform her daily exercises. Though the workout kept her strength and skills in top form, the true reason for her ritual was the calming and meditative state she achieved as a result. Often when the bards persistence had strained the warriors patience she found that a hard and tiring workout was the least dangerous avenue of escape. Not that Xena and Gabrielle fought often, but it is a known fact that if two people, even friends, are with each other, day in and day out, conflict and disagreements will come. Xena and Gabrielle had been through more than their share in the last few years and they understood the price each was paying to be together.
Is sleeping contagious and Im the only one immune? Xena pondered as she entered the clearing to find her three companions still tucked cozily in their bedrolls. Quietly Xena walked over to the far side of the fire and tapped Hercules and Iolaus on the shoulders. With a finger to her lips, Xena motioned for the pair to follow. Like panthers on a hunt the trio encircled their prey.... Only inches away from the slumbering form the conspirators summoned all their strength to stifle the laughter and giggles that threatened to explode from each.
Unlike the Warrior Princess, sleep was usually a comforting and rewarding experience for Gabrielle. She often lulled herself into Morpheus arms with her colorful palette of words and ideas, weaving the patterns until the images unfolded into a glorious story. If she could only write and dream at the same time, life would be perfect. Somewhere in the periphery of her current dream, somewhere in the hazy shadows, there was a sound...no a sensation...which spasmodically beckoned her.
The feather delicately teased the soft skin below the bards nostrils. A woman of few words, Xena knew she would one day find an appropriate use for the quill. Gabrielle has always told me that I could use it whenever I wanted.
"Mmm..." Gabrielle moaned as she brushed at her nose and rolled onto her back just missing Hercules arm. The cohorts held their collective breaths as they watched the bards feathery lashes flutter then fall still, leaving a more cherubic countenance, if that were possible, on the sleeping form.
Taking a slow, steady breath and holding it, Xena leaned over the bards head and applied the feather one last time.
Gabrielles eyelids fluttered slightly as she scrunched her nose, her subconscious registering a vague sense of oppressing powers. Instantly mist-green eyes burst open only to be met by three pair of mischievous orbs and a rising crescendo of laughter.
"Uh-oh," was all the sound the bard could voice as she abruptly launched her trim form past her tormentors and across the camp into a dense and, more private, area of the forest.
Is there nothing sacred? she thought...as nature began to run its course.
"I cant believe you did that!" Gabrielle said while glancing over and catching Hercules and Iolaus eyes just before their heads lowered to control the laughter that still lingered. "Whose idea was this anyway?" the bard demanded with all the false bravado she could muster as the grins and snickers broke through her charade.
Three fingers pointed in different directions as no one was willing to take responsibility...or liability, as the case might be, for the recent prank.
"Whos hungry?" Xena blurted, raising her hand to scratch the nape of her neck and avoiding the probing mist-green eyes.
"Ah-ha. The guilty party always changes the subject," Gabrielle confirmed with a jabbing finger in Xenas chest.
"Im sorry Gabrielle, it was just a joke. We were just playing and you looked so darn cute and sweet snuggled in your bedroll." Xena tried her best but couldnt hide the broad grin forming on her lips. Gabrielle played jokes on her constantly during their travels so turnabout was only fair play.
"It could have been worse, you know. What if an animal had crept into the camp..." Hercules suggested.
"Or maybe a vicious thug coming to kidnap you..." Iolaus added.
"Or the middle of summer," Xena quipped slightly under her breath but loud enough for the bard to hear.
Gabrielles brows arched beneath her blonde bangs as a light flush played over her face, the meaning behind Xenas statement finally dawning. Oh, gods, shes right. On a few occasions during those sweltering summer nights Gabrielle could recall sleeping along the shoreline, sans clothes, praying to any god who would listen for a cool breeze.
"All right, all right. If this is the most embarrassing thing that happens to me today, then Ill consider myself blessed."
Breakfast was caught, sacrificed and choked down in short order.
"Remember it was your idea for me to cook," Xena chided, her back to the bard as she raked the remnants from the dishes into the fire. I told her I was sorry. Cant she take a joke?
"Yeah, but I thought it would be punishment for YOU, not the other way around. With all the skills that you have Xena, how is it that cooking isnt one of them?"
"Thats why I let you stay, Gabrielle," Xena said with a sly smirk on her lips as she turned to face the bard. Careful Gabrielle, dont start something you cant finish.
"So thats what I mean to you," Gabrielle said, throwing her hands in the air in disgust. Thats all I am to you, just your own personal maid!
"Is that a question or a statement?" Xena retorted while folding her arms across her chest and giving the bard a steely gaze.
"Neither, its an accusation!" Gabrielle said pressing her petite frame to its fullest height meeting Xenas cold blue eyes with her own blazing emerald green.
Hercules knew enough from being around the Olympian goddesses that a wise man, or demi-god, steered far away from any disputes involving females of the species. Iolaus, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy learning some of lifes lessons the hard way.
"Now Xena and Gabrielle, play fa..."
"Shut up, Iolaus!" both women said simultaneously as they each turned and left to complete their morning chores.
"You just cant learn, can you?" Hercules asked as Iolaus approached with a look of confusion.
"Ive never heard them speak to each other like that. Are they really mad at each other?" Iolaus asked innocently.
Hercules continued to observe the two women as they went about the activities for breaking camp. No, not mad, just hurting. Why do the gods like to play so many games with us? "No, they just vent stress and tension differently than you and I." Looking at his friend Hercules exhaled deeply and continued. "Were not sure who or what we will be up against. If the rumors are true and Callisto is alive then no one is safe."
Iolaus kicked at a few stray embers from the fire and asked, "Does Gabrielle know everything?"
"No and thats why we need you here. If Xena and I fail you and Gabrielle are the only chance we have left." Laying a strong hand on Iolaus shoulder Hercules gave a squeeze and a silent nod of gratitude. "Lets hope our little excursion gives us the needed edge."
Gabrielle busied herself with washing the utensils from breakfast and making certain all the wineskins were filled. Why does she treat me like a child? I thought we had been through all this. Havent I proven myself? I am the Amazon Queen, for Gaias sake. I hate it when we argue but sometimes she infuriates me so much I dont know what to do. Looking up from her duties Gabrielle could see Xenas attempts at looking busy making adjustments to Argos saddle. Gabrielle had watched the warrior perform the daily rituals for almost two years and could tell when the actions were a façade for brooding. Herodotus and Hecuba had taught their daughters from a young age to resolve differences before leaving or going to bed and Gabrielle still felt pains of guilt at having left home while her parents and fiancée slept quietly. I dont want her leaving with silence between us. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, Gabrielle placed the utensils in the leather bag and with a heavy sigh slowly and cautiously approached the warrior.
Xena often used Argo as a confidant when she needed to deal with emotional issues. She could say as much or as little as she wanted without the usual emotional displays that accompanied conversations with people. Sensing the bards presence, Xena inwardly flinched but continued her methodical examinations of Argos bridle and saddle. Argo, you talk to her, please! Without turning, for she knew better, Xena began to speak.
"Im sorry Gabrielle. I dont know why I reacted that way. I want you with me but I cant bear the thought of Callisto taking you again. I wont lose you twice. If that means secrets, then so be it. Xena closed her eyes as she waited for the bard to respond.
"I dont understand why you wont let me go with you." Gabrielle stood firmly behind Xena with her hands on her hips, shaking her head. "Youre shutting me out just like you always do. You need someone to help you but obviously its not me," Gabrielle said, hurt evident in her voice. Why do you always do this? Fighting desperately to maintain her composure the bard studied a dying leaf on a nearby bush and swallowed hard before continuing.
"Why is this mission so important that you need Hercules? You dont trust me to watch your back, is that it?" Gabrielle kept her eyes focused on the leaf, straining to keep the tears at bay.
Xena felt the sting of each word as it spilled from the bards lips. Surely the girl didnt believe what she was saying. Pausing for a moment she chose her next words with care. "Gabrielle, its not that I dont want you beside me, or that I dont trust you. I do, on both counts, but we might run into some trouble with a few gods and with Hercules help we can hopefully take care of this once and for all. Do you understand?"
"No, I dont. All I see is that you are trying to protect me again," Gabrielle said as her voice cracked with emotion.
Gabrielle had reached her breaking point and grabbed Xenas arm. She knew Xena was keeping something from her. How often in the last two years had they played-out this same scenario? Xena would withhold information from the bard hoping that it would be better, more protection. In the end it usually caused more harm than good.
Yes I am. Im your friend and your champion and Ill do whatever it takes, to Tartarus and back if need be, to keep you safe. Xena blinked away the unshed tears that glistened on her lashes as she loosened her grip on the cinch on Argos saddle. Turning to face the bard she decided on a different approach.
"Always. Its a tough job but someone has to do it. Can I help it if trouble seems to find you?" Xenas lips pursed together as she tried to maintain a serious expression.
"Hey, I didnt have these problems when I lived in Poteidaia," Gabrielle said placing both hands on her hips.
Rubbing her chin and contemplating the logistics of travel Xena replied, "Poteidaia. That sounds like a safe, dull place."
"Oh no, dont even think about it, Xena. Im not running back home...safe, dull or whatever," Gabrielle said, crossing her arms over her chest and raising her right eyebrow.
Leaning close and gently cupping the bards chin, Xena gazed into the face of the friend she cherished more than life itself. For once just do as I say. Please, if not for your own safety then at least for my hearts sake.
"Promise me you will stay here and keep out of trouble." Tilting her head slightly Xena waited for an answer. After a long silence Xena raised her eyebrow to press the issue.
"Okay," Gabrielle said as her shoulders and arms fell in reluctant submission. I hate it when you do this to me. One day youll see me as an equal.
"Promise me," Xena said still holding the bards chin and staring deep into the mist-green eyes.
Hercules and Iolaus could see the interchange between the women and though the conversation was unintelligible from their distance, the body language spoke sharp and true. The men stood and waited patiently as Xena, leading Argo, and Gabrielle following slowly behind, made their way back to the center of camp.
"Xena, we should be going if we want to make it back by tomorrow morning," Hercules said as he reached to gather his bedroll and a wineskin.
Nodding to Hercules, Xena took Iolaus arm in the common warrior handshake. "Keep your eye on her," Xena said as her steely eyes held Iolaus gaze.
"I will," replied Iolaus. How does Gabrielle stand up to her? Can any one say no to that look?
Xena turned to follow Hercules but was halted by a gentle hand on her forearm. Gabrielle please don't make this any harder than it already is. Dont force me to look into those lie-detecting eyes of yours or I wont be able to complete this mission. Summoning all the strength she could, Xenas eyes fell upon warm, glistening, mist-green eyes. Stay strong. Dont break. Long slender arms reached out and embraced the bard. Gabrielle held tightly to Xenas waist, biting her lower lip to stem the tears that threatened.
"Tomorrow...right?" Gabrielle managed through a choked cry.
"Tomorrow, I promise."
Gently freeing Gabrielles arms from around her waist Xena turned and accepted the offered hand from Hercules who was already mounted on Argo. With a nod of their heads the four friends parted. Two on their way to what was, two on their way to what might be, but all on their way to...unfinished business.
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