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See Part One for full disclaimers.
Subtext, always. No violence or spoilers in this part. Joxer has not been hiding under the bed, waiting to reappear.
Sharp eyes will note that this isn't the conclusion I promised. I hadn't wanted to post until I was done, but health problems and work slowed me down. So, here you have Part 4a, which at least gets a certain someone off the ground. Didn't mean to alarm, folks.
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"Hey, hey, take it slow." Gentle hands pushed Xena back down on the bed. "You just went head-to-head with a mean ol’ warlord. You won, by the way."
Every inch of her body ached, and the inside of her mouth tasted like old boot-leather. "I didn’t hurt those kids?"
Gabrielle smiled, green eyes glowing softly in the candlelight. "They’re fine." She held a cup to Xena’s lips, supporting her shoulders as she gulped the cool water. "As for you, warrior mine, the healer couldn’t find anything wrong with you. Her opinion is that you’ve had entirely too much stress today, and a good night’s rest is in order."
The warrior opened her mouth to protest, then shut it immediately. Gabrielle clearly intended to enforce the healer’s orders, and there was nothing to be gained from defiance. What’re you gonna do, fool? Stumble outside in your shift, to supervise the perimeter guard? That’ll go over real well, especially after--
"Sorry, Gabrielle. Apparently I can’t make it through a full day, without messing up with the Amazons."
"Xena, they attacked you!"
"Defending their Queen from apparent danger. I was chasing you."
"They had no business assuming— no, of course they did." The righteous indignation drained from the bard, as quickly as it had flared. Hanging her head, she whispered, "We don’t really have a private life, do we?"
"Not here. Not yet." Xena pulled the smaller woman into her arms, sighing as she nestled close. "Being reminded of that got me angry, but I still shouldn’t have fought back. I’ll do better next time, I promise."
"Next time?" Gabrielle raised herself on an elbow, searching her soulmate’s face. "You’re saying they’re going to keep testing you."
"Only sensible. I’d have done the same, if one of my soldiers snapped." Assuming I hadn’t killed him outright. She cupped Gabrielle’s cheek, saying gently, "The darkness doesn’t just vanish, beloved. They’re right to be wary."
"—Settled things between you and me. I’m still a bit shaky with the rest of the world."
"Then maybe we should hole up in a cave somewhere, just you and me." Soft lips brushed hers, tasting of the various delicacies from the feast. "Practice your social skills in a less stressful environment...."
"Mmmm, that is so tempting. But you know we have to stay. If only to prove I don’t make a habit of throttling fourteen-year-olds."
Gabrielle kissed her again, one hand curved at the back of her neck, gently kneading the knot there. "They’re testing me, too. I’m not sure I like that."
"You could be a legendary queen, Gabrielle. Oh, yes," she smiled at the shocked expression on her lover’s face. "Above and beyond my biased opinion."
"I still don’t know if that’s what I want. It’s just... it makes me mad when I’m told I can’t have something, so I refuse to let go."
Xena said fiercely, "No one, but no one, will take anything away from you, while I’m around to prevent it."
"My lioness." The green eyes shone with tender pride. "You need to get some sleep, love. Let me just hold you tonight."
Gabrielle blew out the candles, and they snuggled together, Xena’s head pillowed on soft breasts. She sighed in contentment, and then a thought occurred to her.
"You hid my clothes, didn’t you?"
A ripple of laughter shook the bard’s firm belly. "Go to sleep, Xena."
Gabrielle took a seat across from her regent, folding her hands on top of the table. "You look like Hades, Eph."
"Thanks, I smell worse." She gave up poking her spoon at the porridge, and pushed the bowl away. "Must’ve startled a skunk on my way home last night."
Xena appeared with a platter of fruit, bread and cheese in one hand, two mugs of tea in the other, all of which she smoothly set on the table before sitting beside Gabrielle. "’Morning, Ephiny. How’s the head?"
"Still attached... unfortunately. I have a vague idea I should apologize to you, Xena. "
"You were very, very drunk." The blue eyes held an unexpected spark of warmth. "I didn’t take it personally."
"Oh. Good." Gods on high, what did I do last night? She glanced over at Gabrielle, embarrassed, but the bard was fully focused on breakfast. "Do we need to talk later?"
"Couldn’t hurt." Xena calmly continued to eat, snagging one bite for every three the smaller woman took.
Ephiny stood, a bit unsteadily. "I’m heading for the baths. We’re meeting at midday, my Queen?"
"Briefly. There’s nothing pressing, as far as I know."
"All right, see you then." A stiff nod to both, and she made her escape from the dining hall, thinking she almost preferred an out-of-control Warrior Princess to a solicitous one.
"That, I presume, is the way you used to take over an army without bloodshed." Gabrielle speared a slice of apple with her knife, offering it to her partner.
"One of ’em." Xena accepted the tidbit with a smile. "Everyone is watching us eat breakfast, you know."
"They’re probably amazed that I can get away with waving a knife in front of your face."
The next mouthful was taken from Gabrielle’s hand. "Or that you still have all your fingers." The tip of her tongue brushed those fingers, then withdrew.
Gabrielle shivered from the contact. "Is it really vital to be on the practice fields this morning? I can probably put off Phoebe another day."
"Might as well get it over with; besides, I told Pony I’d help her drill the cadets." Her voice dropped to its sexiest register. "We do our chores, like good girls, and we can have an early evening."
Their eyes met for a long moment, then Xena stood, bending down for a leisurely kiss.
"No over-compensating, now." Getting a blank look in response, the bard explained: "It was in Hippocrates’ latest scroll. Some healer in Gaul has a theory— oh, never mind. Just don’t get hurt."
"Do my best... your Majesty."
Gabrielle watched her warrior stride out the door, knowing every Amazon in the room was doing the same. Even in the stained homespun she’d dubbed her ‘penitent outfit’, she was breathtaking. Mine, all mine, Gabrielle thought happily as she finished breakfast.
"What’s she doing here?!"
"Warming up, same as everyone else." Eponin considered telling them that Xena’s real warm-up had occurred at dawn, and was much more rigorous than what they were doing now. She’d only joined in near the end of the routine, and trying to keep up with the dark warrior had nearly killed her— not that she’d ever admit it. She folded her arms, letting the muttered complaints go on for a few moments, before saying: "All right, enough. Clearly the jaw muscles on you lot are in fine shape. Let’s see about the rest of ‘em."
The warm-up exercises and basic drills continued for a candlemark. Eponin prowled the field, counting off the various repetitions, correcting stances and barking encouragement. By her own request, the Warrior Princess worked alongside the senior cadets; the only concession to her status was the drill instructor pairing with her for the partner exercises. Aside from the occasional grunt, Xena had been silent the entire time.
Clapping her hands, Eponin called for attention. "Since we have the Queen’s Champion with us today, the lesson is applied tactics. Xena— " Glare at me all you want. I’m not wasting this opportunity to actually teach them something. "What would be your assessment of the... incident last night?"
"My performance or the cadets?" No sign of emotion in the warrior’s voice or expression, though there was a glimmer of threat in the icy blue eyes.
Eponin shrugged. "Up to you."
There was a thoughtful silence, before Xena began to speak. "First of all, the alertness to the Queen’s safety was commendable." Surprised murmuring in response to that, from everyone but the drill instructor. "Gabrielle’s wellbeing is the most important thing in the world to me, even if— especially if— I’m the one who’s posing the threat. I take full responsibility for the misunderstanding." She made brief eye contact with each of the three cadets she’d fought, adding, "Come talk to me later."
"Now, what I did wrong." The Warrior Princess began to pace, ticking off points on her long fingers. "Mistake one was indulging in horseplay with my lover, in the middle of the village square. Not behavior you’d expect from me, and clearly suspect, after... the other day. Mistake two was fighting back when challenged, which escalated the situation; mistake three was losing my temper, which turned it into a disaster."
Mouths were literally dropping open at this unexpected display of candor. Eponin bounced on her heels a little, humming to herself. The woman’s charisma was amazing... almost made one regret that the Nation was at peace.
"What else? Ah... reasonable caution in a hostage situation." Xena surveyed her students, flashing that feral grin. "A frontal assault is never a good idea— puts the person you’re trying to rescue at risk. I’ll show you a few alternative moves, that should work against most opponents."
"How about against you, Xena?" someone in the back ranks yelled.
"Too advanced for this class." The grin turned prideful, then ironic, as she nodded toward Eponin. "If it ever comes to that, go get one of your Captains; they’ll know what to do."
Eponin said a little prayer to Artemis, that it would never come to that.
Continued (keep the faith!)...
c. 1998 StJoan
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