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Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence ĖWhy does anyone ever disclaim violence in a Xena story? Of course there's violence. Do you think we'd put out a story that consisted of pages and pages of Xena just.. .fishing.. or something? She is a Warrior Princess, not a Mary Kay consultant. (no insult intended - some of my best co workers are Mary Kay consultants, and I purchase from them regularly) And Gabrielle is no slouch with that staff, either. So, yes - there is violence.
Subtext - C'mon. Even the show has subtext. Heck, sometimes, it's not subtext. Sometimes, it's maintext. But anyway, this is an alternative fan fiction story. That means, it's based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just best friends. If that's not your cup of mint tea, there are many, many talented bards out in the Xenaverse who post general fiction, that does not follow this premise. Go find them. Enjoy them.
This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more.
So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:
Promises Kept - Part 2
Xena had no problem waking up, even before dawn hit. The chill just wasn't right.. and the lack of Gabrielle's familiar form snuggling up in peaceful sleep brought back haunting memories that jerked her awake, heart pounding in erratic rhythm before she focused her thoughts on where she was.
She slowly rolled over and up onto one elbow, rubbing her temples gently with her other hand as the sudden panic subsided, and she let out a long, weary breath. All right.. all right.. just take it easy. She chanted to herself silently. It was just a nightmare. Nothing unusual.
The damp pre dawn air stirred her hair in a fitful gust, and she sat up, edging closer to the slumbering fire and stirring it awake. The soft crackles nudged a crisp, nutty smell into the air, as the branches she patiently fed the fire caught and burned, and she held her hands out over the resulting flames to warm them.
Damn. She pulled her legs in and sat cross legged, and drew the edges of the blanket over her shoulders, as the dark shadows took on the first, bare hints of the coming dawn. Waking up and finding all that... gone... again, was a recurrent dream of hers, one which she kept to herself in silence to avoid upsetting her partner.
It was always accompanied by the ugly traces of a deep, snide laughter that mocked her as she found herself abandoned outside a forbidding stone temple. Alone. Or with stark memories of Gabrielle walking away from her, and not looking back.
And knowing it was all her own doing.
But Gabrielle's presence kept that away, and to be honest, the dreams were starting to fade, becoming brief wisps of anxiety that held little charge as she became better adjusted to the restored relationship between them. She rubbed her neck, working the tense stiffness out of it, before letting her glance flick around the campsite, peaceful in the emerging light. "Morning, Argo."
The mare swiveled her ears, and lifted her muzzle, flaring her soft nostrils at her rider.
Then Xena let her head turn to look in back of where she was, and came face to face with a blinking, black and white, beaked face. "Yow!" She jerked back, startled.
The bird fell over backwards, and thrashed in the leaves, honking in distress.
Xena closed her eyes, and muttered a virulent curse, then leaned over, and got both hands around the bird's chubby body, lifting it to its feet. "You coulda gotten your head cut off like that, buddy. " She warned in disgust. "You're damn lucky the last month's blunted my edges a little."
"Honk." It gave her an evil look, then pattered off into the leaves, headed towards the water.
Watching its comical, waddling gait coaxed Xena into a wry, gentle laughter, which dispelled the lingering shadows, and put her in a much better mood. She stood and stretched, then rolled up the sleeping furs into a neat bundle, tucking it away into her gear and tugging out a dried fruit bar to chew on as she moved about, cleaning up the camp.
The tangy taste was pleasant, full of summer fruits she'd salvaged from Cyrene's extras, and pressed into the handy trail rations that made up a good part of their daily snacks on the road. They provided a quick energy burst, and generally kept even Gabrielle happy until they could stop for a more substantial meal. She'd discovered making sure her partner was supplied with this kind of thing helped avoid the cross moods she often developed otherwise, and she was careful not to tease her soulmate too much about her constant munching.
Just a little. Xena chuckled quietly to herself. Just like Gabrielle teased her about her constant need to sharpen her weapons, and check her armor. There was something warm, and very comfortable about their banter...it laid strong claim to their friendship, which went above and beyond their romantic relationship.
She licked her fingers, and saddled up Argo, after taking a quick wash in the cold stream water, and swallowing several mouthfuls. The cool air felt good, and she took a long breath of it, leaning against Argo's warm side. "Well, girl.. let's go get that note, okay?"
Xena worked her jaw, drumming her fingers on Argo's neck for a long moment before she turned around. The bird was standing in the middle of her neatly cleaned up camp, what could best be described as a woebegone expression on its face. "What?" The warrior put her hands on her hips, and glared at it.
It waddled forward, opening and closing its sharp beak until it collided with her leg armor.
"Hey!" Xena stamped a boot, making it flap its wing stubs. "G'wan... get outta here."
"Honk." The bird tipped its head up, and regarded her.
The warrior rolled her eyes, and shook her head. "I gotta go." She turned, and vaulted up onto Argo's back, letting her knees slip into familiar hollows behind the mare's shoulders, and taking the reins up in one hand. "C'mon, girl."
The mare moved off, picking her way daintily through the underbrush, her ears swiveling back to catch some muttered comments from her rider.
Xena ignored the sound, firmly fixing her eyes straight between Argo's ears. A soft pattering stirred the dawn quiet.
"Honk?" The pattering stopped. "Honk."
Xena gritted her teeth, but glanced back over her shoulder, to see the bird standing in the path, looking very dejected. "Look." She pulled Argo to a halt, and half turned. "You don't want to go where I'm going, okay? They'll make you into stew, trust me. It's not a nice place." Rivas was a... she could best describe it as an outlaw town, where mercenaries gathered to spend the winter, and what you mostly found there was trouble. Lots of it.
The bird blinked sadly at her.
Xena sighed. It was obviously someone's pet, not a wild animal, and who knew? Maybe some crazy bastard in Rivas owned the damn thing. That was the only town between here and there... "I can't believe I'm doing this." She growled at Argo, who turned her head and snorted. "Bacchae breasts." She cursed roundly, then kicked her feet free of Argo's stirrups, and slid down off the mare's back, stomping over to where the bird was still standing, looking at her woefully.
"Honk!" It pattered forward, waddling over to her like a long lost friend.
Xena studied it, then knelt, and grabbed it roughly around the middle, squishing it a little, and standing up. "I gotta be outta my chicken plucking mind." She whispered, carrying the bird over to the patiently waiting mare. "Look.. you get to Rivas, and then that's it, all right? No further.. if you don't find what you're looking for there, it's just too damn bad."
Tiny black eyes blinked at her, and the sharp beak opened, as the bird panted.
Xena sighed, and tucked it under her arm, then pulled herself up onto Argo again, and sat the bird down on the saddle in front of her. "Just... don't move.. don't make noise...you got me?"
Argo started, and shied, almost throwing her rider off.
Xena clamped down tight with her powerful legs, and hung on, grimly running through a cartload of applicable curses. It was going to be a long morning.
Gabrielle woke to Ares gentle snoring, and she rested quietly for a few minutes, petting his fur idly. "Your mom was right, Ares... " She murmured softly. "You are good company... but I'm really glad she doesn't snore like you do."
A yellow eye opened and rotated, peering up at her. "Agrroo?"
The bard smiled, and rolled over, letting her eyes linger on the glass fish, which was capturing the morning sun and sending pale blue and green slivers of light across the room. It changed... the way the whole place looked, really.. now.. there was something magical here, that made this dull, drab place into someplace special.
She'd tried to do that with her own fish.. and the other toys, but this... this was different.
This was someone else reaching out to her, and saying.. "Here... dream a little." And the fact that it was her stolid, dour soulmate who'd done it made it all the more special, because it was Xena who had made her most fanciful dreams...
So what if there were nightmares that came along with it? Wasn't that better than nothing at all? Living your life not feeling.. anything... not being... anything...
Like Hecuba. She had never known the joy of getting a glass fish.
All of a sudden, Gabrielle felt profoundly sorry for her. Yeah, her mother had never had to go through what the bard had.. but... One fingertip reached out and touched the smooth, cool glass surface, as she wound her other arm around Ares warm body. "I wouldn't trade places with her for anything in the world, Ares." She whispered into the wolf's cupped ear.
"Agorrrooo.." Ares rumbled, licking his chops and sighing.
Gabrielle sighed too, and gazed at the light pouring in the window. "How do you like that, Ares.. one day I'm away from her, and I sleep late. It's disgusting." She gave the wolf a brisk pat, and rolled out of bed, walking to the window and letting the cool breeze blow her hair back. "What a beautiful day." She leaned against the sill and watched a robin hop from branch to branch, cocking its colorful head and capturing a caterpillar.
"Well." A voice made her turn, to see her mother standing in the doorway. "I see you're up."
"At last." Gabrielle completed the statement, with a wry grin. "Sorry." She raked her fingers through her hair, and leaned back against the sill. "I don't usually do that anymore."
Her mother gave her a little smile. "It's all right." She paused, awkwardly. "You. .must have been having some kind of bad dream last night.. you were calling out."
Gabrielle's brow creased. "I don't rem.. oh." Right. "Was I calling for Xena?" A vague memory of an old, old nightmare of hers...of Xena leaving her here in Potadeia lifted its head briefly. Must be the surroundings, the bard sighed inwardly. Haven't had that one in a long time.
Hecuba nodded mutely.
"Ah." She shifted her shoulders, and folded her arms across her chest. "Overactive imagination, I guess...I don't even remember what it was about." Right. No sense in telling her this is my nightmare, right?
Her mother gave her a tentative smile. "Would you like something to eat? I have some fresh bread... "
"Sure." The bard went to her pack, and tugged her sleep shirt off, pulling out a pale gray tunic to replace it with. "Let me just... " A hand touched her shoulder, and she turned, the garment gripped in one hand, looking at Hecuba in question. "What?"
Her mother studied her, a pensive expression on her weathered face. "You just... " She sighed. "You look so different." She raised a faintly shaking finger to touch the scar on Gabrielle's neck. "I... got to the part where this happened, last night."
"Oh." Gabrielle murmured. "It... that was a while ago.. it doesn't hurt or anything."
"Gabrielle, you ... you almost died." Hecuba said, in a very low tone.
The bard nodded a little. "I know." She slowly tugged on the tunic, fastening the belt absently. "But I didn't.. that's the important thing."
Hecuba sighed. "You set the Titans free?"
Gabrielle winced. "Eh.. yeah, unfortunately.." She gave her a sheepish look. "Got em back under control, though... with a little help."
"Xena must have been very upset." Her mother mused, taking her by the elbow and steering her out of the room. "It was very interesting to see your descriptions of her change as you went along."
The bard smiled quietly. "Yeah... I know."
"Some of the poetry in there is very lovely." Hecuba commented then, as they reached the small kitchen. "There is one about a shooting star, and how rare it was... I was... very impressed with that one."
"Ah." Gabrielle went to familiar cupboards, and took down cups for them both. "Yeah.. that... " She hesitated, then took a deep breath. "That was the night.. I .. um... I realized I was in love with Xena." She closed her eyes and imagined the soft scent of pine, and the crackling fire.
Dead silence behind her, and she slowly let out the breath. "It was a pretty intense night for me."
"So long ago?" Hecuba's voice sounded a trifle strained.
Gabrielle just nodded, and didn't turn around. She carefully measured herbs into the cups, and poured water over them from the pot kept ready near the fireplace. That starry night had seemed... so full of possibilities. As I lay here, under a blanket of stars, I find myself in patterns traced with dancing lights...and as I watched the star that marked my heart went wandering across the darkness.. finding itself a new home in a constellation bound by strength, and steely will, and eyes that outshone every light my sight can see. She remembered the shaky joy, and spared her younger self a gentle smile.
"Gabrielle, then why.. "
The bard bit her lip. "Why did I marry Perdicus?" She finally turned around, and brought the cups to the table, putting one down in front of her mother. "That's... a question I'm going to be asking myself for the rest of my life." She sat down, and wrapped her hands around the carved wood of the mug, staring into its steaming depths. "Maybe.. because I didn't think Xena and I would ever..." She paused. "And .. I liked him.. he cared for me..."
"Because we wanted you to?" Hecuba finally said, very softly. "Because your father did?"
Gabrielle blinked, then raised her eyes, finding compassion in her mother's face. "Partly."
Hecuba sighed. "Do you... if things had been different.. would you have been happy with him, Gabrielle? He did care for you very much."
The bard slowly shook her head. "No." She admitted quietly. "I would have missed Xena too much... it would have.. eventually... I don't know what would have happened to me."
"Well.. " Her mother took a sip of the tea. "She seemed very supportive at the time." It was a snipe, and she knew it, but she was too curious as to what her daughter would say to stop her words.
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle let out a sigh. "She was ready to do whatever she thought would make me happy." She spared her partner a wistful thought. "If only she knew." She rested her head on her hand. "We were both so afraid."
They looked up as the door opened, and Lila came sauntering in, carrying Gabriel, who was perched on her arm, peering at them with childish interest. "Well.." Lila gave her older sister a smug look. "I see some things haven't changed."
Gabrielle raised a hand, glad of the interruption. "All right.. all right.. so I slept late. Kill me." She grinned at the baby, and tickled him, giggling right along with him as he squirmed. "Gods know I don't get to do it often...if it's past dawn it's late around Xena."
"Aww... " Lila tsked. "C'mon, Bree. You've got her wrapped around your finger.. you couldnít get her to sleep in?" She seated herself, and bounced Gabriel on her knee. "I bet you could."
The bard waggled a hand. "Weeeeel.... Yes and no." She laughed. "Sure, if I wanted to on a particular day, that'd be easy.. but in general, we kinda...sleep and wake up at the same time, so I don't mostly want to sleep in when I'm around her."
Her mother and sister looked at her, puzzled.
"It's weird, I know." The bard sighed. "It's hard to explain." She fiddled with her cup again, and took a sip. "I guess we're just around each other a lot." She shrugged. "You know how it is...you get used to things."
Lila studied her. "No.. I don't think that's it." She stated, calmly. "I remember.. when you were here time before last.. and that haycrib fell on Xena." She paused. "You knew." Her voice dropped, almost to a whisper. "You knew when it happened, Bree...you felt it. You turned white as a sheet. ."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Yes." She finally admitted, quietly. "I knew."
"Wow." Lila breathed. "What's that like?"
A shrug. "There's nothing I can compare it to." The bard answered, simply. "It's just something that's part of us."
A loud bang interrupted the tense scene, and they all looked up, to see a short, rotund man breathing hard in the doorway. "Hide.. run... a band of ruffians broke through the herds and are headed this way!"
"Well." Gabrielle set her cup down, and stood. "Time to go to work, I guess." She headed for her old room, to collect her staff and put her boots on. "Gotta tell you , Ares.." She muttered to the prancing wolf. "I've never been so glad to see raiders in my life."
The yelling grew outside, and she ducked out the front door, headed in the direction of danger.
The town of Rivas loomed, its scroungy outbuildings half collapsed in the roadway. Xena guided Argo past them with a grim look, hearing a rising buzz of conversation as they moved further into the ramshackle town. "Not pretty, Argo." She muttered, hearing loud voices raised in anger ahead of them. They moved around the bulk of a small granary, and into the central area of the town, seeing a large crowd of men clustered in the center, surrounding a wagon, and a shorter, almost huddled figure.
"Stone em, the bastard!" One man yelled. "He's a fake!" The crowd surged forward, with obvious ill intent. "He cheated us!"
Xena paused a moment, then sighed, and kneed Argo forward, pushing the outlying stragglers out of her way. One tall, armored man protested, then glanced up and saw the ice blue eyes peering down at him, and backed off without another word.
Huh. Xena smiled privately. That still works. She nudged through another layer of riff raff, then stood a little in her stirrups, peering at the bedraggled victim. Her eyes closed, and she let herself down, then she slowly shook her head. "I shoulda known." She paused a moment, then squared her shoulders, and let out a yell, startling the men hemming her in and causing them to dodge out of her way. She urged Argo forward, with more energy this time, and made no bones about kicking people out of the way when they didn't move fast enough. "Get back!"
A low rumble of discontent rocked against her, and she reached back, drawing her sword with a distinct rasp of steel on leather. "Move it, or lose it." She brought the hilt down on the nearest man's head. The crowd grudgingly moved, and she reached the front of it, where a very tall, heavily built man was standing, his hand wrapped in the shirtfront of a very pale, and very dirty, bearded man.
Who beamed with utter, unconcealed delight on seeing her. "Xena!" His voice fairly sang her name.
"Hello, Salmoneus." The warrior sighed, resting her sword on her shoulder and regarding his captor. "What have you gotten into this time?" She shot a glance at the wagon, which was filled with... she squinted. Animals. Some of whom resembled the bird sitting mutely on her saddlebow. Relieved, she tossed the bird into the back of the structure, where it waddled over to its mates, honking furiously. "Figures that's yours."
"It's.. " Salmoneus choked as the man twisted his shirt tighter. "Um...." He waved a hand at Xena.
The warrior edged closer, and met the taller man's eyes. "You gonna let him go?" She sat, very relaxed in Argo's saddle, running a thumb up and down her sword's hilt., her eyes capturing his darker ones. "Or am I gonna have to get nasty?"
His nostrils flared. "Depends. How nasty do you get?"
Xena smiled. "Very." She let her eyes narrow. "And that's when I'm in a good mood."
"She's telling the truth.. "Salmoneus babbled. "Really... it's awful, blood everywhere... just disgusting." His voice trailed off into a squeak as the man twisted harder.
The warrior freed her boots from Argo's stirrups, and swung her leg over the mare's neck, sliding down her side and landing with a smooth motion. She stalked towards the two men, not even glancing to either side as the rough crowd edged out of her way. "Better let him go.. or you'll be missing a hand when I get there." She commented softly. Her eyes locked with his again, and she felt her fighting instincts come live, charging the air around her, and lifting her nape hairs to let a cool, tickling breeze travel across her neck. Her nostrils flared, and a certain glint came into her eyes, from a place inside her that, in truth, still belonged firmly to Ares.
The tall man slowly relaxed his hand, and the fabric of Salmoneus' dirty shirt unbunched, as the heavy set older man scuttled a few steps away, tugging his garments back into a sad order. "Oh.. good choice.. good choice...yah, you really don't want to mess with her."
"Sure I do." The man laughed, and drew his own sword, meeting her a few paces away from where Salmoneus was standing. "I've been dreaming of crossing swords with the famous Xena for years."
"Oh yeah?" Xena dodged, and let him go past her, slapping him on the butt as he stumbled by. A rough laugh traveled around the crowd. "C'mere, dream boy." She caught his next blow on her hilt, and shoved him back, throwing him off balance despite his size advantage. He recovered, though, and came back at her, swinging his sword with rough, if powerful skill.
Xena deflected his blow, then stepped into his reach, and slammed an elbow into his jaw, sending a resounding crack across the cleared space. "Bet that hurt."
He growled, spitting blood out, and managed to get a grip on her, catching her with one hand above her elbow and throwing his weight against her. "You bitch."
"You're catching on." Xena tore her arm free, and flipped her sword in her hand, reversing the blade and throwing a roundhouse right hand punch that caught him in the side of the head with the weight of her blade behind it. "What clued you in?" She kicked him in the groin, and caught him with her knee as he bent double, flipping him over on to his back and dropping to kneel in his chest with all her weight.
She tickled his throat with her blade, as he lay gasping, his eyelids fluttering in disbelief. "Lucky for you.. I'm in a good mood." She gave him another smile, and stood, then sheathed her sword and dusted her hands off. "Clear outta here, all of you." Her voice was a snarl, and she turned her icy gaze on the crowd until they started to edge off, grumbling darkly.
At last only she and Salmoneus were left in the clearing, along with his wagon of...creatures. The older man wrung his hands, and fluttered at her. "Oh... Xena, you have NOOOOO idea how glad I am to see you.. it's.. why, it's like a miracle sent by the gods!"
The warrior put her hands on her hips. "What are you up to?"
He pointed at his chest. "ME? Why.. nothing.. nothing at all... I was just... well, you see I... a cousin of mine, see.. he just got back from a long sea voyage, and he'd managed to bring back some.. well, some curiosities.. so we thought.. I mean, I thought it would be.. uh... well, educational to Greeks of all stations to see these unusual, and remarkable animals." He nodded briskly. "Don't you think so?"
Xena leaned her forearms against the wagon, and gazed into it. Along with her friend were about a half dozen others like him, all panting in the straw unhappily. There were four cages as well, which held a bedraggled looking cat with huge whiskers, three brightly colored large birds with pale colored curving beaks, and a pair of weasels. "I think you've got a cart full of miserable beasts here, Sal." She turned her head and looked at him. "Is that fair to them?"
The man's jaw dropped, and he edged forward, hesitantly putting a hand up and touching her forehead. "That's funny.. you sure look like Xena... you certainly fight like her... " He paused. "Are you ill? Xena, they're dumb animals."
The warrior's lips twitched. "Not so stupid... that one managed to find me. " She held out a hand, and her little friend waddled over, nibbling her fingers with its long beak. She scratched its head gently. "You should either take care of them, or let them go, Salmoneus."
The older man let a hand rest on the side of the wagon, and studied her. "You know.. I'd been hearing these wild stories about you, Xena.. really wild.. just.. impossible to believe.... Now I'm not so sure." He fell silent for a long moment. "You really have changed.. more than even the last time I saw you. "
Xena stared through him. "Get out of here, Sal. This is no place for someone like you." She pushed off the edge of the cart, and started to walk away. "Go somewhere else."
The portly man hurried to catch up with her. "Wait.. wait... um... where's Gabrielle?"
The warrior reached Argo's side, and adjusted her harness. "Home." She gathered the mare's reins up and urged her forward. "I've got business here... then I'm leaving. I want you out of here before I get done." She started towards the disreputable looking inn.
"Bu... wh.. " Salmoneus trotted after her. "But.. I mean.. well, Gabrielle is all right, isn't she?"
Xena stopped, and turned, regarding him in silence for a brief period. Then she let a smile edge her lips. "She's fine."
The older man looked relieved. "You two didn't... um.." He tried to think of a subtle, smooth way of asking.
The warrior gave him a wry look. "No." She looked around, then sighed, and walked closer to him, ducking her head. "We're still together." The words echoed weirdly in her head as she said them. "She's just visiting her parents."
"OH.. wonderful.. wonderful... " He answered effusively. "I'm so, so glad to hear it, Xena, I can't tell you... but... " His smile turned sly. "I'd heard some other juicy rumors... " He elbowed her gently. "Huh? Come on.. you can tell your old pal Sal..."
Icy blue eyes pinned his. "I want you outta here by the time I come out, got me?" Xena growled. "I mean it." She turned and pointed. "You, and the rest of your little circus." She turned and took purposeful strides towards the inn.
"Xeeeeennnnnaaaaa....." Salmoneus warbled, a smile starting to spread across his expressive face. "Hmm... you know, I think you're right.. I do have to go.. and.. what do you know... the next town closest to here is... hey.. it's Potadeia."
Xena stopped, and sighed, glancing back over her shoulder. "Scram." She warned, then looked around again. "Look, Sal - I donít have time to play word games with you.. this is a dangerous place, and you shouldn't be here."
He tapped his foot, and crossed his arms. "Xeeeennnaaaa???"
"What!!!???" She snapped at him, half embarrassed, and half frustrated.
A charming smile split Salmoneus' bearded face, and he lifted his hand, and waggled his fingers. "Nice ring." Then he busied himself with his wagon, and left the warrior to collect her composure, and stomp off. "Tch tch.. " He commented to himself, as he fluffed the straw. "You go Gabrielle."
Xena tied Argo up near the water trough, and took a moment to straighten her armor before she attempted to penetrate the dark, smelly inn. She also took a moment to grin privately at Salmoneus, and hoped he'd stick to his idea of heading towards Potadeia... Gabrielle would love seeing the little birds, and maybe between the both of them they could convince the old scalawag to give the animals a good home somewhere.
But now she had another problem. Finding her contact, and getting that damn note. With a sigh, she settled her chakram and pushed open the door, holding her breath against the stench of sour wine, old beer, and unwashed bodies. I used to drink in places like this.. she remembered, swallowing against a suddenly queasy stomach. What was I thinking? She paused just inside the door, to let her vision adjust to the dim interior, then continued on, aware of every eye fastened on her.
Not unusual, but it was seldom this kind of attention anymore.. the men in here, and they were mostly men, save three or four serving wenches who, by their dress doubled as something else, the men in here were a motley group of soldiers for hire, with old, patched armor and ill kept weaponry. Their eyes were hooded, and they were viewing her as either a rival.. or a potential centaur load of trouble. Hostility beat against her like water, and she felt her back stiffening in pure reflex, as she injected a touch of swagger into her walk, and moved across to a dark and empty table near the back of the place.
Well. She let her eyes travel around, evaluating the inhabitants. Chances are, they know who I am. A tiny smirk edged her lips. Dirty mercenaries are a dime a dozen in here, but...there aren't many fighters fitting my description running around Greece. She just hoped whoever it is found her and delivered his damn message before she passed out from the stench.
A serving wench sidled over, making no bones about letting her gaze wander over Xena's tall form with relative fearlessness. The woman, hardly more than a girl, really, had hair almost as dark as the warrior, but was much shorter, and she was very amply endowed. She put her tray against her hip, and smiled. "Can I get you somethin?"
Xena's dark brows curved up. "What d'you got that isn't spoiled or poisonous?"
A faint, dim twinkle appeared in the girl's eyes. "Your horse is probably drinkin it, outside." She drawled. "But the port hasn't killed anyone this week."
The warrior let an answering twinkle glint back at her. "All right." She waited for the cup to be delivered, and sipped it gingerly, leaning back against the wall and putting a booted foot up against the next chair. It didn't take long... a few moments later a dark form sidled up, and stood, staring down at her. She returned the look, realizing he was vaguely familiar.
"Well, well." The man said, softly. "Lookee here."
Her mind swiftly snapped through ranks and time, until it stopped on his face, younger, and without the long, branching scar that crossed it now from ear to ear. "Belenius."
He snorted in surprise. "The great one knows my name.. how bout that."
Xena gave him a noncommittal look. "You want something?" She took another sip of the port, which wasn't the worst she'd ever tasted, but not the best, by far.
Slowly, he settled into the chair opposite her. "Funny you should show up here." He looked around. "Not your kinda place, is it?"
The warrior gazed at him, impassively. "Used to be. Why do you care?"
He shrugged, and pulled a dirty piece of parchment from his rotting armor, tossing it across the table at her. "From an old friend of yours.. " He grinned, showing a gap-toothed smile. "Wasn't even sure you were still around... but I guess you are. I'd heard you retired."
Xena picked up the parchment with two fingers, and shook it open. "Maybe I did." She answered, turning the surface to the light.
He giggled. "Oh.. yeah, you look retired." He slapped the table. "Jasess can now say he had the crap kicked out of him by a retired warlord.. that'll make a good one to tell the boys."
The warrior read the missive twice, her mind already out of here and thinking about the man who signed it. Garanimus. Old... friend? No. Never that... more like a forced partner. But he'd saved her life once, a long time ago, and held that favor over her since. Now he was calling in his marker, he said.. he needed her for a task, the message said, that was just up her ally, and one that only she could do.
Garanimus, who had been, for a while, her lover. Who remembered her from the bad old days, when she'd run rampant over the countryside spilling blood like it was water. Now he wanted a favor.. and her honor dictated that she at least go see what the old bastard was up to. He'd apparently taken over small fortified city to the west, and was holed up there with his army of disreputable thugs and thieves, having found settling down to his liking.
It wasn't that far.. a weeks travel at most. But taking Gabrielle there... inwardly, she winced sharply. Do I want to subject her to more of that side of me? Wasn't last time enough?
And, in the back of her mind. What if this time.. it's too much? She tensed. Wouldn't it be better to just... go and take care of this.. Gabrielle would be safe in Potadeia.. she'd have a quiet, peaceful time with her family.. it would be good for her.
She didn't need to know, right?
Xena sighed, and took a swallow of port, ignoring Belienus' rambling speech. For a very long, wistful moment she was tempted, then her knowledge of her gentle partner reasserted itself, and she stood abruptly. Leave Gabrielle, without word.. in Potadeia? Make that old nightmare of hers come true, along with all the others?
Not on your life. "Thanks, Belienus." She muttered, leaving the port where it was. "Finish that for me, all right?"
He grabbed it without hesitation. "Sure.. sure.. Xena... y'know.. I was just remembering the good old days... it was pretty sweet being part of your army." He gurgled a mouthful. "You sure were some kind of wild bitch from Hades fighter, I'll give ya that."
The room was too close. Xena headed for the door, stopping when she spotted the serving wench, and digging a coin from her belt pouch. "Here." She handed it to the girl. " Keep the change." She brushed by her, and reached the door, throwing it open and almost diving out into the cooler, sweeter air, with a feeling of utter relief.
Argo whickered at her.
Slowly, she trudged over to where the mare was standing, and leaned against her warm body. "Let's get outta here, girl." She cast a disgusted look over her shoulder. "I'm not up to this kinda place anymore."
A soft snort answered her, as she tucked the parchment away into her saddlebag and reached up, grabbing the saddle's frame and pulling herself up onto the horse's back. The empty windows of the sad town seemed to laugh at her, as she guided Argo's steps out of the cluster of buildings, and moved off onto the path that lead away from Rivas.
Well. She wanted an adventure. Xena silently cursed herself. Be careful what you ask for, Xena... life has a way of giving it to you.
The path flew by under her feet, as Gabrielle bolted for the sounds, Ares hard at her heels. She rounded the last bend and saw a half dozen men on horseback, swinging clubs at the frightened villagers as if in sport.
She felt anger bubble up, and it gave her energy, as she reached the first of them, and ducked under his weapon, swinging her own in a short, vicious arc that caught him just above the ear, and knocked him off balance. Then she pulled her arms back, and snapped them forward, hitting him with unerring accuracy in the chest with the end of her staff.
He slid off the horse, a startled look on his face, and she grinned to herself, before she turned and dashed towards where a second raider was chasing one of the village girls, her high pitched screams echoing across the courtyard.
Feeling very feisty, Gabrielle sped up, and as she neared the man, she thumped the edge of her staff into the ground, and took off, using the staff as a vaulting pole, and slammed her boots into his chest with all her weight and momentum behind them.
They both tumbled over the horse, but she managed to keep her directional sense in place, and landed on her feet, stumbling a little but expelling an excited breath at her success. Yow! The next rider got the end of her staff across his back, and he lunged forward, causing his horse to trip, and throw him over its head into the water trough. Yes! The bard bounded ahead, and bolted for one of the remaining raiders, who rode down on her, a determined expression on his face.
"Eat this!" Gabrielle yelled, picking up a rock and flinging it. It surprised him, and he ducked it, then regretted that as Gabrielle's staff hit him right between the shoulderblades and he lost control of the horse, which galloped off, snorting.
The remaining two took one look at her determined face, and turned their horses, kicking them hard and running away.
Gabrielle stood in the middle of the road, and rested her staff on the ground, leaning against it with a sense of quiet pride.
Then a rumbling caught her attention, and she glanced down, puzzled, as the ground started to shake. An earthquake? A yell of warning made her turn, and her eyes widened as she saw a wall of wool bearing down on her with break neck speed.
"Easy.... Easy with her."
Gabrielle felt the sounds fading in and out, and was chiefly aware of being sick to her stomach.
"Easy.. put her down gently. " An unfamiliar voice, and hands that turned her, laying her down on a soft, flat surface. Then a voice she did know. Lila.
"Hey... my hero sister... just don't move around, okay?" The younger woman's voice was a mixture of concern and amused pride. "You got knocked around a little.. the healer's taking a look at you."
Gabrielle's brow creased, as she tried to remember what happened. She'd run out, the raiders had thundered into town... a group of the younger men and women had joined her... She remembered fighting with her staff... knocking the leader right off his horse.
Boy, he'd been surprised. But not half as surprised as she'd been that she'd done it. Then...
She blinked her eyes open, to see the healer's kind, concerned face as his fingers probed her skull. "Hi." She managed to rasp out, seeing Lila in her peripheral vision. "Wha happened?" She turned her gaze to her sister. "Raiders?"
Lila put a hand out and brushed her hair back. "You beat them all up, sis.." Her face crinkled into a wry smile. "They ran away."
"I did?" The bard heard the surprise in her voice. "How come I feel like I'm the one that got beat up?" She tried to raise a hand up to her head only to have it pushed gently back down by the healer.
Lila exchanged looks with Hecuba. "Just rest... you got knocked over, that's all."
"Mm." Gabrielle let her eyes close against the pounding ache. "Feels like it."
"Here." She felt a cool, wet surface touch her lips, and in reflex, she took a sip, grimacing a little at the bitterness. "Uck."
"Come on, Gabrielle.. " The healer coaxed. "It'll help your head feel better."
"What is it?" The bard asked, cautiously.
"Don't worry about that... it'll help." The man reassured her. "Come on now... it's just to make you rest... and kill the pain a little."
"Bree, just drink it." Lila rubbed her shoulder. "Don't be stubborn."
Gabrielle complied, making a face. "Ugh.. .worse than Xena's." A faint, worrisome thought traveled through her mind, then disappeared before she could concentrate on it. She let her head rest against the cool fabric of the pillow, as she felt the herbs work fast on her empty stomach. "Chased em away, huh?"
Her mother knelt next to her, and smoothed her hair back, avoiding a tender spot she could feel on her temple. "It was very brave of you, Gabrielle."
A faint smile tugged at the bard's lips. "Xena's gonna give me grief.. I promised to stay out of trouble." She opened her eyes. "Where's Ares?"
A dark, furred head popped up, and poked its nose into her hand. "Rghtro?"
"He was right with you... " Lila explained, soothingly. "Biting those guys right and left."
Gabrielle smiled., and trailed her fingers through the soft fur. "Good boy." A wave of sleepiness rode over her, and she gave into it, closing her eyes, and letting her last thoughts center on her soulmate, wistfully wishing she was here even though she'd get teased for not being able to get out of the way of... She concentrated. Well, out of the way of whatever it was that hit her. Xena would give her a hard time.. yeah.. but those blue eyes would twinkle... she could almost see them... so clear...
Hecuba sighed as she watched her older daughter's breathing deepen and steady. "Goodness." She shook her head. "Will she be all right?"
The healer finished packing up his herbs, and smoothed a bit of salve on a raw scrape the colored the bard's neck. "She'll be fine.. but.. " He examined the scrape. "Here.. better take this off - it's irritating that wound."
Lila gently moved her sister's fair hair aside, and unclasped the necklace he was pointing at, removing it from around Gabrielle's neck and tucking it into her hand. "I'll hold it for her.. I know it's important."
"There." The healer sighed. "Don't worry.. after some rest, she'll be fine... there's no concussion, just a little bump on the head, and a few scratches. Not bad considering what she did.. my gods, that was something." He stood up and backed off, letting Hecuba move in closer to the sleeping bard. "That'll be the talk of the village...pity your husband wasn't here to see it."
The older woman sighed. "Yes." She tugged the blanket up and tucked it around her daughter's shoulders. "All right, all of you out.. let the girl be." She stood and herded them out, gently closing the partition to the room, and leaving her daughter in peace.
She woke in darkness, blinking hard against the gloom that threatened to cover her, unsure of where she was. Home? No... She felt her breath catch. Not here.. not this place, gods.. no...
The dream had engulfed her, dark, smiling images of her family, with pitying stares at her as she tried to insist the last three years of her life had not been spent in Potadeia.
She felt her breath come tight in her chest, and her eyes searched frantically around the room, begging her mind to tell her she was somewhere else.
That the dream that had claimed her, making her life with Xena merely a fantasy was itself, a fantasy.
But the more she looked, the more real it became. No. "No." Her voice was hoarse, as her eyes fixed, in confusion, on the fish. There... that was real.. that was a gift from Xena.
Wasn't it? Or was it the original fish? She looked around. No Ares.
Her hand lifted, to touch her throat.
And found nothing.
Her heart almost stopped in terror. No... gods... no... I can't lose this.. I..no... A moan escaped her. Xena... no.. please...don't leave me here... no... no.... oh gods... don't take this from me, please...
The door opened, and her mother hurried in, hearing her cry. "Gabrielle?" Lila came in after her, and then, the solid bulk of her father.
Now panic overwhelmed her, and she struggled to sit up, mutely staring at them.
"Take it easy.. " Lila sat down on the edge of the bed, and grabbed her shoulders. "It's okay.. you're here.. you're at home... "
"No." She tried to get up, to run out of there. "No!" Maybe if she ran fast enough, she could get away.
Hands grabbed her, and she fought them, struggling hard against the grips that forced her to lay down. She arched her back, tossing someone from her, and got one hand free, which was captured by another grip, as weight came down on her, and forced her flat against the bed, her heart hammering so hard it felt like it was coming out of her chest.
"Noooo!" It was almost a howl, and it tore her throat, and she convulsed, getting partly free and hurling herself off the pallet, feeling her knees impact on the floor and somehow lunging towards the door.
Colliding with a very solid object and feeling a fierce hold close around her, warm, real, and strong... Hands that gripped her face, forcing her to look up.
Into pale blue eyes that swallowed her whole, and banished her fear into the mists.
"It's all right." A warm, velvet voice got past the herb's muddling, past the terror. Past the wild panic that threatened her very sanity. "It's all right.. you hear me?"
Gabrielle lifted a shaking hand to touch the smooth skin of the face looking down at her, letting her touch prove the reality of it. "Please don't leave me here." She felt the words tumble out in confusion. "Don't leave me...please...?"
Xena gazed down into the haunted, aching eyes and felt her heart break. "C'mere." She tucked the bard's shaking body against her own, and hugged her gently. "I won't leave you... I've got you... just take it easy." She lifted her eyes and studied the shocked faces of her soulmate's family, who were scattered where her wild thrashing had left them. "What happened?" She felt Gabrielle's knees start to buckle, and she lifted her up, giving her partner a worried look as she buried her face into the warrior's armor clad shoulder and clung to her in desperation. A sound, halfway between a groan and a cry escaped the bard. "Hey.. hey... easy.. " Xena hugged her.
Hecuba pushed her gray hair back with a shaking hand, and let out a trembling sigh. "I... I don't know.. really.. she... was sleeping.. we heard her cry out.. we came in here.. and .. "
Xena was studying her soulmate intently. "She's hurt." Now the bright blue eyes flicked to them, in piercing question, as the warrior's stance changed subtly, her weight and that of the bard shifting over her center of balance. "What happened??" Her voice took on a darker, lower tone.
Lila came forward, putting a calming hand on the warrior's arm. "We had a little incident here this afternoon.. some raiders came in,... Bree went and fought them off with her staff."
The warrior scowled, hearing the faint, broken whispers coming from her partner. "They hurt her?" Her look indicated dire consequences to them if they had.
Lila grimaced, and chewed her lip. "Um.. no.. actually, she hurt them... they ran off."
Xena's brows contracted, and she looked at Gabrielle, then up at Lila, and raised her left eyebrow.
The younger woman lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "They'd panicked the herd...Gabrielle got in the way."
The other brow joined its mate. "She got trampled by sheep?"
"Um. Yeah." Lila said, touching her sister's arm. "Bree?"
No answer. Xena took in a breath, and shook her head. "Healer give her anything? This head wound doesn't look bad enough to cause this kind of reaction."
Hecuba held up a small sack of herbs, then moved closer and offered them to Xena to sniff.
Damn. The warrior cursed softly. "That stuff gives her nightmares." She sighed in disgust. "I never use it on her."
"Donít leave me." Gabreille whispered brokenly, her hands flexing against the armor. "Please? I'll die here... I.. don't belong here.. Xena.. please... you have to take me with you."
"Shh." Xena gave her partner's family an apologetic look, taking in their stricken faces with an internal wince. "I've got you.. and I'm not going anywhere without you, so take it easy." She eased down onto the pallet, and blew out a breath. The last mile into Potadeia was hardly even a memory, of rushing branches, and Argo's labored breathing, as she responded to the terror radiating down her connection with Gabrielle.
Lila knelt down next to her, and put her fingers on the warrior's arm, just above her bracer. "Xena.. um... you probably need to get a bandage on this." She looked up. "Um... I'll get some water... " She stood, and left the room, with Hecuba following her hastily.
That left Herodotus to gaze quietly at them, his muddied green eyes hazel and enigmatic in the candlelight. Then he, too walked quietly out, leaving them in silence.
A spear of errant moonlight traveled in the window, mixing with the golden light of the three candles that lit the room. The night breeze fluttered the flames, sending shadows dancing, and bringing in a hint of wood smoke to mingle with the wax scent.
Damn...Xena let her head fall back against the wall. "Hey... " she murmured softly to the bard, who stirred slightly against her.
Exhausted green eyes blinked up at her, still fuzzy with confusion. "Xena?"
"Yeah.. it's me." The warrior sighed. "You okay?"
Gabrielle rested her forehead against the cool hardness of her soulmate's breast armor. "I think I am now." Her voice shook slightly. "Gods.. I was having this nightmare... and it went on forever, Xena... it was... I could remember our life together, but no one else could... I was back here, and they all just looked at me like I was crazy... and laughed at me... ."
"It was the stuff the healer gave you." Her partner told her gently. "It gave you bad dreams."
The bard digested that. "Then I woke up.. and I was here.. and you weren't.. and I.." She looked up, bewildered. "I didn't know what was real. .and what was the dream.. Ares wasn't here, and my necklace... "Her fingers touched her neck. "And then they all came in and they held me down.. I thought... I.."
"Shh." Xena stroked her hair. "It's okay... I got you."
"Mph." A little of her normal composure was returning. "Yeah, you certainly do." She winced. "Here.. let me get off you... " She started to roll off her soulmate's prone body.
Xena wrapped her arms tighter, and held on. "Nope... I like you just where you are."
Gabrielle subsided, and chewed her lip, then slowly worked on disengaging Xena's armor clasps. "Your arm's bleeding." She eyed the slice. "What happened?" She managed to work the shoulder pieces free, and pulled them off her partner's chest, setting them down next to the bed, then snuggled closer with a tiny gasp of relief.
The warrior ducked her head to examine the wound. "I have no idea." She confessed. "Ares came out to meet me about a mile from here.. then I... " She hesitated. "I knew something was wrong, so.. um..I think I went through a fence." She bit this inside of her lip in thought. "Or something."
Lila came back in, bringing another candle, and setting it down. "Hi Xena." She commented, as she knelt. "Forgot to say that before." She glanced at her sister. "Hi."
Gabrielle gazed back at her. "Hi." She worked her jaw a bit. "Guess I'm right up there on the freak out scale today, huh?"
Her sister gave her a wry look. "Oooohhh yeah." She gently washed off Xena's arm, rinsing the bloody fabric in the water she'd brought. "First the diary, then you beat up a half a dozen guys, now this... didja have to save it all up? You coulda just spaced them out a little."
Gabrielle rested her head against Xena' s shoulder, and exhaled softly. "Sorry... I.. I didn't mean to react that way...I was just pretty confused." She winced, remembering her words. "I didn't meant to say all that stuff."
Lila carefully put a strip of linen bandage over what was, to Xena, an insignificant cut. "Well... I think they've been trying to convince themselves for a while now that... okay, they know you left because you wanted to.. not because you were. . um.. " Her eyes darted quickly to Xena's face.
"Kidnapped." Xena supplied, evenly.
Lila gave her a wry look. "Well, yeah." She turned back to her sister. "But they never admitted.. I think... that it was mostly their fault.. they usually just kind of preferred to believe that you left looking for adventure, or ... whatever."
A dark brow curved at her. "First time I've been referred to as a whatever." Xena commented, with a half grin, as she scratched Gabrielle's back gently.
"Mm." Gabrielle considered the statement. "Guess I just blew that up out of the water, huh?" She curled her fingers around her soulmate's arm, which was loosely resting over her. "Though.. I don't think I would have followed just anyone."
Her sister rested an elbow on Xena's thigh. "Maybe you should tell them that. They feel pretty awful right now."
Xena merely watched them, amused at Lila's growing familiarity with her. Besides, she was still trying to get her heart rate down, and slow the pounding headache she'd developed as she tore down the rock littered path to the aid of her stricken soulmate. She understood now, what had happened, but it didn't make her feel any better.
Thank all the gods in Olympus she'd decided to come back here. What if she hadn't? She gazed down at Gabrielle, letting the bard's halting words to Lila pass through her. What would that have done to her? Not that her family would deny their relationship, but...gods. Absently she smoothed the bard's soft, golden red hair, focusing on the silky texture, and how the candle's light brought out the fiery highlights in it.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice broke into her drifting thoughts, and she glanced up.
"Yeah?" Both Gabrielle and Lila were watching her curiously. "Sorry...it's just been a long day." She resettled her arms around the bard with a sense of satisfying relief. "Did you need something?"
Gabrielle breathed out a laugh. "No..just wondering how your errand went."
A shrug of one shoulder. "All right." Then she fell silent, hoping Gabrielle would realize that meant they'd discuss it later.
A gentle pat on her belly told her the bard did, indeed, understand. "That's good..."
"Oh!" Xena popped her eyes open. "You'll never guess who I bumped into on the road."
The bard regarded her. "Autolycus?"
"No." The warrior shook her head.
"Hercules and Iolaus?"
"Well.. sure." The warrior drawled, cheered at her soulmate's returning spirits. "That's a given."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You are such a brat."
Xena grinned. "Salmoneus."
"Oh!" The bard chuckled. "Haven't seen him in forever.. what's he up to?"
"Donít ask." Her partner advised her. "Its involving animals."
Lila stood. "Well, Bree.. you need to get some rest, and I guess you're in the best of hands, now." She ruffled her sister's hair affectionately. "I'll talk to the folks...give them overnight to calm down."
Gabrielle nodded a little. "Thanks, Li..." She grasped her sister's hand, and squeezed it. "Where's Lennat?"
The tall, dark haired woman laughed. "Taking care of your namesake...giving him rides on his back, and in general, making sure he'll be completely frantic by the time I get home." She smiled, and slipped towards the door, then stopped, feeling in her pocket. "Oh.. wait." She came back over and knelt down, pulling something out and offering it to her sister. "Here.. we took this off because of that scrape..."
The bard took the necklace, and gazed at it, then looked up at Lila. "Please don't ever do that again." She asked, in a small voice, before she refastened it around her neck with shaking hands, and picked the crystal up, studying it in silence.
"I... " Lila was at a loss for words. "Bree, I'm sorry.. I know you like that.. but.. "
Keeping her eyes on the crystal, the bard reached up with her free hand and felt around Xena's neck, tugging the warrior's own necklace out into the candlelight. She moved closer, nestling her head right up under Xena's chin, and fit the two halves together, with the faintest of clicks. Then she let her eyes slide shut, and rubbed her thumb gently against the joined pieces.
Xena watched her in pensive silence, blue eyes flicking around the room with feral intensity. She cleared her throat and drew breath. "We were given those by Jessan's people." She told Lila, who was watching her sister with deep concern. "They.. signify our relationship, in their tradition."
"Oh." Lila answered, in a chastened voice. "I didn't know."
The bard opened her eyes, and exhaled. "It's all right.. just gave me a scare when I woke up."
Her sister reached up and patted her arm, then stood and went to the door, opening it to allow Ares' dark form to hurtle in. "Whoa.." She muttered, then cast a last look at the silent pair tangled on the bed, and slipped out.
Gabrielle fended the wolf's tongue off. "Ares! Cut that out." She waited for the wolf to calm down, then eyed her partner. "So. What's up?"
Xena examined her minutely. "First things first... are you all right?"
Gentle green eyes tinged with candlelight met hers. "I'm.. really tired, and kinda hungry, and my head and neck hurts, but other than that, yeah. I'm.. all right." A pause. "So.. what's up?"
The warrior settled her shoulders more comfortably, and sighed. "It was a note from an old..." Her words stopped. "From a former lieutenant of mine." She was uncomfortably aware of her partner's intent look. "He.. well, he's calling in a favor I owe him... wants me to come north, to a place he's staked out with his army."
"Hmm." Gabrielle mused. "How long ago?"
She looked at the bard. "Five...gods.. six years, now."
They regarded each other in silence. "Well?" Gabrielle finally said.
"Well what?" Xena answered, puzzled.
"Get it over with.. so I can get the "are you nuts!" over with, and we can start planning." The bard answered, with a knowing look.
Xena blinked, nonplussed. "Um." A hand lifted and gently traced the bard's cheekbones. "I wouldn't let you stay here." She looked intently into Gabrielle's eyes. "Not after tonight."
The bard's gaze dropped. "I wouldn't stay here." She looked back up. "Even before tonight."
They nodded at each other, in solemn confirmation. "So." Xena took in a deep breath. "It's.. not going to be pretty, Gabrielle... he's looking for the Xena he remembers.. and.. I'm not that person anymore."
"No." Gentle agreement.
"I'm not sure what he wants... and I'm not sure I can give it to him, anyway...but he's a... blunt...sometimes cruel person." Xena's eyes took on a distinct shadow. "We made a good team." She debated telling Gabrielle all of it, then a resolution never again to lie, or withhold information from the woman took her in. "We used to be lovers."
She felt Gabrielle suck in a breath, and sensed the slim body wrapped in her arms stiffen. "But it was mostly just more of a convenience than anything. It didn't mean anything to either of us."
The bard relaxed a little. "Is he good looking?" She asked, with a halfhearted grin.
A shrug. "He's a pretty boy.. or he was, anyway...looked a little like Palemon."
"Mmm." Gabrielle sighed. "I kinda liked Palemon."
Xena shifted, and drew her head down, tucking it under a warm chin, and rocking her gently. "Gabrielle.. if this is going to bother you... let me take you home." She uttered softly. "I can't stand the thought of you being hurt."
The bard soaked in the love that surrounded her, breathing it in like a rose's fragrance on the night breeze. "I can't stand the thought of you going into a nasty place without someone to watch your back." She replied, peacefully. "I want to be there." She fiddled with the ring on Xena's leathers. "But thank you for thinking of me." She got herself together, and gave the leather a tug. "Come on.. out of these."
Xena released her reluctantly, and allowed her to stand. "I gotta go see about Argo." She sighed. "Get our stuff."
The bard nodded. "Good idea." Then she gave her soulmate a sheepish grin. "Do you have any of those trail bars in there? I really am starving."
Xena smiled, recognizing a good sign when she saw one. "If not. I'll find ya something." She promised, as she slipped out the door which led to the outside.
Gabrielle walked to the window, and leaned against the sill, watching Xena move off into the moonlight. "So." She turned and crossed her arms, gazing at her fish with wistful intent. "You brought my wave back, huh?" She took in a shaky breath, glad the nightmares were over.
It was barely dawn when Xena felt herself nudged out of sleep by a sense of discomfort. She blinked a little, then focused her eyes on Gabrielle, who was curled up in a half ball with her back pressed against the warrior's body. "Gabrielle?"
"Yeah." Came the very soft response.
"Um... everything okay?" Xena murmured, putting a hand on the bard's shoulder.
Silence. Then.. "No... I mean... I'm not feeling well." Gabrielle sighed. "Aftereffects of yesterday, I guess."
Xena lifted herself up onto one elbow, and peered at her soulmate in concern. "Your head hurt?"
Gabrielle shook the aforementioned bodypart negatively. "No.. sick to my stomach." She swallowed. "From the herbs, I think."
The warrior rubbed her back in a light massage. "Or all those trail bars you ate last night." She kidded gently. "Pressure points not working?" She pressed a thumb against the inside of Gabrielle's wrist, and saw the bard wince a little in reaction. "I got some stuff.. hang on."
She levered herself off the pallet they were both lying on, and padded across the room to where she'd dumped their bags, kneeling down and rummaging in one. "Yeah... " A cup emerged, followed by several packets. "Just you hold on a minute... " She mixed up a combination, pausing, then adding a final ingredient before she stood and brought the cup back to the bed. "Here.. see if you can get this down."
One green eye peered grumpily up at her. "Does it taste bad?"
Xena took a sip herself, and smiled. "Nope."
"Oh.. like you're a judge." Gabrielle nevertheless hoisted herself up, and took the mug gingerly, sniffing it. "Oh." She took a swallow, then a longer one. "Mm." Her eyes wandered up to settle on Xena's half grin and she sighed. "Why can't you make them always taste this good?"
The warrior brushed a lock of her pale hair back with idle fingers, and gave her head a little shake. "Wouldn't make sense to pour something disgusting down someone who had a stomach ache, would it?" She paused, watching Gabrielle finish the cup. "Feel better?"
The bard blinked a few times as she licked her lips. "A little." The queasy feeling was subsiding, much to her relief, and she settled back down on the pillow, gazing up at Xena with a grateful look. "Thank you."
Early dawn light gleamed briefly off white teeth as Xena smiled back. "Gotta be good for something, right?"
"Tch." Gabrielle put the mug down, then reached up and tangled her fingers in the soft fabric of the sleep shirt Xena was wearing, and tugged. "Get over here." She was rewarded by a bedful of warm warrior, who curled strong limbs around her and captured her in a living basket of affection, making her sigh in pure pleasure. "Gods.. that feels good." She half turned and nuzzled her face against Xena's chest, breathing in her scent happily. "I'm really glad you're here."
Xena's chest moved as she took in a deep breath. "Me too." She replied quietly. "I found the stupidest looking bird on the way to Rivas."
Gabrielle digested that statement curiously. "O... kaay... " She drawled, nibbling the soft lace her cheek was resting against. "You.. found a bird."
"Mmm... " Xena yawned a little. "It waddled." She paused. "But it couldnít fly."
The bard giggled a little. "Xena, is this a game?"
"Nu uh." Her partner shook her head. "Salmoneus had them... little.. up to my knees, I guess.. bird things with flippers... a sharp beak.. and they waddled." She let out a contented breath. "Stupid looking thing." A moment of reflective silence. "You'd have loved it."
Gabrielle let out a choked snort. "Oh.. right.. stupid waddling bird thing.. and I'd love it.. gee, thanks Xena." She tickled the warrior down her side, and grinned as she squirmed. "I'll remember that."
They rested quietly in each other's arms for a bit, as Gabrielle felt the last of her discomfort evaporate, and she simply lay there, enjoying the closeness and the rhythmic stroking motion of her partner's hand against her hair. "Xena?"
"Hmm?" The sleepy murmur rumbled deep inside Xena's chest.
"Were you in love with that guy?"
Blue eyes popped wide open, and went very round, as Xena let several breaths fill her lungs while she attempted speech. "Um...no." She finally managed to say. "Not at all."
"Oh." The bard continued to play with the lace.
"Why did you ask me that?" Xena uttered softly.
Silence. "Just wondered, that's all." The bard replied, hesitantly. "Sometimes your past has a way of sneaking up and surprising me."
Xena winced inwardly. "No surprises here." She sighed. "When we parted, I broke both his arms, and made pretty certain he wasn't going to have kids any time soon."
"Oh." That syllable was in a completely different tone than the previous one. "Yikes."
"Mm." Xena agreed. "That's more or less what he said at the time." She paused. "He.. made a deal with an enemy of mine.. sold out our army into an ambush. "
"Ugh." The bard made a face. "What happened?"
"He gambled." Xena said, quietly. "And lost...it was a small ravine we were trapped in, narrow enough for one or two people to hold it while the rest of my army escaped."
Gabrielle gazed at her, speculatively. "One or two people, huh?"
A gentle, sheepish smile rewarded her. "Well.. yeah.. . I was in the front, so... " A modest shrug. "I kinda told them to beat it.. and held the other army off long enough."
Blinking green eyes. "So.. what's' the favor?"
Long silence. "They took me, eventually... didn't look real good, but he snuck in to where they were holding me, and got me out of there... made me promise I'd return the favor someday."
"Hmm." Gabrielle chewed that over. "Nice guy."
"Oh yeah." Xena grunted. "I don't know what he wants.. or what he expects from me.. but.. "
"But he's calling in a favor from someone who no longer exists." The bard stated firmly. "You think he'll be surprised?"
To her own surprise, Xena started laughing. "Oh.. gods... will he ever." She rolled over, pulling the bard with her, and settling the smaller woman into a snug positon resting on her chest. "He once told me.. that there wasn't enough fire in the world to touch the ice bitch that I was."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "Well.. " She snorted. "If he says that again, I'll make sure he doesn't ever have children." She crossed her arms and rested her chin on them. "He must be pretty stupid not to have seen through that act."
Xena sighed pensively. "I'm not sure it was an act back then."
Her soulmate went silent, thinking. "I think... Xena, I think you were hurt so bad.. you just buried all the good stuff way down.. where no one could find it." She said, slowly. "But you couldnít keep it down forever, and it eventually bubbled up to the top."
An eyebrow quirked. "You make me sound like a pot of stew." The warrior quipped wryly, but she smiled. "It's a nice image, though."
"Ooo... " Gabrielle chewed her lip. "You shouldn't have said that... now I'm hungry."
That got a laugh from her dark haired companion. "I shoulda known..." Xena tickled her fondly, running fingertips up and down her sides and feeling the giggles start. "I've got some pastries mother packed... you get em, and I'll get some hot tea, okay?" She watched Gabrielle's face crease into an easy smile, and breathed a silent sigh of relief as the terrors of the previous night seemed to be completely evaporated.
"You got a deal, partner." Gabrielle kissed her gently, taking her time and savoring the warm jolt of sensation the contact sent down her belly. "I need some reinforcement before I have to face my parents again..." She nibbled Xena's collarbone, a particularly tasty part of the warrior. "I really wish I hadn't said what I did last night...it just came out of me."
Xena cradled her face, and drew it down, exploring her lips with gentle insistence. She kept that up until she felt Gabrielle's body melt against her own, then she laced her fingers behind the bard's neck, and gazed into her eyes with fierce intent. "I want you to know something."
Pale lashes slowly blinked over mist green eyes. "What?"
"There have been a lot of people in my life, Gabrielle..." Xena spoke slowly, but clearly. "And.. I think I've probably loved.. outside my family.. maybe a dozen of them."
"I... I know that... " Gabrielle answered softly. "I didn't mean to question you.. Xena.. I .. "
A finger touched her lips, stilling them. "There has been no one, Gabrielle, no one ever who has meant to me what you do." Her voice held and earnest note. "Not Marcus, not Lao Ma, not Hercules...no one.. you're not going to someday meet someone from my past who will have a claim to my heart... or my soul like you do."
The bard just looked at her, speechless.
"You don't have to be afraid of that, not anymore." The warrior finished, in a small voice. "Okay?"
Her answer was a gentle, trembling kiss.
The dwelling was dark, as Xena made her silent way towards the small kitchen, her water pot held loosely in one hand. She stepped gently around the worn furniture, trying to imagine Gabrielle growing up here. It was hard.. but her eyes fell on the table pushed against the wall, and she remembered one, rambling story her partner had once told her, about a game she used to play from under the tables surface.. something about pretending to be in a castle, was it? Xena shook her head a little, and ducked into the entrance to the kitchen, freezing as she saw the silent, huddled figure crouched over the table.
Hecuba looked up, her hands curling reflexively around the leather bound volume she was holding, and blinked at the sudden appearance of the tall, dark haired woman in her kitchen. "Ah." She breathed softly. "Xena."
Oh boy. Xena took in a breath. Okay..okay.. don't panic...you can handle this. "Morning." She kept her voice even. "Just wanted to heat up some water."
The older woman nodded wearily. "Go ahead." Her thumb rubbed gently against the book.
The warrior set the water to heat, then turned and regarded her soulmate's mother, sorting through her possible attempts at conversation. She decided on directness. "You all right?"
Hecuba lifted her eyes, and stared at her, bleakly. "You know.. I used to hate you."
Well. So much for that approach. "I..."
A raised hand stopped her. "I used to lay awake at night and curse your name for taking my daughter away from me." She sucked in a breath. "I realized last night I should have been giving thanks to the gods instead."
Xena nibbled her inner lip, and pushed off the wall she was leaning against and crossed the floor, stopping and crouching by Hecuba's side, with an arm resting on the table. "That's not true."
Weary hazel eyes stared at her. "She hates us."
A vehement shake of Xena's dark head. "That is not true at all." She dropped her tone to its lowest register. "She loves you."
Hecuba shook her head. "I never realized how much she was hurting." She whispered brokenly. "What our constant pressure on her to conform to our expectations was doing to her."
Xena just stayed silent, having nothing to reply to that.
"I always consoled myself by thinking she was drawn by the excitement... " Her eyes found Xena's face. "By the glamour.. I never believed she left because of what we did."
The warrior slowly sat down on the ground, cross-legged, and rested her elbows on her knees as she studied the floorboards. "When I met your daughter... the first thing that struck me was both her courage.. and her joy in life." Xena said, quietly. "After I chased off those raiders, she tried to convince me to take her away." Her eyes lifted. "I said no."
The older woman sighed softly.
"I went home... hoping for forgiveness, and what I found were people who not ready to give that up so easily." Xena went on. "All they wanted was my blood, and I was ready to let them take it." She felt a gentle touch on her hair, but kept her eyes down. "And they would have...except some damn fool kid from Potadeia got in the way and talked them out of it."
Finally, she looked up. "Hating is easy, Hecuba. It's much harder to love.. and your daughter has never been one to take the easy way out. She doesn't hate you." Xena exhaled gently. "She loves you.. and that's why it hurt so damn much."
In the semidarkness of the kitchen, their eyes met, in a silence broken by two sets of breathing. Xena shifted slightly, and rested her chin on her upraised fists, having said what she'd intended. It was true, on more levels that Hecuba could probably understand.. and it applied to the two of them, as well as to her soulmate's relationship with her parents. Loving was harder. It hurt, and it sometimes brought misery and anguish where hate never would.
Cowards hated. It took a true hero to love, and by that definition... Xena knew, and admitted, Gabrielle's heroism far, far overshadowed her own.
Hecuba drew in breath. "That's quite a remarkable thing to say."
A dark eyebrow rose partly. "I'm not much for words."
The older woman nodded slightly. "She... draws a...fascinating picture of you in here, did you know that?" Her hand touched the bound scrolls.
Xena blinked. "No.. I didn't.. thatís a very private place for her."
"She gave this to me to try and give me an idea of who she has become.. and I have." Hecuba answered reflectively. "It's not... what I expected." She paused, choosing her words. "She's been through so much.. "
The warrior dropped her gaze to the floor. "I know... I take a lot of responsibility for that."
A rustle of parchment sounded very loud in the room, and the rasp of skin against its surface followed. "Can I read you something?" Unexpectedly, Hecuba's voice took on a stronger note.
Xena looked up. "Um.. Hecuba, the things in there... are hers."
Hazel eyes regarded her in weary knowledge. "I think it would be all right." She glanced down, and swallowed, then took a breath.
Each day I wake, and see the sun.
And know another day is here, new and strange.
Knowing not what will come, nor what things I will find in it.
Then I look up, and see you there..
And welcome the future.
"Do you know what I find the most remarkable thing?" Hecuba mused. "She's gone through such terrible things.. horrible.. things I would have thought would have... "
Xena felt a faint shudder go through her. She clamped down on her emotions, and gritted her teeth, as the responsibility for those lost dreams dropped squarely onto her broad shoulders.
"But those words were dated the day before yesterday." The older woman let out a sigh, and shook her head. "How she keeps that wonder inside her, I don't know."
The warrior felt the breath go out of her, in shock. Day before yesterday? "I.. don't know how either." She managed to respond in almost a normal voice. "What happened was in the past, Hecuba... you can't change that. " She looked up. "Accept who she is now, and go from there." Just like she did for you, right?
Slowly, Hecuba nodded. "I don't really have a choice, do I?" She replied simply. "I think it's harder on her father.. but in a strange way, I think he's proud of her, for turning out in spite of everything."
Xena let a wry smile touch her lips. "I think my mother feels more or less the same way about me."
The older woman rubbed her temples. "You may be right." She let her elbows rest on her knees, so their heads were almost even. "You're not so bad, Xena."
The warrior reluctantly released one of her full, relaxed smiles, usually reserved for her soulmate. "Neither are you, Hecuba."
The woman smiled back. "Will you give this back to Gabrielle?" She held out the diary.
Blue eyes glinted in the morning sun. "Nope." Xena rose in a smooth motion. "Don't chicken out now, Hecuba." She stepped over and reclaimed her hot water, then eased out of the room, with a relieved sigh. Damn.. didn't expect that little confrontation. She moved quietly back across the dwelling, and slipped back into the small room where she'd left her soulmate.
Who was standing at the window, bathed in the dawn, and letting the cool breeze wash over her. She turned as Xena entered, and leaned back against the sill, crossing her arms over her chest and lifting one blond eyebrow. "What took you so long?"
"Roo!" Ares agreed, crossing his paws in an uncanny mimic of the bard, and looking at Xena from his position lying in front of the bed. "Agrrrrroo."
Xena raised an eyebrow at him, and went to the small table, where Gabrielle had left two cups ready. "Ran into your mother."
"Ooo.... Ouch. Sorry." The bard winced, and trotted over, patting her arm. "Didn't think she'd be up this early."
A shrug. "It was all right..." The warrior poured the water, then set the pot down and sniffed reflectively. "I think she kinda likes me."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I think it's a guilty pleasure.. like knowing you shouldn't eat a pail full of berries, but doing it anyway because they taste so good."
That got her both eyebrows straight up. "Oh.. nice... thanks, Gabrielle."
"Well.. " Her partner nibbled the skin of her upper arm, and rested her cheek against it. "Metaphorically speaking, of course." She paused, then nibbled again. "For her, anyway."
Xena let out a soft snort of laughter. "Well.. she finished your diary.. we talked a little bit about stuff... I think she's okay." She handed the bard her cup. "Did you want.."
"When are we... " They both spoke at the same time, then looked at each other and chuckled. "Places to go, people to see, huh?"
"Unless you... we can stick around here for a few days... " Xena offered. "Garanimus' note didn't say it was a critical emergency.. "
Gabrielle sipped her tea. "No." She looked up peacefully. "I think we all need to think about stuff that's happened the last two days... they need time to... adjust." She decided. "Besides...you've got my curiosity all stirred up, and the sooner this adventure starts, the better."
Xena accepted that. "All right." She paused, and gazed with intent interest into her mug, watching the steam curl its fragrant way up. "She read me the poem you wrote the other day."
Gabrielle looked up, surprised. "Oh." Then she smiled a little. "I'd forgotten I did that.." She rubbed her jaw. "I wonder why she picked that one?" She mused, then glanced up. "Did you like it?"
The warrior's eyes took in her backlit form in wistful pride. "I didn't know you still looked at things that way."
The bard thought about that for a long moment before answering. "I didn't either.. until I wrote that. It just...came out." She lifted a hand and touched her chest. "From here.. but once I'd written it, I realized just how true it was."
Xena smiled. "Yes, I liked it." She touched her forehead to her soulmate's. "It kinda spoke for me, too." She read Gabrielle's small start of surprise . "C'mon... I think I hear the future calling."
Continued in Part 3