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Xena woke up before Gabrielle but not before Cor, who grinned at her widely as he watched her extract herself from the tangle of Gabrielleís arms and legs. "She was having nightmares and couldnít sleep," Xena said, as she rose. Dusting off her leathers and slipping on her armor, she shot him a look that warned him to mind his own business.
Cor nodded and smiled, before tossing her some trail rations to eat, as the two of then began packing up the camp. Not a single word was spoken about what had happened the night before. When they were nearly finished, Xena went to wake Gabrielle. She handed the bard her breakfast and then carefully examined her friendís ankle. She was gratified to see that the swelling was gone, although she warned the young woman that it still needed more time to heal. "Guess that means Argo then, huh?" Gabrielle asked, looking at the mare with a decided lack of enthusiasm.
"Yup," Xena replied with a grin, as she helped Gabrielle to rise to her feet. The trio took a few minutes to tend to last minute details, including a short trip into the bushes for Gabrielle, and then they were ready to go. Xena helped Gabrielle over to Argo, where Cor joined them so that he could lift the bard up onto the horse behind Xena. Gabrielle reached around her friendís waist and laced her fingers together, leaning forward against the warriorís back, as she sought to get comfortable. She sighed contentedly when she felt the warmth of her friend slowly permeate her skin and had to admit that riding on Argo had a few advantages.
They only traveled for about half a day before they decided to make camp, since Xena had no intention of pushing Gabrielle too hard. Once they stopped, Xena again checked the bardís ankle and was relieved to see that there was still no evidence of swelling. Gabrielle took a few tentative steps on it and announced that there was hardly any pain at all. Still, Xena insisted that she continue to stay off it as much as possible. Eventually, though, she relented somewhat and, after obtaining a promise from her young friend that she would be careful, she agreed to let Gabrielle set up camp while she and Cor went to hunt and scout the area.
Xena had set up several snares and already managed to catch a rabbit but, considering the way that Cor and Gabrielle ate, she doubted that one rabbit would be sufficient. As she wandered around looking for edible plants, she heard the sound of splashing water to her right. Heading in that direction, she came to the edge of a large lake. She saw Corís armor and clothes lying on the shore and, as she watched the calm surface of the water, Cor swam into view.
"Finished scouting?" Xena asked with a sly smile.
"More or less," Cor said grinning sheepishly. "The water just looked so damned inviting, that I couldnít resist." He swam closer. "Come on Xena, join me. The waterís perfect."
"No thanks....," she started to reply, when he suddenly lunged forward, splashing her with water and nearly drenching her in the process. Her eyes narrowed as she watched him slowly swim away from her with a cocky grin on his face. "Okay...now youíve asked for it," she said, laughing as she began to remove her armor and weapons.
She carefully hung up her armor and placed her weapons near the shore. Removing her shift, she tossed it aside and then dove into the lake. Cor swam in circles, while he tried to figure out what Xenaís next move would be, a problem made more difficult to solve since Xena continued to swim underwater. Suddenly, he felt her hand on his foot. Before he could react, she had jerked him below the waterís surface and then kicked away out of his reach once more. He re-emerged, sputtering with indignation, only to see Xena a short distance away laughing at him. "Payback Cor. You know I always pay you back." Still smiling, she began to swim towards the opposite shore, as Cor shook his head and began to give chase.
The two swam for a while, enjoying the chance to relax and wash a bit of the trail dust from their bodies. Eventually, though, Xena realized that they needed to get back to camp before Gabrielle grew worried about them. "Come on Cor. Iíll race you to the shore," she challenged. Seeing Corís nod of assent, she waited until he was ready before giving the start signal.
Gabrielle quickly finished setting up the camp and collected more than enough wood for the night. She soon began to get bored and a little concerned, as she waited for her two traveling companions to return. Finally, after checking the bedrolls for the third time, she decided to do a bit of scouting on her own. Leaning on her staff, she headed into the forest. She moved as carefully as she could, knowing that Xena would be furious with her if she were to trip and reinjure her ankle. She knew that she was probably being foolish to worry about two people as capable as Cor and Xena. On the other hand, she had been made aware of Xenaís mortality and frailty on more occasions than she liked to recall.
She heard the sound of splashing water and, after walking a short distance and moving in the direction of the noise, she came to a fairly open area overlooking a lake. She could see Xena and Cor rapidly swimming in her direction and, while she watched, she saw Xena reach the shore several seconds before Cor. Both stepped out of the water and, to Gabrielleís surprise, they were completely naked. As they stood talking to one another for several moments without reaching for their clothes, she realized that they were either very used to the sight of one anotherís bodies, or they were the two least self-conscious people she had ever known! She snapped back to attention when she saw Xena playfully punch Cor. Feeling guilty but unable to stop herself, she listened to their conversation.
"You are slooooow Cor," Xena teased.
Cor grinned at her evilly. "Slow, but I have lots of endurance. Havenít had one complaint yet."
"Glad to hear it; because itís going to come in handy. I won. I demand payment, and you know what I want." Xena smiled sensuously, while she trailed a finger down Corís arm and then slowly sank to the ground to look up at him.
Gabrielleís face flamed with embarrassment. Backing away as fast as she could, she turned and began to hurry back towards the camp site. The last thing she heard before she left was Corís deep voice replying, "Youíre right Xena. I know exactly what you want."
Cor knelt beside Xena as she rolled over onto her stomach. Slowly, expertly, he began kneading the knotted muscles of her shoulders and back, occasionally using his knowledge of pressure points to relieve even more of the tension. Soon Xena was groaning with pleasure, luxuriating in the feel of Corís strong hands moving over her body. "By the gods Cor. I wouldnít have thought it possible, but youíve gotten even better at this," she finally managed to say.
Chuckling, Cor leaned down closer to her. "Thatís because Iíve had a lot of practice. Sairen was a sucker for a good backrub. Itís one of the few things you two had in common."
"That and the fact that we both hated to cook. Of course, in Sairenís case, that was more self preservation than anything else." Xena smiled contentedly, as Corís hands continued their relentless assault. "Do you remember that Ďstewí he made for us? If he hadnít been serving you too, I would have sworn he was trying to poison me!"
Cor laughed at the memory. "Yeah, I quickly learned that I had to do all the cooking if we were going to survive. Relying on Sairen to do the cooking would have meant certain starvation!"
Xena was quiet for several moments. "Cor, I never said this to you before but Iím sorry. Iím sorry I tried to come between you and Sairen. He was a good man and he truly loved you."
"I know Xena, I know. And if things had been different, I never would have left you, but that life....," his voice trailed off.
Xena knew what he was thinking, could hear the regret in his voice and felt it deep inside herself as well. Her refusal to give up her life as a warlord had cost her Corís friendship. She just thanked The Fates that she'd been given the opportunity to set things right with him again.
Not wanting to dwell on the past, Cor decided to change the subject. "Iím guessing you havenít had a decent massage in some time, huh?" Seeing her nod, he continued, "So why havenít you taught Gabrielle how to give backrubs? After all, I know youíd much rather have her doing this than me."
Cor felt Xenaís muscles tense beneath his fingers, before she rolled onto her side to look up at him. "What are you saying?" she asked guardedly.
"Come on Xena, this is me remember? Iíve seen the way you look at her when you think no one is watching. Iíve heard how your voice softens whenever you talk about her. And I saw your reaction when you realized she was hurt yesterday and days ago in Trezine. I know you, and I know youíre in love with her."
Xenaís voice had an edge to it as she replied. "Thatís ridiculous Cor. You donít have any idea what youíre talking about." She stood up and angrily began to dress. "Gabrielle and I are friends. Nothing more," she snapped.
Cor watched her, trying not to laugh. "Oh, I know that. What I donít understand is why youíre only friends, when itís obvious you want to be so much more," he said, before rising to his feet and beginning to get dressed as well.
"Cor you donít....," Xena stopped when she met his gaze. Turning away to pick up her weapons, she sighed deeply, collecting herself. Emotions back under control, she quietly asked, "Look, even if I did want that, what difference would it make? Gabrielle isnít interested in me, or any other woman, that way. She prefers men. Are you forgetting that she was married?"
Cor shrugged. "Big deal. Youíve been with your share of men in the past. You were even engaged once as I recall. Youíve always been attracted to both men and women, why shouldnít Gabrielle be the same?"
"Sheís not Cor. Sheís been attracted to I donít know how many men since weíve been traveling together. Iíve never seen her pay even the slightest bit of attention to any woman."
ĎExcept you Xena,í Cor thought to himself. ĎShe watches every move you make.í Aloud he said, "Maybe she just doesnít realize that itís okay. Maybe it just hasnít occurred to her that sheíd be happier with a woman than with all those men she keeps flirting with. Maybe...."
"Enough!" Xena glared at him. "I know how she feels. She married Perdicus. She chose him over me, remember? She considers me a friend and nothing more."
"I remember, but frankly, I donít think it proves a thing."
Now completely exasperated with his stubbornness, Xena rolled her eyes. "And why not?"
"Okay. Bear with me for a moment. Gabrielle married the same man that she ran away from, right?" Seeing Xena nod, he continued. "She sees this guy in Troy. Heís a brave soldier, not that simple farmer she remembers, and maybe she sees something that attracts her to him, something she didnít see before. Am I right?" Xena shrugged, not really seeing any point to all this. "Then, months later, he shows up out of the blue and asks her to marry him. Heís giving up the sword and heís going back to the farm. She thinks about it for awhile and then says yes. Now what Iíd like to know is, did she talk to you about him before she agreed to marry him?"
"A couple of times."
"Uh huh. And what did you tell her?"
"I figured she was concerned about leaving me so I told her not to worry, that Iíd be fine. Her happiness was what was important."
"Wow. You know, I think thatís pretty much the exact opposite of what you said to me," he said sarcastically.
"And we both know how well that worked, donít we?" she said, equally as sarcastically.
"You werenít in love with me, and we both know that that was a completely different situation," he replied, refusing to be baited.
"So whatís your point Cor?"
"My point? My point is that the man she agreed to marry was certainly not the exciting soldier type she saw in Troy. He was the same simple farmer she never wanted to marry in the first place."
"People change Cor. She obviously changed her mind."
"Riiiiiight," he said skeptically. "She decided in what, one day, that she was ready to go back and be that guyís wife? Did it ever occur to you that maybe she was waiting for you to tell her to stay?" He paused for a moment, waiting for Xena to respond, but she continued to glare silently at him. His voice took on a decidedly mocking quality as he continued. "Must have been one tough decision for her. Perdicus or Xena? Who should I pick? The one who tells me he needs me and canít live without me or the one who tells me she doesnít need me and not to give our relationship a second thought. Poor Gabrielle. Iím amazed she was able to make a decision like that."
"Go to Hades Cor! It wasnít like that and you know it!" Xena snapped.
"No, probably not. But Iíd wager everything I have that thatís how it felt to Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle knows how I feel about her. She knows sheís important to me," Xena protested angrily.
Cor chuckled sadly. "Youíre not exactly the most open person in the world Xena. Besides, even if she knows how you feel, everyone occasionally needs to hear the words said. Words are important to people like Gabrielle. Trust me on this, I went round and round on it with Sairen." He reached out to place a friendly hand on her shoulder but she scowled at him and stomped away, too furious to listen. With a sigh, he gathered the rest of his things and headed back to camp. "What a pleasant evening this is going to be," he muttered ruefully.
When he got to the campsite, Cor wasnít particularly surprised to see that Xena had not yet returned. Thinking about how mad she had been when sheíd left him, he realized that they would be lucky if she showed up before morning. Cor grinned when he thought about her reaction to his comments, and chuckled to himself as he realized that, despite the fact that Xena prided herself on maintaining her cool, she had completely lost it where Gabrielle was concerned.
Gabrielle was somewhat surprised to see Cor returning to the camp by himself, but then assumed that, since Xena had chosen not to return with him, she didnít want Gabrielle to know about the two of them. ĎWell two can play at that game,í she thought to herself. ĎIf she doesnít say anything, then I wonít either.í "Youíre back. Find anything interesting?" she asked Cor brightly, then began to blush when she heard her own words.
Cor noticed her flush but couldnít think of any reason for it. "Not much. The area looks safe enough. If you want to take a swim, I did find a lake a short distance to the west." To his surprise, he saw her cheeks redden even further, before she quickly turned away from him, busying herself with mundane chores
Gabrielle tried to regain her composure, certain that Cor would soon realize she had seen him and Xena swimming in the lake. "Maybe later," she finally managed to say, her voice sounding strained even to her own ears.
Cor nodded, before moving over to his bedroll and beginning to take off the majority of his armor. After carefully inspecting it for wear and tear, he began repairing several of the straps and polishing the metal, a daily ritual that always helped him to focus his thoughts. Xena returned to their camp about half an hour later. She had regained control of her emotions, but Cor could tell from her movements and expression that she was still angry with him. Shrugging it off, knowing sheíd get over it soon enough, he offered to take the rabbits she had caught and start cooking their meal. Xena hesitated for a moment before wordlessly thrusting the animals in his direction and going to check on Argo. Doing his best not to laugh at her behavior, Cor quickly cleaned the game and began supper.
Gabrielle watched the entire exchange without a word. If she didnít know better, she would have sworn that Xena was angry at Cor, but that didnít make much sense after what she had witnessed earlier. ĎMaybe she just doesnít know what to do with me around,í she thought. ĎXena probably wants to be alone with him and Iím getting in the way.í
Cor knew that Gabrielle was bothered by something but, try as he might, he couldnít figure out what it could be. As he cooked their meal, he began talking to her about inconsequential matters, trying to draw her out of the strange mood she was in. Fortunately, Gabrielle responded, and soon was telling him one of the many stories she had learned during her time at the Academy.
Gabrielle knew Cor was concerned about her and, despite herself, once again found that she was warming to him. He was a good man and normally she would be ecstatic about a friend of hers finding someone like this to share her life with. It was just that this time she was about to lose her best friend in the world, and she couldnít help feeling a bit sad and even a little jealous at the prospect of losing Xena. Suddenly, Gabrielle caught herself. ĎJealous?í she asked herself silently. ĎThat doesnít make any sense. Iím not jealous of her chance to be happy am I? No...I know thatís not it. I want her to be happy. I just...I just want her to be happy with me.í Thunderstruck, Gabrielle tried to understand what it was that she was thinking, what she was feeling. ĎWith me? What in the world do I....í
Xenaís return interrupted Gabrielle's thoughts. "Supper ready yet?" she asked, before tossing several saddlebags to the ground.
"Almost, it will be done as soon as Gabrielle finishes her story," Cor replied with a friendly grin.
Thoughts in a whirl, Gabrielle hastily finished her story, too confused by her latest chain of thought to really concentrate on what she was saying. Smiling apologetically at Cor, she promised another story later, hoping by that time she would have sorted out her feelings.
Supper was a relatively quiet affair, since both Xena and Gabrielle were absorbed in their own thoughts. Cor cleaned up afterwards and then announced he was in the mood for another swim. Seeing that neither of the other two was interested in accompanying him, he shrugged and headed towards the lake alone, whistling cheerfully as he went.
Gabrielle was a bit surprised that Xena hadnít chosen to go with Cor, but was definitely happy that she had decided to stay. As she walked over towards the saddlebags, she noticed Xena was watching her intently. "Is there something wrong Xena?"
With a start, Xena realized that she had been staring at her friend. "No, I was just uh...." Frantically, she tried to think of something to say that would explain what sheíd been doing. "Uh, I was just noticing that youíre still limping. Is your ankle bothering you?"
"Oh, yeah, I guess it is a little. Itís just a little sore though, nothing serious."
Xena rose and walked over to where Gabrielle was now sitting and gracefully sat down in front of her. She examined her friendís ankle carefully and was relieved to see that it appeared to be fine. Smiling slightly, she slowly began to massage it, knowing that it was the best possible medicine for aches and pains like this.
Gabrielle sighed blissfully when she felt Xenaís strong fingers pressing against her ankle, relieving the ache with practiced skill. Slowly the pain began to recede and, as it did, she became keenly aware of the feel of Xenaís gentle fingers against her flesh. Her skin was tingling everywhere that Xena touched, and delicious waves of heat were beginning to course through her body. She felt her heart begin to pound and her head start to spin. It was as if her whole universe centered around Xena and the amazing sensations that her touch was causing her to experience. She swallowed hard as she looked at the warrior, wanting to say something, or maybe ask for something, although she wasnít sure what. In fact, she wasnít sure about anything at the moment.
Despite her best intentions, Xenaís eyes began to stray to Gabrielleís supple calves, while her mind traveled even further up to her thighs, her hips, her.... Wrenching her thoughts from the direction they were taking, Xena ordered herself to relax, but she might as well have tried to order the sun not to rise. Her throat was beginning to constrict, making breathing difficult, and she could feel herself starting to tremble. "Better?" she asked tightly, knowing that if she didnít get away from Gabrielle right away, she was liable to lose control completely. Rising unsteadily to her feet, she slowly moved a safe distance away, taking several deep breaths to calm her wildly beating heart.
Trying not to show her disappointment, Gabrielle simply nodded, before turning and pulling a scroll out of one of the saddlebags. ĎBy the gods,í she thought. ĎWhat just happened to me? Iíve never felt like that before in my entire life.í Realizing that she was shaking too badly to work on the story she had been composing earlier, she sat for several long minutes while she tried to understand what was wrong. Xena was her friend, her best friend, but still just a friend. Why in the world should she react like that to a friend? As her shaking subsided, she unrolled the scroll and began working on the story, hoping to clear her mind by focusing on her craft. Deep down, however, she knew that this was a futile effort at best.
After an hour or so had passed, Cor returned to the camp looking refreshed and content, a sharp contrast to Gabrielle and Xena. Noticing the rather stiff smile that Gabrielle gave him and the studious way Xena ignored him, Cor wondered to himself just what had been going on while he was gone. Seeing Xena sharpening her sword, he decided to do the same and was soon surrounded by his weapons. He began to clean and polish each in turn.
Xena slowly sharpened her blade, grateful for something to keep her occupied. She barely acknowledged Corís return, not yet ready to deal with him. Unfortunately, sharpening a sword was something she had had years of practice at, and therefore it required very little of her attention. She felt her eyes drawn to Gabrielle, and covertly watched the young bard while she worked on her latest creation. She smiled when she saw the frown of concentration on Gabrielleís face, as she tried to come up with exactly the right word. Even though she had long since memorized all of Gabrielleís features, she once again felt the need to lose herself in contemplation of the bardís form. Her eyes trailed down Gabrielleís face to her graceful neck and then lower still to her breasts, where they lingered for several timeless moments. Taking a deep breath, she forced her eyes to continue their journey and slowly they traveled down to Gabrielleís bare midriff and graceful legs, before languidly moving back up. Her breathing was becoming ragged and she knew she was staring, but somehow she couldnít find the will to look away. A sound from the other side of the camp finally drew her attention from the young woman. Looking in that direction, she saw Cor smirking at her with knowing eyes and realized that heíd seen her staring at Gabrielle. Feeling more embarrassed than she had ever felt before, she jumped to her feet, anger pouring out of her. Seeing Gabrielleís surprise at her sudden movement, Xena muttered, "Iím going to check the perimeter. Iíll be back later," she finished, before sheathing her sword and storming off.
Xena walked aimlessly into the forest, not particularly caring where she went, knowing only that she needed to get away from Cor and Gabrielle. Finally, after putting a considerable distance between herself and the campsite, she slumped against a tree, frustrated with her inability to control her emotions and desperately needing to regain her focus. She sat quietly for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the night, before she unwillingly began to think about what had just happened back at the camp.
ĎWhen did it happen? When did that little girl I rescued from Dracoís men become so important to me? When did I...when did I fall in love with her?í she asked herself. Xena sighed, not knowing the answer to the question but knowing that, no matter how hard she tried to deny it, it was true. She was in love with Gabrielle - completely, totally, hopelessly.
Thinking that it was a good thing Cor wasnít around at the moment, because she would have cheerfully strangled him, Xena sat back and considered what to do next. She had three basic options. First, she could tell Gabrielle how she felt and hope the bard felt the same. Second, she could keep her mouth shut and part ways with her friend, either permanently or temporarily, and hope that she could fall out of love with her. Third, she could keep her mouth shut and learn to live with loving Gabrielle but having her always out of reach. As Xena considered her choices, she immediately rejected the first one. ĎI already know how she feels. If I tell her how I feel, it will either alienate her or make her pity me, and I couldnít live with either of those.í Unfortunately, eliminating that option meant that she was left with either leaving Gabrielle and being miserable without her, or keeping her around and being miserable with her. ĎI should send her away. Sheíd definitely be safer and sheíd most likely be happier.í Xena sighed heavily. ĎMay The Fates forgive me, Iím not strong enough to do it. Iíd rather learn to live with wanting her and knowing sheís out of reach. I canít risk losing her for good by telling her the truth.í Decision made, Xena felt a portion of her earlier tension ease. Right or wrong, at least now she had a plan for how to handle the situation. Knowing that she still wasnít ready to return to the campsite, she remained under the tree for another hour, fantasizing that she had chosen to tell Gabrielle the truth, and that Gabrielle felt the same way about her.
The next day, Xena let Gabrielle sleep in, partly because she was still a bit concerned about her injury, but mainly because she wanted to put off talking to her for as long as possible. Eventually, though, she began the laborious process of waking the bard so that they could leave. As she watched Gabrielle looking around sleepily, trying to focus on where she was, Xenaís breath caught in her throat. If there had been any lingering doubt in her mind as to whether or not she was actually in love with Gabrielle, it was instantly erased. Gabrielle had never looked more beautiful than she did at that moment and Xena had to fight the urge to kneel down next to her and take the young woman in her arms. Shaking herself slightly as she tried to drive those thoughts from her mind, she told Gabrielle that they were nearly ready to leave and handed her some food to carry with her. "You can eat breakfast while we travel," she said, before moving over to Argo to recheck their gear.
Gabrielle nodded, before stretching deeply and rubbing her eyes. She stood up carefully, feeling the stiffness in her ankle that had returned during the night. Looking around, she could see that Xena had already packed their things and kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire, leaving nothing left for her to do. As she reached down to pick up her staff, she noticed Xena and Cor speak briefly before Xena swung onto Argo and took off down the road. Cor smiled as Gabrielle approached, then frowned when he noticed she was still limping a little. "Are you going to be all right?" he asked, concern evident in his voice.
Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at him. "Iím fine. It just stiffened up overnight. Itíll be okay as soon as I walk on it some."
Cor looked at her doubtfully. "Are you sure? We can wait here until Xena gets back if you want. She just went to scout ahead, but sheíll be back soon enough. Or I could probably catch up with her before she gets too far...."
"Really Cor, itís no problem. If it starts to bother me too much I promise Iíll stop."
"Okay, if you say so, but only if you also promise to defend me if Xena gets mad at me for letting you walk like this."
"I promise," she said laughing, before almost immediately launching into a story. They traveled slowly and took frequent breaks. Gabrielle knew that Cor was deliberately taking his time because of her, and she appreciated his thoughtfulness. After a couple of hours, they saw Xena rapidly approaching on Argo. As the warrior drew nearer, Gabrielle could see the troubled expression on her friendís face and realized that Xena had grown worried by their slow pace.
Xena quickly swung off Argo. "Gabrielle are you all right? Youíre still limping." Xena berated herself for leaving so quickly that morning, but sheíd thought some time alone on the road would help to clear her mind. Any peace she had attained, though, had been shattered when she saw Gabrielle limping alongside Cor.
"Iím fine Xena, really. My ankle is still just a little sore, but it will be all right. Donít worry about it."
Xena knelt beside her and carefully examined her ankle. "Well it doesnít look swollen." Standing back up, she went back to get Argo and then led the mare to Gabrielle, "Thereís no reason to push it though. You can ride on Argo again today. Tomorrow you should be fine."
"Xena, I donít need to ride Argo. Iíll be okay," Gabrielle protested.
"I know you will, but it doesnít make sense to overdo it. Which would you prefer? Ride Argo for another day and let your ankle heal properly, or walk on it and be in pain for the next several days while it slowly mends?"
Gabrielle grimaced. "The correct answer here is probably supposed to be Ďride Argoí, isnít it?" she asked mournfully. "All right, you win. Iíll ride."
Xena hid a smile as she jumped onto Argo and then helped the reluctant bard up behind her. As she felt Gabrielleís arms circle her waist, however, she immediately realized the mistake she had made. She wasnít ready for this yet; her feelings were still too raw and uncontrolled to have Gabrielle this close. Now, though, she had no choice but to grit her teeth and deal with it and somehow hope that she didnít make a complete fool out of herself before the day was over.
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully. Xena, however, longed for something, anything, to take her mind off Gabrielle and the way that having her so close was making her feel. The bardís touch was slowly driving her insane. The softness of her breasts pressed against Xenaís back was becoming harder and harder to ignore, as was Gabrielleís warm breath on the back of her neck. When the bard shifted positions and momentarily rested her hand on Xenaís thigh, the warrior had had enough. Pulling Argo up abruptly, she announced in a strained voice that it was time to stop for lunch and then quickly helped Gabrielle down from Argo. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she hesitated before jumping off Argo and leading the mare to a shady spot where she could graze. She deliberately lingered with the horse before returning to Gabrielle and Cor. Leaning back against a tree, she forcefully reminded herself to focus, while she tried to tune out Gabrielle and Corís conversation, determined that she would not lose control again the way that she had the night before.
All too soon, Xena realized that it was time to get moving again. Gabrielle sighed resignedly, as Xena led Argo towards her and then waited expectantly for the warrior to get on first. Xena, however, had learned her lesson all too well. Shaking her head, she calmly said, "Iím not riding this time Gabrielle. You can ride Argo by yourself. Iíll help you up."
Gabrielle gave her friend a startled look. "By myself? Xena I donít....," Gabrielle began to protest.
Xena held up her hand to cut the young woman off. "Gabrielle, I donít want to tire Argo out. I can walk beside you. Youíll be fine." Carefully lifting Gabrielle into the saddle, she turned and grabbed the reins, catching sight of Cor as she did so. Glaring briefly at him and his smug expression, she began walking down the road.
Gabrielle uneasily clutched the saddle horn as she rode along. It was bad enough riding Argo in the first place, but to have to ride him without Xena there to help hold her on, was much, much worse. Gabrielle knew something more than just her usual troubles was bothering her friend. She had felt it in the tension of her muscles as they rode; she had thought Xena was going to jump out of her skin when she had briefly touched the warriorís thigh. She could see it in other ways too. Every time that Gabrielle got near her, Xena almost imperceptibly pulled away, as if she was trying to distance herself from the bard. Gabrielle tried to recall if she had done or said anything that could have upset the warrior, but could come up with nothing. There seemed to be only one logical explanation; Xena wanted to spend more time with Cor and less time with her and, no matter how hard she tried, she kept coming back to that explanation. The more she thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed, and the angrier she became. Xena should at least have the decency to just come out and tell her the truth. She couldnít believe that, after all the time they had spent together, Xena apparently didnít even think she deserved that much. It was obvious what was going on and Gabrielle knew that it was just a matter of time before Xena decided that she didnít want her around at all anymore.
The afternoon passed by as uneventfully as had the morning. By the time they stopped for the evening, Gabrielle was furious with her friend. She allowed Xena to help her down from Argo but then stiffly pulled away from her and walked off without a word. Camp was set up with a minimum of discussion, since both Gabrielle and Xena were lost in their own thoughts. Cor had no clue as to what he could say that wouldnít result in one, or both, of them biting his head off. For her part, Xena was beyond confused as to the reason for Gabrielleís behavior. Something was obviously upsetting the young bard, and Xena didnít think it was just the fact that sheíd been forced to ride a horse. For once she was grateful for Corís presence, since it kept her from having to be alone with Gabrielle, something she definitely wasnít ready for yet.
Once supper was finished and darkness had fallen, what little conversation there had been ground to a halt. Cor made a few abortive attempts to get Gabrielle to tell one of her stories, but he soon realized it was useless to try. Feeling the tension in the air getting thicker and thicker, he decided that it would be best if he left for a while. If nothing else, it might get the two women to start talking about what was bothering them. "Iím going to check the perimeter," he announced flatly, as he picked up his scabbard and strapped it to his side.
Xena felt panic beginning to rise within her at the thought of being left alone with Gabrielle. "You donít need to do that Cor. The area is secure," she said, desperately willing him to stay.
"Thatís okay, Iíll enjoy the walk. See you two later," he said casually, as he hastily ducked into the trees, knowing that he needed to leave quickly before Xena tried to stop him again.
Xena sighed to herself as she stared into the fire. Gabrielle was sitting across from her and she could see the firelight dancing across the planes of the bardís face, as she gazed into the fire as well. Knowing that, if she wasnít careful, she would begin to stare at Gabrielle in the same way that she had the night before, she decided to take the bull by the horns. At the very least, talking about what was upsetting the bard would keep her mind off what was troubling her. "Gabrielle, is there something you want to talk about?" she began hesitantly, breaking the silence that was building around them.
Gabrielle was startled by Xenaís question. "No, not really," she mumbled, still focusing on the campfire.
ĎPerfect,í Xena thought. ĎOf all the bad habits I have, she picks up being moody and staring into campfires.í Xena tried again gently. "Gabrielle, I know thereís something wrong...I want to help if I can, but you have to tell me whatís bothering you."
Gabrielleís rage suddenly exploded. "Whatís bothering me? Whatís bothering me? You are whatís bothering me Xena, and I canít believe you have the gall to sit there and tell me you want to help."
Utterly confused by the bardís response, Xena just stared at her for several seconds. "Iím whatís bothering you? Gabrielle, I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Do you think Iím blind? Iíve seen the way youíve been looking at me, how youíve been acting towards me the past couple days. Do you want to deny it or do you understand what Iím talking about?"
Xenaís blood ran cold. Her worst case scenario had just come true. Gabrielle knew she was in love with her and was furious. "No I wonít try to deny it," she said quietly. "Gabrielle Iím sorry...it just happened. I didnít plan on it, didnít realize it until I was in over my head. But it doesnít mean anything has to change...."
"Of course it does! It changes everything!" Gabrielle took a deep breath, calming herself down. "Just tell me one thing Xena. When were you planning on telling me about you and Cor?"
Not following Gabrielleís line of thought at all, Xena paused, trying to figure out what in the world she was talking about. "Me and Cor?" she finally asked slowly.
Seeing Xenaís reaction, Gabrielle assumed that the warrior was still not taking her seriously and she was treating her like a child. "Yes, you and Cor," she said sarcastically. "I know all about you two."
Completely baffled now as to what the young woman was talking about, Xena could only manage to ask in a bewildered tone, "You know all about Cor and me? What do you know?"
"I heard you two talking," Gabrielle admitted. "I know you were in love with him once but some woman named Sairen came between you two and he chose her over you." Seeing Xena getting ready to interrupt, she held up her hand. "I donít know how close you were in the past, but from what little I saw yesterday, Iíd say you were very close here in the present."
"Yesterday? What did you see yesterday?" Xena asked, racking her brain.
Gabrielle flushed. "I got worried when you two didnít come back, so I went looking for you. I saw you getting out of the lake and you looked pretty happy to be together. Sorry, I canít be more specific, but I didnít exactly feel comfortable joining the two of you."
"So thatís why youíre upset? Because Cor and I have something going?" Xena asked, as her heart began to pound. Gabrielle had sounded almost jealous when she had been talking about Xena having a relationship with Cor.
"Yes, thatís what Iím upset about," Gabrielle replied, her tone implying that she thought it was a stupid question to be asking.
Hardly daring to hope, Xena asked the question that she most dreaded hearing answered, "And why would it change things between us if I were in love with Cor?" ĎGods above. Please Gabrielle...give me the right answer to this.í
Looking at Xena as if she were an idiot, Gabrielle replied, "Because youíll be wanting to go off on your own now that you have him. What place will there be for me?"
Xena stared at Gabrielle in shock, feeling as if she had just been hit in the gut. "Is that what you think? That as soon as I find a man Iíll dump you?" she asked with deadly calm, after several long, silent moments had passed.
Hearing it put like that, Gabrielle had to admit it sounded a bit harsh. "Look Xena, Iím not blaming you for falling in love with Cor. Heís a good man. I just wish you could have been honest with me...told me the truth."
"And what truth is that Gabrielle?" Xena asked quietly, staring at her friend with ominous intensity.
"Well, obviously things will change now that you two are together, even if you donít end up getting married. You certainly wonít want me around all the time anymore, will you? Were you planning on giving me some warning here or were you just going to walk up one day and tell me good-bye?"
Xenaís tight control on her anger finally slipped. She knew she should get up and leave before she said something she regretted, but she couldnít make herself do it. "No, unlike you, I donít operate that way. Iíd definitely have given you plenty of warning, two full days at least." Forcing herself to stand, she began to walk away from the camp but her anger was still burning too intensely for her to simply leave. She heard her next words in her mind before she uttered them and, although she knew that they were thoughts that should never be spoken aloud, she was unable to stop herself from saying them. "You know, I donít know why Iím surprised you expect this out of me. After all, itís exactly what you did with Perdicus, isnít it? You hung around, killing time with me until something better came along and then you dumped me." She heard Gabrielle gasp, but refused to look at her. Instead she stalked off, barely able to contain her rage.
Xena drifted through the forest haphazardly, not particularly caring where she was going. Eventually she strayed across a large stream that was slowly flowing through the woods. Sitting down near the edge, she rested against a large rock while she stared across the water. She had no idea how long she sat like that before she heard the sound of someone approaching from behind. Knowing without looking that it was Cor, she remained where she was, silent and unmoving. "Xena?" she finally heard him ask tentatively. "Are you all right?"
"Never better Cor," she replied sarcastically. "How Ďbout you?"
Closing the rest of the distance between them, Cor sat down near her. "What happened?" he asked quietly.
"I finally found out what was bothering Gabrielle. She thinks you and I are, or are about to be, lovers." Seeing the astonished look on Corís face, she continued. "Evidently, she heard us talking about Sairen and assumed that he was a woman. Now that Sairenís out of the picture, she thinks you and I are going to pick up where we left off...apparently, marriage is a strong possibility for us," she finished derisively.
Cor laughed at Xenaís final comment. He cared for her deeply, but the two of them had never been more than friends and the pesky little fact that she was a woman would always get in the way. "What did she say when you told her the truth?" he finally managed to ask. For several seconds he waited for her to answer, before a sick feeling started in the pit of his stomach. Looking at Xena, he frowned when he saw the expression on her face. "You did tell her the truth didnít you?" he asked. At his friendís continued silence and undiluted stubbornness, he sighed with exasperation, before leaning forward, forcing her to look at him. "Why in the world didnít you tell her the truth?" he demanded.
"What difference would it have made?" Xena asked flatly.
"What diff....fine, fine...be that way if you want. Iíll tell her the truth about Sairen and...."
"No Cor!" Xena interrupted him angrily. "Stay out of this! It doesnít concern you!"
"Doesnít concern me? Like Hades it doesnít concern me! Iím right in the middle of it!"
"No...youíre not," Xena replied quietly. "The problem isnít with you. Itís between Gabrielle and me and it goes a lot deeper than whether or not you and I are lovers." Xena sighed as she turned away from Cor to look back at the stream. "Gabrielle assumes that, if I get married, or even if you and I are just lovers, that Iíll dump her. Why would she assume that, if it wasnít what she would do in my place?" The angry edge returned to her voice. "As a matter of fact, itís exactly what she did do...." Seeing Cor about to protest, Xena stared at him intently. "I mean it Cor. Stay out of this. I donít want you telling her the truth about Sairen. Promise me."
Cor opened his mouth, determined to argue some more, but realized that this was one fight he wasnít going to win. "Fine. I promise I wonít tell her the truth about Sairen," he said, raising his hands in surrender. He waited for several minutes before speaking again. "Xena, did you tell her how you felt about her?"
Xena laughed harshly as she shook her head. "Why bother? If she doesnít think any more of our friendship than that, how could she possibly feel the same way about me that I feel about her?"
Cor shook his head, not knowing what to say that would ease the pain he could see on Xenaís face and hear in her voice. Knowing that she needed to be alone for a while, he rose silently and turned to leave, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze as he did so. Xena barely acknowledged his departure. She had a long night ahead of her, and there was no way sheíd be getting any sleep any time soon. One thing was certain, she wasnít going back to the camp until she was positive that Gabrielle would be sleeping.