Disclaimers: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA Pictures and used here without permission. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
This story shows the loving relationship between two women. You may even consider it explicit at times. If this type of story offends you, or you are not old enough to read it, please stop reading now.
I hope you all enjoy.
Illuminations of the Soul
by Cousin Liz
July 30, 1997
The well traveled road wound its way through the countryside. The trees on both sides had begun to change color and the crunch of dried leaves under foot was something that Gabrielle always loved to hear. She appreciated the cooler days for traveling, except for the price paid at night. 'Soon it will be getting downright cold,' she speculated to herself. They were nearing a town and Xena intended to stay only long enough to buy supplies and get a worn buckle on Argo's saddle replaced.
Gabrielle, who had been discussing the recent exploits of their last adventure, fell silent. She could sense the change in Xena. Back ramrod straight; she sat tall in the saddle. Chin up, shoulders squared and her normally blue eyes now icy gray slits. 'And that look.' It still sent shivers down Gabrielle's spine every time she witnessed the transformation. 'This must have been what greeted the unfortunate people of the villages and towns that Xena and her army raided. The Warrior Princess.' Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to picture the scene.
First impressions meant everything and Xena had this down to a science. She wanted no trouble from anyone in town. Although her warlord days were past her, the look still served it's purpose. "Gabrielle," Xena said suddenly, thrusting a protective arm in front of her friend who had been walking along side Argo. With her other arm, she pulled Argo to an abrupt stop. Xena sat there motionless, listening.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked in a hushed tone. "Highway robbers? A deadly animal? A hungry cyclops? Joxer?"
"No, no, no and NO," Xena chided her friend for her vivid imagination. Even though the town was not yet in sight, she could just make out the sounds of people. Many people. "Something is going on in the town up ahead. I hear the sounds of too many people to be coming from a place of that size. Keep alert," Xena warned. "There could be trouble." They continued on.
Gabrielle gripped her staff tighter and gave a few warm-up swings, loosening her muscles. A small smile worked its way across her face. 'Yes! She didn't even try to make me stay behind this time while she went on ahead. Nor did she make me climb onto that beast of a war horse of hers, and hide behind her.' It had taken nearly two years, but Gabrielle felt that Xena was finally trusting her to hold her own in a battle.
They rounded a bend in the road and the countryside opened up onto recently harvested fields. In the distance stood the town. "Wow. It looks like the entire population of the town is out. Xena, they're having some kind of a celebration!" The young woman's eyes danced with excitement.
"From the size of the crowd, I'd say the people from the surrounding villages are there also. Must be their harvest festival." Xena caught the look in her young friend's eyes. "Maybe we could have a look around... if you'd like?"
"Oh Xena, could we?"
"Sure, Gabrielle. C'mon." Xena reverted back to her warrior princess persona.
Even with all of the distractions the festival had to offer, Xena and Gabrielle's entrance into the town did not go unnoticed. It never did. Xena was not one to blend in easily. Clad in black leather and armor, with a flowing mane of long black hair, the six-foot frame atop the behemoth golden mare stood in stark contrast to the smaller green-eyed strawberry blonde walking along side.
They continued through the village, heading for the inn. "I'm going to stable Argo and give her a good brush down. Why don't you see about getting us a room for the night," Xena said as she dismounted her horse.
"I thought you wanted to pick up supplies and be on your way?"
"I know that's what I said, but I think a short rest will do us all a world of good. Even Argo." At the mention of her name, Argo turned her head and let out an appreciable snort.
"OK, OK," Gabrielle laughed as she stroked the flank of the mare. "I'll see to the room. Then I think I'll check out the marketplace."
With a room for the night rented, Gabrielle enveloped herself in the crowd. She really enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. She had just spent the last five days traveling the road, with Xena and Argo as her only source of companionship. Mind you, she wasn't complaining, but sometimes Argo was a better conversationalist than Xena. Everywhere she looked, children were laughing and running, many with brightly colored painted faces.
Husbands and wives strolled hand in hand, while young couples were seen in the embrace of each other. The merchants hawked their wares, while jugglers walked the street, tossing brightly colored balls in the air, sometimes between themselves. Off to the left, Gabrielle saw a crowd gathering around a small, raised platform where a man was swallowing swords. Minstrels roamed the street, their lively music sometimes cutting through the din of the festival crowd.
Gabrielle was excited at the prospect of doing a little shopping. 'Nothing like a little bartering to get the blood flowing,' she thought to herself. There was everything imaginable for sale here. Food stalls abounded. From the necessities of meat, cheese and breads, to sweets and pastries. 'I'm definitely going to have to check that stall out later,' she reminded herself.
Bolts of fancy woven cloth decorated a stall, while further on, an old white-haired man displayed fine leather work. Gabrielle stopped to delicately finger a beautiful hair barrette. Intricately woven, threads of white and silver silk were braided around individual strips of leather, forming a beautiful white flower which glistened in the sunlight. Gabrielle knew not to even bother to ask the price. 'No amount of bartering will ever get that piece to an affordable price.' It wasn't that they were hurting for money. It was just that the cost of living on the road could sometimes be unpredictable. 'And even with all of my best bartering skills, the price of that barrette would still be equivalent to the cost of a week's worth of supplies, including Argo's.' She moved on before the merchant had a chance to strike up a conversation.
Gabrielle headed off to buy the supplies they needed and find the dessert stall she spied earlier. She would pick up a few treats to surprise Xena. She knew that as much as Xena hated to admit it, she had a sweet tooth almost as big as her young friend's. With her shopping done and the treats tucked safely away in the bottom of her satchel, Gabrielle headed to where she would most likely find Xena.
Xena was just leaving the Blacksmith's; Argo's saddle resting comfortably on her left shoulder. "So?" inquired Gabrielle, as she approached.
"The buckle's been replaced. Good as new. How'd your shopping go?"
"Great! I got everything we need and I had a wonderful time looking around."
"Good. Let's get this stuff put away." Knowing how her young friend thrived on crowds, Xena continued, "there's still some time until dinner. Maybe we can have a look around."
Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the prospect. She knew how much Xena disliked crowds. "Really? If you'd like... I saw this guy swallowing swords earlier. Over there." She pointed in the general direction of the platform.
"Swallowing swords, heh? We'll have to check into that. Never know when it might come in handy," Xena replied in her best serious voice. She turned and started to head to the stables with Argo's saddle before Gabrielle could see the grin working its way onto her face.
Gabrielle stood there looking after her friend incredulously. 'Never know when it might come in handy?' she repeated to herself. 'Heh. I sure hope she's joking. Then again... Xena rarely jokes about anything.' Gabrielle shook her head trying to disengage the image that was forming of Xena and her sword, and took off after her.
The sun had begun to set by the time Xena and Gabrielle returned to the inn. They had spent a rather uneventful afternoon taking in the sights, although sometimes Gabrielle felt like they were one of the attractions. 'I guess we do make for a rather odd couple,' she mused. She didn't even want to begin to guess what people thought she was doing traveling with the likes of the warrior princess. 'Best to not even go there,' she reminded herself. Nobody ever came right out and said anything, but she could feel herself being watched. She knew Xena could feel it too, but she never let on. 'I guess she's used to it,' but for Gabrielle, it still made her feel a little queasy whenever it happened.
They sat in their usual spot at the back of the tavern. Xena leaned against the back wall, surveying the room before her. Her friend sat across from her.
Gabrielle enthusiastically sliced another large chunk of meat from the steak before her. Her eyes sparkled with glee as she held it up for a moment's examination before devouring it. She was in the Elyssian Fields and loving every minute of it.
"I guess you're going to want me to add cow to my list of dinner quarries now," Xena said with a bemused smile on her face.
"Oh Xena -" Gabrielle almost choked as she attempted to swallow her latest mouthful. "You know I love what you catch for our dinner. I can just picture the warrior princess stealthily tracking some poor farmer's milk cow out in his pasture. And what would you tell him Xena? 'Well, you see... my friend was just hankering for a big juicy steak.' I don't think he'd go for that."
"Well, I'm glad you're enjoying yourself. It's not often we get to eat this well." It didn't happen often, but there were days when try as she might, no animal would snare itself in one of the traps she had set. And there wasn't always a river nearby with a ready source of fish. Meals those nights consisted of bread and what little dried fruits, smoked meat or cheese they had left from their last stop at a village. Gabrielle never complained, although her stomach usually gave her away. Xena's face clouded over at these thoughts.
Gabrielle had been busily slicing off another large chunk from her steak when she glanced up and noticed that Xena had gone away. "Xena," she called softly. Xena was staring down at her plate of food, her arms resting on either side of her plate. She looked up. Gabrielle's heart sank as she looked into her eyes. 'What could she have been thinking about to cause such sadness to mar the beauty of those blue eyes?' Gabrielle thought. She instinctively began to reach across the table to cover Xena's hand with hers, but pulled up short at the last moment and wrapped her fingers around her mug instead. They were in public, she reminded herself. She just had a hard time restraining herself sometimes. She always tended to talk with her hands. They seemed to have a life of their own, and went where they wanted.
"Hmm," Xena said as she came back to the present.
"What were you thinking about?" Gabrielle tried to ask nonchalantly.
"Oh, nothing in particular. Just trying to give my stomach a chance to catch up," Xena replied as she went back to her meal.
Gabrielle knew it was pointless to try to gain access to the warrior's thoughts. If they had been alone, she would not have let the subject drop so easily. She would have prodded Xena a little and maybe gotten somewhere. However, in public, Xena wore her warrior princess armor inside and out. Gabrielle understood, though. It had kept them from being bothered or harassed on more than one occasion.
As they continued their meal, Gabrielle tried to fill the air with light talk, attempting and finally succeeding in bringing Xena out of her funk. "Wow! I don't think I could eat another bite," the bard exclaimed as she pushed her empty plate away and leaned back on her chair, patting her bare midriff.
Xena rolled her eyes. "Considering you polished off everything on your plate and then went back for seconds..." A smile formed on Xena's face. "I guess that means you don't have room for dessert?" she asked, first smelling and then seeing the trays of nutbread that were being brought out of the kitchen and placed on the bar.
Gabrielle turned and followed Xena's eyes as she focused on the dessert. "Nutbread! Well... I guess I *could* find room for a small piece." Gabrielle's eyes danced at the prospect. She watched as the innkeeper began to slice the loaves.
"I'll go and make sure she cuts you a generous piece," Xena said as she rose and made her way to the bar. Gabrielle watched her go. She noticed that as Xena passed people at other tables, they almost recoiled from her, fearful of her touch. Gabrielle knew Xena could feel this -- this cold vacuum effect that hung in the air around her. To be around so many people and still be alone. Gabrielle wondered how Xena could live with it.
The warrior arrived a few minutes later balancing two plates of nutbread and a large port for herself and a cider for Gabrielle. "Here you go," she said, as she sat back down and sipped her drink. She watched as Gabrielle descended on her dessert. 'Where does she put it?' she contemplated.
Gabrielle was soon licking her fingers and pinching up the last of the crumbs from her plate. "Oh Xena, that was the best nutbread I ever had." Looking down a little embarrassed she continued, "I even think it was better than my mother's." Xena silently pushed her untouched dessert over to Gabrielle. "No Xena, No! I won't. I know you like nutbread too." Gabrielle pushed the plate back to her friend.
"Gabrielle, I got it for you." Xena began to push the plate back across the table. Gabrielle put her hand out and stopped it midway. Both women continued to stubbornly push the plate in opposite directions. "This is getting us nowhere."
"Truce," Gabrielle said softly, not wanting anybody seated at the table next to them to overhear the warrior princess losing a battle. "We'll share." Both women slowly released their grip on the plate, but kept their arms extended in case the other changed their mind.
Gabrielle broke off a piece and held it out for Xena. She knew it was the only way she would get her to eat any. Reluctantly Xena accepted it and sat back. "Hmm... This really is good." She looked up to see Gabrielle watching her.
"I told you so."
"That's why I wanted you to have it."
"Xena." Gabrielle said with slight exasperated. "You have got to learn to indulge yourself. You're always doing good things for other people. You've got to stop and do them for yourself once in a while." She broke off a small piece of nutbread and popped it into her mouth. "See, it's not that hard." Gabrielle broke off a larger piece and handed it to her friend. She continued in this manner until she had successfully fed the rest of it to Xena.
Xena quietly resigned herself to the force feeding. She knew when it was useless to argue with her bard. 'And maybe she's right. When was the last time I did something for no other reason than to please myself?'
"Xena? Do you hear that?" Gabrielle asked as she turned to look for the source.
"Uh huh," Xena murmured. She was leaning back against the wall, eyes closed, arms crossed, her legs stretched out and extended under Gabrielle's chair. The soft strains of instruments being tuned floated in on the night air. Many of the couples who had finished eating were already starting to disappear outside.
Gabrielle got up and approached the innkeeper. "Excuse me, Androniki. I was wondering. What's going on outside?"
"The town is holding an evening dance," she replied. "There's no building large enough to have it in, so we simply have it outside, under the stars. It's a bit brisk tonight, but everybody will warm up fast enough when the dancing starts." She motioned Gabrielle towards the window. Gone were the stalls the merchants used earlier, and lanterns had been hung throughout the center of town. A small group of people could be seen in front of the Blacksmith's shop, readying their instruments. Families and couples were beginning to gather, coming from all directions. "You should come join us. The dance is always quite fun."
"Thank you," Gabrielle replied. She turned to look at Xena, who hadn't moved from her spot. This was not an easy task that lay ahead of her. Gabrielle knew Xena was not the least bit interested in some silly dance. Come to think of it, in the last two years they had been together, she had never seen Xena dance. 'Well, there was that time when she went undercover at the Miss Known World Pageant, but that doesn't count. That was business.' They did attend the reception held in their honor by King Gregor and Pandora, after Xena successfully rescued the baby. And there was dancing after the dinner. Xena simply sat there wearing her patented look-at- me-the-wrong-way-and-die warrior princess look. No man dared get close enough to ask her to dance. She stayed for a little while, before disappearing with her excuse of needing to check up on Argo. The bard wondered what Xena would ever do if she didn't have that horse to fall back on as an excuse.
Gabrielle walked back over to their table. By now the place was practically empty. "Xena. Xena?" At first, Gabrielle thought that Xena had nodded off, then thought better. 'Xena never nods off.' Xena's eyes opened and met the bard's. "I was wondering... that maybe... that is if you're not too tired... "
"... we could go outside and watch the dancing... for a little while that is..." Gabrielle blinked and gave her head a small jerk and shake as she realized that Xena had spoken.
Xena stretched the muscles in her arms as she held them out straight and stood with a fluid grace to her full six feet. She motioned to the speechless bard to proceed with her to the door. 'Gabrielle seldom asks for anything, and damn if I'm going to deny her some simple pleasures in her life. And the look on her face when it dawned on her that her request had been answered was priceless,' Xena chuckled to herself. 'Worth the last dinar I have to see that.'
The grounds outside were now teeming with life. The music had begun, and couples were whirling to a lively tune. Even the young children were off to the side attempting to mimic their elders. Most of the oldest folk were seated on benches and chairs that were drug from neighboring stores and homes.
Xena stood on the porch at the corner of the inn. She had found a patch of shadow that the nearest lantern could not breech. She leaned against the building sipping the port she brought outside, her left foot resting comfortably on the lower railing at the side of the porch.
Gabrielle leaned over the front railing, craning her neck to the left and then to the right. "Xena. It looks like the whole town has showed up tonight! I'll bet not a single person is left at home. Everybody is having such a good time. It's nice to be in a town where everyone is not in fear of an advancing warlord. We've seen plenty of that already."
Xena wondered how many town's festivities had been ruined by her and her army during her warlord years. She downed the rest of her port, struggling to push those memories back from where they had escaped. Gabrielle walked over and stood next to her, trying to steal some of her body heat. She rested her head on the warrior's shoulder, wistfully watching the couples, now dancing in each other's arms to a slow song. Xena watched Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. There was such depth of emotion to her young eyes, but Xena could not be sure what Gabrielle was thinking. She just wished that Gabrielle could have her heart's desire, and Xena would do anything to make her young friend happy. 'She must see herself in the arms of a charming young man, being held and loved as they move with the music.' The mental image of this shook Xena back to the present. 'And this will never happen -- not with me hovering over her. No man will dare get close enough to even speak with her.' "Gabrielle, I need to go check on Argo."
Gabrielle knew what this line really meant. Xena was tiring of the dance and wanted an excuse to disappear for the rest of the night. "Xeeena." Gabrielle drawled, letting her friend know that she knew what she was up to.
"No Gab. I promise. I'll be back in a little while."
"Yes, I promise." With that, Xena left.
Now Gabrielle was perplexed. She was sure Xena was looking to get away for the rest of the evening. 'But if Xena makes a promise, she keeps it. I wonder if this time she really simply wanted to check on Argo? I guess I'll never figure her out.' Gabrielle moved back over to the center of the porch. The lantern on a nearby post lit up her red-blonde hair, and the dance of the flame sent fiery streaks pulsating down the strands of her hair.
Xena stood off in the shadows of a nearby building, keeping an eye on her friend. 'Just in case anybody tries to do her harm,' she told herself. After only a couple of minutes, Xena got her wish. A handsome young man approached Gabrielle. Xena suppressed her desire to wrest the young man's gaze from her friend and send him packing. 'Get a grip on yourself, Xena. This is obviously what Gabrielle wants and needs.'
"Hi, my name is Andreas," the young man said, looking up at Gabrielle.
"Uh... hi," Gabrielle replied, looking down at her hands. She knew this would happen as soon as Xena left her alone. 'Now where is that warrior princess when I need her.'
"I was wondering if you'd join me for the next dance?" The young man asked, gesturing toward the couples.
"Oh uh -- heh... I'd really love to you know, but... ah... you see... just the other day I took a tumble off a horse and my leg is still giving me some problems." She began to massage her upper right thigh for effect. "Otherwise, I would have loved to dance the next dance with you." Gabrielle tried to let him down as nicely as possible. He bowed, turned and left. 'Quick thinking, girl. He almost had you.'
Xena watched the entire too brief exchange. She was too far away and there was too much noise to pick up any of the conversation, but she was sure that he had asked Gabrielle to dance. 'The young man seemed pleasant enough,' she pondered. 'I wonder what he said to make Gabrielle decline? If he said anything to upset her, I'll... I'll...' Xena did her best to get back under control as she returned to the porch.
"I'm back, just like I promised." She wanted to ask Gabrielle what happened with the young man, but knew her friend would get upset if she found out Xena was spying on her.
"Oh... hi Xena," Gabrielle said, suppressing a yawn that was a little too over theatrical. "You know, I'm really getting tired. I think I'll turn in now," she said sleepily, absentmindedly massaging her upper right thigh.
Xena didn't believe Gabrielle was tired for a minute. She looked the bard over carefully, trying to see if she could ascertain her true motivation. Concerned, Xena asked, "What's wrong with your leg?"
"Oh this... nothing. Old war wound."
"If it's bothering you, let me take a look at it," Xena said, concern for her friend growing.
"No, no, that's alright. Heh -- I was just kidding!"
"Really Xena, it's nothing."
"O.K. If you insist. I'm a bit tired too," she said, trying to change the subject. "I think I'll turn in also." Xena was still concerned as she noticed Gabrielle favoring her one leg over the other as they entered the inn. She first noticed Gabrielle rubbing her leg as she talked to the young man. 'It has something to do with him. I'll get to the bottom of this...'
The music from out front wafted up to the room, entering through their window at the back of the inn. Gabrielle stood at the open window, gazing out upon the night sky. Xena busied herself, getting a fire going in the large fireplace, which took up most of the wall to the left. For such a small town, the inn provided spacious and clean rooms. To the right of the window stood a large bed in the corner. To the right of the door was a chest with wash basin on top. Another chest stood just to the left of the door. When Xena had a warming blaze lit, she walked over to the near chest and began to methodically remove her weapons and armor. She knew she hadn't really needed them on earlier; it was just that she felt almost naked in public without them. 'And one should always be prepared,' she reminded herself.
"A dinar for your thoughts," Xena said, as she turned to find Gabrielle still staring out the window.
"Oh, nothing. I was just listening to the music," Gabrielle said softly, as she turned to face Xena.
"Why didn't you take that young man up on his offer for a dance earlier?" Xena blurted.
"Xena! You were watching!?!"
"I was just rounding the corner when I saw him turn and walk away. I didn't think he was there to ask you the time of day!"
Xena felt guilty for the deception, but continued her gentle prodding. "You seemed so happy at the dance. I thought you would've wanted to participate."
"Well, yeah. It's just that... well... " Gabrielle looked down, fidgeting with the top of her skirt. She would not finish.
Xena covered the distance between them in a few long strides. She took Gabrielle's chin in her hand and coaxed her to meet her eyes. "What's wrong," Xena demanded. "Did he say something to upset you. I'll find him and teach him how to treat a young lady." Xena hissed the last part out through clenched teeth.
"NO, NO Xena!" Gabrielle suddenly became very scared for the poor man's life. She knew what Xena was capable of doing. "He was a perfect gentleman."
"Then why didn't you accept his offer?" she asked, becoming even more confused by this new fact.
"I... can't dance." Gabrielle said it so softly, that Xena almost didn't hear her.
"Is that all?" Xena mused. "I was ready to go and take his head off."
"Is that all? Is that all!" Gabrielle was becoming indignant. "I've tried and tried. I just get so confused with my feet that I end up making a fool of myself. At the barn dances we had back home in Poteidaia, my family practically disowned me, my dancing was so bad. Poor Lila tried to teach me, but eventually gave up. It was useless."
Xena could see the look of utter futility in her eyes. "Ga-bri-elle." She reached down and softly clasped one of her friend's hands. Xena rested her other hand on Gabrielle's waist, and took a step back so she was at arms length from her.
Xena told herself that what she was about to do was strictly for Gabrielle's benefit, and that it had nothing to do with the fact that it would be a perfect excuse to touch her young friend. And she seemed to be finding excuses more and more often to do just that.
A friendly pat on the back, or a touch of her forearm. The times she cherished the most were at night. Xena wasn't sure exactly when it started, but some time ago, by some mutually unspoken consent, their bedrolls began to be laid out next to each other. Everything stayed strictly platonic, but sometimes Gabrielle had a tendency to end up with some part of her body draped over the warrior. And Xena never complained. She simply lay there motionless, reveling in the warm touch of the bard and wishing it would never end.
Gabrielle froze in her place, uncertain what Xena's next move would be. She trusted her friend with her life, although more times than she cared to admit. Xena locked eyes with Gabrielle and simply said, "Let me show you how." She lifted the small hand clasped in hers and held it out to the side. "Just listen to the music and follow my lead," Xena said, a smile spreading across her face.
"XENA!" exclaimed Gabrielle, as she quickly began to try to keep pace with her new dance partner. A smile reached Gabrielle's face, quickly replaced with a look of grim determination as she concentrated on watching Xena's feet, trying to mimic her steps while not smashing one of the warrior's toes. It was useless. After only a few moments, Gabrielle became so worried that she did just that. "Oh Xena, I'm so sorry," she exclaimed, pulling to a stop. A tear began to roll down her cheek.
"Gabrielle, I'm fine." Xena tried to console her best friend, while wiping away the tear. "Look. I've still got my boots on. I go into battle wearing these. I didn't feel a thing. Honest."
"It's hopeless, Xena. I told you I couldn't dance."
"Gabrielle, we've only just started. You're good with your staff, very coordinated. And you pick up the different moves I teach you quickly and efficiently. What was one of the first things I taught you when facing an opponent in battle?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment and replied, "Look 'em in the eyes. Always maintain eye contact. You can tell what your opponent's next move will be from their eyes." Dawn broke over Gabrielle's face as she realized what she was saying. "That's just -"
"- like dancing," Xena finished the sentence. She held her young friend's chin in her hand and locked eyes with the most beautiful hazel green she had ever seen. Without taking her eyes from the bard's gaze, Xena released her chin and lightly trailed her hand down Gabrielle's arm, once again finding and clasping her small hand. She placed her other hand back on Gabrielle's waist and began to move with the music.
Gabrielle felt captured by the powerful blue pools of Xena's eyes. She couldn't break contact if she tried. They moved about the room, keeping up with the moderately paced song that was playing outside. A smile formed on Xena's lips, and Gabrielle infectiously caught it from her. As far as Gabrielle was concerned, she no longer had feet. She felt as if she was gliding over the floor, following those blue eyes wherever they lead. As the song came to the end, Xena spun Gabrielle out and then back towards her, catching her in her powerful hands before she had a chance to make contact.
"XENA! I did it! I really did it! I danced!!" She caught Xena off guard as she threw her arms around her waist and gave her friend a big hug, burying her face in Xena's chest. The bard was in shock. She didn't believe she had just danced -- and with Xena! She tried hard to burn into her memory what it felt like to be swept around the room by the woman of her dreams, certain she would never get another chance to feel this close to her.
Xena froze. She was not sure what to do. When she heard Gabrielle start to softly cry, she wrapped her arms around the young woman, wondering what was wrong. They stayed like that for a long minute. When Xena felt her friend's tears had stopped, she gently peeled her away from her chest and looked down at her.
"Oh Xena, I'm sorry." Gabrielle saw where her tears had left the front of Xena wet. She absentmindedly began to wipe them away with her hand, oblivious to the effect it had on the warrior.
"Gabrielle, it's fine. Never mind," Xena got out, as she took the young woman's hand from her chest. She tilted the bard's head
upwards and wiped the few remaining tears from her face. "What's the matter?"
"I'm just so happy. I... I know it sounds silly, but I was always so ashamed and embarrassed that I couldn't dance. People would make fun of me when I tried, so I stopped trying. I just can't believe how easy it is. How easy *you* made it. Thank you."
Xena couldn't help herself. A wry smile caught the corner of her mouth as she stated, "I have many skills." They both broke out in a fit of laughter.
A lively piece had just begun, and Gabrielle was surprised when once again she was swept off her feet as Xena's eyes carried her aloft. They continued in much that same fashion for the next dozen songs. At one point, Xena showed Gabrielle the steps to a traditional Greek folk dance that was being played, and was delighted to find that Gabrielle picked it up as easily as she had any staff maneuver.
"Oh Xena, I don't know when I last had so much fun," Gabrielle exclaimed as the song came to an end. The last two songs had been particularly fast-paced, and Gabrielle was pleasantly exhausted. As no song immediately began, she figured that either the musicians were also in need of a break, or were done for the night.
Xena could see a slight flush on Gabrielle's face, and wondered if there was one on hers too. "I'm glad you're enjoying yourself. I just wish you'd told me sooner that you couldn't dance. I would have been able to show you in time for the dance. Then you wouldn't have had to turn that young man away."
"True. Um... Xena? If we had stayed, would you have asked me to dance?" Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes and saw the pain of her soul.
Xena, surprised by her directness, took a couple of steps back and sat on the edge of the bed. She knew Gabrielle deserved an honest answer, but didn't want to hurt her feelings. Gabrielle walked over and quietly sat next to her, allowing her friend time to gather her thoughts. "No," Xena said softly. "Not that I wouldn't have wanted to, but..."
"Yeah, I can just see it now. Parents grabbing their children and running for the hills. Wouldn't want their little ones exposed to two people dancing, now would we?" Gabrielle said sarcastically, the firelight catching a single tear as it ran down her face. "Xena, why are people so cruel?"
"I don't know Gab, I just don't know."
The strains of a slow, melodious tune broke the silence. Xena stood, bowed deeply and offered her hand to Gabrielle. "Would you honor me with this next dance?" Gabrielle beamed as she accepted. Just before they began the bard's body betrayed her. Before she realized what she was doing she had closed the arms length distance Xena had maintained throughout the evening. She rested the side of her head against the warrior's chest and waited.
Xena's first impulse was to run. Yet every fiber of her being wanted this. Needed this contact. She just wasn't sure if Gabrielle knew what she was getting herself into. Slowly, hesitantly, she allowed her arm to wrap around her friend's back. She rested her cheek on Gabrielle's head and they danced. The bard no longer maintained eye contact, but felt confident she could follow the beat of Xena's heart. For Xena, the contact was magnetic. So conscious was she of the bard's body pressed up against hers, that Xena was sure she would falter and crush one of Gabrielle's feet. She pushed everything but the music from her thoughts, and they danced as one in the warm glow of the fireplace.
'There is no place on this earth I'd rather be right now,' thought Gabrielle, as she buried the side of her face deeper into her friend's chest. She had known for some time that her feelings for Xena had changed; grown. And she suspected Xena might have been feeling the same way towards her. Now she thought she had her answer. The wall Xena erected to keep the outside world from knowing her true feelings was useless at such close proximity. 'Ah Xena,' Gabrielle thought, as a small smile played on her lips. She could feel the warrior's heart flutter and quicken as she held her close.
The song came to an end and the people outside clapped and voiced their praises to the musicians for a wonderful evening of music. Xena and Gabrielle continued to stand in each other's arms, neither one wanting to break contact. Gabrielle knew she had to proceed slowly. Xena could be a bit skittish at times. She had felt her freeze and almost bolt just before, but she also knew that Xena would not make the next move. It was up to her. Gabrielle raised her head and brushed her lips against Xena's. She quickly returned to those lips for another small kiss before returning to the comfort of her friend's chest, hugging her tight. After a moment, she released her and stood back, giving her friend the space she knew she required.
Xena just stood there, the tingling sensation of Gabrielle's lips still pulsing on hers. "Gabrielle?" The bard could hear all of Xena's questions and fears in that one word. In response, she ran her finger slowly down the warrior's arm, feeling muscles jump and twitch under her touch. "Are you sure you're not just reacting to the music, to the dancing?"
Gabrielle brought her eyes up to meet Xena's. She had never felt such intensity for another person, not even Perdicus. "I'm not sure," she honestly admitted. "But I know how I feel about you, how I've felt for some time now."
Xena held her emotions in check as her mind raced over this new bit of information. 'Can this actually be happening? Could she be feeling the same way I do? Does she even know that two women can-- What if this is just some form of hero worship... I couldn't...' "Gabrielle." Xena took the young woman's hands in hers and gave them a squeeze. "It's late. I think it would be best if we tried to get some sleep." Smiling, she bent down and gave the bard a soft kiss on the cheek.
Gabrielle took a tentative step forward, stopping only inches from making contact with Xena. She could feel the electricity in the air surrounding them. She saw the love Xena had for her for the first time, and suddenly realized that she had seen this look numerous times before, always when the warrior thought she wasn't looking. A quick glance down from her horse, a lingering gaze across the campfire, in the first few seconds when Xena finally woke her in the morning. She had just never allowed herself to hope that what she saw was love. Now, she had no doubt.
She carefully placed the palm of her right hand on Xena's stomach and felt the warrior instantly tense. Looking up into her eyes she saw the last of Xena's emotional walls crumble at their feet. What remained was a woman. Not a warrior, or some bigger than life hero. Just a woman. Someone with needs and wants. Someone vulnerable. Gabrielle slid her left hand over Xena's shoulder and around her neck. She buried her fingers in her hair as she reached up on tip toe to lightly reclaim her mouth. Sliding her right hand around her companion's waist she pulled her in, deepening the kiss at the same time.
All of Xena's senses converged on those lips. The lips that she had longed to taste were now eagerly seeking hers. "I uh... think I'll go tend to the fire," Xena said as they finally broke away from each other. She realized that what she saw in Gabrielle's eyes was definitely NOT hero worship. It took all the willpower she could muster to turn her back on her and walk away, but she knew she had to give Gabrielle time. Time to be sure that this was what she really wanted. Because Xena knew that there would be no going back to simply being friends if either one of them faltered in the next step to this budding relationship.
Gabrielle stood in place for a moment -- transfixed. She couldn't believe what she just did. What Xena allowed her to do. 'Now what? Do I wait for her to make the next move?'
Both women fell into their established routine. Xena built up the fire as Gabrielle washed at the basin. She donned a clean shift and got into bed as Xena took her turn at the basin. Gabrielle moved to the far side of the bed, against the wall. She and Xena had slept together plenty of times in the past, but tonight would be different. Gabrielle could feel her own tension grow as Xena slipped into a clean shift and got under the covers. She felt herself holding her breath, not sure which way to turn.
Xena lay on her back, praying to the God Morpheus to take her. She could feel the tension emanating from Gabrielle, but was not sure what she could do. After a couple of long, agonizing minutes, Xena extended her left hand to Gabrielle and said softly, "C'mere." Gabrielle slowly inched her way towards Xena, allowing her friend to wrap a strong arm around her. She buried her face in Xena's shoulder, and both women eventually fell asleep.
Xena awoke as the first rays of light filtered through the trees and splashed across the room. 'I must be coming down with something,' she thought groggily to herself. She felt both extremely warm and chilled at the same time. It wasn't until she focused on her surroundings that she realized her dilemma. Sometime during the night, most of the covers had been tugged away from the right side of her body, leaving her exposed to the chill night air. Goose bumps played up her arm and leg.
Her left side, though, was radiating heat. All of the covers were bunched up there, obscuring the weight that had ensconced itself. Xena slowly and carefully peeled back the top edge of the covers and had a peek underneath. She found the heat source. 'Gabrielle.' Sometime during the night Gabrielle had, shall we say, mounted and buried herself into Xena's left side. Her right arm had dug itself under the warrior and her hand had a firm grasp of shift. Her left hand was cupping the bottom of Xena's left breast, while her head rested comfortably on top of it. Gabrielle was straddling her friend's left thigh, and to make matters worse, her left knee was planted firmly between Xena's legs. Xena found her second heat source.
It took only a moment's thought for Xena to realize that *this* would not be a good position for Gabrielle to be in when she woke up and found Xena lying awake. 'What am I gonna do?' Xena tried to come up with a plan of action. 'Or better yet, maybe a plan of inaction. If I just lie here and pretend to be sleeping, it will give Gabrielle a chance to wake up and extricate herself from me. And she will be none the wiser.' But Xena knew that if Gabrielle found herself in this predicament, she would be so embarrassed and guilty that it might seriously jeopardize their relationship before it even got started.
'Nope. Plan A is out. Hmm... Plan B. I could possibly wiggle myself out from under the bard. She *is* a heavy sleeper and I've gotten out of tighter spots than this before.' Xena pondered this plan for a few moments. 'Let's see. Should I remove her hand from my breast first, or her knee from -'
At this precise moment Gabrielle stirred a little, grinding her knee into the warrior.
'Oh Gods!' Xena screamed to herself, as she bit into her lower lip. 'Her knee -- definitely her knee.' Xena fought every muscle in her body, trying to stay in control. 'But what if she wakes up? Gods, what would she think I was doing?' Xena tried to play the scenario out in her mind. She tried to see it through Gabrielle's innocent eyes. 'She could think I was... well... trying to have my way with her.' Xena cringed at the thought. 'Especially if she knew I'd been with other women. And not all of them by their own choosing. I would lose her for sure.'
Xena focused all of her energy on the problem at hand, trying hard to ignore the other hand that was still cupped under her breast. 'Ah, Plan C. This will require precise timing and placement.' Ever so carefully Xena peeled back the covers, exposing all of Gabrielle. She slowly reached over to the bard with her right hand, two fingers extended in the same position she used to apply pressure points. Xena knew it was now or never. With a slight arch of her back to uncover the arm that Gabrielle had buried under the warrior, she reached over and found the bard's most ticklish spot.
Gabrielle was airborne. Xena dove for the floor and executed a perfect tuck and roll and came up in a crouch in front of the fireplace. With lightening speed, she retrieved the poker from against the wall and was tending the fire when Gabrielle's eyes flew open, her scream still emanating from her lungs.
"XEEENA!?!" Gabrielle was crouched on top of the bed in a defensive posture. "What the -- where -- my Gods!!!" Her eyes were wide with fear. She was sure she was being attacked.
"Gabrielle. Are you OK?" Xena was over to the bed immediately, trying to comfort her friend. "You must have been having a nightmare. Everything's OK now." She cradled her trembling love in her arms, feeling guilty for what she had just done. Then she thought again of the alternatives, and knew this was for the best.
After a few minutes Gabrielle calmed down, but still held onto Xena. "I guess it was a nightmare," she mumbled, her face still buried in the protective warmth of her warrior. "I don't even remember it."
"That's for the best then," Xena replied. Then the woman of few words spent time talking in calming and hushed tones, stroking Gabrielle's hair and assuring her everything was alright.
The rest of the morning proved to be much less eventful. They spent a quiet breakfast in the tavern and had their bags packed and settled on Argo. There was a cool crispness to the morning air, and the dew was still settled when they quietly left the town. Gabrielle, as usual, preferred to walk. Even though this slowed them down somewhat, Xena didn't mind. She had calculated that at this pace, they would still reach their destination on time.
Gabrielle spent the morning regaling Xena with story after story. Xena was certain that this was the best part of the trip. The stories Gabrielle told during these times they spent alone together were not the same stories she told when she had an audience. Audiences always seemed to want to hear of the exploits of Xena, Warrior Princess. And Gabrielle usually obliged them. Xena, on the other hand, always felt awkward hearing about herself. She preferred to hear about the exploits of others.
After a stop along the side of the road to rest Argo and enjoy a leisurely lunch, the two continued on their way. "Where is it that we're heading?" Gabrielle asked again.
"Torone," replied Xena. "I got word that a week ago a terrible storm blew through the village. I promised Yannis that if he ever needed help, I'd be there."
"And Yannis -- he was in your army?"
"He was a lieutenant," Xena responded. 'And one of the few people from that time I still consider a friend.' "He gave up that life and is now a farmer."
"Did the storm do much damage?"
"It destroyed some of his crops and leveled his silo. They've already salvaged what crops they could, but I want to help him in the rebuilding." The genuine compassion Gabrielle had for somebody she did not even know touched Xena, and made her feel even more guilty for the story she was feeding her. 'I know I should tell her the truth. She's not a child anymore.' Xena just couldn't bring herself to admit to Gabrielle where they were really heading. They spent the better part of the afternoon talking about everything and nothing.
Gabrielle, for her part, was loving life to its fullest. Except for the minor altercation she had this morning with demons from her sleep, the last twenty-four hours were the best time she had in her life. 'Xena treated me like an adult when she thought there might be trouble. Then she volunteered a night's stay at the inn. She even spent the entire afternoon with me at the marketplace, at her suggestion.' Gabrielle turned these bits of information over and over in her head. 'Things really have changed in the last two years, but when?' It had been such a slow process that Gabrielle couldn't pinpoint the beginning. 'I guess I just wore her down.'
Gabrielle continued to chew on these thoughts and others, and the more she chewed, the less palpable they became. 'Is this change in Xena something she wanted, or is she merely giving in to my constant prodding?' Gabrielle began to work the events of the last twenty-four hours over in her mind again, in light of this new thought. Looking back, Gabrielle was now sure that the real reason Xena left her alone at the dance was so that she would have been more approachable. 'If Xena really loved me, she wouldn't have allowed that to happen. She wanted me in the arms of someone else. Anyone else but her. She stated herself that had she known I couldn't dance, she would have shown me in time for the dance, so that I could have accepted the offer to dance from that man.'
Xena noted that it was quiet. Too quiet. She glanced behind to see if the bard was still there. What she saw concerned her. Gabrielle was scuffling along, head down, brows knitted together. She appeared to be holding a conversation with herself. Her mouth worked at forming words, but none came out. "Gabrielle," Xena called back to her friend. There was no response.
Gabrielle chewed harder on these new thoughts, and a bitter taste was forming in her mouth. Remembering last evening, she realized that during the entire dance lesson, Xena had kept a respectable distance between them. '*I* was the one who first instigated contact. *I* kissed her.
Xena slowed Argo. She was becoming more concerned. She knew it wasn't unusual for Gabrielle to sometimes go off into a world of her own; Xena always thought that was where some of her bard's best stories came from. 'But it's not the smartest thing to do when you're out on the road. Even if you do have the warrior princess to keep you safe.' Xena watched as Gabrielle came abreast of her and Argo, and continued on, oblivious of her surroundings. "Gabrielle?" Xena called out. Again there was no response.
'Gods, I'm so confused,' Gabrielle cried to herself. It was then that she looked up and realized that Xena and Argo were no longer in front of her. She panicked and gripped her staff with both hands spinning wildly around. There, some thirty paces behind her, sat Xena on Argo. A look of total confusion was evident on both women's faces. "Xena. What are you..." Gabrielle did not finish the sentence. She merely started to head back the way she came.
Xena urged Argo on and met her half way. "Gabrielle. Are you OK?" Xena tried to figure out what was on her friend's mind to no avail.
"Uh, yeah. I guess so," the bard said, wobbling slightly where she stood. She leaned on her staff for support.
"You don't look so good. You're as pale as a ghost." Xena was now really concerned for her friend. 'She seemed fine just a little while ago.' "Give me your hand," she instructed Gabrielle.
"No Xena, really. I'm fine."
"Gabrielle. You're pale as a ghost and you can barely stand. Now give me your hand." Xena gave her that look. She was not going to take no for an answer.
The last thing Gabrielle wanted was to make physical contact with Xena, but she understood the look she was getting from the warrior. There would be no questioning her command. She finally relented, and soon found herself easily plucked from the earth and sitting behind Xena. Gabrielle sat as far back in the saddle as was possible, and tentatively held onto the warrior at the sides of her waist with just her fingertips. She prayed to any God that was willing to listen to not let her fall off.
Xena was not sure what was going on behind her, but she needed to feel Gabrielle to know that she was still there and alright. Momentarily dropping the reins, Xena reached behind herself with both hands and grasped her young friend's hands in hers. She wrapped Gabrielle's arms around her waist, and clasped both her wrists firmly in one hand.
Gabrielle never had a chance. Before she knew it, she was pressed tightly against the back that she had tried so hard to distance herself from. She flushed with desire as Xena urged Argo on, and the rhythmic movement of the warrior's body rubbed against hers.
"There's a quiet clearing a few miles up the road," Xena commented more to herself than Gabrielle. "We'll stop there for the evening."
Xena normally didn't mind the quiet, but not at the expense of her friend. Gabrielle had been distant and withdrawn the entire evening. She still went about her chores helping to set up camp, but hardly a word was spoken between the two. Xena went off to lay her traps, and ended up bringing a nice sized skinned and dressed rabbit back to camp. Gabrielle quietly accepted it, and roasted it to perfection as usual. When Xena noticed from across the fire that Gabrielle did nothing more than pick at her food, Xena did the only thing she could think of. Gabrielle watched as Xena went over to the saddle bags and rummaged around inside. She returned and sat next to Gabrielle. Xena waited in silence. Slowly, Gabrielle raised her eyes and met Xena's. Xena smiled and handed her a cloth bag.
Gabrielle hesitantly accepted it, not sure just what was going on. She looked back into the warrior's blue eyes, lost again in the ocean before her. Gulping hard, she forced her eyes from Xena and to the package in her lap. She reached inside and wrapped her hand around a familiar object. Her eyes lit up as she extracted an entire loaf of nutbread from the cloth bag. "Xena! Where did you get... You got this from Androniki, didn't you?" Gabrielle asked and answered her own question.
"I knew how much you liked the stuff. So when I went up to get you a slice, I informed her that I was hoping she would still have a loaf left to sell me later on. I'm not sure, but I think I may have been a little intimidating. She answered yes so quickly and emphatically, you'd have thought I was going to burn the town to the ground if she had refused."
"Well Xena, you can sometimes be a little scary, even when you don't mean to." Gabrielle watched Xena for her response, already regretting her comment.
"Gab... I've never... I've never scared you, have I?" Xena wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"Do you remember when we first started traveling together? You could be very intimidating when you wanted your way. At first you scared me. Earlier today when you wanted me to ride with you and I refused... What would you have done if I hadn't given in?"
"I... " Xena didn't know how to answer. She never even considered the possibility that she would be refused. "You know I would never hurt you."
Gabrielle tried to reassure her. "Oh Xena, I know you never would." She reached out and touched her forearm. "But Androniki and the others don't know this. When you've got that look, you can be very intimidating."
Both women sat in silence, absorbed in their own thoughts. Xena was in shock. 'How could I have not known how I made her feel? I love her.' Xena was sure she could feel her heart being ripped from her chest. Her insides churned and she was positive she was going to be physically sick. 'Gabrielle's been acting strange all afternoon. Has she changed her mind about us and is too afraid to tell me? Gods! What does she think I'd do to her?' "Gabrielle? I know something is bothering you." Xena tried to speak in as calm and reassuring a voice as she could. "When you're ready to talk about it, I'll be here for you." Xena got up and went back to the other side of the fire.
Gabrielle just sat there, her emotions in flux. She loved Xena so much. 'But does she love me? How could she love a simple girl from Poteidaia? I'm not even sure how to love another woman.' Gabrielle absentmindedly broke off a hunk of the nutbread and began to eat. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until her first mouthful. Gabrielle smiled to herself. Xena never failed to do the little things that showed her how much she really cared. 'Xena is truly a good friend, but could she be more?' Gabrielle decided she needed to know.
She got up and crossed to Xena's side of the fire. Wordlessly she sat and offered her a piece of nutbread. Xena dutifully accepted. She had already learned her lesson when it came to defying her young friend. "Xena?"
"About last night."
Xena froze. She knew this was coming. 'Hell, I even asked for it.' Xena knew she owed it to her friend to look her in the eye, but she just couldn't do it. She continued to stare into the fire. "Yes Gabrielle?"
"You left me alone on purpose at that dance, didn't you?" It was more a statement of fact than a question. She didn't give Xena a chance to respond. "You set me up. Why, Xena? Why?"
Xena sat there, not sure of how to answer. She wanted to tell Gabrielle that it broke her heart to leave her alone there. That she loved her and that it was all a big mistake. 'But if she is having second thoughts, I need to give her a way out.' "I thought it was for the best. You deserve better than me."
"*You* thought it was for the best?" Gabrielle grabbed Xena by the shoulders and spun her around to face her. The startled warrior's first instinct was to strike back, but she caught herself in time and quietly allowed the bard to vent her frustrations. Gabrielle seized her chin in her hand and thrust Xena's face up to meet hers. "Did you ever stop to consider what *I* thought was for the best?! No! I'm not a little girl, Xena. I know what I want. I want you..." Gabrielle continued to hold Xena's gaze. "I love you."
"I never thought you had any feelings for me in that way. I was afraid that if I admitted my feelings, I'd lose you." Xena tried to look away, but Gabrielle had a lock on her eyes that she could not break. "And then today -- you were acting so strangely. I thought maybe you changed your mind and didn't know how to tell me."
"Oh Xena." Gabrielle released the death grip she still had on the warrior's chin and cupped her cheek in her palm. "I had talked myself into believing that you didn't love me. Why do we do this to each other? You've got to tell me what you're thinking. I don't know if I can take much more of this."
"I wasn't the only one to hold back on my feelings. And you. A bard," Xena allowed a little lopsided grin to cross her face.
"Heh... well... you know this bard stuff can be hard work sometimes." Gabrielle's eyes twinkled at the sight of the smile on her friend's face. "Xena?"
"I'm starved." With these two words, Xena knew she had her friend back for sure.
The next two days were spent in their usual routine. Up early in the morning, and after a quick breakfast, off on the road. A stop for lunch, and on again until dinner. They passed other travelers on the road, but mercifully there was no trouble. In the evening, Xena would find a quiet spot off the main road, where they made camp. Gabrielle spent time writing in her scrolls, while Xena sat across the fire, catching up on some mending of her leathers, gauntlets and greaves.
If days were pleasant, the nights were even more so. With their bedrolls next to each other, they spent the time before sleep in each other's arms. Sometimes discussing the day's events, sometimes looking up at the stars dreaming, and sometimes not saying anything at all. Xena soon came to realize that Gabrielle's bold advances the night of the dance were short lived, as the bard quickly reverted to her normally modest ways. Even so, Xena found herself relishing the quiet kisses of her naturally curious friend and gave her all the time she needed to become comfortable with their new relationship.
The third day was quickly looking like it would drop into the history books as a repeat of the last two when the sky opened up. It happened so quickly and with such intensity that it even caught Xena off guard. Slanted sheets of stinging rain began to pelt them down the front of their bodies. They were soaked before they had a chance. Still, Xena dismounted Argo and pulled their capes from their traveling bags. "Here," Xena shouted, trying to be heard over the din of the storm. She wrapped one of the capes protectively around Gabrielle. "It's too late to stay dry," she laughed, "but at least it'll help absorb the sting of this rain." She quickly wrapped the other cape around herself.
Tugging on Xena's arm to get her attention Gabrielle pleaded, "We've got to turn back."
Xena turned her back to the storm and stood squarely in front of her companion, trying to block her from the incoming stabs of rain. "I wish we could," Xena replied, looking into the eyes of the woman she loved. "We haven't passed any suitable shelter in three candle marks. And we'd never be able to out run this storm. Our best chance is to head into it, and hope to break through to the other side."
Gabrielle couldn't hear every word Xena said, but she heard enough to understand what direction they were headed in. She squeezed Xena's arm and nodded her head in the affirmative, too exhausted to try to shout. She didn't particularly like this plan, but knew Xena would do anything to keep her safe. That's why she was positive she must have not heard Xena correctly, when the warrior shouted out the next part of her plan. "Repeat that!" Gabrielle looked at Xena incredulously.
"I said," Xena raised her voice as she bent closer to Gabrielle's ear. "I want you to ride up front with me on Argo!"
"Yep! That's what I thought you said," she shot back, grabbing the front of Xena's cape for emphasis. "No way -- uh uh -- sorry. I'm not getting up there."
"You've got to ride if we're going to make it through."
"Fine. Then I'll ride in back."
"You won't be safe. I'll need two hands on Argo's reins and it's just too slippery. I won't take that chance. Please." Xena executed a fine argument, but that last word was all it took. Gabrielle planted a kiss on Xena's cheek as she gave her a quick hug. They walked over to where the mare was impatiently waiting. "Sorry for ignoring you girl," Xena said, as she patted the flank of her horse. "I'll get us out of this." Argo turned to look at her, too miserable to respond. Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle. "I'm going to lift you up first, then mount behind you. Hold on to the saddle horn when you get up there."
Gabrielle turned her back to Xena, expecting her friend to give her a boost so she could throw her leg over the saddle, when Xena spun her around and swiftly lifted her up so she was sitting side-saddle. The sudden change in altitude caught Gabrielle by surprise, and she clung to the saddle horn for all she was worth as Xena swung up in the saddle next to her. "This wasn't exactly what I had in mind," Gabrielle shouted, as her left hand frantically grasped Xena's arm for support. She watched as Xena wordlessly opened her cape to the storm to accept her to her body. Gabrielle didn't need a written invitation. She buried herself into the front of the warrior, disappearing into the folds of Xena's cape. With her trembling package securely fastened around her waist, Xena headed straight into the storm.
The flicker of light through the trees ahead was a welcome sight for Xena. They had successfully made it through to the other side of the storm and the rain had eased up significantly. Gabrielle was still nowhere in sight. She hadn't come up for air since she buried herself into the warrior, and Xena didn't have the heart to disturb her. She silently headed for the light.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle? C'mon. Time to wake up." Xena spoke quietly into the bundle she uncovered when she opened her cape. They had stopped in front of an inn in a small village. 'I can't believe what this girl can sleep through,' Xena mused to herself. She stroked the bard's back with her right hand, while her partner's head slowly raised itself from the left side of Xena's chest.
Very bleary green eyes came within inches of sparkling blue ones. Gabrielle tried to focus. Xena let out a chuckle at the sight of her friend, her breath tickling the back of Gabrielle's throat. "Wha's so funny?" she managed to get out.
"Oh... I'm sorry. It's just that... well... you look like a drowned rat," Xena animated, as tears of laughter rolled down her cheeks.
"Well, you try burying yourself under all of this," Gabrielle replied, indicating both her and Xena's capes. "I think I sweated off at least five pounds!" She leaned back and slowly filled her lungs with cold fresh air, trying to clear the fog from her brain. Looking around she continued, "Where are we?"
"I've found us an inn for the night. There's not a dry place to camp for miles." Gabrielle warmed quickly to the thought of a *dry* bed. Xena quickly dismounted and helped Gabrielle slide down into her waiting arms.
"Ooo, I'm stiff." Gabrielle stood on wobbly legs, rolling her head trying to get the kinks out. "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I think I could use a hot bath."
"Then a hot bath it is. I don't think you could get any wetter, but the soak will help to loosen your muscles. Why don't you get us a room while I stable Argo."
"Sure thing." The thought of getting out of this rain was music to her ears. She accepted her staff, which Xena had retrieved and assembled, and headed for the warmth of the inn. The perceived notion of pending warmth was soon forgotten as Gabrielle entered the inn. Silence hung in the air as the dinner crowd and the innkeeper turned to eye the stranger. It dawned on Gabrielle that the long black cape and hood covering her face were the cause, so she quickly threw back the hood and opened the cape, hoping to belie their fears.
Small murmured whispers passed amongst the dinner patrons, as the innkeeper still regarded her with a critical eye. Gabrielle donned her best bardic smile as she approached him. "Hi. I'd like to rent a room for the night."
The innkeeper openly eyed Gabrielle up and down, pausing too long at her bare mid-riff and small green halter top. Gabrielle started to feel like a side of beef, being considered for purchase. She looked away to the dinner patrons, unable to meet the eyes that were now boring through her. It was then that she realized that every other woman in the inn was covered from head to foot. The only skin showing was their hands and face. Gabrielle self-consciously wrapped her cape back around herself.
"Are you alone?" the innkeeper asked, his eyes once again roaming over Gabrielle, recalling the sight.
"No. I'm waiting for -"
"Well then, Missy," he interrupted. "Why don't you have a seat and wait for your man to get here." He wasn't used to dealing with women folk, and was real curious as to what kind of a man would let his woman run around half naked.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd like a room now." Gabrielle was soaked and exhausted, and was simply not in the mood for this. "And besides," she added, "the 'he' I'm waiting for is a 'she'."
A look of disgust replaced the leer on the innkeeper's face. "I run a family business. Why don't you two take it back outside in the woods, with the rest of the animals."
"My friend and I just want a room for the night. We don't want any trouble."
"I bet that's not all your *friend* wants," the drunk at the bar to Gabrielle's right slurred. "Maybe a little midnight snack too, hum?" He leaned over and suggestively fingered the front of her cape.
Gabrielle disgustedly tore away from the offense, and glared at the people gawking at her.
"We ain't got no room for the likes of you," the innkeeper said, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth. "You best be on your way. Now get out of my inn."
Continued - Part 2