Xena lay on her blanket and stared up at the darkening sky. She felt angry and wasnt sure why. The vivid pink and lavender hues of the setting sun did nothing to improve her agitated state. Gabrielle was also upset, which made the warrior feel even more uneasy. They both had hot tempers and worked hard at not flaring up simultaneously. Most of their disagreements involved minor tiffs; major conflicts being rare between them. This was potentially their worst.
It was hard for Xena whenever the two of them fought, be it a battle of words or actions. Aside from her mother, and possibly, Hercules, the bards approval meant more to her than anyone else in this world. Within the span of her lifetime, she had never encountered a better, more loyal friend than Gabrielle. They made an unusual pair; the tall, proud warrior and the warm-hearted little bard. Gabrielle, as a bard, was compassionate and excitable, bursting with high minded ideals; while she, the warrior, was utilitarian and hard-edged, consumed by inner conflicts relating to good and evil. She had always feared the effects on Gabrielle when confronted with her dark side and knew it would happen some day. To counter that possibility, Xena kept much of her past hidden from the bard, revealing only that which was necessary. Still, Gabrielle remained loyally by her side. The thought of losing her support and friendship was excruciating. Without it, Xena would be lost, even afraid, a feeling she hadnt experienced in a long time, probably because she cared so deeply for the tenacious little bard.
Gabrielles parting shot had frightened her to the core. Other people may think of her as a bloodthirsty warlord, never Gabrielle. To hear her use those harsh words hurt like Hades. Were those words a result of battle shock or had Gabrielle really meant what she had said? As the bard had so shrewdly observed earlier, there was no way of knowing what was real between them and what was due to battle shock.
As the sky turned to a darker shade of black, the warrior rose, her pragmatic nature overwhelming any emotions she was feeling at the moment. Her best friend was alone in the dark. She was determined to find her. Xena grabbed two blankets as she left the campsite. The air had turned chilly and she had a feeling Gabrielle had not prepared herself for the sudden change in weather.
The warrior advanced silently through the brush, her exceptional hearing tuned into listening for the familiar, rustling sound of Gabrielle. Further exploration along the shore brought forth the faint swishing sound of splashing in the river. That had to be Gabrielle.
Xena raced along the moist earth, following the trail of sound, until she could finally discern the dark image of the bards form floating lazily in the river.
"Gabrielle," she shouted. "Are you crazy? The waters freezing and the air is cold. Youre gonna get sick if you dont get out right now."
"Stay away, Xena. Im hardly afraid of a little cold water after what Ive been through," Gabrielle yelled back.
Having been the object of Gabrielles anger many times in the past, Xena thought it best to remain silent. The bard was still too angry to engage in a rational conversation; it made no sense to provoke her further. That didnt mean that she wouldnt stay around to keep an eye on the bard. Of course she would. At the same time, she would also provide her agitated friend with some much needed space.
Xena sat down on the edge of the riverbank, resigned to watching Gabrielle float in the water. As she continued to stare into the river, the sight of the calm, dark water highlighted in bright moonlight began to look very tempting. Her concern for Gabrielle, notwithstanding, the warrior thought of her own rising desire to immerse in the peaceful stream. She waded into the shallow water and wiggled her toes, which immediately turned numb from the cold. She knew from her previous swim that the river, shallow at the shore, turned deep quickly. With that in mind, Xena took two more quick steps before plunging in. She glided quickly through the water, propelling her body with smooth, even strokes, until she found herself a short distance from Gabrielle. She and the bard ignored each other, each content to lie on her back and let the gentle current wash over her body.
Despite the cold, Xena soon found herself closing her eyes, fighting the irresistible urge to wander off to sleep. When she felt herself begin to lose her battle with fatigue, the tired warrior forced her eyes open and immediately called out to Gabrielle. There was no answer. Xena turned her head toward her friend. To her horror, the young bard was drifting aimlessly down the river, obviously sound asleep.
The warrior reacted swiftly, swimming long, powerful strokes until she finally caught up with Gabrielle in midstream. She extended her arm around the sleeping bards chest, and grew instantly alarmed when she felt her icy cold skin. Knowing how crucial it was to get Gabrielle warm and back to shore, Xena immediately set to work pulling her young friend along the cold water. For the most part, their long trip upsteam was uneventful. Then midway through the river, the unconscious bard opened her eyes and began to thrash wildly in the water, nearly breaking loose from the stronger womans hold. Determined to get her chilled friend to safety, Xena tightened her grip on the bard to prevent her from slipping away, and continued the long swim toward the riverbank. When they reached the shore Xena laid Gabrielle on the ground and promptly covered her with one of their blankets, placing the other one over her own cold frame. She watched with some concern as Gabrielle stared open-eyed at her, but did not move or speak.
The full moon shone brightly in the dark evening sky, casting a soft pearly glow over the peaceful woodland. "Come on, little bard. Time to go home," Xena said softly, hoisting the trembling young woman onto her shoulders. Using the moonlight as her guide, the warrior trudged slowly along the shadowy path, weighed down by the bards still form as well as her own weary limbs, that she willed herself to ignore.
As soon as they reached the campsite, Xena settled Gabrielle carefully onto her blanket alongside the slow burning fire. Rummaging quickly through the bards pack for a clean shift, Xena found one, then rushed back to Gabrielle to strip off her wet clothes and dress her in the dry undergarment. When she finished, Xena placed a blanket over the whimpering bard, followed by a second one, as Gabrielle continued to moan through clattering teeth. Having done all she could for her companion, Xena quickly exchanged her own wet leather garb for a dry shift. Then, feeling completely worn out from the evenings near disaster, the warrior curled down next to the bard and hugged her close to her chest to provide additional warmth. When she was sure Gabrielle was no longer chilled, Xena raised herself on heavy limbs to throw more wood into the weakening fire. As the heat from the rising blaze unfurled to warm the air around them, the fatigued warrior lay down again next to the bard. It was only after Gabrielles eyes were closed and she was breathing evenly, that Xena allowed herself to collapse into an exhausted sleep.
When Gabrielle awoke the next morning, she was surprised to find herself wrapped in a blanket and pressed securely against the body of the warrior princess, sleeping in back of her. She dared not move. Her head ached and her mind felt as though a thin layer of clouds had settled over it. What had happened last night? She and Xena had never slept this close before. Was it battle shock? Gabrielle kept still as she felt Xena stir from behind. The warrior slipped her arm off the top of Gabrielles shoulder and gently tugged her other arm out from beneath the bards waist. Gabrielle turned around suddenly to face her best friend.
"So how was it?" Gabrielle asked, stifling a big grin.
"What?" The warrior felt grumpy. Her muscles were cramped and her right arm was throbbing from Gabrielles weight on it while they slept.
"You know, Xena." Gabrielle leaned over the reclining warrior and whispered softly into her ear. "Us. Together? Under the stars. A full moon?" She wrapped her arms comfortably around Xenas waist and smiled.
"Splendid," the warrior growled, pulling away from Gabrielles grasp.
"Oh, Xena. You are, and always will be, the master of understatement." The bard stood and raised her arms dramatically toward the billowing white clouds spread across the bright blue sky. "Hopeless, my dear warrior princess. Thats what you are."
Xena raised herself on her elbows and surveyed the bard. "Gabrielle, you are either totally recovered or hopelessly impaired following last nights incident."
The bard grinned. "That good, huh?"
"No, Gabrielle. That bad! You fell asleep in the river and almost drowned."
"And you rescued me, of course," the bard concluded. The gray cluster of clouds encircling the inside her mind began to thicken. "The wondrous warrior princess stops her bloodshed in time to rescue her gentle little bard."
Xena frowned, the inside of her head pulsating from her rising anger. "Gabrielle, this isnt funny. Stop it! Now!"
"Why, Xena? Whatll you do to me if I dont?" Gabrielles mind grew smoke colored--- a storm was brewing. "Or is the warrior princess suddenly afraid of the little bard?"
Xena bowed her head, not sure what was happening to her best friend or how to handle it. "No, " she said in a low voice. "Right now, Im afraid for both of us."
The warriors final words were drowned out by the relentless downpour of rain that pelted steadily along the perimeter of Gabrielles brain. The bard stood up and seized her staff, raising it over Xenas head. "I say we settle this on the battle field," she growled. "What do you say, warrior princess?"
Xena rushed to her feet and grabbed the smaller woman by her arms, hoping to snap her out of her strange mood. With surprising strength, Gabrielle twisted away from Xenas grasp and landed a stinging blow with her staff on the warriors forearm. Then she pivoted her body and swatted Xena on the back of her head. The warrior fell purposely to the ground, hoping Gabrielle would stop her attack. It was to no avail. The raging bard showed no mercy as she kneeled over Xena and pressed her staff against the older womans throat.
Xena looked up at her best friend, whose face was twisted in rage. "Go ahead, Gabrielle," she said weakly. "If you kill me, I deserve it."
Gabrielle stared wide-eyed at Xena and then at her staff, poised at the warriors throat. She threw down her weapon and stood frozen in place. Then she toppled to the ground.
Xena scrambled over to examine the young bard. Physically she was fine. Her skin was cool, her breathing regular, and her eyes fluttered lightly behind closed lids.
While Gabrielle slept, Xena stayed close to camp, occupying herself by polishing her neglected armor and dusty boots. As she worked, she tried not to imagine what might happen once the bard would rouse from her sleep. No use brooding over something she could do nothing about. It was mid-morning by the time Gabrielle opened her eyes and called out to her.
Xena leaned over her reclining friend and took her hand. Gabrielle attempted to smile up at her, but abruptly stopped. "Oooh! My head," she moaned, pressing both hands to her temples. "It hurts like Hades!"
The warrior proceeded to massage the top of the bards head with her fingertips and felt relieved when her gesture was not rebuffed. "Whats the last thing you remember?" She asked her friend carefully.
Gabrielle squinted up at Xena. "Nighttime. Floating in the river. I was angry with you. Then this morning I woke up in your arms and my head felt cloudy."
Gabrielle nodded. "What did I miss?"
Xena gave the bard a tight, controlled smile. "You tried to seduce me. Hows that for starters?"
The bard groaned. "Did we---?
Xena laughed. "Dont worry," she said to the confused bard. "Perdicus is still your one and only."
"Thats good," Gabrielle stammered. "I mean, if anything happened between us Id want to know about it."
"Trust me. You wouldnt forget." Xena smiled at her flustered companion whose face had turned the shade of a perfectly ripe apple.
"I guess you want to know whether you killed me," Xena said, her smile growing bolder.
"I was willing to let you do it," she continued. "Thats when you fainted."
Gabrielle stared open mouthed at the warrior, stunned by the reality of what she had almost done to her best friend. "Did I hurt you?"
Xena shook her head. "Itll take more than a few love taps with your staff to keep me down." She stopped suddenly, taken off guard by her odd choice of words.
Gabrielle stared curiously at the warrior. "You all right, Xena?"
"Yeah, sure." The warrior reached up to stroke her scalp. "Just thinking."
"Must be catchy," Gabrielle said. "I am, too." She stared hard at her best friend to try and read her mind. "You think were thinking about the same thing?" She asked the warrior.
"I dont know," Xena returned. "Tell me what youre thinking."
"All right," Gabrielle began. "I was wondering why you were willing to let me kill you. Id never do that to my worst enemy. How can I possibly think of killing my best friend?"
"Thats exactly the point," Xena explained. "I was hoping to shock you out of whatever strange mood had come over you." She pressed her lips together. "It worked, too."
"What happened to me? Its so strange not to remember anything."
"Its hard to know exactly, but I would guess that the combination of your emotional stress together with the long time you spent in the cold river must have put you in some kind of battle shock, making you behave violent and aggressive." The warrior swept some stray strands of hair away from Gabrielles forehead. "You remember my telling you about men in my army who did something so shocking they blacked out afterward?" Gabrielle nodded. "Well, congratulations, my friend," Xena said with a grim smile. "Its what happened to you when you realized you wanted to kill me."
"You think Im okay now?"
Xena punched her companion lightly in the arm. "Gabrielle, I never know with you."
"Now, its your turn," Gabrielle said with a grin. "What are you thinking?"
"Im thinking I better go practice with my sword," Xena said, reaching down for her weapon. "All this talk has made me feel...edgy."
"Are you sure youll be all right? That love tap I gave you to the head may cause you to harm yourself in some unfortunate way," Gabrielle suggested with a wry smile.
` The tall warrior stood up to her full height and stared down at the much shorter bard. "For Zeus sake, Gabrielle. Im a warrior. Not Joxer." The two women laughed at Xenas reference to the bumbling cretin who fancied himself a mighty warrior. "Now theres someone who can really benefit from one of your love taps," Xena added with a wicked gleam in her eyes.
Gabrielle threw some stray blades of grass in Xenas direction that fell way short of its intended target. This only made the warrior appear more smug at having bested the bard in this final exchange. With one final grin, Xena grabbed her sword and fled the bard, who, in a most colorful vocabulary, pledged to get even with the arrogant, snooty, perverted warrior princess when she least expected it.
By the time Xena returned, feeling fresh and invigorated by her intense work out, Gabrielle had prepared two heaping plates of berries for breakfast.
"So, Gabrielle," Xena began as they sat down to eat. "Hows your head?"
The bard grinned. "I think Im finally back to normal. How about you?"
Xena shrugged. "I hope so."
The bard glanced at Xena, her eyes dreamy and longing. Having seen that look many times before, the warrior felt certain her friend wanted something and was leading up to it in that mild but shrewd way she used to get what she wanted. Xena raised an inquisitive eye toward the bard and was greeted by a bright, engaging smile.
"Xena, you think we can spend some time by the river? Its so peaceful. I love it there."
Xena nodded her assent, instantly grasping the underlying reason for Gabrielles request. The bard wanted them to talk. Much as Xena dreaded the prospect, she knew it had to be done.
The two women headed for the riverbed. Gabrielle sat down first, followed by Xena, who settled beside her. The sun streamed directly overhead, filling the warrior and the bard with a comfortable warmth. Gabrielle grabbed a nearby stone and hurled it high and hard into the water.
"Good throw," Xena said. She, too, picked up a stone and threw it even farther downstream.
Gabrielle scowled at Xena. "Show off!"
Xena awarded Gabrielle with a half smile. The two companions stared at the calm river, lost in thought, until Gabrielle finally turned to her best friend.
"You remember the time you threw a stone into the river to teach me something about yourself?"
Xena nodded. The incident had occurred two years before, after she had rescued Gabrielle in a dream passage from an evil Morpheus. The bard had come close to killing one of the enemy warriors and was badly shaken by the experience.
Gabrielle stared at the spot where her rock had landed, "You described to me how, at first, the water ripples and churns. Then, its surface appears calm. But the rock remains below, so the water is forever changed. Just like you."
Xena cleared her throat, which had unexpectedly grown tight at the memory. It was one of the first important conversations between them to cement their developing friendship. "You told me that for my first stab of wisdom I did pretty well," Xena recalled.
Gabrielle smiled. "Then you said you didnt mean any of it. You were just saying it all for my benefit." She turned to Xena. "I didnt believe you, of course."
"Even then you knew me," Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle leaned forward. "I saw your goodness, but I was blinded to your faults. That day you tried to tell me, but I wouldnt listen." The bard sighed. "Now I know."
"Its part of who I am," Xena said, tightening her long, sturdy fingers into a solid fist. "Anger, hatred, guilt, regret always lurk somewhere inside me ready to emerge anytime, especially in battle." Xena closed her eyes to blink away the tears that loomed so close to the surface. "I wish you knew me before I killed my first. I was so different then." A bitter laugh emerged from somewhere deep inside the warriors soul. "Hades, Gabrielle," she cried out. "I was once innocent---like you."
Xena stared straight ahead, her expression stonelike, as she sought to find peace in the calm waters. Gabrielle leaned in closer to the warrior and placed a comforting hand on her hunched shoulders.
"Xena, look at me."
The warrior ignored her plea.
Gabrielle tried again. "Xena, I want -- I need you to look at me. Now, warrior princess!" She commanded.
Xena turned her head slowly toward Gabrielle until they were staring face to face.
"I love you, Xena. Past, present and future. I only wish you felt that way about yourself."
The tears finally emerged, running relentlessly down the warriors smooth, bronze colored cheeks. "How can I? After everything Ive done?"
"I dont know," Gabrielle said honestly. "But Im going to spend the rest of our time together helping you find your true self worth." Gabrielle felt tears come to her own eyes. "You know this crying thing is awfully contagious. You think it has something to do with battle shock?"
The warriors water soaked eyes crinkled in laughter at the bards sudden observation. The past two days had been filled with battle shock, for herself and the bard. She wiped Gabrielles tears away with her hand and placed her arm around the bards shoulders.
"This is it, Gabrielle. Full blown battle shock. How do you like it?"
"Its weird, Xena. Youre crying and pouring your heart out; I tried to kill you. We both--well, we both got a little carried away, I guess."
The two women resumed their silent watch over the peaceful river, the mood pensive between them. Then Xena rose and walked slowly toward the shores edge, her tall, robust frame graceful, yet determined in its movement. Gabrielle watched silently from afar, not sure whether Xena wanted her to follow or remain behind. The warrior stood with her hands on her hips and stared ahead into the water. Then she bent down to scoop up a rock, examined it briefly, and tossed it sidearm into the river. As Gabrielle observed Xena gaze thoughtfully at the rippling waves where the rock had landed, she immediately understood the silent message her friend was conveying. She had thought their conversation had come to a satisfying end. Xena, apparently, believed otherwise. The bard felt her stomach churn as she walked over to join the warrior.
"Gabrielle?" The warriors face was mired in anguish as she called out to the approaching bard. "Im sorry," she said haltingly, when Gabrielle reached her side. "I wish I could promise it will never happen again, but...I ...thats not...possible." She blinked once and breathed in deeply, pausing for a long moment to shut her eyes. When she opened them again, her features were composed, though her eyes remained blinking. "There will be other wars, different conflicts that come up between us." Xena grimaced as she proceeded to expose that which she feared most. "I disappointed you," she said, sighing deeply. "Now...you know...how ruthless... I...become." The warrior pulled a tall stalk of grass out from the ground and twisted it tightly around her fingers. "That wont change," She said, biting off the remaining stem of grass in her hand. "Its a savage world we live in, Gabrielle. Ill do anything to protect us from it, to ensure our survival." She leaned down to spit out the bitter tasting grass, then peered solemnly at the bard, "I need to know if you can accept it all. Otherwise..." Her voice trailed off, the alternative too painful to speak aloud.
Xena turned away from the bard and resumed staring into the river, her pose stiff and aligned, her expression a dense veil. At one time Gabrielle would have been intimidated by this image of the warrior, but she knew her friend well enough to realize she was shielding her own uncertainty. Gabrielle swept her hand through her strawberry blond hair, grabbing a fistful of hair into her palm and squeezing tightly, as she came to an important decision. Xena was asking her to be honest, to unburden herself, even if it meant hurting her best friend. She agreed. It was the only way to set things right between them. The bard grazed her bottom teeth slowly along the end of her upper lip, then wiped her damp palms across her short Amazon style skirt, as she prepared to confront the warrior.
"You frightened me, Xena, more than I was willing to admit to myself, or to you," she added softly. "I hated seeing you so callous and unfeeling, and, yes, I was angry, even disappointed in how you acted when you fought the Horde." Gabrielle closed her eyes to force back the tears that hovered around the edges. "At first I couldnt believe it. Then I didnt want to be part of it, to sink down to that level of inhumanity. Its something I dont understand about you and I will never agree to change my principles for yours, no matter how many wars we fight together."
When she finished, Gabrielle took a long, deep breath and checked Xena for a reaction. The warriors gaze was anchored to the river; her eyes narrowed, her jaw muscles taut, and her mouth arranged in a grim line. She waited for Xena to turn to her, to make some kind of comment, but the warrior kept silent. Gabrielle reached down to trace her fingers along the outside of Xenas hardened palm until she gently, but firmly clasped the warriors hand. "You are the most important person in my life, Xena of Amphipolis. Remember that, no matter what happens between us." She grasped the edge of Xenas gauntlet with her other hand, pausing to stroke the hard leather base with her thumb. "I may not agree with your warrior ways but I accept who you are. Totally."
Xena looked up cautiously at the bard who returned her gaze with a light smile. The two companions stared awkwardly at each other, until Gabrielle finally held out her arms to Xena. The warrior tilted her head to the side, grinned sheepishly, and pulled Gabrielle forward until they were joined together in a tight embrace. The two friends spent a long moment holding onto each other, eager to savor the renewed feeling of warmth and faithfulness that flowed between them. When they finally parted, warrior and bard were both smiling.
"So, whats next?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at her best friend.
Xena chuckled. "Why do I have this strong hunch you already have a plan?"
"Because I do?" They both laughed. "Subject to your approval, of course," Gabrielle added quickly. Xena smirked, feeling too good to give Gabrielle any argument on that point.
"Id like to camp out here tonight, if you dont mind. I dont remember anything about last night and I want to know what its like to sleep in this beautiful place."
"I cant speak for Argo," Xena said, referring to her mare who was being stabled in a nearby village, "but its fine by me."
Gabrielle rewarded her best friend with a huge smile. "Lets do fun things the rest of the day," she suggested brightly.
"What exactly do you have in mind?" The warriors low toned timbre held a mixture of teasing and prudence to it.
"Oh. You know. The usual stuff. Swimming. Fishing. Catch the warrior. Catch the bard." Gabrielle clapped her hands together in front of the warrior. "Come on, Xena. A little enthusiasm here. Winner gets to cook all that fish were gonna catch together."
Xena snorted at the bards proposal. "Lets make it, winner gets to CHOOSE who cooks dinner tonight," she counter-offered. The warrior and the bard engaged in a short round of eye to eye contact until Gabrielle finally ended their stand-off by reaching out to firmly grip Xenas arm in a warriors handshake.
"I look forward to your dinner tonight," Xena said with a wink, as she released the bards arm.
"So do I," her petite challenger countered with a determined set to her lean shoulders.
That evening, the two women sat down to their campfire feeling relaxed, exhilarated and blissfully tired by the days full schedule. They managed to complete all the activities that Gabrielle had mapped out for them earlier and enjoyed every one of them; ending the day, by mutual consensus, with a delectable fish dinner prepared by the master bard chef.
"Xena. That was the best day weve had in a long time. Thank you." Gabrielle smiled gratefully at her best friend.
"Its not over yet, Gabrielle. Theres more to come." Xena had a mischievous glint in her eye that captured the curiosity of her younger companion.
"Whatever do you mean?" Gabrielle asked playfully. The warrior opened her mouth and Gabrielle braced herself for what was sure to be a snappy comeback. To her surprise, instead of responding to the bard, the warrior began to sing. Gabrielle smiled broadly at Xena. So this was to be her treat for the evening, a long awaited session of the warriors songs.
Whenever Xena decided to sing, Gabrielle would sit back and listen in suspense, never knowing the musical selections Xena would choose for the evening. Her melodies ranged from sad to happy, or even silly, depending on her mood. This evening started with a sad ballad about a young man who left his village and his betrothed to join the Athenian army. He fought in his first battle and emerged a hero who had saved others in his troop from certain death. As a result, he became a rather confident warrior and stayed on for a year until he was badly wounded. The young man returned home to find his betrothed married to another man. His heart broken, he left the village, feeling lost and uncertain about his future. By the time Xena finished the last verse, Gabrielle had tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
Xena next broke out into a joyous melody of a village of young maidens preparing to meet with a village of young men all primed to choose their beloved. The maidens dressed in their finest clothing and chattered on about meeting the men of their dreams. Some mismatches were made that were eventually straightened out, and everyone finally came up with the right partner in the end. The song was jolly and spirited. Gabrielle found herself bursting with laughter at the hilarious lyrics.
When Xena finished, Gabrielle clapped her hands and shouted for an encore. Xena, however, stopped singing and peered solemnly at the bard. It seemed the perfect opening to ask Gabrielle a question that had been on her mind since the previous day.
"Gabrielle, what did you mean when you said you were swearing off all men?"
The bard stared open mouthed at her best friend. What a strange time to bring up the subject. "Come on, Xena. You know how it is. Every man I get involved with, dies on me."
"Coincidence, Gabrielle," Xena rebutted. "Talus was ill before you met him and Perdicus was murdered by Callisto. I created her, by the way -- so its technically my fault." She raised an eyebrow. "Maybe, you should consider giving up on our friendship."
"Come on, Xena. Thats silly," she scolded the warrior. "Besides, Perdicus death was not your fault."
"Neither were the deaths of any of those men your fault." The warrior fixed the bard with a hard stare to coerce her into revealing what was really on her mind.
"All right," Gabrielle conceded, finally. "Maybe swearing off men was the wrong way to put it. I love my life with you. No one can possibly measure up to what we have together."
"Youre sure about that."
Gabrielle nodded. "Arent you?" she asked uncertainly.
The warrior threw up her hands. "How do I know? I never think beyond tomorrow. Anything is possible."
"I dont believe that," Gabrielle said, staring at the warrior. Xena shrugged, which only made Gabrielle more agitated. "I dont want to leave you and make the wrong choice," she persisted. "Dont you feel that way, Xena?"
The warrior exhaled sharply, as she suddenly found herself on the receiving end of this intense discussion. "Why do you think I agreed when Ulysses asked to travel with us? I didnt want to make the wrong choice."
"He seemed right for you," the bard said kindly. "Im sorry it didnt work out."
"As sorry as I was that Perdicus died and you came back to me?" the warrior hurled back sharply.
"What are you saying?"
"The truth, Gabrielle. We were both relieved when it didnt work out with the men in our lives." Xena wiped her hand across her mouth, not sure that she had been right to open this private pandoras between them, or why she had done it in the first place.
The bard shivered in the cool night air, overwhelmed by her stoic companions startling disclosure. Gnawing thoughtfully on a fingernail, she reflected solemnly on the warriors words. "Its true," she confirmed, after some deliberation. She looked up at Xena, whose attention was directed on the pile of firewood by her side. "Is it wrong for us to feel that way, Xena?"
The warrior picked up a thick piece of wood and lobbed it into the low flame, seeking to arrange the many jumbled thoughts in her mind, as she deftly prodded the glowing embers to a full blaze. The bards question was not new to her. The gods know, she had posed it to herself any number of times, never coming up with a tangible conclusion. She glanced at Gabrielle, who was leaning forward, warming her hands by the fire, and felt a sudden surge of affection for the young bard. How many times over the past two years had they replayed this scene between them, sharing intimate moments that inevitably bonded them closer together? Even this night, seemed more special, somehow, as it already forged a closer connection between them than she had ever believed possible. Why did she have to push Gabrielle on this last issue? It wasnt... Just then the bard leaned away from the fire and caught the warriors eye. Xena nodded back at her. It was time to address this issue between them.
"Its not wrong or right to feel as we do," Xena answered slowly, "Its just the way things are between us." She stared into the flame, a safe haven she had created for herself to unveil her most sacred feelings. "Few share what we have together. Its very...special." Her voice lowered until it sounded barely above a whisper. "Its why it hurts so much to do whats best for that person we care most about."
Gabrielle rested her head comfortably on the warriors broad shoulders. "I wish we were together always. Then it wouldnt have to hurt at all. Would it, Xena?"
Xena reached over to stroke the top of the bards head. "That would be nice, Gabrielle, but its not likely." Xenas gentle tone became matter-of-fact. "As much as we enjoy our life together, anything can happen to change it -- like that." The warrior snapped her fingers to demonstrate her point. "One or both of us can die or be badly wounded in battle, or there may yet be a man out there who enters into our lives one day and actually stays with one of us." She smiled and rolled her eyes at the bard, making them both laugh. Then she patted her friends arm to soften the blow of her next remark. "These are facts we have to accept."
"I know all that, Xena. I just dont like to think about it," Gabrielle lifted her head from the warriors shoulder and gazed tenderly at her best friend. "I just want to enjoy every day we have together and assume nothing more beyond that."
Xena chuckled softly. "Somehow I thought youd come to that conclusion." The warrior stretched out her arms and gave a loud yawn. She looked over at her friend who was having trouble keeping her own eyes open. "Time for bed, Gabrielle. We leave here early tomorrow."
The two women rose reluctantly from their seats by the campfire and settled into their nearby blankets. Gabrielle lay down next to Xena and pointed toward the sky. "Care for some star gazing before we retire for the night?"
Xena yawned again. "Sure, why not? Weve done everything else, havent we?" Star gazing was actually fun with the bard. It was a game they played where they both searched the sky for interesting star groupings and created stories about them. "You first, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle pointed to the right side of the sky and turned to Xena to make sure she was following her directions. "You see those two shooting stars, one trailing rapidly behind the other?" The warrior nodded, surprised that with all the stars up there, she was able to discern the two stars Gabrielle was referring to. "That front star, the bigger, brighter one, is Xena. She has just warned Gabrielle if she doesnt wake up soon shell leave without her. The back star is Gabrielle trying her best to catch up to Xena. Well, maybe not her best," Gabrielle chuckled. "She is rather tired, you know. Xena drags her all over the place. They just returned from a war against the Horde."
"No. No. No." Xena objected. "The front star is Gabrielle and the back star is Xena. They just had one of their famous fights and Gabrielle has run off in a huff. Xena, of course, feels guilty so she chases after Gabrielle to make sure she doesnt get herself into her usual trouble."
"HA! You would say that," the bard interjected. "When was the last time I got into trouble?" Thoughts of the night before in the river came immediately to mind. "Okay. Strike that." They both laughed.
"I really dont mind coming to your rescue," Xena said. "Its part of your appeal."
"Like brooding is part of yours, I guess." Gabrielle poked the warrior in her arm. "I like the challenge of drawing you out of your dark moods."
"You are a glutton for punishment," Xena said, poking the bard in return. "Good night, Gabrielle."
Xena closed her eyes and stretched out on her back, determined to shut out the events of their busy day and relax her weary body and drained senses. When she felt herself finally begin to drift off to a welcome sleep, the bards voice suddenly crossed into her dream sphere, spiraling her back to reality.
"Xena, as long as weve been doing everything we always do, theres something we havent done tonight that we did last night."
Xena rolled over to her side and reluctantly pushed her eyelids open. "If youre thinking of swimming in the cold river again, Gabrielle. Forget it!" Xena resumed laying on her back and closed her eyes once again.
Gabrielle sidled over close to Xena and nestled her head comfortably on the warriors shoulder. "As long as we paid the price for battling the Horde, we may as well enjoy the reward," she said softly.
Xena picked her head up instantly and turned to the bard, who was still leaning cozily on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, what are you doing?" Her own voice sounded jarring to her ears.
"Im cuddling next to my best friend."
"In case you havent noticed," Xena said coolly, "your best friend is exhausted and wants to sleep. Good night, Gabrielle!" The warrior closed her eyes, fully expecting Gabrielle to leave her alone. The bard, however, did not oblige.
"Lila and I used to cuddle together all the time whenever we had been through something traumatic," she said aloud.
"Im not Lila." Xena looked at her friend; this time with her eyes wide open. "Im a warrior, Gabrielle, and warriors dont ...cuddle."
"So, Im your first," Gabrielle said with a big smile.
Xena looked startled, "I...I guess so." She turned her head to recover her poise. "Im just not sure how I feel about it."
"Thats obvious," the bard said, still smiling. "Youre rather stiff, you know. With practice, though, youll get the hang of cuddling." Gabrielle squeezed the warriors shoulder to loosen her up. Xena caught the bards hand and held it firmly in her own.
"Im not sure I want the practice. Its just not me."
Gabrielle lifted her head off Xenas shoulder. "I dont want to make you uncomfortable. Ill stop now, if thats what you want." The warrior kept quiet, not sure what she wanted. True. She was a hardened warrior, but the bard held a special place in her heart that belonged to no other.
"Sometimes best friends who travel alone together and experience ordeals as we do, need to comfort each other this way," Gabrielle said. Then she added, "I dont want to lose you again, Xena. It hurts too much." She placed her head back on the warriors shoulder and lay resting by her side.
Xena spent the next few minutes contemplating the bards words. She lay still and allowed her body to absorb the nearness of Gabrielles presence. The bard was silent, her breathing steady and serene. Somehow, her closeness seemed soothing to the warriors jangled nerves. Instead of becoming more tense, Xena was surprised to find the muscles in her body begin to loosen next to Gabrielle.
"So this is it," she said to the bard finally, "we just cuddle."
Gabrielle laughed. "Im not about to ravish your beautiful body, Xena. Much as I love you, its not in that way."
"For me, either," the warrior affirmed. Having made that acknowledgement, Xena wrapped her arm around the bard and closed her eyes, feeling more at ease with the new sensations she was experiencing. It seemed relaxing, cozy and very natural to hold the bard. She wondered briefly whether it would have helped ease the strain between them, had they done this earlier. She shifted her body toward Gabrielle.
"This is ...nice."
"You seem surprised."
The warrior nodded. "I just never thought we could do this without...you know...what I was afraid of..."
Gabrielle placed her fingers lightly over the warriors lips. "Xena, its okay. This isnt battle shock and its not your past. This is something...between us. We need each other and sometimes that means holding one another when we want added support or reassurance. Like now, for instance."
Xena shivered, overwhelmed by a sudden realization that laid bare her heart. "There was a time for me, when caring for someone meant absolute control over that person, body and soul." She shook her legs to relieve the stiffness that gripped her limbs. "With you, Gabrielle, its different. I never want to hurt you as Ive done to others in my past."
"You wont, Xena." The bard paused to backhand her friend lightly on the stomach. "I wont let that happen." Her strong tone left no doubt that she meant every word.
"Thats good, Gabrielle." Xena held her hand to her mouth to stifle a rising yawn. "Now, tell me about the last time you and Lila held each other." A good bedtime story by the bard would be the perfect way to end their evening.
Gabrielle stirred restlessly in the warriors arms. "Why do you want to know?" Her tone was guarded, alerting the warrior that something was wrong.
Xena picked up her head and looked down at the bard. Her normally jovial expression had turned downcast, distressing the warrior. "Id like to understand more about you and Lila," she fumbled,. "but if it makes you uncomfortable well drop it." Xena started to release her hold on the bard to give her more space, then stopped when she felt Gabrielle snuggle more cozily onto her shoulder. They lay quietly together, listening to the assorted night sounds that echoed occasionally through their campsite. Feeling the bards rapid heartbeat flutter repeatedly against her chest, only served to intensify the warriors heartache for her best friends anguish.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Xena whispered into the bards ear.
Gabrielle nodded her head quietly into the warriors shoulder, then released a deep sigh. "It happened every night for two months until the night I left Poteidaia to follow you," she began softly. "Mother was very ill that winter and we were afraid she wasnt going to make it." Gabrielles voice wobbled at the memory. "Holding onto each other every night gave us the strength to face mothers destiny, good or bad. It was a reward for our pain." A steady flow of wet tears slid down Gabrielles cheeks onto the warriors bare shoulder. Xena soothed her companions moist cheeks with her fingers and was rewarded with a faint smile by the bard.
"By the time you came to our village, mother had recovered but was still weak. I felt bad leaving Lila alone with mother but I wanted...needed to follow you."
Xena tightened her grip around the bard as the meaning of her words penetrated straight to her heart. She had never before realized the extent of Gabrielles great sacrifice to unite with her on her journey toward redemption. "Thank you." Xena mouthed softly into her best friends ear. "Youre very special to me. You know that, dont you?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said quietly. "Every day we spend together, you show me in different ways... how much."
The warrior clasped her friends hand. "Im glad you understand."
"Im a bard, Xena. And youre my favorite subject. I want to learn all I can about you." Then she grinned, "besides the fact that youre my best friend, of course."
Xena chuckled along with Gabrielle, then stopped as she was suddenly struck by a new thought. "Do you miss Lila?" She wasnt sure why she asked this question, only that she needed to hear the bards answer.
"Sometimes," Gabrielle admitted. "Especially those nights I wish she were here to cuddle with me."
Xena felt suddenly sad she had never understood that about her best friend. "Ill try to be there for you...in that way. Im new at this but..." The warrior took a deep breath.
"You dont have to explain, Xena. I understand. Its just one more way we can learn together about love."
"You have many skills, Gabrielle, and you do know about love." The warrior yawned, once more, and her voice slurred from lack of sleep. Still, the bard hung on to every word.
"Good night, Xena. Sweet dreams." The young woman reached over and lightly touched Xenas arm before settling back to rest on her shoulder. Xena bent down and placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielles forehead.
"Are you missing Lila tonight?" she asked softly.
""No, Xena," she said, with a firm squeeze to the warriors hand. "Tonight I have you."
"So, Xena, what do you think of my idea?" Gabrielle asked, as she placed the last of their cooking utensils in her supply pack.
"Which one?" Xena asked. The bard had been talking so much that morning it was difficult to keep track of what idea she was referring to.
"You know," the bard said smugly. "Joxer following us to fulfill our every whim and desire, especially after a good battle when we need him most." Gabrielle wriggled her eyebrows at Xena for added effect.
"Gabrielle! Between the two of us, wed kill the poor man!" The warrior held back a smirk that was fighting its way to her lips. Gabrielle made no such effort, as her blue green eyes danced merrily with a lustrous gleam.
"Thats the plan," she said, rubbing her hands together gleefully. "Think of it as being our personal contribution toward the greater good. Our acts of unabashed desire will benefit mankind, ourselves, and especially Joxer, who will surely die happy."
"What is it with you and Joxer?" Xena asked, shaking her head. "Underneath all that cheap armor hes got a very good heart."
"Do you really want to find out?" Gabrielle asked wryly.
"No!" Xena exclaimed. Then she changed the subject. "You know, Im beginning to think we need a rest from wars. Youre impossible when you have battle shock. How about we go rescue a nice village from some warlord or something?"
"Not too boring for the warrior princess, I take it." Gabrielle suggested with a smile.
"Gabrielle! What ever gave you that idea?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I dont know. Battle shock? Xena, Im sorry I said those hurtful things yesterday."
Xena fingered the chakram that hung by her side. "Youre right, you know. My greatest joy comes from the battlefield; a good fight, a well planned strategy, leading the charge against the enemy." She let go of her chakram and rested her blue gaze on the bard. "The rest of it, understanding peoples needs and gaining their trust, thats your pleasure. I take my cue from you."
"You have a good heart, Xena, and it shows," Gabrielle said with a smile. "Youre less intimidating than you used to be."
"And youve become quite skilled with your staff." Xena observed candidly. "But youll never be a true warrior and Ill never become a natural humanitarian."
"So our best work comes from combining our skills." Gabrielle tapped her staff on the ground. "I like that concept."
Xena smiled at her companion, then bent down to tie her supply pack. "Come on, little bard. Enough talk." The warrior gave one last look around their campsite to make sure it was cleared of their belongings. "All right," she said when she was done, "This is it. Lets go." She started to walk, then stopped when she realized the bard wasnt following.
Gabrielle was standing with her hands on her hips, completely immersed in her own final review of their campsite. Her purpose, however, was entirely different than the warriors. "Im going to miss this place, Xena," she said finally. "Think we can come back here someday?"
"Could be," Xena replied, "If not, there are other special places I can show you when we need time together to collect our reward."
"You mean it?" Gabrielle asked, as they crossed through the thicket of bushes onto the road.
"I said it, didnt I?"
"Can I get that in writing?"
"Change the subject."
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The commitment of being a bard in the xenaverse would not be nearly so much fun without the contact and encouragement of certain fellow bards who enjoy writing Xena stories as much as I do. With special thanks to my bard friends Dancyer, Storygal and Tammy for the many brainstorming sessions we held and for their constant encouragement in pushing me to the limit to write this story and to believe in myself as a writer; and to my bard friends, Rebekah and Enginerd for their painstaking attention to detail in editing the first draft of this manuscript, and for bringing out the perfectionist in me as I worked out the final version of this story many drafts later.
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