Disclaimer: None of the characters in this story are mine. They belong to Rob Tapert and Co., RenPics, Studios USA, MCA/Universal, and anyone else who has an investment in Xena: Warrior Princess. I am just borrowing them for use in this story.
Part of the beginning dialogue between Xena and Gabrielle is lifted directly from the FiN script. I am not taking the blame for that fiasco. The rest of the work is mine, and I do accept responsibility for that.
Special Thanks: To Carol and Phil who had to read this three pages at a time to do voice checks for me. If Xena and Gabrielle don’t sound right, it is due to my poor hearing and not their input.
Forty-eight Hour Fix
"Oh, I am sooo not believing this," the blonde muttered as she looked into her scrying bowl.
The rending of Gabrielle’s soul was exquisite torture to Aphrodite, who held the bard in a special place in her otherwise jaded heart. The love goddess moved into the main viewing room to see if she could divine Gabrielle’s final fate.
She stood in mute horror as she watched her friend’s ugly, lonely death. "Oh, no way! Like no way am I gonna let this happen. Let me go totally knock some sense into that warrior babe. APOLLO!!!" she bellowed, even as she disappeared in a shimmer of sparkles.
"Xena, the sun is setting. I have to bring you back to life."
"No, not if it means condemning the souls of the 40,000 who burned at Higuchi."
"The souls are free?"
"They’re free from Yodoshi’s grasp. Akemi didn’t wanna tell me this in case I wouldn’t come back to help... but for those souls to be released into a state of grace, they must be avenged. I must stay dead."
"But if I bring you back to life.... "
"Those souls will be lost forever."
"But Xena, that is not..." Gabrielle drew a shaky breath. "...right." Her resolve melted and she dissolved into tears. "I don’t care. You’re all that matters to me."
"Don’t you know how much I wanna let you do this? But if there is a reason for our travels together, it’s because *I* had to learn from you... enough to know the final, the good, the right thing to do. I can’t come back. I can’t."
"I love you, Xena. How am I supposed to go on without you?"
"I’ll always be with you, Gabrielle. Always."
"Yeah, and you’re gonna be with her alive!" The couple was surprised, both by the voice that was addressing Xena, and the absolute fury in her tone. Without effort, Aphrodite snatched the pot from Gabrielle’s hand, and upended Xena’s ashes into the fountain. "I am not going to watch her wither and die because of your selfishness and the scheming lies of some two-bit bimbo."
Aphrodite was on a roll, and would have said more had not the warrior’s spirit disappeared from sight right then. Gabrielle recovered her voice and her mobility at the same time. Her mind was still a minute or two behind reality. Her hand reached up to wipe her wet face, but all she could say was, "Aphrodite?"
The goddess held up a hand, completely serious in her demeanor. Gabrielle sat back on the edge of the fountain, only to jump up as the water burst forth from it in every direction, soaking her, and dripping into her eyes.
When she wiped it away, there stood Xena in the flesh... living, breathing flesh... Gabrielle turned her attention to Aphrodite. "Thank you," was all she said, but the look in her eyes spoke volumes to the goddess’s heart.
"Little One, you have always been my friend, and many times you’ve given expecting nothing in return." Here Dite turned to Xena and glared at the warrior, holding blue eyes and assuring she had her full attention. "It is time *you* were the greater good."
The subdued warrior stepped from the fountain to the ground, only to have her world rocked by a sharp SMACK across the back of her head. She clasped one hand to the back of her skull, while the other clapped over her mouth where she had bitten her tongue. Icy blue eyes glowered at the goddess, but Aphrodite wasn’t even fazed by the LOOK.
"Don’t bother, warrior babe. You are in so deep with me right now, if it wasn’t for the Little One’s love and need of you, Hell would look like a vacation compared to what I would do to you otherwise." She took a deep breath and refocused her anger. It didn’t help much. "And where do you get off listening to some sniveling...." Dite walked away, obviously composing herself. "That was completely selfish and irresponsible, and I imagine there will be some serious consequences for you in the days ahead."
"What about the souls?" Gabrielle broke in quietly.
Aphrodite shrugged. "What about them? Akemi lied. They were released into grace the minute Xena set them free from Yodoshi. There is no need to ‘avenge’ them... what happened was an accident, and they were more at fault than Xena ever was."
It was a toss-up then whose eyes burned the fiercest at the thought of Akemi’s deliberate deception and manipulation of Xena, and the separation it would have affected between them. Aphrodite noticed and smiled grimly. "Yep, but don’t you worry. I’ve got plans for her, too."
Gabrielle stepped forward, and took the goddess in a firm embrace, trying to convey her affection and gratitude in the gesture. Tears rushed to the goddess’s eyes as she felt the rent begin to mend itself, and the love Gabrielle felt for her washing over her spirit. She bit her lip to contain her gasp at the sensations, and returned the hug in equal measure.
"Thank you, Aphrodite. I will never be able to repay this."
"Love her well, and often," the blonde goddess whispered into the blushing pink ear. "The two of you do me credit, and I had so little to do with the magic that makes you what you are together." She pulled back and kissed the bard’s cheek, noticing that Xena was still glaring in her direction. "You could make her suffer a little bit, though. I think she needs to learn something from this."
Gabrielle looked at Xena and raised an eyebrow. The warrior moved reluctantly toward them. She wasn’t really sure what she was feeling at the moment, though gratitude and anger were part of the package.
"I’m not sure what to say."
Dite nodded, understanding far too well the confusion Xena was feeling towards her at the moment. She had had a similar experience after a majority of her family has died at this same woman’s hands. "For now, don’t say anything... just think about why you did what you did, and what was wrong with that decision, regardless of the souls involved. I think it’s time you got your priorities in order."
Xena looked up, and caught the green eyes focused on her, the bard’s blonde hair still outlined in gold from the still setting sun. Waitaminute....the sun had already set. Sharp blue eyes looked back at the sunset, then locked onto Aphrodite’s smiling ones. She shrugged lightly.
"Apollo did me a favor," was the only explanation she offered.
Xena nodded her acceptance, and very briefly hugged the goddess before stepping back. "I’m sorry," was all she said, but Dite heard the apology on the many levels it was spoken on, and nodded her head in appreciation of the gesture.
"Prove it. Make it up to her." She looked to the sky, and nodded her head subtly, then turned back to the two waiting women. "Apollo is waiting for me, so I gotta split. Take good care of each other, huh? ‘Cause I’ll be watching." And before they could formulate a reply, the goddess was gone in a shower of sparks.
It was quiet as they set up camp for the night. They had moved away from the fountain, and down slightly into the forest, since neither could bear to be so close to such a vivid reminder of the trials they had just passed through. Darkness was complete when they stopped. Aphrodite’s departure had allowed the sun to continue to set at its normal pace, and they had moved far enough away for the fountain to be out of sight.
Now Xena carefully scouted the perimeter, noting the hasty withdrawal of whatever troops had been there only the day before. She gathered plenty of dry wood, knowing the night on the mountain would be cold.
Gabrielle busied herself setting up a small camp. They had found a small outcropping in the thick stand of trees, and she was extending the shelter with cedar boughs from the forest floor. Not much, but it should do for the night. The bard was working on autopilot, still overwhelmed by the events of the past few days. It was gonna take a bit to work through this one, the hurt and anger in her mind warring with itself until she clutched at her head to make it stop.
Xena dropped the armload of wood and put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulder’s, wincing when they stiffened against her touch. Still, she began a gentle massage, working at the knots she could feel in the strong back.
"You okay?" she whispered, hoping the softness of her words would help the bard relax, and dismayed when Gabrielle shifted subtly out of her grasp.
"No, I’m not," she answered quite honestly, turning and letting Xena see the pain and fury reflected in her eyes before they fell to the ground. "You lied to me, again, and you put me last, again." She held up her hand to forestall whatever argument Xena had opened her lips to refute the statements with. "Not right now, please." She took a deep breath and looked up again. "I understand you chose what you thought was the greater good. But this time, *I* needed to be the greater good. And you didn’t even question... you just blindly accepted her word over me." She looked away from the warrior. "We need to get some sleep." And she stepped around Xena to one pile of boughs underneath the shelter.
Xena stood stock-still, letting her eyes close as wave after wave of Gabrielle’s pain washed over her. There wasn’t going to be a quick fix for this. This was gonna take time and thought and effort on her part. And then it would only work if Gabrielle gave her the chance to make it right. She flinched when she turned and noted that there were two distinctly separate piles of boughs, even though they were side by side, and that Gabrielle’s back was to the second. This ain’t gonna be easy, she thought, and made a small fire to help keep them warm.
Morning found them wrapped together in their favorite position, with Gabrielle’s head tucked beneath Xena’s chin, and their arms and legs intertwined. Blue eyes opened first, and she took great comfort that their unconscious minds were still on the same wavelength, even if their conscious ones were having issues. She smiled and stretched, content to simply stay where she was and be a pillow for her partner. Then the smile turned bleak as she remembered the nightmares that had brought Gabrielle into her arms for comfort and reassurance.
Gabrielle began to stir, a smile crossing her face until she recognized that what she thought was just a bad dream was in fact truth. With a sigh, she whispered, "Good morning," and slipped from the warrior’s warm hold. "I guess we need to get started, huh?"
Xena gave the bard a pained smile. It was all so normal, and yet it was wrong. "Yeah," she answered softly, looking around. "This place has nothing for us. How ‘bout we go looking for some sun?"
Gabrielle looked thoughtful, then nodded her agreement slowly. "I think I’d like that. Right now I feel like I will never be warm again. Be right back."
Morning chores were performed with practiced efficiency. There was little to pack up, as they had very little with them. Xena offered to go hunting, but Gabrielle simply shook her head. "No thanks, Xena. I’m really not hungry yet."
The warrior didn’t know what to say to that that wouldn’t cause an argument first thing, so she simply nodded and touched the bard’s hand. Gabrielle did not respond to the contact, and Xena took heart in the fact that at least she hadn’t flinched. The warrior gently clasped her hand around Gabrielle’s, inordinately pleased when she didn’t pull away. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
Hours later, Xena was wondering why she had ever imagined apathy would be a better response than the hurt or anger she had seen from Gabrielle the day before. Though the bard responded to every question directly put to her, she made no effort to initiate any conversation whatsoever. And while she allowed Xena to touch her, she never once reached out to instigate any contact between them. It was as though she had withdrawn within herself into a place where Xena was no longer allowed.
And the warrior wanted back in.
This is going to drive me insane. Xena cast her mind back over their years of travels together, then looked at her friend with new respect in her eyes. How did you do it, love? *WHY* did you do it? For the longest time, I shut you out. How did you not lose your mind trying to get through to me? One day of it, and I’m ready to scream. She looked back at Gabrielle’s face again, noting the lackluster color in normally sparkling eyes. And when I do finally let you in, what do I do? We’ve hurt each other before, but this... THIS.... Oh Aphrodite. I think I am beginning to see your point. Silent tears ran down the warrior’s face.
Gabrielle noted the tears, but couldn’t bring herself to disturb Xena’s grief. She was so busy running things over in her own mind that she unwittingly shut the warrior out. So many details, so many questions, so many what ifs went round and round in her brain. They were gonna have to talk about it, that much Gabrielle knew, but right now the pain and sense of betrayal was too fresh. The first order of business was to leave this wretched country behind her, behind them. After that, they could talk and the future would take care of itself.
They made it to the base of the mountain by mid afternoon, and were somewhat astounded by the rapid retreat of their enemy before them. Apparently Yodoshi’s defeat had changed things on the living battlefield as well, and they met with no resistance as they made their way to what was left of Higuchi.
The townspeople offered respect this time, and Xena quietly made arrangements for their room and board for the night. Then she cast her eyes around the marketplace, noting with interest the rebuilding going on and....
"Gabrielle, this is Kenchi. His family has offered us lodging for the night. He has promised us a warm bath," said with a crooked smile. "Why don’t you go with him? I have a couple things to see to, and then I’ll join you."
The bard nodded her acquiescence. She was too tired and drained to argue about much of anything at the moment. Be thankful she’s alive and you’re still together, she kept telling herself, but that just kept stirring up that little kernel of anger she felt towards the whole ridiculous situation. She didn’t even watch Xena walk off towards the marketplace, but instead followed Kenchi to his family’s ancestral home.
Gabrielle drew in a breath when he led her to the bathing hut. A huge pool full of steaming water waited and looked so inviting that the bard sighed and smiled simultaneously. "That looks wonderful," she commented to her host, who agreed.
"It is, and you are welcome to stay in as long as your heart desires," he answered. "The girls will take care of all your needs," he added and took his leave of her, closing the doors behind him.
My heart’s desire... do I even know what that is anymore? I love her. I love her more than my own life, but I don’t know if I can continue to always take a backseat to ‘the greater good’. Is it wrong for me to want to be her soul’s center like she is mine?
"No, it’s not," a soft voice whispered in her mind. "And you are. She just needs to be reminded of that." A touch on her arm brought her back to her immediate surroundings, and Gabrielle suddenly realized she was naked and being led into the pool. I need to be more aware, she thought before sinking into the enveloping warmth of the bath. She immediately dismissed the attendants, and turned her thoughts inward once more.
Or she would have, had not Aphrodite and pink bubble bath shown up concurrently. "Hiya, Sweet Thing!" She smoothed a bit of the hair from Gabrielle’s eyes. "How ya doing?" she asked a little more softly, wincing at the still lost look in the bard’s eyes.
"I’m not sure anymore." Finally, the tears came. The love goddess simply held Gabrielle until the last tear was shed. She heard the warrior approaching, but the bard’s fogged senses didn’t detect Xena’s nearby presence.
"I don’t think she needs me," Gabrielle whispered, though her broken-hearted words reverberated in the warrior’s ears and heart. Xena sank to her knees outside the door, unable to move through the grief and pain instigated by Gabrielle’s bewildered tone. "I’m so tired, Aphrodite. I love her, and I need her in my life like I thought she needed me, but she doesn’t. Her choices yesterday made that painfully clear." The bard sat up, and eased away from the goddess, looking at her with an earnest, bleak expression. "Take me home, Aphrodite. Please."
"But what about....?"
"If she needs me, she’ll know where to find me. I just need some time out."
Aphrodite paused for a long second, hoping Xena would stop her. Her sight allowed her to see a broken warrior, head bowed forward against the door unmoving. She hesitated, then nodded to Gabrielle. "C’mon, Little One. Let’s go home."
Xena cried out in agony the instant they disappeared.
Gabrielle looked around in surprise. She was clean, dry, dressed and.... Where in the.... She looked around again noting nothing looked the least bit familiar. "Aphrodite?"
"I thought you could hang here with me for a while. It’s gonna take the warrior babe a little longer taking the conventional route."
Gabrielle glanced around again, noting the opulence of her surroundings, and the decidedly missing presence of one Warrior Princess. She shook her head, smiling through the tears. "I’m sorry, Aphrodite. I can’t. This is... is all wrong. We... can you send me back to her?"
"Um, nope. Sorry, babe, but no can do." She held up a hand to stop the bard’s speech when Gabrielle drew a deep, vehement breath. "She left the Island almost three days ago. In fact, she caught a boat out the night we left."
"It took us three nights to get here?!?" Gabrielle looked at the goddess in total disbelief.
"As if!" Dite snorted. "No, cutie. You’ve been asleep since you got here. When you said you were tired, you totally weren’t kidding." She stood up off the chaise she’d been resting on, and extended her hand to Gabrielle. "C’mere, hon," she said, pulling the bard to her feet. "Lemme show you something."
Aphrodite led Gabrielle over to the scrying bowl. The bard looked at it in fascination as she realized the scenes were moving rapidly backwards. She raised a blonde brow at the goddess, who just smiled. "Hold yer horses, Little One! We gotta go back a bit."
The first thing they saw was Xena shoving... something... into a new bag. They couldn’t hear what Kenchi was saying, but it was obvious he was doing his best to reason with Xena. She negligently swiped a hand across her eyes before turning to face him. He nodded and bowed, and left her in peace.
The scene altered, and she was standing alone on the deck, back to the land and her face looking out toward the open sea. Xena’s cheeks were wet, but she did nothing to hide or stop the tears. Out of nowhere, Ares appeared beside her. Aphrodite felt Gabrielle stiffen in anger beside her, and laid a calming hand on her arm. "This already happened, sug. You can’t change it." Gabrielle nodded her understanding, and their eyes shifted back to the scrying bowl just in time to see Xena punch Ares and watch him go sliding across the deck. Suddenly, the sound worked just fine.
"Go home Ares. I’m going to find Gabrielle, and do right by her this time. She deserves my best." Her voice softened and she turned back to the vast expanse of water. "She deserves so much more."
Dite fast forwarded through the next bit so quickly Gabrielle could only imagine what she was missing. She only had time to wonder briefly though, as the picture slowed once more. "This is real time. It’s what’s happening right now."
Xena sat in the bow of the boat, an open scroll on her lap and a quill in her hand. The parchment had writing front and back, and the warrior was scanning it over slowly, occasionally making notes in the margin. Satisfied, she blew it dry, and carefully rolled the scroll up, and stuck it in her new bag.
"Take care of her, Aphrodite. I need a chance to make things right." She closed her eyes, and leaned her head back against the wood as the wind whipped her hair frenetically, and prayed for the wind to speed their passage.
Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch the image, only to have it blur and fade when her fingertips touched the water.
"Send me back to her."
"You made the choice to come here... to leave her behind. Right or wrong, you both have to live with it now. I will make it possible for her to travel here faster, but it will still be several weeks before she arrives. Maybe you should spend that time getting ready."
Green eyes met light blue in a haze of understanding. The bard nodded, and turned on her heel and left the room.
"There are some days when the love biz is waaaay overrated," the goddess muttered to the ceiling, slowly following Gabrielle down the path that had just swallowed her up.
Xena knew there was divine intervention going on somewhere, given the fact that her trip home had only taken her three weeks. Three very long, soul-searching weeks that made her see how she would have done things differently. Now it was time to find Gabrielle and start making things right.
Her first order of business took her to the temple, and the priests and priestesses moved out of the main room as the warrior strode down towards the altar. They had special instructions about this one from Aphrodite herself, and they waited out of sight in the alcoves of the vestry.
"APHRODITE!!" Xena bellowed.
She felt the smack coming this time, and was quick enough to dodge it. Aphrodite tried to grab her by the ear instead and pull her out of the main sanctuary into the alcove. Blue eyes blazed fiercely at the blonde goddess as she ducked her head and slapped the offending hand away. Dite didn’t even notice.
"Do you mind? This is a place of worship, ya know?"
Xena’s lips twisted as she struggled to say something neither condescending nor smart. She was well aware just how much she owed this particular deity, though she was loath to admit the debt for even a second. Besides, she had a real liking for Aphrodite... the goddess had almost always been a friend to them both, but especially to Gabrielle.
Dite watched the internal struggle, pleased that Xena was making a visible effort for her. "I know what you want, but she is not here. She and Argo are waiting for you at the inn. She said you’d know the one."
Her eyes lit up in memory. "Yeah, I do. Thanks, Dite. For everything."
Tears welled in Aphrodite’s eyes, though they did not spill down her cheeks. "Yep, now go on and get outta here before we both lose our tough chick reps, ‘k? I got a party to get to, babe. Later!"
Xena allowed a fleeting smile for the fraud Aphrodite pretended to be before hefting her bag, and walking quickly out the entrance. She was a woman on a mission, and she had a bard to find.
Gabrielle smiled softly to herself as a warmth she hadn’t felt in three long weeks permeated her very soul. She’d had time to think about what she’d done, and regret the impulse that had taken her away from Xena before they’d talked things out. Communicating has always been our biggest problem. You’d think we’d learn eventually. I think this time, maybe we have. I think I have at any rate.
Then her time for introspective thought was over, as the inn door opened and Xena walked in. She hesitated in the doorway for just a moment, letting her eyes adjust from the brilliance of the outdoors to the dimly lit interior. Her eyes didn’t need to scan the room. They fell immediately on Gabrielle, whose whole demeanor shifted from uncertainty to one of welcome delight.
Xena felt an answering shy grin cross her own features, and slowly made her way to the back table where Gabrielle waited... for her.
"Hi," came the soft reply. Brilliant conversation there, bard. Talk much?
"Mind if I join you?" I feel like I am on a first date.
"Please," Gabrielle stated, motioning to a chair. "I’ve missed you," dropping her eyes.
"And I’ve missed you too." Xena reached out causally and covered the bard’s folded hands. "We need to talk."
The blonde head nodded. "Can I go first?"
Xena nodded, then realized Gabrielle couldn’t hear her head rattling when it moved up and down. She cleared her throat. "Um, sure," her voice not betraying the nervousness she felt.
"I owe you an apology." Blue eyes jerked to her face in surprise.
Green eyes looked up into Xena’s now, and Gabrielle held them steadily. "I was hurt and tired and angry. And I left you much like you left me, without giving you a choice or a chance to explain." She held up a hand when Xena opened her mouth. "Wait, please. Then you can have your say." The dark head nodded agreement, and Gabrielle smiled sadly. Her hand came down and covered their linked fingers.
"It was wrong of me not to talk to you, to tell you what I was thinking, feeling." She drew a deep breath. "I can’t live like this anymore, Xena. I felt my soul shred on that mountain. I can’t have that waiting to blindside me yet again." Tears streamed down her face. It was the biggest gamble of her life, and she was scared to death. It was also the most honest she had ever been.
Xena’s fingers tightened convulsively. "Do you want to give us up? Give up the fight for the greater good?"
Gabrielle shook her head vehemently at both questions, and the warrior drew a relieved breath. She had vowed on the trip home to do what it took to make Gabrielle happy, and she was glad beyond words it didn’t mean they would be going their separate ways. Three weeks had nearly killed her. And what made you think you could do it indefinitely, hmm? Being dead would have been the same, only worse, and you damn well know it.
"No, love, no. That isn’t what I meant at all. Gods, no. The last month has been an experience I would prefer not to repeat EVER, or at least not for a very, VERY long time. I would just like us to talk more. Maybe let us be the greater good once in a while." She looked down at their joined hands again and squeezed lightly before looking back into Xena’s eyes. "What you did in Japa...."
"What I did in Japa was wrong. I *should* have talked to you. Even if only to be honest with you about what I expected." Xena paused and swallowed hard. "I heard what you said to Aphrodite... about me not needing you." Tears welled, and she was helpless to stop their path down her cheeks. Xena leaned into the touch as Gabrielle tenderly wiped them away.
"I once told you that you were my source. That has never once ever changed. I should have remembered how I felt when I thought you were lost to me after you took Hope into that pit." Her voice shook with the memory, and she paused and swallowed again. "There are a lot of things I would do differently for you, for us, if I could."
Xena was silent then for a time collecting her thoughts, and Gabrielle was content to let her. "I’m sorry," came the whispered words at long last. "It doesn’t begin to cover what I feel, but, um... maybe you’d let me show you instead?" Blue eyes peeked from beneath dark lashes while Xena worried her bottom lip between her teeth.
Gabrielle smiled. "Maybe this is something we could work on together?"
Xena gave her the crooked, heartfelt grin that Gabrielle loved so much. "I think we could do that. But first...."
"Down the hall, last door on the right. The water should be all ready for you."
A dark brow rose almost high enough to pop off Xena’s face. "You saying I stink, bard?" She took an exaggerated sniff of the air around her.
Gabrielle did the same, crinkling her nose up cutely in Xena’s direction. The warrior almost lost her stoic mask in the urge to smile back. The bard leaned in closer. "No... I am saying after three weeks of salt water rinses, I thought you might appreciate the chance to soak in a nice hot bath. If I was wrong, however...." She started to stand, only to find her hand clamped firmly to the table. She giggled in sheer delight at the light banter.
Xena stood then, completely serious. "Thank you," she whispered, and brushed a kiss across the bard’s fair cheek which caused a blush to rise behind it.
"Um, I thought after you were done if you wanted we could have an early lunch here, and maybe head out? You’re supposed to be taking me somewhere warm, remember?"
The thought of the two of them out under the stars alone again caused Xena’s senses to tingle, and she smiled rakishly. "I remember. And I know just the place, if you’re willing."
"Where you go, I go." This time the words took on added depth, and they took a moment to acknowledge the hard truth of those words that they had just learned.
"That goes both ways, my bard." She tilted her head slightly. "Come wash my back for me?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Let me get lunch arranged, and I’ll be right there."
Xena grinned again and started whistling as she strutted down the short hallway to the bath. Things were definitely looking up.
Her bath was almost complete when Xena felt the bard’s approaching presence. "Wondered if you’d forgotten about me in here," she commented to the open door. Gabrielle didn’t answer, but took the sponge from her hands, and lathered it well. Xena’s head lolled forward as the bard’s definite strokes relaxed muscles that had been tense since they’d arrive in Japa. Gabrielle dropped the sponge, and began to massage the strong back. The warrior nearly groaned at the sensual feeling of soft skin and firm touch. Gabrielle leaned forward, and put a light kiss on the broad shoulder.
"C’mon, love. Lunch is waiting, and I hear a beach calling our names." She held out a towel.
Xena rose like a goddess from the water, and Gabrielle stood and openly admired the vision in front of her. "By the gods, you are still so beautiful."
The warrior felt herself flush under Gabrielle’s frank lust and honest appreciation. She stepped from the tub, and walked into the bard’s open arms, bringing her own hands up to cradle Gabrielle’s face. "In your eyes, sweetheart."
The flecks of gold seemed to twinkle at Xena as the green eyes crinkled up in a smile. "Mine are the only ones that count." She tucked the towel in between two full breasts, and let her hands drift to the warrior’s hips.
"Well," Xena said softly, dropping a light kiss to one corner of Gabrielle’s mouth. "You are most beautiful to me," kissing the other side. "Always have been." She cut off whatever reply Gabrielle might have been going to make by capturing the soft lips beneath her own.
The kiss was slow and languid, a reaffirmation of the love that bound them. Xena took her time, waiting for the unconscious signal from Gabrielle that she was ready for more. She felt the hands clench at her waist almost immediately, and caressed the bard’s bottom lip with her tongue. Gabrielle immediately invited her in, and they spent long leisurely moments reacquainting themselves with one another.
Reluctantly they pulled apart, slowly opening their eyes to gaze at each other.
"Hi," came the soft response. "I missed you."
"Hmm," leaning down for another kiss. "I missed you too."
The embrace would have gone on much longer had it not been for the pounding on the door. The chakram embedded in the wood scared off the offensive party, but it also totally ruined the mood. The two fell into a hug chuckling.
Gabrielle turned and planted a small kiss on the shoulder closest to her lips, and wiped her eyes. "Thank you. I needed that."
She felt the smile as much as heard it as warm lips brushed the top of her head. "So did I." Xena slipped a clean shift over her head and picked up her battledress. "Um," sliding it into place and turning her back to Gabrielle, "would you mind?"
Gabrielle obligingly did up the laces, then patted her back. "All done. Let’s get lunch. I’m ready to be alone with you."
Xena’s eyes widened. Though the bard had never had a real problem with self-expression, she was rarely that candid about their private relationship. Maybe those three weeks apart gave her some thinking time too. This may turn out to be one of the best things that could have happened to us. The warrior didn’t answer aloud, however. She simply nodded her agreement, and followed the bard from the room.
Lunch, though not a hurried affair, was not something they dawdled over for very long. The sun was still quite high in the sky as they made their way out the door and to the barn that housed Argo. The waiting mare was already saddled and Xena looked down her traveling companion.
"You have a particular place in mind or....?"
"I thought we were gonna look for someplace warm. Maybe a beach or...."
"I know just the place." She held out one hand while grasping Argo’s reins in the other. "Walk with me."
A delighted smile crossed Gabrielle’s face as she accepted the proffered hand. They strolled along in silence for a while, and Xena was happy to note the marked difference in the bard’s demeanor from the last wordless walk they had shared together.
Gabrielle’s lips were slightly parted in the tiniest smile, and her eyes were alight and twinkling in delight as she observed the world around her. Xena saw the strength and maturity their years together had affected on her soulmate, but she still caught a glimpse of the wonder that Gabrielle retained at her core. She vowed never to see that light go out again. It was too painful for them both.
Xena smiled and blushed when Gabrielle turned and caught her staring, blushing herself then at the fervent regard in the blue eyes.
"Nice day out," the warrior commented.
Gabrielle glanced around then as if seeing it for the first time. They were leaving the dirt and smell of the port behind them, and before them lay a familiar horizon. The road was a little dusty, given the fresh sea air that was blowing in from the shore, but its coolness was welcome, and they were well used to dust.
"Yeah, it is," Gabrielle agreed giving the fingers tangled in her own a slight squeeze. "The company makes it better, though."
Xena fought to control the blush this time, but allowed the smile to shine through. "It sure does." Then the conversation gave way to the comfortable silence that for a while was filled with the sounds of wind and birds and surf.
Of course, something had to disturb that peace, and it came in the form of the oddly disturbing sounds of clanging weapons and screams coming from over the ridge beyond them. The warrior patently ignored them, and Gabrielle just looked at her wonderingly as they made no move to help.
"Not this time, Gabrielle. Not anymore. I will not risk the ‘greater good’ separating us ever again."
Gabrielle tugged on Xena’s hand, and brought them to a full stop. "Xena, I don’t think helping a few folks from thugs is hardly in the same category as taking on an entire army alone with pointless armor." She grinned shyly at Xena. "Remind me to get you to explain the logic behind that outfit one day, will ya?" Her face regained its seriousness. "We NEED to help others, love. It is a basic part of who we are. It is fundamental to our being us."
Xena met Gabrielle’s eyes thoughtfully, realizing the truth of her words. "You won’t let me be stupid again?"
"Nope, and you’ll do the same for me, right?" thinking of the times she’d acted rashly.
"I got your back."
"Good, then let’s go kick some bandit butt, because I was serious about wanting time alone with you."
A band of twenty or so well-equipped, trained soldiers trying to take advantage of a merchant train was causing all the ruckus. Xena and Gabrielle rolled their eyes in tandem, and jumped into the middle of the melee.
"What is the problem here?" A slick right hook with the sword’s force behind it felled the first soldier in his tracks. The second was puking before he hit the ground from the force of the kick to his midsection. The merchants, who had been fighting back with whatever contrived weapons they could find, struggled to answer Xena’s question.
The warrior heard the crunch of two broken noses as Gabrielle felled two more with her sais. Standing back to back, she couldn’t see what her partner was doing, but she could tell they were ahead of the game.
Xena did so, in time to see a sword go flying and impale a man with a mace headed in her direction. He looked quite stunned as he dropped to the ground dead, and then Xena had no more time to worry about it as the fighters fell on them in earnest, and the time for fun and games was over.
The chakram came out, and was wielded as a second bladed weapon, since the range was just too close for a decent shot. Kicks and punches flew at an alarming rate, and wounded and dead soldiers began to pile up around them. She heard the odd grunt or two from behind her, and nodded in satisfaction. The merchants, to their credit did their best, and seemed to take heart from the rapidly evening odds. The last soldier got the pinch.
"Now why were you bothering these people?" Xena looked around at the broken wagon propped up by the side of the road. "I doubt they started this."
"Uh... w... we, um... of... fered to, uck...." A quick jab to his neck caused him to fall over and grasp his throat in relief as he struggled to breathe. "We offered to... um help them... uh, fix their wagon."
"You lie!" one of the women raged. She looked Xena squarely in the face. "They *offered*," the sneer clear in her voice, "to relieve us of our goods, and SERVICES WE DO NOT EVEN HAVE!!!" Here she turned and punched the still struggling soldier dead in the face. He fell backwards, out cold. "In exchange for their *help*. We declined, and they took exception to it."
Xena’s eyebrow rose into her hairline, and she cast a glance in Gabrielle’s direction. The bard was scratching the side of her nose, contemplating her words.
"You’re really not very far from town. We’ll help mend your wagon if you will drive what is left of these thugs to the magistrate there." Xena nodded her agreement.
"We’d be glad to. We have plenty of charges to press against them, I think," stated the man who seemed to be in charge of the caravan. A few well placed words, and several small groups got to work. In short order they were ready to move on.
"Thank you both for all your help. Are you sure there is nothing we can do for you?"
"No, thank you," Gabrielle responded. Xena was getting antsy, and had already moved over to where Argo stood patiently waiting. "We were glad to help."
After another hour or so on the road, and no more trouble they determined they were far enough from the town to move to the beach. A short walk through the fields led them to the dunes covered in sea oats, and then to the flat expanse of sand. Argo huffed at them for the trek through thick, soft sand, and was quite content to be led to the firmly pack sand at the shoreline.
Xena hesitated, looking out over the vast expanse of sun-dappled water. She smiled when she heard Gabrielle’s sure footed approach. "Find what you needed?" she asked without turning around. Then she held her breath when a colorful bunch of wildflowers appeared under her nose, with Gabrielle’s impish smile hidden behind them. "What’s this?"
"This is a bouquet of flowers."
Xena rolled her eyes, and the bard struggled to contain the chuckle bubbling up in her chest. "I see that. Why are you giving them to me?"
"Because I wanted to. You deserve to have nice little surprises once in a while, just because I love you." The words were spoken so matter-of-factly that Xena simply stood still and breathed for a moment. Then she accepted the flowers and moved them and the hand holding them around to Gabrielle’s back, pulling her closer.
"Thank you," she whispered. "You make my life worth living." And then didn’t allow the bard a chance to reply as she captured her lips in a fervent kiss.
They melded together for a long moment, until Argo grew weary of the whole scene and nudged them apart. Xena shot the mare a look. "Jealous much?" after which the two women leaned their foreheads together and chuckled softly. Argo snorted and rolled her eyes, stepping away just slightly.
"I love you," Gabrielle stated with conviction.
"I love you, too," Xena returned as adamantly. "And I intend to show you every single day for the rest of our lives. Now c’mon. I think Argo needs a run."
She turned to lead them both over to the resignedly waiting horse when she was stopped short by the firm grasp Gabrielle had on her hand. "You already do," she said quietly, and brushed her lips softly against Xena’s own. The warrior returned the kiss to her forehead, then turned and boosted the bard to the front of the saddle.
"Yep," Xena answered casually as she climbed on behind her. "Unless you’d rather me do it."
"YAH!" and a burst of speed were her only answers, and Xena gripped Gabrielle’s waist and held on tight.
There was still plenty of good daylight left when Xena eased her hands forward and pulled lightly on the reins. Argo was glad to slow to a walk, though the run had been a lot of fun. The warrior watched along the shore, and when she spotted what she was looking for, she angled the horse off the beach into a treed area, and the couple dismounted.
The meadow within the ring of trees was tiny. Gabrielle noted a small burbling stream that bordered one side. It tripped its way over stones and pebbles as the water continued its path to the sea. She wondered briefly where it began, and what it passed through until it was no more than the tiny bit of creek she saw. Then she heard Xena slap Argo’s rump, and she turned toward the warrior.
They could still hear the whoosh of the surf, though it was more a muted background sound now than a focal point. The grass was thick and soft underfoot, and long enough to tickle Gabrielle’s bare midriff. It was oddly comforting in a way, because it proclaimed the hideaway’s secrecy, but it still tickled.
Xena caught the odd smile and the absent scratching, and removed the sword from its sheath. Half a dozen swipes later, and she stood back, well pleased with her effort. Now near the creek stood a cleared area just the right size for a campsite. Gabrielle looked on in bemusement.
"My Queen," said with a flourish and a courtesy. "Your boudoir."
Gabrielle laughed a purely joyous sound. She was still some distance from Xena, and without warning, flung herself headlong into the warrior’s strong arms. Xena anticipated the move as soon as she saw Gabrielle moving towards her, and dropped her sword and braced herself. She caught the bard and spun them around while Gabrielle coiled her arms and legs around Xena’s body. They laughed together and when Xena stopped moving, the bard looked her in the eyes.
"You rock my world! I love you!" And this time, it was Gabrielle who stole the warrior’s breath.
"Whoo!" was Xena’s comment when they separated. "You are really good at that, ya know."
"Hmm, I have a great practice partner. Believes that practice makes perfect."
"Um hmm, she really is.
"Even when she does dumb things?" asked Xena with just the least hint of insecurity.
"Even then, cause she always does her best to set things right," came Gabrielle’s soft, stalwart answer. "It’s one reason I love her so much."
Xena’s answer was another slow, fiery kiss, and it threatened to buckle her knees and take them to the ground. She pulled back slowly, noting Gabrielle’s passion darkened eyes and their uneven breathing. She slid her hands around a firm behind and down solid thighs, noting the hitches and whimpers her soulmate was emitting at the light touch. Gently she reached back and unlocked Gabrielle’s feet from behind her back, and slid the bard to the ground.
"Let’s set up camp and go take a swim. I’m pretty sure I can find us a couple of fish to go with the other stuff I brought for dinner tonight."
"All right," Gabrielle nodded agreeably. She moved over to where Xena had placed the saddle and their other worldly possessions. She was tempted to peek, but refrained, instead moving the bedrolls to the now shorter grass.
It didn’t take long to lay out their shared bedroll, and Xena was back rather quickly with an armload of firewood. Gabrielle looked up at the sky, noting a few dark clouds looming far to the south. She glanced back at their open campsite. "I hope it’s not gonna rain."
Xena looked up from where she was laying the firewood for later lighting. "I don’t think it will. The wind seems to be blowing them away from us." She paused, keeping her eyes on the distant horizon. "Besides, I don’t think Aphrodite would let rain it tonight."
Gabrielle had her own opinions on the matter but was curious as to where Xena’s thoughts were coming from. "Why is that, love?" resting her hands on the broad shoulders and tenderly kneading.
"I had crossed over when she brought me back. I was already in the other realm." Xena swallowed hard. "She reversed time for us, sweetheart."
"I know," Gabrielle answered softly. "Aphrodite and I had a lot of time to talk. She said it was payment of a debt." She leaned forward and brushed a kiss over the top of the dark head.
"I never thought I’d be so glad have a debt settled. Especially one I didn’t know was there in the first place."
"Every once in a while, it is nice to have friends in high places. Now c’mon, we’re losing daylight, and I want some of that fish you promised me for dinner."
Xena stood and took Gabrielle’s hand, and they strolled down to the water’s edge.
Xena turned and raised an eyebrow at the bard, outraged blue eyes widening.
"Don’t bother Xena. It doesn’t work on me. You know that. Besides, you are cheating."
The tide was going out, and Xena was standing in a trough where the fish were caught until the tide came in again. The sun had set, and twilight was just beginning. Still, there was enough light for the warrior to clearly see the teasing in Gabrielle’s eyes. She grabbed the two snapper that were swirling at her feet and threw them the short distance to clear the tide. Then she purposely stalked her way towards Gabrielle.
"So, I’m cheating, am I?" looking suddenly like a hungry jungle cat who had just cornered its favorite prey. The bard started backing away from her reflexively. "Maybe I should show you what cheaters do to win, hmm?" The feral glint in her eyes was all the warning Gabrielle needed, and she took off running down the beach.
Gabrielle was a good runner, years of walking having made her legs very strong, but her laughing hampered her efforts, and it didn’t take much for Xena’s long stride to catch up to her. The warrior tackled her into the soft sand, and mercilessly began running tickling fingers up Gabrielle’s bare sides. The bard squealed and squirmed doing her best to gain an advantage, but her laughter kept her from making much headway.
Finally, she wrapped her legs around Xena’s and pulled the warrior on top of her. "Mercy! You can stop now! You won!" before claiming Xena’s lips breathlessly. When they parted, the warrior looked down on her with love-filled eyes.
"We both did, sweetheart. This time, we both won." They kissed again, and Gabrielle was the first to pull away.
"Um, I hate to be the one to spoil the mood here, but, uh, could we move off the sand now?" She wiggled beneath Xena just the tiniest bit. "This sand is getting in places that I just don’t want it to be." Her ab muscles tightened reflexively at the wicked gleam in Xena’s eyes, and the tensing of the warrior’s thighs. Then a handful of sand dropped onto her midsection, and Xena was off and running toward the water.
Gabrielle jumped up and ran after her, jumping on Xena’s back and dragging them both under the water. They both came up sputtering, and Gabrielle wrapped herself around Xena like an octopus, smiling up into the mock-glowering face.
"Whaddya go and do that for?" Xena growled.
"I needed to wash the sand off, and you were in my way," said with a smirk. She tangled her hand in the warrior’s wet hair and urged her subtly closer.
"I was, huh?" She playfully rubbed their noses together.
"Well," taking a nip at the bard’s nose and getting an outraged squawk. "Remind me to get in your way more often then." The she lowered her head and lick Gabrielle’s lips before pulling back. The bard opened her eyes in protest. Xena laughed. "C’mon. I feel your stomach rumbling, and I’m getting a bit hungry myself. We have all night to finish this."
Gabrielle slid down the warrior’s body, making sure her touch glanced over several favorite spots before stepping completely away. "We have the entire rest of our lives together, and not even then do I think we will be anywhere near finished."
Xena stood there with her jaw just slightly open as she watched Gabrielle swagger back toward the campsite. She didn’t blink til the bard turned around and asked, "You coming?"
"Gods, I hope soon," was muttered under her breath, though Gabrielle heard it by the quirk of her lips. What she said aloud was, "Let me clean the fish, and I’ll be right there. You could light the fire, though," Xena said.
"And here I thought I’d already done that," Gabrielle replied saucily as she made her way into the small ring of trees.
Gabrielle did light the fire, then decided to rinse the salt water and the remainder of sand from her body. The small pool was only hip deep, but it would do what she needed it to. The bard took the soap from her own bag and moved to the water. It was still sun-warmed, and not unpleasant to the touch, and her mind wandered to day’s events.
Xena came up from the beach, and stood staring as Gabrielle absently bathed herself, an intriguing little smile on her face. The warrior placed the fish on the stones near the fire, and withdrew something from the saddlebag. She approached Gabrielle quietly, smiling in return when her eyes were caught by the bard’s own. Gabrielle rinsed the soap and waded to the shore, snagging the towel she had plucked from her bag.
"You might like this a little better," Xena commented as the bard tucked the towel around her. The warrior held up an evergreen silk chemise. "I got this for you the night you left. It was what I went to the marketplace for."
Gabrielle looked at the beautiful garment, gently fingering the soft material. "Oh Xena, it’s lovely." She dropped the towel and allowed Xena to drape the cloth over her head and down her body. The green eyes closed as sensation cascaded down her body from the light whisper of touch the material gave her responsive skin.
Xena gently caressed the bard’s smooth cheek, and Gabrielle turned and kissed Xena’s soft palm. "Take your bath, love," she whispered to the warrior. "I have plans for you later that don’t include sand."
The fish was set to slow cook when Xena emerged from the shadows, a vibrant blue chemise covering her body to mid-thigh. Gabrielle held her breath and stared. Xena smiled shyly at the unabashed look of loving admiration the bard was bestowing on her and returned it with an equally fervent one of her own.
"Dinner gonna be a few?" Xena asked, nodding her head in the direction of the fire while never letting her eyes leave Gabrielle’s. The blonde head bobbed once in response. Xena extended her hand and Gabrielle grasped it without question. "Let’s count a few stars. It’s been too long since I shared these with you."
In wordless reply, Gabrielle stepped around to the far side of the fire where the bedrolls lay. Xena was happy to note the log that was at the head of the furs, and sat down, pulling the bard down in front of her. The warrior’s arms snaked around Gabrielle’s middle, and Gabrielle wrapped her own on top of them while leaning back into the strong body behind her.
Time seemed to stand still as they simply absorbed sensations familiar and so very welcome. It was almost as if it was new, all over again.
"What happened to the tattoo?"
"Hmm?" Gabrielle was distracted by the feeling of being surrounded by the warrior’s body and had missed the question.
"The tattoo... where is it?"
"Oh," the bard’s eyes dropped self-consciously. "I asked Aphrodite to remove it. It took some doing," she winced reflexively remembering the painful process the removal had been, "but I couldn’t bear to keep the reminder."
"I’m sorry, sweetheart."
Xena kissed the top of the golden head, and Gabrielle squeezed the arms enveloping her reactively. Then the warrior slipped one hand away from the bard, and reached for the nearby saddlebags. She flipped the satchel opened and rummaged around a bit.
"I have," sticking out her tongue, and yanking slightly, "some fresh cheese, a loaf of nutbread...." Hmm, some fresh fruit," pulling out a small assortment, "and a flagon of sweet wine."
"When you were settling the tab with the innkeeper, I made arrangements with the waitress. That’s why Argo was saddled and ready to go when we were."
"I wondered about that." Gabrielle grinned. "I should have known, but even after all our time together, you can still manage to surprise me."
"Good... wouldn’t want to be too predictable now, would I?"
They started with the fruit, sharing back and forth, and trading the occasional kiss in the process. Xena absently began running her hand in small circles on the bard’s belly. Gabrielle savored the familiar tingles the touch caused, having had three weeks to understand how precious their bond really was, and how perilously close to losing it she had come.
When the fish was ready, Gabrielle retrieved it from the fire, and resettled herself in front of the warrior. Their feeding continued as their gazes turned to the heavens and talked quietly. The conversation was not earthshaking, nor even particularly important, but they were sharing their souls, and that was.
The fish was finished while they engaged in the bear or dipper debate. The discussion became more personal during the nutbread and cheese.
"I did some long, hard thinking while I was alone those three weeks," Xena began, thankful that the bard could not see her expression. "I realize a few things." She swallowed. "Putting you in harm’s way... sending you after my body knowing the odds for my return were slim to none... that was wrong and selfish. I’m sorry. I should have... well, I should have done a lot of things differently." Xena sighed soundlessly, but their body to body contact enabled Gabrielle to feel it down the length of her torso. "I decided something out there, and since you are still willing to fight for the greater good...."
Gabrielle nodded her head against Xena’s chest, but didn’t say a word. She didn’t want to interrupt the flow the warrior had going.
"I’d like to continue to travel for a while, fixing the trouble we find, but not necessarily go looking for it anymore." She swallowed, knowing this was the kicker. "I’d like for us to have a spot we can call ours. A place we can come when we need to be the greater good. You see," she rushed on. "You were right. I know there will be things from my past that will come back to haunt me til the day I die. But we need to put us first... *I* need to put us first. We deserve a chance at peace together... even if it is only a couple days at a time."
Gabrielle turned in the warrior’s arms and cradled Xena’s face in her hands. "Thank you, love. Thank you for understanding how much I need that."
"How much *WE* need that," Xena corrected softly, before leaning forward and capturing Gabrielle’s waiting lips. There would be no stopping them this time, they knew. They needed the affirmation of their bond, spiritually and physically.
The kiss was slow and languid at first, tasting and teasing delicately. Gabrielle turned until she was straddling Xena’s lap, and the warmth Xena could feel spilling across her thighs made her groan in reaction. Gabrielle took the open invitation Xena gave her, and slowly ran her tongue along the warrior’s soft lips, gently coaxing Xena’s tongue out to play.
Xena reflexively clenched her hands in the silk, pulling Gabrielle more into her before opening her fists, and sliding her hands sensuously along supple material and sensitive skin. Gabrielle wove her fingers through the still damp hair, and brought their mouths together more fully, taking away their need to breathe for long minutes.
Finally, when they could stand it no more, their lips separated just far enough for Xena to whisper against the bard’s mouth. "Tonight begins a new life together for us, my bard. And I am going to love you like there is no tomorrow."
There was no reply, because the warrior seized Gabrielle’s lips once more, and gently began to lower them to the sleeping furs.
The exploration was slow and unhurried. There would be other times when their coming together would be fast and furious and fierce. But this time, for tonight, it was about rediscovery and appreciation and their deep, abiding passionate love and need for one another.
They spent long moments simply kissing, conveying to one another their heart’s desires. Hands tenderly traced material and skin until the silk became more of a barrier than they could bear. When they came together again, skin on skin, Aphrodite turned away from the scrying bowl.
"I can’t give you forever babes, but you’ve got forty-eight hours of peace. Use it wisely, ‘cause you’ve got a groovin’ new start happening here." She turned back for a peek, and saw their dance slowly beginning as Xena began to kiss her way down Gabrielle’s neck while her hands gently stroked up the bard’s torso towards her breasts. Aphrodite blushed, feeling the intensity of their bond ignite between them.
The love goddess deliberately turned her back on the scrying bowl, leaving them to their privacy. "And then there are times," she commented as she walked out the door, "that the love biz just so totally rocks!!" Then she disappeared in a shower of sparkles, and love continued on.
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