Shifting Sands

by Rhiannon Silverflame

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and all others originally seen on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are the property of Universal/MCA and Renaissance Pictures. This story is a work of fan fiction, from which the author derives absolutely no profit.

SUBTEXT: None, but maintext in abundance. If for whatever reason you feel barred from reading about two women who happen to be in love with one another, there’s plenty of general fan fiction available for you to read instead. (Not a slight to general fanfic; it’s good stuff. I don’t write any, though.)

AUTHOR’S NOTES/SPOILERS: This sketch is set somewhere in the first half of Season Five, and therefore contains abstract spoilers for "Fallen Angel" through "Back in the Bottle." It deals with the changes in Gabrielle’s character; consider it an apology of sorts, because for what it’s worth, Seasons Four through Six are shaping up to be my favorites of the series. Call me insane, but I really do think so. (Oh, and by the way, I originally wrote this well before "Motherhood" aired, so the chakram joke was completely unintended!)

"That’ll be twelve dinars."

I extract the requested amount from the money pouch and lay the coins on the counter in front of the waiting storekeeper. I can’t help wincing as I tuck the pouch into my belt again—it’s getting awfully light. Money’s been in short supply ever since . . . since Rome. It's kind of funny how I still don’t have the nerve to talk more than abstractly about what happened at Mt. Amaro; I’m almost afraid that saying the words will make me relive the whole excruciating experience.

Enough about that. I’ve got to find a way to replenish our savings at any rate, that’s for sure. If I could just bring myself to tell stories again . . .

"They say you’re a bard." The storekeeper’s leaning over the counter, his grizzled face curious. "Good one, at that. Heard you and Xena were in town . . . how come you ain’t been spinning tales down at the tavern?"

Another one familiar with my reputation of three years ago. "Oh, well, I . . ." Damn. I can’t explain this to him!

"Never knew you for such a fighter, either," he continues. "Saw the two of you clear that band of thugs out of here this morning! You took out just as many as the warrior woman did, easy. Matter of fact, "he grins conspiratorially, "all of this'd run you about thirty dinars normally. Consider the discount a thank you from all of us." He pauses thoughtfully. "But I thought it was a staff you carried. wasn't it? Where in Tartarus’d you get those dagger-things and how’d you learn to use ‘em?"

News travels so slowly sometimes . . . and now and then the details get lost in the retelling. I manage a smile and explain, "Well, they say I’m a fast learner. You see, Xena’s taught me to defend myself against all kinds of weapons. To do that, it helps to understand different methods of attack. I guess you could say that it was just a matter of looking at things from the other side."

He chortles. "Clever . . . clever girl! Never thought of it that way, but I guess you're right. Well, I won’t keep ya longer, so here’s the supplies you asked for." He pushes a bundle across the counter to me. "Maybe we’ll catch you down at the tavern for a tale or two, hey?"

"Maybe," I mumble. "Thank you." I lift the lumpy bundle of food, leather patches, and feed for the horses, balancing it on my shoulder as I turn to leave. This was a perfectly routine supply run, nothing I haven't done a million times before, and yet it's different. It's not that we're buying more bread and dried meat these days, but now we need twice the amount of horse feed and patches. It runs costs up quite a bit–another reason that I worry about our dwindling cash supply.

Riding back to camp, I can see that Xena’s right where I left her: sitting on a rock by the ocean just outside town, watching with a tiny smile as the waves wash up over the sand. She’s got her normal color back, so the salt air’s done some good for her morning sickness after all. I’m glad—she was just miserable when we woke up this morning.

"Hey," I crouch beside her and lay my bundle on the ground. "Feeling better?"

"Oh yeah," she replies, rubbing her hand up my spine in the certain way that tells me that she missed me and she’s glad I’m back. I rest my head against her side and stroke the swell of her stomach; beneath my fingers, her leathers are taut and warm from the sun. She smiles down at me.

I used to wake up and hear her whispering to me in the middle of the night, when she thought I was asleep, telling me how much she loved me. I’d keep my breathing low and even . . . hide the smile on my face . . . listen to everything she said and treasure it. But now, one of us can even sense when the other is asleep or awake; we can read each other’s emotions from a distance, we’re so keenly attuned. We know each other so intimately that a brief glance or a subtle gesture can say everything that needs to be said. With each day that passes, the bond between us deepens and weaves us into something as close to one being as two people can possibly be.

Not that this stops us from having long conversations, of course! I love our talks, and there will always be things that need to be discussed in words, at length . . . like now, for instance. I can’t get that conversation with the storekeeper out of my head. She can read my agitation in the tension of my muscles—I couldn’t hide it from her if I tried—and she looks down at me, concerned.

"What’s on your mind, hon?" She eases herself down off the rock and stretches out beside me on the sand, wrapping an arm comfortably around me.

I sigh and stare out over the ocean. A wave crashes over the beach, leaving foam and bubbles that soon disappear, only to reappear when the next wave spills over and then recedes. "It’s just been so long since I told a story, that’s all. The storekeeper in town was grilling me on why he hadn’t seen me down at the tavern, recounting your glorious exploits."

Xena smiles wryly. "To say nothing of your own, of course . . . but I know you're too modest for that. What else?" she prompts. In response, I flip one of my sai up out of its boot sheath and shoot her a rueful grin. She laughs; it’s all she needs to know. "He didn’t ask you why your hair wasn’t red, did he?" She rubs her knuckles teasingly into my short locks, bleached light blonde by constant exposure to the sun.

"Ow—hey!" As payback, I grab her hand, plant a kiss square on her palm, and watch all the playful fight go out of her. "No," I tell her, poking the tip of her nose for emphasis, "he didn’t ask me that, but he did look at my hair kind of funny."

"That’s ‘cause you need a trim. Getting kinda shaggy there, you know." She ruffles my hair again and, smirking, pulls her chakram from her belt. "Sit still now. This’ll take only half as long as it did last time, and I bet I can do a much better job this time around."

"Xena!" I yelp, alarmed even though I know she’s kidding. "Keep that thing away from my head!"

"All right, all right." She pretends—not very well—to look disappointed. The puppydog look on her face is quickly replaced by concern as she puts the chakram back in its place and asks, "Did it really bother you that much?"

I take a deep breath and think about it. "Not really," I finally say. "Not so much as it did get me to thinking. I’ve changed so much, Xena." These things don’t really hit you until you stop and look back; each step forward doesn’t seem like all that much until you look down and realize how high you’ve climbed. "If I met my old self on the road, the person I was five years ago around when we first started traveling together . . . I’m not sure I’d recognize myself."

She studies me for a moment, then pulls me closer and tucks my head under her chin; I close my eyes, feel the rhythm of her breathing, and let the comforting sound of her voice wash over me.

"Sure you would," Xena says. "You’ve got the same good heart, the same ideals. You just understand them more completely now, because you know so much more about the world than you did back then. After everything we’ve been through, you still believe in the good in humanity. You still revere life, and I know that, because you wouldn't fight as hard as you do to protect it otherwise. Most people would have become jaded and cynical after living through everything you have. But not you. You've got too good a heart for that. And I know," she adds, poking a fingertip into my chest, "that there’s still a million stories in there, just waiting to come out. When it comes down to what really matters, I don’t think you’ve changed at all, Gabrielle."

Her confidence means the world to me, but I have to speak what’s on my mind. "I feel so inconsistent though! Look at me—I went from a path of total passivity to being a better fighter than I’ve ever been!" I twirl the sai in my hand and toss it point-down into a clump of seaweed nearby. It quivers and sticks, and I wince at how accurate my aim turns out to be.

"Shhh." Xena lays a finger on my lips and holds my gaze with her own. "You’re a dreamer, love . . . always searching for something beyond what you already know. That’s the storyteller in you—an active imagination, and a thousand possibilities to explore." She smiles. "Remember how frustrated you used to get, how many times you’d rework a story, until you got just the right combination of circumstances and events?"

Do I ever! I laugh. She used to have to practically restrain me from tearing my hair out over the tiniest recalcitrant details! "You bet I remember. What’re you getting at, Xena?"

"What I’m getting at," she answers, "is that life works that way too, Gabrielle. Especially when you spend your formative years going through turmoil. It’s perfectly natural to want to explore all the possibilities before you find what works for you. I did. It took me a while, but I did. And I promise that I’ll always be here for you on that journey, the way I wish someone had been there for me. Even with all the changes you’ve been through, I love you as much as ever. That won’t change."

I smile under the kiss she suddenly brushes against my lips. "Thank you," I whisper, wrapping my arms around her in a fierce hug. I feel a bit more at peace now; it helps to have her reassurance that I’ll find that balance for myself someday, and to know that she’ll be there when I do. "I want to go back to telling stories, Xena," I remark. "I know I’ve said that my life is too complicated for it these days, but there’s got to be room for some simplicity, hasn’t there, especially with a life as complicated as ours is? I mean, who knows? It could help me sort all of this out."

"I think that just might be a very good idea." She pulls me to my feet and into yet another embrace. "We can stop and pick up some fresh scrolls on our way through town. That is to say . . ." I don’t miss the glint of mischief in the crystal blue of her eyes. "If you’re up for a trip to the tavern later, to cover the cost."

I shoot her a look that tells her I understand exactly what she’s hinting at. "You’re on."

"Well then." The relief on Xena’s face is evident; though she’d support me through whatever paths I chose to explore, I know she’s missed my stories, for all she used to complain!

She takes a sword from Argo’s saddle and tosses it to me; I catch it easily. It had belonged to a bandit who got on her bad side; that lover of mine, ever the practical warrior, decided that it was far too good of a blade to leave behind. "How about we take care of two things at once? You can get some rehearsing done while we work on those sword drills." She’s been training me in some swordwork—mostly defensive techniques, how to use the pommel and the flat of the blade to parry, trip people up, things like that. "Take off your boots," she suggests. "We’ll practice down there in the shallow water. Good way to strengthen your legs a bit, and I’m in the mood for a little wading anyhow."

She kicks her boots off, leaving them atop a tall rock; I follow suit, hefting the sword in my hand to get a good feel for its weight and balance. We head down to the edge of the water; the wet sand is cool under my toes, and there’s something invigorating about the salt water foaming about my ankles as I raise my sword into guard position.

"What story will you tell?" she asks, coming in with a low strike that I easily parry.

"I think . . . the story of what happened in Chin," I reply.

"Oooh. That's a good one."

I sweep her sword well out to the side and reverse my swing to come at her with a blow that would slap her across the cheek if I followed it through. "How would I start this off?" Jumping back, I block her overhand blow as another wave rolls toward us, and try to spin the images in my head into words. "’When a message came to Xena from one who had been long dead . . .’ No, wait. Make that 'Sometimes, the long-dead past can still come back to you when you least . . .' No, that sounds stupid. How about . . ."

Laughter and splashing, the clanging of metal, and the halting words of the first story I’ve begun in far too long—all these sounds drift lightly on the gentle ocean breeze. A wave breaks over the sand and rolls back into the ocean, washing away the stark lines of the footprints we’ve left behind. It’s a clean slate, ready to be marked with the evidence of this next set of practice drills before the waves wash those away too.

But the sand . . . the beach . . . these things will still be here.

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