Part 1 (ch 1-4)
The fish bit fiercely, pulling the woman�s pole severely toward the water�s glimmering surface with each tug on the line. Powerful arms flexed as the woman resisted, an excited twinkle in her crystal blue eyes, dark hair flying in the wind. She was having more fun than she remembered having in a long, long while. The bonus was that they were helping people at the same time.
She looked over to where Gabrielle was gingerly holding her threaded branch, catching the bard�s eye. Her smile was immediately returned with an equally amused one. "This is it Gabrielle. The BIG ONE," she exclaimed with uncharacteristic joy.
The bard laughed and shook her head at her friend, setting her pole on the ground to come closer to Xena. For moral support, no doubt, the warrior mentally smirked. "That�s what you said about the last one and it was too small to be left alone in a mug of water," she teased.
Pausing from dragging in the line, a dark eyebrow rose in Gabrielle�s direction. "I�m in a mood to make you pay for that, bard," she threatened.
"I�ll bet," her friend saucily responded.
Gabrielle took a wary step back when Xena finally had the dripping fish out of the water, holding it up proudly between them. The young woman�s nose curled slightly, her distaste at the creature evident. The warrior couldn�t help but note how cute the expression was.
"See, I told you," Xena said defiantly, shaking the fish enough to send slimy water droplets toward her friend. The fish was big, even for its captor�s legendary skills. Suspended at the height of the warrior�s shoulders, its body extended to the tall woman�s knee. Colors cascaded into the air around them, summer sunlight reflecting off the shiny scales.
The bard wanted nothing to do with the prize catch. She took two tentative steps backward before turning to sprint toward town.
I can�t hide anything from her anymore. How annoying, Xena mused with a shake of her head. She stretched her long legs into a steady gallop, striding up the path with gleeful abandon.
As they both knew would happen, it didn�t take Xena long to catch up to her short-legged friend. The knowledge didn�t make the bard protest any less or groan any quieter as she was pulled into a rough embrace, staring straight into the fixating eyes of a dying fish.
Eyes closed tight and head pulled as far away as possible, Gabrielle used all her might to push against the warrior. "Xena, you...are...sick," each word was punctuated with disgust.
"Ah, come on. You love it," the dark woman continued to tease, holding onto the smaller woman as her struggle became half-hearted. "And you�re definitely right about the last fish, Gabrielle. That one didn�t come close to being tall enough to look you in the eye."
The bard pushed away again at the reference to the last fish with which she�d been attacked, falling to the ground as Xena released her. She tried hard to look mad, but the grin on the warrior�s face was contagious, slowly creeping across her cherubic features as well. "You are so immature," she declared with a chuckle.
"I know you...," the warrior stopped in mid-sentence, choking back �are, but what am I.� She broke into a hearty laugh. I can�t believe I almost said that, she thought in disbelief. I have completely lost my mind.
"The smell of dead fish is finally affecting your brain, Xena," the bard shook her head, puzzled.
Xena didn�t know the explanation for her behavior anymore than Gabrielle. She offered a hand to the bard, pulling her up with ease. "Or maybe I�m just in a good mood for a change," she suggested.
The bard looked thoughtful. "That would be a change," she allowed, smiling.
"Ha, ha," Xena said sarcastically. "I guess fishing with my favorite bard just brings it out in me." Which was very true. This little adventure was turning out to be the best one in ages. Although Gabrielle didn�t have a great love for fishing, she was enjoying interacting with the townspeople as well. Hearing her stories was good for them and for her.
After a moment more of closeness, Gabrielle stepped back up the path toward the village. "It�s time for me to head to the hall," her face was mixed with sadness at leaving the playful warrior, and eagerness to attend to the people.
Xena smiled, nodding toward the cluster of buildings beyond the trees. "I�ll meet you up there later for dinner." She held up her prized catch up, indicating yet another fish-based meal.
"Okay, I�ll see you later," the bard bid her farewell, but not without a final lingering glance.
Watching the golden-haired woman�s stride as she walked away, the warrior allowed herself a moment to unabashedly appreciate her friend. Since coming to the aid of this village, she�d had ample time to do that, as had the bard. So much so, that when they caught each other at it, neither one found it necessary to pretend it hadn�t happened. As scary as it was, the slow evolution of their relationship was coming to a head, right here in this decimated town.
As Gabrielle disappeared into the tangle of trees, Xena turned back to the water, intent on cleaning her catch. Israel seemed like so long ago. A few days after returning, the pair casually walked into this roadside village, suspiciously noting the lack of human activity. Upon further inspection, they�d found the inn�s beds, and most empty floor space, full of all the townspeople, most of whom were on the brink of death. From that point on they�d been in constant motion, tending to the needs of the sick and burying the dead.
The warrior had seen such sickness before and was immediately thankful that it was past a contagious stage. Work after their arrival was merely a matter of hand-holding and offering comfort, which Gabrielle, at least, was very good at. They were now moving on to rebuilding the shattered lives of the villagers.
Dropping the last cleaned fish into her bucket, the dark-haired woman smiled, thinking of her very active role in the reparation. She�d done so much destroying in her life, it felt indescribably good to be able to help a town reclaim self-sufficiency. The process was going to be difficult, but once enough people were sufficiently healthy, she was sure she could help them.
Approaching the inn, a quiet rumble poured forth from the walls, a mixture of clapping hands and approving murmurs. The warrior had heard the same sound countless times after Gabrielle had finished a story, encouraging and entertaining her listeners, just as she was now.
The gentle appreciation of the villagers continued as Xena entered the room, having deposited the fish with the kitchen crew. No longer did the townspeople stare at her in fascination or reproach. Though the warrior found it a little hard to believe, they had grown used to her over the past half-moon.
Gabrielle was seated at a rough wood table, still accepting thanks from the passing patrons. The warrior moved to the chair reserved for her against the wall, patiently settling in it until the last well-wisher was on his way. The bard allowed her a small smile as she fully leaned back.
"Looks like it went well," the warrior acknowledged, glancing around the rustic room.
"Yeah, it did. It�s really nice to get to tell my stories every night to someone besides you," she said, followed by a panicked look as she thought about how it sounded. "Not that I don�t like telling you stories, mind you. You�re my favorite audience, but sometimes�"
Chuckling at the characteristic ramble, Xena placed her hand on the bard�s arm and interrupted. "Gabrielle, I understand what you mean. I like it here too," she admitted.
Her round face lighting up, Gabrielle looked at her friend in astonishment for a moment. "I�m glad, Xena. This has been a nice break."
"I think the vacation is almost over. We need to start reconstructing the houses destroyed in the raid," the warrior informed her with regret.
The bard nodded with a sad smile. "I guess it�s time. I still can�t believe those people attacked when everyone here was sick. Some people are so cold hearted," she sympathized.
"Yeah." Xena didn�t feel like she should comment more, knowing she�d done worse many times in her past. "It certainly made for easy pickings."
"Arness� house is the only one that isn�t practically demolished. Maybe we�ll find those raiders later and put them out of business," she said with a hopeful question in her voice.
Xena had noted how much of a coincidence it was that the constable�s house was the only one not touched at all, even though the whole town had been in the inn with the sickness. The raiders had burned a good part of the town, the rest saved only by a nicely timed rainstorm. The outlaws� trail was so cold now that if they were to ever catch them it would have to be by luck alone. She knew she�d probably try anyway, knowing that it meant something to Gabrielle. She wanted to stop the people who�d hurt the village she�d come to care about.
"We might be able to," Xena allowed. The barmaid brought two heaping trays of food and mugs of ale, effectively ending the conversation, at least on the warrior�s part.
Gabrielle, however, didn�t let anything stop her from talking or eating, so she continued both. "Rebecca helped me take Radin into the yard for a walk today. He�s feeling good enough to leave the infirmary, I think."
"Um," the warrior affirmed around a mouthful of broiled fish. By the time all the adults were well, they�d have seventeen women and seven men to help with the repairs. The town had been considerably larger before the sickness and they�d lost a good deal of population to that, as well as the disastrous raid.
"I think everyone is out of the woods now," the bard said, most with her mouth closed and chewing.
Xena had no doubt that everyone would pull through. After she�d administered some emergency care to the people she could help, recovery for the rest consisted of a gentle hand and soft voice to guide them. Accordingly, Gabrielle had spent the better part of their time in the village in the inn. "You�ve done well."
A tender smile creased the bard�s face. "Thanks," she replied shyly.
A full grin answered on the warrior�s face. She basked for a moment in the gentle emotion between them, then changed the subject. "I think I�ll try my first lesson tomorrow," she began in a firm tone.
"That should be fun. I�m becoming convinced you�ve bonded with that lake," she joked. Green eyes turned away from the warrior before the bard spoke again. "Arness asked me to his house for dinner tomorrow."
Xena did her best to keep her expression neutral. It probably wasn�t a bad idea for Gabrielle to get to know the constable a little better. "Nice of him," she answered tonelessly.
"Yeah, it was. Should I go?" she asked.
Waiting until the bard met her gaze, Xena spoke with a wicked smirk on her face. "I don�t control you, Gabrielle, no matter what people may think. Go if you�d like," she explained plainly.
The bard sighed and pursed her lips for a moment. "I was hoping you�d decide for me," she replied. When no comment was forthcoming, she continued. "I thought it might be a good idea to check him out," she sighed in resignation.
The warrior loved it when her friend thought in the same circles as she did. "It could help."
"Okay, I guess I�ll go then," the bard said, her voice not quite masking her disappointment.
Cringing at the golden-haired woman�s reaction, Xena pushed her chair away from the table and stood. "I think I�ll head up to the room."
Gabrielle stood as well, her shoulders straightening as she seemed to shrug off the uncomfortable moment. "Good idea. Tomorrow will probably be a busy day," she added.
Travelling up the stairs with the bard close in tow, Xena looked back on another successful day in the destructed village, despite the current somber mood. She chalked up another day with her bard. Another day that no one died at her sword. Yep, definitely a success, she thought, slipping through the door of their room, into another night of contentment.
The orange glow of dawn slowly crept into the room as the warrior stared at the ceiling, silently contemplating what the day would hold, as was her habit upon waking. This morning she woke up to an added incentive to lie still for a while longer than normal. Gabrielle had worked her wayover to her friend�s side of the bed, comfortably sprawled across her. Xena had arisen from sleep to find herself in this position more than once, but it was always an unexpected treat.
Carefully moving the bard�s muscled arm from around her waist, the warrior prepared to leave her warm haven and begin the day. She dismissed the idea of waking her friend, knowing that she had no good excuse for doing so. Gabrielle would probably be embarrassed if she woke up like this anyway, she reasoned.
But before she could begin rising, that strong arm reasserted its position, securing her to the bed. Amused green eyes glared up at her. "Where do you think you�re going," the bard asked sleepily.
Xena chuckled at the unexpected question. "I�m going to get ready for my lesson. I figured you�d sleep for a bit longer," she answered.
"I probably will, but you could at least tell me bye," she replied, her embrace tightening.
A dark eyebrow arched in question. The warrior couldn�t help but wonder if Gabrielle wasn�t still asleep, or at least unaware of her behavior. Their relationship was changing, but it hadn�t evolved this far. "Okay. I�ll remember that."
Gabrielle scooted up against the headboard so that she was almost even with the warrior�s gaze. "No, Xena. I�m serious. I�I don�t like waking to an empty bed anymore without knowing where you�ve gone," she said in a soft tone.
Suddenly very aware of the bard�s complete alertness, Xena tugged her closer. "I�m sorry, Gabrielle," she said, painfully acknowledging all the times she�d needlessly worried her friend.
Turning her flushed face up, a slow grin formed on the bard�s lips. "Don�t be sorry. Just improve."
With those words, the tension eased perceptibly, and Xena let it, casting a smirk toward the golden-haired woman at her side. Gabrielle had a way of making the stubborn warrior stop kicking herself for things she couldn�t change. She loved that about her friend. "You�re funny."
"I hope the villagers think so. I�m telling the fishing warrior story to them at lunch," she changed the subject.
"Why is that always the fishing warrior story? Can�t it be the self-absorbed bard story once in a while?" Xena poked the ribs closest to her.
Gabrielle squirmed away from the probing digit, giggling in spite of herself. "No. It can�t be. I think it�s much funnier when they�re laughing at you," she explained.
"You would." Deciding the small giggles were a good thing, the warrior quested more determinedly, inciting an all out tickle war. "Personally, I like it better when you�re laughing," she inserted between Gabrielle�s squeals.
When the bard�s laughs started coming on half-breaths, Xena relented, allowing her a moment to collect herself. "The lesson today should be over by lunch. I�ll join you and the rest of the group with the fresh catch."
"Okay, I�m hoping that someone brings in vegetables today, though. If I eat too much more fish, I�m going to grow gills," she jested.
Even Xena, who thought she could live on fish, was becoming a bit disconcerted with the grudging routine mealtime had become. And from the looks of it, things weren�t going to change soon. Fishing was just too good around the village. "If it�s any consolation, you�ll look really cute with gills," Xena said, flapping her hands at her neck imitating the aforementioned creature. She accepted the inevitable slap on her arm.
"Really, Xena, do you think you could look around for something else to eat?" Green eyes pleaded.
The warrior sighed, knowing that she couldn�t deny anything asked for with that look. "I�ll see what I can do. We should be able to try some hunting with the villagers soon," she offered as hope.
"That will be a relief." The bard scooted a little closer, resting her head on a strong shoulder, taking several moments to settle in there. "When do you think we�ll be able to move on to the next stage, Xena. With the villagers, I mean," the question sounded unsure. Xena felt the ghost of a kiss on her exposed skin.
"Well, I think that once enough people are well and capable of providing food, we can set them to rebuilding the village." Within the next moon, Xena thought, the town would be bustling with healthy activity again.
Snuggling closer and throwing her arm around the warrior�s waist, the bard�s voice softened. "Why do you think it takes so long, moving to the next stage?" She sounded sleepy.
Looking down at the light head resting comfortably on her, Xena wasn�t so sure they were still talking about the villagers. "I guess, um, sometimes it just takes time. They went through a really scary and traumatic thing. It may take a while to get their courage back."
The golden-head nodded in agreement. "Yeah, new things can be very scary. Especially when they�re so important."
"Yeah, and this is the most important thing in my life," Xena admitted, biting her tongue for using the wrong pronoun.
Not seeming to mind, Gabrielle looked up from her spot, green eyes trained on blue. "The most important thing. So I really don�t mind taking it slow. I just want you to know that," she said sincerely.
"Thank you," the warrior whispered, placing a soft kiss on the bard�s forehead. The embrace continued unhindered until the orange of dawn turned clear and the morning birds announced the arrival of a new day.
Xena gently laid Gabrielle back down on the bed, slipping from beneath her grip carefully. The lesson wasn�t as enticing as staying in the warm bed, but the lessons, or the villagers, wouldn�t wait all day long.
The barn held the equipment she needed, as well as Argo and a few of the other remaining horses. The charred building had been spared by the raiders� direct attack, only a weak fire briefly igniting the wet wood. The rain had saved it, though most of its previous inhabitants had been either stolen or slaughtered.
Argo greeted her with a hearty whinny, swishing her tail in excitement. She probably thought it was time for one of their early morning runs. "Not today girl," the warrior whispered as she stroked the fine hair on the horse�s back.
The warrior pulled a brush from the saddlebag hanging on the stall divider and began firmly running it over Argo�s body. Of the few things in the world that Xena could say she truly loved, her horse was one of them, always a faithful companion and one of the best beings to have around in a pinch. And I always seem to be in pinches, she thought.
"You love Gabrielle, don�t ya girl?" she asked the warhorse. Though Argo was an exceptional animal, she didn�t expect an answer. Sometimes it just made the warrior feel better to know that someone was helping her get past the tough stuff. That someone was usually the bard, but she still wasn�t ready to go to her with this particular problem.
And the frustrating thing was that she still couldn�t quite put her finger on what the exact problem was. They�d been together for years, most of the time happily. There was no doubt in her mind that she loved the bard and she was certainly attracted to her. In a million different ways, Gabrielle had made it crystal clear that the feeling was mutual. And yet every time she dared to think that she was ready, the ability to move alluded her.
Argo shifted her weight from one hoof to the other, making Xena aware that she�d stopped brushing and was simply resting on the animal, her forehead pressed against the high shoulders. She knew the horse didn�t mind though, so she remained there, leaning on her friend.
There�d been that kind of relationship with the bard from the moment they�d been forced together. Xena hadn�t been used to leaning on anyone, at least since Lyceas. She didn�t even think that type of thing was possible for her anymore. With Gabrielle, though, she�d never felt apprehensive about trusting her, leaning on her when she needed it. Of course they�d had trying times as well as good, but nothing had happened so appalling between them that the inexplicable bond had been broken. After it all, despite the pain, or maybe because of it, she still loved her.
Spreading meal in the feed trough, Xena gave Argo one last pat between the ears before leaving the stall. The horse was already engrossed in her meal and chose not to acknowledge her master�s exit. The warrior crossed the hay-strewn floor to the far corner, which held most of what she needed for her lesson. She gathered several balls of twine into a bag, slinging it casually over one shoulder.
The sun glimmered brightly off the lake�s gentle waves, causing the warrior to squint her eyes in the harsh glare. Birds chirped in chorus from the surrounding trees, filling the morning air with the expected music. There was just something about the sound of bird-song and the smell of dew that made a person glad to be awake.
The three villagers she expected were standing by the water�s edge, watching her arrival expectantly. As the warrior moved closer, she winced. She�d hoped that at least one member of the group would be experienced, but she knew things for her could never be that easy. As it was, she had to settle for an elderly woman, a young girl, and the daintiest man she�d ever seen in her life.
All three smiled nervously as she reached them, the whole group somehow seeming to move back without taking a step. "You guys ready to get started?" she asked, her voice light.
The girl, Shanna, tentatively took charge for the group, taking a tiny step toward their imposing teacher. "Could you, um, bait the hooks for us," her voice was shy, her eyes turned to the ground as she spoke. When Xena didn�t answer, she looked up to see a raised eyebrow and smirk. "Just the first time, to show us how," she amended.
"No problem, the first time. But you�re on your own after that." The warrior pulled the bag from her shoulder and removed a ball of twine. "Each of you search the woods and find the straightest branch you can find. Make it about this tall," she indicated the proper height, holding a hand at her chin.
Her three charges dutifully struck out into the trees, their feet shuffling across the packed earth. No one in the town as a whole seemed to be very eager to take over this particular responsibility. There was no choice, though, since someone had to do it. The crops sat decimated in the fields, left to ruin while everyone was laid up sick in their beds. And what little stores they had were destroyed in the raids. Everyone was needed to learn how to secure food for the village. Fishing and hunting were two things she could teach. To this village, it could make a big difference in survival. Even with that, the winter was destined to be long and hard.
Dragging a long branch behind her, Shanna emerged from the nearest tree-line with a triumphant grin. The soft breeze brushed through her pale blonde hair, making her look more like a child than the young woman she was. Her small hands held a sturdy, bark-stripped branch. She waited patiently for the warrior�s approval.
Xena stepped closer, inspecting the pole carefully. "Looks good, Shanna. Tie some of this to the end and you�ll be all set," she instructed, handing over a ball of twine.
"The others thought they�d find better wood away from the water, but I ran into this right off. Meant to be, I guess." She turned her eyes down to her tying, leaving Xena to watch for the others. "They�ll be along in a minute, though. We all stick together. At least since the sickness. I wish more of us could have come today. And it�s too bad Gabrielle can�t be here to tell us a story," the young girl rambled.
"Yeah," the warrior agreed. Shanna reminded her of the bard with her chatter, making her decision to leave the bard asleep seem much more ominous. Judging from what she knew about this lot, having a good storyteller around would be very helpful.
Melana and Dodd finally settled beside them, long branches in hand, tentatively smiling. Despite the gruesome reason for the lessons, they appeared to be having fun. Everyone had been so close to death that breathing easily was pretty exciting, much less learning how to fish.
Xena moved to the center of their semi-circle and took command, her perfect pole gripped firmly. "Okay, now this is easy. Throw the line out as far as you can. Give it a moment to sink, then pull it back out," she made eye contact with all three as she spoke. "Watch me."
She stepped to the edge of the lake, blue-green water splashing against her boots. After checking the line one last time, she pulled the branch back behind her body. Twisting at the waist and extending powerful arms, the warrior jerked the pole forward, sending the baited hook hurtling through the air. A little splash marked its arrival in the water, pulling the twine down into the depths with it. Then she waited several heartbeats, feeling three sets of anxious eyes on her back.
Somehow sure that the impaled worm was almost to the sandy bottom, Xena began tugging the line to shore. This was the fun part, jiggling the bait just right, tricking the swimming fish into thinking that a lively meal was prancing only for them. As subtle as the whole process was, it was a challenge.
She thought she felt a hit on the bait, but nothing substantial, so the hook came out of the water as whole as it went in. "Just like that," she stated, motioning toward the shore beside her.
The three stared at her, rooted to their spots, an evident look of disappointment on their faces. Melana, her aged eyes wide, spoke up. "You didn�t catch anything," she pointed out.
Xena held back the chuckle, but allowed a small grin to reach her lips. "No, I didn�t. It takes more than one cast to catch fish, even for the most experienced fisherman." She settled the hook behind her, bringing the pole back once again. "You just have to remember the fisherman�s creed; patience is a virtue," she remarked, gracefully tossing the line into the lake.
Her students stared at her for a moment longer, then spread out down the shore beside her, tying twine and baiting hooks. Melana and Dodd stood too close together for the first cast, tangling their lines before the hooks ever touched water. Shanna seemed to be a natural, throwing her line out almost as far as Xena�s and getting a big hit her first try.
Within a candlemark, she and the warrior had each caught two good sized specimens. Xena could have had more, but she had to set her pole down after every other cast to attend to Melana and Dodd, who�d both ended up in the lake at one point. The prissy little man, when he actually wasn�t whining about having to put new bait on the hook, couldn�t even manage to get the line three body lengths into the lake.
Slowly pulling her line in, she glanced at the three villagers beside her, all concentrating intently on their tasks. Dodd was pathetically struggling to free a hook from his tunic. Some people just don�t have the trait for fishing. Gabrielle hates it but even she manages not to wince when she baits the hook.
The sound of leather swishing through grass alerted her to an incoming person. A smile came to her face as she recognized the familiar footsteps. Unbidden to her mind came an image she�d seen many times, of a short, strong stride, round hips swaying in beat with her heart. She shook her head and laughed.
"What�s so funny," the bard asked as she approached. She stopped beside the warrior, making eye contact through the now still waters of the lake.
Xena looked at their reflection for a moment, marveling at the contrast between them. "Me." The bard tried to raise an eyebrow, failing in her familiar fashion. "I feel like a kid when I�m around you," she said offhand.
Gabrielle�s inquiring looked turned breathless for a moment, their eyes meeting warmly on the mercurial surface. The bard�s small hand grasped a larger one, entwining their fingers within a tight squeeze. "I�I don�t know what to say to that, Xena. I feel as though I�ve known you forever, but I�ve never been where we�re going," she said softly. "It scares me."
"Neither have I," the warrior replied, her voice just as quiet.
"I�m glad I make you happy, though. Everyone needs someone to do that." Her small hand squeezed a little tighter. "You do it for me," she affirmed.
Studying the reflection in silence, Xena tried to find the words her heart wanted to say. Glimmering in the water, she could see them the way she wished it could be, cool and calm. Gabrielle with light shining all around her, sharing some with her dark friend, far away from the shattered depths below the surface.
She finally spoke, pulling her eyes away from the water, meeting glistening green. "This is hard for me, Gabrielle, and�and I think you know that," her tone was husky with emotion. It was certainly no secret that she had more than a little trouble expressing her emotions. The warrior pulled the bard�s hand toward her, placing a gentle kiss on its back. "But I�ve never felt so good in my life."
The bard�s smile gradually broadened, revealing a full set of brilliant teeth. Her free hand roamed up to an olive cheek, stroking it delicately while their gazes remained locked. Xena�s heart was beating overtime, just the knowledge that she could make Gabrielle look at her like that sending her soul into a soar.
Dodd, apparently deciding to risk his life, interrupted them. He bounded up carrying the bucket, sloshing water and fish at their feet. "We�re heading up to the inn with the fish," he proudly declared.
Xena pushed down the urge to kill him and gave a short nod. At least the man was finally excited about the whole fishing business. No need to ruin that benefit simply because he interrupted an important moment. "We�re heading up there too."
"Great," he said, turning in a flurry and rushing up the path. The women were already heading up through the trees.
Turning back to Gabrielle, Xena moved a short way from her, keeping their hands held between their bodies. "I guess we�d better talk about this more later," she offered.
"That would probably be a good idea. If you want to." The bard turned them toward the path, tugging the warrior along.
And as they walked to the village, hands still entwined, Xena mused on how odd it really was. She did want to talk about it. More than anything.
A soft breeze rolled refreshingly over her exposed skin, a stark contrast to the stuffiness of the inn. Lunch had been better than she expected. The bard thought she�d tasted a new spice in the fish, or else she had been really hungry and decided not to notice the same old taste of the same old fish. The few small wild onions the warrior had brought her were nice. Xena, of course, ate the food without the slightest comment or expression.
That was just her way, Gabrielle had learned through the years, just as it was her way to keep silent until she was forced to speak. The bard considered it an art to make decent conversation with the warrior and she thought she had a good handle on the skill. Walking beside the silent woman now, though, made her wonder about her abilities.
During the meal Xena had declared that she needed to give Argo a workout, which could mean one of two things. Argo could probably use a bit of exercise or, more likely, her master could use some time alone, away from sick villagers and chatty bards. Gabrielle had decided long ago not to let her friend�s need for solitude bother her.
"How far are you going to go?" the bard asked, anxious for any conversation before Xena was on her own.
The warrior took her eyes off their destination and moved them to the golden-haired woman beside her. "Not far. We�ll probably circle the village a few times. She just needs some air," she answered.
The bard�s next comment froze in her throat. A look came over Xena�s face she knew well. That and the little listening, cock of her head spoke volumes. Trouble. "What is it," she whispered.
"Two horses, coming in fast," the warrior answered in a whisper of her own.
Cursing herself for not carrying her staff, the bard ran toward the stable to retrieve it. Since her main job of late had been caring for the sick, she�d decided to keep it in the barn for emergencies. At the moment, it didn�t seem like such a wise decision.
She pulled the door open and rushed in, paying no attention to the surrounding area. Impact with a wide body alerted her to this latest mistake in judgment. The collision sent her sprawling backward into the dirty hay, her rear thumping against the ground. She looked up, thankful to see a grinning Arness standing there, a hand over his stomach.
"In a hurry, Miss Gabrielle?" he asked with a chuckle.
The bard was in a hurry and wasted no time in scrambling to her feet. She darted around his tall frame, pulling her staff from up against Argo�s stall where she�d left it. Arness watched her with interest, his blue eyes tracking her frantic dash amongst the hay. A large hand was running distractedly through the red hair below his hat when Gabrielle grabbed his arm and began pulling him out the door. "Come on, Xena needs our help."
"Okay, okay," he complied as they rushed to the warrior, who was expectantly standing in the middle of the village, sword drawn and ready for action. "What�s going on?"
Gabrielle skidded to a stop beside her friend, stopping Arness with a strong arm across his chest. The warrior cast her eyes to them, giving the tall man a nod. "Two horses," she pointed down the road where the racing horses were coming into view, a cloud of dust rising behind them.
Arness tensed beside the women and drew his sword, matching his stance to theirs. "Those are two of the raiders," he said, his voice full of anger.
Xena rolled her wrist, twirling the sword at her side. The bard turned the staff once in her hands, preparing for confrontation. She knew Xena was ready, the gleam in her crystal eyes was unmistakable.
The first man�s horse barely slowed when it got to them, forcing the group to step back to avoid being run over by the snorting animal. The man atop the mount flew out of the saddle, directly at the waiting warrior. She caught him before he fully impacted her body, using her powerful arms to push him over her head. The limp man landed behind her in a quiet heap.
Gabrielle had taken in the event without moving, waiting as always for the most appropriate moment to help her able friend. And as usual, Xena didn�t need help at all. A weak moan drew the bard�s attention to Arness, who had moved in front of them during the commotion to deflect the second horseman. He was removing his sword from the following raider�s chest, pushing the dying man to the ground with a dirty boot.
She walked to the first man, whom Xena was knelt beside, examining him. "He�s dead," she said tonelessly.
"That fall killed him?" the bard asked incredulously. Their enemies never seemed to die that easy.
"No, he was already dead. Look." Long fingers pulled the mask from his face, revealing drawn features the bard had become far too intimate with. The man looked exactly like the countless number of villagers she�d seen die of the sickness.
"They must have gotten sick when they raided us and come back for revenge," Arness said, squatting beside the warrior.
Xena looked over to the second raider, blood pooled beside his lifeless body. "I take it he was alive?" she asked.
"Yeah, but not anymore," he explained proudly. "Looks like he was sick too, though."
Pulling the embroidered patch off the dead raider�s arm, the warrior examined it closely. "Gabrielle, why don�t you go to the inn while we take care of this," she motioned to the bodies.
"Xena, I�" She started to protest, until she realized it was simply habit and not a real desire to participate in the burial of the dead men. This was another perfect example of a time she enjoyed Xena�s over protective streak. "Okay, I�ll wait for you there."
The warrior nodded and pulled the man up over her shoulder, standing stoically while Arness did the same. Gabrielle watched them strike out into the woods. Not for the first time she wondered how many times Xena had performed this particular rite. She suspected it was far, far too many.
When Xena got to the inn, she found Gabrielle nursing a glass of grape juice in the far corner. The warrior was covered in dirt and grass, a very sour look on her face, even for her. "Xena, I�ll have someone prepare a bath for you," she said, rising from her seat.
"No, I�ll take care of it. You�re forgetting about your date." She pointed a thumb over her shoulder. "He left me to finish so he could get ready." The dark woman grimaced.
Gabrielle�s eyes widened a little. In all the excitement she�d forgotten all about her infamous date with Arness tonight. "Maybe I shouldn�t go after wha�"
The warrior stepped closer, putting her palms on the table, leaning on them wearily and staring at her friend. "I think you should go, Gabrielle. It�s just dinner and I�d like for you to get to know him better," she stated with effort.
Golden eyebrows furrowed. The bard was becoming a bit confused about why Xena was so dead set for her to have dinner with Arness. This had better not be another tactic to push me away, she grumbled to herself. "Are you sure you�re okay?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"Gabrielle, be serious. I�m fine. Now go over there and let that man feed you. If you�re lucky, he might have something other than fish," she commented, a small grin on her lips.
The bard had not even thought of a possible variety in dinner. Suddenly, the evening didn�t seem so positively horrible. "All right. I�m going." She walked around the rickety wooden table, stopping beside the warrior, who straightened in response. She raised a small hand to the warrior�s cheek and brushed a spot completely clean. Xena withstood the treatment with a raised eyebrow.
Stretching as tall as possible, the bard placed a gentle kiss on the olive cheek, pleased by the light blush immediately present. The warrior merely stared at her, both eyebrows now raised, as Gabrielle proceeded out of the building. I may not be winning every battle, but I swear on Zeus�s thrown I�m gonna win this war, she thought with a laugh.
Arness� house was one of the most elaborate in the village, from what she could tell of the other�s ruins. It stood out tall and sturdy among the fallen rubble, black streaked walls the only evidence that fire had raged all around it. Gabrielle knocked on the door and waited.
The hinges creaked loudly as it opened and Arness appeared behind it, his face lit up with a wide smile. "Miss Gabrielle, I�m so glad yer here. Dinner�s almost ready. Please come on in," he ushered her in with a sweep of his arm.
The inside was as elegant as the exterior, the main room filled with delicately carved furniture and precious vases. "You have a lovely home Arness," she complimented, truly surprised.
"Thank you. I�ve worked hard on it. The only thing it needs now is a pretty woman to keep it perfect," he replied, moving toward the kitchen. A moment later he reemerged, placing two large platters on the dining table, which was already set up with plates and utensils.
"Please have a seat, Miss Gabrielle," he motioned toward the full table.
She sat down in the nearest chair, unconsciously picking up the nearest napkin and stretching it over her lap. The amazing spread of food in front of her consumed all thought. Both platters featured an array of red meat, vegetables, and roots. Neither contained one fillet of fish, making her almost sure she was in Elysia.
"This looks great Arness," she allowed, somehow restraining herself enough not to begin filling her plate.
Arness chuckled, then motioned to the food. "Dig in."
She didn�t need to be told twice. After piling selections liberally on her plate she discovered that the food tasted just as delicious as it looked. He�d prepared lamb and beef and potatoes and onions and a fruit salad that must have been picked on Mt. Olympus. Dinner conversation was a light mixture between the bard�s two favorite subjects, food and Xena.
A nervous silence settled over the dinner table after all the cuisine disappeared. Gabrielle didn�t know exactly what was expected of her in the situation, not wanting to appear cold to Arness, but also not wanting to lead him on. She hoped that he only wished for a friendly relationship.
"Would you like to go for a walk," he queried.
The bard sighed inwardly. There went the friendship idea. Moonlit walks are a little more than friendly, her mind reasoned. "Xena expects me back soon," she replied regretfully.
Gabrielle felt her defenses rise. "You asked Xena if you could take me for a walk," she questioned a bit harshly.
Arness put his large hands in front of his chest in a halting motion. "No, no. Of course not. I just asked if it was the kind of thing you liked."
"Good, because I don�t need her permission, ya know. I can go on a walk if I want to," she responded in a huff.
Promptly standing with his hand outstretched, a grin spread over the big man�s face. "Great. Let�s go then," he said happily.
Realizing that she�d outsmarted herself, the bard took his hand and let him lead her into the warm night. They walked quietly under the stars, listening to the chirp of night birds and the cricket�s songs. She wasn�t completely comfortable with the fact that he still held her hand as they crossed under the trees, but it wasn�t an altogether unpleasant sensation. Though he wasn�t her heart�s desire, Arness was a nice man. And this was all Xena�s fault anyway, so there was no reason to feel guilty.
The tall man finally broke the silence. "Do you ever want to settle down and have a family, Gabrielle?"
The first question out of his mouth had to be one of major contention in her mind. Because of the life she lived, and loved, the bard often tried to look away from her basic nature. The truth, however, was hard to ignore. "Yes," she revealed with a sigh. "I love children."
"Has there ever been anyone you wanted to settle down with?" He stopped them at the edge of the village and settled down on the stone wall that surrounded the town.
Gabrielle was relieved that there was at least a safe answer to this question. "Well, I was married once."
Arness looked surprised, his red eyebrows rising to his hairline. "Really? What happened?"
On second thought, she realized, this line of conversation wasn�t that safe after all. Talking about that whole episode always hurt. "He was murdered," she answered, which is all that really mattered. The details were still too painful to go into. Probably always would be.
"That�s horrible," he said sincerely.
"He was a good friend," her voice was quiet. It hurt to never be able to say any more than that, but the description was all she could give her former husband. Anything beyond friend was too far.
He picked up her hand again, holding it gently in his large, encompassing one, stroking the back with his thumb. "Do you ever think you could love again?"
His soft heart struck her. She�d known from the beginning that he was a nice man, but this sensitive side to him was a pleasant surprise. "Yes, I know I can," she affirmed, still unwilling to go any further.
The man stayed silent, sliding his arm around her shoulders, staring into the night sky. Gabrielle knew he was probably getting the wrong idea, knew what his questions meant, but there was nothing she could do. Xena wanted her to be companionable with this man. She wasn�t sure why her friend had so instructed, but there was no doubt a good reason.
Arness� obvious feeling had been building since the first day they met him. He�d worked closely with both her and Xena from the beginning. It had been natural for her to talk to the man and be her normal friendly self. After less than two weeks she�d begun to notice him staring at her with that lonely, sad smile of his. That made her want to be friendlier with him, which she was. Only now did she see why that was the wrong tact to take.
The moon was high in the sky by the time the bard shed her companion and proceeded to the inn. As she approached the building, she could see the outline of her warrior in their window, candlelight flickering behind her strong profile. Smiling, Gabrielle quietly made her way through the full inn and up to the room.
She had to try hard not to burst out laughing when she came into the dimly lit room. Xena was now standing beside the bed, tack in hand, doing her best to look busy and unconcerned. The only problem was that she�d commented proudly just that morning about how she�d finally bent Argo�s bit exactly the way she liked it.
Silly warrior, the bard smirked. Her steps took her directly in front of Xena, who still ignored her, as if her amazing senses hadn�t picked her up a mile away. "Hey."
Blue eyes looked up surprised. "Oh, hi. You were gone an awfully long time," she remarked casually, setting the bit down on the nightstand.
"It seems someone told Arness I liked long walks in the moonlight," the bard replied playfully.
Xena shrugged. "He asked a question, I answered it. I didn�t really think you�d go."
Sensing a bit of jealously, Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and dove into the fray, her tone harsh. "You wanted me to be nice to him and he�s a nice guy. I thought you�d approve."
Xena�s shoulders slumped, her head turning to the ground. "I do. I just�" She didn�t continue as she moved a step closer to the bard. She seemed to try to form words for a moment before she changed the subject. "So what did you do?"
Moving over to the bed, the bard sat down and began unlacing her boots, practiced hands working the laces with ease. "We had a great dinner. You would have loved the lamb. Then we went on your nice little walk and he brought me to the inn. We mostly just talked and stuff. Arness is a good man," she commented mildly, pulling off the restraining footwear.
As she straightened up, Xena stopped in front, her full height stunning from the bard�s position. "What did you talk about?" she asked.
The question, the bard mused, was almost as odd as the warrior�s interested dialog about her evening. "A lot of things, I guess. Food, Athens, stars�Perdicus," she finished softly. She leaned heavily on her muscled arms, both hands gripping the bed frame for support. Even the word was painful, for both of them she guessed.
"Oh," was all the dark-haired woman said as she remained towering over her friend, but there was something in the word that made green eyes scan the face above them, searching for the emotion there she�d never heard before.
"He was a good man too. What I did to him was a mistake, though," she admitted with a sigh. They�d never really talked about that time, when she�d childishly run off and married the kind hearted young man. "I still don�t understand what I was thinking."
"It wasn�t your fault, Gabrielle," the warrior assured her.
Golden hair shook in the stillness of the room. "How can you say that? For one thing, I married him when I wasn�t in love with him and it cost him his life," she rasped.
"Like�like I said, it wasn�t your fault," she repeated, well-masked guilt in her crystal gaze, along with something the bard didn�t recognize. "Why�why did you?"
It took her a minute to figure out what the warrior was asking. Once she did she attempted to pull up the answer she�d rehearsed so many times, but of course it didn�t come. "I, well, I don�t know, really." She shook her head disgustedly again. She did know and hated that she, the bard, couldn�t voice her feelings. "I wanted something I didn�t think I could have and Perdicus wanted to give it to me, even though he didn�t know he didn�t have a chance." She sighed heavily, frustrated at her inability to say what she wanted.
Xena moved forward again, reaching out with her hands, touching one finger to the bard�s exposed chest, then pulling the first laces from her green top. "But you know now, don�t you?" she asked, her voice low.
"Kn�Know what," a shaky voice replied, wide green eyes glued to the fingers pulling the leather straps free from her shirt.
"That you can have that something now, that you didn�t think you could have then." The warrior stopped her progress between the bard�s breasts.
Gabrielle looked up into blue pools that captured her and swallowed hard. "I�m beginning to get that idea." She didn�t even want to analyze the conversation to follow the words exactly. She knew what they both meant and that was all that mattered.
"Good," Xena husked. She placed her hands on her friend�s shoulders, leaning down and pressing her lips softly against Gabrielle�s forehead. "Because when you want me, I�m here."
Her heart was racing as fast as she ever remembered feeling it, even through the most dangerous spots they�d been in. She swallowed hard again, searching for a voice that seemed to escape her in this, the most important moment. "I�I do want you�but," she stammered.
Smiling, the warrior sat down on the bed, pulling the woman into her body with one arm. "I know," she whispered into her ear. "I�m scared too."
Gabrielle returned the smile and could barely contain the laughter that wanted to escape her throat. It wasn�t just the giddy feeling Xena�s touch and the conversation was eliciting, but the flip-flop effect her stomach was experiencing while she waited for her mind to produce a response.
Several moments passed in silence, a state the warrior didn�t seem to mind, and since the bard was speechless, it worked out great. Part of her wanted to disregard those entrenched fears she�d been running from for so long and pull Xena into her arms and get carried away. A bigger part, though, wanted to savor the closeness of her friend, the softness of her words, and the knowledge of how big an event it was for the warrior to recognize her insecurities, much less express them. So for however long Xena wanted to sit like this, she would, and count the breaths they took, and stow the memory away for some rainy, dark day when she needed to remember how it felt to be loved.
The warrior turned her head to the excited yell, trying to hide a grin. Rebecca apparently needed more bait on her hook. "I�m coming," she mumbled, rapidly pulling in her own line.
That didn�t stop the excited woman from peering at her with wide, childlike eyes, shifting from foot to foot impatiently. Despite her normally intolerant manner, Xena couldn�t help but like the little woman. Gabrielle had been taken with her from the start, so she hadn�t had much choice.
"What do you need, Rebecca?" she asked.
"Woms," she declared seriously, her face turned up to the warrior in anticipation.
Xena reached into the bait bucket they were all sharing and pulled out a ripe specimen, dangling it from her fingers, innocently allowing it to swing in the waiting Rebecca�s direction. The short, plump woman took a step back, dark hair flaring behind, her brow furrowing. Carmel eyes shifted suspiciously from the warrior to the worm, then back again as the creature was impaled. "There you go."
Forgetting the possibility that the slimy worm could touch her, such a big concern only a moment before, Rebecca anxiously reclaimed the pole, swinging it behind her immediately for the cast. The hook struck the water before any unseen beasts could steal the bait or air could degrade it, the finely fashioned bobber stopping its progress toward the lake�s bottom. Xena returned to her spot a few feet away from the enthused woman, unnoticed as Rebecca concentrated on the wooden ball floating atop the gently rolling surface.
The warrior cast her own line again, letting the quietness of the morning sweep over her. Ordinarily she wouldn�t bait anyone else�s hook for them. Not even Gabrielle�s. It was an established rule of fishing. If a person was going to be a real fisherman, they had to bait their own line. The warrior didn�t mind making an exception for Rebecca, though. The gesture was mainly for safety purposes. To be kind, the woman was special and hooks could be considerably painful if caught in the right place. She and the bard hadn�t asked any of the villagers the origin of her problems, but there was really no need to. Rebecca�s mind was simple, generous and kind. Anything beyond that didn�t matter.
When they�d established what was going on in the town, they�d found the plump woman in the inn, tending to the sick as best she could, shuttling from one bed to another with a cool pitcher of water. She�d run to Gabrielle immediately, burying her head in the bard�s shoulder, babbling on in an attempt to explain what had happened. Once they got her settled down, they learned that she and Arness were the only ones who hadn�t been affected by the sickness.
A grunt of exertion drew her attention to Gabrielle, who was standing on the other side of Rebecca. Judging from the bend of her pole, the bard was working on a decent sized fish. As Xena decided to pull in her line and go cheer her friend on, Rebecca threw her pole to the ground, sprinting in the bard�s direction, her arms flapping out from her sides.
Taking in the excited giggles with a smile of her own, the warrior elected to give them some time to bring the fish in by themselves. Gabrielle was rearing backward, all her visible muscles tensed, drawing the string in with one hand. Rebecca was standing beside her, hopping up and down, pointing at where the line intersected the water.
A few moments later when the fish was out of the water, shiny green scales glistening in the sun, the warrior felt it safe to investigate. Rebecca was still squealing delightedly, running little circles around the bard and her catch. If she ever caught a fish of her own the gods only knew what would happen.
"Gabielle, Gabielle," she repeated joyfully. It was definitely an odd scene, the warrior recognized, witnessing the unabashed glee and meanderings of the woman, who was several winters older than herself. But at the heart of it all she knew it was sweet, and the smile on Gabrielle�s face as she took the event in made it more so.
Xena stopped beside them, leaving enough room for Rebecca to run through. "Good job Gabrielle. That�s a nice one," she complimented. Taking the line from the bard and inserting a thumb in the fish�s open, gasping mouth. "Didn�t know you had it in ya."
Gabrielle made a face at her. "There�s a lot you don�t know about me," she shot back.
"Ha," Xena snorted. "Like what?"
Rebecca stopped between them, making her presence known. "Gabielle�s a betta fisha than Xena," she asserted.
The bard nodded in agreement and crossed her arms defiantly. "Need I go on?"
"You guys are a riot." The tall woman knelt down to the water, pulling the string of fish close to shore and positioning the new addition on the line. They already had more than they needed for lunch.
"What is a wiot?" the plump woman asked, her face puzzled.
A blank look on her face, the warrior stood up and looked at the bard, indicating that this was her area. Rebecca was her assistant at the inn and they�d developed a code of communication that Xena failed to understand. The simple woman wasn�t a blank slate, but she didn�t seem to grasp words well.
Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder, speaking in a soft, understanding voice. "She thinks we�re funny," she explained.
That put a wide smile on the older woman�s face. "We awe funny," she giggled. She reached out both meaty arms, winding them around the bard and warrior�s waists, and pulled them both into her body. "Xena funny too." She looked up to the warrior for approval.
"We�re funny alright," she drawled, raising an eyebrow at the bard.
"Gabielle tell anotha funny stowy?" Rebecca asked excitedly.
Gabrielle grinned at her excitement. "After lunch I�ll tell a story just for you."
The plump woman released them and began hopping again, her hands clapping together loudly. "Ohh good. Stowy bout Xena," she pleaded.
"I might could do that. Maybe the one about her defeating an entire army single handedly," the bard suggested.
Rebecca faced Gabrielle and took both of her hands. "Does it have soldias in it?"
Frowning, the bard thought hard to translate the word. "Of course it has soldiers. It was an army."
"Oh good. Can Awness listen too? He likes soldias," she requested. Arness was her most active guardian in the village and had a special bond with Rebecca, evidenced by his almost fatherly protection of her.
Xena reasserted herself in the conversation. "How do you know he likes soldiers," she inquired.
Head tilting to the side, the simple woman searched her mind for the answer. "Saw him talkin� to some," she finally answered.
"When," the warrior prompted.
"Don�t know when. Houses were on fire, though." She turned back to Gabrielle, effectively dismissing the warrior and her boring questions. "We go eat now?"
Xena helped them gather the fish and poles silently. Maybe there was more she could do for the villagers after all. Justice awaited somewhere for the men who�d decimated the town and there was no reason she couldn�t administer it.
Trekking back to the inn, a plan began forming in her mind.