DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess belongs to Renaissance and MCA. Theseus and Pittheus belong to the ages. All original characters belong to me, for whatever it's worth.
TIMELINE: In case it isn't immediately obvious, this takes place in Season 2 between the episodes "A Necessary Evil" and "A Day in the Life".
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Gabrielle felt like crying.
More and more frequently now as she was laying out her bedroll, or cooking whatever Xena had managed to catch for dinner, or chewing on the end of her quill in the face of an increasingly uncooperative scroll, the memory would come back to her. Something seemingly inane would conjure a frantic string of connections in her overactive mind, and suddenly she was living it all over again: the confusion, the panic, and the million other emotions that she tried so hard to deny.
Xena had left her.
Gabrielle wanted, tried desperately, to see it any other way, but the fact of the matter was that Xena had lain down at the foot of Mount Nestos and given up, leaving her with only the cold comfort of the healer Niklio as he tended to her wounds and to the preparation of the body. Then, before Gabrielle had even had time to come to terms with the loss, Xena was back, strong and warm and as if she had never left. And then, without warning, Velasca had come so close on her heels, then Callisto
But the worst part was that none of these was the reason Gabrielle felt like crying. Because as horrible as the sight of Xena's broken body had been, or the inhuman shriek of vengeance behind Velasca's wrath, or Callisto's hand clamping down around her own as she emerged, with a psychotic grin, from the temple roof
The only thing Gabrielle could think about was the kiss.
The bard shoved angrily off from the log and began pacing the campsite, Argo's soft eyes following her lazily as she went.
"Stop it, just stop. It didn't mean anything."
That was what she had been trying to tell herself for nearly a week. That Xena had just been happy to see her again, or trying to comfort her, or that it didn't really count because she'd been in Autolycus' body she stopped pacing with an exasperated sigh.
"I have to accept that Xena doesn't feel about me the way I feel about her." Gabrielle let out a breath that, under other circumstances, might have been a chuckle. "Why should she? She's the Warrior Princess and I'm what? Some little village girl who wanted to tag along and play hero. I'm nobody."
A horrified pall fell across her face. "I'm worse.
"I married Perdicus. I dedicated my life to him, I should have loved him. And now he's dead because of it." Her voice was little more than a whisper. "My husband is dead and all I can think of is her." She swiveled her head toward the mare's dark, intelligent eyes. "Am I a terrible person?"
Argo whickered noncommittally. Gabrielle dropped sullenly onto the log and rolled her eyes.
"Thanks. You're a big help."
The crack of underbrushsounds she knew she wouldn't even have been able to notice a year agosignaled Xena's approach.
"The perimeter's clear. This trade route's under the protection of the city of Troezen, so we shouldn't have anything to worry about until we hit the coast."
As the warrior eased herself onto the log and began to draw the whetstone rhythmically down her sword, Gabrielle couldn't help but notice things about her friend she had been trying hard, especially of late, to ignore: the way Xena's dark, rich hair fell lightly around her face, the inviting pout of her lips as she concentrated on her routine, the way the firelight reflected off soft leather and the sculpted bronze flesh of her exposed thigh
"I have to go! Get more firewood. I saw we need more firewood."
Before Xena could react, Gabrielle was up from her seat and all but sprinting into the dense forest that surrounded the camp.
"Be careful," she shouted halfheartedly. When the younger woman's silhouette disappeared into the night, Xena tossed down her sword and walked over to Argo. Gabrielle had been edgy as Tartarus for the last week, and seemed to be growing more so every day. And you know damn well why, she berated herself.
Xena had accepted that Gabrielle didn't feel as she did. It was why she had tried to let her go to Perdicus with love and understanding even as she died a little at the unwitting image of their wedding night. She thought she had become all too good at hiding her feelings. But then she had seen Gabrielle again, and she had been so delighted, so overcome with the thought that the bard actually needed her, that she had forgotten to control herself for one beautiful and terrifying moment. And now Gabrielle could barely even look at her.
Xena leaned into Argo's flank with a sigh. "I never should have kissed her."
With the setting sun behind it, Lycos looked exactly like every other tiny fishing village they had traveled to. That, Xena thought wryly, or she had just been on the road for so long that they were all starting to bleed together.
She glanced down at the redhead plodding along beside Argo. Gabrielle's face was obscured by her hair and the waning light, but Xena was coming to know all too well the distant, inscrutable look that was no doubt on it.
"Hm?" When the bard turned to look up at her, Xena realized she didn't actually have anything to say; she'd just wanted to to hear the sound of the uncharacteristically quiet woman's voice.
"I, uh I was just wondering if you wanted to do any shopping before we headed for the inn. I know you needed some things."
"Actually, I'm kind of tired. I think I'd rather do it in the morning, if that's all right."
Xena swallowed and tried to keep her voice as neutral as Gabrielle's. "Of course."
As they neared a seedy, rundown inn that seemed to be their only option, Gabrielle broke off toward the door. "I'll get us a room. You can go ahead and take care of Argo."
Xena nodded lamely as the bard walked away. "Okay."
Gabrielle chanced a last glance backward, and was rewarded with a momentary flash of thoughtful, liquid blue eyes boring into her before Xena's silhouette disappeared around the side of the tavern. As she pushed open the heavy door, Gabrielle sighed. The look in the warrior's eyes had unmistakably been one of concern; Xena was worried about her. This couldn't go on anymore.
Gabrielle took another nervous gulp of her wine. It was her second cup, but unlike the rest of the rowdy patrons neither her eloquence nor her nerves seemed much improved by it.
This was as close to Poteidia as they would be in the foreseeable future, so it made sense to do it tonight, before it was too late. That was of course, she contemplated, if she could even go back to Poteidia. If her naïve desire to be with Xenaand to be with Xenahadn't ruined that chance as well. Gabrielle took another drink.
Xena shoved the door to the inn open with a bit more force than was necessary; as it reverberated against the wall with a crack, conversations stopped and every eye in the house swiveled toward her. Most immediately turned back to their own tables, disinterested, but she noted a group of men at the back who continued to cast glances in her direction as she walked to the corner table Gabrielle had selected. Xena frowned silently to herself. Just what she neededattention.
She took the seat opposite Gabrielle's, and nodded in thanks as the bard slid a mug across the table to her. Gabrielle was staring down into her wine, and for a long moment neither broke the silence that seemed to drown out the frivolous conversation at the tables around them. Xena cleared her throat.
"Sorry I took so long. They didn't have a stablehand, so I had to take care of Argo myself."
"That's all right." Gabrielle swallowed the last of her wine in one gulp and inhaled slowly, eyes still on the table. "Xena, we need to talk."
Xena's heart clenched painfully in her chest. "I know. Look, Gabrielle, I rea "
"No, please, Xena, let me get this out, all right?" The normally formidable warrior bit her lip and nodded, and the bard took another deep breath.
"Look, Xena, we both know things have been different since we since you came back." The warrior nodded. "And, I don't want you to think that I mean, you know that you're my best friend, Xena. And I'd never want to make you feel uncomfortable, or to do anything that would ruin that friendship "
Xena could barely hear her over the rush of blood through her head. "No, I know that, Gabrielle, but the last thing I want is for you to feel like you have to"
"Please, Xena, just " The bard was almost in tears. "Nothing can change the fact that you're the most important person in my life. And I know you don't but I don't see how I can be wi travel with you and just pretend not to feel like I "
As Gabrielle's words dissolved into choking sobs, Xena instinctively reached out toward her quivering face, only to be stopped in mid-motion by a meaty hand on her shoulder. The warrior steeled herself and spun around to face whoever had unwittingly offered her a temporary reprieve from Gabrielle's inevitable rejection.
The man was a mismatch of unwashed hair, dirty linen, and ill-kept leather, with a wicked scar on his cheek and an unnecessarily jewel-encrusted sword lashed to his belt. Xena couldn't help but roll her eyeshe might as well have had 'lackey' tattooed on his forehead.
"No, I'm Princess Diana. I got tired of life in the castle." When the thug wasn't able to figure out it was sarcasm in the first few seconds, Xena sighed. "I'm Xena. What can I do for you?" Wait for it
Right on cue, the man pulled his sword and grinned. "You can die."
As soon as the mercenary's sword was drawn, the tavern erupted into panic.
"Take 'em all! Get 'em outside," the man turned to shout to his accomplices rising from the back table. Then he spun back around and, with a triumphant battle cry, brought down his sword. Then he was more than a little confused.
Before he had time to retrieve the sword that was now buried halfway through the wicker chair in which the Warrior Princess should have been sitting, he felt a hand close around his throat. "Looking for me?"
With one snap of her arm, Xena sent the man crashing into what had, before he hit it, been a perfectly useful table at the opposite end of the room.
"Gabrielle " Before she even knew what she was going to say, Xena heard a muffled crack and spun back around to see one of the other thugs tottering away from the bard, clutching his nose in pain. Xena couldn't help but smile.
The four remaining slavers, however, were already herding frightened tavern-goers out the door; by the time Xena managed to fight her way through the hysterical crowd, half of them were already outside.
One of the thugs passed within Xena's reach, a tactical error he was left to contemplate as he flipped back to land, head first, against the bar.
The rest of the thugs followed their leader as he picked himself up from the rubble and limped toward the door. "Get 'em outside! Let Magrus deal with her!"
When the companions trailed the crowd out into the freezing night air, Xena put up an abrupt hand to keep Gabrielle from stepping out of the inn's shadow. What looked like most of the village had been pulled out into the square, huddled together to keep back from the horsemen riding circles around them. A flabby man dressed head to toe in silks he obviously didn't know the value of broke through the circle, charger snorting and peasants shrieking as his voice boomed out over the courtyard.
"People of Lycos, do not struggle! You have all been selected for the great privilege of serving the army of Magrus the Conqueror, scourge of the Peloponnese. You should feel honored to be in the presence of a legend!"
"What a coincidence "
Xena's preparations to strike were undone as all attention turned to the cadre of armed horsemen who had somehow, without warning, appeared at the edge of the square. A smile lit their leader's handsome, weathered face.
"I was just about to say the same thing."
No one without Xena's eye for strategy would have been able to comprehend how the battle ended so quickly. To those who didn't appreciate the timing with which the riders wedged between their opponents, forcing them to circle away from each other or be trampled, and who didn't understand the difference between a trained horseman and a meer soldier on horseback, it was sufficient that Magrus the Conqueror, scourge of the Peloponnese, and his best warriors were disappearing into the darkness with their tails between their legs.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, their tension momentarily forgotten in the excitement; the bard shrugged, and they stepped out of the shadows.
The town's exaltations of the now dismounted leader quieted slightly as the two women appeared, and the crowd parted as the man moved toward them.
"My Lord, these women were in the tavern. They fought Magrus' men."
The man nodded warmlynow that she saw him up close, Xena realized he couldn't have been much older than Gabrielle. "Then I must thank you. That kind of bravery is a rare quality these days "
When it was clear why he was looking at her, Xena started. "Oh, Xena. And this is Gabrielle."
"Xena? The Warrior Princess?" The young man shook his head in disbelief. "Then this is indeed an honor. Please, I know it's late, but I would be honored if you'd share a meal with us before we head out for Troezen tomorrow."
Xena and Gabrielle were both so occupied breathing a sigh of relief that they failed to notice the other woman doing the same. Gabrielle was the first to speak. "We'd be honored, Lord "
"Oh, forgive me." The man smiled again. "My name is Theseus."
Xena waved good-naturedly as Theseus and the men she had since learned were the Troezen royal guard bid them goodnight. In all the tumult, her conversation with Gabrielle had been pushed aside; Xena didn't know whether to be relieved or even more terrified than before.
Thanking the gods for the two small beds at opposite ends of the room, Gabrielle knocked off her boots and slipped under the covers, fully clothed, with a muttered 'Good night, Xena.' All the courage she'd managed to work up had been wasted by those slavers, but the bard knew they would still have to finish the conversation sooner rather than later.
Even as she chastised herself, Gabrielle couldn't help but take a surreptitious glance as Xena peeled off her leathers; she sighed. It could wait until morning.
Theseus greeted the approaching warrior with a broad smile; Xena nodded warmly in response. "Theseus, setting out so soon? Not going to bask in the glow of your adoring fans?" The youth blushed.
"My men and I have to get back to Troezen as quickly as possible. Then we can report to my grandfather and go back out after Magrus."
Xena leaned toward him as she prepared to saddle Argo. "Your grandfather?"
"King Pittheus." He set down the brush he had been drawing across his horse's mane. "You see, I never knew my father. When I came of age, Mother told me that he was the king of Athensnow I have to go there to claim my birthright." He shrugged. "But I can't do that until I know the city is safe, and for that to happen I've got to stop Magrus from raiding wherever he pleases."
Xena chuckled. "You sound like a real hero."
At that, Theseus grinned confidently. "Oh, I will be. Someday. Right now I'm just trying to do what's right."
Xena thought on this for a moment as he slipped the saddle onto his horse. "Listen, Theseus, what do you say we ride with you to Troezen? Gabrielle and I are already headed that way, and we've had some experience with thugs like Magrus."
"I I'd be honored. I'm sure my grandfather would welcome your help."
Xena nodded, watching as he led his horse from the stables. Maybe this little detour would give them both some perspective.
Xena's gaze was drawn away from the road once more as Theseus laughed aloud at whatever Gabrielle had said. She hated to even think about it, but the vague and unfamiliar burn of jealous that was rising in the pit of her stomach was proof enough that the coming confrontation was necessary. As Xena watched the two of them riding ahead of the main group, something slipped into place in the back of her mind. Xena narrowed her eyes as she watched them, and thought.
"Then, Xena burst into the barn, ready to tear the last two bandits limb from limb."
Theseus grinned as he waited for the bard bobbing on the adjacent horse to continue. "And?"
"And we didn't know that the farmer kept his chickens in there at night." Gabrielle chuckled. "We go in, Xena's battle cry spooks the birds, suddenly they're flying everywhere, so thick I couldn't even see, the bandits are shrieking for their lives, so Xena starts punching anything that gets within reach "
The prince's eyes widened. "You're joking "
"I really wish I was. I found feathers in odd places for a moon afterwards."
Theseus guffawed, then slowly quieted as he watched the look in Gabrielle's eyes. "You really think a lot of Xena, don't you?"
It was only then Gabrielle realized what she had been talking aboutalmost exclusivelyfor the last candlemark; telling stories of their exploits had become such a habit that she hadn't even thought about it. When she did, her smile faded, and an imperceptible blush crept up her cheeks. The bard cleared her throat.
"Say, what about you? You must have some interesting stories."
Theseus squinted at the sudden change in subject, then shrugged. "One or two, I guess. I remember once when I was a boy and we went out to the coast "
As Gabrielle listened to the prince reminisce, she couldn't help but smile. Nor could she help but think that, only a moon ago, she had been this way with Xena: talking as they went, jokingthough admittedly Gabrielle had done most of thator just letting the time pass in companionable silence. Now, the silences were unbearable; each moment that passed on the road left Gabrielle closer and closer to merely screaming out 'Why don't you love me?' at the top of her lungs.
At least then it finally would have been over.
King Pittheus was, if not a particularly great leader or skilled conversationalist, at least an exceptionally generous host. Gabrielle felt positively stuffed with more varieties of fish, vegetables, and waterfowl than she had known the names of, and her eyelids were already beginning to drift shut.
She heard a soft clink to her left, and looked up to see Xena with her hand on the door to the adjacent room, looking away guiltily. The bard sighed.
"Gabrielle, I" "Xena, we"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "You first."
"I, uh, just " Xena cleared her throat. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."
Okay? Am I okay? With my heart being torn to shreds moment by moment and the only person I've ever been able to love too disgusted to even look at me? How in Tartarus could I possibly be okay? "I'm fine."
Neither woman had moved the hand that lay on her room's door.
"King Pittheus really knows how to pamper his guests."
Gabrielle cracked a smile. "Yeah, a girl could get used to this," she joked.
Xena nodded evenly. "And Theseus seems like a good man."
"I really think he is. He told me all about his family and his mission. That's going to be quite an adventure. Wouldn't make a bad scroll, actually." Now that she had thoroughly convinced Xena that she was indeed all right and no more stilted conversation seemed forthcoming, Gabrielle pushed the door to her room open with a click. "Well, good night, Xena."
As the door slid closed behind the redhead, the last component of an inevitable plan settled into Xena's mind, and she sighed. It would no doubt be painful, for both of them. But it was for the best.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
"You take the other group and move around the north entrance to the clearing."
Theseus looked down skeptically at the rough map the scout who had come to them just after sunrise had made. "If Admer's group's going to be on the east flank, shouldn't we be on the west?"
Xena shook her head. "No, that would force them up against the cliff wall; if they won't surrender and don't have anywhere to run, they'll feel obligated to fight to the death. We don't want a bloodbath."
"Speak for yourself." When Xena squinted up at him, Theseus shrugged. "Sorry. But you have no idea how long this coward's been terrorizing our villages. Some of the stories I've heard would " He let the thought drop as his eyes fell back to the map.
Xena's focus strayed to the slight form barely visible at the center of a laughing mob of Theseus' soldiers. "Speaking of stories."
"She's certainly been good for morale. It's a shame you two can't stay a while."
Xena forced down the swell of pride that invariably came when she saw the little bard with an audience wrapped around her finger, and took a deep breath. That was her opening.
"So that means you wouldn't mind having Gabrielle around."
"No, on the con what are you saying, exactly?"
Xena sighed. No point in being discreet. "The truth is, I don't know if it seems like the things we've been through are driving us further apart every day. I it might be better easier for both of us if she had somewhere."
"Are you saying what I think you are?"
"She might not understand at first. But eventually she'll see it's for the best."
"Xena, you should "
His words snapped when Xena straightened to her full height, crumpling the map in one hand while the other checked her scabbard. "We should ready the troops."
Theseus stood, sparing one last glance into the warrior's eyes. "As you ask, Warrior Princess."
"Anovestes, more wine! And bring me that map, we hit the lowlands next. Let's see the prince get his fancy horsemen"
Magrus looked in the direction his lieutenant was pointing. The woman who was suddenly standing at the mouth of his camp crossed her arms and smirked. "That's her, sir! The woman from the tavern in Lycos!"
Magrus forced an air of indifferenceyou didn't get to be the most famous warlord in the South by letting them see you sweat. "Welcome to my humble camp, my lady. What brings you here so early in the morning? So alone?" Magrus grinned. "So armed?"
Xena mirrored the warlord's aloofness perfectly. "Oh, I just thought I'd be fair and give you one chance to surrender before we run you out of here. Again."
Magrus' face flushed. "I surrender to no one, woman!"
Xena's smirk deepened. "Yeah. I'd heard that."
As soon as the warrior woman drew her sword, all Hades broke loose.
And as the first warhorses crashed through the underbrush and his men began scrambling for their weapons, Magrus wondered if perhaps they couldn't take some time out for parley after all.
The raucous party that had been spilling across the castle since the war party had returned showed no signs of slowing down, even so long after sunset. Xena wouldn't have minded sticking around a little longerparticularly since she was quite certain that it was only a matter of time before the good king Pittheus made a royal ass of himselfbut it would be easier, on all fronts, if she left now.
"You're not even going to tell her yourself?"
Xena stopped short of the stable door at Thesesus' voice, and sighed. "I can't. If I tried, I wouldn't be able to leave."
"So you expect me to do it?"
"This is better for everyone, Theseus. You have to understand that if you're going to make her."
"Oh, I understand. You're a coward." Xena froze. When she turned, Theseus felt like her icy glare was pinning him to the wall. He shook his head. "I've heard stories for years. I thought the Warrior Princess wasn't afraid of anything. Now I find out you're not even willing to"
Theseus slammed against the floor as Xena's fist completed its arc. But when he looked up into the warrior's eyes, he could see the glimmer of tears trying to escape their prisons.
"She knows it's true. Tell her that I tell her it's better."
Theseus rubbed his aching cheek and could only watch in silence as the Warrior Princess walked away.
Gabrielle leaned against the wall of the banquet hall, wishing that any of the cheer she felt wafting around the room could reach her little corner. As she watched soldiers and courtiers twirl around the floor in each others arms, each couple more drunk than the last, the bard steeled herself. It was time. She was almost to the door when Theseus stepped in front of her.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk."
"Can it wait, Theseus? I really need to talk to Xena." It was only then that Gabrielle bothered to look up at the prince's face, at the slowly spreading bruise on his cheek and the sad, sympathetic look in his eyes. "What is it?"
"She " Theseus sighed. "She says it's for the best, Gabrielle."
Before the prince could attempt to either console her or clarify, she wasn't sure which, Gabrielle was running toward the stables. Deep down, part of her acknowledged that Xena was right. This way was best.
But the part that was driving her feet toward the stable and tossing a saddle on the back of an unfamiliar mare knew that there was no way in Tartarus she would let Xena get away with this again.
The warrior cursed to herself when she heard the panicked voice and the drum of hoofbeats on the dark road behind her. She couldn't do it. Not like that. It was better this way.
Xena kicked Argo's flank and the mare began to run.
Gabrielle had no doubt that Argo was faster, but the horse she had chosen knew the roads. Whenever she caught a glimpse of Xena's dark silhouette around the next bend in the road, she pressed harder. Then she got her chance.
Xena assumed at the time that it had been a root or a rock, but for the rest of her life she would never be free of the nagging suspicion that Argo had done it on purpose. Regardless, when the palomino tumbled forward onto her knees, Xena had to fight to keep hold of the saddle. And by then the other horse was upon her.
As Gabrielle came around the bend, Xena sighed and dismounted. This wasn't how she'd wanted it to go.
Before she was even steady on her feet, Xena felt herself being pushed back, Gabrielle's palms slapping against her chest.
"How dare you?" Tears were streaming freely down the bard's cheeks. Gabrielle pushed her again. "What did you think, you could just leave me all alone? Again?"
Xena had to clench her teeth to keep from crying herself. "You weren't alone. I wouldn't do that to you. Theseus promised " Xena sighed, and finally looked up into the bard's eyes. The green was burning with a fury she had never seen before. "We couldn't we both know you don't really want us to be together."
That stung. Gabrielle reeled back. "Oh, right, because I'm just some stupid little farmer's daughter who doesn't know what she wants, right?"
"Gabrielle, I "
With a stubborn exhalation, Gabrielle's sobbing stopped as, shaking her head, she turned back to her horse. "Well, fine, Xena. You're right."
Gabrielle climbed slowly back into the saddle. "You're the only person I've ever fallen in love with, so I couldn't possibly know what I'm talking about."
The sound of Gabrielle's horse had almost faded into the forest by the time her words sunk in. Love. Doesn't know what she Xena paled. The look in Gabrielle's eyes when they'd spoken in the tavern. What she would have heard in Gabrielle's words if she hadn't been so convinced that
The wind rushed past as Argo pumped her legs as hard as she could. Since she didn't have the disadvantage in time that Gabrielle'd had, catching up to them was proving almost too easy.
Xena took the last turn between them recklessly, swinging Argo around in front of the other horse. When it settled, Xena pulled the palomino up alongside until she was facing Gabrielle. The bard's eyes were red, her hair whipped around her face by the wind, her lip quivering somewhere between rage and grief. And Xena had never seen her look so beautiful.
"What? I thought you wanted to make it a clean" Gabrielle's scalding words disappeared against Xena's lips.
The kiss felt exactly like the first, the one that had started all this pain a week ago that night. First, she felt surprise, shock, fear, then a sudden spike of lightning down her back. Then all she felt was Xena.
Then Gabrielle pulled away.
"Don't." Gabrielle was close to crying again. "I don't want to pretend, Xena. I don't want to make you pretend"
The kiss felt nothing like the first two. Xena poured everything she could, everything she felt, into the touch. Her hands cupped Gabrielle's face like they had in the temple of Asclepius in Thessaly, when she had almost lost her. When she had first known. Her lips made up for the kiss she'd wished they could have given at Gabrielle's wedding, when she thought she'd made peace with the idea that she could live with the bard as just a friend. And Xena felt like crying.
When she finally managed to pull herself back, she was staring into Gabrielle's eyes with absolute certainty. "We need to talk."
Gabrielle's hand snaked around the back of Xena's neck, her fingers finally running through the warrior's silky hair, her eyes finally seeing what had been in Xena's all along. The bard shook her head softly.
"That's the last thing we need to do."
As Gabrielle pulled her in again, Xena couldn't help but smile. Who was she to argue with that?
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