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With hair as black as midnight
Pools of ocean blue were her eyes
"No, that's not it," the bard muttered under her breath. She tapped her chin in thought, before dipping her quill in the inkpot and trying again.
With hair as black as midnight
And eyes of azure blue...
"What are you writing?" The low voice murmured in her ear. Gabrielle gave a startled yelp, and hurriedly hid the scroll behind her back, turning on her friend.
"Xena! Don't scare me like that!" The question made her remember the exact words on the scroll, and she blushed. "How, how long... I mean, I, ah... didn't hear you come in."
"I can see that." Those pools of ocean blue regarded her in amusement. Xena nodded towards her writing desk. "Having some trouble?"
"A little," she replied, watching as the warrior knelt down, and began rummaging in her pack that was stashed under her bed. Then suspicion dawned on her. "Xena, you weren't reading over my shoulder, were you?"
Xena suddenly stopped what she was doing. Gabrielle could see the hurt look on the warrior's face when she turned her head. "Gabrielle, I would never read your private scrolls if you didn't want me to. You know that."
Gabrielle was surprised to see that the pain was genuine... surprised, and a little guilty. She reached out to touch her friend on the arm. "Yes Xena, I know. I'm sorry." The hurt disappeared in a quick smile, before Xena rose and began gathering their clothes from the cupboards.
Gabrielle watched her for a moment, still regretting her brief outburst. But how could she tell her best friend that the paranoia came from having to compose her greatest work thus far in secret, the 'Ode to a Warrior Princess?' How could she tell her about the last time that they were with the Amazons, when Xena had locked herself in to talks with Melosa, that Eponin and Solari had taken her aside during the feasting to explain a few things about Amazon traditions? An explanation that had turned into a demonstration... and given the amount of wine she had drank, very nearly a participation, had Ephiny not hauled her out of there. It had been a smirking Ephiny who had given her some scrolls to read, scrolls by the poet Sappho. And how could she tell her, that now her ode was dwelling uncomfortably long on the softness of the Warrior Princess' skin, and the incredible beauty of her face when she awoke bathed in sunlight?
She suddenly became aware of what Xena was doing. "Are we leaving already?" she asked.
They had just gotten into Decelea that morning, on the trail of a bandit who had robbed a temple of Zeus. Decelea was a rough mining town, populated by former veterans of the Athenian army. Even so, she would have been surprised had Xena gotten them into enough trouble already, for them to have to move on so soon.
Xena shook her head. "No, not yet. We might have to by tonight, though."
"Why? Have you seen Rakus?"
"Yeah. He was swaggering around with his bunch of blockheads on the other side of town. This is the only tavern in the village, I reckon he'll be in here tonight."
"I'm surprised he isn't here right now." She began to help her, stuffing shirts into their packs. "So what's the plan?"
Xena smiled, a smile that could only be described as predatory. She reached over, and picked up a cup that was sitting upside down on a shelf. Gently rattling the contents, she undid the leather hide that was stretched across its mouth. Two ivory-carved dice, yellowed with age, slid out onto her palm. Two sixes.
Gabrielle looked up at her. "So we're not going to beat him senseless, take back the gold and hand him over to the local authorities?"
"Gabri-elle... you're the one who's always telling me that I shouldn't settle my differences with violence."
"I didn't mean you should try gambling instead! Xena, we should at least hand him over to..."
"Who Gabrielle? Have you even seen some sort of local authority around? There's no guards, no militia, no jail. The men here settle their differences with a brawl out in the streets. As far as they're concerned, Rakus has some money and we're trying to take it from him. Besides, we'll have to haul him back to Oropos to face a magistrate, and I doubt we'll make it that far without some of his men trying to rescue him. Look, I know Rakus. We'll win back the money, threaten him a little, and he'll be too scared to show his face for months. He's a thief and a lecher but he's too cowardly to be anything else. We'll keep an eye on him, and the next time he tries something like this, we'll be ready."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Fine. What do you want me to do?"
"Gabrielle..." Her tone was soft, as she reached out and placed her hand on her shoulder. "If you have any ideas, I'll like to hear them. I just couldn't think of any other way without anyone getting hurt."
"No... Xena, you're right. We're just... not in a good position to do what we normally do." She resisted the urge to rest her head against the hand that clasped her shoulder. Strong, tanned hands with long, slender fingers that... She shook her head, and forced her eyes up to the clear blue gaze. "How can I help?"
"If something goes wrong, bring your staff and get ready to back me up. But if all goes well..." She grinned, and ruffled her hair. "You can be my lucky charm."
It was well past sundown when Gabrielle slipped into the common room of the tavern again. Argo was saddled, and had been tied to a post at the front of the building, in case they needed to leave quickly. Gabrielle sat down at an empty table, and asked a serving girl to bring her some ale before taking a look around at the other patrons. The tavern was filled with men, groping at serving girls who deftly slipped out of their grasp. A scowl that she had learnt from the year or two she had spent with Xena - along with the Amazon staff propped up on the wall behind her - was enough to keep them from approaching her.
Not Rakus, though. The unkempt bandit was sitting a few tables away, drinking with the rest of his men. His eyes brightened, when they fell on her, the only woman in the room. He began to get up, when the crowd fell into a hush.
Xena was coming down the stairs.
Gone was the playful, bantering though oft exasperated best friend. Instead, she radiated a dark and dangerous presence; an almost lazy menace filling every movement that she made. When she came to stand by Rakus' table, not saying a word, he slowly lowered himself back into his chair.
"Hello Xena." Rakus drawled. "I heard you were looking for me. Never thought you'd be interested."
"Is that why you kept running, Rakus?" Her low voice was like a velvet caress, barely covering the steel underneath. "Afraid to be with a real woman?"
Rakus laughed easily, not appearing to hear the snickers of his men. He kicked out a chair for her. "Sit, sit. It's always a pleasure to talk with old friends. Unless..." He leant forward, eyes gleaming. "If you meant what you said, I could get us a room." Xena just looked at him, an eyebrow raised, as she took the seat that he offered. With another chuckle, the bandit leader sat back. "I didn't think so. Tell me... what do you want, Xena?"
"I heard that you came into a large sum of money recently..." she began.
"An inheritance from a rich old uncle."
"No doubt." Xena commented wryly. She took out her dice cup, and placed in on the table. "I'll like to play you for it."
Laughing, Rakus folded his arms and looked at her. "Xena. I just came into a large sum of money. What makes you think I want to lose it all already?"
"So sure you'll lose, Rakus?"
"I'm not the one with many skills."
"Then I'll have to make it worth your while." From somewhere else, she took out a bag of gold, hefting it in her hand to prove its weight. "You get two to one odds. On every roll."
That same hungry gleam appeared in the thief's eyes, as he unconsciously licked his lips. "Well now... that does make it interesting."
"So we're on?"
"Yeah... we're on." His eyes flicked between her, and her money pouch. "Just not with your dice."
'By the gods... this is so not good.' Gabrielle thought, burying her face in her hands with an almost inaudible moan.
The night had started promising enough. Xena's first come out roll had been good, and they had won that round. But then... the warrior princess' many skills and her much famed luck had seemed to desert her, her fingers fumbling the dice as often as not. But Gabrielle could see that she wasn't losing often enough to arouse suspicion from the thief, and she had kept plying him with drink, enough to keep his eyes glazed over. And enough for him to willingly bet much more than he had stolen from the temple of Zeus. Gabrielle could only pray that it all added up to a larger plan that she had in mind.
It was almost midnight, when Rakus drained the rest of his cup, and stood up. "Well Xena, it's been fun. But I have to leave now, and get to bed."
"I never figured you to be a glass of warm milk and an early night in type of person, Rakus."
"Well... no, I'm not. There's this lonely widow whose bed I thought I might get to..."
"Come on, Rakus." Gabrielle heard the impatience, and perhaps a hint of frustration, in her friend's voice. "Double or nothing."
"Sorry, Xena." He looked pointedly at the small stack of coins by her side of the table. "You've got nothing I want."
"Really?" Her voice lowered to become a sultry contralto; she gazed up at him and took a deep breath. "Look again."
Rakus wetted his lips in thought, trying to think his way through the motives behind her offer. But not normally a calculating man, the haze of alcohol currently fogging his mind emphatically eliminated any hope of that. However, he was sober enough to know that any man would be a fool to refuse what Xena was so obviously offering... but any sane man would be even more of a fool to accept. He looked around again, and then his eyes fell on the bard. "I heard you had picked up a little sidekick. Gabrielle, isn't it? I want a night with your little friend."
Gabrielle jumped up. "Xena!"
"Quiet Gabrielle." Xena didn't even look at her.
Rakus laughed. "Too bad you didn't know Xena in the old days, little girl. She never liked to share her pets. Guess that's changed now."
Gabrielle sat back down, her ears burning. But she had to trust her friend to have some sort of plan in mind that she had just not revealed. If not... the weight of her staff was comforting in her hand, the night may end in a fight after all. Her thoughts remained grim. 'Boy, is Xena going to get a good talking-to.'
Xena reached for the dice cup, then paused. "You know Rakus... why don't you roll first?"
"No, I insist. Ladies first."
Xena looked at him.
He grinned weakly, as he picked up the cup. "Guess not."
As the dice rattled in the cup, Gabrielle looked up to see that several of Rakus' men were leering at her, no doubt wanting to get in on the action. Standing as if to get a clearer view of the dice game, she made sure that she had enough room if she needed to swing her staff. The bandits responded in kind, withdrawing their own weapons and unsheathing swords. Around them, there was a mad scramble as the other patrons of the tavern hastened to get out of there, wanting no part of the violence that the tension so obviously promised.
Throughout it all, the two players sat oblivious, watching only each other. Xena remained still, her face seeming to have been carved from stone, but the thief's eyes darted nervously, sweat beginning to bead on his brow. Rakus licked his lips, and released the dice. They danced crazily across the tabletop for a moment, then rolled to a stop.
"What?" The thief jumped up so suddenly that he knocked his chair to the floor behind him. He stared accusingly at the warrior princess.
Xena held up her hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Now Rakus... it was your dice, and you were the shooter. I couldn't have done anything, surely."
She did nothing more than sit there, looking at him. But her features had hardened subtly, those blue eyes turning as cold as ice. The threat of danger was now tenfold, and radiating from her alone.
Rakus stopped himself in the process of backing away from the warrior, and barked a laugh. "I guess not. Well, I know when I'm beaten." He tossed his money pouch onto the table. "Goodbye, Xena. Can't say it's been a pleasure." Xena merely nodded, keeping her eyes on him as she reached for the coins. And he wasn't finished yet, turning to leer at Gabrielle as his parting shot. "Your loss, little girl. I could have taken you to heights you never dreamed."
Xena was suddenly there, covering the intervening space without any care for the time it took. She slammed him against the wall, her hand pinning him there by the throat. A dangerous glint danced in her eye. "You're mistaken, Rakus. I never meant her." With her free hand, she reached down and withdrew her breast dagger. "This is my little friend, right here. In fact, I've just named it Gabrielle. Wanna say hello to Gabrielle?"
"H... hel... hello, Gabrielle." Rakus said faintly, as her hand tightened inexorably on his windpipe.
"You want to spend a night with my little friend? Huh? Do you?"
Rakus swallowed, and closed his eyes. "No Xena," he croaked.
"Good." She let go of his throat, dropping him to the floor. And punched him in the stomach hard enough to knock the air out. Rakus immediately doubled over with a loud cry of pain. "Now get lost before you make me really angry." Still clutching his midsection, Rakus stumbled out of the tavern, his men crowding close at his heels.
Gabrielle could see the tension flowing out of Xena with their departure. Looking around for the first time, the warrior acknowledged the empty tavern with a rueful smile. She hefted the thief's money pouch in her hand. "Not too sophisticated a hustle, huh?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "People say that a swan is a dumb animal. But a swan is as smart as it needs to be."
Xena gave her an odd look. "Thanks for the comfort," she said dryly. "I think I'll keep working on it for next time though." She began gathering up her own dinars, and slipped them into the same pouch, obviously intending to return all of it to the temple.
She turned around at the sound of Gabrielle's voice. "What is..." To meet the bard's fist solidly colliding with her mid-section. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle hid a wince, fighting the urge to shake the pain from the hand that had hit leather and metal. And couldn't Xena have at least pretended that it had hurt? But she drew herself up, hot fire burning in her green eyes as she stared at the warrior princess. "How dare you make me believe that I was going to be the prize in some bet?"
"You could have at least told me what you were planning!"
"Instead, you had to make me be all threatening! And I was worrying myself silly trying to figure out how we could get out of this! I... ooph." The words were cut off, by a hand clamping itself around her mouth. Gabrielle found herself pinned against the wall - though much more gently than Rakus had been - staring into deep eyes of azure blue.
"Gabrielle, I would never let anyone hurt you. You know that! I love you!"
The bard had heard those words from Xena before, but never said with as much intensity. Indeed, Xena seemed surprised by her own vehemence as she released her, unconsciously backing away a step.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. It was time to roll the dice.
She kissed her.
Back when she had been a simple peasant girl, she had never thought about kissing a woman. She supposed that it had been frowned upon in a small village such as hers, but more to the point, relationships between two women just weren't thought about. But she had seen so many things in the time she had traveled with Xena, seen love flourish between the unlikeliest of people, and it had all clicked into place the last time they were at the Amazons.
She loved Xena, and knew that Xena loved her back. They had uttered the words often enough, but the emotion was more frequently conveyed in their every look and action. Their relationship transcended any physical boundaries; she just knew that there wasn't anyone she respected and admired more than Xena, and she would go to Tartarus and back for her. But now, Gabrielle realised that she wanted to take their relationship into a different direction. Not further, not back... just different.
The kiss was soft and moist and sweet, so unlike the few fumbles she had with the boys in her village. She could sense Xena's surprise at first, but the warrior princess melted all too easily, her hands rising from her hips to tangle in her hair, drawing the bard even closer. She brushed her tongue against Gabrielle's lips, seeking entry and they willingly parted for her. The kiss deepened, momentarily... then they parted.
They were silent for long moments, looking at each other. It was Xena who spoke first. "Gabrielle..."
The bard smiled, and reached out to press her fingertips against her lips. "You kissed me, warrior. There's nothing you can say to ever change that."
In spite of herself, Xena smiled as she reached up to move the fingers off her lips, letting the hand nestle in her own. "I did kiss you. I just never thought..."
"Things change, Xena. This is one of those things. I love you."
Xena took a deep breath. "We need to talk."
Gabrielle nodded. "We will." She slipped her arms around her neck, tilting her head down for another kiss. She suppressed the fleeting sense of victory as Xena surrendered to her, her lips parting almost eagerly. "Later."
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