DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
If the first season had turned out differently . . . .
Baring her teeth in a mischievous grin, the warrior dismounted and noiselessly crept up on her pretty young victim, who swung her head around an instant too late to avoid being swept up in Xena's embrace.
Gabrielle's arms locked behind her assailant's neck, and she closed her eyes. "Hi," she breathed into Xena's skin.
The warrior gently set Gabrielle back down in her chair, resting one hip on the table as she laced their fingers together. "Hi, yourself." She ran her gaze across her friend. "You look good."
"So do you." Gabrielle reached up and fingered a cut on the warrior's shoulder. "Except this." The question was unspoken.
"Trying out a new move." Xena smiled. "Probably should have practiced it first." She gazed out across Potadeia, what there was of it. "What are you doing outside?"
"Just enjoying the day." Gabrielle placed a hand on the table and used it to pull herself to her feet. "Enjoying it a lot more now," she added. She nodded toward the house a hundred paces behind them. "Come on. I'll get you something to eat."
"I can't resist an offer like that."
Waving off her friend's assistance, Gabrielle reached for the wooden crutches propped against the table. "I've got it," she said, gripping the handles firmly as the women walked slowly toward the house.
Their first stop was the kitchen, where Gabrielle warmed up some stew. Using a cane for balance, she retrieved a bowl and spoon from the cabinet and hobbled back to the kettle. Xena rose and took the bowl from her, holding it while Gabrielle ladeled stew in for her.
"Mmm," Xena said. "This is one thing I've missed." She set down the empty bowl and walked over to the stove, sliding her arms around the smaller woman's back. "One of many," she whispered, stroking soft blonde hair.
Gabrielle steadied herself against the counter and returned the embrace, careful to keep her weight on her right side. She felt her balance start to go, and grabbed Xena's shoulder.
Xena drew back. "Does it hurt?" she asked.
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Let me see." Xena knelt and started to raise the bard's skirt, but Gabrielle caught Xena's hand in hers.
"Not here!" she hissed.
Gabrielle smiled sadly at her. "No, I'm sorry," she said. "You'd think I'd be used to it by now."
With crutches in hand, she made her way to her bedroom, followed by the Warrior Princess. Gabrielle sat on the bed and allowed Xena to reach beneath the long peasant skirt, molding her hands up Gabrielle's left calf before moving up to her thigh. "Not bad," she remarked.
"I do the exercises every day," Gabrielle said.
"But no . . . ?"
Gabrielle shook her head, then shrugged. It was old news. She moved further back on the bed and patted for Xena to join her. Side by side, the two women gazed contentedly at the ceiling.
"How long can you stay?" Gabrielle asked after a while.
Silence followed, and she answered her own question. "Nevermind. It doesn't matter. I'm just glad you came."
There still was no reply.
"I know it probably wasn't convenient."
Xena turned to look at her. Wasn't convenient?
"It's all right, you know," Gabrielle said.
"What's all right?"
"You don't have to keep coming back here to check on me, Xena. I'm fine. Everyone here has been wonderful," she said airily. "I tell stories at the inn, and I have a lot more time for my writing." A genuine smile lit her features, and she turned to share some good news with her friend. "My last story is going to be performed at the Academy this term! Isn't that great?" She resumed her study of the ceiling. "I'm really very happy here."
A lump rose in the warrior's throat. "I'm glad," she said.
"I would like to see you once in a while," Gabrielle said tentatively. "If you're in the area."
Xena closed her eyes. "If that's what you want, Gabrielle, I'll leave you alone."
The bard rolled onto her side to face her. "Leave me alone? I'm not saying--" She shook her head. Did Xena really think that? Gabrielle took a deep breath. Time for both of them to be honest. "Xena, I love you. I want you to be happy. I don't want you feeling like you have to trudge back to Potedaia every few months out of some misplaced sense of guilt."
"Do you really think that's why I come here?"
"I wasn't sure," Gabrielle replied. "But this time, I figured. . . ."
"It's been a while. . . . I figured you were getting busy. "
Xena jerked her head around. "Didn't you get my message?" When Gabrielle shook her head, Xena ground her teeth together, picturing the irresponsible messenger who'd better hope he didn't run into this dissatisfied customer again. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she said. "I sent word. I had to go to the coast with Hercules and Iolaus. It took longer than I'd hoped. They say hello, by the way."
She let the information sank in, and Gabrielle reached out to finger a strand of dark hair. "My point is, Xena, that you don't have to keep making your way back here when I know it's a drag on you."
Blue eyes met hers. "You are not a drag on me. You never have been and never will be." Xena swallowed, and turned away from Gabrielle's gaze. "I guess this is the time to tell you, Gabrielle." She paused. "I don't plan to visit any more."
The blonde pressed her lips together, nodding her head as if she knew the words had been coming.
"I thought I might stay this time."
A moment passed before Gabrielle trusted her voice to manage one word. "Stay?"
"Stay. Here. With you." Xena's heart pounded as she waited for Gabrielle's response.
"You mean live here?"
Xena smiled slightly. "That's the general idea."
Gabrielle brought a hand up to her cheek to wipe away a tear.
"These past couple of years have been unbearable for me, Gabrielle." Xena closed her eyes. "I've wanted to stay before. I came as often as I dared. I was afraid there would be trouble if I stayed too long, but I don't want to be without you any more." She still hadn't received an answer, and Xena was getting nervous. "So, what do you think?" she asked offhandedly.
Gabrielle extended a hand, which Xena clasped to her breast.
"Let's go," Gabrielle said quietly.
Xena raised herself from the bed and offered a hand.
As they stepped out onto the porch, a woman with Gabrielle's face and figure but streaks of gray in her light brown hair approached. "Hello, Xena."
Xena dipped her head. "Hecuba."
"You leaving?" the older woman asked, already knowing the answer.
"We'll be back in a few days," Gabrielle replied.
She nodded. No one knew where they went when Xena came to the village, but the women would return a week later, a happy glow on Gabrielle's face that stayed with her long after the warrior had disappeared again. Hecuba's happiness for her daughter on these occasions was always tempered by the realization of how much Gabrielle missed her life on the road with the Warrior Princess.
She watched as Xena lifted her daughter onto the horse. "I've got you," Xena said, waiting until an arm slipped around her waist to indicate that Gabrielle was comfortable. From the corner of her eye, Xena noticed the pair of crutches clasped in the bard's hand and made a mental note to inspect them before she left. She had never forgiven herself when, two summers ago, she realized several days into her visit that the wood had splintered on one crutch, and Gabrielle's back ached from using the mismatched pair. Working through the night, she had built three sturdy, polished new sets.
At Gabrielle's smile that signaled her readiness, Xena clicked Argo into a leisurely trot.
"She works at it." Hecuba placed two more bowls on the tray in Xena's hands. "But she'll not . . .?"
As she shook her head, the memory of a sword slicing through Gabrielle's tendon flashed into Xena's brain for the thousandth time. Pausing at the entrance to the dining room, she waited for the elder woman to gather up a second tray.
"She tells stories once or twice a week," Hecuba continued. "Travelers are pleased to hear a good bard. Some days she goes with the women to the lake for washing, or takes the young ones for picnics. She can't play in their games, but she keeps them entertained." She frowned. "It's not easy for her, but she's adjusted."
"Of course she has," Xena said dryly. "If there's one thing Gabrielle is good at, it's adjusting." She set her tray down on the kitchen table. They had planned a more elaborate disclosure, but this seemed to be the time. "I'm staying this time," she said simply.
Hecuba couldn't completely conceal her surprise. "Staying? Here?"
Xena nodded. "We're going to build a place."
"East of the stream, near the grove."
"That's a fair distance from the village," Hecuba said. "What about her leg?"
A shrug acknowledged the difficulties. "I'll be there most of the time," Xena replied. "And I'll build her a chariot." She smiled, enjoying the vision of a gold-lined chariot rolling up the path, a fair-haired beauty at the reins.
"Wouldn't you rather be closer in?"
The warrior brought herself back to the present. "It's a good location for security . . . privacy. . . ." She chuckled. "Gabrielle wants to stay out there tonight."
"Tonight? On bare ground?"
At Xena's smirk, Hecuba clamped her lips together, realizing how silly her words sounded.
"You know how Gabrielle is when she sets her mind to something," Xena said.
Hecuba laughed. Xena picked up her tray again and they headed for the room where the family waited.
Two women reclined against the headboard of Gabrielle's bed.
". . . the master bedroom here." Xena gestured with the quill, then pointed to another square. "And the guest bedroom here. . . ."
"Um. . ., they're a little close together, aren't they?"
Xena looked from her friend to the parchment.
"I mean, if Lila or someone comes to visit, she might stay for weeks." Gabrielle cocked her head, both eyebrows raised, and Xena laughed.
"Good point." She pointed to another spot on the drawing. "How about here?"
"I think that would be better." Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Where's the kitchen?"
Xena gestured again.
"That's the kitchen?"
"Yeah," Xena replied, a little defensively. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's too small," Gabrielle said. "I'd have a hard enough time getting around it without crutches." Kitchens were meant to be neither seen nor heard as far as Xena was concerned, but Gabrielle glared at her, jabbing the parchment with her index finger. "We may be in that room two or three times a day, Xena, for hours at a time."
"That's the bedroom, Gabrielle."
The blonde looked down at where her finger rested. "I knew that."
"Really." Xena arched an eyebrow. "When am I supposed to get my chores done?"
Gabrielle grinned, and Xena smiled back at her. "OK. Anything else?" She snatched another piece of parchment from the night stand, and within minutes the structure that was to be their home began to take shape on the page, blue eyes flashing as the warrior sketched.
Impressed but not surprised by the warrior's precision, Gabrielle whispered, "You're amazing."
Xena glanced over at her. "I have--"
"Don't say it." The bard smiled. "I already know it."
Loving eyes watched as the Warrior Princess showed the townsmen her drawing like a proud father. Occasionally, one of the men would gesture with a stubby finger, and Xena would consider his observation, shaking her head or asking him a question.
Gabrielle rose and made her way over to the group. As she drew near, she could hear the blacksmith clearly.
". . . that'd make it easier for her to get outside in the winter."
"Hm." Xena bent over the drawing. "You might be right about that."
She glanced up to see Gabrielle approaching and circled the bard's waist with her arm, careful not to disrupt her balance.
"How's it going?" Gabrielle asked.
"Not bad," Xena said. "These guys know a little about house building."
"Damn straight, missy," Prachias said.
"Yeah, but I can still kick your ass," Xena said absently, making a series of hash marks on the worn parchment with her free hand.
The men laughed, and Gabrielle smiled. Every day that she was here, Xena won over more of her kinsmen. She laid her hand on Xena's forearm, and the warrior looked up at her.
Xena folded the drawing carefully and shoved it inside her gauntlet, then helped Gabrielle to a seat, plopping down with a wide grin across her face.
"I think you're having just a little too much fun," Gabrielle said. She eased her hand across the narrow table until it rested on Xena's, and the pair watched the celebrants in the square.
The drummers began an enthusiastic beat, and Xena glanced over at Gabrielle. The young woman's eyes followed the movements of the spirited dancers, fingers tapping a light beat on the back of Xena's hand. Xena rose and clamped a hand on Gabrielle's forearm.
Green eyes widened when she realized what her friend was planning to do. "Xena, no! You know I can't!" A moment later, she was lifted off the ground and twirled around. "Xena!"
The warrior answered Gabrielle's shout by hefting the bard over her shoulder.
"Xena!" Gabrielle swatted her friend's leather-clad behind, laughing as her hair bounced down around her face.
Lugging her cargo over to the dance area, Xena placed a steadying hand behind Gabrielle's back and leaned forward until the bard slid into her embrace, still laughing. Xena slowly lowered Gabrielle down in front of her, sliding an arm around her waist an instant before the bard's feet would have touched the ground. Tightening her embrace, she pressed Gabrielle firmly against her as they moved together from one end of the arena to the other.
Strong hands slid down either side of Gabrielle's waist, and suddenly the bard was tossed into the air, her shrill protests overridden by her laughter. Xena caught her, twirling her around again, this time ending up with Gabrielle's back against her chest.
"Xena . . .," Gabrielle warned.
With a happy grin, Xena spun Gabrielle around so that the women faced each other and buried her face in Gabrielle's neck. Worried that her friend might be tiring, Xena swept an arm beneath the bard's legs and drew Gabrielle up, settling her comfortably in the warrior's outstretched arms.
Gabrielle draped her hands around Xena's neck, and they smiled at each other. "I wish we had our house built," Gabrielle said.
"It won't be long."
Both women glanced over at the table where Hecuba and Herodotus sat watching the dancers with friends. "They'll be out here for hours," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena snatched up Gabrielle's crutches in one hand and carried the bard back to the house.
The selection in this bin seemed a little better. Rifling through the barrel, Xena paused to examine a square of white cloth. White? "Nah," she decided, grinning to herself. She dug around some more, this time plucking out a swatch of light blue. "This color would look good on her," she said.
"Gabrielle doesn't sew much for herself," Hecuba said, glancing up to examine Xena's selection.
"I know. I think I can whip this up in a couple of evenings."
Hecuba's eyes widened. "You--"
Suddenly, Xena shoved a forearm across her chest and drew the older woman behind her.
"Well, I'll be damned." A large figure, his features mercifully obscured by a dark, full beard, blocked the entrance to the store, with at least three other strangers behind him.
"We heard the Warrior Princess was playing house in some little hole, but I didn't figure it." He eyed the material still clutched in Xena's fist. "You makin' a sun dress?"
There was no reply.
"Remember me, Xena?"
She took a step forward, careful to keep herself positioned in front of Gabrielle's mother. "You smell like some compost I tossed around once," she said. "But then all compost smells alike."
"Gotta give you credit, Tomias," the man called over his shoulder, "you were right. And we're the first to get here." He leered at the beautiful woman standing before him. "We're gonna make a lot of money on you, Xena. You'd be surprised how many people want that pretty head of yours on their table."
She bit back a retort, hoping Hecuba would take the hint and keep quiet. Gabrielle would know what to do, or not to do, but this wasn't her companion.
A movement behind Xena caught the man's attention, and he craned his thick neck for a better look. Xena tensed as he stepped further into the shop, four sets of boots plodding across the wooden floor as the men aligned themselves in a solid barrier between the women and the entrance.
"Who's that with you? Your mother?"
"You're boring me," Xena said. "Let's take it outside and get this over with. I don't want to be late for dinner."
The bounty hunter shook his head. "Not this time, Xena." He nodded toward the woman behind her. "You fight us, and her head hits the floor."
Feigning indifference, Xena quickly calculated the shop's dimensions. "What do you want?" she stalled.
"You" he raised his sword toward her "lie down on the ground with your hands behind your back."
"That's not going to happen."
"You do it, or . . . ." He aimed the sword in the other women's direction.
In one quick movement, Xena reached behind her and shoved Hecuba back against the wall, then flew toward her attackers, taking out the first with a high kick. Unsheathing her sword, she sliced another across the gut, but then realized that Zasias had edged along the west wall and was within inches of Gabrielle's mother.
"Sorry, old woman," he growled. "Wrong place, wrong time." He grabbed the collar of Hecuba's dress and yanked her forward.
Xena faked a charge at the last thug still standing before her, then suddenly flipped backward and landed directly in front of Zasias, driving her sword into his side. He gasped and dropped to the floor, dragging Hecuba down with him. With a quick glance, Xena saw the fourth man fleeing from the shop. At that speed, she could easily overtake him and finish the job, but she had a more important duty. She dropped to her knees, dragging the dead riffraff off of Hecuba's still form and tossing the corpse aside.
Heart pounded wildly as the Warrior Princess reached down and carefully placed two fingers against the older woman's throat.
Sitting on the bed, Xena peered sightlessly at an empty cup in her hands. Her fingers closed slowly, shattering it.
Some time later, she listened to the steady sound of Gabrielle's crutches drawing near. The blonde woman entered the bedroom and stopped, leaning silently against the door.
"Your mother's all right," Xena said without looking up. "Her arm's broken, but it'll heal."
"I know." Glancing toward the wall, Gabrielle spied the warrior's belongings packed neatly into two small saddlebags. With a sigh, she walked toward the bed and lowered herself onto the blanket beside Xena, taking in her friend's resolute face. She closed her eyes.
Xena wrapped an arm around her. "I'll be back for visits when I can," she said.
Gabrielle nodded. "I'll be here," she said. She lay her head on her lover's shoulder. "Always."
Long minutes later, Xena walked out of the bedroom, pausing as her steps took her past the hearth. Setting down her bags, she withdrew a worn parchment from beneath her gauntlet and started to toss it in the fire, hesitating just before it left her fingers. She unfolded the parchment once more and stared at the lines and squares.
Refolding the drawing, she slid it back inside her bracer.
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