Then is there mirth in heaven, When earthly things made even Atone together. -As You Like It, V.iv
"Gabrielle...." Xena's voice was low and threatening. "If you don't stop that this instant, I'm going to kill you."
"Hmm? Oh...sorry," Gabrielle said distractedly, breaking out of her reverie to set aside the quill she had been tapping against her teeth for the last ... how long had it been? She looked at the dying fire, then at the darkened sky. "When did it get so late?" she asked in surprise.
"When you were daydreaming, I guess," Xena replied, poking at the fire.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I was enjoying the peace and quiet," the warrior growled in mock annoyance. She looked up in surprise when her jibe failed to elicit a reaction. "Gabrielle?" The bard was once again lost in thought. Xena watched her in silence for a moment, wondering what it was that occupied her friend's mind so completely. She briefly considered trying to shake it out of Gabrielle -- or, better yet, returning to the Amazon village they had just left and shaking it out of Ephiny -- but at last decided to leave it alone. Gleaning the workings of another person's mind, even a person she knew better than anyone, was not Xena's forte. Leave that to the bard and her "sensitive chats." She'll tell me what's going on when she's ready, Xena thought uneasily as she stretched out on her bedroll.
Gabrielle barely noticed her companion's actions. Her thoughts were completely occupied with her recent conversation with Ephiny. It had been frustrating, enlightening, encouraging, and disheartening at various intervals. Gabrielle felt more confused than ever, something she wouldn't have thought possible.
It wasn't that Gabrielle was innocent. She had known for a long time that her feelings for Xena had moved beyond the childish hero-worship of a young girl who followed a warrior with more stars in her eyes than sense in her head. Beyond the admiration of a poet for a hero. Beyond even the love of a woman for her friend, sister, companion, mentor. And however inexperienced she might be, Gabrielle hadn't spent all that time with the Amazons without coming to the realization that it was possible for two women to be lifemates, soulmates, and bedmates.
But somehow it had never occurred to her that Xena might feel the same way -- never, that is, until Gabrielle looked into Autolycus' eyes and realized that he himself had, so to speak, just arrived. That he had not kissed her. Since that realization, Gabrielle's life had been one long nightmare of hypersensitivity. Travelling with Xena had become torture. Well, not the actual travelling itself: the moving through unfamiliar terrain, the villages, the people, the battles; all those were tolerable. It was when they were alone together, when they built a fire and sat together in a camp, that Gabrielle began to feel like she imagined a wolf would feel at the beginning of the hunt. Or was this perhaps how Xena felt all the time, her senses tuned to every nuance of change in the atmosphere, her entire body hyper-aware of every other living thing in her vicinity? Gabrielle lived in an almost constant state of low-level arousal; whenever Xena's hand or hip accidentally brushed her, she felt it like a bolt of lightning that started in the deepest pit of her stomach and spread its heated tendrils outward to each extremity.
Gabrielle looked at the parchment in her hands and reread the first lines of the poem she had just begun:
Lying in my bed I hear the cock crow and think of you
Caught up in circles, confusion is nothing new
flash back warm night, almost left behind
A parcel of memories, time after-
Sometimes you picture me, I'm walking too far ahead
You're calling to me, I can't hear what you've said
Gabrielle stared at the parchment for a moment, then retrieved her quill and wrote:
You said go slow, I fall behind
She racked her brain for a suitable rhyme, but nothing more was forthcoming. She sighed, set parchment and quill down again, and sank back into her contemplations.
More than once Gabrielle had almost given in to the temptation to simply lean over and kiss her friend...or, more suited to her talents, to say something. But it was so easy, when the thoughts roiling through her mind became unbearable, to form the words in her mouth, and so hard, looking into her friend's face, to actually speak them. And she was plagued, too, with doubts: what if the older and more experienced Xena didn't want to get entangled romantically with a na´ve young woman? What if Xena had considered making a move, but had rejected the idea out of hand? What if Gabrielle was imagining all the little (and not-so-little) signs of mutual attraction?
All this had changed, though, this afternoon during her conversation with Ephiny. In an unguarded moment Gabrielle had let her frustrations slip out, and the conversation that ensued had opened her eyes in more ways than one. For one thing, it seemed that the entire Amazon nation considered Xena and Gabrielle to be lifemates; Ephiny had been quite surprised to discover that they were not lovers. For another thing, Ephiny felt it obvious that Gabrielle's attraction to Xena was reciprocated. And, perhaps most startling of all, Ephiny offered her queen an explanation for Xena's lack of response that Gabrielle had not considered.
"She's scared, Gabrielle." Even now, hours later, the young bard could still hear the words echoing. She vacillated between amusement, astonishment and horror at the idea. Xena scared of me? Harmless little me? Scared of the way I make her feel? Is it possible? As she prepared for sleep, Gabrielle allowed the disorientation of the concept to wash over her once again. She supposed it should make things better, clearer, but it didn't. She felt more confused than ever.
Drifting, her thoughts turned back to that moment when she had pulled back from what she now thought of as The Kiss and seen Autolycus looking down at her with Xena's emotions in his eyes for the barest moment: tenderness, renewed resolve, and ... yes ... love, and also ... what? With the flawed hindsight of several months later, Gabrielle tried in vain to analyze the momentary expression. Was it fear? Mingled, perhaps, with arousal? Had Xena seen the arousal on Gabrielle's face and felt encouraged, or had she mistaken Gabrielle's surprise for horror and felt rebuffed? The bard shook her head in consternation. The look had passed fleetingly, replaced with Autolycus' own expression of mingled curiosity and dismay. One could almost see him thinking, "Oh crap, I kissed Gabrielle...she's going to kill me!"
Straying even further down the tangent path of her mind, Gabrielle thought about men. Things are easier with men, she reflected wistfully. I always seem to know what they want. She snorted quietly to herself. That's because they always want the same thing, Gabrielle! she thought. She shook her head. How much easier this would be if she were a man. Well, maybe she was being naive again, but it certainly seemed that way. Men never ... well, rarely ... had trouble making their wishes known, especially when it came to Xena. Granted, those wishes involved killing her at least as often as bedding her, but still....
You're fooling yourself, Gabrielle, she thought as she reluctantly lay down on her own bedroll. Face it, nothing's going to make this any easier. Sooner or later, you're just going to have to tell Xena how you feel and hope to Tartarus she feels the same way.
And on that unnerving thought, she drifted finally off to sleep.
Xena heard the soft scritching of Gabrielle's quill, then the rustle of parchment, then a soft sigh. A long moment passed. Then Gabrielle gave a quiet snort and lay down, and in another moment her breathing slowed. Xena rolled onto her back and stared at the sky.
Unlike her less observant friend, Xena was well aware of what the Amazons thought about their relationship. She had allowed the misconception to persist mostly by default, because she was at a loss for how to correct it; and besides, it gave her a secret pleasure. Now, she felt reasonably sure it was this misconception that had formed the basis for the long, intense conversation between Gabrielle and Ephiny. As she watched the tree branches dance sinuously in the breeze above her head, she tried to convince herself that it didn't matter how Gabrielle reacted. After all, she, Xena, had faith in the strength of their friendship. It could survive anything. Couldn't it? You'll never know, will you? Coward. She winced at the thought and closed her eyes, trying to push aside the tactile memory of Gabrielle's sweet soft lips. But the sensation, which was still as fresh as if it were still happening, followed her unrelentingly down into Morpheus' domain.
Gabrielle was awakened rudely from an unsettling dream (in which the squid from Cecrops' ship became little troll-like creatures that shook their tentacles chidingly at her and demanded to know why she hadn't settled down with some nice young man) by the sting of a swordpoint at her throat. She opened bleary eyes and stared uncomprehendingly up at the steely blue glare of the Warrior Princess.
"Who are you, and what have you done with Gabrielle?" Xena demanded in her most dangerous tone. Gabrielle grimaced and tried to blink sleep from her eyes.
"Xena," she croaked, "what is this, another test? Isn't it a little ear-" Her words faltered as the sound of her voice made its way through to her brain. She lifted her head, as far as the sword would permit, and stared down the length of her body. She heard a faint ringing, saw flashes of black light at the edges of her vision, and then nothing.
Gabrielle was unconscious, so she never saw Xena's expression change from fierce to confused to dawning comprehension to alarm. The tall warrior dropped her sword and fell to her knees beside the small, fair-haired, green-eyed, freckled, young ... man ... on Gabrielle's bedroll.
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