Starting Over

 

"this is the age/
when my past should be gone/
but it's stronger than the aims I have/
turning the pages/
I used to hang on to/
I was young and I have changed my mind
and I'm leavin' everything behind"
"Starter" The Cardigans, ©1998 Stockholm Records.

- I -

Nobody raised their eyes from the bottom of their mugs when the cloaked woman entered the tavern except to note her youth and considerable beauty. It was a large market town and the locals were used to seeing affluent merchants and their wives in the many drinking establishments. The business of buying and selling and accumulating wealth was thirsty work and where there was trade there were taverns. There was nothing spectacular about this particular establishment, it was your average, run-of-the-mill tavern, complete with an intoxicated tramp passed out in the corner.

As the obviously well-gilded woman navigated her way towards the bar counter a somewhat inebriated young man staggered towards the tramp slumped over the table in the corner, egged on by the raucous bawling of his equally drunk friends. From their attire they were clearly soldiers, on leave from the nearby barracks just out of town, and judging by their youth they couldn't be more than seventeen or eighteen summers old. The young man came to a halt behind the tramp and, flashing a quick grin at his comrades, tapped the tramp on one raggedy shoulder. "Hey," he jeered, "I hear you used to slaughter entire armies by your sword. Now you can do that just by your stench!"

His friends all erupted into laughter and he joined in. However, when the tramp did not respond or even move, he prodded the prone figure again. "Hey, I'm talking to you. Show some respect for your betters." As he reached down to tap the shoulder once more, the tramp seemed to explode into motion in a flurry of dirt-encrusted wolfskin and suddenly the startled young soldier was being dangled two inches off the ground, his neck held fast in the tramp's vice-like grip.

Immediately his friends scrambled to their feet and awkwardly tried to draw their swords. "Zeus!" The tavern keeper cursed loudly and rounded the bar, charging up to the fracas. The cloaked woman turned to witness the commotion and caught her breath as her eyes took in the tramp's vicious profile. It wasn't the fact that the tramp was female that surprised her. She stared in disbelief, her heart thumping in her chest. Could it be? Maybe under several layers of dirt....

"One step closer and I'll snap his neck in two," the tramp hissed at no one in particular. They all knew she was capable of it too, her arm wasn't even straining at the weight of the young soldier. His friends shrunk back, their weapons low. "Who's better now?" the tramp sneered.

The cloaked woman found herself wandering forward and stepping into the crisis. In the corner of his eye the tavern keeper noticed her, recognising her by her luxurious clothes as a woman of affluence. He caught a glimpse of the richly embroidered linen tunic beneath her cloak that could only have come from Amorgos. "Please, madam, keep back. There might be trouble." He tried to usher her away with his hands and she could see the perspiration beading his forehead and his eyes dancing from the tramp to the panic-stricken soldier.

The cloaked woman spoke without thinking. "Why don't you let me speak to them?" she replied calmly, her voice and eyes conveying some quiet authority despite the youth of her pretty face. The tavern keeper was clearly reluctant so she continued. "I think I can end this diplomatically. If not, I'll pay for any damage to your property." The mention of money was enough to convince the proprietor and he quickly scurried to the safety of the back room. All eyes were now on the diminutive, softly-spoken woman hooded in her cloak of plush wool.

She approached the riled friends of the soldier first, a sympathetic smile on her face. "I know you want to defend your friend's honour," she began in hushed tones, "but that's what got him into this fix in the first place. Why don't you head back to your table and I'll make sure the tavern keeper brings you another round of drinks with my compliments." She signalled towards the proprietor and he set about filling their mugs with wine.

The soldiers murmured amongst themselves, exchanging shrugs. "Well...okay," one of them replied and they hesitantly returned to their seats. Meanwhile the tramp watched the stranger with wary blue eyes that darted continuously. Slowly the hooded woman turned and studied the tramp. How the mighty have fallen, she thought with infinite sadness; hunched, filthy and drunk but still the same person.

"Xena, put him down." The cloaked woman said impatiently and the tramp was so surprised by the exasperation in the woman's tone and the use of her name that she complied, dropping the young man like a sack of potatoes. The soldier was soon forgotten and he took the opportunity to crawl away as fast as his weakened limbs would carry him. The tramp's forehead crinkled in confusion; there was something familiar about this well-dressed woman, her voice, the level green gaze....

The woman drew back her hood to reveal honey-hued locks, a few stray strands catching the light. "Long time no see," the woman said, a small smile touching her lips.

Regaining her composure, the tramp sank back into her seat and resumed her slouching posture. The blonde woman pursed her lips and walked around the table to face the ex-warlord. "I didn't expect a thank-you but the least you could do is say 'hello'," the blonde teased lightly.

The bowed head of the tramp didn't move. "Go away."

But the blonde wasn't deterred, instead she took the seat opposite Xena and waited, knowing full well that she would win this battle of wills. She was proved correct when the older woman eventually reared her head and the blonde was pinned by two chips of blue ice regarding her with distrust. "Did I invite you to join me? Who are you anyway?"

The blonde blinked. She hadn't expected that. "Don't you remember?"

"If I knew I wouldn't be asking you, would I?" the tramp replied sarcastically. She reached for her mug and inspected its emptiness. "I don't suppose you'll buy me another drink too?" She watched the blonde's expression turn to disapproval. "Nah, didn't think so. Worth a try though."

"Gabrielle." She held out her hand for the tramp to shake and when Xena simply stared at her, she retracted it, feeling a little foolish. "You rescued my village from Draco's slavetraders four years ago."

The tramp leaned back in her chair, her eyes showing no sign of recognition. "That was nice of me," she commented indifferently.

Gabrielle searched blue eyes clouded by alcohol for a moment before giving up with a sigh. "Well, I just wanted to say 'hi'. I'd better be going, my sister's expecting me." Of course, why would Xena remember her, a naive village girl who'd snapped at her heels four years ago? Idiot, she silently berated herself.

As she stood and started towards the door, Xena's voice stopped her in her stride. "Wait." The blonde turned but came no closer. She waited. "I think I remember something. You wore a blue top and you had a fiancé. His name was...."

"Perdicus." Gabrielle supplied, taking a few steps towards the ex-warlord. "He went to Troy to fight against the Greeks." She and the brown-eyed farmer had been childhood sweethearts, something they'd both grown out of and they'd gone their separate ways. Neither had shed a tear over it and Gabrielle remembered him only with a detached fondness, like she would a favourite toy or an item of clothing.

The tramp became distant, the past flickering across her eyes. A faint smile curled her lip. "I knew Helen once, a long time ago." There was a bittersweet note to her voice as she spoke.

"Really?" The blonde's curiosity got the better of her and she retook her seat. "Tell me about her."

Xena's gaze hardened and fastened on the younger woman. "I don't tell stories, it's kid's stuff."

The blonde smiled. "I've made a career out of telling kid's stuff. I'm a bard."

The tramp looked at the young blonde, as if noticing her for the first time, then her eyebrows lifted. "Waitaminute. You're that Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle shrugged nonchalantly but was unable to suppress the smile that split across her face. It was true, she was one of the most celebrated bards in Athens, being the only woman ever to have won the prized olive wreath at the Great Dionysus festival; the crowds had been wowed by the three tragedies and the comedy she'd written for performance. Of course she'd submitted her plays under a pseudonym because it wasn't permitted for women to enter the competition. Once her true identity was discovered she was disqualified but her reputation as a great storyteller remained. Now, she frequently did recitals for the most prominent and wealthy citizens of Athens though her detractors grumbled that it just wasn't natural for a woman to be telling stories of Gods and heroes to men. For what did a mere woman know of battle, bloodshed and morality?

The ex-warlord hadn't seen a smile like that for quite some time, and certainly not aimed at her. She was unaccountably warmed by it. At that moment an elderly couple approached the table whispering "it's her, isn't it?" between themselves. Immediately the tramp's nerves bristled and she prepared herself for the onslaught of abuse she would receive. But the couple ambled up the young bard and asked her to sign a scrap of parchment. The bard was completely obliging throughout and charmed the sandals off them. Finally the old woman cast a disdainful glare at the tramp. "We love your stories, Gabrielle, but you really should avoid such riff-raff."

The young bard merely smiled tolerantly. "Thank you for your concern but I can choose my own company." And with that the couple were gone, leaving an open-mouthed Xena staring at the bard. "What?"

The ex-warlord's lips pursed. "I don't need you to fight my battles."

"Hey," Gabrielle responded, raising a hand. "Nobody insults my friends and gets away with it."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "We're hardly friends." She immediately regretted the contempt in her reply when she saw the bard's face drop.

"No," Gabrielle allowed quietly, not looking at the tramp. "But we could've been." She took a breath. "You know, a couple of years ago when I was still struggling to make it as a bard, I wondered what it would've been like if we'd travelled together, righting wrongs and striving towards the greater good." She was staring into space now, envisioning this fictional other life she might have led had different choices been made.

I'm beginning to wonder too, the tramp's little voice added and she clamped down on that thought. "Sounds like one of your stories," she answered jokily.

The bard came back to herself and reddened slightly. "You've heard my stories?"

Xena shrugged. "Who hasn't? Second hand at first. People would taunt me 'saved any babies lately?', stuff like that. So I went along to one of your performances a while back; I had to sit in the shadows at the back so no on would recognise me..." A smile hovered on her lips. "People don't want to hear about me saving your village or protecting a baby from my army. They want blood and guts."

"No, you're wrong. They want to hear about heroism and noble deeds. If I can make them see the good in you, maybe one day they'll change their minds. Right now they're blinded by the past."

The ex-warlord's expression was unguarded and glassy blue eyes stared at the younger woman. "Why are you so keen to save my reputation?"

"I owe it to you. You saved my life." Gabrielle responded simply. And maybe I can save yours too, she added silently.

They sat in silence for the longest time, both consumed by their own thoughts. It was too much to hope for, that people's attitudes would change as a result of Gabrielle's tales. The tramp just couldn't allow herself to believe it was possible. She'd always thought that if she kept her expectations low then she could never be hurt when those hopes were dashed. Now she found with dismay that those expectations were being lifted against her will.

"Do you have any regrets?" Gabrielle asked, disturbing the other woman from her misery.

Millions. "No, none," Xena lied but when she met those gentle green eyes she found she couldn't hold back. "Yes. Too many to count." She was rewarded with a small smile that somehow made her stomach lurch. Green eyes drew her in like nothing else ever had, she ached at the open friendship they offered freely.

She could remember the day she first set eyes upon Gabrielle. In the middle of a fight, outnumbered maybe a dozen to one, she'd stopped still and stared at the pretty young blonde who'd just thrown off her attacker. In that single moment, Xena, Destroyer of Nations, became transfixed by a pair of emerald green eyes, as surely as if one of Cupid's arrows had struck her. It was lust she'd told herself at the time; it had been so long since...The last thing she needed was a quick tumble in the hay with a village girl, so she told Gabrielle in no uncertain terms that she would kill her if she set one foot inside the warrior's camp. Petrified, the girl ran away home.

Four years later, she was still entranced by those green eyes and even more intrigued by the woman that possessed them. Gabrielle may have been a pretty girl then but she was a beautiful woman now; in that short space of time, the bard's beauty had bloomed. It was cruel Fate that the bard had come to her now when the former warrior was nothing more than a common tramp, the object of ridicule of even children, weather-worn, spent and humiliated. She had nothing left to offer, certainly nothing that could make a young, beautiful, rich poet want her. In disgust Xena turned her face away, unable to bear the weight of the younger woman's compassionate gaze.

"If you could go back and change things, would you?" the bard asked gently, watching untold torment playing across Xena's features.

The ex-warlord closed her eyes in defeat. "I wish that I could."

Gabrielle took a breath. "Xena, I'm going to make you an offer and I want you to think carefully before you answer." The tramp opened her eyes to see the nervousness clearly written across the bard's features and her attention was captured. "Recently I've had problems fending off over-eager audiences, and, well, I think it's about time I got some protection. What do you say?"

Xena raised a contemplative eyebrow. "I think you're right. It's better to be safe than sorry."

The bard blinked in confusion. "No, I mean, I'd like you to protect me as a bodyguard. If you want to."

Suddenly the air fled from the older woman's lungs as she stared at the bard. A jolt of something indefinable travelled up her spine. Then the old walls came up. "I don't accept charity," she replied coldly, not destitute enough to forsake her pride.

"It's not charity. I'd pay you a good salary." Gabrielle met frosty blue eyes without flinching. "If you're serious about changing your life, I'm offering you a chance." She looked at the tramp pointedly. "You have to start somewhere." When Xena gave no response, Gabrielle rose slowly from her seat. "Well, if you change your mind, I'm staying with my sister Lila for a week. She and her husband live on a farm a couple of miles south of Poteidaia." Then the bard turned and left, leaving the ex-warlord with an empty mug and an emptier heart.

- II -

There was something oddly comforting about repetitive physical exertion, the ache of her muscles, the prickly heat of the sun on her back as she drew water from the well. It was worlds away from the fawning praise of wealthy statesmen's dining rooms and the rapturous applause of the stage. She could free her mind and allow it to wander.

For six days and six nights she'd waited for Xena to turn up on her sister's doorstep. Tomorrow she would be begin her long journey home, first east by carriage to Acanthus then to Athens by sea, to her small villa in the port district of Piraeus. She knew the ex-warlord would linger in her thoughts like a dark stain that no amount of scrubbing would ever remove. She'd expected...well, she wasn't sure what she had expected of Xena. It seemed ridiculous to pin her hopes on a woman who started brawls in taverns, who spent her days slowly obliterating her past and destroying her future with watered-down wine. But then Xena had made no promises and didn't seem interested in anything the bard was offering: a job, security, a future. Friendship. She was hesitant to add anything else to that mental list though her heart protested otherwise.

Ever since that fateful day she'd met Xena, she had been infatuated and despite the ex-warlord's unkempt appearance, the snarling attitude, she was still every bit as enthralled by the enduring beauty of crystal blue eyes and the painful vulnerability they betrayed. Behind the facade there was a broken soul and the bard so much wanted to heal it in any way she could. She wished she could make Xena forget all the atrocities and grief of the past, to make the older woman proud and beautiful again.

Gabrielle knew what it was like to be alone, truly alone. For four years she'd carried round the image of Xena in her heart; she'd resisted the attentions of admirers and aspiring suitors because Xena haunted her. No one could compare with the hallowed memory of the warrior and it wasn't fair to let anyone think they could. Sure, the bard was no virgin but she never gave away her heart during those meaningless encounters. She'd had lovers who were jealous of what they didn't know and couldn't understand and they accused her of being cold, they said her heart was hard to find.

When there was no more give on the rope she was hauling the pail up on she roused from her thoughts and untied the rope. She'd done this hundreds of times in her childhood, fetching water, running errands, though now it at her sister's and not her mother's request. Lila had married last summer, a young farmer named Elias who was Perdicus's second cousin. It was funny how Gabrielle had achieved modest fame and fortune as a bard, unprecedented for a woman, yet her parents appeared to take more pride in Lila's settling down with a dependable husband. It was hardly surprising considering her mother and father's disapproval of her bardic ambitions. They'd dismissed her tales as child's play and a phase she would grow out of. With a smile, she realised that they would probably say the same thing about her feelings for Xena. Well...it was one of many things they might say. But there was absolutely nothing childish about what she wanted from the other woman, nothing at all.

Her parents had been vocal in their disappointment that she'd let Perdicus 'slip through the net.' Whenever she visited them they never let an opportunity go by without reminding her of her failure in the marriage stakes. She could almost hear her mother's voice in her head; she could see Hecuba's face: lips slightly pursed, eyes stern. "When are you going to find yourself a nice husband like your sister Lila?" And in her mind a snide little voice would reply: "I'd much rather find myself a nice wife." She knew now how Lila had felt growing up, always being compared to a standard she could never quite live up to and how frustrating it was.

As she wandered back to the farmhouse with her bucket she berated herself silently. Why on Gaia's earth would someone like Xena - a celebrated warrior, a feared commander of armies, Ares' chosen - want her? In the ex-warlord's eyes she had seen, just for a fleeting moment, a future together but then Xena had looked away. There was a distance between them that she didn't know how to bridge, if it was even possible. And even if she could she didn't know whether Xena wanted her to try. Well, no, the latter was obvious; that much was clear in the fact that the ex-warlord hadn't shown up.

Gabrielle didn't want tomorrow to arrive. The hours drew on into infinity and anxiety filled her stomach with nausea. Her naive hope, Xena's indifference, the emptiness of the future; none of it became real until the sun died and tomorrow came.

She was so consumed by her despair that she didn't notice the ragged wraith-like figure retreating slowly from the farm and heading back to the road. But when Gabrielle's eyes happened to search the horizon one last time she spotted the ex-warlord and all rational thought fled from her mind. Dropping the bucket immediately, sending water splashing over her skirts, she broke into a sprint. "Xena!" she all but shrieked, the joy of seeing the ex-warlord coursing through her veins. "Wait, Xena!"

The ex-warlord turned to see Gabrielle running ungainly towards her and she could feel a smile stretch across her face of its own volition. She noticed the bard's plain dress, a stark contrast to the finery the bard had worn in the tavern that day. In fact, the bard appeared not unlike the way she had when Xena had first met her. It stuck Xena that she'd come full circle. She'd been emotionally destitute when she met Gabrielle the first time in this village and now, four years later, she was physically destitute too. But it didn't seem to matter anymore.

The bard came to a stuttering halt before her. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to come," the bard managed lightly, after catching her breath. Xena saw right through to the uncertainty underneath. Until now the ex-warlord had wondered why she'd even bothered coming here but the answer was staring her in the face, slightly out of breath and more than a little flushed. She watched, fascinated, as Gabrielle drew a few stray hairs out of her eyes. The older woman was staring, she knew it, but she couldn't help it.

"I wasn't," she replied at last matter-of-factly with a shrug. "But here I am."

"Do you want the job?" Nervous hope was clear in the bard's eyes.

Yes. "I haven't decided yet, I need to examine my options," Xena lied nonchalantly and her gaze met the bard's in a challenge of sorts. "It depends on whether you make it worth my while."

A smile stole across Gabrielle's lips. "I'm sure I can offer some very competitive benefits."

Xena raised one eyebrow. "Such as?"

"Free bedtime story?" Gabrielle offered casually. The ex-warlord bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Was this really happening, she asked herself, weren't they...flirting? "You'd better clean yourself up, I don't employ riff-raff you know." A frown crossed the bard's features. "Gods, I nearly broke my back drawing that water and now I'm going to have to do it all again."

"I'll get it."

The bard brightened. "Okay and I'll go find you something to wear."

They smiled briefly at one another and Xena could distinctly feel the tendrils of the past loosening a little. I love her. The thought wasn't nearly as frightening as she'd expected and for the first time in years she felt alive. Love. The thing she'd spent over a decade running from. She'd seen love as some dark spectre that crept up on her. In her warlord's eyes love equalled weakness. Love made you care about someone, putting their needs and wants before your own, making you vulnerable, only to have that love turn around and stab you in the back. It'd happened to her once in her foolish youth; a young Roman named Julius Caesar had turned her love into hatred against the world. Well, a warlord couldn't afford to love, so she closed her heart and became Xena, the legendary Destroyer of Nations. Yes, she took lovers for carnal pleasure but she used and abused them before throwing them away.

Things were different now. Back then, every emotion had an ulterior motive as did every lover. Now, there was nothing left to take advantage of; she was just a woman - Xena, daughter of Atreus, of Amphipolis - a thirty four year-old woman with no husband and no family to speak of. But she had hope in Gabrielle.

- III -

In the guest bedroom Gabrielle mulled over one of her works-in-progress, a fable about two twins, one good, one evil and the plot to overthrow a kingdom. She chewed the end of her quill, deep in concentration for a moment then she threw the parchment away in frustration. It all seemed so tired and she couldn't bring herself to think about it, much less write it. Maybe she would get her friend Aritosphanes to take a look at it when she got back to Athens. A smile came unbidden to her face. Xena, in all probability, would be accompanying her. Unless you blow it, her pessimistic and irritating inner voice reminded her.

She almost started when the door creaked open and Xena stood there looking almost like another person entirely. Her long inky black hair hung loose and straight, no longer matted and she wore only the blue silk bathrobe that Gabrielle had left for her. The bard had chosen it because the material was the exact same shade of blue as the ex-warlord's eyes. She noted also that the robe only came up to mid-thigh on the taller woman which had been an unintentional oversight on the bard's part. She soon became aware that she was staring which didn't help in putting the curiously bashful Xena at ease.

Gabrielle rose unconsciously from the bed she'd been perched upon. "Come here, I have something to show you." Her feet carried her to the other side of the room where a large travelling trunk lay, padlocked and impenetrable except maybe to the King of Thieves. She'd met him once - a charming man, if a little arrogant. The ex-warlord hung back in the doorway, reluctant to enter the room that was filled with the aroma of Gabrielle's perfume. She watched as Gabrielle produced a key that hung around her neck and unlocked the trunk. The bard waited and, finally, Xena followed, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"Look," Gabrielle said, sensing the other woman behind her. Then she reached down and removed the contents of the trunk and as she turned the familiar scent of burnished leather filled Xena's senses like the sweetest perfume. Immediately her eyes snapped up to search the bard's. Surprise, joy and distrust warred for supremacy but she didn't dare allow her gaze to fall upon the leathers in Gabrielle's outstretched arms.

"Take them, they're yours," Gabrielle prompted, a smile brushing across her lips. She examined the ex-warlord's expression carefully, not at all certain she should be doing this.

Glacial eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Is this some kind of trick?"

Gabrielle met distrusting blue with sincere green. "It's no trick," she assured. "You'll see." Her voice never wavered in its gentleness and Xena found herself wanting to believe it.

Reaching out tentatively, she touched the leathers and then recoiled as if burned. After a moment her hand ventured forward again, fingers remembering and finding the leather to be as smooth as the day they were purchased some fourteen years ago. Their new owner had obviously taken great care of them. She wondered if the same could be said of Argo, her old war-horse whom she'd sold soon after leaving Poteidaia. A twinge of guilt tugged at her weary conscience, one more heavy regret.

She returned from her reverie. "Where did you find them?" The words were little more than a whisper.

A full smile graced Gabrielle's features and the warmth of it suffused the ex-warlord. "Where you left them." The bard ducked her head sheepishly. "I spied on you the day you left my village and I saw where you buried your gear. The next day I went back to the same spot and dug them up." Her eyes lifted to meet Xena's astonished stare. "I've kept them with me ever since."

"Why?" Wonder threaded Xena's voice. Could it be that Gabrielle had carried around the same hope that the ex-warlord unwittingly had?

The bard shrugged. "For luck, I guess. They seem to protect me for some reason." She paused, gauging the older woman's reaction. "I like to think I was keeping them for you too; I thought you might want to reclaim them one day." Once more she held out the bundle and this time Xena accepted them with trembling hands. She looked down at her old fighting kit, rememberence rippling in her mind. So many fights and victories, so much blood and death; these leathers bore witness to it all. The taverns, the carousing, the seduction of many. She shuddered at the memories, the old passions that once ruled her so vivid even now.

"Do you still have my weapons?" the former warrior asked hoarsely, more overcome than she cared to show. Gabrielle nodded in the affirmative. "Can I see them?"

After a brief rummage the bard removed Xena's sword and chakram from the trunk. "I hope you don't mind my polishing them," Gabrielle said shyly.

The older woman smiled absently as she took her old sword. She'd always felt, since burying her weapons and her former life that day, that a vital part of her was missing; like an arm that'd been amputated, she could still feel the weight of it sometimes. She knew now that she could never erase her past or who she had been, who she still was. This was it, the sword defined her and everything that'd been out of kilter was slotting into place. She closed her eyes. It was as if she drew power from the cold steel in her hands, she could feel the energy thrumming through her body, every nerve and muscle coming alive. It was almost as if she'd never put the sword down.

Taking a breath she opened her eyes to see Gabrielle studying her expectantly. Without a word she handed the sword and leathers back to the the bard. "Don't you want them?" The younger woman asked, clearly confused.

"Maybe later." Xena wasn't quite ready to embrace her past just yet. Those items served no purpose to her now and it seemed an insult to the old Xena to hold them now in her degraded state. She wasn't worthy of them...or maybe, they weren't worthy of her now. She was a changed woman and the lure of battle no longer interested her. When you've had it all, what left is there to want but nothing?

She could see Gabrielle was awaiting an explanation but she wasn't sure if she could give an adequate one. "They're hers not mine. Do you see?" She searched the young bard's eyes and was relieved to find them warm with understanding.

The bard nodded slowly. "I think so." She gazed at Xena apologetically. "Maybe I shouldn't have shown you them."

"No," the ex-warlord replied emphatically then smiled and Gabrielle was stunned by the way it transformed Xena's features. "I'm glad you did."

A sudden boldness possessed the bard as she basked in the other woman's smile. "I have to admit I'm kind of disappointed. I wanted to see you in your leathers again," she quipped and felt a blush creep up her neck as Xena slowly arched one eyebrow. It was a gesture that she was beginning to enjoy the sight of. A lot. She was bolstered by the flirtatious smile that she received in response from the ex-warlord. "I remember the day we met so clearly, though you weren't wearing much at the time." Gabrielle paused, cocking her head thoughtfully. "Maybe that's why I remember it."

That earned a laugh from Xena, a throaty chuckle that crawled up the bard's spine and left her tingling from her head to her toes. It moved her to confess part of what was on her mind. "I thought about you often," she revealed quietly and she waited with her heart in her throat for Xena's reaction. Damn, her little voice interjected snidely, if that doesn't drive her away then nothing will.

The ex-warlord's good humour slipped from her face. "I never thought much about anything," she replied flatly then met Gabrielle's square in the eyes. "I wish I could say the same about you." She reached out amd gently clasped the younger woman's hand and Gabrielle was staring at her with wide, trepidous green eyes. "I want to thank you for what you've done for me, for making me see who I am."

The bard swallowed convulsively. "Is this your brush off, thanks-but-no-thanks speech?" she asked in a light tone that belied her world crashing down around her. She could feel the sob beginning in her throat and she blinked to clear her eyes.

"No," Xena quickled assured her. "Gods, no." The bard's relief was almost palpable and she covered the ex-warlord's hand with her free one.

"I had to do it. You liberated my village and inspired me to see the world. I would never have achieved my dreams if it hadn't been for you." Gabrielle squeezed the other woman's hand for emphasis. "I owe you so much."

Xena smiled and the bard was lost in the warmth of cerulean blue. "Then we owe each other." The ex-warlord's eyes flicked from Gabrielle's smiling face to their clasped hands and back up. "I'd be honoured to protect you. I'll take the job."

The bard gaped a moment then, exclaiming a joyful squeak, threw her arms around an astonished former Destroyer of Nations to hug her fiercely. Xena awkwardly returned the gesture, her body torturously aware of holding the younger woman so closely. As abruptly as it started, the embrace ended and the ex-warlord was torn between relief and disappointment. She forgot to decide between the two emotions when Gabrielle rewarded her with a sheepish grin.

A thought popped into the new bodyguard's head. "Tell me one thing."

"Mm?" The bard replied as she moved to replace Xena's old gear in the trunk.

Blue eyes wandered unconsciously to the stooping young woman's shapely rear. "You don't really need a bodyguard, do you?"

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. "Well...there is this one guy that gives me the creeps, he goes to every performance and sits in the front row grinning stupidly at me. Oh, what's his name?" she asked herself, pausing to search her memory. "It begins with J...Joxer, that's it!" She flashed a smile at Xena. "Does it matter that my life isn't exactly in peril?"

"No." The bodyguard replied, raising that delectable eyebrow again. "But I do expect you to provide those free bedtime stories."

 

The End