Xena knew her reputation preceded her. Though it used to sting, now she couldn't say it was all that bad. It definitely had its uses, at the very least keeping away all but the most foolhardy thugs whenever she and Gabrielle walked into a new town.
Still, Xena could never quite let her guard down, never be seen intoxicated or as anything less than top form. So she held herself to one ale only the few times a year Gabrielle coaxed her into an evening at a tavern. After such indulgence, Xena kept strictly to water.
Now, Gabrielle, on the other hand. Gabrielle. Either she didn't feel so compelled to keep up her fighter's façade ("Everyone just thinks I'm your sidekick anyway—if they've even heard of me! S'why I don't need to look like a Big Bad Warrior everywhere we go," she once explained tipsily after Xena teased her, yet again, about her low tolerance) or knew that Xena secretly got a kick out of becoming a tougher and tougher bulldog as Gabrielle got herself roaringly drunk and began to lose what little public modesty she had begun the evening with.
It always went the same: One ale in, and Gabrielle would be entertaining the whole bar with a tale, adding new flourishes with every sip from her second mug. Two ales in, and Gabrielle was into her next tale, bawdier than the first, and performed at top volume while standing on the bar. Three ales in, and Gabrielle was dancing like no one was watching, swaying with her eyes closed tight and face in rapture, as Xena swatted would-be dance partners away like gnats.
Four ales in and, well—the world would never know. As soon as Xena spotted Gabrielle stepping off her little patch of self-made dancefloor and starting to stumble toward the bar, Xena would glide into her path, and catch Gabrielle in a gentle hold. Then she would lean down to Gabrielle's ear and speak barely above a whisper, only adding enough gravel for the young woman to know she was serious. "I think you've had enough."
Gabrielle would shiver slightly; Xena almost came to look forward to that. And Xena could feel her tense, feisty, as if for a fight—sometimes she would even push against the warrior's unyielding grip or try twisting in her arms, testing her limit. Xena never held her too hard, just enough to mean business. And Gabrielle would inevitably soften and lean into Xena's body, never resisting too hard, just enough to mean she only relented when she chose to.
It was all the permission Xena needed to shift Gabrielle's arms around her neck, lean down to put one arm under the smaller woman's knees, lift her up in one careful motion.
Gabrielle would inevitably try to curl closer to Xena's chest as the warrior carried her up the tavern's staircase to their waiting room, and bump her nose or lip against a hard breastplate. Xena could tell how far gone she was by her small yelp, sharp or drowsy.
But last night. Last night. Xena would never admit it to a soul as long as she lived, but she'd let her guard down.
Now, the evening had started off like any other. Like clockwork, Gabrielle had her first ale down and had the bar patrons holding their sides with raucous laughter. Xena sat in the back and smirked at the especially funny bits, scanning the crowd for men—or women—who might get too handsy with a bard who was being particularly adorable that night.
When she determined the threat level to be low, Xena allowed herself to lean back in her chair, propping one booted foot up on the table and sipping contentedly from her cup of water.
As soon as Xena had leaned back, a set of watching eyes from across the room locked onto her and determined the clearest path to the warrior. Almost before Xena could blink, her pursuer had made a bee-line for her. The attack was unexpected and merciless—and something she should have been able to ward off if her instincts had only launched her into action seconds earlier.
As it was, Xena was caught momentarily defenseless. In a flash of realization, too late, she knew that her attacker had been lying in wait for a long time—perhaps even years—for just this kind of slip in her defenses.
Xena nearly fell off her chair as Gabrielle jumped into her lap.
"Gabrielle!" Xena growled and quickly sat up straight, pulling herself out of her comfortable—too comfortable—position.
When she looked down to see the younger woman stay rooted and simply grin, willfully settling herself more comfortably against leather, Xena pushed herself up from her seat, drawing to her full height with another growl, looking around them to see how much of an audience they had drawn.
Xena could at least give herself some credit—were she actually inclined to half-measures—for having the presence of mind to keep her vigil from the tavern's most shadowed corner, as was the usual plan. Let their table's candle flicker down to low light, just like she should have. Kept her presence inscrutable, unapproachable—just the way she knew would keep an invisible barrier several feet in all directions.
Now, a breach. She could sense a few interested eyes that had followed the evening's entertainment across the room. She bristled; she let a stabbing glare hit every other corner of the room, until she sensed each onlooker turn away. Later, as she ruminated to the rhythm of sword sharpening, she'd reassess her entire defensive strategy.
But for now, she'd have to focus on the matter at hand. A woman giggling against her chest, too proud of herself. A woman who tenaciously clung to Xena's neck, had never let go, now standing pressed to her front armor, head turned to rest on its breastplate.
Xena looked down with a frown, brows forming a stern line.
"Gabrielle. What are you doing?"
In response, all she got was another grin and two green eyes lit with mischief.
Then two hands dropping from around Xena's neck to run down her arms lightly, lingering over the leather arm gauntlets and braces, and coming to rest on the backs of Xena's hands.
Xena's hands tingled. She flinched as she consciously stopped their instinct to turn palm-to-palm with Gabrielle's, to entwine her calloused fingers with a softer, more delicate pair.
Not here. Not safe.
Yet Xena didn't pull away. It wouldn't go unnoticed, she knew. So she did what she always did in unknown territories: she stood stock still in the near-darkness, controlled any breathing that threatened to betray her, and observed quietly. Gabrielle's eyes flickered to one hand, then the other, her energy not tense like Xena's, but intent and waiting. Curious, it seemed, to see what would happen next.
"Have you ever considered that there isn't a safe time to be around you?" The bard's words from a couple years back echoed ironically in the warrior's mind now. A smile ghosted onto her lips. She looked to her right side to make sure her sword was still within arm's reach.
What's the worst that could happen? Someone gets too close and I wave my sword around, knock together a few heads? She let her smile grow.
Gabrielle's eyes followed the entire internal exchange, intent on Xena's face. Her eyes were warm and intense, like she was reading her favorite scroll.
"Xena… Are you blushing?" Gabrielle's voice was musical with humor.
"Gabrielle, you didn't drink any ale?" Xena ignored Gabrielle's question about the obvious flush that had darkened her cheeks, and chose to ignore, also, how Gabrielle had settled her head back down to Xena's shoulder.
"Mmmmm…nope." Gabrielle hummed her response almost inaudibly against Xena's armor, sending thrills shooting down the warrior's spine.
"But," and Xena wracked her brain for images of the last couple hours. "I saw you holding an ale mug. And you told that same story from last time…"
Xena swallowed her words in surprise as Gabrielle placed a gentle finger on her nose—the motion deliberate, as if to tell the warrior just how well Gabrielle knew that such a liberty meant instant death for anyone else on earth.
Green eyes laughed. Gabrielle held the moment for a beat.
"Water." The playful smile that spread across the young woman's face was the exact one she knew could disarm Xena, even from across a campsite in pitch darkness. How much more powerful, Xena realized, with Gabrielle so close—closer than she'd ever been within the sight of other people.
The young woman traced two small circles on the back of Xena's hands and lifted her eyebrows. Their arch told Xena how willing Gabrielle was to see how much closer she could get.
She trailed her fingers back up the warrior's arms in the same path they'd taken down, following the curve of hard muscles. And back down. It was maddening—and Xena knew it was calculated to be just so.
She's testing the limit.
And Xena's body knew what do when tested—three ales in, or no.
Feeling almost in a trance, she scooped Gabrielle up in her arms and stood up abruptly, feeling the young woman take a sharp breath in surprise. She held the small body snug to her chest and strode across the room, shooting a few more daggers with her eyes in case anyone was foolish enough to get in her way. Curious glances feel away sharply from her path.
Then Xena bounded up the stairs in twos, gaze kept flinty and face kept grim, but silently exulting in Gabrielle's delighted whoop.