“Oh, here - let me get that.”
Xena’s voice was swallowed by the scraping of a titanic wooden bench as she dragged it out from under the table. Spanning the entire length of the tavern’s long dining room, the bench had spent 200 noble years as a tree before being pressed into service for the well-attired posteriors in this slightly fussy establishment. The warrior stood abruptly aside, shifting on the spot as Gabrielle stepped over the bench and took her seat. She barely had time to try a vain scooting motion before Xena had heaved to and thrust the hewn log back towards the table, bard and all.
“Hhhck - uh, thanks,” Gabrielle coughed, readjusting her pinned torso.
She smoothed the pressed white cloth draped over the sides of the broad table, feeling the solid hardwood underneath. A platter of chilled fruits was arranged in an attractive centerpiece, tempting grapes glinting wetly in the light of hanging lanterns. At the far end of the room, a skillful plectrum swept softly over the strings of a lyre.
Meanwhile, Xena was flapping like a saloon door. “So, should I sit-? Or - over there. Right.”
She approached the spot next to Gabrielle, turned, stopped, turned again, and marched stiff-shouldered around the length of the long table. Gabrielle’s eyes crinkled as she watched Xena’s progress. She hadn’t quite wiped the quirk off her lips before Xena flung herself down at the bench across from her, flexing her formidable thighs to push it to a suitable distance for sitting.
“So, what do you think? Stuffy place, huh?”
Xena shot looks from side to side before staring down at her own hands clasped on the tablecloth. Gabrielle was surprised, given her veteran observation of Xena, to detect a moderate case of nerves. She took matters upon herself.
“Actually,” she said, “I love it. Thanks for doing this, Xena - this is really nice.”
“Mm,” Xena replied.
“A nice dinner out - just the two of us. We don’t often get a chance to sit down and talk, do we? No warlords, no fish guts...no divine pronouncements of doom. A big change from the usual...” Gabrielle watched Xena’s internal barometer clock the gathering clouds of a sensitive chat.
“Well,” the warrior drawled, leaning back as though she could tip up on spindly chair legs, “I kinda like the fish guts part.” Catching Gabrielle’s eyes, she added hastily, “But this is good too.”
“Well, life isn’t always easy on the road,” Gabrielle continued, watching Xena’s eyebrows cinch in the expected vee of guilt for abducting her away from some blissful life on a turnip farm, “but Xena, for all the lamb pie and goosefeather pillows in the world, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Gabrielle pinned Xena with her gaze, knowing that this time there could be no mention of demobbing back to her family in Potidaea. Not after last night - when after a week of terrors and tears, a ghostly visitation, and a kiss, they had finally fallen into the gravity they had been resisting for weeks before Xena had nearly died. After Mt. Nestos, Velasca, Callisto...there had been a desperation between them to reclaim some sense of warm, breathing, feeling life; it had led to an embrace by the fire, tears sliding down Gabrielle’s nose into the hollow of Xena’s neck. Endearments were spoken and swallowed like the food of the gods. There had been revelation, relief - a new constellation bursting into the night, binary stars singing Don’t leave me and I need you, I’m here. Gabrielle had drifted asleep and awoken the next morning held tightly in Xena's arms - there could be no going home now as long as they were together. She had been hoping to settle what exactly all this would mean, but after a breakfast encounter with some local ruffians, they had spent the day at a perfectly polite distance until Xena finally suggested stopping for dinner.
Someone had arrived to wait on them - a teenager, maybe the tavern owner’s son, with doe eyes and curly brown hair.
“Er, good evening - welcome to Zorba’s. I’m Phaedo. Can I start you with anything to drink?”
Xena’s eyes never left Gabrielle’s, and she knew they were as full of vivid memory as her own. She spoke: “All right, champ - I’ll have your reserve port. Whatever your parents keep under the bar for special occasions.”
Gabrielle smiled at the phantom of an innkeeper’s daughter flickering before her. She didn't ask whether they were celebrating Xena’s return to life or something else entirely. She felt herself begin to flush. “Same for me.”
As the boy made his way back towards the bar, Gabrielle cleared her throat and leaned on a thoughtful elbow, watching him go. “He’s safe, you know.”
Xena leaned forward. “Pardon?”
“Phaedo - here he is in his hometown, probably all of sixteen, working in his family’s restaurant instead of as a footsoldier in somebody else's war - safe. That’s because of you, Xena. Where you go, peace follows.”
A shade fell over Xena’s eyes. Gabrielle knew she had seen Lyceus in him.
“I didn’t give him his life, Gabrielle. Maybe I’ve learned to deal in death so he can have the chance to make his own choices.” She dropped her voice, lacing her fingers together. “I’ll do everything I can to pay my debts, but I’m not a peacemaker or a saint. No matter what I do, there’s collateral damage along the way. People..." She looked meaningfully at Gabrielle. "...get hurt.”
What a pivot. Gabrielle slid her hand across the table, taking a gentle hold of the warrior’s wrist. Xena regarded her carefully, but did not pull away.
“You try every day to do what’s right, Xena. I see it up close. I’ve learned from you. And when something’s right, it’s...any risk is worth it, don’t you think?”
Xena’s eyes flicked to Gabrielle’s fingers. “If you have the courage,” she murmured.
Now Gabrielle really wasn't sure what they were talking about. As she opened her mouth to reply, Phaedo returned with their port. Their hands dropped. “My mother said to tell you congratulations,” he said, setting the mugs down, “for - er - whatever it is you’re celebrating.”
Xena turned, appraising his confused look. “I got a promotion,” she deadpanned.
His eyes widened as he got his first good look at her, his gaze sweeping up and down her armored outfit. Gabrielle hastened to intervene. “We, uh, work together. Hem - um, could we hear about the specials, please?”
Phaedo tore his eyes away from the dagger hilt peeking out of Xena’s boot. “Sure - this evening we have a spicy venison steak and a seafood special my dad is calling Amphitrite’s Slipper. It’s -“
“Oh fine, fine, we’d love to have that. One of each, please,” Gabrielle interrupted, smiling blithely. Cute kid, she thought, but their conversation had been on the verge of something important.
Phaedo blinked once or twice, then trotted away.
Xena narrowed her eyes playfully. “You didn’t tell him how I like my steak.”
Gabrielle pulled a face. “Oh, I'm sure he got the idea.”
A lull followed as they fussed with the grapes, listened to the music, looked up and down the table - anywhere but at each other. This wasn’t going as Gabrielle had envisioned. She fidgeted briefly with her skirt. It was now or never. “Xena...one of the reasons I’m glad we came here is that I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk — about last night?”
Xena’s eyes softened but Gabrielle could see her shoulders tensing up towards her ears. “Hm.” Her fingers sought out the handle of her mug. “How are you feeling...about it?”
Gabrielle watched Xena’s hand raise the wine to her lips and felt the prickling heat of another blush stealing up her neck.
“I...I…The truth is, I—” she started. Xena gulped the mouthful of wine. “I’ve been in a daze all day. And I wanted to know where we go from here if you...feel the way I do.”
Xena was too good a hunter to let her quarry escape. She stared bravely into Gabrielle’s eyes. “Which is…?”
The clatter of a plate shoved under her nose fractured the confession. Phaedo was standing there awkwardly, holding out a weighty steak knife. “Er, for the venison…”
Xena whipped her head around in exasperation. Faster than sight, the dagger from her boot materialized in her hand. “Thanks,” she hissed, “I brought my own.”
Phaedo quailed and turned to Gabrielle, who was staring at her steaming order of Amphitrite’s Slipper. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“Yes, you - you can tell me what this is!”
A pungent pouch of some marine origin sat fuming in the center of an expensive terracotta plate. The pink meat, sewn like a purse, had been stuffed with gods-knew-what else, and it stank to Olympus. The whole creation reposed on a bed of stewed seaweed.
Phaedo rattled off the description. “Amphitrite’s Slipper is a seafood special consisting of the marinated maw of sturgeon stuffed with squid and sea urchin in our four special spices. The maw is steamed in seaweed overnight to give it its signature flavor.”
Xena wrinkled her nose. “Smells like a shoe, all right.”
Gabrielle was beyond words. She opened and closed her mouth like the late sturgeon might have upon some more fortunate day. “Fish...guts…”
Xena moved quickly. “Here, give me that.” She plucked the steak knife from Phaedo’s fingers and laid it along her plate as she swapped it with Gabrielle’s.
“Phaedo, I think we’re gonna need some more port.”
The waiter beat a hasty retreat.
Gabrielle raised her still-horrified face and watched, gobsmacked, as Xena sliced and ate a bite of the gourmet atrocity.
“Eugh — Xena, no!”
The warrior quirked an eyebrow. “What? I told you I kinda liked the fish guts. What were you saying?”
Gabrielle struggled to regain her equanimity. “I - before we were interrupted by that — thing — I was going to say that it was deeply meaningful and I can’t tell you how much you mean to me, but now I’m not so sure!”
Xena was unfazed. “Eat your steak.”
The bard spluttered. “That’s all you have to say?”
“Sure, it’s getting cold.”
When she saw the bard deflate with disappointment, though, she relented. Laying down her knife, she took Gabrielle by the hand. Though the bard jutted her chin in defiance, her pulse quickened in her wrist.
“I’m sorry,” Xena began. “Gabrielle, you are the most precious thing to me in the world. For a long time I didn’t want to face it, but fact is, I love you. I just don’t know what I could possibly do to deserve you.”
Gabrielle’s green eyes sparkled in the lantern-light. With a small sigh, she pulled Xena’s hand up against her cheek. “Well, you did take that sea monster off my hands. If it weren’t for the fish breath, I’d like to kiss you. Maybe we’ll get dessert?”
“Oh,” said Xena with a mischievous grin, “most definitely.”