Robin snapped out of her daze and looked around the woods. She had known that lack of sleep was risky. She had almost fallen over during the instruction. But now she was lost. A quick scan of the immediate area confirmed that she had been separated from her group, and she wasnít even sure how long it had been since she had last seen another human. She hadnít a clue where the rest of her group of trainees were.
Of course, today was supposed to be an exercise in concentration.
With nothing to lose, she tried extending her senses as she had been taught, focusing, and to her surprise found that her exhaustion was actually helping. She took another breath, closing her eyes. She felt herself become almost intimately aware of the space around her. The air became a tangible thing, even the insects could be felt as interuptions in its natural streams. She began to move, and the doe skin boots seemed to anticipate each twig before enough pressure could be made to snap it. Quickly gathering confidence, she silently slipped through the forest. Keeping in the back of her mind that there was supposed to be a dangerous cat somewhere about, which had been terrorizing a nearby village, and that they had all been instructed to remain close.
`Close?` She thought as she looked about alone, `you really screwed up this time, mighty Amazon. Whoís going to have to rescue you now?` The strange thing was that she couldnít really feel sorry for herself, because she felt too good. She felt...at home. She heard, almost felt, a vibration that she knew was not a predator. Not entirely sure why, she circled around, and approached the source, amazed at how soundless her movements were. She felt the breeze, and a voice in her mind whispered `downwind` and she adjusted her position again. Through the trees, she saw a deer rubbing its flank on a tree, and reached for her bow.
Up till now , she had been moving on instinct, but as she drew an arrow from her quiver, and positioned herself, she could not shoot. ĎWho am I kidding. Iím not an Amazon. I canít kill....not like this. Iím just a city kid, playing a game...í Her burgeoning confidence fell from her like a rock, until another sensation froze her. A stark and freezing sensation of impending danger.
The doe had attracted another, meaner predator, one who was not so choosy. A midnight black panther was watching both her and the doe, its snapping tail the only visible movement. Some one had partially succeeded in an attack on it; part of its ear was torn off, and it had not healed. She could see that despite that wound, it still moved sinuously enough, and towards her. Her brain tried to function. She presumed that she must have walked ahead of the other trainees, and that the panther had been driven ahead of them as they fanned out through the forest. Driven it right towards her.
She had frozen, staring into its hypnotic yellow eyes as now it deliberately stalked towards her, but she was suddenly calm. She lowered her bow and slowly drew her hand towards her dagger, her senses heightened like never before. Without looking, she knew that there was a small depression just below where she was standing, but she waited for the cat to make its move. She watched its paws, and when she saw the claws extend, made a feint towards the cat as it leaped. Dropping instead into the small culvert, gripping her dagger in both hands and timing her jab, she thrust her fists upwards as the beast overshot her and passed overhead, the massive backpaws just grazing her shoulders. She felt a warm spray on her face and the knife was torn from her hands, and she spun around, ready to anticipate the catís response. The panther landed awkwardly, and snarling, tried to circle, but instead slumped on its side, futily stretching its forepaw towards her in a sad parody of menace. She stayed in her crouch, panting heavily, a feeling of exhilaration filling her. She stared into the big catís eyes, but they gradually lost their beauty and glazed over. She was intensely aware of her dagger buried deep in the pantherís chest, into its heart.
Her stumbling return to the village was a haze to her. She was aware of the others greeting her, and their shock and concern for the blood that covered her face and chest. She was conscious of the shouting when the body was found and that she was being escorted in triumph. But all she could think about was the thrill as her knife had entered the beast, all she could see were the pantherís glazing eyes. She came to herself in the healers hut, aware of Jamesí arm around her, and thought for a moment that the black cat was still with her. But it was Xena, the warriorís usually stoic expression touched with sadness. They stared at one another for a heartbeat, when Ephiny came in.
The Regent evaluated the patient, and spoke softly to her.
"I know that youíre not familiar with our custom, so the prayers for the panther were made for you. But there was a large bounty on that cat, and there are many people who would like to thank you, Robin." She paused. "And by tradition, these are yours..."
Robin looked to the Regentís hand, where she saw four canine teeth. Ephiny continued, "Normally they are made into a necklace... I can have one of the craftswimmen make it for you..."
"A necklace? No... I couldnít...." Robin looked at Xena for help, and the warrior pulled a small pouch from her side. Taking the teeth from Ephiny, she dropped the teeth into the sack, and surprising Robin with her gentleness, put it in Robinís hand, holding it there for a moment, saying;
"This is a part of who you are now. Itís not for display, but for good or bad, itís still a part of you."
They shared another moment, and then Robin nodded and took the pouch, tying it carefully onto her belt.
Xena walked the two back to their hut. James` heart was aching for Robin, but a small part of him had been moved that Robin had seemed to want his arm around her, and he enjoyed the contact too much to question it. It had taken only a moment of adjustment, and they had ...fit.
No bones jutted out in uncomfortable places, no stumbling, no conscious slowing of the speed of their step, they just...fit. Xena laid her hand on Robinís shoulder, and said to James, "Youíll look after her?" He looked into the warriorís eyes to discern what exactly she meant by that query. He answered the unspoken question as well.
"As long as sheíll let me."
Xena nodded and lowered her eyes to Robinís. Robin was momentarily blinded by blue, but she nodded and gave her a half smile. She broke away from James, and suddenly missing the contact, reached out and grabbed his hand, pulling him into the hut.
Once inside she stared with exasperation at the bed.
"I am really not in the mood to look at you right now." She told it.
"You are speaking to the bed, arenít you?"
Robin turned to him. "I guess."
"Strangely enough, the fact you are talking to a piece of furniture, comforts me."
"James..." she started. He knew what she was going to ask. He sat beside her.
"No, Andrea was not the first person Iíve killed. I plan for her to be the last....but I always do."
"But youíve never felt, enjoyment, or satisfaction?" Robin saw him preparing to lie to her, but she held his eyes until he lowered them.
"No." He held out his hands to her. "But just like you, I killed because I knew I had to, just like you..."
"James." He waited for her to continue. " I know it was an animal. Not a human being. But there was a moment, a moment when I was ready for another panther, and another..." She moved her hand sadly. " Iím not the person Iíve always thought I was."
"I know who you are. You are a compassionate person, who regrets a death, even though you know it was the right thing. Half the village would be proud to wear those teeth. All of the village, including me, sees you as a hero. And yet, youíre here, knowing that the death was a... a loss."
"You think Iím a hero, too?" She moved away an inch. "This wasnít a quest, or a challenge. It was almost a fluke. It was easy. Too easy."
"Robin, I canít...."
The day had simply been too much and Robinís temper flared. "What do you mean you CANíT? James: Warrior Psychiatrist, canít find the words to comfort someone? Oh sorry, not someone, just me..."
"Robin, I know how you feel. WE, know how you feel..."
The Amazon in training nearly exploded.
"Oh, you know how I feel, do you? " but she stopped, as comprehension swept her.
"You DO, donít you? Of course! The BOND! Wonderful! How many times have you been happily rummaging through my thoughts, before this? Whatís the problem, James, donít have enough emotions of your own? You have to sneak into mine..."
She had hurt him. Good.
"Itís not like that..."
"So, what IS it like? Eh?" Her anger gaining hold, newly developed muscles tensing, she advanced towards him, planning to try to throw him out when she stopped and stared at the door. A tentative knock was heard.
"Go away." James said.
"Shut up! What?" she said to the door.
"Go away." James repeated loudly.
Glaring at him she yelled "Ignore the wizard behind the curtain. Come in."
The door opened cautiously and a young Amazon entered, or tried to, the bed making occupancy by three nearly impossible. It was one of the craftswimmen holding a series of sketches. She looked at Robinís stone face, and felt the tension in the room.
"I could come back, but I wanted..." she trailed off, clearly uncomfortable.
"Neshia? Is it? What do you need, I could use a break."
The Amazon coughed and began. "Iíve been working on a piece and I was hoping, you would let me sketch you, it wonít take a moment..."
James stood up. "Youíre the potter, right?" She nodded shyly. "Youíve done some great stuff, can I see?" The artisan blushed and handed over some drawings.
"Iíd already tossed the pot, and I was beginning the etching but..." she stopped when she saw the expression on James face. His legs weakened and he sat on the bed. He was staring at the sketch of a panther. His face was white. He looked at Robin.
"The panther, it was missing an ear? Like this?" He thrust the drawing at Robin.
"You mean, you didnít already know?" she snarled sarcastically.
"Why would we care about the panther? When we felt...well, we had to find you..."
He turned to Neshia. "There hasnít been another panther, just like this, killed by five Amazons, was there?" He gave her a sickly smile.
Confused the potter blinked. "You must have seen my original drawings, I assumed that the sisters would hunt and capture it in a traditional hunt...how did you see my sketches?"
James ignored the question. "But now that Robin kill... hunted it, you want to put HER on the urn, right?"
Neshia watched the way Jamesí hands were spasmodically shaking , and became more uncertain. "Yes, it really wouldnít take very long..."
Robin was about to refuse, so James handed the papers back to the potter, saying, "She has to think about it."
"No I donít."
"Yes, she does," he said, ushering the artisan from the room.
James took a deep breath and faced the outraged woman.
Gabrielle was sitting, waiting on the stoop outside the Queenís hut.
"Is she, are they going to be OK?"
"Theyíre going to have a talk . Nowís when we leave them alone and go for a nap."
Xena was tempted to pick up her exhausted bard in her arms, but instead only offered her a hand which was gratefully recieved as she was pulled up to an embrace. Then froze when she heard the quiet snicker. Gabrielle released her warrior with a sigh and looked over to see two younger Amazons (Dioxippe, Evandre?) watching and shaking their heads in admonishment. Something which stopped immediately when Xena began to advance towards them. Evandre, the elder of the two, knew enough to be very frightened, but her years of training didnít help from being caught by the intensity burning through the slits of those incredible eyes, even as her mind registered one terrifying thought. "Oh Gods, sheís smiling...."
Just as hypnotically frozen, Dioxippe had time to register the same information but instead interpreted it as "Well she seems happy...?" before both of them found themselves lifted easily into the air where they hung suspended by the two very powerful hands attached to six feet of frustrated Warrior Princess, something under other circumstances might have been a recurring fantasy, but now brought the realization that they had terrible timing.
The voice was quiet, but almost inhuman in its power and depth. The smile was even more frightening close up. "I hope you werenít showing any disrespect for your Queen, just now?"
Both Amazons struggled to sqeeze an answer through their constricted throats. The sound that came out was rather high pitched. "No..."
"Because Iím becoming just a bit BOTHERED by some of the things Iíve heard in the past few days..."
Evandre seized upon the one thing that might be their salvation. "My Queen..." she looked over in desperation.
Gabrielle was so exhausted that she was leaning on the buildings support to remain standing, and part of her probably objected to the way that Xena was bullying these hapless women. Another part was evalating their relative weight. "Hmm. The smaller one is in her right hand, so after about 100 heartbeats, she might begin to sweat...í as well she was remembering when Evandre had last made a drunken pass at her partner, just as she heard the whimpered plea.
She called over to them. "You know what bothers ME..." ĎDear Artemis,í thought Evandre as she remembered a certain dance as well, ĎWeíre dead...í
"What really bothers me is when people that treat Xena like sheís some kind of bear, and Iím her trainer."
Evandre was upset to notice that the smile, if possible, had only become broader. "Please donít let me pee my leathers," she recited to herself.
"Now Iím going to let you down." Ďthank youí thought both women, but the warrior made no move to do so. "But first I want something understood."Both heads bobbed assent. Whatever it was they would understand, they were sure.
"That is the Queen of the Amazonís, Rrrriiiiight? And if she decides to remain celibate in order to fulfill some Amazon ritual, then she will. And be supported in this. Right? "Furious agreement. "Or if she decides to be joined here, or in Amphipolis, or on Mount Olympus, that will be her choice as well, Right?" And now the smile disappeared. "And if she wants to have screaming to the moon, gut wrenching, passionate sex right in the centre of the Gods be damned village, thatís going to happen as well! OK?" Realizing that their continued nodding might be indicating too much enthusiam for this spectacle, the two Amazons stopped, and with relief felt themselves being lowered to the ground.
"Now I would like the two of you to explain this to your friends, because I really donít think Iíll have the patience to do it again." The Amazons forgotten as they stumbled off, she turned and gave an embarrassed look to her soulmate.
"Mybe I shouldnít have done that..."
Gabrielle took her arm. "No, I thought you handled that quite well."
"Maybe I am getting better at these sensitive chats."
"Oh yeah. We should give you a special hut and make you the tribeís councilor." Gabrielle laughed.
"Well, Iíve never been very good at DESCRIBING it..."
A sigh. "Only one more day, right?"
"One more day."
James began. "You know in your heart that we havenít, we canít read your mind, donít you?"
He cut her off. "It was a one time thing. I donít know if it was because the three of us were together, or because it was so...new to you, what you were feeling, but it hit us like a blow to the stomach. Gabrielle and I didnít understand, but Xena...you admire Xena, right?"
"Admire?" What was this about? "Sheís incredible."
"Well, she knew... she tried to explain to us..." He stumbled on "She wanted me to be alone with you , but I insisted she come with me to the healers, because...well, you saw how she felt, how she understood. So. Would...is discovering that a part of you is...like her, would it be so frightening, or so terrible? You could live with that as a part of you? Couldnít you?"
Robin pushed her resentment aside, if only because she knew something more important was in the air.
"What just happened with Neshia?"
"Noticed, eh?" James sat, or rather collapsed on the bed.
"Unless youíve just come up with epilepsy, I just missed something."
By now, Robin could recognize the expression on his face. Where do I start...? She gave him a moment. He raised his eyes to hers.
"You can understand that I might have taken an interest in Grecian artifacts over the past couple of years?"
"Because despite everything you keep saying, you were on the lookout for a scroll or two, or maybe a rusty chakram?"
"Sorta. So, believe me when I tell you that in a glass case in our very own Musee des Beaux Arts there is an urn, dated around 100 B.C., that depicts a hunt. I have a photo of it in my apartment, because it shows what are supposed to be Amazons, with me so far?"
She nodded for him to continue.
"It has a very distinctive glaze, certain patterns around the rim... and it shows the killing of a huge black panther with itís ear torn in a distinctive diagonal slash..."
"I take it the patterns and glaze..."
"Itís what Neshia does, itís her...signature..."
"And you think..."
"I think that that when we get back that pot wonít exist
anymore. Or if it does, it will show a single Amazon, one with short, black
hair, and green eyes...."
Of all the reactions he might have expected from Robin, laughter, deep rolling chuckles, was not it.
"Youíre hysterical?" He asked.
"No, yes! I was just imagining the look on your face when you have to tell Gabrielle." She started to snort. "This is not my past, " she recited pompously, "and I am not your future."
She pounded her knees.
"You were listening?" he accused.
"You were shouting."
"I love it," she chortled "she was right all along! And me and Xena...thatís why youíre asking if I can live with a part of Xena?"
"Maybe not, there could be just some weird parallel existence, I mean the pot was dated 100 B.C., Hercules, if he existed, was already supposed to be long dead, Caesar was still a baby; it doesnít suddenly all fall together."
"Oh, and Iím sure youíll explain that to the Queen next time she asks you about planes, or flush toilets or whatever."
James lowered his head. "Hell, suddenly Iím scared to step outside and step on a bug, in case I exterminate a species."
"Oh, stop worrying, and live life, James." She chortled happily. "Iím really in Ancient Greece!" She chuckled again. She reached down and pulled him to her, and locking her arms behind his back, kissed him solidly on the lips. He pulled away and she released him immediately, shaking her head as he backed away.
"What is your problem?" she said with frustration. "Am I alone here, am I alone in feeling this?"
He shook his head slightly.
"What are you so worried about, the bond? I Ďm not scared about that, and..." interrupting before he could speak, "I donít care what I said LAST TIME. Iíve had time to think, and I realized, whatever else happens between you and me, whether we are meant to be or not, and I am hoping we are... THIS...is the best time Iíve ever had. You," pointing at James dramatically, "have given me the best time Iíve ever had. This is Narnia, the Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland and I donít know what, all rolled together and I donít want it to end!
"Did you realize" she dropped her voice for the first time, "that I was taking guitar lessons and voice lessons to balance out a degree in accounting? Your guitar lessons were supposed to give me enough space to breathe so that I could become AN ACCOUNTANT!" she shouted. "And you offered me this! I donít care if we COULD die here, I donít care if it ends tomorrow, I can handle being a descendant of the most impressive woman Iíve ever met, whatever the cost. Iím really, really happy. This moment, here and now, with you. What is your PROBLEM?"
It was a very quiet voice that answered. "Because whatever we have is a gift of some God. Because they never come without a price. Because Iím a coward who has never been in love before in his entire life. Because if I let go... If we go back and you donít remember this," he closed his eyes and paused. "If you donít remember me... I donít think I would survive it this time."
She slumped down beside him. "Whoa." She turned to him with all the intensity she could muster. "Look. I know, I mean I really know, that Iím not Xena. But a part of them, how much I donít know, but a part, including the greatest gift they ever got, made it all the way to us. Who knows how many times it was wasted, or separated, or wasnít risked?
"Now, weíre here, together, and if it matters, well, sexually compatible, and we even like each other..." She had stood and was above him on the bed ,staring down, and reached to placed a hand by his cheek. "Yesterday you were about to be executed, damn it, and you were willing to trust that it was a problem that could be solved. Well, this is just another problem, and thereís a solution, OK?"
James took a deep breath, looking up at the figure towering above him.
"So, James, what is your problem?"
"Right now, itís that women standing pretty well on top of me, are not on my list of turn ons."
"You have a list?"
"Then I canít take your objection seriously." A skirt fell down, hitting his knees, And his mind went completely blank..
Robin smiled. "Now hereís an idea...."
TO BE CONTINUED...