by Bat Morda
1996 Dec
Copyright © 1996
All rights reserved

Chapter 4

Message In The Massage

Gabrielle woke well before dawn. It was unusual for her. Thinking back, she tried to remember if she'd been woken from a dream, but no images came to mind. She smiled at the sound of steady breathing from the warm body next to her. Turning her head she could see dark hair peeking out from the warrior's blanket and the elegant outline of shoulders as she slept on her side. Turning back to the dying embers of the fire, she saw the softly snoring archer across from her, head propped up on her saddle. Reaching towards the fire ring, Gabrielle grabbed a couple of pieces of wood. Sitting, she shifted her blanket around her shoulders and carefully placed the sticks into the fire, blowing gently to rekindle a blaze. She looked up at the sky, smiling at the constellations she rarely saw. She was familiar with the stars of the early evening, but was a stranger to the pre-dawn sky.

Xena shifted slightly behind her, rolling from her side onto her back, an unconscious arm knocking her blanket to her waist. Gabrielle gazed at the sleeping warrior for a long moment. It was unusual to see the warrior's face unguarded, muscles relaxed in sleep, breathing easy. Gabrielle smiled; Xena looked a lot younger this way. Carefully she pulled the blanket up and tucked it gently around the warrior's body. With gentle fingers she lightly traced the line of her collarbone and cheek. She drew her hand away when she felt the warrior's muscles shudder. She didn't want to wake her friend. Cautiously she brushed a stray strand of hair covering Xena's lips. When her fingertips grazed the softness of the warrior's mouth, she pulled her hand away. This time in wonder. She stared at her fingertips for a moment, feeling her temperature rise and heart race, then gently put them in her mouth. With a heavy sigh she laid back down, as close to Xena as she dared, and for a time watched her friend sleep.

When Gabrielle woke a second time it was with a start. "I'm up, stop it," she heard from across the campfire. She laughed at the sight of the zebra nudging Lessa, snorting playfully in her face. The archer frowned at Gabrielle's laughter and did her best to push the zebra away. "I'll get you an apple, give me a minute."

"Does she do that every morning?" Gabrielle asked as Lessa handed Socrates an apple, the animal walking away, crunching contentedly.

"Unfortunately, yes. It's really bad when I don't have anything to give her." Lessa sat upright and stretched for a moment before looking past the bard. "Where's Xena?" she asked.

"Probably out getting breakfast- or tending to Argo."

Lessa nodded and looked around the perimeter of the lake. There was no sign of the big warrior or her horse. "So," she ventured cautiously, "any interesting revelations last night?"

It took a moment for Gabrielle to realize what she was asking about. When understanding dawned on her, the crimson of her cheeks gave Lessa her answer.

"So what are you going to do about it?" she asked conversationally.

"I don't know," Gabrielle sighed, giving up on any pretense of not trusting the young woman. It could be a mistake she knew, but the thought of another woman to talk to- about Xena- was too appealing. "What would you do?" Gabrielle asked. When Lessa arched a knowing eyebrow, she added hastily "if you were me."

"Torture her," she replied, reaching for her armor.


"You feel a certain way about her, you've got a pretty good idea she feels the same way about you- but she won't act on it. I strongly feel that there is a price to be paid for such behavior." Lessa shrugged. "That is, unless you don't want her to approach you about it- you could approach her."

"How?" Gabrielle wondered and blushed, realizing she'd spoken out loud.

"C'mere," Lessa said with a disarming smile. "Sit down here- in front of me."

Gabrielle complied, feeling a little uneasy at where this was going. She felt better when Lessa instructed to sit with her back facing the archer. "Oldest trick in the book," Lessa said conversationally as she rubbed her hands together, warming them. "I want you to shut your eyes and pretend I'm Xena."

"What!?" Gabrielle exclaimed and was about to turn around when a firm but gentle hand pushed her head back- facing forward.

"You asked, I'm showing you. Trust me or don't- make up your mind." Lessa waited for the bard's nod of acceptance before continuing.

"As I was saying, relax, close your eyes and think about Xena." With that Lessa gently put her palms on the bard's shoulders. She began to feel strong hands massaging the muscles of her neck. Confident fingers loosened the knots accumulated by nights of sleeping on the ground.

Gabrielle sighed, a slow contented breath of air forced from her body as images of the warrior filled her mind. It wasn't so hard to picture Xena doing this. As soon as her mind made that connection she began to feel more than the contented responses of her muscles. Picturing her friend with strong hands on her back, gently, rhythmically working her muscles caused a barrage of new sensations. Everything external relaxed, her muscles turning to water, but within she felt like a taut bowstring. She could feel the blood racing from everywhere to somewhere below her stomach. Her skin felt tingly all over and she vaguely heard her own breath, softly ragged. Her body wanted to be touched all over, caressed everywhere. Abruptly she remembered that it was not Xena behind her and broke from her reverie with a start.

"What are you doing?" she demanded turning around.

Lessa looked at her with gentle green eyes, a comforting smile on her face. "I'm demonstrating how I think you should approach the warrior, Gabrielle. How you felt just now thinking about her- I'd bet Socrates' apples that she will have that same response if you touch her."

Gabrielle nodded mutely. There was nothing to say. With a friendly squeeze on the arm, Lessa stood and walked back into the trees, greeted by a nicker from the zebra. She left Gabrielle with space to compose her thoughts, to put her rampaging feelings into some sort of order.

It was about ten minutes later that Xena came out from the woods astride Argo, confident and beautiful in the early morning light. Gabrielle smiled in greeting- her skin tingling anew at the sight of her friend. Xena smiled in response and dismounted in an easy fluid movement. She carried two rabbits and handed them to the bard.

"If we cook both of them now, we'll have some meat for lunch." It was still early, time enough to cook the rodents. Xena's eyes quickly canvassed the campsite and came to rest again on the bard. "Where's Lessa?"

"I think she's tending to Socrates."

Xena nodded and removed the archer's long bow, hand crossbow and quiver from Argo's back. With confident strides she headed to the trees.

"Are you up for some target practice?"

Lessa was stooped over the zebra's rear leg, examining the hoof, and looked up with surprise. "On you?" she asked watching the warrior's approach.

"It never hurts to practice," Xena replied, handing over Lessa's weapons with a grin.

"You don't think there's the slightest chance I might hurt you?"

"If you're as skilled as you claim, I think you could avoid killing me." Her honeyed voice flowed over Lessa like a challenge. With a curt nod, she began stringing her bow as Xena walked to the other end of the meadow. Lessa slapped Socrates on the rump and the zebra trotted back into the trees, away from the two women.

It didn't take Gabrielle long to skin and spit the rabbits. It wasn't as if she didn't have enough practice with the activity. She headed to the trees to see what Xena and the archer were up to and was brought up short by the sight of Lessa aiming an arrow at her friend.

"Stop! What are you doing?" she shouted.

Bowstring still taut Lessa slowly turned her head facing the bard. "Target practice," she replied and, with her eyes still on the bard, let the arrow fly.

Xena, distracted by Gabrielle's outburst almost missed the catch. She caught the arrow as it passed, grazing her shoulder, drawing blood.

"If that'd been poisoned, you'd be in trouble." Lessa called to the warrior.

"Lucky shot." Xena replied with a frown.

Realizing that this must be Xena's idea, Gabrielle sat, watching- determined not to be an additional distraction.

Lessa then notched two arrows into the bow, as she'd done fishing the night before. With a thwap she let them fly. This time the warrior was ready and, lunging to the side, she caught them both in her right hand. Then with a quick grab of her left she caught a dart. Gabrielle looked at Lessa, shock registering on her features. She'd hadn't even heard the hand crossbow fire. But there she stood holding the device in front of her. Lessa nodded, impressed, and reached for another arrow. This time she fired at the ground. The arrow skipped up catching dirt, making visibility difficult. Xena leaped into the air coming down on the arrow with her feet.

"Careful!" Lessa shouted. "Don't break the shaft."

"Then don't shoot at my legs," Xena replied with a shrug.

Lessa fired several more arrows, Xena catching each one. She made it look effortless, but Gabrielle could see by the concentration on her face, that this archer was indeed challenging. Lessa glanced back at her quiver- she had three arrows left. With a quick glance at Gabrielle, Lessa smiled. As she extracted the arrows, Gabrielle noticed that two were straight, but the third had an unusual bend in the shaft and odd looking fletching. Holding the bent arrow in her mouth, Lessa notched the two straight ones in her bow, pulled the string back to her eye, then slowly rotated the bow ninety degrees. She held it now, almost looking like a crossbow, then fired. The arrows shot out, speeding for each of the warrior's shoulders. Xena dropped low and with a spin to the side, reached with her right hand to capture both arrows as she turned, Lessa dropped the curved arrow from her mouth into the bow. With a quick turn she righted her bow and fired. No sooner had Xena caught the arrows then she turned to see a third speeding toward her. As she readied herself to catch it, the arrow abruptly changed course heading away from her face to her abdomen. Mid grapple, the warrior changed direction and caught the arrow in her left hand, barely. Her shoulder spasmed once but she held on to the arrow.

"That's all my arrows!" Lessa called from across the field.

"Fine," Xena replied with a grimace, and stooped to pick up the ones she'd dropped after catching.

"That was some shot," Gabrielle said quietly as she and Lessa walked across the clearing to join Xena.

"You should thank me for that." Lessa said while they were still out of earshot. "She pulled her left shoulder catching that last one- it'll hurt like Hades tonight."

Gabrielle stopped in her tracks, staring after the archer as she walked over to Xena and retrieved her arrows. Checking the condition of each one, she put them back in her quiver, then unstrung the bow. With a smile she handed the equipment back to Xena, then headed back to the campsite. Gabrielle shook her head- Lessa had guts, that was certain, however, provoking Xena also seemed to hint at a lack of common sense.

"Are you okay?" she asked tentatively, unsure of just how irritated Xena was.

The warrior smiled down warmly at her friend, even as she shook out her left arm. "I'm fine, Gabrielle, never better."

"Xena," the bard replied, as sternly as she could muster. "You may be a lot of things, but you're not a very good liar." She gently dabbed the warrior's bleeding shoulder with the clean scrap of cloth she'd dried her hands on after cleaning the rabbits. Xena waited patiently until Gabrielle was finished, hoping her delight at the bard's gentle fingers looked like tolerant amusement.

"Let's just say I don't lie very well to you, and leave it at that," Xena replied. They stood together for a moment- looking at each other. There was a look of understanding in the bard's eyes that Xena had never seen before. Instantly she felt very nervous. As if sensing her emotional near panic, Gabrielle squeezed her right arm gently.

"I'll go check on those rabbits- why don't you break camp?" With a gentle smile she headed after the archer.

Xena watched her go. "What just happened here?" she wondered to herself. Something had changed, of that she was certain. For the longest time the slight touches had set Xena on fire, the smile on the bard's lips made the warrior's heart sing- Xena was certain Gabrielle had no idea how profoundly she was affected by their closeness. This time she knew. It was evident in her eyes. She knew Xena's heart raced when she smiled, that her skin responded to her touch-- she had that power. Xena smiled and shook her head, walking back to the campsite. Maybe not, she decided, this is Gabrielle after all- the same Gabrielle she'd been traveling with for the past couple of years. What could cause such a change in her now?

"Come on, princess- shake a leg." Lessa sat astride Socrates, carrying most of their gear now, save for her weapons. Gleaming black and green armor set against the dizzying black and white of the zebra.

Xena stared a long moment at the archer. With a quick glance to Gabrielle she muttered, "Don't call me that."

Lessa watched her a moment, helping Gabrielle with the last few bundles of gear and food. "Yes, your highness," she replied. Xena looked up quickly but the archer had moved away- not seeing the icy glare.

"The trail is much better today," Lessa continued. "Not as much right on the coast, but we're still heading up. There is a hot spring that starts out two days from here. We can have a nice hot bath in a steaming creek if we continue two hours past the trail split that heads to Loki. If we get that far we'd be more than half way to Eselan."

"You're awfully familiar with the route?" Xena observed dryly.

Lessa shrugged, "Callisto left very specific instructions for me to meet up with her- she didn't want me to get lost."

"Can't imagine why," Xena muttered under her breath then vaulted to Argo's back. She extended her arm to Gabrielle and, although there was more room with some of their gear with Lessa, the bard still sat blissfully close, her arms snug around the warrior's middle.

"So who taught you to use a bow?" Gabrielle asked while the road was still wide enough for the equines to walk side by side.

"My older brother is supposedly the archer in the family. There was this time when I was two and visiting- he lives with our mother- and picked up his long bow. It was as big as I was, but I managed to pull the string on it- and got several arrows embedded in our ceiling."

Gabrielle laughed at the story, Xena smiled, but not at the story. "Did you get in trouble?" the bard asked.

"Surprisingly, no." Lessa shrugged. "My mother is...well...kind of a free spirit. Since my father was married at the time of her affair, it was just as well because she's not the settling down type. Luckily his wife got pregnant at the same time my mother did. Mother gave birth to me in his barn and Father managed to sneak me into his wife's room as she was giving birth. She was so out of it, she's never suspected that in fact she didn't give birth to twins. I have a half-sister who thinks she's my twin."

"Sounds like a lot of trouble to go through," Xena commented. "You're quite sure they won't miss you- thinking you're dead and all?"

For the first time the archer looked sad. "I suppose they miss me," she said quietly, absently running her fingers through the mane of her zebra. "But it wasn't any good with me there. I had a connection with my Dad, but I'm just not built the same way as the rest of the family. It hurts to leave, but not as much as it would hurt to stay."

"I know the feeling," Gabrielle said into Xena's back.

Without thinking, Xena laid her hand over the bard's, interlacing her fingers and squeezing reassuringly. Gabrielle smiled and wouldn't let go when the warrior tried to take her hand away. Xena turned her head, glimpsing her friend out of the corner of her eye.

"Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered into her neck, and after a quick hug, released her.

Lessa headed up the trail in front of Argo, leaving Xena with a smile on her face she mistakenly assumed the archer didn't see. Lessa thought about her family, her mother and her place in the universe. Why is it, she wondered, that the ones with the dark and tortured past fall the hardest?

The riding that day was easier, if not more frightening. There were fewer places where the trail narrowed dangerously, but when it did it was usually at the edge of a cliff overlooking an endless expanse of ocean. It made Gabrielle light headed to look down and see so much surf and rock beneath her. Waves thundered into the cliffs, scattering sea spray in hypnotizing patterns. To the bard it seemed that the brilliant blue of the shallows dared to compete with the beauty of Xena's eyes. The ocean lost of course, but not by much.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Xena asked, distracting the bard from a particularly tricky patch in the trail.

"So now you know what I'm thinking," Gabrielle replied with a smile.

Xena laughed quietly and began to hum. Not really anything in particular- she just felt exceptionally good. Gabrielle sighed contentedly and leaned against Xena's back, resting her head against her friend, wishing Xena would find a more convenient place for her sword.

Xena was relieved that the archer was far enough ahead to be out of sight. Something was unusual about that woman, and it was more than just her annoying personality. For someone so young, she was too confident, too self assured- "to much like me," she thought. "But without the darkness." It was pretty clear what Callisto saw in her, she was beautiful, strong, brilliant with a bow- and smart. That last bit puzzled Xena. Lessa was obviously smart enough to realize Callisto was insane- why would she wait three months to try to escape? She didn't for a minute believe any of Lessa's story involving her actually being prepared to kill Gabrielle. She didn't appear to have an ounce of evil in her entire being. A twisted sense of humor maybe. She'd displayed that when she toyed with the fishermen, but certainly not evil.

The path began to widen out, turning back again into the mountainside. Argo was about to catch up with Socrates just as a group of men rounded a bend in the trail. Xena signaled the horse to stop. From where she stood she could see them through some shrubs, but they hadn't seen her.

"Well, well, what do we have here?" the largest of the five men asked. They were all dressed in filthy clothes and reeked of rancid ale and fish. Three had swords, two had crossbows. Loaded ones at that.

"Trouble, if you don't get out of my way." Lessa replied smoothly.

"Big words for a little girl traveling alone on her pony."

Lessa frowned. "I don't know who hates what more. Me being called a little girl or Socrates being called a pony."

"Oh, well, sorry to offend," the thug said smiling, revealing several unsightly gaps where his otherwise unattractive teeth should have been. "Let me make it up to you." He grabbed at his crotch suggestively.

"You know, bathing usually works for fleas."

Several of the thugs snickered, making Romeo frown angrily.

"Off your pony now, girl!" he demanded.

"Maybe you'd better ask my big sister first."

Taking her cue, Xena nudged Argo forward with her knees and the big horse casually walked around the bend in the trail. She sat there, bored smile on her lips and studied the thugs.

"Problem sister?" Xena asked sweetly.

Lessa looked back at the men, now seeming a lot less confident. Romeo, however, was still defiant. "Get 'em!" he shouted and rushed forward at Xena.

One of the archers fired his crossbow just as the sole of Xena's boot firmly connected with Romeo's nose. A distinctive crunching was followed by a thwap. Xena snapped her head in Lessa's direction at the sound to see the young woman deftly catch the crossbow bolt before it hit her chest.

"You lost this," she called to the archer, then threw the bolt back at him. With another crunch it impaled the man in the shoulder. He screamed and dropped the crossbow. "Oops, sorry." Lessa shrugged with a smile.

From her vantage point, Gabrielle didn't see a whole lot of the fight. She grabbed the closest thing to her, which was Lessa's longbow, and hit the next thug that rushed Argo in the head with it. It made a dull thud as it connected with the man's skull and he fell to the earth, unconscious. The bow was much heavier than it looked.

"Hey, watch the bow," Lessa cautioned, turning her head to face Gabrielle and away from the second archer who fired at her.

"Look out!" Xena called. This time the archer caught the crossbow bolt without looking. Xena's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but her attention was diverted by two more men rushing Argo, swords drawn. Extending both feet, she broke two more noses as the men fell, unconscious. The two injured bowmen ran away, the other three in unmoving piles near Argo.

"How did you catch that?" Xena demanded as they continued on their mounts up the trail.

"Oh, come on, Xena, same way you do. You heard the bow string snap. I knew how far away that guy was- it was no big deal." With a smile she added, "Besides, you warned me. Thank you, by the way."

Xena nodded, not sure if she believed the archer or not.

The rest of the day's ride proved uneventful. They had left the cliffs several hours behind and were now heading into patches of lush forest. There were glimpses of a meandering stream on either side of them. Gabrielle noted with interest the colorful algae, moss and lichens that flourished near the moisture. In places, steam could be seen rising off the water in delicate tendrils.

"Are these the hot springs you mentioned?" Gabrielle asked as the three women walked on foot, giving Socrates and Argo a rest.

"Yeah," Lessa nodded. "Tomorrow night we'll be at the main source, then we should be at Eselan by tomorrow afternoon. Anyway," she continued, "you can tell how hot the water is by the color of the moss and stuff. Stay away from that pale yellow- it'll burn. That bluish green stuff." Lessa pointed to a patch a short distance from the yellow, "that's the best."

They followed the stream until it opened up into a clearing. There was a nice stand of grasses heading into a small copse of trees. Argo's ears perked up at the sight. The ground was flat and to the edge was a circular pool of water. About twelve feet in diameter and clear, it was edged by the large boulders that extended below the surface. Gabrielle smiled at the sight of shallow ledge a couple of feet below the surface and the blue green moss that covered some of the rocks.

"What a perfect camp spot!" she said, rushing forward to test the water.

Xena looked around, there was plenty of fallen wood for a fire, shelter from the wind, easy observation of the trail and a canyon that carried sound to listen for danger. It was a exceptional camp spot. Her eyes also lit on the hot pool, steam curling seductively off its surface. Surprisingly, she saw no evidence of previous use. She said as much to Lessa.

The archer shrugged. "I guess this route doesn't get much traffic. Except of course unless you're a brigand on the run from Eselan to Loki. I don't think they'd be much in the market for scenic camp sites in that case." Gracefully dismounting from her zebra, Lessa began to unload Xena and Gabrielle's gear. After removing her own bedroll she re-mounted the equine.

"Just where do you think you're going?" Xena asked dangerously.

"There was a stand of fruit trees a ways back. I was going to head back and see if any of them had apples. Soc is out and you know how she gets."

"Fine," Xena agreed. "But the zebra stays here. We'd be so disappointed if you ran off." The zebra nickered thankfully and trotted over to join Argo, still wearing the now irritated archer on her back. Argo snorted in greeting and went back to chomping grass, an activity that the zebra joined in enthusiastically.

"Socrates! Stop it," Lessa commanded, and was promptly ignored. "Look, Xena, if I walk there and back it's going to take hours. I've ridden just as long as you have..."

"Nothing like a nice walk to work out the kinks from the trail," Gabrielle supplied helpfully.

"Oh great, now you're starting." Lessa dismounted and, still grumbling, removed the blanket saddle. Taking an empty saddle sack, she turned to go. With a soft nicker the zebra nudged her in the butt, then snorted softly at her when she turned back around. "Don't even try to apologize." Lessa said sternly. "You'd just better let me sleep in tomorrow," she added softening.

"We'll be sure to save you some dinner." Xena added, "Sister."

Lessa turned back around and, feigning anger without much success, shot back, "in your dreams, sweetheart."

Gabrielle watched as she headed around the bend and out of sight, then turned to see what Xena was up to. The wince of pain was unmistakable as the warrior removed the saddle from Argo's back. Remembering what Lessa had told her earlier, she rushed to help.

"Here, let me get that," Gabrielle said, taking the saddle from Xena. "You get something for dinner- I'll take care of the rest here."

It was the usual division of labor so Xena didn't protest even though the bard had been most insistent about taking the saddle. Her shoulder hurt anyway, most likely the archer's fault from this morning. "Or my fault," she thought, "for almost missing." She headed off into the trees and with her chakram made quick work of a large pheasant. Sitting at camp, she dressed the animal for cooking while Gabrielle built up the fire. Inwardly she was glad the archer would be gone for awhile. It was nice to spend time alone with her friend. Xena suspected the archer knew how she felt about the bard. Those green eyes told her as much, and that fact she found most disquieting. If a total stranger could see it in a matter of hours, how could Gabrielle not after years? Then again, if you drop a frog into hot water it'll jump out. If you put a frog in cold water then heat it, it will die, not noticing the increase in temperature.

With dinner slowly cooking and camp well established, it was now time for the warrior's favorite ritual of the evening. Xena couldn't remember exactly how it happened, probably an indulgence to let Gabrielle feel like she was doing something useful so long ago, but now she dreaded the thought of ever having her armor removed any other way. It was still an indulgence, surely, only now it was Xena who indulged in the gentle attention of the bard. Listening to her stories, going over the adventures of the day, sometimes getting her hair brushed- these were all guilty pleasures the warrior cherished.

"Over here, Xena." The warrior turned she swallowed, hard- eyes drinking in the sight. Gabrielle stood at the edge of the hot pool, dressed in nothing except a clean shift. She tested the water with her foot and smiled. "It's perfect."

Xena walked over as Gabrielle sat down on the grassy bank. She stood next to the bard, not knowing what sight was more intoxicating, the clear steaming pool, or Gabrielle.

"Is there any wine left?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at her friend. When Xena nodded mutely, she added with a radiant smile, "Then get it."

Xena returned with the wine, and while she scanned the area one last time, picking out probable ambush sites, Gabrielle started unlacing her boots. Xena removed her scabbard and chakram, setting them down carefully and within easy reach. After taking off her boots, she sat next to Gabrielle, legs dangling in the deliciously hot pool. Gabrielle kneeled behind her and after handing Xena the wineskin, began to loosen the buckles that held the shoulder plates to the back plate. Then, reaching her arms over Xena's shoulders, she removed the hook that held the breastplate to the shoulder plates. Born of nights of practice, Gabrielle deftly removed the various pieces of armor. She was less talkative than usual, not that the warrior minded. She felt herself relax as the armor was removed, kicked her feet slowly in the water, drank wine and let her mind wander.

Gabrielle gently pulled Xena's arm to her. At first startled, then relaxing when she saw Gabrielle work the leather laces of her forearm bracers. "You've gotten really good at this," Xena remarked, not knowing quite what else to say.

Gabrielle just looked at her smiling. "Thank you," she replied, her eyes laughing. "You've gotten more patient." She continued, working on Xena's other arm.

"Well, I don't know I'd go that far..."

"Admit it, warrior, this bard has had a mellowing effect on you." Her words and tone were playful, but to Xena truer words had never been spoken.

"You have, Gabrielle. You have no idea how much," Xena replied seriously, unable to add I love you to the end of her sentence.

Gabrielle nudged her playfully, "Now look who's getting soft."

Xena laughed at that. No matter what, Gabrielle knew just what to say to put her at ease. Still, as the last of her armor was undone, Xena wondered if Gabrielle felt the heat of her skin as her blood rushed to be close to the contact of the bard's fingers. Sitting on the bank now, only in her shift, she felt the bards breath against her cheek.

"Get in the water, there on the ledge." It was not a suggestion, it was not a request, it was a command. Xena looked over her shoulder with an arched eyebrow, feeling the twinge of her shoulder as she did as she was told.

"Okay," she replied, curious now as to what the bard had in mind. She sat in the water, which rose up above her hips, on the smooth rock ledge. Gabrielle sat down behind her where the bank sloped down to the water. She saw the bard's graceful calves and feet on either side of her hips as she felt gentle hands twisting her hair. "What are you doing?" Xena asked as she felt the bard fashion her hair into a bun and fasten it in place with a smooth stick.

"Nothing," Gabrielle replied as she rested her palms on Xena's shoulders. Tentative at first, then stronger, she began to work at the muscles of Xena's neck and upper shoulders. The warrior sighed, a relaxed blissful sound that she couldn't have stopped if she'd wanted to. This felt too damn good. Carefully, Gabrielle undid the straps that held the shift in place, and began to massage the rest of the warrior's muscular shoulders.

For her part, Gabrielle couldn't believe this was happening. Not only that it was her, sitting here massaging Xena, having her way with the warrior's shoulders, but that Xena was actually letting her. She delighted in the feel of the warrior's soft skin, smiled as the knots gave way beneath her probing fingers. With boldness born of growing confidence, she extended her hands down Xena's arm. Focusing her attention first on her left arm then her right, delighting in the feel of muscle moving beneath skin, Gabrielle felt dizzy in knowing it was her hands making Xena respond this way. Everywhere she touched, she felt the muscles respond, encouraging her in their immediate relaxation. She thought back to that morning, of her own muscles turning to water, and remembered what had happened to her on the inside. That beneath the warm glow of relaxation, an inferno of desire had ignited at thoughts of Xena touching her. She wondered to herself if Xena was feeling the same thing as she slowly brought her hands back up to the warrior's neck and with strong hands massaged the base of her skull and neck.

Xena's heart worked furiously to pump blood every place it wanted to be. The nerve endings of her skin demanded it, to relish every exquisite touch. Her abdomen craved it to send those signals lower, as for lower? Let's just say the pleading of that sensitive area would not be denied. Like water, every tension flowed away, every care, every worry and for a time every regret and dark memory had no place in her mind. She was connected to the woman she loved and for now that was all that mattered. It was moments before she noticed that Gabrielle was humming, and with a final sigh, she smiled and leaned back, eyes closed, enjoying the bliss.

As she shifted back, Gabrielle scooted down from the bank, into the water with Xena. As the warrior leaned into her, she was supported by the bank. With gentle fingertips she stroked the warrior's neck and collar bone, singing softly. With a lazy smile on her face, Xena appeared to be asleep. Gabrielle looked down at the warrior's chest, rising and falling with contented breaths as her fingers caressed soft skin of neck and shoulders. She didn't know how long they sat like that- time seemed to stand still, but her eyes didn't. They kept drifting to the edge of Xena's shift, the edge that cut across the top of her breasts. Mesmerized, she saw her own hands drift lower and lower until tentative fingers traced the edge of the garment. She stopped herself just as Xena caught her breath. Frozen in fear, she dared not move.

"You don't have to stop, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, relaxing against her once more.

Hands shaking now, Gabrielle swallowed and eased a finger under the top edge of the garment. With languid fingers Xena caressed the bard's arm, encouraging her in the exploration of her flesh.

"Oooohh," Gabrielle purred as her hand made contact with the softness of Xena's breast. Encouraged by the warrior's low moan, she eased her other hand under the shift.

"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena sighed and slowly rose up and rolled over, her knees between the bard's legs, hands on the bank over the smaller woman's shoulders. For a moment she gazed at her friend, uncertainty clear on Gabrielle's face, startled by the passion so evident in her own.

Gabrielle reached up and with gentle fingers traced the warrior's face from her chin to her ear. Gently reaching behind her neck, she drew her in.

That was all the invitation Xena needed. Slowly, so slowly she thought she'd explode, her lips descended on Gabrielle's. Softly, tenderly she kissed the bard, savoring every minute detail- the pulse beating beneath tender lips, tongues caressing each other in greeting. The bard wrapped her arms around Xena, her hunger becoming evident, and insistent. With strong arms Xena pulled Gabrielle into the steaming water, arms wrapped around her middle, keeping their heads above water with strong kicks of her powerful legs. When they broke apart, Xena could only stare in wonder at the desire evident in Gabrielle's face. She reached for her again, hungry, needful, only to have the bard duck below the surface of the water. She looked down, trying to follow Gabrielle as she swam beneath her.

Gabrielle wanted to shut her eyes against the stinging heat of the water. It took but a second to duck out of her shift and as she headed for the surface, she glided up against Xena's back, feeling the warrior moan as she rubbed her bare breasts against the length of her body. Breaking the surface Xena's lips descended on her once again, taking her breath away, kissing her fiercely.

Lessa watched all of this from her vantage point behind several large trees. She'd made it back faster than she thought and had sat, silently watching the warrior and bard, giving them what privacy she could. When she saw Xena draw Gabrielle into the steaming water though, she stood.

"Not 'till tomorrow night, you don't," she said quietly to herself as she headed back up the path to make a noisy entrance. She checked the moon- she'd been about three hours, served them right for taking so long to get to it.

Whistling to herself, she slowly entered the campsite going first to the fire, then looking to the pool as an afterthought. She found Gabrielle submerged in the pool, save for her head, and Xena standing on the bank, sword drawn and soaking wet.

"Do you guys always bathe in your clothes?" Lessa asked innocently as she studied the dripping warrior. "I'd put something on if I were you, you'll catch your death," she remarked with an unabashed gaze at the warrior's erect nipples, quite evident in her soaked clothes. "What's for dinner?"

"Perhaps you'd like to check the perimeter?" Xena growled, unamused by the interruption.

"Check the perimeter yourself," Lessa replied. "You're the one who made me walk to get the apples. Besides, I'm starving."

"Fine. I will." Grabbing a dry shift from her saddlebag, Xena stalked off into the woods.

"What are you doing!" Gabrielle demanded when the warrior was out of sight. "Everything was going perfectly."

Gabrielle climbed on to the bank, Lessa noting with amusement that she was no longer wearing her shift.

"Well, at least one of you has the sense to bathe naked," she quipped, handing Gabrielle her bedroll to dry off with. "Look, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I didn't know- okay? Tomorrow, I promise I'll make it up to you. Do you know this bird is going to burn if you don't turn it?"

Gabrielle laughed in spite of herself. She was no less annoyed by the interruption, but did see the humor in it. "Is food all you think about?" she asked, getting dressed.

Lessa thought a moment, "pretty much, yes. Well, food and sleep- oh yeah, and getting apples for Soc."

A few minutes later Xena stormed back to the fire. Dinner was ready and the pheasant was surprisingly good, considering their inattention about turning it. There was also some fresh bread and spicy cheese.

"Where's this from?" Xena asked, wrapped in her blanket by the fire. Lessa had been smart enough to avoid any further comments about how she found them.

"Those trees were owned by a young couple. Their goat was stuck part way down the cliff- I helped them get the goat back, and she gave me a lot of food. I can't believe I carried as much as I did. It would have been nice to have ridden..."

"You rescued a goat, from a cliff in the dark?" Xena asked, cutting her off. She was beginning to believe very little of what the archer said.

"The moon is bright enough to see- or hadn't you noticed? It'll be full tomorrow." Lessa explained around a mouth full of food. "I did slip though." She lifted her elbow to reveal a nasty abrasion and already purpling bruise. "Damn goat tried to kick me."

"Good for the goat," Xena muttered under her breath.

"So did they have apples?" Gabrielle asked, smiling quickly at Xena.

"They did, in fact. Of course if I'd ridden I could have carried..." A glare from Xena ended Lessa's narrative. "Never mind."

It was an awkward evening. After they'd eaten and settled down to sleep, none of the women seemed able to. The moon shown down brightly and Lessa was well aware of radiant blue eyes watching her every move. Mother help me, she thought, this is too much pressure. How am I supposed to sleep with them with them starting at me wishing me asleep? Finally she decided to just roll over away from the other two and stare at nothing in particular.

Gabrielle was stretched out by the fire, Xena curled around behind, strong arm wrapped protectively around her. Xena studied her profile in the moonlight as the bard gazed into the glowing embers of the fire. "I'm sorry about earlier," she said quietly.

"Sorry about what?" Gabrielle replied, turning in her arms to look at her. "It wasn't your fault...things were interrupted."

"Is that what you want?" Xena asked, daring to hope.

"To be interrupted?" Gabrielle smiled. "Certainly not." Then drawing the warrior down for a loving kiss added, " When we have privacy..."

Xena nodded with a frown at the back of the obviously conscious archer. Of all the stupid luck... With more than a little regret and frustration, she settled down with Gabrielle, warmer than she'd ever been, and waited for sleep.

Chapter 5

The Temple of Aphrodite

Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked around the camp. Xena and Lessa were both gone. It was mid morning and she couldn't figure out why no one had woken her. There was nothing in the fire ring except cold ashes. Annoyed, she began to look around camp for some indication as to where her friend and the archer might have gone.

Her friend. A guilty smile crept to the bard's lips, almost lover. Just as memories of Xena's kiss swept through her she heard the murmur of voices on the morning breeze. Creeping silently through the forest, she stopped behind a large tree to listen.

"Okay, sis, you've proved your point. No need to rub it in." It was a male voice, melodic, and one Gabrielle had never heard before.

"I'm not the one rubbing anything anywhere," Lessa replied with a chuckle. "I just happen to have a sense of style about these things and mother said she didn't mind."

Curious, Gabrielle peered around the tree, staying out of sight, and saw Lessa's black and green armor gleaming in the morning light. A light breeze gently blew the mane of sunset hair- she looked absolutely beautiful. Sitting astride Socrates, she was talking to a man equally magnificent. He had to be one of the handsomest men Gabrielle had ever seen.

"Do they know who you are?" the man asked. He was such a contrast to his sister. While both were beautiful, he reminded Gabrielle of a sculpted vase that you'd admire from a distance where Lessa reminded Gabrielle of a favorite shirt- one you'd want to keep near you. His blond hair was cropped close to his head, azure blue eyes were clear even at this distance. He was muscular but had a soft appearance as well. He had two small wings sprouting from his back and seemed to radiate light as he leaned against a tree talking to his sister.

"Of course not. You're acting like I've never done this before..."

"But, duh, you haven't ever done this before..."

"But that's not something you need to worry about. Look, brother dear- you had your shot at this. Several as I recall, an entire quiver full, and you blew it every time. Just let me handle this, okay?"

The man crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "Saying I wiped out is a little strong. They've caught a clue."

"And kept it bottled like an aging wine. Aged wine is good, wonderful- I love the stuff but there is a point that you've got to drink it, enjoy it or you realize that you've been aging it for nothing. Trust me."

Gabrielle drew back behind the tree, keeping out of sight, listening intently.

"Chill 'Stacy. I totally trust you. I just want you to be careful. Xena is a very dangerous woman. Way tense, I've asked around- I know what I'm talking about."

"Stacy?" Gabrielle thought to herself. "That must be Lessa's real name."

"Believe me, Xena is the least of my worries at the moment. If you were even slightly perceptive, you'd be worrying about me falling for the bard myself." Gabrielle's head shot back round the tree. Lessa tossed an apple to her brother who fed it to the zebra, never taking his eyes off his sister. "Don't worry," she continued with a light laugh, "I was joking. I adore Gabrielle and Xena too, but I'm not falling for either of them. Frankly, I'm more concerned with avoiding Callisto if you don't mind. Not that she wasn't entertaining mind you, but she's... well... a bit..." Finally Lessa shrugged, "Sick for my taste."

"I warned you about that too, 'Stac," he replied smiling gently at his sister's frown. "You still have the arrow?"

"Of course I do." Gabrielle was surprised to see all of Lessa's weapons on the zebra's blanket saddle. She picked up her scabbard and pulling at a leather thong, extracted a small white arrow from a hidden compartment in its side. "But as I told you before, I've no intention of using it. There is no doubt in my mind that these two people are very well aware of how much they're in love with each other. If Xena weren't so convinced she'd frighten Gabrielle away by approaching her, she would have, and if Gabrielle weren't so clueless she'd know that."

"Clueless! Is that what she thinks of me..." It was not until Gabrielle looked around the tree again that she realized she'd spoken out loud. The beautiful man was gone and she was face to face with Lessa's boots. She looked up at the archer, who was looking down, a frown on her otherwise beautiful face.

"You are supposed to be asleep, Gabrielle." Lessa's tone surprised Gabrielle. She almost sounded like Xena: patient, tolerant, very mature, and not terribly amused. Gabrielle had to remind herself that she was actually older than the archer.

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Stacy."

Gabrielle swallowed nervously as Lessa's eyes darkened at the use of her name. "So you've been here a while, I take it?"

Gabrielle nodded, feeling both guilty and nervous. Lessa smiled and shook her head. "Don't worry, it could have been worse." With a shrug she helped Gabrielle to her feet. "I'll apologize now, Gabrielle, please don't take this the wrong way." Before she could respond, the archer's lips had covered her own.

Instantly Gabrielle wanted to push her away, but realized she was frozen in place. She couldn't move; she didn't want to move. She breathed in the scent of Lessa's hair and saw the colors of the forest swirl around her. Before she realized what she was doing, she felt her arms around Lessa's back and neck, drawing her in, craving more of the delicious passion ignited by lips that moved so sweetly upon her own. This can't be happening, she screamed to herself, wanting more of it anyway. Wanting it to be Xena.


Gabrielle woke with a start, confused, sighing with relief as she focused on Xena's face above her own.

"Are you alright?" Xena asked, her hand still resting on the bards shoulder from shaking her awake.

Gabrielle looked around. It was full light, probably mid-morning. Suddenly unsure of just how much recent history was a dream, she answered cautiously. "It's nothing, just a strange dream."

"Must have been a good one," Xena smiled. "From the sound of it anyway."

Gabrielle smiled weakly. "How's your shoulder?" Desperate to change the subject, she sighed inwardly when a slow, sultry smile eased across the warrior's face.

"Never better, Gabrielle. How did you know I pulled it?"

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lessa step into view behind Xena, shaking her head emphatically. "I just knew," Gabrielle replied, looking down to avoid the archer's relieved grin.

Xena nodded, declining to force the issue and stood. "We'll be leaving soon, you'd best get packed up."

Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena as she walked across the campsite to begin readying Argo for the day's journey.

"Why did she let me sleep so late?" Gabrielle asked Lessa, deciding her dream must have been the result of unevenly cooked pheasant. She looked at Lessa curiously. Her clothes were damp, her hair drying in tendrils around her face. She didn't look nearly as beautiful as she had in her dream, so it must have been a dream. Wasn't it?

"Trust me, it wasn't my idea. When I suggested waking you, she almost took my head off with that round killing thingie."


"Bless you. Anyway, I suspect she thinks you should be well rested- for what I can't imagine..."

"Is Socrates ready to go?" Xena called to Lessa from across the clearing, her voice holding more than a hint of warning.

"Damn, she has good hearing," Lessa muttered and then whistled for the zebra.

It wasn't long before the trio was ready to depart. Xena made one last look around the camp site, double checking to make sure all traces of their passage were gone. With a start, Gabrielle headed back over to the hot pool, remembering she had left her shift there.

"It's okay Gabrielle," Xena smiled, walking over. "Lessa took a bath and fished it out early this morning. It's with your things." Gabrielle smiled, suspecting where the archer had gone to avoid the wrath of Xena's chakram.

"Where would you like to ride?" Xena asked as they walked up to Argo. Gabrielle was surprised; she'd never been given a choice before.

"In front, I think," she replied. "Unless you'd rather have me in the back?"

"Front is fine, Gabrielle."

Xena held Argo's reins while the bard mounted, then gently took her place in the saddle behind her. With a warning glare to Lessa, who took a sudden interest in the foliage of the forest, they set off into the woods.

"Tonight we'd better keep an eye out for Callisto's thugs," Lessa commented, keeping her glances to the warrior and bard astride Argo to a minimum. "She usually leaves three scouts a day behind her as well as a day ahead. You might consider giving me my weapons back?"

"We'll see," Xena replied. Gabrielle turned to see Lessa's long bow and scabbard securely attached on Argo's saddle on her right, the hand crossbow on the left.

"Thank the gods it was a dream," she muttered to herself. With a sigh of relief she studied the arm around her waist, memorizing the sensations that now raced through her. It was the sweetest torture. Xena's breath against her cheek as she spoke, the delicious movement of her breasts at her back, the arm wrapped snugly around her waist, occasionally caressing her thigh. Gabrielle was sure Argo's saddle would be soaked by the time they stopped for lunch.

Lessa rolled her eyes to the skies for the hundredth time that morning. As much of a romantic as she considered herself, the unsuccessful restraint exercised by the bard and warrior were too much to stomach, even for her. The passion crackling in the air was thick enough to slice with a two-handed broadsword. A very dull two-handed broadsword.

"Why don't I go on ahead?" Lessa suggested. "I'll see if..."

"Good idea," Xena replied with an even gaze.

"I get the impression you don't like her," Gabrielle said after the archer had trotted off into the woods.

Xena shifted slightly behind the bard, causing a new wave of pleasurable sensations to reverberate through her lithe frame. "Well, she did threaten to kill you." Gabrielle gently pried the reins from Xena's hand and put the warrior's other arm around her waist.

"But she was honest about it."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Well, I don't hold it against her, and if I don't, then I don't see why you should."

Xena smiled- for the life of her, she couldn't remember ever enjoying a ride through the woods more. "So tell me about your dream?" she asked, murmuring into the bard's neck.

"Well," Gabrielle began, wondering how much to tell Xena. Before continuing, something caught her eye. Gazing down at Lessa's scabbard a thin leather thong extended from the scabbard's side. Reaching down, she tugged on it and a hidden compartment opened in the scabbard, a delicate, tiny white arrow, falling into her hand. Gabrielle put the arrow back, grateful Xena was more interested in the back of her neck than what she was doing. "It was one of those dreams you tend to forget as soon as you wake up," she explained. "I don't think you were in it, Xena- I always remember those dreams."

They had ridden only a short distance further in silence. Xena kept her thoughts to herself, trying to put her feelings into words, then those words in to some semblance of lucidity. But Gabrielle was the one with verbal eloquence, who could turn even the simplest phrase priceless. When she finally found the words that would have to do, she opened her mouth to speak, not knowing Gabrielle had been facing the same struggle.

When the bard thought of Xena and all that woman meant to her, she was rendered mute. Words could not even begin to describe the depth and intensity of her love for the warrior. She doubted words ever could.



The two women laughed. "You first, Xena," Gabrielle continued, "since I do most of the talking."

Xena sighed and took a deep breath. This was it. "I just want you to know how much..."

"X E N Aaaaaaaa!" A powerful yell and the thunder of hooves brought the warrior's head up with a snap. Lessa charged into view at full gallop, dirt from the forest floor spraying in every direction as Socrates skidded to a stop. There was blood on the archer's face and her shirt was torn in several places, revealing more blood. "We've got big problems. Give me my weapons NOW!"

Xena nodded once, deciding. There was no mistaking the urgency in Lessa's face. This was a battle and from her bearing it was clear she could handle battles. No panic, no fear- just a sense of urgency and purpose. With fluid movements she untied the thongs that held the archer's gear to her saddle.

"I think it's the four groupies of Ares but I'm not sure."

"The four horsemen?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.

"I think so," Lessa replied easily catching her scabbard and buckling it in place across her back. "Really ugly guys on horses and one of them smells really bad."

"That'd be them," Xena quipped, tossing first the longbow then the hand crossbow to the archer.

"There's one more thing, Xena," Lessa added as more hoofbeats could be heard off in the distance. "They mentioned Gabrielle by name; they're after her."

"Damn you, Ares," Xena muttered, then nudged the bard from Argo's saddle. "Gabrielle, go with Lessa- get out of here, I'll catch up with you."

"But I can help," Gabrielle replied protesting.

"Listen to her, Gabrielle." Lessa urged, maneuvering Socrates to Argo's side. "Xena, do you know where the temple of Aphrodite is? About eight miles away?" Lessa asked as she helped Gabrielle onto the zebra's back behind her. A cloud of dust could be seen through the trees, getting closer. Shouts could now be heard and an acrid smell began to fill the air. Xena leaned down and quickly covering the bard's lips with her own, kissed her fiercely.

"I love you, Gabrielle," she said simply, "and I have every intention of showing you just how much. Keep her safe Lessa, your life depends on it. I'll find the temple and meet you there."

"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle replied, eyes brimming with tears. "Be safe."

With a yell Lessa charged Socrates away from Xena, away from the soon to be battlefield. Gabrielle hung on to Lessa for dear life. She had no idea the cute little zebra could move this fast. She was closer to the ground, and the animal was not as broad as Argo, but these things were of little comfort. The gait was different and holding on to Lessa's thin body was much less comforting than Xena's muscular frame.

Moments later hoofbeats could be heard gaining on them. With a quick glance over her shoulder, Lessa cursed. "Pestilence- why in Hades did it have to be Pestilence?"

"What?" Gabrielle yelled, trying to be heard over the sound of breaking branches and hoof beats, her eyes watering now from the stench moving closer.

"Hang on tight," Lessa yelled, and turned sharply to the right, leaping over a fallen tree, heading up a ridge, one hand on the reins, the other removing a cross bow bolt from a belt at her waist. Continuing a complicated series of direction changes at full gallop, Gabrielle was sure that they were going to be brained by a low hanging branch at any moment. The truth was, if she'd been on Argo, it would have happened. As it was, the compact animal maneuvered through the forest faster than the big mare could. With a glance around Lessa's shoulder, Gabrielle was shocked to see the archer using both hands to load the crossbow bolt into place. The reins were hanging, untended around the zebra's neck.

"You dropped the reins!" Gabrielle shouted.

"Don't worry," Lessa shouted back. "Soc hates the smell as much as we do. "Get ready to duck when I say so."

Gabrielle nodded. When they crested the rise, she almost fainted at the stench. Charging toward them from the side was a hideous figure astride a mangy black horse. Tattered robes, decaying armor and flesh teeming with disease headed toward them, a face grimacing in fury or delight. The figure held a small crossbow, pointed it at Gabrielle and fired. At Lessa's signal Socrates reared up, putting Lessa's body where Gabrielle's had been a moment before. She caught the bolt and shouted in fury as tiny insects began to eat into her flesh.

"Ow!" Gabrielle was nauseated at the sight, tiny black worms burrowing under the skin of the archer's hand. Lessa quickly threw the bolt back, catching the horseman in the neck. It didn't seem to bother him. He put down the crossbow and picked up a whip. Even at this distance Gabrielle could see that the slithering along its surface was not due to the gentle breeze. Socrates' ears flattened back nervously.

"Duck!" Lessa shouted as the whip lashed out.

Gabrielle did as she was told and from the corner of her eye she saw the whip biting into the flesh of Lessa's arm as it wrapped around. With a mighty tug she pulled the whip from the horseman's hand, then drawing her own crossbow, fired.

The bolt sped from the archer's bow and hit its mark with a squish as it embedded in the horseman's left eye. He let out a blood-curdling scream as both he and his horse vanished. Gabrielle sat amazed until Lessa's yelps diverted her attention.

"Ow, ow, ow, ouch, ow, ouch!" She was trying to untie the whip around her forearm even as it continued to bite into her flesh. Tiny thin snakes, that appeared to be nothing save teeth and mouths, attacked with a vengeance. "The back of my belt." Lessa gasped, "a black crossbow bolt- get it out and stab the whip with it."

Gabrielle found the bolt attached securely to the archer's leather belt. She pried it from it's niche, and with a grimace at the snakes now threatening her, stabbed the whip. With a flash of light, it was gone. With a relieved sigh, Lessa nudged the zebra forward. Socrates headed through the trees, putting as much space between them and the lingering stench of Pestilence as possible.

"We should go back and help Xena," Gabrielle said when the stench had subsided enough to risk opening her mouth.

"Xena will be fine, Gabrielle. Three horsemen are no match for her and I'm afraid I've got a more immediate problem." She held up her arm for the bard to see. Nasty red welts covered her hand where the parasites had burrowed under her skin. Gabrielle felt nauseous as she saw that they were still moving. The archer's forearm was also a mess, her shirt was in bloody tatters, and in two places thin strips of skin hung loosely. Continuing her examination she noted that Lessa had several nasty gashes on her neck and several large nicks and dings in her armor. She must have taken them all on before warning us, she thought.

"Not all, Gabrielle." Lessa replied, weakly. She either didn't notice or didn't care that's she'd read the bard's thoughts. "Just Famine." She handed Gabrielle the reins. "Why don't you drive for a while. Soc knows where to go." With that she slumped forward, resting her head against the zebra's neck, an arm dangling to each side. With a nod and kick of her legs, Gabrielle urged Socrates forward, keeping one eye on her charge, the other on the forest and headed for safety.

Xena cursed silently as Pestilence broke off the attack and rushed past her, but there was nothing to be done for it. Famine charged, a skeletal form on a skeletal horse, wielding a rusty sword. Drawing her own sword, Xena met the attack, the clang from the striking swords showering her with sparks and setting her teeth on edge. Two more grotesque figures surged forward. The shriek of Hatred and wail of Despair deafening to her ears. Leaping from Argo's back, Xena released her chakram mid flip. It ricocheted off of several trees, finally hitting Famine's sword, then plunging into the chest of Despair. The wailing was silenced and the horseman vanished. Hatred and Famine dismounted approaching her from either side. Hatred was dressed in black, pinched face distorted in an angry grimace, obsidian sword swinging menacingly. He lunged first, Xena parried the blow easily, kicking back as Famine approached from behind. The battle fully engaged, she parried their blows as she planned her own attack. She would not get many openings from Ares' henchmen, and had to make each one count.

Finally with a leap that made a mockery of the laws of physics (which thankfully had not been invented yet), Xena leaped over the head of Famine and with a fierce sprint, ran the monster through from the back, not stopping until the tip of her sword extended from the skeletal chest, and impaled Hatred to a tree as well. With a flash they were gone.

"Nicely done, my dear."

Xena spun at the sound of Ares' voice as the God of War stood behind her, applauding. "I'm sorry you won't get a chance at Pestilence, but that brat of Aphrodite's has already dispatched him."

Xena walked past the god to pick up her chakram from the ground formerly occupied by Despair. "Who?" she asked, not terribly interested, returning the weapon to it's proper place.

"Oh, so you don't know?" Ares smiled. "Then I've already won."

"Ares, what are you talking about."

"I was worried, can you believe that, actually worried that you might form some sort of bond with that little friend of yours, Grettle, isn't it? A bond that would keep you from returning to my services forever."

Xena shrugged, disinterested in the cat and mouse game demanded by the God of War. "It's Gabrielle, and that's already happened. You're a bit late, over a year at least."

"Am I really Warrior Princess?" Ares circled, toying with her. "Then explain to me why, as we speak, she is entering a temple of Aphrodite with Aphrodite's daughter, Ecstasy?"

"What?" Xena exclaimed, loosing her facade, but too concerned to care.

"Short girl, unusual hair, rides a zebra- I'm sure you've seen her," Ares continued conversationally. "If you think her brother Cupid has an appetite for sex..." He rolled his eyes skyward. "I'm surprised she's decided on your brat though," Ares smiled menacingly. "I think you're more her type."

"And you expect me to believe you?" Xena asked, regaining her composure.

"I'm not the God of Lies, Xena. And yes, you are more her type- she has a thing about mastering powerful women- I've heard stories. But listen, you know me to be an honorable man. Honestly, it's for old time's sake. You might as well come back now, join me before the pain of seeing that little friend of yours... well... writhing in ecstasy drives you back." He snickered.

"Ah, I see your purpose, Ares," Xena purred, reading the motives beneath the God's words. "I suspect Lessa, if she is who you say, has robbed you of several warlords, or you fear she can. Love is more powerful, even than you- I can see where she'd infringe on your body count. Fortunately, I have more faith in Gabrielle's love for me than you do."

"You're lying there, Xena. And it does not become you. That brat is infatuated with you, nothing more. What is there to love? Nice packaging surely, but beneath it all you're a warlord who quit. Someone who had it all and traded it for nothing. How long do you think she'll stick around once the novelty of conquering a warlord has worn off? You've gotten soft Xena, and soft won't hold her interest for very long. Your past, your nightmares, all the people on this planet who want and deserve your head on a platter, you're going to face up to them and when you do, Gabrielle will either be long gone or die another casualty of Xena: Warrior Princess."

"If you don't mind," Xena whistled for Argo, "if there's nothing else, I'd like to go."

"No, no, by all means, Xena, go." Ares chuckled as he began to slowly vanish. "I'll leave a candle on for you."

"Naturally the Titans were more than a little upset to discover I was not in fact a goddess... Socrates, is something wrong? I thought you liked the story?" The zebra stopped walking and began to bob her head up and down. Gabrielle looked around- they had been walking without any semblance of a trail for some time and the bard had no idea where they were. Listening to the sounds of the forest, her ears picked up the unmistakable gurgle of running water. She gingerly slid off the zebra's back, careful not to dislodge the barely conscious archer. Taking the reins in her hand, she led the zebra through the dense foliage towards the water. As she'd hoped, they reached an enormous outcrop of rock, water spilling from the middle of the rock face into a steaming pool below. Boulders surrounding the pool were covered with blue green algae. Lessa struggled to raise her head at the sight.

"," She gasped. Gabrielle nodded and, as gently as she could, pulled the injured woman off the zebra. Lessa landed in a heap on her back. Gabrielle was shocked at her appearance. The parasitic welts had spread from her hand and arm to cover all visible skin. Her neck and throat throbbed painfully, bleeding in several places where the worms had eaten through to the surface. Blood trailed out her nose and ears and her eyes were completely blood shot. Gabrielle was grateful she'd not eaten lunch or she was sure she'd have lost it.

"You'll be okay," she assured the archer, not entirely sure she believed it herself, and dragged her by her armor the short distance to the water. Not knowing how else to proceed, she rolled the archer's body completely clothed into the steaming pool.

As soon as she made contact with the water, Lessa screamed and thrashed as the surface of the water began to froth and churn. Steam exploded everywhere as Lessa, struggling, sank below the surface. Afraid she'd done the wrong thing, Gabrielle reached into the water, frantically searching for some sign of the archer. For long moments nothing happened, Gabrielle couldn't see any sign of her below the boiling surface. Finally, with a loud gasp, Lessa's head broke the surface of the steaming pool. Gabrielle grabbed her by her armor and dragged her out, with a heave pulling the gasping woman forward. Free of the water and crawling on to her hands and knees, she coughed a couple more times then sat back, drinking in deep breaths.

"Thank you... Gabrielle," she sighed. "You saved my life."

"What happened?" Gabrielle was amazed. The welts, the worms--all was healed. Lessa's eyes were bright and smiling, all of the bloodied gashes gone as if they'd never been. Her torn shirt was the only remnant of the battle they'd fought.

"The parasites? It's residue from Pestilence. Zeus, how I despise Pestilence."

"I mean, what healed you? Was it the water?"

Lessa looked a bit uncomfortable as she glanced at the steaming pool she'd just climbed out of. "Well, you could say this is very special water. It has cleansing properties. We'll need a bucket full to wash down Socrates, then I've got something to show you."

It didn't take long to clean Lessa's blood from the zebra. When they'd finished, the black and white of the unusual animal gleamed. Glowing white set off by rich black, dripping, water the creature looked truly magnificent. The water had a different effect on the archer's appearance. While she was physically healed, Gabrielle noted that water made the Lessa's armor creak loudly and gave her a rather rumpled look. She couldn't help laughing to herself.

"What's so funny?" Lessa asked, sending Socrates off to forage in the foliage with a playful slap on the rump.

"It's nothing. Just that every time I look at you- you seem to be drenched for some reason. Do your clothes ever get a chance to fully dry?"

Lessa joined in her laughter. "Not lately, that's for sure." With a smile she took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her towards a thick stand of trees. "This is what I want to show you."

A short distance from the pool and hot spring, the rock wall opened to a small entrance to a cave. There was a short barrier in front, but easily stepped over, of carved stone, with a torch resting near the opening. Symbols were carved around the opening, simple on the sides, very ornate at the top.

"This is the temple of Aphrodite?" Gabrielle asked.

Lessa nodded. "Not just any temple, Gabrielle. I have it on very good authority that this is her favorite temple."

"This is where you said Xena would meet us, right? Can we go in?"

Lessa put a restraining hand on the bard's shoulder. "Not so fast, my friend. First you must ask permission. There are candles inside. They start just inside the entrance and follow the twisting tunnel all the way inside the cave. What you have to do is light that torch, put it in the holder here," she pointed to an indention carved in the doorway, "think about why you would want to enter this temple, and what offering you might give. If the candles light, you're welcome to enter. If they don't," Lessa shrugged, "it'd be healthiest to stay away in that case."

Gabrielle nodded. "Mind repeating the part about offerings?"

"Well, Aphrodite is the Goddess of..."

"Love." Gabrielle replied.

"So think about that- I'm sure that'll be acceptable."

Gabrielle returned to her bag to pick up her flint and tinder. As usually happened when she tried to start a fire, she thought of the first night she'd spent in the company of Xena. She smiled at that distant memory. She'd been determined to follow the brave warrior no matter what. Choosing to leave an arranged marriage to Perdicus, her sister Lila, her family and village behind. She'd had romantic ideas at first, about seeing the world and recording wondrous adventures for future generations. That first night however was anything but romantic. Xena had warned her to stay away, so she tried to be discreet. She'd watched from a distance as the strong woman set up camp. First, she scouted the perimeter, picking up wood for her fire. She had killed a fat duck that night and was roasting it over her fire. Gabrielle's mouth still watered at the memory. She'd forgotten to bring any food in her enthusiasm at leaving and was feeling ravenous. From her hidden place she'd watched Xena remove her armor. A series of cuts and bruises were healing slowly on her back, arms and legs. Finally the warrior set down her blanket and began to eat. Gabrielle had already had made several futile attempts at a fire and she was cold. Cold, hungry, and desperately wanting the companionship of the woman sitting by that fire eating roasted duck, she approached.

Xena hadn't seemed too keen on her company at first, but the icy facade slowly began to melt. Xena laughed at her stories, taught her so many things-- some lessons were quite deliberate, like starting a fire. Some she suspected the warrior didn't even know she was teaching the bard, like strategy, and loyalty. Before the first cycle of the moon had passed, she felt closer to this woman than she'd ever felt to anyone. A part of Gabrielle knew that Xena had felt it, too. Even when she was angry with the warrior, or scared, or otherwise preoccupied there was a connection there that, as Xena had said, bound them closer than blood ever could. This woman was the other half of her soul and she would stay with her, forever.

Gabrielle hadn't realized she was lighting the torch until a burst of fire shot into the cave. Like a wave, a flame lit the first candle then jumped to the next and so on, traveling on each side of the opening until the flame disappeared out of sight around a bend in the tunnel. Moments later a warm eerie glow filled the entrance, like glowing earth. Lessa whistled appreciatively. "I think that is a resounding welcome, Gabrielle. Let's go in."

Gabrielle cautiously followed the archer through the entrance. The passageway was narrow, maybe four feet wide and gently sloped downward. The air was surprisingly comfortable for a cave, warm but fresh, not stuffy. The tunnel twisted back upon itself and in moments Gabrielle could no longer see the entrance. There was enough light to see, but unusual shadows danced everywhere. As they walked in silence, Gabrielle couldn't help but notice how at ease the archer was here. She carried a satchel over her shoulder and from time to time she stopped to right a fallen candle, or replace one that was nearly exhausted. Finally the passage opened up into a circular chamber. It didn't have a high ceiling, twelve feet at most and was easily fifteen feet in diameter. Every flat rock surface along the walls was covered with candles. Thin curtains of silicate rock hung in dizzying patterns from the cavern ceiling reflecting the candlelight, bathing the entire room in a warm glow. With a gasp that caught in her throat Gabrielle stared openly as Lessa turned around. The candle light reflected off the archer's hair hypnotically, her green eyes almost glowing in the warm candle light.

"Yes, I know." Lessa smiled with a shrug, diffusing a potentially awkward situation. "It looks interesting in candle light." Gabrielle cast her eyes down, wanting to look anywhere but at the archer when she noticed shallow circular indentations that were interconnected, along the edge of the cavern. Gabrielle counted ten of them, with one extra large one at the far side. Two things however dominated the chamber-- an area of the floor strewn with soft looking furs and a stone pit. Water cascaded into the pit, then from the pit it headed through a channel underground. There was a ledge in the pit, similar to the hot pool they'd camped at last night, only this pit was empty of water, save what passed through the channel. Lessa quickly made way around the chamber, checking various niches in the rock, standing up candles that had fallen over, and replacing several that had all but burnt down. Finally she extracted a wooden plank from an indentation in the rock and inserted the plank into the rock pit. It easily slid into place and when it did, the water no longer spilled down through the floor. It stayed where it was. The pit was beginning to fill.

"This is a temple?" Gabrielle asked finally.

"Of course it's a temple. Granted, it might not look like most temples, but believe me-- Aphrodite pays very close attention to what goes on in here."

"So where's the altar? Where do you leave offerings?"

Lessa was busy with the slowly filling water pit but nodded in the direction of the furs. "Over there."

Curious, Gabrielle picked up a corner of several large furs and peered underneath. Sure enough, she saw a slab of pure white marble set into the floor. It was warm to the touch.

"Hot spring keeps it warm," Lessa said. "Like the water here. Now listen carefully to me Gabrielle-- this is important." The bard reluctantly turned back to face Lessa. Fortunately she was standing mostly in shadow- her green eyes still radiated, but the effect was less distracting. She spoke quietly, the sound echoing musically around the room, but the gravity of her words was crystal clear. "From the moment this pit is full of water, you'll be allowed twelve hours in here. It takes an hour for each of these tiny bowls to fill." Lessa pointed to the ten circular indentations in the floor. "Water will spill over the edge of the pit here," she pointed, "and go into the first bowl then the next and so on. When the water gets to that large one by the altar, you've got two hours left. Whatever you do, don't wear out your welcome."

"What is it you expect me to do in here?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled by Lessa's urgency.

"That isn't my business, although I might have my suspicions. Look, enjoy the bath, enjoy the safety, I don't care. Gabrielle, you're here with Aphrodite's blessing. This chamber is yours for the next twelve hours; no harm will come to you. Whatever you choose to do or not to do is your own decision. Weapons however are strictly not allowed. I'll keep an eye on your stuff outside. Xena should be here soon-- after fighting Famine, Hatred and Despair, I'd think she might want a nice hot bath too. I'll leave the water skin here." She set it into a hole near the pit, "It will stay cold here. Also, here's some food in case you get hungry. Look Gabrielle, you saved my life, this is the least I can do-- to tell you about this place. You entered this temple in the right frame of mind, you can't possibly make any mistakes in here." Lessa turned to go and as an after thought added, "There's some nice smelling salts behind that rock ledge-- and some soap. I'd use them if I were you. No offense, but we did have to dispatch Pestilence." With a smile she was gone.

It didn't take Xena long to follow Socrates' trail to the place where the bard and archer had battled the demon of Pestilence. The stench still lingered in the air, most prominent at a burnt patch of ground. The warrior stooped to pick up a small crossbow bolt. "The work of Hephaestus," she muttered to herself. A few feet away lay another. She picked it up as well and continued. Now the trail was even easier to follow, patches of blood drying on the forest floor, like signposts. Concerned for Gabrielle's safety, she urged Argo forward, traveling as fast as she dared, and followed.

Gabrielle let out a low sigh as she eased herself into the steaming water. Her eyes fully adjusted to the candlelight, she let them wander around the cave. Easily it was the most beautiful cave she'd ever seen, colors rich and inviting, patterns of rock impossibly intricate. Even the air was warm and freshly fragrant. Fragrant-- there was a hint of something displeasurable and Gabrielle knew it was her. Lessa had been right, the stench of Pestilence hung like glue. Reaching behind her, she found a leather sack, and opening it she could smell the clean scent of sea salt and herbs. Taking several large handfuls, she deposited them into the water. Returning the satchel to its niche she picked up the soap and set to removing all traces of Pestilence.

Xena quickly dismounted at the sight of Socrates, eyes widening slightly. The animal was positively gleaming. The zebra raised her head and nickered in friendly greeting at the warrior's approach. "So we're friends now?" Xena asked as she walked over.

"It takes her awhile to get to know people-- unless they have unusually disarming personalities."

"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked, turning to face the archer standing behind her. She was surprised to find the woman virtually gleaming as well. Other than a torn shirt, she looked positively radiant.

"She's fine, Xena," Lessa replied to the warrior's unspoken question. "I'll take you to her. I hope you didn't have too much trouble with Ares' thugs?"

"They're gone," Xena replied dryly, following the archer through the trees. "I did have an interesting conversation with Ares though. He doesn't like you."

Lessa smiled. "I wouldn't say he's particularly good at making friends. Kind of a control freak, if you know what I mean." Lessa stopped at the cave entrance. "She's in there, waiting for you."

Xena looked at the symbols of warning surrounding the door, then eyed the archer suspiciously. "Is what Ares said true?"

"There will be time to answer your questions later," Lessa replied gently. "Right now there is someone who needs your attention more. Leave me your weapons and armor, I'll keep an eye on things out here. You'll be safe."

Torn between wanting answers immediately and wanting to know Gabrielle was safe, Xena stood indecisive for the briefest moment. Then she removed her chakram, handing it to the archer, and unbuckled the belt that held her scabbard in place. Her breastplate followed. "Would you see to Argo?" Xena asked as she stepped into the cave entrance.

"Of course, Xena," Lessa replied, giving her shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "But I ask one thing in return." She gazed easily into the warrior's bright blue eyes. "Be as honest with yourself as you are with Gabrielle." With a final grin she turned and headed back through the trees. Xena took a deep breath and walked forward, into the warm glow of candlelight.

She approached silently out of habit and smiled at the sounds of water and of Gabrielle humming. Breathing deeply, she picked up pleasing scent of herbs, melting wax and Gabrielle. Rounding a final bend in the tunnel, she stood breathless as the cavern opened up before her. Candles everywhere cast a warm glow throughout the room, but no where was the effect as inspiring as the light reflected off of Gabrielle's skin-- leaning back in the steaming water, neck arched, eyes closed with her arms stretched out on the rock rim of the pit, relaxed. Xena was too overcome with emotion to move.

"By the gods, you are beautiful." Xena whispered.

Gabrielle opened her eyes and smiled. "As I recall I said that to you once."

Xena nodded, moving closer. "But you were high on henbane at the time."

"That's not why I said it, Xena." Gabrielle stood, water streaming off of her body and held out her hand to the warrior. "Join me."

Xena crossed the cavern and stood, drinking in the sight of Gabrielle with hungry eyes. Stepping onto the outer ledge of the pit, Gabrielle cupped Xena's face with gentle hands drawing the warrior's lips to her own. Like ice, every doubt, every second thought, every preconceived notion of her relationship with Gabrielle melted away. Gods be dammed, her past was not going to keep her from this love. She had fought countless battles for so much less. She would not be denied the one who had already vanquished her and saved her in the process.

Breaking away from the kiss, Gabrielle smiled. "Turn around." It was a command, not a request.

"Why?" Xena asked softly, not wanting to take her eyes from the bard's face.

Gabrielle laughed a lyrical soft laugh. "So I can undress you, silly. The laces are in the back, remember?"

Xena complied, feeling at first the familiar sensations as Gabrielle untied the leather dress. When it was removed, her body shuddered at the sensation of dripping wet hands, splaying across the skin of her back. Water ran down, Gabrielle's hands following it, until Xena felt Gabrielle's hands at her boots, removing those as well. With slightly trembling hands, she turned Xena back around and led her into the warm, steaming pit.

A huge grin eased across the warrior's face as she was surrounded by the hot water. Picking up the soap Gabrielle glided through the water to Xena. Under the steaming surface she felt Xena's strong hands rest on her hips as she approached, guiding her closer, slowly easing up her abdomen, gentle and confident, her eyes never leaving those of the bard. Working the soap into a healthy lather between her hands, Gabrielle reached for Xena, smiling as her sudsy fingers slipped across the warrior's skin, grateful to disguise the trembling of her hands.

"Watch it," Xena warned as the caress began to tickle and that was all the encouragement needed.

From outside the cave, Lessa lifted her head from her sewing as she mended her shirt at the sounds of uproarious laughter coming from within. "In the temple of Aphrodite, they decide to get into a tickle fight?" she said out loud, frowning at the amused nickers from the relaxing equines a short distance away. "Oh yeah, like you two are the real experts." She shrugged returning to her sewing.

The laughter subsided, giving way to tenderness as Gabrielle insisted on washing Xena's hair. While it eased some of the awkward tension that permeated the cavern whenever their eyes met, it also served to build a steady wave of passion Xena feared would consume her. As she sat, the luxurious feel of the bard's hands as her neck, scalp and back were massaged, she could also feel herself flooding with desire. Desperately she wanted to consume the flesh of her soul. To know every part, hear every sigh of pleasure, to make her feel with the same intensity that raged through Xena at the bard's slightest touch. The breasts against her back, sliding against her skin, the gentle fingers, the light kisses on her ear-- there was no way Gabrielle could know what this was doing to her. Not unless Xena showed her. With surprisingly strong hands, Gabrielle pushed Xena's head under water for a final rinse.

As she broke the surface she felt hands on her shoulders, holding her down. With only her head above water, Gabrielle had Xena pinned. The bard panted from the earlier exertion as well as something else. "I've got you, Xena!"

Xena sat on the low ledge, Gabrielle standing in the water above her, looking down, looking powerful. Desire continued its powerful burn at her center, blue eyes darkened and narrowed, a slight curl to her smile.

"Don't even think about it." Gabrielle warned, her own expression hungry. "I have you... and I'm going to take you." Leaning into Xena, Gabrielle kissed her fiercely, an exploring hand easing between her legs. Xena jumped as probing fingers reached her center.

"Gabrielle!" she gasped, stunned at the bard's advance. She'd imagined making love to Gabrielle many times, but hadn't ever imagined the bard making the first move. New torrents of desire washed over her and she feared she'd orgasm before the bard touched her further.

"I want you, Xena," Gabrielle said softly, eyes pleading. "I've wanted you forever. Please, Xena, show me how to take you. Show me how to please you. Teach me."

The words rushed over Xena like nothing she'd ever heard before. For this woman she'd fight all of Tartarus. She'd defy every occupant of Mount Olympus. She would hold nothing back. For the first time that she could remember, she felt utterly defenseless and was glad of it.

Xena slowly rose out of the water, bringing Gabrielle with her. Standing together in the middle of the pit, she took the bard in her arms. "Gabrielle, I've loved you for so long." She whispered fiercely, "I..."

Her words died as Gabrielle pulled away and gently put a silencing finger to the warrior's lips. "Show me, Xena."

Xena smiled, a lopsided grin brimming with love. Now she would be denied nothing. Drawing Gabrielle to her once more, she easily lifted the bard and carried her from the pool to the furs nearby. Slowly kneeling, she kept the bard in her arms and hungry lips descended on Gabrielle's mouth. Slowly, so slowly she did not even realize it as it happened, the bard was lowered the rest of the way on to the soft furs. Xena took her time delighting in the soft mouth so welcoming to her own, the feel of a velvet tongue intertwining with hers; each sensation savored. Lips never leaving Gabrielle's, Xena's hands trailed down the bard's body, leaving a wave of desire in their wake.

A whimper escaped the bard's lips as Xena's mouth shifted to her throat. "Yes, Xena," she whispered as strong hands cupped her breasts, "Oh, Gods. More."

More?! Xena thought as her mouth trailed down to the bard's breasts, wetness flooding through her. Does she have any idea what's she's doing to me? As if in answer she felt Gabrielle's hands on her back as her fingers curled, blunt nails digging into the muscles of her back. It had been Xena's intention to take her time, to make each gentle caress count, but Gabrielle's responses were making that wish a fantasy. Each low moan, each pleading whimper, the commanding sighs-- all of these threatened to rob Xena not only of her senses, but of her restraint as well.

Driven wild by another small cry that reverberated inside the warm cavern, Xena shifted, easing a powerful thigh between the bard's legs. "Oooohhhh," Xena purred as her skin slid against wetness that was not drying water from either of their bodies. Gabrielle pressed herself against the muscles of Xena's leg even as the warrior rolled over.

Straddling Xena's leg looking down into radiant blue eyes, hungry with desire, Gabrielle smiled as she slowly rocked her hips back and forth, smearing the warrior with slick wetness. Reaching out with both hands, she cupped Xena's breasts even as the warrior arched forward to claim the bard's mouth once more. Still writhing against her thigh, Gabrielle pushed Xena back down. Gazing down, she couldn't help but smile. She never wanted to forget the look on the warrior's face. The hunger, the passion, the unabashed love she read there; it was one of those rare moments when you realize how perfect it is, even as it's happening.

With tentative lips she descended upon Xena's breasts, growing more confident as a nipple hardened in her mouth and she felt as well as heard Xena gasp. "Yes, Gabrielle, perfect." She had thought she'd reached the limits of arousal, but she was wrong. As the bard moved her lips against her breasts and wriggled her body against her flesh, Xena was at the breaking point. She had to possess the bard now, to drive her to the heights she herself was flying at.

Another roll and she hovered over Gabrielle once again. Trailing kisses down the bard's muscular abdomen, touching lightly with feather light fingers, she didn't stop until she reached the soft down at the apex of Gabrielle's legs. Xena kissed the indent of Gabrielle's hip, smiling at the pleasured whimper she caused. Gabrielle relaxed her legs, allowing Xena to part them with gentle hands. When Xena kissed her other hip, she felt a gentle but firm shove at the top of her head. "Are you trying to tell me something, Gabrielle?" Xena teased gently.

The intensity of hunger in the look Gabrielle gave her wiped the smile from Xena's lips. "Xena, I want you to take me with your mouth, take me with your hands. I want you to utterly possess me. Please!" Gabrielle's voice as well as her words, husky in their need, had vanquished Xena. She was the bard's to command. Gently lowering her mouth to Gabrielle's entrance, she paused a moment hovering over the velvety folds, teasing them with her breath, inhaling the intoxicating sweetness. "Yes!" Gabrielle panted thrusting her hips upward and breaking the bounds of Xena's restraint.

Sliding her tongue through velvety warmth, lapping up the nectar that abounded there, Xena feasted. Distantly she could hear Gabrielle's cries of pleasure as they reverberated in the cavern. She felt rather than heard the pants, the endearments, as the bard's body moved beneath her. Xena possessed all of Gabrielle, from curious exploration with her lips and tongue to artful mastering. The bard cried out as Xena's tongue circled the tight bundle of nerves at her center, massaging her to glorious climax. Xena felt shaking hands at the top of her head holding her there as the quaking subsided. Finally Gabrielle's hands dropped to her sides, but still Xena did not move. Not moving her lips or tongue she simply held Gabrielle, and waited. When the muscle spasms stopped completely and the bard's breathing evened, she moved. Gently thrusting her tongue deep inside of Gabrielle's entrance, she felt her lover's body respond again.

"Ooohhhh gods," Gabrielle groaned, hips bucking against Xena's face. In moments she was again riding the crest of climax. This time however, when Gabrielle's quakes were done, she let go. Gently easing herself up the bards body, she rested her thigh between Gabrielle's legs. Gazing into the young woman's face, she was surprised to see tears streaming from her eyes.

"Gabrielle- what's wrong?" She asked concerned. Gabrielle opened her eyes, beaming with love at the warrior, her warrior. She tenderly touched Xena's face, slick with her wetness.

"Xena," she whispered, "I love you so much it hurts."

Happier than she had ever been in her life, Xena rolled over and held Gabrielle, first as she cried unhindered tears of happiness, then as she slept. Xena herself did not expect to drop off, but she did. So at peace, she hardly noticed when sleep overtook her. It wasn't until she felt gentle caressing drift over her body that she awoke. Lazy, peaceful, with blissful slowness Xena eased out of unconsciousness. When the gentle touches extended to her inner thighs, she was fully awake, eyes open.

"Feeling jumpy, Xena?" Gabrielle teased, her loose hair easing across the warrior's abdomen as the bard kissed her breasts.

"Lovin' every moment of it," she whispered, her hand tracing lazy patterns across Gabrielle's back.

"Good," Gabrielle murmured into Xena's sternum as she began her descent.

"Ooooohhh, ah," Xena's eyes widened in surprise when the uncertain tentative touches to her sex as she anticipated didn't happen. Abruptly, powerfully Gabrielle's lips descended on Xena's center. And just as quickly they backed off.

"Noooooo," Xena groaned as Gabrielle teased her with her mouth. For long moments she kissed Xena passionately, reveling in the scents and textures beneath her tongue. The closer the warrior got to climax, the more Gabrielle shifted to teasing Xena in all of these wondrous places. Finally when she could feel all of Xena's muscles convulse, she lifted her head, and shifted position. Replacing her mouth with nimble fingers, she gazed down at Xena as she began to pant forcefully.

"Open your eyes, Xena," she commanded. "I want to watch."

Xena opened her eyes and held Gabrielle's loving gaze. Between pants she managed, "Yes Gab...reille, perfect. Inside..." The bard inserted two fingers, then a third into Xena's coral opening. "Yes," she gasped, not flinching from her lover's gaze. "More Gabrielle... harder." Gabrielle's eyes widened at the flood of wetness beneath her hand, she moved in rhythm with Xena, matching the force of the warrior's body stroke for stroke. Xena continued to hold Gabrielle's gaze, "Yes... I need ... just... one..." With a final thrust Gabrielle felt powerful muscles clamp down on her fingers. The shudder of orgasm racing through her body, exquisite spasm after exquisite spasm rocked through her, turning her blood to silver. "Ooooohhhhhhh," Xena finally sighed as her muscles relaxed. Gabrielle held her there, warm and comforting, basking in the glow of intimacy that bathed them both. Slowly, gently the bard extracted her hand, smiling at her lover.

"How?" Xena panted, looking at Gabrielle, awed expression on her face.

Slowly Gabrielle brought her hand to her lips and slipped her fingers in her mouth. "You're a good teacher," she purred, as Xena sat up, consumed by her desire once more.

"You must be way pleased with yourself."

Lessa jumped at the sound, sticking herself with her sewing needle. "Ow!" She put her bleeding finger in her mouth and turned around furiously. "Cupid! I hate it when you sneak up on me."

Cupid shrugged, taking a seat next to his sister. "I could have been one of them."

"Not bloody likely. They've only been in there for a few hours. I don't expect to see any sign of them until sun-up at the earliest. I had the perfection of this sunset all to myself." For a moment he looked out over the shining blue ocean. This was indeed a perfect sunset.

He looked at his sister, her dark hair reflecting the burning brilliance of the sun as it reflected off of the expanse of ocean. She seemed so at home here. Her hair was like the sunset, the black and green of her armor reflecting the living forest behind them, her fragrance even, the clean smells of sea and earth. She did not belong in any village, and now she never would. "You can't go back you know," he said quietly.

"I know." She grinned. "It's okay. I never wanted to anyway. We are what we are and it's pointless to try to pretend otherwise."

"But you could have had a regular life. Family, friends, no dieties chasing after you," he said, putting a gentle arm around his sister. Lessa leaned in close, gazing at the sunset.

"You are my family, brother dear. And I have friends- I know I'll be on Xena's good side for eternity. As for the rest," she shrugged, "it's worth it. Ares would hate me anyway, I am my mother's daughter."

"Not quite," Cupid murmured.

"Okay, so I'm not an air head. But at least this way I've earned Ares' displeasure, and, after this I think his respect as well."

Cupid laughed at that. It was so like Stacy to belittle the wrath of an angry God. "Don't get me wrong. I think what you did is totally killer. The bogus thing is, it's just that it's a choice you didn't have to make. I don't really need a sidekick. You're taking an unnecessary risk."

"But Cupid, you do need the help, if not a sidekick." She took his large hand in hers, feeling very small compared to her brother. "This proves it." She nodded in the direction of the cave. "You might be the God of Love, but you don't understand every relationship. I know I don't. So maybe I understand some things you don't. I do have a different frame of reference after all. You'll still have to do the bulk of the dirty work, but from time to time, I think you might come across a special case that needs my expertise." She looked up into his brilliant blue eyes and smiled, "I don't mean to hurt you. I know how fragile the male ego is."

Cupid smiled, shaking his head. It was a wonder Lessa hadn't ended up on the business end of a lightning bolt already she had that knack. "Chill grrl. I don't feel threatened by you in the slightest. So you're a better shot with the bow, you can sweet talk Hermes out of a pony, you can get Hephaestus to build you weapons, insult Ares and live. You're also my sister who is afraid of bugs and snakes and there isn't anything I wouldn't do for you."

"Socrates is not a pony," Lessa smiled, eyes shining. "You know Cupid it's your fault I'm not the least bit interested in men."

"How's that?"

"Because I demand that they be warm, charming, sensitive, intelligent, and funny. But then they remind me of my brother so I think eeeeewwww." Lessa said giving him a fierce hug.

"I feel so honored," Cupid replied dryly, kissing the top of her head. "So what's up with them?" he asked releasing her.

"Xena and Gabrielle?" Lessa glanced in the direction of the cave, then returned her eyes to the sunset. "The usual. Occasionally they'll both curse the day they met me, but ultimately they will know in their hearts that for each other they are the greatest treasure in the universe." Lessa sighed, "Gabrielle will continue to grow, forcing Xena to do the same, like it or not. She will be frustrated from time to time by Xena's gift of understatement. I heard she once described Mount Olympus as 'big'. Xena will learn more about giving than I think she ever wanted to know. Giving up on some independence, responsibility, letting someone care for her and occasionally take care of her. I think she will be surprised when she realizes it makes her a stronger person, not to mention less edgy."

"I see you've spent some brain time on this," Cupid commented, standing and extending a hand to his sister to do the same. "So what's your next gig?" he asked as they walked along the edge of the cliff.

Lessa grimaced. "I still have to deal with Callisto. Everything I told Xena was true." Cupid raised an eyebrow. "Well, mostly true. She did kidnap me and expected me to kill Gabrielle. I needed something believable to have a real reason to travel with them. I should see that she gets put back in prison where she belongs."

"And after?"

"I don't know. Travel some, maybe. I'm sure there are people out there that could use my services."

Cupid rolled his eyes skyward. "I don't suppose you'd let me contact you when I need your help as opposed to you deciding for me."

"Cupid! How many attempts did you botch with these two? After that last stupid plan of yours I had to step in." Seeing the look of hurt crossing his face, she amended, "I mean that in the nicest way of course. Lets just see how it goes, shall we?"

"Fine, solid." Cupid raised his hands, surrendering. "I've got time for dinner, then I've got to go. Let's talk about something else."

Lessa smiled triumphantly as they walked back to the fire pit. "So, how's Psyche?"

"You are so beautiful." Gabrielle sighed as she looked down at Xena's face. Finally free to touch the warrior at will, her hands continued with their ceaseless exploration. Delicate fingers caressed the warrior's face, pulling themselves through her rich mane of dark hair. "I can't believe this is actually happening. That this isn't just a dream I'll wake up from, like so many others."

"It's real, Gabrielle," Xena said softly, looking up into her lover's eyes. Drawing a gentle finger down the bard's cheek, she drew her in for a kiss. Warm and slow and sweet, she was certain she'd never tire of kissing Gabrielle's lips, or any other part of her anatomy for that matter.

"When did you realize you loved me?" the bard asked, as she shifted her position to lie on top the warrior. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's small frame, wishing she'd never have to let go.

But I ask one thing in return. Lessa's words came back to Xena as clearly as if she were in the cave whispering to her, Be as honest with yourself as you are with Gabrielle. Xena thought for a moment; it was hard to remember a time when she did not feel love for Gabrielle burning in her heart. "A very long time ago. I'd had... feelings... for you since I'd met you, but after you left me to go home, I knew it was much more."

"So why didn't you ever tell me?" Gabrielle whispered into the warrior's chest, sighing at the feel of Xena's strong hands on her back.

"I didn't want to risk losing you. I knew you felt something for me, but I thought it was different. Besides, with me you're a target for all who hate me. I always assumed you'd eventually tire of the 'adventure' and settle down."

"I'm glad we've gotten past that," Gabrielle murmured, trailing soft kisses across Xena's chest. "I love you more than anything, Xena. Danger is nothing if I can be with you, and as long as I'm going to be in danger anyway." She closed her mouth on a soft nipple. "At least this way I have the pleasure of sharing your heart... and body."

Xena smiled, delighting in the delicious sensations coursing through her veins. "Both belong to you Gabrielle, do with them what you will."

Gabrielle lifted her head and looked around the cave. The air had stayed wonderfully warm. Heated by the water from the pit, she quickly counted the full bowls cut into the cave floor. Nine were full of the steaming water. Between lovemaking and dozing, then awaking again to delight in the pleasures of the flesh, Gabrielle had lost all track of time.

"I know exactly when I fell in love with you." Gabrielle continued conversationally as she moved to Xena's other breast.


"I mean I was infatuated from the moment I saw you, but it was the moment after you rescued the baby- King Gregor's heir- that I realized that I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with you." Gabrielle lifted herself off of Xena's body, moving down slightly, trailing kisses and soft bites across Xena's muscular abdomen. "Of course I didn't start craving you physically until that time in the well."

"The nutbread?" Xena purred, eyes closing with pleasure as Gabrielle squirmed between her legs, teasing the insides of her thighs with soft caresses.

"Um humm." Gabrielle breathed into the soft curly mound, smiling as a shudder swept through the warrior's body. "It was so clear to me then, touching you and climbing up your body warm and wonderful. Xena, you are magnificent."

Xena felt it then, the soft lips pressing against her center, velvety tongue caressing her in ways that truly were magnificent.

The time spent in the cave infused Xena with more healing than she knew she'd ever deserve. The glorious creature who had shared her life and her heart for so long now possessed and shared her soul as well, and Xena knew she'd never felt happier. Tender, gentle, loving, Xena could be all of these things for Gabrielle, and even more she could enjoy the stillness of reclining in the bard's arms, allowing herself to be touched, to be kissed, to be loved. Immensely grateful, she was still curious at the sense of wonder Gabrielle had for her body. She wanted to know the story behind every scar and paid very close attention to the touches that turned Xena to water.

"Don't want to move," Gabrielle murmured hours later, resting on Xena, one arm reaching over her head, caressing long dark hair absently, her other hand stroking the warrior's arm as it rested across her stomach.

"So don't move," Xena whispered, delighting again in the scent of the bard's hair.

Gabrielle sighed, "But we have to." She pointed across the cave floor. "The last bowl is filling. We have to be out before it's full."

Xena nodded reluctantly. She didn't even want to fathom the wrath of Aphrodite. "Think we have time for another bath?" Xena asked, accepting Gabrielle's hand and standing.

"I think so." Gabrielle slipped her arm around Xena's waist as they walked the few steps to the steaming pit. Xena entered first, then held out her arms as the bard descended into the warmth of her embrace as well as the water.

Tender endearments were murmured as each lovingly bathed the other. Each caress a promise of more, a lifetime of more, each kiss a gladly given vow. Finding a soft blanket behind the pit they dried each other, happy, exhausted and completely content. Finally dressed once more, Gabrielle removed the plank closing off the pit and the water slowly descended into the depths of the cave. Arm in arm, warrior and bard walked past the flickering candles into the cool air of a new dawn.

Standing for a moment at the cave entrance, looking out to the sunrise over the ocean, both women paused in the perfection of the moment.

"Nice timing," a gentle voice teased behind them. Turning around, they saw the archer cooking something over the fire, smiling at them. She stood in greeting, and after a quick squeeze of her arm around Xena's waist, Gabrielle walked over to Lessa and hugged her, kissing her quickly on the mouth.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said beaming.

Surprised, not to mention pleased, Lessa smiled. "No, thank you." Then with a grin to Xena asked, "So you gonna kiss me, too?"

"Not likely." Xena replied dryly.

Lessa shrugged. "No matter. Breakfast is ready."

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked looking suspiciously at the golden discs cooking on hot rocks.

"Something I call waffles, I think you'll like 'em." Lessa handed Gabrielle a flat stick she'd been using to nudge the discs for even cooking. "Don't let 'em burn. I'll go close up the cave."

Gabrielle took the stick and watched her go, then noticed Xena's eyes on her. "You know, you'll feel better if you thank her," Gabrielle said gently. Xena sighed- the bard had a tendency for being right. Shaking her head, she followed Lessa into the cave. Upon entering the main cavern she stopped in the shadows and watched the archer silently.

Lessa had busied herself with tending to the chamber. She straightened the furs over the altar, made sure the plank for the pit was where it belonged, checked the temperature of the water spilling into the pit and returned the water skin to its proper place. "You might as well come out, Xena, I know you're here." Xena stepped from the shadows as Lessa turned to face her.

Blue eyes widening in surprise, Xena was for a moment speechless at the sight of Lessa in the glow of the candle lit cave. In this setting it was clear that she was indeed standing before a goddess.

"I've got the warrior princess speechless? I think I'll keep this outfit." Lessa said with a gentle smile.

"I'm sorry," Xena replied. "I didn't mean to stare. I want to thank you."

"Thank me? Whatever for?"

"For this," Xena replied, taking in the cave with her eyes.

Lessa looked at Xena for a long moment before responding. Clearly she was debating about how much to tell the statuesque warrior. "Xena, I want to make something perfectly clear. I don't have the power to make people fall in love. I'm not like my brother. My only talent is in recognizing when people are indeed in love, but perhaps not acting on it." Her eyes softened as she continued, "I know how you feel about gods in general, and how you feel about a few of us specifically. I don't need to tell you that your relationship with Ares you wrought yourself, and you know that Gabrielle had no part in it. Let me also assure you that the woman you have become is indeed making a difference. Gabrielle will not be judged for sins of the old Xena. She is...protected from your past to a certain extent. Of course the life the two of you lead now... that's fair game. I can promise you that I will not let Gabrielle be made to pay for something you did before you met her."

"For that I owe you everything- and I'm not sure I can owe a God."

"You owe me nothing, Xena. This is between Gabrielle and me." Lessa tossed her long mane of gleaming hair over her shoulder. The reflections were hypnotic. "I'd treat her well if I were you. I'm kind of sweet on the bard, and I'll be watching."

Xena nodded mutely, blinking her eyes against the splendor of Ecstasy in her element. "Are you going to kiss me now or not? It might just bring you luck."

Xena smiled. Resistance is futile, she thought as she stepped toward the goddess. Placing an uncertain hand on each side of Lessa's face, she leaned in and covered her lips with her own. Her lips were soft, warm and beat with a vibrant pulse. As Xena pulled back she could feel a tingling persist on her own mouth. All in all, the kiss was considerably more chaste than the warrior had expected.

"Well, I don't bite after all," Lessa muttered reading the warrior's thoughts. The two headed to the exit of the cave.

"What about the candles?" Xena asked.

"I almost forgot." Lessa blew into the air behind her and the candles at the back wall extinguished themselves, slowly moving around the sides of the cave and following, but only as Xena and Lessa passed, the last one going out as they stepped through the cave opening.

"I still think you're a show-off." Xena muttered.

"This is ambrosia!" Gabrielle exclaimed delighting in her fourth waffle.

"Not quite." Lessa shrugged, "Ambrosia has more of a poultry flavor- like chicken."

"Very funny, 'Stacy." Gabrielle chided.

"I'd rather you call me Lessa."

"But I've never been on a first name basis with a goddess before."

"Suit yourself," the Goddess of Passion shrugged, tossing an apple to Socrates and reaching for the syrup. "Overrated experience, isn't it?" she asked looking at Xena who, mouth full of her own waffle, nodded.

"So you were saying," Gabrielle continued, "that Cupid has in fact tried to get us together?"

"And how," Lessa agreed. "Let me see, he realized he didn't need an arrow when your heart exploded after that King Gregor thing." Gabrielle blushed slightly. "And he, quite frankly, was afraid to shoot you." Lessa frowned at Xena. "Thought he'd get that round killing thingie imbedded in his back for the trouble."

"Chakram." Xena said.

"Bless you." Lessa continued, "So helping out Callisto with her target practice and pegging you with that dart- that was supposed to do the trick."

"How? I was unconscious?"

"Yes, but someone," Lessa glared at Gabrielle, "was supposed to open up a bit more about her feelings when you recovered. Then there was the Temple at Thessaly." This time Xena looked away, embarrassed. "Someone was supposed to confess her love to a certain someone else that even the entire temple was painfully aware of." Lessa shook her head. "There have been countless other times Cupid paid the two of you a visit. The Titans, the nutbread, fishing in the lake. Finally when I heard his latest plan, well, I had to step in. It was dreadful."

"What was it?" Gabrielle asked.

"He was going to shoot someone from your past- Perdicus I think his name was. Have him show up and ask for your hand in marriage."

Gabrielle shook involuntarily. "I'm glad you stepped in." Then remembering something, added, "I thought you said you didn't use arrows?"

"For shooting people no, I don't- but I suppose I could."

"What about that arrow that's in your scabbard?"

"You've been snooping, Gabrielle, and it isn't polite to snoop on a god," Lessa frowned. Reaching behind, she picked up her scabbard and extracted the tiny white arrow. "You can have it if you want."

Gabrielle held the arrow, the length of her palm, in careful fingers. It appeared to be crafted from white marble. A sword was etched into one side a feather quill on the other. "It's beautiful," she breathed.

"Thank you. Carved it myself. It helps me think... and plan." Lessa smiled deviously.

"I'll treasure it always."

Lessa laughed. "If you want, Gabrielle, but I wouldn't bother. Your treasure is sitting right in front of you. That- that's just an arrow." Putting two fingers in her mouth, Lessa whistled and Socrates came striding over, greeting first Gabrielle then Xena with a playful nudge. "Soc and I have to go. We've got some unfinished business to take care of."

"Callisto," Xena said, it wasn't a question.

Lessa nodded. "Not all of my work is as enjoyable as getting acquainted with the two of you." Xena noticed that Lessa's eyes didn't leave Gabrielle's face as she spoke.

"Will we see you again?" Gabrielle asked.

Lessa smiled, a warm inviting smile, "Absolutely." Then with a grin to the warrior, "but not very often. But I'm sure I'll be thinking of you from time to time, and I suspect you'll feel it when I do."

After quickly hopping up on to Socrates' back, she smiled one final time "Be well, you two," and with that she was gone.

"I wonder what she meant about thinking about us?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.

"I don't know," Xena replied splitting the last waffle between them. "I'm sure we'll find out."

Packed and ready for travel, Argo stood waiting patiently as Xena and Gabrielle stood arm in arm overlooking the ocean. "You know, Xena, I've never been this happy," Gabrielle said, absently turning the marble arrow over in her hands.

"Nor I, Gabrielle," Xena said, kissing the top of the bard's head.

"And you know what else?"


"Lessa was right." Gabrielle turned in Xena's embrace, looking up at her lover with bright eyes. "You are the greatest treasure." With that she tossed the marble arrow over the side of the cliff. It tumbled and turned on its way to the rocks below, finally shattering with the melodious chime of tiny bells.

"I love you, Gabrielle."

"I love you, too, Xena, and you're right." Gabrielle looked down to where the ringing of the shattered arrow continued. "She is a show-off."

Smiling the lovers turned from the cliff, heading for Argo, and the rest of their lives.


Return to Bat Morda