Disclaimer: I don't own the characters, I just like to play with them.
Other Notes: This story takes place in the interstices of
Season 1. If you're playing 'name the ep' you'll notice that I took one liberty
-- I've switched 'Hooves and Harlots' and 'Death in Chains' because they're
obviously meant to be the other way round. Gabrielle can't be wearing the Amazon
outfit *before* she meets the Amazons :)
This story is alt. Nothing terribly graphic, but if you're
not 18, come back when you are.
My deepest thanks (and best birthday wishes) to
beta'd this so long ago I bet she's forgotten about it.
A WALTZ ROUND MY SUBTEXT
"to everything, turn, turn, turn
there is a season, turn, turn, turn,
and a time for every purpose
under the sun..."
Season 1: A time to be born, a time to die
It was just another day on the road: a bunch of slavers, a pack of frightened girls. You were halfway to dead before they interrupted the process, and you could have stayed hidden, or slipped away. Found another tree to hang yourself from, another cliff to throw yourself off. You almost did. Then this little blonde kid got mouthy and hit Mr Big. You've always hated slavers, so you just had to watch. You saw the girl's face go white when the whip came out, but she didn't snivel and she didn't beg. She'd have taken a whipping for the others and never shed a tear.
She was foolish and brave and you couldn't do much about the first part, but you were damned if you were going to watch her suffer for the second. So you did your thing, bashed a few heads, sent a calling card to your old pal, Draco. You figured that would be it. The kid would thank you for rescuing her, you'd thank her for the knock on the head. You'd needed it. Better to die trying to do something right, something like this, than just die by your own hand.
But no, she tagged you here and tagged you there, put her body between you and a village full of rocks. Turned up in the moonlight later, with the sweet smile of a child. You let her stay because you didn't want to be the Xena who would turn a child out into the darkness, not anymore.
She invaded your quiet, told you stories one after another, gulped down your horrid soup without complaint. You stared at her until she burned your eyes, then you took out your whetstone, concentrated on your perfectly sharp sword. She went on talking. You sent her to bed and still she talked. You began to wonder if you were going to have to clobber her with the pommel of your sword to get her to shut up.
Then she fell asleep mid-sentence and you found you hated the silence, that you had hated it all along.
Some time later you were startled out of sleep by a footstep near your head; a moment after that you had someone on the ground, your chakram at their throat.
It was the girl, eyes startled and wide. "You don't sneak up on a warrior at night," you hissed, pushing yourself away. "I could have killed you!"
She looked horrified, as she should, and you thought that was for the best. Maybe now she'd realise what you were, and go back to her parents, where she belonged.
She said, "I was cold." No fear, no apologies, just a statement of fact, and a shiver to prove it.
"You were cold."
"Yes. Can I get in there with you?"
It was the first lesson she taught you: if you wanted to say no to her, you had to do it quick and be absolute. You didn't think fast enough that night, and the next thing you knew she was climbing into your bedroll.
"Lila -- that's my little sister," she told you. "We always sleep together when it's really cold." She pushed your hair off your shoulder so she could replace it with her head. "Didn't you do that with yours?"
Your mouth was so dry by then you could hardly mumble, "I had brothers."
"Well, you can pretend I'm your sister," she answered, snuggling close. "Gosh, you're nice and warm."
She tilted her head back and smiled into your eyes. Then she leaned forward and kissed you, right on the lips.
"Goodnight, Xena. Sleep well."
Ten years you had spent building that impenetrable shell, layer by carefully laquered layer; one tap from her and it broke. You lay there while your body did things it hadn't done since you were fifteen years old and she fell asleep, the blissful innocent, wrapped around you like she was exactly where she belonged.
Some would say she wore you down. Some would say she tamed the beast, humanised the monster. Maybe it was both. You felt pretty damn human watching her run across a field to meet you, all waving hands and flying hair, practically tripping on her skirt. For a minute you were afraid she was going to leap right into your arms, but instead she yelled at you for disappearing and ordered you to follow her, a tiny general marching her army of one.
You didn't want to answer questions about where you'd been and the family you'd just left. You were leading Argo, but you purposely set the pace too fast, so she would be too out of breath to talk. She kept up with you, barely, her cheeks flushed, her skin glowing in the sun. Finally, you had to stop, no longer able to ignore the pain of those half-healed wounds.
"Look, I'm sorry I was mad," she gasped, as you poured water down your throat. "I was starting to think you'd just dumped me in that tavern."
'I thought' said her mouth, but 'I was afraid' said her eyes. Something she was more afraid of than being abandoned in some remote part of Greece to find her own way home. You gave her the waterskin and looked at the land so you wouldn't have to watch her breasts rising and falling as she tried to catch her breath. You thought it wasn't fair that she should be so bright and fresh and full of life, when you were so worn-out and ready to be done.
"So what really happened?" she asked, wiping her mouth. "Why were you gone so long?"
Lesson number two, forget about distractions; she doesn't give up. "I got in a fight, I got hurt, I had to rest a few days. I'm okay now."
"You got hurt? Where? I want to see."
She fluttered around you like a demented butterfly; you fought the urge to bat her aside. "Gabrielle. There's not--"
You stared at her even as your hands automatically moved to roll up your leathers, responding to her order like the foot soldier you've never been. And since when did any part of you respond to anyone?
"Oh, Xena. Oh, by the gods." She dropped to her knees to get a better look, and her hands burned the wounds on your front and back, sent another arrow right through your gut. "You could have died," she whispered. "You could have died, and I'd never have known."
She looked up, and there were tears in her eyes. She wouldn't cry for fear of being whipped, but she'd cry for this? For you? There wasn't a person in Greece who thought of your death with anything but relish and the wish that it be soon. Even your own mother. Even you.
"I didn't die," you muttered, feeling more stupid than you ever had in your life.
"You better not," she sniffed, pulling your leathers back down. "Because I would really hate to hate you. And I would."
She played with your sword, and you played philosopher, and as you left the lake she took your hand.
"What?" you said, and you really didn't know what she wanted. People didn't walk beside you, swinging your hand like they were your friend.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"Does what hurt?" You decided you didn't like this game of Let's Rattle Xena. She was much too good at it. But when you tried to pull back your hand, she wouldn't let go. What were you going to do? Punch her in that sweet face? She asked, "Does it hurt to have killed so many people?" and you felt like you were the one who'd just been punched.
"Of course it hurts, you idiot," you snapped, and before you knew it, you were on Argo's back, riding so hard the wind gave you tears. By the time she caught up with you, you'd calmed down. Made camp just off the road, caught a nice-sized rabbit. You'd gutted and skinned it and set up a spit. Now you were just waiting for the fire to die down to coals so you could roast your dinner.
Yeah, all right. You were waiting for Gabrielle. Night was falling and you were nearly ready to ride back looking for her when she limped into camp and flung herself on the fur you'd set across the fire from yours.
"Do me a favour," she sighed, stretching her arms and legs out to each side as if floating in deep water. "The next time I piss you off, just yell at me. You don't need to ride halfway across Greece in a huff."
"I'm sorry," you said, and wondered at yourself. You'd apologised more in the last ten days than the last ten years, though what you'd done to the world was far more in need of apology than anything you'd done to her.
"No, I'm sorry," she mumbled, already falling into a light doze. "S'a stupid thing to ask."
You cooked dinner that night and let her eat more than her share. You even rubbed her feet with salve. Penance done, you sharpened your blade while she sharpened a story she was thinking of trying in the next tavern you passed. She wanted to be a bard, she said, and you teased her that ten days ago she said she wanted to be a warrior.
"A warrior-poet," she answered, absolutely serious. "I want to see the world, and tell my stories and make things better, any way I can."
"What if that way required you to kill someone?"
"It won't, will it?"
You looked into her eyes, so softly innocent, and suddenly you could see your way lit up in a flash of lightning; a future you never believed you had. "No," you swore, to her and to yourself. "I won't let that happen."
Later, she called to you from where she was lying on the other side of the fire, asking if you were still awake. "Yes," you said, and you weren't pleased about it. Your head was buzzing with too much thought and you desperately wanted to meet Morpheus the way he was supposed to be met -- unconscious.
"Xena?" she asked. "Do you really think that I could be a bard?"
"Yes," you said, and you meant it. "Now go to sleep, Gabrielle."
You meant that too, but pitter-patter and there she was, standing by your head. You opened one eye and tried to glower her back to where she belonged. She just smiled and got into your bedroll as if you'd said sure, hop right in.
The night was mild, so you said, "You can't possibly be cold."
"No." She draped herself half over your body, breasts pressing firmly against your arm. Her lips were firm too, and it wasn't just a nip goodnight this time around. "You're a good friend, Xena," she said when she was done, staring right into your eyes. "I just wanted you to know that."
And then, as if she'd said nothing of any importance at all, she laid her head against your shoulder and fell asleep whuffling softly into your neck.
She was delighted when you told her the new prince would be named Gabriel, but then she said nothing else as you slowly wandered through the village on your way out. It was the first evidence you had that her feet and mouth were not connected, that she could actually walk and not talk at the same time.
"You're awfully quiet," you said at last, because it really was odd for her to go so long without blabbering, and even odder that you missed the sound. "What are you thinking about?"
"Babies." She sighed and fingered the fraying edge of her jacket. "If I'd married Perdicus last winter like my parents wanted, I'd probably have one by now."
You laughed, that she'd be worried about not having a baby at the ripe old age of -- what was she? Sixteen, seventeen? By seventeen you had fought Cortese, conquered half of Thrace, used your plunder to buy a boat and were gleefully learning how to be a pirate. A moon ago Gabrielle was still in Poteidaia, tending her father's sheep.
You said, "You'll meet someone soon enough."
"I've already met someone," she answered, and you could have sworn all the air in the world disappeared. And then she laughed and bumped into you, sending you careening into Argo, who looked over and glared at you both.
"By the gods, Xena, your face. It's you. The someone that I met is you."
She put a hand on your arm and pulled you to a stop, which was just as well as she had you so confused by then you'd nearly walked into a wall. Your heart sang as you looked down at that shining face, but you muffled the song as best you could, though you were fairly sure she wouldn't recognise the tune.
"I didn't know I could be this happy," she said, as calmly as if she was saying she didn't know she could gut a fish or light a fire or any of the other things you'd taught her over the last moon. But then she stood on her toes to kiss you, right there in the middle of the street.
"I bet you didn't kiss your sister like that," you teased, when she was done. She'd left you a little short of breath, and you really didn't like being kissed in public, but you thought you could let this happen, as long as you were the one in control. She was just a kid exploring options -- really, how far could it go?
She rose against you to whisper in your ear, arms draped around your neck. "Not my sister. My friend, Seraphin."
This time, when she finally let you up for air, you thought maybe it had already gone quite far enough.
A few hours later you ran into Marcus and it was like being trampled by a galloping horse. You were wide open and he bowled you over; then he was gone and the pain filled your body from head to toe. You had not hurt like that since Lyceus; you didn't know how to grieve then and you didn't know now. Had you really loved Marcus that much, or had Gabrielle broken more of your shell than you'd thought?
You sat by the fire for three nights on your way back north, trying to work it out, and when she tried to speak to you, you answered in single words, if at all. You'd always known it was dangerous for her to be with you. You hadn't reckoned how dangerous it might be for you to be with her.
Somehow, though you wouldn't talk, she believed in you. She put your noose around her neck, swore your innocence to anyone who would listen, and twice as loudly to those who wouldn't. You turned into the monster you are, repaid her by smacking her clear across your prison. And still, she believed in you.
That time, you were innocent, at least of the crime they accused you of committing. But you knew the word was already going around: you had no army, no real friends, just a little girl who followed you like a puppy, swearing you were a good person now. You were caught between past and future, and whether it was an old grudge, a bounty hunter, or a magistrate with an accurate charge to level at you, you didn't want justice taking its revenge on Gabrielle.
The choice was obvious, even as she slid into her nightly place in your arms: you had to take her back to Poteidaia while you still had it in you to let her go.
You were not prepared for what you felt, seeing her asleep in someone else's arms. Somehow, you'd come to think of that place as yours. She left that village as virginal as she'd arrived, and you forgave her for all of it -- the titans, the boy, and her well-meaning, impetuous youth. But you knew the time for kissing games was over. It was no longer girlish curiosity which drove her, but a young woman's desire to be loved, body and soul. That was not, and never should be, yours.
It was her turn to be quiet at the fire that night, and it was all right that you didn't dare have her in your bedroll anymore, because she didn't want to be there either. Instead, you lay on opposite sides of the fire, both of you staring at the stars, and you wondered if your fingerprints were on her soul, the way hers were all over yours.
Funny how Hercules still had a claim on your body, something you hadn't even realised, just as Marcus had kept his silent place in your heart. "Don't strike the blow," Gabrielle begged, but you were more than determined, you were relieved. By sunset you would be free of this life, and if you were really lucky, maybe your sacrifice would be enough to let you escape Tartarus. If you didn't, well, you knew that was where you were headed a long, long time ago.
Instead, you lived and so did he. You said goodbye to Hercules with a pang you hadn't expected, pretended not to see Iolaus kissing Gabrielle. You told yourself he would be a good man for her -- tender, wise and strong. They'd make short blonde babies with cherubic faces and he would know how to feed both her gentleness and her fire.
But Iolaus went west with Hercules, and you kept going north with Gabrielle. Night found you fumbling with a bent catch on your armour. She left the parchment she was writing to help you get it off, left the armour in the grass and slid down the straps of your leather bodice.
Her hands were strong on the sore muscles of your shoulders, a farmgirl's hands, the skin a little rough. "What do I do?" she whispered, and her breath in your ear sent a bolt of lightning down between your legs. "How do you like to be touched?"
"This is perfect," you answered, and it was, in fact -- almost too much.
"Please." A whisper more urgent, and her hands slid down your shoulders as her lips slid against the back of your neck. "I almost lost you today. Please, let me touch you. Really touch."
She moved so quickly you didn't have time to react. The next thing you knew she had straddled your lap and silenced you with her mouth.
'No,' you thought, but your hands had other ideas. They were already wrapped around her hips, pulling her close. You wanted to be a man, just for that moment, just so you could bury yourself up to the hilt inside her. You thought if you ever caught a man doing that, you might wind up burying your sword to the hilt inside him, then you realised how crazy that was. And then you found a bare breast brushing your lips, and you didn't think about anything anymore. You took her in your mouth, and you took her with your hands and you didn't care when she twisted her fingers in your hair and pulled your head so far back your neck almost broke. You only cared about the way she bucked and moaned and cried out to the gods, until she came so hard she slammed her chin into your forehead and nearly knocked you out.
When she first stood before you, decked out in her leather
and beads, you almost laughed. It was Gabrielle dressed up for a village solstice
pageant, though you couldn't imagine what they'd do if she showed up in Poteidaia
looking like that. But then the fighting started, and something changed. Your
little kissing buddy disappeared, and in her place stood a real, live, staff-wielding
Amazon princess. When you formally handed the queenship back to Melosa and Gabrielle
smiled at you from the dais, her face shone with the quiet pride of someone
who had found her place at last.
You backed away as soon as her gaze moved elsewhere, let the crowd close to hide your absence. Later, after the requisite dance -- which reminded you thankfully that this was still your awkward Gabrielle -- you followed as she and Ephiny disappeared for a little moonlight walk in the forest.
"No men?" Gabrielle was saying when you got close enough to hear, her speech slightly blurred with drink. "You don't have men at all?"
Ephiny laughed, sweet and low, and you hated her for it. "Well, of course some of us do. How do you think we get little baby Amazons?"
She kicked a cushion of leaves beneath a tree and sat, pulling your friend down with her. Gabrielle's giggle was like water gurgling over rocks. A sound like a young girl, clean and careless. It made you grit your teeth, made you slip up a nearby oak to watch.
"I meant you don't live with men." Gabrielle always did pursue her points. "You don't miss them?"
"For living with? No. For loving, sure, sometimes. I like making love to both."
The Amazon looked around, one ear cocked. You stopped threading yourself through the branches, unable to see Gabrielle, but not daring to move any closer. Ephiny's hearing was good, nearly as good as your own.
"You can do that?" Gabrielle asked, oblivious to danger, as she always was. "Have both?"
There was a crinkle of leaves as Ephiny relaxed. "Sure, why not?"
"At the same time?"
"Well, if you're so inclined."
A gasp and a giggle. "No, I meant--"
Ephiny laughed again. "I know what you meant." A long breathless pause, followed by the sound of a wineskin being sucked dry. You hoped not by Gabrielle. "You're not still a virgin, are you?" the Amazon asked.
"I...you know, I don't really know."
Ephiny snorted loudly. "You can't be that innocent. Aren't you and Xena--"
"Would that count?"
"Well, I'd damn well count her. Any time. That woman is nine hundred kinds of hot. And so are you, my little princess."
Another snort. "Gabrielle, didn't you see the way the other women were looking at you tonight?"
"I thought that was because I dance like a mule."
"Yes, well. We'll work on the dancing. But come on, hasn't anyone ever told you that you're beautiful?"
"No." There was a quiet finality to your little friend's voice that went through your chest like a dull, chipped sword. You could have been the first to tell her. You would have made sure you were, if you had known. Now it would be this arrogant Amazon know-it-all.
And sure enough, it was. "Well, you are. I'm not saying this because one day you'll be my queen. You're a beautiful woman, Gabrielle. No one in her right mind would turn you down."
"Ephiny, can I ask you a favour? Can I kiss you? Right now?"
It was the last thing you heard before you slipped away, further into the forest. When you finally came back to the hut you were sharing, Gabrielle was curled up in the one bed, a pile of leather and beads and feathers and whatnot lying on the floor.
"You're not wearing any clothes," you said, when she pulled back the covers, trying to keep your voice level and low.
"Mmm. I was hoping you'd notice."
"You went to bed alone?"
You held your breath until she raised herself on one elbow and frowned at you. "Of course." And then you realised your mistake as she asked, "Why? Were you with someone?"
"No." You shucked off your boots, got in beside her and buried your face in her hair. It still smelled of Terreis' funeral pyre and that was so very wrong. "No, I just needed to walk."
"Xena, are you okay?" Her fingers trailed across your jaw, clumsy with wine and sleep.
"I am now."
You guided her onto her back and hovered above her, raining tiny kisses on her face and breasts. She laughed, softly, and you wondered if Ephiny had heard that laugh. You wondered how far the Amazon's kiss had gone, because when you slipped your fingers between Gabrielle's legs you found her already soft and wet.
"Let me take this off," she said, tugging on your bodice, but you pushed her hands away, held her wrists above her head.
"Another time. Just lie back, princess."
She blinked, curious but not protesting, as you drew her knees apart. You slid your tongue where your fingers had been and she cried out her surprise, hips lifting right off the bed.
She would be loud and you knew it, used that, staked your claim so the entire village would hear. After though, when she lay boneless and panting across your chest, you felt like an old dog pissing your perimeter, the sweet taste of her already turning bitter in your mouth.
Two days past the Amazon forests, the trail you'd been following came to a familiar crossroads. North to Thessaloniki, east to Amphipolis. South to Poteidaia, guarding its tiny isthmus off the coast.
She looked at you and you looked at her. "Planning to visit your mother?" she said.
Where was your iron will when you needed it? You felt like a kid caught playing with your older brother's sword. "I thought you might be homesick by now."
"Thank you. I'm not."
She turned and began walking west, towards the main route through Thessaly and back down to Corinth. If she knew you'd dragged her this far north just to send her home, she didn't seem angry about it. She bounced through the orchards outside Tatria blathering about nothing and everything, and you felt bizarrely happy, until she mentioned the word 'love.'
When she asked what you thought of her latest beautiful boy, Argo seemed as happy to run away as you were. Gabrielle thought she didn't have love and if she'd found it in this Talus kid, she didn't need you around to mess it up. At least if the boy was as inexperienced as he seemed, you'd spared her the pain of his clumsiness.
But the boy was doomed; maybe your bad luck with lovers was rubbing off. Gabrielle threw herself against you as he walked into the light, and you didn't know what to do. Sex was easy, sex you understood. But you were the Warrior Princess; nobody had ever asked you for hugs.
She changed on that road, so slowly it took you a while to notice. Oh, she still had her days where she could talk you to death narrating every single thought, moments when she'd catch your hand and walk along swinging it, like you were two little girls out for a stroll. But these were less and less frequent, and at night, instead of telling you her stories, she huddled close to the fire with a quill and a precious bit of parchment and wrote them down.
She started gathering pretty stones as you travelled, which annoyed you no end, and you refused to let Argo carry them. You stopped being annoyed when she traded the stones to Salmoneus for one empty scroll with carved ivory handles.
You went to hunt a rabbit, came back with some quail. She was still sitting where you'd left her, propped against Argo's saddle, stroking the fine parchment with the tips of her fingers, as if stroking a religious relic. "You gonna write in that, or what?" you asked, tossing feathers on the ground.
She smiled, like someone in a dream. "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever owned. I just want it to be perfect for a while."
You looked at her in her mismatched skirt and top, and suddenly you felt sad. She had given up on the Amazon leathers, probably because you laughed, and ripped up her old skirt and jacket instead. What she'd made was more practical and you approved of that, but the clothes looked like rags, and the soles of her boots were even more worn than yours. You thought she could have traded those stones for something more worthwhile than a fancy scroll she was afraid to use.
She rolled it up and put it back into its leather case, came to take the plucked quail. You went to the river to scrub your hands, and by the time you came back she had the birds rolled in leaves and clay, baking at the edge of the fire. You watched the light play over her face as she knelt, absently stirring the coals, and you wanted her so badly you could almost taste her in your mouth.
"Xena?" she asked, in that voice you'd come to dread. It meant hard questions to follow, and you were tired of questions, hers and yours. She didn't want to go home. Okay, you couldn't say you were sorry about that. But you couldn't help her find her tree in the forest, and you'd already taught her far too much about sex.
"What now, Gabrielle?"
It came out hard and impatient. "I was just going to ask where we were going," she snapped back. "Gods, is it your time of the moon or what?"
She retrieved the scroll and sat with her back to you while the birds cooked, carefully inking words onto the page. You worked the edge of your blade, losing yourself in the rhythm. No wonder Salmoneus was shocked that anyone would consider you a friend.
"Is there someplace you'd like to see?" you finally asked, your voice low and flat. It was a tone you couldn't seem to break away from, though lately you'd begun to notice it made you sound like you were dead.
The scratch of parchment stopped and she lifted her head, a hopeful smile playing cautiously around the edges of her mouth. "Could we go somewhere not in Greece?"
"Seen it all already, have ya?"
She held up her quill. "A bard needs all the experience she can get."
Well, she couldn't accuse you of not helping with that. "Anatolia is pretty. We could go back to Argos, get a boat from there."
"Perfect. Thank you, Xena." She gave you that smile, and bent over her scroll again.
You returned to sharpening your sword, watching from beneath your lashes as she wrote. She looked like a kid, frowning in concentration with the tip of her tongue between her teeth. Hades, she *was* just a damn kid. She wanted the world, and she wanted it now. Wasn't that what you wanted when you were seventeen? At least Gabrielle would only make her conquest at the point of a quill.
You put the whetstone away while you still had some blade left and asked her what she was writing about. She held the scroll out proudly, like a priestess reading the oracle's proclamation. Even you could see the writing was carefully uniform, very different from her normal scribble.
"I sing of the bravery of Xena and Hercules, of the torment of Prometheus--"
"Why don't you ever write stories about yourself?"
"About me?" She laughed, but there was a sharpness to it you didn't like. "Who would want to read about some stupid girl who can't even swing a staff without hitting herself in the head? People want heroes, Xena. I'm not that."
"Who's really the hero?" you asked, thinking of Flora. "The trained warrior, or the ordinary person who stands against the bad guys even knowing she has no chance?"
"Okay," Gabrielle grinned, cocking her chin. "I'm glad you know I'm the real hero between us. But believe me, as far as scrolls go, the Warrior Princess sells. Village Girl? Nobody cares."
"You spent too much time talking to Salmoneus in that dungeon."
She laughed again, and suddenly things felt lighter between you than they had in a while. You fell asleep that night to the scratch of her quill, and when you went back to Argos to find a boat, she traded the Prometheus scroll for boots for both of you, and a fresh store of ink and parchment.
She wouldn't go back to Poteidaia, but that didn't stop Poteidaia from coming back for her.
So this is him, you thought, plastering a smile on your face. The farmboy she didn't want to marry, father of the children she hadn't had. Yet she kissed him as if she meant it, so different from the way she kissed you. You made yourself watch, burnt the image into the back of your eyes so you would see it every time you imagined something stupid, like keeping Gabrielle for yourself.
"Can you imagine all the circumstances that had to line up, all the little tiny coincidences to be sure that we would meet again?" She sighed in the fresh air from the sea, and her breasts rose beneath her ragged shirt, as if reaching for his hands. "Do you think the gods are trying to tell me something?"
"Do you love him?" Just the question you hadn't wanted to ask.
"I didn't think so," she said, a tiny line of doubt appearing between her brows. She came back to the bunk you were sharing, a crude pallet in a tiny guesthouse near the port, hardly bigger than a sarcophagus. You were contemplating sleeping on the porch.
"Yeah, well," you said. "Don't confuse marriage with love, or love with sex."
"Meaning you don't have to marry someone to take them to bed."
She laughed, and pushed you down onto the pallet, climbed over and straddled your hips. "I know that."
"Shut up, Warrior Princess." She took you by the wrists and pinned you to the pallet. Her grip was so much stronger than it had been before the staff, her kisses harder, more demanding, as if she was trying to kiss you the way Perdicus kissed her.
She ran her hands down your arms, stopped just above your breasts. You braced yourself for what you knew would happen next. And then she stopped kissing you and sat up.
"You never like it when I touch you," she said, so quietly you barely heard it above the roaring in your ears.
"No, you don't. You always tense up. No matter where we are."
You closed your eyes, and because you had to give her something, you gave her a tiny slice of the truth. "I'm not used to it."
She leaned over you again, and for a moment you thought she would just take what she wanted. Frankly, you hoped she would. Instead she kissed you the way she did that first night, very softly, her lips barely brushing yours.
"I wish you would enjoy things more."
You put your hands on her hips and drew her down over your thigh. The pallet rocked you as you rocked her, and her body melted into yours. "I enjoy this," you said, and you gloried at the way her heart pounded into your hands. Maybe you weren't exactly what she wanted, but you were damned sure you had a few more skills than a farmboy like Perdicus.
"Xena," she sighed, as you slid your hands up under her skirt and between her legs. "If we keep doing this, you're going to ruin me for anyone else."
You tore away her briefs and smiled when she gasped. Trust Gabrielle to eventually get with the plan.
She left you in Piraeus.
She left to be a bard, okay, better than for some pretty boy who'd shut her on a farm, dropping babies till there were no more stories left. You smiled and wished her luck and walked away without looking back. There was something about a cyclops, so you stumbled over to wherever that was and took care of that. Then there was nothing. You made camp on the edge of a field filled with wildflowers and you thought how proud she'd be of you, finally stopping to smell the blooms. But there was no stream, so you couldn't fish, and you didn't feel like hunting, so you didn't need a fire. You brushed Argo and cleaned your armour and when it got dark, you went to bed. You told yourself the quiet was good, and the extra fur was more comfortable, and it didn't matter that when you closed your eyes you dreamed of her face as you moved inside her, and the way she felt melting into your hands.
The sun rose and fell as you wandered aimlessly towards Corinth, then the impossible happened -- she came back. Just fell into step beside you as if she'd nipped off for a pee in the woods. You somehow managed to smile and keep on walking as if it were no bigger than that.
"Did you miss me?" she asked, when you laid down to sleep, and you surprised yourself by answering, "As a matter of fact, yes."
She sat up and reached beneath her hips, pulled out a fair-sized stone. "Gah," she said, tossing it into the darkness. "I didn't miss this."
"Tell me about Athens."
"I was hoping you'd ask." And there she was, back in your bedroll as if she had never gone away, never told you that she wanted something else. She leaned over to plant a child's sloppy kiss on your mouth, then she put her head on your shoulder and told you about all the stories she'd heard and the wonderful boys that she'd met, until, without meaning to, she fell asleep between one sentence and the next.
She saw some things you didn't; you were learning that. Your ability to spot a liar was perhaps too sharply honed. She was trusting as a kitten, but she could fan a tiny spark of good into a flame bright enough to light the darkest soul. And not just yours.
She watched you playing with the marriage bracelet Petracles had kept, and silently took it out of your hands, slipped it into the bottom of her bag. "He died doing good," she said, coming back to the fire to sit beside you. "Is there a better way to die than that?"
That night her kisses were salt and she didn't argue when you made her stop. But you were a warm body and she needed something to hold, so you lay spooned together and watched the fire burn low.
You thought she'd fallen asleep, until she asked, "Was Petracles your first?"
"Yeah." And that was all you wanted to say about that.
"He told me I was beautiful," she said, and held her breath against the tears.
You hugged her a little closer, ignored the pang of missing your chance again. "You can believe him about that."
"Xena, am I still a virgin?"
Your turn to hold your breath. You'd been waiting for that question since Amazonia, still without any idea of what she needed to hear.
"Your first man will still be your first man."
She sighed, apparently satisfied with your answer. Then, just when you thought you were safe, she turned in your arms and asked, "Will it hurt, like everyone says?"
You shrugged, checked your face from the inside to make sure that it was blank. "No, I probably took care of that."
"That was it, then? When you --"
"That was it." You pulled the covers up around her shoulders; as far as you were concerned, the conversation was finished. Forever. "Go to sleep now, Gabrielle."
She knew you well enough by then to recognise the tone. And so, she lay quietly in your arms, and you didn't want to know what she thought about before she finally slept.
You didn't generally respond to being summoned, not unless it was by drawing your sword. But the kingdom of Lias was reasonably safe, and riding fast gave you a good excuse to get away from Gabrielle. Not for long, just the half day it would take her to catch up with you on foot. Since Petracles died, her eyes had been like little green hooks, embedding themselves into your skin. There were questions she was going to ask as soon as she had enough experience to formulate them, and you didn't think she was going to like the answer you knew you had to give.
You told yourself you just needed a little room to breathe, a little peace and quiet. Once, you'd had all of it you wanted and though you wouldn't want to go back to that, there was no forward to go into either. What you needed was your shell, some time to put it back together. So you went off to Lias, and were confronted with yourself.
"It was weird being with Diana," she told you, later, as you set up camp. "Like being with you, but she didn't make me feel like you do."
You didn't answer, didn't know what to say to that. She had gorged herself on cakes and sweets and dreams of a wedding that might one day be hers. You listened with less than half an ear while you fixed her some mint tea for the stomachache and reminded yourself for the millionth time that she might have a woman's desires, but in so many ways she was still a child. At least it meant you wouldn't need to hunt tonight, which was good because the sun was nearly down and you were already tired and ready for your bed.
"...been married, have you, Xena?" you heard, and your whole body went on alert.
"Ever wanted to be?"
"What was it like when you first saw Diana?"
So it was going to be one of those nights where she peppered you with questions in no particular order. An interesting tactic to disarm the enemy, one you'd have to try if you ever got tired of the pinch.
"Disconcerting," you said. You shook out your bedroll and flopped down a few feet from the fire.
She giggled, blowing on her tea. "What if there were two of me?"
"Xena, do you believe everyone has someone who looks like them, somewhere?"
"Do you believe everyone has a soulmate?"
Silence, sharp and clear as that after the scout steps on a twig. She looked at you as if you'd just slapped her down, which you really hadn't meant to do. You just hated the idea of Gabrielle wandering around desperately looking for another person to complete her. No one completed anybody. You didn't want her wasting herself looking for something that didn't exist.
"Well, I believe in it. I believe there's someone meant exactly for me." She sniffed quickly, rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "There has to be."
"Don't worry, you'll get your wedding one day," you said, trying to make amends.
"I don't care about a wedding. I just want someone to see me."
"I see you."
She looked at you through the flames, tears shining in her eyes. "No, you don't. You just see a stupid village girl who talks too much."
"I do not," you snapped. "I see a brave, beautiful woman with the kindest heart I've ever known."
You ground your teeth together then, unable to believe those words had just come out of your mouth. "Xena..." she tried, but you said goodnight and pulled the furs over your head. You guessed she got the message, because she didn't try to get in beside you, and she certainly didn't have any more questions that night.
"The man I love..." You had never said those words before. How strange that they should come so easily now.
You would probably die trying to reach Marcus; you knew that and so did she. You didn't hug her goodbye before you dived after him. You didn't dare.
And then you came back and saw her lying on the ground. For a moment the world disappeared in a blinding flash of panic. Not her, not Gabrielle. The relief you felt when she woke was unmistakable, but you shoved that recognition down.
You let Marcus go -- you had no choice. You let Gabrielle fuss as you shivered by the lake, let her wrap you in a blanket and stroke your hair. But you didn't cry and you didn't want to be held. You lay that night with your back to the fire and retraced every moment with Marcus in your memory; every touch, every word you had exchanged.
Later, when the moon rose, you swam in the lake and it was as if little bits of dirt broke from your soul and floated away. Marcus was in the Elysian Fields, and he'd gotten there because you told him he could change. It was possible. Love could save a brigand from Tartarus.
Maybe it could save you as well.
You hadn't thought anyone could talk as much as Gabrielle, until you met Autolycus. It had been an interesting diversion from the usual ruffians and wannabe warlords, but after two days with him, you couldn't wait to get back to your evening campfire, to the sound of her voice weaving this latest adventure into some kind of tale. You didn't like hanging around while she told those stories to others, but you had grown to like hearing her work them out.
You had kept the fire between you since Marcus, and she had not asked why. She'd accepted the distance you set, adjusted herself around it. You tried to make up for it by walking beside her more often, making more of an effort to listen when she talked. You were proud of yourself. You had stopped taking advantage of her innocence. You were learning to be a friend.
But she was quiet that night, a thin scent of anticipation wafting off her skin. It was getting cold and she spread her bedroll quite pointedly next to yours and laid down on her back, staring at the stars with her arms crossed under her head.
"He was nice, wasn't he? Autolycus," she said, after a while.
You rolled onto your back as well, mimicked her position. "He's fresh. And lucky. The things he tried..." You both laughed, remembering that hideous bodice. "Last winter I wouldn't have let him live."
"I'd have paid money to see you in that thing."
"Shoulda said something sooner. I'd have kept it."
She giggled and rolled and ended up pressed against your side, an arm around your waist and her face turned up for a kiss. You gave it to her on the cheek, brief and chaste as sisters.
"Xena," she said, clearly having had a different plan. "Have I done something wrong?"
"Is it still Marcus?" she asked. "Or..." She let the sentence hang, dropped her eyes, and you heard the names she didn't mention. Petracles. Hercules. Yes, even Autolycus, who was, after all, a pretty damn good-looking man.
"It's not anyone."
"Are you mad at me for getting into trouble with Sinteres?"
"Twice." You smiled. You could, now that it was over and she was safe. "Not to mention what's-his-face -- the guy who tried to cut your throat."
"Arkel," she answered, in the tiny voice that meant she was feeling bad.
You reached over and stroked her hair, wished you could stroke the frown from her forehead. "Gabrielle, I'm not angry at you. I just hate seeing you in danger like that."
"I'm sorry. I'll practice more. I promise, I'll get better."
Her head felt so small nestled in the curve of your palm, her hair as fine as an infant's. A fierce wave of protectiveness swept over you, made you want to run away. You hated feeling helpless, hated knowing you couldn't always protect her and she couldn't protect herself.
"It's not just a matter of staff practice. It's knowing which situations to stay out of, being more careful who you trust."
"I'm sorry," she repeated, lying back down and closing her eyes. "I don't know why you keep me around."
She sounded petulant and defeated, two things you didn't associate with Gabrielle. In truth, you didn't know what this was. You had never seen anything get her so down, and this was just the kind of conversation you never knew how to have.
"Well," you said. "I find you pretty useful."
"Yeah," she sighed, and rolled onto her other side. "I'd hate to eat your cooking, too."
You waited for her to say something else, waited to hear her laugh or cry. You waited until you heard her snoring softly, and then you stared at the stars for a while longer, until sleep finally took you too.
You didn't see it coming. You didn't see it and you should have, big and crass as a cart full of logs. No one loses confidence between one second and the next. Not Gabrielle, who had never, not from the moment you first laid eyes on her, run away from a fight.
She left this time without a hug. You weren't family. You weren't her lover. Maybe you weren't even really friends. You'd always thought she could see past the armour and the weapons, but maybe she never had. Maybe that was all you were to her, all you could ever be. And she was too proud to show weakness before the Warrior Princess.
You travelled in circles for days, always coming back to that stretch of road. Made circles in your mind, as well, trying to figure out how it had gone so wrong. You had been right to stop letting her sleep with you, you were sure of that. She didn't understand what she was offering with her kisses, didn't realise that you had already taken far more than she ever meant to give.
For the first time you began to wonder if her babble had always been a cover for something else, a thing she did because she was feeling off-balance. One thing was for sure -- she hadn't been telling you every thought in her head.
She came back.
She came back, your brave and crazy Gabrielle, still talking your ear off without drawing breath. But something had changed, something she didn't want to talk about. You had always thought of her as birdlike, flapping her wings, trying to soar; now you saw something solid and rooted, a fig tree blossoming as it prepared to bear fruit.
You went to sleep that first night watching her scribble a new parchment, her face mirroring each thought as she inked it onto the page. You woke before dawn, as you always did, to find her asleep beside you, a foot of ground separating her bedroll from yours. It was a new geography for the two of you, to have her by your side but separate, rather than curled beneath your chin.
In the blue light of early morning you could look at her all you liked, uninhibited by what your face might show. "You're beautiful," you whispered, perfectly content to lie where you were as the sun slowly rose, watching Gabrielle snore into her fur. Here, in sleep, she was still known to you, still the blissful innocent, her face unlined, her dreams pure.
Later, when the sun was fully up, you stripped off your clothes and went to bathe in the lake. There was a cavern behind a waterfall, someplace you could go to think, maybe take care of a few other needs before you had to start the day.
The splash outside alerted you to her presence, but you were not prepared for her arrival from below, surfacing right between your legs.
"Gotcha," she said, and rose against you, a mere sheet of water separating her body from yours. Breast to breast, her legs wrapped around your waist as her arms wrapped around your neck. You didn't want to, but your hands were pulling her in by reflex, and she responded by capturing your mouth, hips undulating gently with the flow of the lake.
She had kissed you before, of course. Poteidaia girl kisses, sweet as baklava, a little clumsy with inexperience. Never like this, her tongue soft in your mouth, stroking yours the way she once stroked that expensive, pristine scroll. She kissed you like she'd been practicing long hours kissing someone else. Maybe she had found a pretty boy in Poteidaia? Though if she had, why in the world would she have come back to you?
She broke the kiss at last, resting her forehead against yours, her breath coming hard and fast, teasing your lips. "I missed you," she whispered, and her voice wrapped itself around your heart like a lasso, ready to tear it from your chest.
"I see," you managed, and the pressure eased as she hugged you close, the way you wanted to hug her yesterday when you landed at her feet, but hadn't dared. There was a challenge in her eyes when she finally moved back, the kind you couldn't resist. Her fingers traced circles against your cheeks, counterpoint to her body moving up and down, cold-hardened nipples teasing your breasts. Her hand found yours and slid it between her legs and you forgot your promise not to touch her like that, forgot all your good intent. You found your way into her warmth, held her balanced in the palm of your hand. She could have all the pretty boys in Greece, and probably would before she was done, but right now she was your Gabrielle.
She pulled herself closer and you pushed back. She took her time for once, a long, delicious, glorious time before she finally flung her head back and let herself go, and your name echoed loudly off the cave walls. She fell back when she was done, her legs still around your waist, arms stretched out, letting her upper body float.
"You okay?" you asked, when she didn't move, didn't open her eyes.
"Oh, yeah," she said, and it was not the voice of a child, not anymore. She opened her eyes and her smile lit up the cavern, bounced off the water, eased the ache that had lived just under your ribs since the day you met.
You held one hand in the small of her back, poured water over her chest with the other. She wriggled against you and laughed. Her skin was still flushed with sex, and when you ran your palm over her breasts you felt her shudder echoing deep in the places you had never let her touch.
"Teach me," she said, reaching for your hands, using them as leverage to pull herself back up.
You couldn't help the grin that tugged at your mouth. "Everything I know?"
She smiled too, but it didn't get any further than her lips, didn't make her nose crinkle at the top. "Everything you like."
She wrapped her arms around your neck and gave you that kiss again, her mouth unbearably soft, her whole body moving against yours. You were dizzy by time she stopped, and it was a good thing you were standing in a cold lake up to your chest, because there was no other way your legs could have held you up.
"Better feed you before you bite something off," you said, gently unwrapping her legs. You suddenly needed distance, needed to break the mood. "I'll catch us some fish for breakfast."
She looked up and you saw something you couldn't read, a brief shimmer in her eyes before she ducked beneath the surface and came up smoothing back her hair. Maybe hurt, maybe anger. Maybe just a trick of the light through the falling water, a mirror of your guilt, nothing more.
You asked, "Want me to teach you how?"
"You're finally going to teach me to fish. Right now?"
"All right," she said, and there it was again, that look you couldn't decipher. Just a flash, and then, like her body diving through the waterfall, quickly gone.
This was the rage you remembered, hot and heavy, pooled in
your belly, tingling between your legs like lust. Once, you were only this,
on fire from morning till night. Insatiable in every appetite.
She saw that. Finally, the thing you were most desperate to hide from her, she saw. The Destroyer of Nations lurking just beneath your skin, fire still consuming you beneath the facade of ice-cold calm.
She forgave you. You had said she was closer than family. She didn't quite understand what you meant, but you hadn't expected she would. It was enough that she hadn't run away again, that she could still smile when she looked at you.
You came back from tending Argo to find her crouched by the fire, tasting her stew. Behind her back you licked your lips, remembering how fresh she tasted, how clean, how the skin of her thighs was like royal velvet against your cheeks. You closed your eyes, wedged both hands beneath the bark of the log you were sitting on. You were no longer crazed with the need for blood, but there was still fire racing beneath your skin. Damn Ares and his ugly tricks. He had made you *want* again.
Focus, you told yourself. Control. You were nothing if not control, but it had been a long time since battlelust had hit you like that. A long time without the thrill of riding at the head of an army, coming over the hills with your name shouted from a thousand pairs of lips. A long time since you'd slaked the fire, after, by falling on whoever caught your eye, knowing there was nothing that could stand between you and what you wanted. You'd tried so hard to forget the ecstacy of that, to forget how much you missed fury, passion, wildness. You feel so much more these days, yet somehow so much less.
"Xena? Are you okay?" You opened your eyes and she was standing right there. Somehow you'd lost the sound of her footsteps beneath the roaring in your ears. She crouched between your legs to see the face you wouldn't raise, and you clutched the log harder, splinters digging into your palms.
"Hey, how hard did I hit you?" she asked, a thin flicker of worry distorting the light tone. You looked up as her hands floated towards your face. You found yourself thinking she had beautiful hands; strange time to notice that. But beautiful they were, small palms with long, tapering fingers. You caught them as they flew past, before they could get to the lump on the back of your head.
"I'm fine," you said. You gave her back her hands, used the motion to push her gently so she had no choice but to move back or wind up on her ass. She chose dignity and stood. Looked at you, a little confused. A little hurt and you were sorry about that, but you couldn't have her so close, not with Ares' legacy still boiling in your blood. You had never lost control with her, and you'd do anything to make sure you never would.
"Xena, are you sure you're all right?" she asked. "You look like you're going to pass out."
"I'm fine," you said, and stood to prove it. One leg moved, then the other; now the log was between you. That was good. You backed off a step, two, three, but the minute you turned your back you heard her climb over the log and you did the unthinkable. You drew your sword and pointed it at her.
She stopped dead, mid-stride. It was shock, not fear, and the tip of your sword was two body lengths from her throat, but you still felt like you had assaulted her.
"Don't follow me," you said.
Out in the woods you drilled until your body shook with fatigue, until you could no longer lift the sword except with two hands. You considered falling down to sleep right where you were, but it was full night by then, had been for some time. Gabrielle was sure to come looking for you if you didn't go back soon, and probably get herself lost in the dark.
The camp was easy enough to find, with the size of the blaze she'd made. "I was afraid you wouldn't find your way back," she said, when you gave it the evil eye, gave her the look that said she ought to know better.
"Yes, and every brigand from Chalcis to Patra could find you as well." You pulled logs out of the fire, tamping down the blaze until it threw just enough light to finish your nightly rituals: stone against sword, cloth against armour, and then to bed.
Her nose and eyes showed traces of tears. It was probably a toss-up, which she was more afraid of -- that you *would* come back, or that you'd left her alone in the dark not too far from a road known to be frequented by bandits.
You were the lesser of two evils. Poor Gabrielle.
You paused in your sharpening to spare her a glance. You had never seen her sit like this before, knees drawn up to her mouth as if she was afraid to speak, hugging herself. A fire that size at night was stupid and she knew it, but you didn't want to reduce her to this. You sighed and put down the sword and the stone. You couldn't remember the last time you'd hated yourself this much.
Oh, yes you could. It was right before you first saw Gabrielle.
Like that day, you suddenly couldn't breathe inside your armour, couldn't stand the weight another second. You needed it off, but your muscles were so overtaxed you could hardly reach behind your back to get the clasps.
She was there in a heartbeat. "Here, let me get that."
"I can do it."
"Damn it, Xena. Let me help!"
Which was more important, your pride or her need to know she was forgiven, that there was nothing to forgive? You swallowed and let her undo your breastplate, lift it over your head.
She came around behind you, and slid down the straps of your leathers. You thought you should stop her, but then she began kneading the clenched muscles at the base of your neck and your arms went limp in your lap.
"Better?" she asked, after a while.
You nodded, speech out of the question. "Lean forward," she said, pushing your head towards your knees, lengthening your back. She undid the laces of your leathers to get at the tension spots further down your spine, her thumbs hitting every cramped muscle, release rippling through your body like tiny orgasms.
And then the thumbs were replaced by her lips, and her hands slipped around your body to cup your breasts.
You grabbed the log again. The handholds were getting to be familiar friends. Behind you, you could feel Gabrielle breathing against your skin, in front she had caught your nipples between her fingers, rolling them back and forth until there was a clear path from those beautiful hands right down to the burning point between your legs.
"Gabrielle..." You said it to mean stop, but instead it sounded like desperation.
"Shh," she said, came around and knelt between your legs. "Let me help." She bent forward, writing poems with her tongue upon your thighs. You felt her teeth against you, teasing you through your briefs, and you could not let her do this, on her knees like the camp followers you once fell upon and then discarded.
You caught her under the chin and raised her head. She smiled, expecting to be kissed. You tasted her blood in your mouth, lips splitting between your teeth and hers, and knew there could be no kisses tonight. You didn't dare.
"You can't help me with this, Gabrielle."
You rose and she rose with you, her eyes locked on yours, blue-green like the sea, like cool water to drown in. "Yes, I can. I would do anything for you, Xena." She clasped your forearms in a double warrior's shake. "Don't you know that by now?"
Slowly, she backed you both towards the bedrolls. You went down on your knees before her -- yes, so much better, so much more appropriate -- and your hands slid up her thighs, grasped her briefs beneath her skirt.
"Anything," she said softly, and you gave in with a twisted moan, pulled off her briefs and drank her down.
You had not used Lao Ma's tricks on her before, but now you did. You knew them from the other side; such exquisite torture, sensation controlled to the point of torment, until her back was arched tight and her heels drummed madly against your spine.
You couldn't get enough of her, you would never get enough, but at last the fire was slaked and you let her come until she lay limp, quivering in your hands. You lifted your head when she was done and found her splayed before you with her skirt rumpled around her waist and tears on her cheeks, and shame flushed the last of the fire from your blood.
"I'm sorry," you whispered, but before the bitterness could rise she smiled and pulled you forward, until you lay clasped against her, and suddenly you understood. Your hands were filth on her pristine body, but you knew how to give her pleasure, even if youcouldn't give her love.
You were closer than family, like sisters, you'd said. So when she swatted your arm and told you to sit down so she could make you look civilised, you laughed and sat.
She knelt behind you, knees casually embracing your hips, told you the story of Castor and Pollix while she brushed your hair until it lay flat and shining down your back. You'd known the two of them years ago, back when you first met Helen, and their passion was definitely more of the body than the spirit, but you didn't tell Gabrielle that. You really didn't want to answer a hundred questions about what two boys did in bed.
You started to get up, but she tugged you back down, said "I'm not done with you, princess." There was something in her eyes, a gleam you couldn't decipher. You knew she missed her sister, so you obeyed, though you were pretty sure you knew what was coming next.
Sure enough, you felt her fingers rubbing against your scalp, parting your hair into tiny sections. The story she told you now was about herself, about how she and Lila would spend afternoons out in the hills forgetting about their father's goats, telling stories and braiding each other's hair. "We always forgot to take the braids out, so of course we'd get the strap when we got home, because he knew they'd wandered off."
"Why'd you keep doing it?"
"It was the only time for fun we had."
You wrapped your hands around her feet, the only thing you could reach. Your mother had often made her point with a wooden spoon on the back of your legs, but it killed you to think of someone trying to beat the stories out of Gabrielle.
"You're done," she said, and you ran your hands over your hair, felt the intricate braids that went round your head, into a silver clasp. A shortened version of the way she used to do her own. You'd always found it odd she wasted so much energy on her hair, it spoke of a vanity she didn't seem to have. Now you wondered if it was as simple as missing home.
"My turn," she said, and held the brush out. She plopped herself in front of you, already tugging the leather ties out of her hair.
"I'm not very good at this," you protested. Understatement of your life. You'd had no sisters to practice on, and your childhood dreams hadn't been about braids and weddings, though like her you'd been betrothed the year after your bloods began. You had Cortese to thank for your freedom; Gabrielle had you. Not so funny, that.
And now it was your turn to hold her between your knees and draw the brush through her hair, releasing the scent of woodsmoke and clean sweat. It was your turn to tell a story, too, but one new experience a day was about all you could handle. She must have known that, because she let you work in silence. Her hair was gossamer in your hands and the morning air was fresh and cool on your skin, and you felt...fantastic. Yesterday, you died. Today you were alive and brushing your best friend's hair.
You turned that phrase over as your hands moved, testing the shape of it in your mouth. The words had sounded so childish when she first said them, you almost laughed. Now they was a warmth that bloomed not between your legs, but somewhere deep in your chest, closer to your heart.
The warrior princess had a best friend. What could be more impossible than that?
You were doing this a lot longer than necessary; both of you knew it, neither of you cared. Maybe this could be your new career. Xena, Warrior Hairdresser.
You tilted her head back to get at her bangs and the smile you saw stole the breath from your lungs. So pure, so relaxed -- was it possible something this simple could make someone smile like that?
"I feel like Diana," she murmured. "Has it been a thousand strokes?"
"I didn't count. Shall I start again?"
She laughed, and you ran your fingers through her hair, watched the early sun pick up the gold beneath the red. She had darkened it since she started travelling with you; she looked less angelic and more impish now. You wondered what she'd look like this time next winter, if she'd still be with you by then. She was so much tougher than you could ever have imagined, playing dressup in your armour, ready to ransom your dead body with her life. But she had a habit of leaving, too, and would probably do it at least one more time. Once day her prince would come, or at least her tree in the forest. And what would happen become of the Warrior Princess then?
When the fire consumed your dreams, you heard her voice whispering from far away. Telling you that Cirra was a different Xena, that you had a beautiful heart or you would not be who you were now. You woke and saw flames and for a moment you panicked. But it was only the campfire, and only Gabrielle.
"Shh, it was just a nightmare," she whispered, and when she brushed your cheeks you saw your own tears on her hands.
You looked away and saw Melas across the fire, watching you with eyes glittering with sleeplessness and hate.
"It wasn't a dream," you whispered back. "I did this. I chose the most brutal men to fight beside me, and we destroyed good people like Melas, like Callisto. I turned them into monsters, but I'm the real monster, Gabrielle."
She cupped your face and her hands were rough against your cheeks, warrior calluses beginning to harden her palms. "Don't look at him," she said. "Look at me. I'm the one who fights beside you now."
She got under your blanket, tugged you into her arms, and even with Melas watching, you didn't have the strength to resist. You let her draw your head down to her shoulder, wrap your arm around her waist. For the first time you noticed how small she really was, how little of her there was to hold. And yet you could also feel thestrength in her, and not just in the muscles that moved beneath your hand. She was your candle against the darkness; no matter how great the storm, she would always burn bright enough to light your way home.
You hadn't gone far from where you'd left Toris when she stopped you in the road, with a tentative hand on Argo's reins. "Are you sure you don't want to go back to Amphipolis?" she asked.
"Don't worry. One way or another, eventually, I will."
"I think your mother would prefer it if you came home alive."
She dropped the reins and held up her hand. Message received, though you were sure the subject would soon come up again.
She left you in peace after that, twirling her staff as she walked, doing drills down the road. You wondered who she was trying to impress with her prowess, you or any oncoming bandits. Whatever it was, it kept both trouble and conversation at bay until you found a place to camp.
"Not very secluded," she said, leaning on her staff. Not very secluded meant you'd both be sleeping fully dressed right down to your boots. "I hear there's a great inn in Amphipolis."
You groaned and tossed Argo's saddle at her feet. Gabrielle with a bone to pick, great, just what you needed. As if finding your brother and bringing Cortese to justice after all these years wasn't enough to think about tonight.
"Xena," she said. "You've been trying so hard to start again, to become someone else. But maybe what you need is to be who you were. To go home and have your family together again, even if it's only for a few days. I don't think you can really start a new story till you've written the last lines of the one that began with Cortese."
There was a lot more to your story than just Cortese, but she really didn't need to know about the rest. "I'll think about it," you said, tugging Argo's bridle over her ears. There was no way for her to understand that it wasn't your mother who kept you from returning to Amphipolis, but the Xena who might have been.
You were on the border of Thessaly and Mitoa when you finally realised you had lost your heart. Yes, you, lover of Roman dictators and Chinese courtesans and nomadic warlords, you who had fought your way from one end of the known world to the other, rampaging over everything in your path. You had fallen in love with a poet who wouldn't kill, a sweet-faced girl from the village next door.
You knew it, Marmax knew it. Everyone in the temple knew it. Hades, Marcus probably even knew it. Didn't he tell you not to give up on love? Good thing you only needed two armies, three stab wounds, and a short trip to the other side to figure it out.
You woke to fingers running gently through your hair; you'd fallen asleep sitting on the floor, leaning against her pallet. She was still too pale, but she was breathing more easily now, and the bleeding inside seemed to have stopped.
"Go find somewhere more comfortable to sleep." She smiled at you with half-shut eyes. "I don't think I'll be going anywhere tonight."
You pressed your cheek into the palm of her hand. "Promise?"
"I promise. Way too much effort."
It was not quite dawn; around you all the soldiers and priests and villagers slept. Only Hippocrates was awake, tending to an old man on the other side of the temple. You leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle goodnight, very softly, as she kissed you that first time almost a year ago. She should have tasted like blood and war and the bitter clinging remnants of death. Instead she tasted like hope, like light, like what youth you still had. Like waking from a long sleep to find yourself hungry for life, at last.
You took her hand, pressed her fingers to your lips. She drifted back to sleep before you could find the words you wanted, and that was probably for the best.
Three days later you left the temple. She was moving slowly, still weak from losing so much blood. It didn't stop her mouth. You revelled in the sound of her voice, wrapped it around you like the warmth of a campfire and a pot of stewing rabbit and a soft-skinned woman curled beneath your furs.
You retrieved Argo and got Gabrielle into the saddle, let her ride up front. It was the most pleasant journey you had ever taken -- although certainly the slowest -- ambling towards the coast on a fine autumn morning, with the woman you loved dozing in your arms.
Later in the day, when the air began to grow thick with heat, you found what you wanted: a clear pool and a grassy verge on which to camp. You turned into your mother for the afternoon, fussing over your friend, cooking her dinner and washing the last vestiges of blood from her clothes. You helped her into the pond when you were done, and it was terrible to see all the damage at once. You had done your finest sewing, but there would still be scars.
Inside, though, Gabrielle seemed remarkably intact. Like the water in which you bathed her, clear and calm. You, on the other hand, were a roiling river waiting to overflow its banks. The mere thought of the moment she died was still enough to stop your heart.
Later, you spread salve on her wounds and checked the lines of black stitching for infection or tears. Then you wrapped her in your furs and made her lie in the shade while you went to hunt. Your wet leathers felt good, nicely chilled against your skin, while the sun warmed your shoulders and face as you set some snares. Through a canopy of golden green the sky was an irridescent blue; it reminded you of the way her eyes could shift from colour to colour. Such was love, that you noticed things you had not even noticed when you yourself died and then lived to tell the tale.
You ran your fingers over a clump of forget-me-nots and considered bringing some to Gabrielle, then you laughed at yourself. Xena: Warrior Mushpot. You brought her some wild berries instead, fed her from your fingers while her eyes held yours, heavy-lidded and full of mist.
"I heard what you did," she murmured, barely audible over the sudden pounding of your heart. Her voice was hoarse, already on the downhill slope back to Morpheus' arms. "When I was on the other side."
"I didn't do anything. You did it." The idea that she had heard you lose control in the temple twisted the pit of your stomach, worse than knowing all the priests and soldiers had heard it too. You wouldn't see them again. Gabrielle was right here.
"Can I tell you a story?" she asked.
"You should rest."
"It's short. Come, lie here for a minute."
Her eyes were enormous in her pointed face, dark lashes curving up to her brows. It made her seem about five years old, vulnerable but determined. It's the same face that made you drag her up on Argo that first day. You never could say no when she looked at you like that.
You lay down on the grass beside the bedroll, checked her forehead and cheeks for fever. She looked flushed, but her skin was cool, and you pulled the furs up around her bare shoulders, against the evening air.
She reached over, followed the line of your cheek. Eyes closed, you held your breath while she ran the tips of her fingers along the side of your face, over your jaw and down your throat.
Your eyes opened on an intake of air as she moved closer, your chest suddenly so tight it might be the last breath you'd ever get. And still her hand kept moving, her whole palm now, running down your arm and then across to your belly and up over your breasts.
"Gabrielle..." you tried, but her name on your lips only made your heart beat faster.
"I know. You don't like to be touched." She gave you a crooked smile, suddenly shy. Her fingers came to rest between your breasts, tugging on the leather bodice. "Just this once?"
You stood, unfastened the clips, reached behind you to tug the laces open. Her soft child's face molded into an ancient expression, eyes dark with hunger as she watched the leathers fall to the ground. You moved as if hypnotised, lay on your side, facing her, the furs barely stretching to cover you both. It occured to you that this might be a very stupid thing to do, that you were too close to giving away everything you felt. But she had come back to you all the way from the Elysian Fields. There was nothing she could ask that you would refuse her right now.
She rolled onto her good side, curled an arm beneath her head, ran her other hand over your body like something infinitely fragile, her touch so light it made every tiny hair stand on end.
"When I was a child," she said, moving across your collarbone, then down to trace a slow circle around the scar on your right breast, "I had a piece of lambskin, about the size of my hand. Matteus the tanner gave it to me, for helping with his shearing one year. It was the softest thing you could imagine. I used to rub it against my cheek when I felt sad and it made me feel like...I don't know. Like someone cared."
She moved closer, then there was a stroke of velvet, her cheek against yours, her lips against your ear.
"That's what your skin feels like, Xena."
You closed your eyes when her fingers reached your thighs, gave her just enough room to slip between them. It occured to you that this was way beyond just letting her touch, but something had happened to you in the temple. Whatever had been left of your shell had disintegrated when she died; you were defenceless, wide open, literally, nails digging into your palms as Gabrielle slid down and nestled between your legs. Whatever rational thought you'd still possessed disappeared as she bent her head and tasted your flesh.
She rose slightly, licking her lips, a faraway expression in her eyes. If she knew how she looked, if she intended to drive you mad with desire, she couldn't have done it any better. You knew she'd never done this with her sister, or that friend whose name you couldn't remember. Her touch was tentative and unsure, but oh so agonisingly sweet, searching for your secrets with the tip of her tongue. And then she grew braver, hungrier, until the sensations rippled like water along your spine, as if she were licking you clean of all your sins. This was not the kind of climax you were used to, not the screaming clench of muscles, the biting of lips and manic thrust of hips and hands. This was something new, the shuddering release of things kept buried for so long you had forgotten they existed. Or maybe you had never known, maybe it took the touch of an innocent to show you what it truly meant to love.
She gave you one last little flourish and lifted her head, lay her cheek against your thigh. You slipped your hand into her hair, wrapped the fine silk around your fingers.
"Thank you," she whispered.
You gathered a corner of the blanket and wiped her face, smiling at the little grimace she made. "For what?"
"Letting me touch you." Her eyes drifted closed, face smoothing into an expression of utter peace. "For being my first."
You reached down and drew her up, cradled her soft body in your arms. "No," you whispered, because she was already asleep. "Thank you for being mine."
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