by jtd

For disclaimers, see Part I.

Chapter XII

Xena hadn't gone far. Within a few steps, Gabrielle recognized her dark form between the trees, sipping thirstily from a pitcher of cold water by the well.

The bard moved towards her, just so she would be sure that the warrior had noticed her, then sat down on the still sun-warmed stairs. She breathed in the warm night air, just being content with being close to the woman she loved, and in relative safety. No moaning wounded, no exhausted warrior, no heart that felt frayed on the edges by pain. Even though Xena had reacted unexpectedly just moments ago there was no doubt in Gabrielle's mind that she still loved her.

But the currents that moved the warrior's mind took her along different paths than her own sometimes. It was now her turn to wait for the outcome, and to interfere if she thought it went in a direction she couldn't approve of.

When Xena turned towards her, Gabrielle could see the deeply confused expression on the warrior's face by the light of the full moon. "Xena?" the bard asked as calmly as she could manage. "Are you ok?"

The blue eyes moved her way, and studied her face. I have tried to shelter her from hurt as much as I can. How can I allow her to become so close to me? It's like rescuing her from a pack of wolves to leave her to play with the panther. Xena's heart clenched in pain. It was one thing to be declaring her love, because it was so ingrained in her by now that she couldn't imagine not loving her. But to allow Gabrielle to love her back, all consequences attached, was a very different matter.

The bard took a breath. "Do you remember when you rescued me from the slavers, back in Poteidaia?" she said, wistfully, echoing Xena's thoughts in an obscure way.

"Yes." The warrior's rough voice sounded from over by the well.

The bard's face settled into a remembering smile. "I remember how I pleaded with you to take me with you..."

"...teach me everything you know..." the unexpected echo whispered from beside the well.

"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "You see, I was wondering lately, if I would make that decision again. To be here with you, to be going through all of this pain again." Her throat closed on her last words when the reality that the recent past included closed in on her.

Xena stood in anticipation; her heart felt as if it would stop, her breathing did. A fear of losing Gabrielle welled up in her with all its might, powerful because she had not anticipated its strength at all.

A sad chuckle was heard from the bard. "And you know what? I found myself not even thinking about it for one moment. Whatever we have gone through, I wanted to be with you so badly it hurts." Glittering green eyes looked up at Xena pleadingly. "The only question that remains now is - do you want to be with me, Xena?"

Xena stared at her for an uncomprehending moment. That certainly was a moment of revelation for the warrior, and she mentally hit herself over the head a few times. Here I am, feeling sorry for myself. And there's Gabrielle, just as scared - will I ever learn?

She took two steps towards Gabrielle, then a few more, until she sat beside her, feeling the warmth of the younger woman's body through the fabric. She took her friend's hands between her own gently; their fragility making her heart hurt. "Never doubt that, Gabrielle," she said in a low voice. "Never." She raised her eyes to the bard's, trying to convey the amount of emotions; her heart threatening to overflow.

"I need you," the bard whispered, her gaze fixed on the apparition in red before her. "Don't leave me again."

"Never," came the reassuring reply. "Not even in death, Gabrielle, remember?"

A tentative smile appeared on the younger woman's face. "I remember," she sighed. "Though sometimes, I can't hear it often enough. You just said it and only a moment later I doubt again, I..."

She was interrupted by warm lips covering her own, and responded eagerly, letting the warrior's touch reassure her.

She sighed when they parted, a wistful smile on her lips. "That felt good."

"Yes." Xena agreed, becoming more tongue-tied the more she wanted to say. But touching seemed to be working, so she she drew Gabrielle to sit between her legs, taking advantage of the convenient cut of her dress, one thigh showing between the layers. The bard sank back against her partner with a sense of completeness. One of her hands covered the arm wrapped around her middle, while the other explored the skin over Xena's knee.

Xena turned the bard to her, urgently seeking her lips, and they both got lost in sensations that wrapped around their hearts a bond to hold them tight. When they came up for air, Gabrielle's legs were draped over one of Xena's, and the warrior held her close. Gabrielle heard Xena's heart drumming in her chest as if it wanted to jump out any time. She looked up into the face of the woman she loved.

"Are you afraid things could get out of hand?" she asked sincerely, and when Xena's face contracted with worry, she covered the warrior's mouth with one finger. "Shh..."

She tilted her head to the side, her thumb tracing Xena's full lips in a way that made the dark woman's heart race. It didn't get better when the bard brushed her cheekbones, traced her brows and kissed her eyelids tenderly, brushing against her lips just to run her tongue and teeth along her jawline the next moment.

Xena growled in response. There was no chance of holding that back. Gabrielle looked at her with equal measures of curiosity and tenderness.

"I want this, Xena," she stated calmly. "This is no puppy love and you know it."

Bright eyes searched her face. "Yes."

"Then let me have you, Xena, please."

"Oh, gods..." At that moment, Xena realized that she could not deny this woman anything. She could not. With her surrender, a wave of desire for the woman in her arms washed over her and left her breathless.

Gabrielle saw Xena's eyes glaze over with desire, and she felt her groin tighten in response. There was something primal in Xena now, something she craved and had to see to believe that it was actually all of Xena that wanted her, really wanted her, all of her. "Now," she added in a low voice.

"Now." Xena's voice was almost toneless, but the look on her face devoured her already. "Come."

She got up in one swift motion, helping Gabrielle up as well, and they stood in each other's presence breathless for a moment before they turned as one to find their room.

Once there, Gabrielle lit a few candles in a hurry, while Xena locked and bolted the door with care. They met again just in front of the painted glass window, breasts heaving and skin on fire, just standing there and getting lost in each other's eyes for a moment.

A flame lit in Gabrielle's stomach and she couldn't help herself anymore, she had to touch Xena. Her fingers traced the warrior's blank shoulder, followed by her lips. Xena tilted her head to allow the bard greater access which she used thoroughly. Her teeth gently nibbled their way down Xena's collarbone to finally dip her tongue into the small hollow in the middle. Xena moaned.

It was a sound so profound, Gabrielle feared it would crush her inner core. Trembling, she moved her mouth back to Xena's neck, trailing her hairline with her tongue, blessing her ear with gentle kisses, sucking and gently biting Xena's earlobe. When she heard that moan again, she added a gentle whimper of her own.

Xena had totally forgotten to breathe, now she sucked in air as if she was drowning, her hands finding their way to Gabrielle's bare skin between skirt and blouse. The soft feel under her callused hands made her hum with pleasure. She could feel Gabrielle's warm, happy laugh at that. She looked into the emerald eyes of the woman standing before her, seeing only trust and happiness and a gentle longing that was mirrored in her own. She was still looking at her when her hand traveled up across soft skin, opening the tie that held the blouse around the bard's ribs, and reached the destination Gabrielle had asked her to find this morning.

The incredible softness of Gabrielle's breast was only accentuated by the erect, rigid nipple in its center. Gabrielle closed her eyes at the touch, wanting to etch the feeling into her consciousness. A small sound of disappointment escaped her when Xena took her hand away. Upon opening her eyes, Gabrielle registered Xena's form and was surprised when the warrior gently lifted her up, setting her down on the nearby windowsill. She was now at the same eye level with her love.

Xena made a point of keeping eye contact while she slowly undid the laces in the front of Gabrielle's blouse. When she was done, she slid her hands through the opening, then pushed it aside so Gabrielle's beautiful breasts were framed by the light black fabric. For a moment, Gabrielle felt exposed. But Xena's gaze showed so much awe that she couldn't give in to this feeling. The woman's touch did the rest.

Gabrielle let out a sound that seemed to come from the bottom of her soul when Xena's hands cupped the beautiful mounds and started caressing them. She found herself arching her back and grabbing a hold of the window frame. Luckily, she found a handhold, for Xena's low voice invaded her consciousness. "Soo beautiful, Gabrielle. So beautiful,” which only heightened the experience. Not to mention the totally arousing feel of first Xena's soft hair across her skin and then, a pair of tender lips closing around one of her nipples. Gabrielle cried out. She'd only known that she wanted to be close to the warrior, unwilling to accept any self-invoked barriers. She had had no idea that it could be like this. Flames of fire seemed to be tingling all over her skin. She felt Xena's tongue slowly circling the puckered area around the nipple before taking it into her mouth again, gently sucking. Only when Gabrielle's hand clasped the back of her head, pressing her closer, did she dare to suck harder, pressing her face into the soft flesh and inhaling Gabrielle's scent. She relished the feel of the hardened nipple under her tongue, letting her teeth rake it tenderly, Gabrielle responding with another sigh and arching of her back. Gabrielle was so responsive, even if Xena had not already been aroused, she sure would be by the way the bard showed her enjoyment. Xena's right hand lifted the breast up a little so she'd be able to trace her tongue all around before closing her mouth around the nipple again, flicking her tongue over the erect tip. It was then that she felt the bard's eyes on her. Xena reluctantly released the nipple to look up. "Is something wrong?” she asked, concerned.

Gabrielle let out a lightheaded giggle. "No...” It took her two attempts to even get that word out coherently. "On the contrary. Everything seems to be very much right.” Her hand touched the warrior's face lovingly, her face taking on an expression ranging from seriousness to curiosity. "How do you do that?”

Xena was puzzled. "Do what?”

"Make me feel like that.” Gabrielle stated matter-of-factly.

A small smile made its way into Xena's face and she raised an eyebrow, wiggling it suggestively at the bard. She turned her head to Gabrielle's other breast, the one neglected so far, lifting it up and catching the nipple with her tongue, lavishing a broad stroke on it, her eyes never leaving the bard's. "This?”

The bard's eyes were almost all dark now. The sight of the dark warrior's tongue caressing her nipple was almost too much to bear. "Yeah...” she croaked.

"Or this...?” Xena took the nipple into her mouth, gently sucking, her eyes never leaving the bard's face. Vigorous nodding was the answer, then an incoherent, "Teeth...” and an involuntary closing of eyes at the absolutely overwhelming sensation of Xena's gentle nip. But Gabrielle wanted to see, so she pried her eyes open again, only to be greeted by the sight of Xena having closed her eyes, drinking in the sensations Gabrielle caused in her. The bard was convinced she had never seen anything so beautiful.

She gently traced the warrior's hairline with her fingers, waiting until she looked up again, reluctant to leave this place. She let her fingertips run down to Xena's chin and lifted her head until they were eye to eye again. Gabrielle wet her index finger in her mouth before she touched Xena's lower lip with it, spreading herself on the warrior's lips, then pulling her closer until she could do so with her own tongue. Xena moved in to kiss the bard, yet was stopped.

"Shhh...” Gabrielle looked at her, recognizing Xena's impatience. "Let me, please...” And the warrior relented, waiting to see what Gabrielle would do. The young woman was intent to find out the very texture of Xena's mouth, as she tasted and nipped with tongue and teeth, pushing and probing. With a small sigh, she finished her project and looked at Xena lovingly.

The warrior's face was flushed, yet bore a gentle expression, reminding Gabrielle of the way she had looked upon the wounded bard, lying in the armory just a few days ago. "Is there anything I can do for you, Xena?” she asked with both expectation and just a hint of fear in her voice. "Anything?” when the warrior hesitated.

Again, Xena's thoughts raced. Her body was thrumming with desire and although she had a few ideas of what she'd love to do to Gabrielle tonight, they somehow didn't include asking anything of her sweet, innocent companion. Her goal was pleasuring Gabrielle. As those green eyes bore into her, expressing the bard's longing, Xena still couldn't get herself to voice her own desires. They somehow all seemed to be too overwhelming. If she was afraid to think about them, how could she dare admit them to her partner, who had only so recently become her lover?

Gabrielle read the face of the warrior, noting her stance had shifted, her expression confused and even defiant. Unexpectedly, she was pushed into the role of the protector, of having to lead this woman on a way she was just now discovering. With a small smile, she pulled the taller woman into her arms, molding herself against her. "Hold me, Xena...” she whispered and felt the woman's body relax as it wound itself around her smaller body, letting out a breath at the comforting sensation. Whatever happened, they wouldn't stop relishing their newfound intimacy of turning to each other when they needed someone.

Yet Gabrielle wouldn't be Gabrielle if she gave up on something she had set her mind on. Her hands started stroking the warrior's back in sensuous circles, drawing them lower, so they covered Xena's firm buttocks as well, lightly squeezing. She felt Xena shiver at her touch and decided that she must be doing something right. Her hands played over Xena's hips and found their way to the warrior's belly, Xena making way for them by shifting slightly. Then slowly they slid up her sides until they hovered just under her satin covered breasts. Gabrielle was insistent that Xena tell her what she wanted, so she left her hands there, teasingly brushing the undersides of Xena's breasts as if by accident, enjoying the feel of Xena's body heat under her hands. She could almost feel Xena struggle with herself, her hips pressing closer involuntarily. Gabrielle left the warrior hanging by her own for a little longer until her own desire was too loud to be ignored.

"Do you want me to touch you, Xena?” she hummed into the warrior's ear. She felt a surge going through the powerful body, pressing her against the window harder in suppressed desire. "Do you want me to touch you?” she asked again, her voice as smooth as the satin clutching to Xena's magnificent body, while her fingers still traced the outline of Xena's soft mounds.

And finally, she heard it. "Yes.” The warrior's voice was raw with need.

Gabrielle loved the sound. "So tell me...” she hummed again. Xena disentangled herself from their embrace so she could look into Gabrielle's eyes, her face shining with rapture, her eyes admiring the smaller woman and what she was doing to her. With a swift motion, she caressed Gabrielle's arms down to the point where her hands were placed on Xena's body, then took them and raised them to her mouth to kiss each one on its palm, never leaving Gabrielle's eyes. Her face was suddenly very, very close to Gabrielle's as she said: "I want you to touch me.” And with that, she placed each of Gabrielle's small hands on top of her satin covered breasts. "Now...” and the rest of what she wanted to say was drowned in a groan as Gabrielle's hands seized their hard-won trophies.

Gabrielle had never touched another woman's breasts, so this was an extremely new sensation, but also entirely pleasant. Xena's breasts were larger than her own, filling her palms to perfection. They felt hot, and incredibly soft to the touch, that feeling filling a spot in the young woman's heart that she had not known was empty. She weighed them in her hands, and felt the nipples harden through the satin, but the best prize of all was Xena's out-of-this-world expression. Gabrielle's heart jumped, and she didn't want anything more than to kiss the warrior's invitingly parted lips, but thought of a better thing.

"Let me see if understood this..." she said, watching for Xena's reaction. The warrior smiled, her eyes slightly glazed over. "Mhm?" she asked, her mind in a daze.

"Well, this." Gabrielle pushed down the fabric that covered Xena's left breast until the nipple was barely exposed, and with one eye still on the warrior's face, the bard proceeded to let her mouth descend on a very erect nipple. It felt hard, yet soft, and it tasted like Xena as Gabrielle let her tongue play against it. Her initial aim had been to see what buttons Xena needed pushed. She had certainly not counted on the way this action played back on herself. There was a sudden rush of an overwhelming sensation, as she heard Xena's moan at her action, and felt the strong, yet so soft body press against her, back arched. Without a second thought, Gabrielle's mouth clasped around the nipple harder, sucking in earnest, while her hands fought for every inch of bare Xena skin they could get a hold of. This wasn't much, since Xena still wore her long dress. Gabrielle actually managed to unlatch and looked at the warrior. "Take this off," she said. "Now."

Xena's right eyebrow rose a notch or two. "My, my," she said. "Aren't we the impatient one..." Then she met Gabrielle's no-nonsense expression. "It opens in the back." she explained, turning around. "Would you..."

In this state of mind, Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to rip the dress right open, but she actually managed to tear only one or two laces that didn't open at first tug. Gabrielle impatiently shrugged out of her own blouse before she placed her hands back on Xena's shoulders, and sensuously slid the fabric off, so it lay there as an unordered pile at Xena's feet.

The warrior wanted to turn around, but Gabrielle stopped her. "No..." she whispered, and her hands pulled the woman backwards, so her buttocks pressed between Gabrielle's thighs. "Oh gods, Xena..." as she pressed herself against the warrior's warm back, rubbing her breasts against silky skin and letting her hands roam over well defined stomach muscles. "Xena..."

The husky words of her lover echoed in Xena's consciousness, the bard's hands tracing fiery patterns on her skin. Xena wanted to scream at the sensations, as they plowed through the well kept barriers around her heart and left trenches that threatened to bring the whole construction down. Xena knew that it was her decision to either play it safe, being only concerned about Gabrielle's well-being, and get her walls in place again now, or let go, and risk losing the protection around her heart.

A moan was heard, and she was almost surprised that it was hers, as Gabrielle's hands touched her breasts again, rubbing the swollen nipples between her fingers.

"Do you like that..." she heard the bard's whispered words, pleading with her to tell her that the dark woman enjoyed this as much as she did.

"Yes..." as she covered Gabrielle's delicate hands with her own, pressing down.

The bard picked up the motion and started kneading. "Like that?"

"Yessss..." Another moan. Xena's hands slid behind her, tracing Gabrielle's well-sculpted thighs.

"Would you like that, too..." Gabrielle's voice trembled, as she slowly slid one hand down Xena's stomach, circling her belly button, then tracing a line on sensitive skin between Xena's hip bones, on top of the satiny fabric of her dark breeches.

Xena swallowed at the sensation, feeling her skin twitch and tremble at the touch, so close to her heated center, a very sensitive area in itself. "Slow down..." she whispered. "Let's take this slow..."

She felt Gabrielle's breath at her ear, as the bard placed her chin on Xena's shoulder. "Shh...." and shortly thereafter, her tongue tracing a pattern on Xena's neck and behind her ear. Then her lips closed around an inviting earlobe, sucking it, before her mouth returned to well formed, but very tense shoulder muscles, kissing, tasting, and nipping, until she felt them relax again.

This is all wrong, Xena thought wryly. I should be the bold one, right? But truly, she knew that in matters of love, despite her inexperience in the sexual aspects of it, Gabrielle was the one who knew the way. Her pure heart, unmarred by unpleasant experiences, would light the way for both of them. All Xena had to do was follow. "Can I turn around..." she asked, her voice timid. "Please?"

As an answer, Gabrielle twisted the warrior's shoulders gently to turn her. Shiny green eyes met humble blue ones. Gabrielle wondered at the change in her usually so straightforward companion, but decided she was rather enamoured with it. She ran one hand through Xena's black, silky hair, twisting a strand around her fingers, then looked into those blue eyes again. "I had no idea it could be like... this," she whispered, her other hand taking on a life of its own and caressing the warrior's back.

"Neither did I..." Xena confessed.

Surprised eyes met hers. "But I thought you had..." A hand waved in the air.

Xena chuckled at that. "I have..." she copied the motion with a twinkle in her eyes, then her face grew serious again, and she gently cupped Gabrielle's face in one large hand. "But never..." she swallowed, "with someone I... trusted like this." She paused again, wrestling with words. "Or loved..." Her confession took her own breath away. "...like this." She watched tears well up in Gabrielle's eyes. "I'm sorry, did I say anything... I'm sorry, Gabrielle..."

"No, no..." The bard was torn between tears and laughter. "You're fine, you're fine." She threw her arms around the warrior in a fierce hug, pressing herself against her. "Thank you..." she whispered, for her lover's ears only. "Thank you..."

Xena held her, caressing her lover's soft hair, enjoying the feel of soft skin on soft skin. She was sure she would never tire of this feeling of trust, companionship and love. Never. Her trembling heart had opened up just a bit to the bidding of this young woman, who had never given up on her, whatever happened. If just opening up a bit produced this incredible feeling, how would embracing it all feel? But Xena decided to take one step at a time, lest she might faint, and she was determined to drink in this experience with all her senses. They had waited so long for this to happen, there was enough time to take it slow.

The warrior twisted slightly, to feel Gabrielle brush against her. She started humming, and did it again. "You feel sooo good, Gabrielle, so good..." she hummed, her hands marveling at the bard's strong back muscles. She heard Gabrielle's breath catch, then answer in the same fashion, her hands were traveling down Xena's spine until they reached the top band of her breeches where they hovered for a moment before a delicate hand tentatively slipped under the band. When there was no negative response from the warrior, she let both hands slide under the fabric to caress Xena's perfect cheeks.

A low growl of excitement came from the bard's throat, which made Xena smile. Her small hands squeezed and caressed and she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself. Xena kept humming, her hands tracing up Gabrielle's sides, brushing the sides of her breasts, until she heard Gabrielle gasp and give way to invite Xena in. Both women felt swept up in emotions, in pleasant, wonderful emotions.

Gabrielle raised her head again to look at the warrior, and they kissed, slow and sweet, totally absorbed in each other. This was so pleasant, no rush, no hesitations.

Without breaking the kiss, Xena loosened the clasps of Gabrielle's skirt. Taking a step back, she let Gabrielle's thigh slip between her own and raised the bard enough to place her hipbone where the she was all heat and fire; firmly pressing her against the now misty window. Gabrielle let out a whimper, which transformed into a moan. "What... oh, gods, Xena..." Her head fell back against the window as she took in the new sensation.

"Do you want me to stop?"


"Good. Cause I don't want to stop, either." Back in her safe leading position, it was easier for Xena to give in to her own urges, if she only made sure she pleased the bard. But judging from the young woman's gasps, that wasn't a question at all. Xena held perfectly still, taking in the bard's aroused face, marveling at the perfect, lithe body writhing against her.

Slowly, Gabrielle's hips began to rock against her pelvic bone, and the resolving friction made her whimper all over again. "Please..." she pleaded. "Can these go?" And she indicated her own, delicate underwear. "I want to feel you... against me, Xena. All of you..." she added breathlessly, her eyes on the warrior's face to see if she'd object.

Xena's heart jumped, but she obliged, taking the bard with her when she took a step back, away from the window, leaving the skirt on the sill.

The young woman wrapped a pair of sturdy legs around Xena and held on, kissing the skin above the woman's collar bone, nipping at her neck, then going slower, and down, to reach her breasts.

Xena moaned and was afraid her legs would give out, so she took two steps and set the bard gently on a nearby tabletop. Gabrielle slid down a little, because the table was lower than the windowsill she had been sitting on before, and she found herself in a perfect position to finish her gentle ministrations. They ceased to be gentle when Gabrielle felt how much the warrior was enjoying this, and that she slowly gave up on being modest and afraid of losing control. Xena's hand had cupped the back of Gabrielle's head, urging her on, and Gabrielle loved to oblige. Her mouth circled the hardened nipple and sucked it in. Feeling Xena press her face even deeper into the warm, soft flesh, she tried out the just recently learned skill of using her teeth to nip the rosy nipple. She heard Xena hiss with an in-drawn breath, and lifted her hand to take care of the other breast.

Slowly, she became aware of the fact that Xena had started to rhythmically press against her thigh, a motion that ignited her in a way nothing had so far. She felt for Xena's cheeks again, feeling them contract in time with the motion, and her mouth left the nipple to trace a wet path down the warrior's stomach, to her belly button, and back, before she peeked up into her friend's face.

Xena's lips were slightly open, her cheeks had a red flush and her eyes... her eyes...

Gabrielle swallowed, for even her bardic talent faltered in the face of such beauty, and she sighed, reaching up with one hand to touch those inviting lips. She smiled, as Xena caught her index finger between her teeth, but the smile faded when that finger was drawn in and she felt the wetness inside of Xena's mouth, as she sucked gently.

Gabrielle felt virtually all blood rushing southward, becoming very lightheaded for a moment. "Oh...” she sighed, her mouth keeping the surprised o-shape even when the sound was already gone.

To Xena, it looked like an invitation for a kiss, and so she did just that, letting the bard's finger go. Gabrielle was so warm and inviting, it felt like coming home after a really bad storm to sink into her embrace, into her soft body, her wet mouth. Xena didn't want to leave this place anymore, ever. She cradled the bard's body safely against her own, rubbing against it as she felt the young woman respond and move against her. The feel of silky skin on silky skin was truly a gift of the gods.

"Xena...” a very airy voice sounded up to the warrior's ears.

"Hmm?” Xena was slightly out of breath herself.

"We wanted to get rid of my... ooh... underwear, right?” Gabrielle's voice was interrupted by gentle moans. "Oh, gods, this is... ungh...” Her head fell forward into the valley between Xena's breasts again when Xena wrapped her hand in Gabrielle's silky hair and urged her on. "This way it's never... ooh, I can't get enough of this...” The bard almost fainted when Xena offered one breast to her, greedily taking it with her mouth and clasping it with both hands.

Xena's back arched with the sensation, but she still had to smile at her enthusiastic lover who seemed to bring a natural talent with her. "Let me take care of this,” she drawled, daring to trust her legs enough to pick up the bard and make their way over to the bed. There was no way she would have Gabrielle on the table right now. Maybe later, she added with a satisfied mental smirk. She lowered her friend onto the soft bed, and their smiling eyes locked when she was on all fours over her.

"Oh... Xena...” Gabrielle reached up, trying to put some of the raven black hair behind Xena's left ear. "I didn't know, I...”

Xena growled a little, brushing her breasts against Gabrielle's and both of them moaned. She pressed her body against that of her friend until the young woman's constant writhing threatened to overwhelm her, and sat back on her heels in one swift motion.

"Noo...” Gabrielle sighed, but her smile showed that she was enjoying herself. She watched Xena open the braids that kept the hair out of her face, and she busied herself with tracing the warrior's muscular thighs.

Her partner's face held a dangerous glint when she was finished, and Gabrielle giggled with delight. "Is the big bad warrior going to have this innocent maiden now?” she asked playfully, her eyebrows arched.

Xena chuckled in response. "You are the one who wants to lose her underwear, right?” Her inquiring gaze held Gabrielle's. "Do I have a choice of how I do this?”

The blonde's breath caught, and she smiled. "Any way it pleases you...”

"Any way it pleases you, Gabrielle...” the dark haired woman whispered, and kissed this young maiden's soft lips. She moved down, bathing her lover in gentle kisses and licks, drawing out little gasps and moans and felt how Gabrielle clawed into her hair, holding her at particularly pleasurable spots. When the bard didn't want her to leave a nipple, Xena grinned and peeked upward into the out-of-this-world expression on her lover's face. "Gabrielle, if you let me go, I promise it's going to get even better than this...”

Gabrielle shot her a distrusting glance. "I don't believe you.”

The grin widened. "I can't show you if you don't let me, my sweet.”

"My sweet?” Gabrielle's eyebrow arced. "You're up to something, I can tell...”

"Yeah...” Xena felt a grin threatening to split her face, and she lowered her voice, faking a real bad accent. "I know how to show a girl a good time!” The show was accompanied by wiggling dark eyebrows.

Gabrielle giggled, and her hold on Xena's hair lessened. Xena wouldn't be Xena if she didn't take advantage of that. She twisted her head to get it out from under Gabrielle's grasp and slid her dark, silky hair across her lover's chest. Gabrielle sighed.

"I love you, Gabrielle...” Xena whispered, whisking her hair across Gabrielle's abdomen, then nibbling a line along the trim of her delicate underwear.

Gabrielle seemed to have forgotten how to exhale, as she shuddered and twitched under Xena's insistent lips. She sighed, and they locked gazes as Xena's large hands slid down those silky bardic thighs and stopped at the knees, urging them apart. It was a moment of give and take, of trust and be trusted. When Gabrielle nodded almost unnoticeably, and Xena caught that, her heart rate doubled.

"Gabrielle...” she started, but the bard lifted a hand, and caressed Xena's cheek.

"Yes, please.” she said, trust in her eyes. Trust that this woman would not intently hurt her. "Please?”

Xena swallowed, and blinked, then she slowly turned her face to kiss Gabrielle's palm. The bard smiled, and let her hand drop to her thigh, caressing upwards with her fingertips until they came to a halt just below the line of fabric. The bard made sure her friend was watching when she slowly slid those fingers all the way along where she was aching with need.

Xena watched all right, her brow contracted in concentration, following the path the fingers were taking. She followed the hand as it caressed Gabrielle's belly and brushed a breast, and her gaze met Gabrielle's again. When she saw the open, trusting, almost pleading expression on her friend's face she knew she'd do anything to please this woman.

Taking a shuddering breath, she concentrated on the path Gabrielle's hand had taken and pressed a hot mouth against the inside of a silky thigh. Gabrielle gasped. The warrior took her time on her way up. She felt herself becoming aroused when she first smelled Gabrielle's very own scent, a sweet, mouthwatering fragrance, really, and took a gentle hand to turn the leg outwards at the hip joint. She avoided touching the cloth, but instead ran her tongue along exquisitely satiny skin just where a few pubic hairs made their appearance. Gabrielle greeted her with a moan, watching her intently, and sighed when she saw Xena switch sides, giving the other hip joint the same gentle ministrations.

The bard felt wrapped in gentleness and love, and she felt very lightheaded, very sure that all blood had rushed to points south, making Xena's caresses even more poignant. She couldn't take her eyes off this dark, beautiful woman, and she watched with fascination when Xena moved upwards a bit, taking a piece of cloth between her teeth, and slowly tugging it down. The warrior looked up, and wiggled her brows at Gabrielle, which made her chuckle. She moaned again, when her friend slid two powerful hands under her that helped her with this piece of cloth.

Xena slowly tugged with her teeth, revealing the most endearing, soft reddish-blond down. She turned her face to rub her cheek against it. By the vibrations she felt she knew that Gabrielle must be chuckling at this, and she smiled to herself, before moving her mouth first to the left, then to the right, inching the offending cloth further down. It was like slowly unwrapping a Solstice present; she enjoyed the suspense as much as seeing the actual gift. Xena could feel that the cloth was damp with Gabrielle's arousal, and she sighed, not sure how long she'd be able to hold on.

Her hands tugged the cloth further down, helped by her chin, and there it was, the treasure she had sought. A shuddering breath escaped the warrior, when she was assaulted with the sight and smell of Gabrielle's womanhood. She looked up, into the fascinated eyes of her lover. "Are you sure you...”

"Yes.” Gabrielle's brow contracted in a helpless attempt at trying to express the gentleness she felt for her friend. She let her hand travel down again, caressing Xena's face with the back of her hand as her fingers slid into the raven hair to stay.

Xena's eyes closed at the caress, and with eyes closed, she started to explore what Gabrielle offered her, the bard's hand in her hair a guide as to how her ministrations were received. She felt more confident this way, wanting so badly to please her friend, to express her feelings through gentle caresses, and the bard's hand clenching and unclenching at especially pleasant sensations told her all she needed to know.

The sensation of feeling Gabrielle's hips starting a rocking motion ignited her even more; the thought that her friend wanted her to do this urged her on.

Then the rocking stopped, and there was a gentle pull at black hair. Xena gazed up into the flushed face. "You ok?” she whispered, anxiously.

"Very, very much.” Gabrielle assured her, smiling. "Just give me a time out, please - so much, so much...” Gabrielle's face glistened with sweat.

Xena took the opportunity to finally get rid of Gabrielle's underwear, sliding her hands up and down well-toned leg muscles, then spreading her long frame along the side of her lover, cradling her to her body. "Shh...”

Trembles shook the bard's body as she clutched her friend's muscular back. She let them ease before looking up again, meeting Xena's gentle gaze. "I hope you're not disappointed...”

Xena laughed gently, running her hand through Gabrielle's fair hair. "Disappointed? No, certainly not disappointed. Why would I be?” She met Gabrielle's mouth with a doubt-melting kiss.

The bard tasted her lips, and her face wore an odd expression when they parted. "'That me?” she asked, not knowing if she should laugh or cry. "Oh.”

She felt Xena chuckle in her embrace. "Yeah, that's you.”

"Isn't that a bit... you know... Don't you think... ew...” Gabrielle felt her face flush, and she was a bit embarrassed. In the heat of the moment, there, she hadn't thought that this could be odd for Xena, or for her, but now...

Xena searched the bard's face, trying to figure out how to ease the situation. She scooped up her friend's light body and placed her on top of herself, cradling her head at her shoulder and caressing her hair. "Actually...” she whispered into a conveniently placed ear, "you taste wonderful, Gabrielle. I was so looking forward to doing this...”

"You were?” The young woman's voice still trembled with doubt.

"You are soft... you taste better than anything I've ever tried...”

"Better than my dumplings?”

Xena smiled. "Yeah, much better than even your delicious dumplings.”


"A little salty... warm... very much Gabrielle... it's like drinking and eating you at the same time.” She felt the young woman slowly relax, and kept drawing calming circles on her smooth back. "It's like being inside and outside of you at the same time. And when you started rocking your hips...”

She felt the bard smile against her skin. "Yeah?”

"It was the most arousing feeling.” She blew a gentle breath against Gabrielle's half-hidden face.

"Arousing?” Gabrielle seemed to like the thought. She propped up an elbow beside Xena and looked at her lover's face. "Are you feeling... aroused now?”

Xena decided to let that need surface with a growl at the back of her throat. She didn't have to use words, the look on Gabrielle's face told her she was understood. The bard's green eyes darkened in response. She slid up on top of her lover's supple body, creating delicious friction, and descended upon Xena's oh-so-inviting mouth again, exploring it thoroughly, and feeling that kiss ignite her once more.

It took all her willpower - and a severe lack of oxygen - to stop exploring those full lips, and she smacked her own with a grin. "Maybe...” she said, tipping her chin in thought with her index finger, "I could get used to this.”

"Maybe?” Xena chuckled. She enjoyed her lover's playful mood, the way they created a feeling of love and trust where all questions could be asked, and answered. "Do you want more, Gabrielle?” her voice dropped to a lower register.

It took the bard a moment to catch her breath. "Yes...” she said, closing her eyes for a moment. "I think I would like that very much.” Unable to resist the temptation of soft lips, she dove in again. Would she ever get tired of this? Ever? She heard Xena's breath pick up, and felt her lover arrange their legs so she could press a thigh against Gabrielle's newly ignited center. Gabrielle whimpered at that, whimpered again, letting her lover hold her and play her like a well-tuned instrument. Her body thrummed with sensations, but she was safe in Xena's arms, nothing could touch her here, and wherever this would take her, she would be sure to be returned to this safe state. She heard someone whimper, and moan, and realized it was her own voice, but she was so lightheaded, the sounds seemed to come out of another room. She felt Xena's hands glide down her sides, slipping between them, to the top of her thighs, gently spreading her nether lips. The increased friction made her cry out.

"Oh... oh gods, Xena... stop... no, don't stop... oh...” Gabrielle's face was contorted with pleasure, and Xena drank in the expression.

"Do you want another time out?” she drawled, reveling in the feel and smell of Gabrielle's sweating body gliding on top of hers.

"Oh... maybe... yeah... good idea...” Gabrielle's breathing was heavy, and her body kept twitching against Xena's still slightly raised thigh. "Oh... Xena... this is fantastic...”

"I'm glad you think so...” Xena's heart threatened to burst with emotion.

"What... what about you, Xena, are you...” Gabrielle hesitated, thinking of Xena's pleasure, as she absentmindedly drew circles aournd Xena's very erect nipple. She postponed her question, taking the nipple between her lips and playing her tongue against it. Several moans later, she managed to finish her sentence, regarding the warrior lovingly. "Are you... you know... can I do something for you, too?”

Xena caressed the young woman's backside, squeezing it, and drawing it against her thigh again. "Enjoy yourself, Gabrielle...” she drawled, as she felt her friend's pelvis grinding against her in reflex. "Don't worry about me. Just lean back and enjoy...”

"But -"

"I want you to concentrate on what's happening to you - we take care of me later.”

"Oh...” Gabrielle increased the pace of her rocking, readjusting her hip to create more friction. She wanted to disagree with Xena, but somehow, she couldn't. There was no way she could deal with all those new sensations sufficiently, and be actively concerned with Xena's pleasure at the same time. What Xena said made sense, and she already promised her dark friend a silent payback.

"One request, Gabrielle...”

"Anything, Xena, anything...” as Gabrielle felt one of Xena's hands edge between them and caress her breasts.

"Keep looking at me, please.”

"Yeeesss... Ohaaa...” There was no place anymore for words, for thoughts, as all rational thought slid away under Xena's hands, down the friction their bodies created and past the aching need between Gabrielle's legs. She lifted herself up on her hands, positioning them beside Xena's shoulders, creating a better angle that gave Xena's hands more room. Her head fell forward as she rocked her pelvis against Xena's with an urgent beat.

Xena didn't allow her to climax at once; instead she eased her frantic rocking twice, but the third time, she groaned in frustration, throwing Xena an exasperated look, letting the warrior know she could take no more. The woman she loved answered with a smile. "Go easy, Gabrielle. It pays in the end, believe me.”

"I'll kill you...” Gabrielle panted, far away from rational thought, "let me go, Xena, please. Please.”

The need apparent in her lover's eyes, Xena decided it was time, and gave in to the bard's urging, welcoming her thrusts with a rocking of her own that Gabrielle greeted with a hiss.

"Yessss... Oh, yesss...” Gabrielle gasped as she closed her eyes in rapture. Xena feared for a moment that she might not keep her promise as she drove her hip down hard on Xena's slick, muscular thigh. But Gabrielle did, holding very still for just a moment, just at the edge of the cliff she was standing at, then, she opened her eyes again and gazed all the way down into the warrior's soul. "Thank you,” she whispered, before jerking her hip once more and convulsing when the first wave of her release washed over her, threatening to take her with it. She managed to keep their gazes locked for that first wave, but when she saw that enraptured look on Xena's face, and knew that the warrior had found what she had been looking for, her head dropped and she cried out with the second wave, and the third and fourth.

Xena had been right, prolonging this made Gabrielle experience a release far surpassing anything she could have wished for. Xena didn't ease up, either, drawing out even the last shudder long after the crest had washed over her, until the bard whimpered for her to stop. Gabrielle was laughing and crying at the same time, burrowing her face in Xena's neck. She whimpered again when her sobbing brought her oversensitive center in contact with Xena's thigh.

Xena held Gabrielle's trembling body close against her own. She had also released, but it was very inconsequential to her, more a byproduct of pleasing Gabrielle than something she had striven for. It was pleasant in that she wasn't driven by need anymore, instead, she was able to concentrate on her beautiful friend whose world was obviously rocked by what she had experienced.

The warrior shifted slightly to draw her body out from under Gabrielle's against her protest, then reached down for a blanket and covered them both. Gabrielle scrambled back to her side like a puppy for its mother, rolling up against it and trying to still her sobbing.

She felt her tall friend caress her hair. The calming "Sh...” sounds Xena was making, and her caresses, provided a welcome anchor to the outside world. Her whole body thrummed and unable to take in any more, she let the sobs subside, feeling contentment wash over her, as she became sleepy. But there was no thought of sleep yet, as she needed to look into her protector's eyes.

"Xena...?” she blinked and pushed aside the blanket that covered half of her face. There were only a few candles burning in the room, and she had trouble seeing Xena's face in the half-light. "Xena...” she said, rushing into the welcoming arms, needing to know that she was safe and they were both ok. She felt her friend's body tremble in her arms, and Gabrielle looked up, seeing the warrior's face in a half shadow She was suddenly sure she had seen a glimpse of profound sadness before before gentle caring covered it. "Are you ok?”

"Yes...” Xena's voice trembled. "Very ok, Gabrielle. Very ok.”

"But you look sad, Xena...”

"Are you ok, Gabrielle?” Xena let her hands run through the bard's sweaty hair.

"Oh, yes. I didn't know it could be like this...” Gabrielle frowned because she felt there was something wrong. "But you... what is it, Xena?” And when there was no answer, only another expression of pain, she almost shook her lover in helpless worry. "Talk to me! Don't leave me outside!”

Xena's body went rigid in her lover's arms, all muscles ready to jump, the panic of a caged animal crossed her features before she made the conscious effort to relax, closing her eyes and drawing deep, shuddering breaths. Her companion didn't cease her gentle caresses against her back, and when Xena felt the first tear running down her cheek, she felt very foolish, but very protected at the same time.

The bone-deep sadness she felt welled up with all its might, and she gave herself over to the endless source of compassion that was Gabrielle. It crossed her mind how unsettling it must be for Gabrielle to have her lover break down like this after a passionate bout of lovemaking, but she decided to worry about it later. She knew Gabrielle would not stop to ask her for the source for her sadness, and just feel pushed away if she didn't disclose it.

She still cried silent tears when Gabrielle slid up and curled around her, cradling her head to her soft chest, caressing her hair and face and whispering to her. "I love you, Xena. Always. You know that. I love you with all I have, and with all I am... Let go... It's ok...”

A sob escaped her, and she just gave in to it. She imagined being protected by the warm body around her, in a cocoon of sorts, and managed to shut out her surroundings except this safe haven.

Gabrielle kept caressing her friend's hair, listening to her crying. She had seen Xena cry before, but never like this, and as hard as she tried not to let it unsettle her, it worried her more than she liked to admit. Something had been touched inside her friend, she was sure. At the moment of her release, Gabrielle had been touched herself, as if a door had opened for her for just a moment. A door to a thought-deafening something that rolled over her with the waves of spasms and left not only her body, but her soul touched as well. If what she had seen was pure brightness, what Xena had seen might have been on the other side of the scale - a scary thought in itself.

She cried out in surprise when she felt a hot tongue capture a sensitive nipple. She cried out again when she was propelled onto her back, with a wild cat on top of her, blue eyes blazing fire so fiercely she had no problem whatsoever seeing it even though it was almost completely dark now. Gabrielle snorted, feeling hot fire coursing through her oversensitive body. The dark body on top of her growled, from deep within her chest, reaching down to yank off her own underwear, and then straddling her prey again. She descended on the bard's sensitive ear, giving it a few bites, and then turned the bard's chin to the side in a sensuous caress to have access to one long, delicious throat.

Gabrielle struggled with herself. Xena scared her. But then, this was what she had expected to happen, right? She knew who Xena was. She knew the darkness lurked within her, ready to jump. And had she not told Xena to let go just a minute ago?

Gabrielle moaned; her body incredibly turned on by just being taken, by the amount of sheer desire Xena was bathing her with, even though her mind screamed bloody murder. She struggled for control under Xena's hot hands, igniting her sensitive skin wherever they went. "Ahrrr... Xena -", she tried to get her lover's attention while her back arched into Xena's hot mouth. "Xena - Xena, stop! Stop!” She almost screamed the words to deafen the arousal in her own body.

Xena snarled, and looked at her, her face a feral mask - until she met those pleading green eyes, black with arousal and something else... It took her a moment to realize what it was. Fascination. Mixed with a hint of fear.

All strength left Xena's body with a breath. "Oh, oh gods, I did it again.” She wanted to get up, to go away, to leave all of this behind her, to just forget it, but Gabrielle's hand went all the way up to the back of her head, clawing into her hair and looking at her intently, searching for something.

"Where do you want to go?” she heard Gabrielle's voice, dangerously low.

"I... Somewhere where I can't hurt you anymore.”

"You don't hurt me.” Gabrielle felt a part of her surface that she didn't know she had. It excited her more than scared her, and the knowledge that she was able to stop Xena in her frenzy, to make her think, gave her a feeling of power that surged through her body, and she realized that she liked it. "But I thought there were supposed to be two involved in this, right?” The hand in Xena's hair clenched, and Xena took a surprised breath at the pain.

"Right?” Gabrielle's voice was very low, but she waited for Xena to nod, and that spark in her eyes lighting up again. "Do you want me?” she asked. She didn't know where that question came from, nor why she asked it, playing the warrior's strings.

A growl was her answer, and Xena slid her center along Gabrielle's thigh, leaving a wet, hot trail behind. Gabrielle wanted to run, to scream and to have the warrior at the same time, and for whatever reason, the "have the warrior” part won. "Looks like a yes...” she hummed, reaching her other hand up to cup one full breast, leading it down into her mouth.

Xena hissed, and her elbows threatened to give in to her arousal. She cupped the bard's head in one hand, and rolled onto her back, the young woman on top of her. Gabrielle didn't stop once, instead she lifted the other hand to grab the breast's twin and started kneading it. Gently at first, then more roughly, as Xena's breathing rate increased.

Xena's nipples were rock hard and Gabrielle had to open her mouth wide to capture all of it. She resorted to let it slip through her teeth, and sucked the tip intently, feeling the spasms going through the body under her. Her hand left the other breast and made its fiery path down to Xena's hip, brushing the dark bush of hair.

Her lover's body went rigid.

"Let me have you, Xena...” the bard whispered. "I need to hear you. I need to see you. Let me taste you, Xena...” Her voice was thick with need. She slid up again, their bodies meeting, and both of them hissed with the contact.

"You're sure of this?” Xena drawled.

"That I want to have you? Oh, yes.” She met Xena's dark eyes, and felt something inside of her snap. "Oh... yessss...” She mimicked what Xena had done to her earlier, biting her earlobe and blazing a trail of fiery kisses down her throat. She came to the collarbone, and sucked at the skin there, then in a flash of desire, she bit down hard, marking her. "Mine,” she growled, and felt Xena's hip lift off the bed in reaction.

"You like that, huh?” she wrinkled her nose at Xena in a delighted grin, and thought that the hot kiss she received from a very heated warrior woman was a good payment for her troubles.

Her heart skipped a couple of beats when she felt Xena grab her hand, leading her down to her center, and spreading her legs a bit wider to give her better access.

It was a delicious moment when Gabrielle first touched hot, silken wetness, and she moaned, overcome with emotions. Xena's hand led her where she liked to be touched, and under her gentle tutelage, Gabrielle was a quick study, eliciting a moan from Xena, and another, and another.

Gabrielle let her body slip sideways to have better access to Xena, and tangled her calf with that of the woman beside her, slowly starting to rock against her hip in time with the motions of their joined hands. Her mouth found one breast again, sucking and licking. She enjoyed every movement of their joined bodies, gasps and whimpers escaping from both women.

Somehow, this seemed to be more equal than what they had shared before, and Gabrielle enjoyed seeing the mighty warrior trembling in the throes of passion. In a surge of playfulness, she let their joined hands slide lower, asking for entrance.

Xena's head snapped around to look at her, her mouth open, eyes hooded with passion, and she continued to do so when she lead Gabrielle's and her index fingers inside slowly.

Gabrielle felt the walls contract around her finger, and swallowed, but the look on Xena's face was what enraptured her. Her friend kept looking at her, drawing her in. Gabrielle realized that this was what Xena wanted, that Gabrielle watch, and acknowledge; that she was offering this part of herself to the bard, this one moment where she wouldn't hold back, and wouldn't cover who she was.

What could she say? Nothing, it seemed, in the light of that look that held her. No Yes, no I love you seemed to be sufficient. Gabrielle's mouth opened slightly as her fingers slid inside the warrior, lead by a powerful hand, creating delicious friction by sliding out again, pausing for a moment, before she started anew. She watched Xena bite her lower lip, and felt her asking for another finger, and then there were three that caressed Xena from the inside.

The warrior was slick with arousal, and it felt so very good to be inside of her. Gabrielle closed her eyes at the sensation, shutting everything out and concentrating on the slick in and out. She smacked her lips when Xena's scent wafted up to her, and she started seeking it with the urgency of newborn for milk. Xena held her by her shoulders, and she saw her pleading look when she looked up again.

"Please stay with me Gabrielle...” Xena said, her face so full of sadness it almost broke the bard's heart.

She was surprised when she heard herself say: "I need this, Xena. I promise I'll come back. But I need this. I do.”

There was a slow nod, more sadness as Xena watched her descent, then a loud hiss and her eyes shut at the sensation when Gabrielle found what she was looking for.

Gabrielle had been right. She had needed this. She bathed her face in Xena's arousal, applying her tongue at places she wanted to touch so badly, while her fingers kept up their rhythm inside the woman she loved. Loved with such fierceness, that she needed to eat and drink of her as much as she could.

Xena's hips bucked into her face, and she took every move in stride, opening her mouth wide. She was surprised when she felt Xena's hands in her hair, lifting her head up, but the pleading look in Xena's eyes was explanation enough. "Time out,” the warrior whispered and welcomed the bard back into her arms.

"Why are you sad?” Gabrielle asked, trying to control her ragged breathing. She had hated to leave that place inside Xena.

A shrug was her answer. "Can't help it. Waited too long for this, I guess. Too much emotion. You touch places no-one has touched in a long time.” It was apparent from the warrior's words that she struggled with an explanation herself.

"Why did you pounce on me like that earlier? Not that I didn't like it, I...” Gabrielle smiled back when she saw that twinkle in Xena's eyes wipe away the sadness.

"So you liked the big bad warrior descending on you, huh...” Xena drawled, a smile in her eyes.

Gabrielle shivered. "It does have its perks,” she replied, giggling nervously at Xena's eyebrow at high peak.

"So you like to be taken, Gabrielle...”

Oh, that voice! An electric jolt ran through Gabrielle's body along with Xena's fingertips descending down her sides, and she moaned. "Only if you don't hold back this time...” she panted.

Xena's hands stilled. "You have no idea what that means,” she said, all hints of seduction gone.

Gabrielle peered into her eyes intently. "Oh yes, I know. I know you won't hurt me, Xena. I know that. I want you to believe it, too.”

"I dragged you over half of Greece.” Xena mocked her.

"That is in the past. It's over. I pushed you over a cliff, Xena. Remember?”

Xena turned her head away from the bard. Did she ever.

"It's over. I love you. And I am not satisfied with having only half of you. I want all of it, damnit!”

"No chance.” Suddenly, the warrior felt hot under Gabrielle's naked body, and she pushed her off and got up in a swift motion, needing to pace, needing to move. Her heart hurt, and with every step, she was reminded of Gabrielle's fingers inside of her just a few moments ago. It had been so good... and so painful at the same time. She felt the bard watching her from the bed, and felt guilty for ruining what should have been the best night of her life. She had tried so hard to not let the demons overwhelm her, but there was too much emotion involved with Gabrielle. Too much that touched her fundamentally. But she wasn't ready to call it quits, not after what they had been through.

Xena grabbed a robe off the stand and wrapped herself in it, applying herself to lighting a fire in the fireplace. She needed to do something to occupy her mind, even if it was something as trivial as lighting a fire.

The robe hugged her body and didn't help her oversensitive nerve endings at all. Xena slowly turned around to check on her friend.

Gabrielle was still sitting on the bed, leaning against the headboard, hugging her drawn up legs with her arms, with her chin propped up on one knee. She looked at Xena pensively, but she didn't seem upset anymore.

Their eyes met and they looked at each other, studying the other's face intently, before Gabrielle tried a crooked grin. "I messed it up, huh?”

Xena shrugged.

"I'm sorry, Xena. I really am. It wasn't right of me to disregard what you want. And I was the one who said there are two involved earlier.” She smacked her forehead. "I could kick myself. Come back to bed, please.” She tried a pleading look, and Xena slowly sat down at the edge of the bed. The warrior rubbed her palms against each other; elbows resting on her knees, an odd gesture of insecurity that made Gabrielle's heart reach out to her. Without really thinking about it, she found herself attached to Xena's back, hugging her friend with all her might. "I'm sorry, Xena, I'm sorry,” she whispered.

Reluctantly, Xena reached out and drew Gabrielle's legs around her, but still didn't say anything.

Gabrielle still felt aroused by the feel of Xena's strong body under her hands, and her hormones started circling again. She tried applying her thoughts to the problem at hand, but found it really hard to do. She tried to concentrate on the feeling of friendship between them both, but her mind kept supplying images of what she'd like to do with the pliant flesh she was wrapped around, and she sighed deeply.

"Xena - I just don't know what this is doing to me. I guess I'm just a little... overwhelmed.”

Xena turned her head and raised an eyebrow in question, regarding the younger woman with scrutiny.

Gabrielle giggled nervously. "It's just that... ungh... I can't stop thinking of all the nice things I'd love to do to your body. To you.” She exhaled and rolled her eyes. " I don't really feel I have a lot of say in this anymore. My body takes over and there I go.”

She was relieved to see that Xena started to look amused and felt encouraged.

"The thought of you... wanting me...” she shivered. "Makes me want you. Badly. Very, very badly. With all I am.” She had Xena's interest now, the blue eyes encouraging her to go on. She swallowed. This was the tricky part. "I guess it's hard for me to accept that I would give everything I am, knowing that you won't do the same. That you.... wouldn't trust me to be able to handle... that.”

Xena held her eyes for a little longer, then sighed and looked down at her hands again, which had started to massage Gabrielle's feet. Just when Gabrielle was sure she wouldn't say anything, she started to speak. "I trust you, Gabrielle. I just don't trust... myself. I guess.” More heavy thinking was going on. Gabrielle couldn't help but apply her hands to the task of brushing through the black mass of hair before her.

"I used to use... sex. As a weapon like every other one. Or for fun. Never... never like this, Gabrielle.” She furrowed her brow, trying to think how much she could say, how much she was able to put into words of what she was feeling. "You get as much as I can give, Gabrielle. More than that. No one has ever... had me like this.” She met Gabrielle's eyes at that and gave her an amused glance when Gabrielle blushed at her expression. "You have me, heart and soul. The thought of hurting you again makes my skin crawl.” A small smile tugged at her mouth when she felt Gabrielle's hand find an entrance into the robe and started caressing her belly. "I am just now discovering why it is called making love, Gabrielle.”

"You're very good at it, too...” Gabrielle hummed in her ear.

Xena chuckled to herself. "Looks like I already corrupted you, huh?”

"Hmmm.... and I love to be corrupted if it means I get my hands all over you...” Gabrielle said in a dreamy voice, then tried snapping out of the sensations that went right to her pleasure center. "I love you, Xena. Nothing is going to change that.”

Xena hummed as an answer, and felt herself leaning back into her lover's gentle embrace. "I love you more than life itself, Gabrielle.”

"Not much fun living without you, warrior.” Gabrielle started nibbling Xena's neck and heard Xena gasp. "So many pleasurable things to miss out on...” Her hands gently untied the knot that held Xena's robe together, parted the robe, and revealed delicious flesh. "Oh...” she sighed. "Oh, Xena, you're so beautiful...” She tried to put all the reverence for Xena in every touch. "You make me tingle all over... catch my breath at your sight... want to put my hands on you. Make you sigh, and tremble.”

Xena seemed to be melting back into her arms, so she pulled out from under her, and padded the headboard with some of the thick pillows. Then she leaned against it and pulled Xena into her arms again. This position gave her total access to the warrior's supple body, and Xena seemed to be very willing to leave it that way.

Gabrielle felt that Xena was very willing to give the lead to her, to be spun into a safe place by her touches, to be rocked and stirred by her words. This was Xena's way of showing trust, and Gabrielle felt the responsibility for Xena's well being settle on her shoulders like a blanket. I can do this? She wondered, but her body gave her the answer. Oh... yesss... I can.

She leaned forward to turn her head and kiss the warrior; a slow, lingering, gentle and loving kiss, filled with reverence and awe at the gift they were given by sharing this moment. Her hands moved of their own volition; one just holding Xena close to her body, the other to find the safe haven it had left earlier. She felt Xena's body go rigid for a moment as the bard entered her lovingly, and then Xena arched into the caress with a soft motion that didn't break the kiss.

Both women moaned at the same time and settled into a rhythm of gasps and touches. Gabrielle thought she would faint when she saw Xena's left hand starting to caress her own breast in rapture, and she felt her own hips rocking against Xena's well-formed buttocks, creating delicious friction.

She felt Xena's back muscles contract against her stomach, and rubbing up against her breasts. The feeling was so divine, she actually asked herself how she had ever done without it. Her lips searched for soft lips and tongue again, finding them, tasting and sucking, while her fingers glided in and out of the woman she loved in the same pattern. Time became meaningless, as both of them were lost in each other, in pleasuring and receiving, in touching and being touched.

In some far back region of her brain that was still able to think clearly, Gabrielle realized that what they had shared before had not been sharing. This was. Every breath that went out of her seemed to be sucked in by Xena and vice versa.

There was no beginning and no end between them, and the young woman felt herself beginning to float with this incredible feeling.

She was almost surprised when she opened her eyes and Xena had turned around, hovering over her on her arms, her dark hair forming a tent they were both hiding under. "Gabrielle..." Xena whispered, smiling an out-of-this-world smile. "Gabrielle..."

Carnal desire made Gabrielle's body arch upward to meet the body of her friend, and both women hissed, teeth clenched at the sensation. Xena's eyes clouded over, and she let her head slump forward, her body following, gently making contact with Gabrielle's. The dark woman rested her forehead on her smaller companion's shoulder for a moment before gliding up to give her better access. Out of some kind of internal need, Gabrielle could not, and would not, leave this woman for long. The feeling of Xena's slick insides against her fingers was too exquisite, the feeling of the muscles inside of her contracting too profound to let go.

This time, Xena didn't have to remind her to go slow. Gabrielle wanted to draw this experience out as long as she could, savoring every moment. Xena's body on top of her made her feel very protected, and very powerful at the same time. She found that Xena enjoyed being teased and played with, and the gasps she drew from her, and the whimpers, were going right to her center, exciting her even more.

Gabrielle soon realized that she held the soul of this woman in her hands. There was trust; this was the celebration of trust.

They kept up their dance of shared warmth, of caresses, touches, moans and whispers, of intimacy and love, until Xena's eyes grew wide, and her bucking against Gabrielle's hand became more urgent. She bit her lip, and when she felt Gabrielle caress her cheek, she met her eyes. Ocean blue and meadow green met, in love, with a smile, and an understanding. Xena's heart swelled with emotion and in her thoughts, she felt Gabrielle's You're safe with me.

"Yes.” Xena acknowledged, reaching for that last caress that would carry her over the edge. Yes, there it was, building around Gabrielle's fingers, wrapping them both up and making every place where they touched tingle with sensations. The dark woman gave into them, letting them carry her away, riding the sensations, and at the same time being more in the here and now than ever before. She gasped with surprise at the intensity of the emotion, as she arched her back and closed her eyes for just one moment.

Gabrielle's hand in her hair made her open them again, sharing this moment that made her fragile and strong at the same time.

Xena's trust settled on Gabrielle's soul like a blanket and she released what she had not known she held.

Together, they cried out, their bodies and souls entwined.

Chapter XIII

Gabrielle woke up with the first glimmer of dawn. Their large bed held them both like a protective nest, and the young woman stretched, careful not to wake her companion, then snuggled back into the welcoming warmth.

Her eyes were glued to the face of her warrior as the room grew brighter and the first birds tentatively started their song.

Xena was lying on her side, curled up in the fetal position. One of her arms was hooked around the pillow under her head, with her dark hair draped around it. Her expression was one of peace and contentment. Gabrielle's eyes feasted on her naked form, swaddled in the light sheets up to her hips.

When Gabrielle moved, Xena was not pleased. She muttered in protest, reaching out for rounded, naked bard hip. Her hand came to rest there and a sound of contentment followed, all of that happening without Xena waking up.

Gabrielle smiled and covered that hand with her own. Her eyes were still riveted on the face of the woman she loved so much, it made her heart clench just thinking about her.

She relished the quiet dawn that allowed her to revisit last night's events. A dreamy smile etched its way on the young woman's face as she remembered some especially pleasant details, and she felt herself getting aroused all over again at the thoughts and the sight of this delicious warrior's body before her.

Any thoughts of not wanting to disturb the warrior's peaceful sleep were pushed aside by the intense need to touch her, to find out if what she remembered wasn't just a dream. Gabrielle reached out for Xena's face, touching and caressing, remembering and etching in the feel and sight so she would never forget. Gabrielle was sure that Xena was awake by now, but the dark-haired woman didn't open her eyes when she turned languidly onto her back, spreading her arms over the pillows and sensuously raising her back off the bed just enough to make her breasts stand out, then sinking back into the softness of the mattress.

Gabrielle's body knew an invitation when it saw one. Her heart beating loudly at the delicious sight before her, she decided on a slow exploration. It began with Xena's left hand. Strong. She loved its feel, and kissed each callus on the inside before turning it around and exploring each finger with her mouth. There was so much to explore, each crease, nick and scar, contrasted by the silken softness inside Xena's wrist, repeated in the skin on the inside of her lower and upper arm.

Xena betrayed her wakeful state by chuckling when Gabrielle's tongue hit a particularly ticklish spot. Gabrielle left the spot and sat on her heels, her gaze caressing Xena's naked form, then letting her hands follow as they touched just the inside of Xena's hipbones. The warrior's hips jerked, but she didn't open her eyes.

The young bard reflected on that for a moment. The closed eyes made her adventurous, and she wondered how Xena would react if she...

Her newly awakened sexuality drove her when she crept close to the warrior's head and whispered. "Don't open your eyes until I tell you, Xena, ok?”

A moment's hesitation, then Xena's eyes opened for the first time this morning to drink in her lover's intense gaze. The question What do you want to do? lay at the tip of her tongue, but she didn't utter it. Her eyes narrowed as she made her decision and cut the safety net. "Ok.” And she closed her eyes, as her lover had bade her.

"Thank you.” Gabrielle whispered, touched deeply by this silent proof of trust. She inhaled, wavering for a moment in her conviction, then threw the doubts overboard and made her way down, trailing her hair along the warrior's body. The older woman's legs spread compliantly at Gabrielle's nudging.

Gods, what is it with me? she thought at the delicious sight of the warrior's womanhood. I could just dive into her and never surface again. Where's the romance, the foreplay, the... She whimpered when she carefully spread her friend and noticed that she was wet already. Oh gods, you are so corrupting me, so... She realized she moaned when the sound was echoed by the woman sprawled under her. I need you so much... Gabrielle let her hands slide under the warrior's kneepits and raised her legs. Hard and fast, Xena...

"I love you so much my heart bursts," she whispered, feeling her lover's long legs fold compliantly over her shoulders and back. She noticed the tears on her face only when Xena's long arms reached out for her, and a hand touched her face to catch them. A shudder went through Xena at the contact.

She raised her hips in invitation. "Gabrielle?" She longed to see her lover's face, but her promise bound her to keep her eyes closed. "Come?"

Their fingers entwined beside Xena's hips when Gabrielle lowered her mouth to the treasure before her. She made her acquaintance with the warrior's sex all over again, caressing every silken fold with her tongue and lips before she concentrated on the most sensitive spot, sucking and playing her tongue against it until she felt the warrior's hips rocking against her face, and soft whimpers drifting down to her ears.

She stopped for just one moment to look up and drink in the sight of Xena's enraptured face. Her body longed to be rubbed against Xena's, but she forbade herself the pleasure, and Xena as well, to be able to finish what she had started. "You give me so much..." she whispered. "Thank you..."

Xena threw her head back in answer, and her fingers clenched around Gabrielle's in response. "More..." she moaned, and Gabrielle dove in again. Come for me, Xena... she thought... Give me that. Her lover's hips started a frantic bucking that told Gabrielle that she was doing good, and her hands started to hurt in Xena's firm grip. She disentangled one and slowly slid two finger tips into her, holding them very still. Xena's head started to thrash from one side to the other, and Gabrielle let go with her mouth. "Xena..."


Gabrielle smiled, pleased. "Will you come for me, Xena?"

"Deeper, Gabrielle..."

"Will you come for me?"


"Come..." The bard pushed the fingers in deep. "Come..." Her lips closed around the warrior's most sensitive spot and sucked firmly. "Come..."

And Xena came, in violent shocks, around Gabrielle's fingers, and under her lips, her body tensing up in an arc, her hands clenching into the sheets. "Oh, gods, Gabrie... elle...!" she cried out as violent ripples went through her body, and pulsated around the bard's fingers.

Gabrielle rode it out with Xena, drawing out every delicious aftershock with her soft tongue, until Xena beckoned her to stop. She drew herself up to lie against her love, relishing her sweat-soaked bangs and her utterly spent expression and limp body, before she whispered. "Open your eyes, Xena."

So the warrior did, and a smile edged across her features to be echoed in those blue orbs. "Good morning to you too, Gabrielle." She raised a hand to caress the bard's soft cheek. "I didn't know you were such a wench, my bard," she said, smiling, and raising an eyebrow.

Unexpectantly, Gabrielle grew shy under that gaze. "Well, I..."

"I love you, Gabrielle," Xena said with conviction, kissing her bard's knuckles. "And I love it."

"Oh, I'm... Gods!" All initial boldness left the bard when she buried her face at her lover's shoulder, her thoughts racing as to what she had done.

Xena's body trembled with chuckles while she held Gabrielle close. She had consciously given herself into the bard's hands, because she wanted to. She was still afraid of being touched too deeply, of awakening something that had been held under a closed lid for the longest time. Yet being in Gabrielle's hands always meant to be at the receiving end of her love, a love that Xena craved, and craved even more since she had been cut off from it so recently. "I love you," she murmured again.

"Love you too," Gabrielle mumbled into Xena's flesh, then dared looking up again with a doubtful look. "Are we ok?"

"I'm very, very much ok." Xena placed a kiss on the bard's forehead. "Thanks to you."

She kissed Gabrielle on the mouth, with her lips closed, and when Gabrielle frowned at that, she explained. "Morning mouth," and grimaced.

A smile went across Gabrielle's features. "I", she pronounced, "just ate." Both eyebrows raised.

She got a rakish smile back. "Yes you did, didn't you." Then Xena's voice dropped an octave. "But I am still hungry..."

Gabrielle's eyes grew round. "You... oh, um..."

Xena let out a delighted laughter that chimed pleasantly in Gabrielle's ears. She snuggled closer, hugging Xena's body to hers. "You make me happy," she said, and noticed Xena's indrawn breath. "Even though you make me feel embarrassed, too." She scowled.

Xena let all worries of morning mouth go and kissed Gabrielle deeply, tasting herself on her lips. "Mmm... you taste good."

Gabrielle beamed. "I think so, too." Her nervousness faded with Xena's easy manner. "And you feel so good..." she sighed, letting her hand travel across Xena's stomach and, with a look into the warrior's reassuring eyes, cupped one delicious breast.

"I believe it was my turn, Gabrielle..." the warrior husked.

"Yes..." Gabrielle was ready to melt at that voice.

"How would you like me to take you?" Xena asked, grinning suggestively again. "You want to be under or on top? Or anywhere else...?" She watched Gabrielle squirm at her questions. "Didn't you say you didn't want me to hold back...?"

A small hand against her mouth stopped her. Serious green eyes regarded her. "I am sorry I pressured you last night, Xena." She swallowed, all playfulness suddenly gone. "That was stupid of me."

Silence was between them for a moment, before Xena drew a deep breath to answer. "But what you requested was valid, Gabrielle. Even if I can't give to you what you want right away. Give me some time. I don't want to lose this again."

"Neither do I." The bard added quietly, then looked up into the serious eyes that regarded her. "Do you think we can find out together?"

A smile told her that she had said the right thing. "Yes. I am sure we can."

Gabrielle held those eyes while she warred with conflicting emotions. This Xena wasn't the one she once said she wanted to follow. This Xena made mistakes, and some of them hurt her. Their relationship wasn't as simple anymore, and that made her uneasy. At the same time, she felt that she had grown. So Xena had come off her pedestal in the process. But only now were they here, in each other's arms. The adoring look in Xena's eyes, her total dedication to the bard, was clear to see. It was a plunge, but she wanted to get to know Xena better beyond being her hero.

"Love me..." she said, "anyway you want. Just love me."

"I promise."

And they got lost in the sweetness of each other's bodies again.

* * *

"But I insist!"

"Xena?" Gabrielle looked at her partner pleadingly. "What do you think?"

The warrior uncrossed one arm to rub her chin. "I'd say that if it pleases you so much, we will take the garments with us," she admitted.

Donata displayed a triumphant smile. "Oh, how wonderful! I'm so glad! I won't find anyone whom those clothes will fit more perfectly than you two! And to think you will wear them again fills my heart with joy," she said sincerely. "Thank you for accepting my gift."

"Well, along with that wonderful celebration, with putting us up for the night and feeding us, and then giving us provisions that will last us days, I don't know how to repay you," Gabrielle said, smiling at their enthusiastic hostess.

"You repay me with the pleasure of knowing that you enjoyed your stay. I will have the pleasure to tell my children and grandchildren that Xena, Warrior Princess and the bard Gabrielle enjoyed our hospitality. Come by again when you're in Thessaly, will you?"

Gabrielle exchanged a glance with her tall partner. "I think that can be arranged. Thank you."

"So, where are you headed next?" Donata asked, as they made their way out of the room that Gabrielle spared a last fond look.

"Visiting some friends," the bard explained. "Take it easy for a few days."

"Well, you earned it," the large woman emphasized.

They stepped outside into the sun. The two women had taken their time before they asked for breakfast, and Donata and Talaris had respected their privacy and had not disturbed them. Neither had Palaemon or Liandra, which amazed Xena to no end. Her chakram always beside the bed, she had been ready for intrusions.

Argo was already waiting for them, polished to a shine, and so was their gear. Xena raised both brows and moved closer to check the tack. She noticed that one of their threadbare saddlebags had been replaced.

"I had her shod yesterday. I hope it was done to your satisfaction," a male voice behind the warrior said, and Xena turned her head to see Talaris. She proceeded to lift Argo's front hoof and checked the new shoe. "Down," she commanded before she let go of the leg, then straightened and turned to the judge. "Nice work," she said.

Talaris inclined his head.

There was a commotion behind them as Liandra as well as Palaemon and Vidalis stepped out of the house.

"Look at that, you're still alive!" Liandra commented with a broad grin. "I thought you'd never come out of that room! What was so interesting in there?" She winked at Gabrielle, who blushed.

Xena shot her an amused look. "Where's my leathers, Liandra?" she rumbled. "You didn't think I'd forget them, did you?"

Liandra mock pouted. "I could hope, couldn't I?" She took a canvas bag off her shoulder and handed it to the warrior. "It's been cleaned and oiled. Good as new."

"Looks as though you really liked them," Gabrielle commented. The young woman was wearing a light brown outfit that reminded her of the warrior's leathers. "What is this made of?" She stepped closer to touch the soft leather.

"Deer skin. Donata gave it to me," Liandra said proudly. "I think I will need a more practical dress during our journey, so this came just as needed."

"Your journey?"

"We will leave for Nacchos in a few days," Palaemon explained. "We have word that Liandra's mother-in-law wants to see her."

"And on the way there, I may even be able to teach her some courtly manners," Vidalis chimed in. "Though she has more natural grace than you," he addressed Gabrielle.

The bard made a face. "I'm just glad I never have to live at court. I'd rather roam the countryside with Xena." She gave the warrior a brilliant smile and got a little nudge in return.

"So, where are you heading now?" Palaemon asked.

"We're on our way to visit King Gregor and his family. Just the opposite direction." Gabrielle explained.

"That means goodbye, doesn't it?" Liandra said, sadly. She turned to Gabrielle and drew her into her arms. The bard returned the hug enthusiastically.

"I'll miss you and Xena," Liandra admitted.

"We'll cross paths again, I'm sure." Gabrielle smiled.

"I'm looking forward to that." The two women hugged again, knowing they wouldn't see each other for some time.

"Time to go, Gabrielle..." Xena's low voice sounded from behind the bard.

"I'm coming, I'm coming..." Gabrielle disentangled from Liandra's embrace, smiling at her. "I hope you'll find what you're looking for."

"The same to you, Gabrielle, the same to you."

Goodbyes were said all around and then it was time to go for warrior and bard. Without a look back, they walked out of the courtyard side by side, with Argo trailing behind them. The onlookers waited until they disappeared onto the streets before turning back to the house.

* * *

"Xena, really, let me walk for a while longer. My ankle feels fine."

A grunt answered her.

"I need the exercise."

Low chuckling was to be heard.

"Oh, you..." Gabrielle turned halfway and playfully backhanded the warrior into her leather-clad stomach. Twinkling green met laughing blue. "Let me guess - I gave you a whole entire new set of stuff to tease me with, right?"

The warrior's smile grew broader, if that was possible.

The bard covered her eyes. "If only I had known..." she mock groaned. "I would have stayed a virtuous, innocent maiden... Argh! Xena!"

The warrior had just wrapped one ice cold hand around the bard's midsection, pulling her close to her own body. Gabrielle felt the cold, hard bronze armor press into her back and a pleasant chill ran up and down her spine. The cold was soon counterpointed by one positively hot warrior's mouth descending onto a bard's bare neck.

"Ungh... Xena..." Gabrielle wanted to melt into a puddle right there and then. "I take it all back... this is much better than staying a... oh..." Coherent speech left her for a moment as a hot tongue captured a tasty ear lobe.

"Still sure you wanna walk?" a pleasant, low voice rumbled into the caressed ear.

"Ungh..." Gabrielle wanted to laugh and get angry at the same time. It had been hard before to hold her ground against Xena's convictions of what was best for her, but with this new set of tools to enforce her wishes, Gabrielle was sure Xena would be extremely convincing. "Not fair..." she mumbled, while her body betrayed her and arched into her lover's caress.

"Yet so satisfying..." Xena all but purred.

For the next few moments, both of them forgot their little "argument”, as Gabrielle turned in the warrior's grip and they sunk into a deep kiss. Gabrielle felt the armor pressing against her, relishing its hardness in contrast to the silky feel of Xena's lips and tongue.

When they parted, both panting and eyes shiny, Gabrielle had a neat set of marks on her skin just over her halter top, nicely mirroring the warrior's breastplate swirls. Xena's eyes grew round. "I'm so sorry..." She touched the marks as if she wanted to wipe them away. "Did I hurt you?"

Gabrielle hadn't even noticed, and now looked down, a grin spreading on her face. "Looks like you marked me as your own, Warrior Princess..." she drawled. "What's not to like?" But when she looked up, her friend's expression was still haunted. Gabrielle wanted to reach out to her, easing her worries, when it hit her. This happened all the time, right? They became passionate with each other, and when Gabrielle started to enjoy Xena's attentions, even the rougher ones, Xena pulled back, constantly worried that she hurt her friend. "Xena?"

The blue eyes that met hers were still full of pain.

"Xena, I'm fine. Don't you see? I'm alive and kicking. I like your armor. If it gets too much, I'll let you know." When her friend's expression didn't change, Gabrielle grew worried. "Xena! Talk to me!"

"Just like back then," the warrior murmured, her hand reaching up to caress the bard's face where the drag marks had been. "Just like back then."

"No, Xena, that can't be it!" Unexpectedly, Gabrielle grew angry. "Snap out of it!" she demanded. When she had Xena's attention, she continued. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself! You're not that monster anymore! You had a reason to lash out. But stop it, for my sake!" Xena's expression almost broke Gabrielle's heart. "Don't you understand..." she said, stepping closer and entwining one hand with Xena's. "I love you as you are. I enjoy our time together. I love your tenderness, but I wouldn't be in love with you if you weren't who you are. Strong. Intimidating. Fascinating. I want all of that." She touched Xena's armor. "This is part of you. So I love it. Not because I can't have you without it. I want you because it's part of you."

Xena's thoughts reeled. What was Gabrielle saying? That she was fascinated by her dark side? "But I..." she said, intensely, "I dragged you behind a horse. I wanted to hurt you, Gabrielle. You never intended to do me harm."

Xena's word's echoed in Gabrielle's mind and she somehow knew that Xena was wrong, but couldn't put her finger on the why. "I could have hidden, Xena." Her voice broke on the words, as she closed her eyes for a moment. "I could have run away. I stayed where I knew you'd find me. I was ready to be punished for what I did to you. I knew I didn't want to live on if you wouldn't speak to me." The pain in her chest almost forced her to her knees as she spoke what she realized to be the truth. Her truth. It left them both speechless for a moment, and Xena broke their contact as she turned away.

Her eyes swept across the river they were traveling beside for about a candlemark now. They had left Thessaly behind them, relishing their time together, bantering and acquainting themselves with traveling together as lovers, not just companions and friends. Somehow, that meant that issues would come up again due to the intimate nature of their relationship. Making love to Gabrielle meant to be touched, and being touched evoked memories, emotions and free-floating thoughts. Gabrielle wanted me to punish her? Dear gods. We said it takes two... Two are playing this game. The warrior wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

"Xena? Say something...?"

Xena's voice was hoarse. "What about Britannia, Gabrielle? I didn't look out for you..."

There was a pause. "It was my choice to go with Khrafstar, Xena. I need to make my own choices. I realize they can be wrong. I don't want them to hurt you. I'm still very much my own person." She drew a shaky breath. "I can say stop when you're coming on too strong."

Xena turned to look at her friend. "Do you really think that's enough to hold me back?"


The warrior shook her head with a self-deprecating laugh, turning around again to watch the river.

The silence between them was painful, with things said on Gabrielle's part that shattered many of Xena's long-grown convictions. It had always been her fault, had it not? Tears welled in her eyes as she lifted her head. She was the cruel one, the one with the dark past, was she not? Gabrielle was the innocent she had to protect, she... Oh Gods, was she? Images of Gabrielle, lying in Ming T'ien's bed flashed up. Of the bard, talking to Khrafstar on the ship. Of Gabrielle, yelling at her and hitting her to make her promise she would not try to kill Ming T'ien. The pain. The humiliation. And after all that, the intense love she felt for her.

"Let's get on our way again, Gabrielle." She turned around to the bard, her face still full of pain.

"Xena..." The bard held out a hand, but Xena brushed by her. "Please..."

"Just give me some room to think?" The warrior looked at her, asking for silence.

Gabrielle folded. "Yes. Of course." And then, as an afterthought: "Can I ride?"


With practiced moves, Xena helped her onto the horse, securing her staff to its place on the saddle. Her steps were shaky when she first took Argo's reins and started to walk, but soon regained their confidence. She needed to think.

* * *

They arrived on a plateau by mid-afternoon, giving them a beautiful view over the surrounding landscape with its gently rolling hills. There was a small, very cold lake that was obviously fed by an underground spring.

"We'll stay here for the night," Xena informed her companion. "Let's get you settled, I'll be off hunting for dinner." They prepared camp in silence, with Xena collecting some firewood. After that, she left Gabrielle with a crackling fire and instructions to put her feet into the water to foster her ankle's nicely progressing healing process.

The walk through the forest and the hunt helped Xena to breathe, and focus. She caught a rabbit, and collected some fresh herbs to spice their meal. When she came back to camp, Gabrielle had laid out their bedrolls side by side and two mugs of tea were already steaming beside the fire. Xena gave her friend the skinned rabbit to prepare, along with some of the spices. She laid out the others to dry on a rock.

She settled close to the fire and took out her sword, ready to sharpen it. But her intention was left unfulfilled as she watched her partner prepare the rabbit. Gabrielle washed it, then rubbed the spices into it, filling it with some bread and turnips before she spit it and hung it over the fire to roast. Her movements were calm and assured, she knew what she was doing.

The bard had grown up into a beautiful young woman, ready to crack the protective shell Xena had built around her to protect her. Had she not taken it off already, ready to make her own steps into the world?

Xena's eyes were suddenly met by Gabrielle's. They searched each other intently, finding nothing but friendship and devotion. Gabrielle took the mugs with tea and joined Xena on her rock, handing her one. They sat there in friendly silence for a while, enjoying each other's company, before Xena took a breath to speak.

"So you wanted me to punish you?" She said in a casual tone. "Are you crazy?" Xena eyed Gabrielle over the rim of her mug.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and leaned forward, elbows on her knees, staring at the steaming liquid in her own cup. "To know that I inflicted pain on you..." Her breath caught, and she didn't continue.

Xena exhaled. "Yeah..." Her brow furrowed. Garielle's words described her own feelings towards the bard. The warrior felt very strongly that it was time to stop comparing who hurt whom most. That was new. "I'm just glad you're here now," she finally said, after a long pause.

Gabrielle's head turned, and she smiled at her friend. "Me, too."

Xena's hand reach out to caress her friend's face. "Promise me something."

The bard placed a kiss on a convenient wrist. "What is it?"

"Promise me to never agree to what I want if you don't want it."

"You want me to say stop?"

"Whenever you feel like it."

"I promise." Gabrielle proceeded to kiss her way up one very willing warrior's arm until she sat on her lap.

"Do you really like my armor?" Xena mumbled between two kisses, pulling Gabrielle closer.

Gabrielle chuckled, but it took her a moment to disengage her mouth from Xena's to reply. She ran her hands appreciatively along the bronze protections covering Xena's chest. "You look taller with your armor on. More... intimidating," she admitted, with an embarrassed chuckle. "It's just such a part of you." Her nimble fingers unhooked the clasps at the shoulder straps, then slid under one armpit to loosen the last clasp, and push the armor off. One moment, Xena felt cold air enter the uncovered area, then her head started spinning when it was replaced with very soft and warm bard body. She moaned in reflex. "Sometimes..." Gabrielle drawled, sliding upwards, "it's just simply in the way."

Gods. I just don't have a chance against her. Xena growled, her body on fire.

"Put your hands on me, Xena..." an urgent voice whispered into her ear. And one liberated warrior woman proceeded to do just that.


"It's a pig."

"It's not. It's a horse. Look at the long tail." Xena's arm tried to indicate the star constellation in question, while Gabrielle looked along it.

The bard chuckled. "No, that's part of another picture. That's a fork."


Night had finally settled on their camp. Satiated with a good meal and other needs of their bodies, they had finally settled down on their bedrolls... just to proceed enjoying their newfound intimacy. They were too excited to sleep, and just laid there, relishing the rare occasion of just spending time together, with no demands on their time or resources. They both knew that could change any moment.

Gabrielle snuggled closer to Xena's naked body. It was a sensation she relished, the soft skin, the smell... She inhaled happily while Xena played with her hair. "I could get used to this..." she sighed.


The bard felt that she got sleepy after all. She didn't want to be, but the day's travel and... well, other activities, took their toll. "Xena?"

"Hm?" The warrior's voice sounded content.

"That song you sung for me a few nights ago..."

"What about it?"

"Would you sing it for me again?"

A long-fingered hand tilted the bard's face upwards. Xena's loving smile enveloped Gabrielle's heart. "I love you."

"Love you, too."

"Close your eyes."

"Will you sing, then?"

Gabrielle felt Xena's body vibrating with a chuckle. "Yes, I will sing for you."

She was silent for a moment, and they listened to the night sounds around them that were so familiar, feeling very close under the vast night sky. Then Xena's alto voice rose, filling the night with music.

Any way the four winds that blow they're gonna send me sailing home to you
or I'll fly with the force of a rainbow - the dream of gold will be waiting in your eyes
You know I'd do most anything you want - I try to give you everything you need
I don't believe in many things but in you I do

And as the last tones hung in the air, Gabrielle mumbled, "...and I in you."

Together, they would face a new day.


© jtd - April 26, 2000

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