Part 4

When she didn't respond after a few minutes, Xena realized that the slender woman slumped in her arms was unconscious. Having accomplished her task, Gabrielle's will had evaporated and her body gave in to an overwhelming fatigue. The realization sent Xena's mind reeling. Wandering spirits didn't usually pass out from hunger and fatigue, did they? Could it be?

It was a few moments before Xena remembered that a fainting person should not be kept upright. Stupid! She cursed herself as she laid Gabrielle down flat in the grass. Xena sat beside her and lifted the blond head into her lap, telling herself it was to keep the coarse grass from the bard's face.

There were no visible signs of injury, but the woman was pale and wasted. Touching her lips, Xena could see that her mouth was completely dry. That probably accounted for a good deal of her drawn appearance. Xena looked around for her water skin and it was behind her and almost within her reach. She flopped back and flailed her arms a bit frantically, trying to reach it without disturbing Gabrielle.

This undignified wiggling brought Gabrielle around, and she smiled warmly to recognize her warrior's tanned thighs under her cheek. She had no idea how awful she looked, and she found Xena's agitation a little silly.

"Hi Xena," Gabrielle grinned thinly, careful of her dry lips.

Hearing her bard say something so normal brought back weeks of missing this gentle, teasing presence. She started crying again, but this time she was smiling. Her eyebrows conveyed her disbelief. "Are you all right?" she asked, spilling tears on Gabrielle's face. "Are you injured?"

"Nothing new," came the answer. "Just weak." A hand stroked her hair. Their eyes met and for a good minute neither woman said anything. Gabrielle broke the silence. "It's been a rough few weeks."

Xena covered her face, muffling a slightly hysterical giggle, which dissolved into a snuffle of tears. "I love you, Gabrielle." After a pause her face softened sadly and she asked, pleading, "What happened?" It was a simple question. The answer would probably take hours to relate, but what she really wanted to know was "Why did you leave me?" Xena had been burning to understand for weeks.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, thinking. She knew what Xena meant, and she was pretty sure she wasn't up to this. She took several deep breaths, wondering how to start, until Xena's finger on her lips interrupted. "Shh. Don't tell it now. We have time, don't we?" She looked at Gabrielle for confirmation.

"I won't leave you again, Xena."

"Good. Then you should save your strength."

She brought the water bottle to Gabrielle's parched lips but pulled back when she drank too eagerly. "Slowly, my bard." Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but agreed to spend a luxurious candlemark in Xena's lap, accepting sips of water and a sensuous, loving attention that she had never known.

After most of the water, Gabrielle pulled her shoulders away from Xena's kneading hands, and, supporting herself on one elbow, announced, "I think I can walk."

Xena snorted. "I'm sure you can, but you're not going to." She stood and attached the water bottle to her waist clip. Crossing the small clearing, she retrieved her weapons and kneeled next to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle sat up to meet her. "I'm a big girl, Xena." She smiled openly, fully intending to capitulate, but enjoying the familiar argument.

Xena, who had been living at the edge of her emotional reserves, couldn't see the humor. She could only remember a distance that she had grown to regret. "Please?" She talked to the ground. "You look like you haven't eaten in a week, andÖ"

A hand on her chin stopped her. Gabrielle tipped the warrior's face up from its chagrin. "Hey, I was joking. I'd love a ride."

Xena stood. The tall woman crossed her arms and scuffed the dirt with the toe of her boot in an oddly adolescent gesture. She remembered the game, and with some embarrassment over her earlier anxiety, she played her part, pretending a surly attitude. "Come 'ere," she said in a growly voice, tossing her head to reinforce the command. Gabrielle stood next to her. "Put your arm around me." Her snarl cracked into warm tones and her scowl broke into a grin as she spoke the words. Oh, she was glad to be with her bard.

Gabrielle put her arm around the warrior's broad shoulders and soon they were on their way. In the tall sunshine of the warrior's arms, Gabrielle reflected that it hadn't quite been the passionate reunion she had been hoping for. She'd expected to return in health. On the other hand, this wasn't so bad. Xena's strong arms cradled her in the rolling motion of her walk. When she laid her head against Xena's chest and closed her eyes, she felt a vibration beginning in Xena's throat as the warrior began to hum. Her rich warm voice wound its way into Gabrielle's soul. She was finally home.

The wet whispers of an unexpected rain drowned out the usual noises that Xena knew from her childhood in this room. Xena sat in a rocking chair in shrouded silence. The room was generously lit with candles and she stared at the nearest one, losing herself in its flickering and in the falling water's dirge.

Solon's cold body was gathering stiffness on a table in the center of the room. Cyrene had helped to lay him out in the best clothes they could find. The ceremony of the vigil and the fine clothes seemed a little silly to Xena, but Cyrene had insisted that, as a child, he needed evidence of other's love to recommend him to the gods.

Gabrielle slept soundly in the bed in the corner. With infinite patience, Cyrene had accepted Xena's improbable explanation. Xena was almost too stunned to act, and had simply watched as her practical mother helped the bard into a clean shift. When Cyrene brought a gentle meal of bread and broth, Xena moved to the edge of the bed to remind the starving woman to eat more slowly. Mostly Xena exchanged shy smiles with this old friend whose presence in her life felt so new. She had said very little, having been chastised by her mother with a warning not to press Gabrielle for information until she was rested.

Xena marveled at her mother's forbearance. For now she accepted the weird fluctuations of her daughter's life, only asking how she could help. Xena could hardly bear to wait, so she hovered, watching, and imagined what the bard would tell her.

Xena had positioned herself so that she could see both of them. She tried to lead her thoughts down a deliberate path of speculation, but her imagination was unruly. It had been so many years since she sat in this room, thinking. She mostly remembered the rainy days spent here, playing with Lyceus, when they were both too young for school. The rocking chair that now seemed small for her was the same one that Cyrene had sat in to do her mending. Now, as then, the creak of its motion kept time with the drip from the eaves.

Lyceus' goofy, happy toddler face came back to her clearly. She remembered the little boy that he had been better than the teenage soldier he became, and she could easily imagine the two of them playing here, plotting to slay the Cyclops or join Jason's quest. Her mother would watch, intervening now and then. "Let Lyceus have a turn, dear." Xena chuckled at the memory then sobered, realizing that no matter how she abused her younger brother, he would follow her everywhere and do anything she asked.

Xena let a huge sigh puff out her cheeks. Solon and Gabrielle would have done the same thing. They had. They had each willingly followed her to their own destruction. Well, almost. Gabrielle was with her now, and she definitely had a mind of her own. This thought brought back a smirk, as she looked fondly at her sleeping friend. Xena found the bard watching her out of the darkness of her corner bed. Smiling to meet the living face of her soulmate, Xena rose and walked over to the bed.

Gabrielle stretched with a kittenish squeak. "Hi." She rolled over and propped her head on her bent arm to meet Xena more equally. "I heard you sigh. Are you alright?"

Xena shook her head slowly. She couldn't believe how normal Gabrielle seemed. "Am I alright? You're the one who's half starved and healing." She brushed back Gabrielle's hair, and swallowed when she saw the scar at her temple. "Do you need anything? Are you alright?"

Gabrielle smiled indulgently. "No, Xena, I'm fine." She paused. "I just wanted your company."

"And what do you mean you heard me sigh? That's my line." Her voice was softly teasing. Xena put her cool hand under the blond bangs, pretending to look for fever. "You must not be sleeping well."

"I feel like I have been sleeping for hours, but my sense of time is all messed up. It's been weeks since I've known night or day." She furrowed her brow, concentrating. "It may have been weeks since I've slept, I'm not sure. It all kind of runs together now."

Finally, Xena thought, Gabrielle had brought up the untold story between them. Maybe now was the time. Xena knew she was rationalizing. Although she had endured weeks of not knowing, suddenly it seemed as though her head would explode if she didn't find out. She let out the breath that she hadn't known she was holding and asked.

"Gabrielle, what happened? What happened on the day before you left me, at the centaur village?"

Gabrielle had already decided to answer as simply as she could. She chewed her lip, wishing for the first time that she could convey the story without the trouble of telling. "Hope killed Solon." Her eyes filled with tears before she went on. "Then I poisoned Hope, in the woods outside the village. You and I lit the funeral fires, and then I left."

So they had shared that day! She should have offered condolence, but to the warrior those words at this moment seemed as foolish as pleasantries. Xena pressed to the point. "Why did you leave?"

"I felt like maybe we needed some time apart," Gabrielle paused, dreading the argument they were about to have. "And I made a deal with Ares."

At the mention of his name, Xena's brow lowered, narrowing her eyes to suspicious shards. She waited for Gabrielle to elaborate, but she didn't. "What kind of deal?"

"I traded my life for Solon's."

"You what?" Xena almost shouted. She stood up and started to pace away. She dug her nails into rough palms and looked at the shutters, trying to concentrate on the sound of the rain outside. How could she not have guessed? Only Gabrielle would do something like that.

Then she turned around, hiding her clenched hands beneath folded arms. Her pleading voice tempered the anguish that always showed as anger on her face. "How could you do that?" She paused and continued in a softer tone. "Gabrielle, I never would have wanted that from you."

"Xena, look at me." Gabrielle's eyes were the color of an angry ocean as she pointed to her own chest. "I had taken away the one bright spot from your past. The thought of his future was one of your best comforts, and I took that away. I did this to you! You, who have saved my life more times than I can keep track of. If I had an opportunity to bring him back, what was my life worth next to that?"

Xena would later admit to herself that her own honor would have demanded of herself no less, but at the moment she felt like she had to argue. "There had to be another way. They abused you soÖ"

"How dare you tell me what I should have done!" Gabrielle interrupted her. "Look at me, warrior, " she said again. This time she held her arms up, demanding Xena's scrutiny. "I'm not a fighter. I can't intimidate the gods into favoring me. All I have to offer is my wits and my life." Neither one of them could have guessed how much that was worth.

Xena came back to the bed and sat down. Gabrielle poked Xena's chest with a strong finger to punctuate her words. "Xena, I made my own decision. It wasn't the one you would have made for me. It might even have been wrong. But I don't regret trying. At least you got to know Solon, a little." Gabrielle continued to herself. And I got to know you. She had learned a lot from Xena's thoughts, probably more than the warrior ever would have revealed without provocation. It had bolstered her courage, and she had made her plans. If getting to love Xena was the only result of her deal with Ares, Gabrielle considered it pain well spent.

"Gods," Xena whispered, her voice was consumed with regret. "If I had known the price you paid for every minute I spent with Solon, I would have paid more attention. I would have," she faltered, trying to think what she would have done differently.

"No, Xena. You can't think of it that way," Gabrielle expelled an audible breath of frustration. "I had to try. It didn't work, but I don't regret trying. It was the right thing for me to do." Gabrielle laid back and closed her eyes. "You can't always protect me Xena. If I make decisions, then I accept the consequences."

Xena grumbled wordlessly, hating to lose an argument and hating to admit to herself that in life Gabrielle would experience pain that she couldn't ease. It was supposed to be the warrior's own suicide mission to make amends. "But Gabrielle, you are a good person. You didn't need to prove yourself by sacrificing yourself to honor."

"Xena, I'm not proving myself, anymore than anyone else who does the right thing. I am just living my life. I only lived an epic because of extreme circumstances. It's just that the God's interference made integrity into something heroic."

Xena started to protest, but Gabrielle wasn't done. She had heard enough of the warrior's thoughts over the last few weeks to imagine what she was thinking. "Sacrifice myself to honor? Get off your high horse warrior. We're not so different, you know."

Gabrielle grabbed Xena's chin with a strength neither realized she was capable of and spoke with something like anger. "Your sacrifices can't repair the past. Nothing can. You are the most honorable person I have ever known, but it's not because you're the evil warlord turned good. You're just a woman living a good life."

Gabrielle relaxed back and assumed a jaded expression unfitting to her young face. She was so very tired of this issue. "Once upon a time you weren't a very nice person, and now you think that everything bad that happens is because of you. I've got news for you, warrior, the world doesn't revolve around you anymore. You're just like everybody else."

Gabrielle laid her head on the pillow, exhausted. She didn't expect a response but knew that her partner would need time to digest this outburst. Xena stayed where she was, sitting on the edge of the bed, and watched her friend's breathing deepen into sleep.

The little bard was always telling her that she was good inside, but Xena had always written it off as a part of the girl's optimism. She knew that Gabrielle believed it. Didn't she trust the bard's judgement? This Gabrielle, the one who had just spoken to her so forcefully, demanded Xena's faith. Just now she had spoken with a certainty that Xena herself had only pretended, never felt. In her heart she knew this was her own Gabrielle, but something had subtly changed.

Xena listened to the individual splashes of raindrops, letting them wash away her disturbing reflections. It was well passed midnight. In the bleak hours her mind merged them into a hypnotic heartbeat, and, fixing her eyes on the candle, she stood and paced to its time. The thrumming melted into the background as she focused on the rising moan of the wind. Crack! Her mind registered the sound of a breaking branch without concern, but a movement brought her attention to the bed.

There the bard sat bolt upright with the wild eyes of a nightmare. She met Xena's gaze without full comprehension. Words spilled out in a rush of high-pitched anxiety. "Xena, you have an enemy. I forgot to tell you. Her name is Alti. She is some sort of witch. She is more powerful than you think."

Gabrielle seemed only half-awake, and Xena was struck by her appearance of fear rather than by her words. She walked over to the bed to calm the blond woman.

"Shh, shh, little one. It's ok. We're safe here." Xena stroked the honey hair and cupped a soft cheek in her hand. Gabrielle's eyes were dilated in fear. "I know Alti. I met her years ago. You can tell me about it in the morning."

Xena gently pushed her friend back onto the mattress. She lifted and smoothed the covers, then let her hand remain on the small body. Gabrielle allowed her partner's touch to soothe her back into sleep, and as she rolled onto her side, tucking her hands underneath her chin, she mumbled the last word. "Don't call me little one." Xena smiled.

Xena looked at the two small bodies of the people whom she loved above all others. They were remarkably similar. Both were blond, one sandy, one golden, and they were almost the same size.

The idea of Gabrielle, a confident, self-assured woman, wearing her awkward, growing son's hand-me-downs brought a wistful smile. They would have enjoyed each other. When they first met Solon had been fooled by her appearance of youth and had treated the bard more like a peer. Gabrielle, of course, encouraged his familiarity and the two were well on their way to becoming friends in their own right when Solon's death started all this.

For some reason these two could not exist in her life simultaneously.

The hypnotic rumble of the raindrops was already lulling the warrior back into semi-consciousness when she felt a familiar tingle. Her posture changed, and suddenly she was all alertness. "Show yourself," she growled. She looked around the room for a few heartbeats before the God of the Dead hesitantly materialized. Xena didn't wait for him to speak. "I don't like to be watched."

Hades held up his hands defensively. "I didn't mean anything by it. I just wanted to talk to you." Hades eyebrows were raised, waiting for her approval.

Xena couldn't find the energy to out maneuver this god, so she spoke with all the bitterness that she felt. "What are you trying to do to me, Hades? Are you going to offer Solon's life for my own? Or would you rather I sacrificed my best friend, or maybe my mother? Whose turn is it to die?" Her voice dripped a limp sarcasm.

Hades was silent and endured her glare with a compassionate face. He let her calm herself before he spoke. "I am not responsible for their deaths, but I saw what happened. Gabrielle hasn't told you everything."

At the mention of her partner, Xena looked up from the flickering candle. Her wide eyes told Hades that he had her attention. "What happened?"

"Gabrielle didn't tell you what she suffered. You saw her mortal wounds. At Charon's dock, time stood still, and that pain never eased. By itself the place is a horror to mortal minds. It is a place calculated to push you on to the afterlife. She waited there for nearly a month. Gabrielle is one of a handful of mortals I've known to endure it and survive."

"Why did she stay there?"

"For a chance to return to you. She has an exceptionally strong will."

"I know," Xena replied, but she really didn't. She had always known Gabrielle to be stubborn but was only beginning to see that she had no idea what her friend was capable of. "What happened to her deal with Ares? How did she come back? And why did Solon die?"

Hades crossed his arms, unsure how to answer this. He paced slowly toward the shuttered window. His silence let the rain thread through.

"People are put on the earth for a reason, Xena. They live a mortal life in order to solve a problem or learn a lesson. If they do it within a lifetime, then they are judged and pass on. If they don't accomplish what they were set here to do, then they are returned to live another life." Hades turned around and read Xena's confusion. He could tell that his vague answer was only increasing her distrust. She wasn't going to accept this from an Olympian god.

"Gabrielle figured this out by herself. She understands that the meaning of her life and yours is yet to be fulfilled. That is part of why she got to come back." Xena heard his voice deepen. She could see his outline blur and shimmer.

"Listen to me, Xena. Your destiny is tied to Gabrielle's. Together, you will counteract an evil." As he spoke his appearance was changing. Xena couldn't put her finger on it. He had the handsome face she recognized as belonging to Hades, but his clothing looked softer and simpler than the aggressively regal costume of the Lord of the Dead. The man inside was somehow more than Hades had been, as if the bounds that had held him were broken and his own illumination shone through. His voice resonated quietly and commanded a trust that Xena never felt towards the Gods of Olympus.

The warrior shook her head to clear it. She wasn't usually so susceptible to this.

"You will encounter this evil again and again. Through many lifetimes, you will restore balance to the world. Each time it will cause you pain, but in each life, the universe will restore balance by giving you an extra measure of happiness and a love that Aphrodite would envy." The god smiled at the mention of the Greek's image of love manifest. He had to remind himself that the petty gods of Greece sometimes were a part of the immutable order.

"I'm here to stop an evil? After all I've done?" She shook her head with unhappy resolve. "I don't deserve that. I have caused people so much pain. So much darkness."

"There is no darkness, Xena! You were seduced by an evil, but the evil is not you. It is only your hands that you sold into sorrow. Can't you see the difference?" Her face was stubborn, and she settled her weight back in the chair behind folded arms.

"Mortal, don't be a fool and try to shrug off a gift that is yours. You can't fight this destiny. Can't you see where the balance lies? Just as you feel you have to make up for the pain that you caused others, the universe has to right the wrong of the pain that you bore. You childhood was taken. Ten years as a warlord almost destroyed your soul. But the universe will have balance, whether you think you deserve it or not." He reminded himself that this wasn't the time for Xena to learn the mysteries of existence. His mission was to give her hope. "You need to stop offering yourself as a sacrifice, and start living."

"You're not Hades, are you?"

His mouth quirked. Gabrielle was so much better at this. "I am Lord of the Dead to some, but others name me differently. The dead do return to me, as water to the sea, because all life springs forth from me."

Xena snorted. "You're a man."

The God managed a patient look. These Greeks could be so concrete. "I appear as you will accept me. Is this better?" The god chided himself for resorting to this display. It was definitely time for this conversation to end.

Now a simple, clean peasant woman stood before her radiating the same inner light and speaking with the same gentle clarity. Xena felt so very sleepy all of a sudden. The water dripping from the eaves sounded insistently in her ears. She fought the feeling.

"Why did Solon die?"

"SolonÖ" The goddess paused for a sigh. "The fates had planned a different life for him. Alti cursed him to be born to you as a warlord and to die before you could experience his love. Ares couldn't alter that. Solon still has a destiny that is intertwined with your life. His birth was a gift that you didn't yet deserve."

"What do you mean?" She mumbled, shaking her head in an attempt to keep her eyes open.

"When you earn that gift, it will be given again."

"What?" She scowled with annoyance at her inability to raise her eyelids. The words didn't make sense. The goddess was leaning over her shoulder, speaking very close to her ear, but the sound of her voice came from far away.

"In time, when you are ready, Gabrielle will find herself with child. That life will be Solon's soul returned to you."

She had just enough awareness to protest. All she could think was that Solon's return would mean Gabrielle's death. "NoÖ you can't take her away from me again," she said with the sleepy insistence of a toddler.

"Gabrielle will bear the child in health. Xena, this is a gift to you both."

"You can't use Gabrielle like that."

The motherly voice hardened. "No Xena, it's you who can't make this decision for her. Before she came back to this life, she understood Solon's destiny."

"What is his destiny?"

It was Gabrielle's sleepy voice that answered her. "To make you happy."

"What did you say?" She asked, feeling a little more awake. Her answer was a soft snore, muffled against the linen shift that covered Xena's shoulder. The warrior was tucked into the warm nest of her childhood bed as the rain pattered overhead. With heavy eyes she scanned the room for the god who had tricked her into this comfort but found nothing.

Xena woke to the sunlight creating a halo out of the fair hair spread across her shoulder. She didn't remember falling asleep, but here she was snuggled firmly against the warm body of her bard. She could feel Gabrielle's breath, even and deep, against her neck. Xena lay still, anxious to let Gabrielle sleep as long as she could, and thought about the day ahead.

Solon was dead. His shrouded form held her eyes. Following a habit that had served her well as a warlord, she forced herself to look, accepting the worst. He was really gone. He was one of the last living reminders of the days of her youthful power. She'd been so different. There was a time, she remembered, when the awful truth was out of her reach. Strange as it now seemed, she truly hadn't grasped that it was wrong to take what you could. The strength, skill and determination that evidenced the gods favor seemed to give her the right.

Until this month Solon had lived mostly in her mind. She had always connected the boy with his birth and the person she had been then. When she looked at him she had felt profoundly guilty, both for abandoning him and for the other wrongs she had done. At least she had gotten to know him. Now she remembered an intelligent, charming boy reading Gabrielle's scrolls aloud by firelight. She couldn't accept the bard's sacrifice, but she knew she'd be lying to herself if she didn't admit that she was grateful.

Today they would bring Solon to the family tomb. After that, Xena was anxious to leave Amphipolis. She needed the relative peace of the road to think through the events of the last few days, but she would have to wait. Before she could travel, Gabrielle had to have some time to recover in the safety of her mother's home. Xena reflected that Gabrielle seemed to be doing very well, considering.

Gabrielle didn't tell you what she suffered. Hades voice came back to her, and she unconsciously hugged the small body tighter. Something about holding this woman in sleep had always helped to untangle the bewildered nets of yesterday's thoughts, and now Xena tried to recall scenes from last night. She wanted to convert the disjointed dreaminess to something more concrete before the day fully began and wiped the slate clean. She remembered bits and pieces of what Hades had said. Was it really Hades? Xena remembered a woman's lips speaking very close to her ear. She was saying such incredible things! It must have been a dream.

Gabrielle thwarted her efforts, stirring in her arms with an adorable, sensual stretch. She opened her eyes with a contented look. Rolling over onto an elbow she met Xena's blue eyes and forced them to join her in a smile. "Good morning, Xena. You can't imagine how hungry I am."

In spite of Xena's grieving, the days they spent in Amphipolis were sweet. With her usual thoroughness, Xena was careful to spare her friend any effort. With each little kindness Gabrielle's look of honest gratitude trapped her in an exchange of affection. Xena had imagined that she allowed the intimacy out of consideration for Gabrielle, but after the second day she found that she couldn't stop the open smile that met Gabrielle's face every time she handed her bard a cup of tea.

Although it would still be weeks before Xena could stop pressing the bard to take seconds at mealtimes, Gabrielle recovered her strength quickly. Before long, Gabrielle was showing signs that she found the warrior's attentions a little annoying.

Now they were a day and a half out of Amphipolis, travelling towards Amazon country. Gabrielle had argued that they should first inform Ephiny of her return. Poteidaia was closer, but the bard reasoned that since they were unlikely to have received word of her death, reassurance was unnecessary. Xena didn't put up much of an argument. Gabrielle's hometown was the last place she wanted to be right now. The week and a half trip to the Amazon village would give her some time to sort things out.

Since they left Amphipolis, Xena had insisted on Gabrielle riding to save her strength. Xena was conscious of Gabrielle's warm weight slumped against her back, and had slowed Argo to her smoothest walk. She was aiming for a certain lovely glade, situated only a stone's throw from a clean creek and well hidden from the road. The pace she had settled on in deference to the sleeping bard brought them there later than Xena had planned. She helped Gabrielle down and pointed to a rock in the afternoon sun, indicating that the bard should sit while Xena made camp.

Gabrielle complied with a look that made Xena wonder how much longer she was going to tolerate this treatment. Still, she looked happy, stretched out against the early autumn leaves. Xena cleared a fire ring, all the time watching the blond woman out of the corner of her eye. Gabrielle was rubbing her face where the deep imprint of Xena's armor was still visible. She had pulled out her cooking knife and was studying her reflection in its surface.

Xena's pleasure in her partner's presence had quickly overcome her initial melancholy awkwardness. Still, they were gentler with each other than they used to be. Xena didn't like it. She wanted so much for them to get back to normal. A part of her was on edge and she didn't know why. The warrior was anxious to have all of her defensive barriers back firmly in place. As she watched Gabrielle's almost comic annoyance at the marks on her face, she tried to think of some gentle taunt.

Gabrielle beat her to it. "You know, Warrior Pillow, you know how concerned you are with being the best at everything? I mean, except cooking."

Xena grinned, knowing she didn't have to answer. She felt like she walked around with a big dumb smile on her face most of the time these days.

"Well, the best pillows don't wear armor."

"There I wouldn't be a very good warrior, now, would I? Besides, it builds character."

"Oh, right," Gabrielle stood up, catching Xena's eye with a twinkling gaze. "Like spending a day in the sun sleeping pressed against you is such a hardship."

Their eyes met for a long moment. The look they exchanged conveyed affection, loyalty and something more. Desire. A germinating kernel of truth. Xena looked away.

Gabrielle was disappointed at the warrior's retreat until she saw the grin that spread across Xena's face as she fixed her eyes on the ground, pretending to gather firewood. Gabrielle sighed. She supposed she could give the warrior a little more time. She'd already been about as patient as she could stand.

After dinner Gabrielle sat with the end of a quill in her mouth, regarding her silent partner from across the fire. She hadn't written anything in days. Xena's pensive posture made her restless. The dark woman sat on a log resting her temple on an arm supported by her raised knee. She was staring into the fire, poking ineffectually with a stick. The scene filled Gabrielle with a sudden determination. Gabrielle refused to let another night pass this way. She had hoped to wait for things to happen naturally, but damn it all, at this rate she'd be too old to enjoy it.

Xena didn't move a muscle as the blond woman stood, slowly rolling her unmarked scroll. As she tucked the parchment away in her bag, Gabrielle noticed her hands shaking. "Calm down," she whispered firmly to her body. She knew she wasn't going to get anywhere like this. "You can do this." Gabrielle took a few deep breaths, then pushed off her knees and walked around the fire to where Xena sat making her steps confident so that the warrior wouldn't turn in question. Stopping behind her, Gabrielle reached for the clasps on the warrior's armor and began to undo them.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm taking off your armor." Xena's prosaic question unaccountably filled her with frustration, and she inhaled a sigh full of the sharp scent of leather and the warm earth of Xena's hair.

"I can do that, Gabrielle."

"I know," she responded with a stubborn tone.

Gabrielle's hands worked in silence, by rote. Her thoughts were focused on the texture of the leather under her fingertips and the skin that brushed against her arm. When she finished, she swept the dark tangles aside and began to run her hand over Xena's shoulders. She remembered so many times when the sculpted power beckoned to her, and she hid her desire in the offer of a massage. Now she simply indulged her wish, and explored the paradoxical softness of the fighter's skin. Gabrielle's awkward willfulness gave way to desire.

It took Xena a few minutes to realize that this was no massage, but Gabrielle was touching her for her own pleasure. Again she asked, "What are you doing?"

Gabrielle set her teeth and spoke her resolve. "I love you. I want to touch you."

The pinched words from her bard made it obvious to Xena that she expected to be rebuffed. Xena wasn't sure what to say. Forming her response, she discovered that when the desire was spoken so openly, the reasons against fulfilling it seemed remarkably trivial.

"Gabrielle," she said in a voice husky with uncertain desire, "I don't think that is such a good idea."

The deep rumbling of her name vibrated in Gabrielle's soul, and she didn't notice the rest of the sentence. She gave no thought to stopping but lowered her lips to the fine dark hairs at the nape of the warrior's neck. She kissed the little hollow she found there and sucked gently on the prominent bones at the base of her neck.

Xena rolled her head forward and tried to remember why this was such a bad idea. "Gabrielle." The kisses stopped, but the bard waited with her lips parted on Xena's skin. Xena could feel every breath. She reminded herself of a hundred carefully crafted arguments against this. "You shouldn't."

"Shouldn't what?" Gabrielle's words rumbled through a kiss into Xena's neck.

Xena unsuccessfully muffled a groan, as a firm, wet suction gripped her shoulder. "You shouldn't start this."

Another wave of frustration set Gabrielle's teeth into the flesh, and she let the warrior feel it before releasing the skin with a gentle kiss. Pushing off of Xena's shoulders, she stood, walked around the seated woman. Gabrielle knelt in front of her placing her hands on the warrior's knees. "Why not, Xena?"

The warrior looked down at the sandy soil, trying to ground her argument. Gabrielle didn't give her time to respond, lest her own courage fail her. "I'm not going to let you tell me that I don't know the risks." Remembering the resentment she had sometimes felt over the older woman's unquestioned authority she spoke with more daring. "You can't tell me I'm not old enough or that I haven't thought this through. And you can't pretend that you don't want me."

The young woman reached for Xena's face, pushing back bangs that wanted cutting. She paused, stroking the soft skin at the wrinkle of those blue eyes, and let her desire show in her voice. "For almost a month I listened to your fantasies. I want to make all those things happen. Why can't I?"

At that moment there was nothing innocent about the young blond. Her direct gaze spoke of a fearless, questing hunger that sanctioned all Xena's desires. Gabrielle used her other hand to lift the warrior's chin.

Xena knew that Gabrielle had heard her, but had hoped she wouldn't bring it up. Oh, how she wanted this woman. But it couldn't be. She had already been too lucky. Despite her past, the fates had given her the loving, patient friendship of this woman, not once, but twice. It seemed that at any moment the gift of her bard could just vanish, like Solon did, simply because she expected too much from life. For years she had told herself that passionate love was for other people, who had earned such favor from the gods. Xena was reminding herself that she should be satisfied with what she had, when a voice surfaced out of her memory. A love that Aphrodite would envy. Had that really happened? Could she risk her friendship with Gabrielle on the conviction that it had?

The young bard's sensual touch had already lit troubling fires. The cool evening at her back emphasized with the heat of their bodies, and the charged air between them shivered with Gabrielle's heartbeat. Xena doubted that she had a choice.

The tears started to fall before Xena spoke. She was about to cross a line, and she prayed silently that what she had to say wouldn't destroy their friendship. "Gabrielle, you have to," she faltered, and with deep breaths tried to slow the pounding in her own chest. "You heard my thoughts. You know how I feel. Sex with you wouldn't be casual for me. If we make love tonight then I want it to last forever."

The bard was silent, so Xena continued. "I lost you once, as a friend. If I become your lover, and then someday you decide to settle down and marry some farmer, I would lose you just as surely. I don't know if I can take that." She studied Gabrielle's stunned face. "Please don't be angry."

Gabrielle was stunned. Casual? Marry some farmer? Where in the known world had that come from? After all that she had been through, didn't Xena know how she felt? The young woman was more than a little annoyed, until she remembered that she had been the one to leave. Gabrielle realized with surprise that the warrior had expressed her feelings and that she had been the one to expect Xena to read through her inconsistent actions.

It took a few heartbeats for Xena's words to sink in. She said she wanted it to last forever. Her big bad warrior was proposing to her, with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Xena, I love you more than anything. Don't you know?" She swallowed, taking a minute to memorize the hesitant smile and softening hope in her partner's blue eyes.

Over the years of longing, Gabrielle had composed a dozen responses to the question that her partner now posed. She had never, never imagined repeating the words aloud and she struggled to keep her voice steady.

"No one else sleeps in my dreams. I want no one else to travel through the shadows with me, and I would share life's harvest with you alone." She took Xena's hands to her lips and kissed them. "I want to feel your beloved hands and no others. If you will have me, we will go together wherever time takes us, and I will not leave you."

Xena raised her hand to touch Gabrielle's face, ready to brush away the tears that were shimmering there. For the rest of her life she would wonder what she had done to deserve this. At this moment, looking into those loving green eyes she could only be thankful. She slid her hand to the slender neck and pulled Gabrielle closer.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly in anticipation. She hesitated a moment, savoring the warmth of their mingled breath. What a long way to arrive at a kiss.

The pop of the fire and the rustle of the evening trees drowned away in the intoxicating softness of that kiss. Gabrielle couldn't have imagined the sensitivity of her mouth. Her lips seemed to contain her whole body, and now Xena made love to them, pressing and yielding with reverent tenderness. For a moment the gentle exploration was enough to overwhelm her senses, but then Gabrielle's lips parted unconsciously, wanting more.

The first touch of firm, wet tongue on her lips made her gasp in surprise. Her lover started at the sound, pulling back, but was stopped by the urging of Gabrielle's hand strong on her neck. Xena's tongue filled her mouth, and she returned the searching wetness. Gods, this feels wonderful! Gabrielle shuddered at the thought that this was only the beginning.

She felt Xena's large hands slide up her waist and under the loose fabric of her top. One hand on her back braced her against the force of the kiss, while the other wandered along her side just skirting the swell of her breast.

Gabrielle wanted to push Xena back and do--she wasn't sure what--but the memories of Xena's dreams stopped her. In her fantasies about their first time, the warrior had always imagined herself initiating her younger partner to the ways of love between women. Besides, Gabrielle reminded herself, it wasn't as though she really knew what to do. She only knew that she wanted to kiss and taste every inch of the tall woman's body, and she growled a little, taking the warrior's lower lip between her teeth.

Gabrielle felt Xena's hands on her shoulders, pushing her away. "Careful, my bard. We're nowhere near the bedrolls, and I'm about to fall over this log." Gabrielle obeyed, and, sitting back on her heels she chided herself silently. Stupid. Clumsy. Farm girl.

Xena bit back a smile at the look on her friend's face. The wrinkled brow above pouting lips testified to some internal dialogue, and Xena watched her fondly before interrupting. "You really want me, don't you?"

Gabrielle nodded. She was relieved by a loving smile but mortified to hear her voice crack between girlish excitement and husky desire. "I really want you now."

Deciphering the sheepish look, Xena wrestled the amusement from her face. She drew her bard in for a hug resting her cheek against the smooth brow. "I love you." Then Xena stood, pulling the bard up beside her, and looked down into a face of guileless eagerness.

"Kiss me again," Gabrielle demanded with an open smile. Xena reached down for her, and Gabrielle had to tilt her head way back to accept the kiss. Gabrielle loved this. Feeling their height difference brought back all those times when she'd dreamed about kissing Xena, loving the warrior's tall aggressive strength, wanting to succumb to it. Gabrielle's heart jumped as Xena leaned into her and as their kisses began a fiery tingle that ran down her back and settled between her legs, melting her knees. She reached for the laces that held her top closed, but Xena's hand stopped her.

"Let me," Xena commanded in her deepest voice. She worked at the laces of Gabrielle's top, undoing them, but leaving the fabric in place. Those short, smoky words and the light touches of Xena's fingers quite pushed her over the edge.

Xena felt the small hands tighten on her hips. "What is it?"

"I don't think I can stand."

"Oh, that's good." Xena rumbled. "Put your arm around my shoulder." Xena put her hands behind the weakened knees, and in one swift movement, was cradling her bard like a new bride. "I've got you."

Yeah, you do, Gabrielle thought, but she only smiled.

Neither really remembered how they made it to the bedroll. They forgot the graceless urgency of their efforts to remove the warrior's snug battledress. The next thing Gabrielle knew was that she was lying on her back, on a thick fur, envying the firelight caressing Xena's body. Xena hovered above, prolonging their anticipation, in the golden light whose sharp shadows accentuated her curves. She lowered herself slowly, sliding her breasts up Gabrielle's belly, twisting and stretching to tease Gabrielle with the silky friction. Gabrielle arched to meet her, and growing bolder, let her hands take what Xena held just out of reach.

She slid her callused palms firmly over the powerful curves, loving the way the skin, cooled by the night air, warmed under her touch. She is so soft.

Xena gave in to her own need to feel the bard beneath her and covered Gabrielle's body with her own. They slid together, breast to breast, belly to belly, arms and legs meeting along their length, and both moaned aloud at the flawless contact.

Gods, she's laying on top of me. Gabrielle lost herself in the sensation of Xena's skin covering her. There was nothing else: no destiny, no grieving. Only this wet mixture of soft and firm, probing and giving way. Their lips met fiercely, and Gabrielle opened her mouth fully to Xena's searching. Xena used her weight to grind her body into Gabrielle's, making the most of their tangled legs. A few minutes were swallowed up in this heady, bruising passion before Xena pulled herself away, rolling onto her side. Gabrielle protested with a little grunt and pulled herself up to steal another kiss.

"Slow. We have to slow down."

Gabrielle was having none of that. She slid her hand up Xena's middle to the swell of her breast. She traced its outline as she asked, with a growl, "Why?"

"I need to slow down. I want this to be perfect."

This is our first time. Gabrielle understood, but wasn't about to let that pressure bottle her pent up desire. "Nothing's perfect, warrior," she looked at Xena with a serious face, holding her eyes for a long moment of understanding. She slid her palm back to Xena's stomach, acknowledging the butterflies there. She smiled lovingly and was gratified to see the crystal gaze soften in response.

This time their lips met playfully. Gabrielle tugged at Xena's lower lip. "Are you going to take me or what, warrior mine?''

Xena laughed into her mouth with a rich open sound. She was grateful for the words that put her at ease and continued her partner's teasing tone. "Oh, Gabrielle you have no idea. I am going to take you places you've never dreamed of." With a finger she traced the lips that were brimming with kisses. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes." The answer came without hesitation. Gabrielle closed her eyes in offering. Xena laid her hand on Gabrielle's hipbone, then slid it firmly up her torso to cup a ripe breast. She's touching my breast. Xena brought her lips close to her bard's ear. "Let me touch you."


Xena parted Gabrielle's legs with her knee and settled herself heavily between them. Gabrielle's eyes were still closed, and Xena enjoyed this moment of studying her. She rolled her hips slowly. Gabrielle responded instantly, matching her rhythm. A little moan escaped as she rolled her head back. Xena smiled, watching her bard give herself fully to the sensation. What a glorious woman.

Kiss by kiss she traced a path down Gabrielle's throat. With her hands she traced the firmness of Gabrielle's torso while her mouth felt its softness. She nuzzled her face in the fragrant valley beneath Gabrielle's breast and dragged her cheek upwards until her lips found Gabrielle's nipple. She rolled her tongue around the pink nub, matching its hardness with her tongue before taking it into her mouth and sucking gently.

"Oh." Gabrielle murmured her appreciation as she arched her back towards Xena's mouth. Xena slid her free hand into the hollow of Gabrielle's back and lifted her weight like a goblet.

A shift of weight, and Xena's tongue traced the warm ripples of the bard's middle. Gods, what a beautiful belly. Her broad shoulders spread Gabrielle's hips, and Xena's breasts pressed between Gabrielle's legs. Twisting, Xena could feel the slick wetness that she longed to taste.

Gabrielle felt Xena's hands and mouth everywhere at once. She was aware of her lover's hot breath and the cool dark hair sliding across her middle. Even the weight of Xena's gaze seemed palpable. The sensations drowned out the crack of the fire and the rustle of the leaves. Anticipation of this woman's touch now defined her whole universe. Gabrielle wasn't prepared for this intensity, and she wondered how long it could last. Sensing a change, Xena stopped the motion of her tongue and looked up with concerned blue eyes. "What's wrong?"

"I Ö nothingÖ. I need something. Gods!" she panted. Xena smiled. This was the first time anyone had made love to Gabrielle. "I know what you need, love."

She lowered her mouth between Gabrielle's legs and, hovering over the golden curls, she inhaled their solid, dark fragrance. With her lips and her cheek she paid homage to Gabrielle's softest skin. She rubbed her face against her inner thighs and kissed the delicate hollow where her legs joined her hips.

"Xena, please."

Xena smiled against her lover's skin. There would be time to tease and explore. In her heart she knew that Gabrielle had been wanting this for a very long time. She brought her lips back to the wet curls and paused, imagining the flavor of her lover. Xena moaned. Oh, she had dreamed of this. She dipped her tongue between the folds. Oh yes. She explored the textures for only a moment before giving in to her desire. Cupped the bard's backside and tilting her hips, Xena buried her face in that sweet nectar.

"Gods, Xena!" Gabrielle cried out at the feeling of her lover's firm tongue pressed deep inside her. Xena's strong hands anchored the bard's hips as they struggled to bring themselves closer her mouth. The warrior lost herself in the earthy musk and the slippery taste of Gabrielle. For a few minutes the quiet was broken only by wet sounds and whimpers.

"Xena," the voice was stopped by an involuntary moan. "Inside. I need to feel you, ohhhhh." She broke off as two long fingers pressed against her opening and paused. Gabrielle arched her back, and swirled her hips, searching for a movement that would claim those fingers as her own. Ahh, my little bard. Xena stilled her tongue as she slid her fingers slowly between the liquid velvet.

She's inside me. Gabrielle groaned with satisfaction. "Oh, yes."

Soon the long, gentle strokes weren't enough. She wanted more of her warrior. She wanted to be filled with her, and she said so. "More. I want more."

Xena swallowed a chuckle. There was a time when she would have expected bashful innocence from Gabrielle, but this demanding little bard seemed more appropriate. The girl from Poteidaia had been naÔve, to be sure. She was also modest, but it was from habit, not by nature, and she had never been shy. Learning to please her was going to be so much fun.

With Gabrielle's last demand, the air that had been charged with erotic tension gave way to an irresistible energy. Xena abandoned her attempts at subtlety and seduction and gave in to the bards need for raw passion. Their bodies met in an artless surging that drowned any barrier between them.

With her other lovers this urgency had seemed vulgar, but Gabrielle had no shame about her need. Where other lovers had retreated behind closed eyes, she was completely open. Her green eyes, dilated with passion and wonderment met and held Xena's.

To Gabrielle it felt as though her heart's own pounding would split it open, laying it wide for Xena to see. With every new sensation she was sure that there could be no greater pleasure. What a strange fire! It was only fueled by the touch that she sought to quench it. Her body was completely out of control, and the feeling would have been frightening in its intensity if it wasn't this woman, whom she trusted above all others, whose solid grip anchored her. Gabrielle reached down for her partner, twisting her hands in the dark hair. When Xena's filling fingers found a sensitive spot Gabrielle involuntarily wrung her hands, letting out a long guttural cry.

Xena felt the tension building in her lover's body. The grip on her hair was almost painful, and she heard the sweetest words from the bard's strangled throat.

"Don't stop."

Then she felt Gabrielle's body explode. Her muscles gripped convulsively at Xena's fingers and her liquid desire pooled in the warrior's upturned palm. She continued her thrusts until Gabrielle's body had stilled, then slowly withdrew her hand, wringing one last shudder. Xena looked up her young lover's body and found her bonelessly collapsed on the bedroll. She hesitated to leave the feast of her lover's sex, and indulged herself in a few languorous kisses.

The hand tangled in her hair tugged as its mistress returned to life. "Come here." Gabrielle rumbled in a voice deeper that Xena had ever heard. Xena slithered over her, sliding her long body against the dewy silk. She supported herself on her elbows to keep from crushing the smaller woman, but Gabrielle whimpered a protest. "Lay down."

"But I'll crushÖ"

"I want to feel your weight." Gabrielle closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of belonging to this woman whose weight pinned her firmly to the earth.

Xena brought her hand up to trace the planes of the face she loved. When she touched the bards mouth, the lips parted and a tongue snaked out to draw her in. "This is what you taste like." Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes opened in surprise, then close again as her tongue worked to clean Xena's finger. She felt a trickle of moisture between her legs at the sight.

Gabrielle's hand wound around the warrior's neck, pulling her down, and her mouth opened to the bard's searching tongue. Her own taste in Xena's mouth inspired her. Now it was her turn. Gabrielle felt Xena yield to her pressure, allowing herself to be rolled over. Gabrielle raised her body up on both hands, arching her pink nipples toward the woman beneath her.

She smiled down at Xena, who at this moment looked nothing like a warrior. The hair around her face was a little damp and it curled at her temples. Her blue eyes were fixed on Gabrielle's breasts.

"I had no idea, Xena."

Xena wet her lips and looked up at the laughing green eyes. "What do you mean?"

"I had no idea it could feel so good." She rolled her hips, pressing her pubic bone against Xena's.

"I love you." Xena grasped the small waist and slid one hand upward to cup a soft breast, the other down to grasp Gabrielle's backside. Her hand held the bard in place while her own hips matched the rhythm.

Gabrielle spoke. "I think you should turn over."

Gabrielle recognized a challenge in Xena's raised eyebrow. She trailed a finger across the dark woman's chest and explained. "Because I want to taste every part of you." Lowering her face, she pressed herself down on strong arms to taste the trickle of sweat in the hollow between Xena's breasts. Her voice was muffled by the soft mounds, "and I'm afraid that if I start with the front, it will end too soon."

Xena breathed a slow deep sigh at the thought of that end. She told herself that she could wait a little longer.

The warrior turned over and Gabrielle took a long look at her backside. She ran her palm up hips that gave shape to the lyre. Only the smallest layer of flesh covered those hard muscles, but in repose the woman looked deceptively soft. Gabrielle settled herself on Xena's back, straddling the firm globes of her ass, and began to knead her back. She could feel the stored up tension in the body underneath her, and she wanted Xena to relax completely. She wanted her warrior to hold back nothing.

Both women were acutely aware of every place that their bodies touched. When Gabrielle leaned forward to take a mouthful of the warrior's muscular shoulder, her breast brushed against Xena's back, and they both sucked in a sharp breath. Stretching forward to reach Xena's arms, Gabrielle felt a breath of wind against the dampness between her legs, and she looked down to see the same liquid at the small of her lover's back. She grinned broadly.

Months ago she had given up offering backrubs lest Xena feel the moisture that betrayed her desire. Now she didn't have to hide it. Sitting back, she put more energy into the massage, at the same time crushing her sex against Xena's back. Xena tilted her hips back, presenting her hard muscles for the bard's pleasure. Gabrielle forgot herself in the sensation and in a few minutes both women were breathing hard. Slow down, Gabrielle told herself.

She ignored Xena's soft moan of disappointment when she moved away. Her hands urged Xena's legs apart. Kneeling between them, she let the cool night settle her blood and gave the warrior's feet a nearly platonic rub-down. The back of Xena's knee beckoned, and Gabrielle let her rising desire begin there. She kissed the salty hollow thoroughly before letting her hands and lips trail upwards. She saw the glistening wetness she had left on Xena's back and tasted it. Her tongue strayed downward.. "Raise your hips," she commanded in a husky voice.

Xena looked around to see Gabrielle kneeling behind her, her eyes glued to the dark place between her legs. Xena complied, slowly raising herself towards the bards waiting face. Gabrielle thrilled at this new control. The warrior was offering herself fully.

Gabrielle moved forward and pressed her body against the sensitive flesh. She leaned forward, covering Xena's back. The woman beneath her rocked her hips slowly back and forth, slicking Gabrielle's belly with her wetness. Gabrielle's hands explored Xena's supple firmness. With one hand she cupped the warrior's sex, curling her fingers into its folds, and with the other she grasped a nipple and rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. Xena groaned and tilted her backside for more contact. The motion of her lover's hips grew more vigorous and almost threw Gabrielle off balance. Straightening up, she gripped Xena's waist firmly. She let the warrior set a rhythm and answered it with her own pressure.

When Xena's breathing quickened again, Gabrielle reluctantly withdrew the contact. She simply had to taste this woman. She ran her callused hands from the warrior's knees to her buttocks, spreading them slightly to give herself a better view of the dark, rosy flesh. She lowered her mouth to the trail of glistening wetness and tasted salty sweat mingled with the warrior's desire. Sliding a finger between the folds, she brought it to her lips.

Xena hissed an eager "Yes," when she was touched and whimpered as the finger was withdrawn.

The moment of silence that followed was disconcerting until Gabrielle crept beside her and purred in her ear, "Gods, you taste wonderful, Xena." Gabrielle decided that the delay had become a bit cruel. "Turn over, " she husked. Her mouth watered as Xena moved. She marveled at her luck, that this magnificent body would be her playground.

The wanton look on Gabrielle's face surprised Xena. Her mouth was open and her tongue rested between her teeth in anticipation. When Gabrielle's devouring gaze reached Xena's face she smiled without shame.

Gabrielle laid her own small body next to the taller one, half covering her. She took a dark nipple in her mouth and sucked gently. Xena moaned her approval and Gabrielle sucked harder. Her free hand wandered down the warrior's body. She slipped a finger between the folds of her sex, focussing on a firm little nub that she recognized from her own body. She took the warrior's nipple between her teeth and tugged.

Gabrielle raised her head to look up at her lover. Her head was thrown back, lips parted, eyes closed, and the dark hair was splayed out behind her in a wonderful tangle. Gabrielle stopped the motion of her hand and crept on top of Xena. She took the warrior's mouth with savage intensity.

"Do you want me, Xena?" She asked the question with her mouth bare inches from the dark woman's face.

"Yes." Xena breathed into her mouth.

"What do you want? Tell me Xena."

"I want you to fuck me." Gabrielle didn't answer right away, so Xena added "please." Her voice was almost a whimper. Gabrielle kissed her again with a hard promise. She ground her whole body into Xena's. "I will do whatever you want." She added to herself, You might just have to tell me what that means. She looked into Xena's face honestly, reminding her that she wasn't afraid of the warrior's desire.

Gabrielle wasted no more time and dragged her body down Xena's, pausing only to dip her tongue into the tight well of her bellybutton. She put a hand on either side of the coarse, dark hair and smiled with satisfaction. Mine. She slid her fingers through the folds, using pressure to find Xena's opening. She held her fingers there, waiting, until a roll of Xena's hips urged her on. Xena's belly rippled and her muscles clutched at Gabrielle's fingers, which were just outside their reach. Gabrielle pushed forward hesitantly, afraid for a moment of hurting her lover, but when a deep groan gurgled in the warrior's throat she remembered Xena's spoken desire. With a long firm stroke she pushed her fingers inside, delighted by the tight ring of muscles and the heat. She repeated the motion, trying to match the rolling of Xena's hips with each thrust.

"Is this what you want?" Gabrielle's voice was hoarse from her own cries, so her honest question sounded like seduction.

"Oh, yes." Their bodies answered each other with a shared rocking pulse paced to Xena's heartbeat. Xena's soft rhythmic murmurs were lost in the rustling of the trees. This time Gabrielle was aware. She saw her warrior's surrender against a familiar background of campfire, tall limbs creaking, and the first crickets of fall. This is my life. The woman whose delicate flavor still filled her mouth was the hard warrior she had followed out of Poteidaia. She could hardly believe it was really happening.

Xena gathered her ragged breathing to break the silence. "Gabrielle," she panted. "Your mouth." Before Xena took her next breath, Gabrielle's mouth descended on the bundle of nerves her fingers had found earlier, and soon the warrior was writhing wildly under her touch. She wrapped her free hand around the warrior's hips. After only a few more thrusts a convulsion began around Gabrielle's fingers and spread throughout the warrior's body, forcing a low, strangled cry from her throat.

That was way too quick. Gabrielle tore her mouth away and looked up at her lover. The motion of her hand had slowed, but never stopped. Now she continued with excruciatingly long, slow strokes. She curled her fingers forward, drawing a moan.

Xena's eyes were wild as she looked back at this incredible woman. She felt the tingling in her belly rise again, and in response Gabrielle's fingers pressed into her with more authority.

"More?" Xena could only nod. Gabrielle reached out with the firm tip of her tongue and took her again. The muscles in her arm burned, but she couldn't deny Xena's spiraling cries. She pumped her hand harder and harder until Xena's body convulsed again.

When Gabrielle withdrew her hand, she brought it to her lips to savor the taste of Xena. Xena watched her new lover, eyes closed in sensual abandon, as she licked the small fingers that had been buried deep inside her. She opened her eyes to Xena's gaze and smiled. "You are so fine."

Gabrielle felt suddenly giddy. She almost giggled with delight when Xena patted the ground next to her, and held their second sleeping fur out invitingly. She pounced on the spent warrior and wiggled like a puppy.

Xena wondered at the transformation of her confident, assured love into a silly little bard. Gabrielle clearly didn't regret the line they had crossed. Her happiness saved Xena from grim reflections. Instead she thought about the shameless sensuality of her new lover. She had had it all wrong when she pictured Gabrielle as the light to her darkness, pure and incorruptible. No. Gabrielle was the daily bread of her soul.

"Gods, I love you."

Xena held the tangible sunshine tight against her body and let it burn away her dark fears of inadequacy and abandonment. Holding her bard in the afterglow of having done something thoroughly right, she felt oddly young. She remembered herself as a child, naked, running gleefully from Cyrene's threats of clothing. It was as if the scarred metal of her body had been newly minted in the fire of Gabrielle's touch. Now she was the echo of that child, and she fell into sleep easily, eager, for the first time in years, for whatever tomorrow might bring.

Gabrielle lay awake for a while, deliriously content. Now she could snuggle right up to the woman she loved. Now she could wrap an arm around her waist and tangle their legs together. She was sure that she had always dreamed of this woman and this moment. How had she ever come so far?

Gabrielle thought of herself when she first left Poteidaia, years ago. She had been all desire. She was searching for something so vigorously that she had blundered into all kinds of trouble. A few months ago, she would have sworn that this love, acknowledged, would end her search.

Now she knew that intimacy with Xena's earnest soul was only the beginning. She looked at the cold stars and thought about their hard destiny. It scared her. She had always known that Poteidaia could not contain her, but she never imagined herself the author of such far-resonant action. She couldn't have foreseen the forces that had already twisted and pulled at her, molding her painfully into a hero. Gabrielle wondered how Xena had been, as a child, before the events that forged the fighter.

It seemed as though the Fates had made them both with a conscious hand, almost against their will. She wasn't sure she wanted this immortal purpose with all its possibility of failure. Hades had said they would suffer. She shuddered with a sudden chill and Xena's arm tightened on her waist in reflex. Gabrielle nuzzled closer, shutting out her thoughts of the world. With this love she could accomplish anything. Together, they made the only permanent tenderness.

The end

Thanks for taking the journey with me

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