Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: After the episode "A Comedy of Eros"
(c) September 1997
Xena peered over the ledge, studying the military encampment nestled in the valley below. She could just make out a dozen tents, arranged in a semi-circle around a bonfire. Men in rough leathers reclined on log benches drinking from skins undoubtedly filled with wine if not something stronger.
In her many years Xena had spied on many camps, from warlords to Athenian military. Some were unusually arranged with the commander's tent on the outskirts instead of inside, or with the corralled horses deep in the center instead of upwind. But never, Xena thought. Never have I seen one so clean.
"It can't be him," commented Gabrielle crouching beside her friend, palms resting against the rock ledge for balance. "Can it?"
Xena gestured. "You know his standard as well as I do. What's that flag tell you?"
Gabrielle studied the dark square of fabric waving in the breeze from a pole near the bonfire. It was an elaborate design, hard to mistake for anything other than what it was -- or rather whose it was. "Draco." She shook her head. "But it's so clean?! And small. Where are all his men?"
"From the rumors I heard, coming back empty handed from Hestia angered a lot of his men. A lieutenant demanded he give up his army and leave. A few men obviously went with him."
"So how'd he get to keep the standard?"
"Family crest, so I guess they let him take it with him." Xena shrugged. "Want to go in for a better look? Maybe we can get Draco to give us the details."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not going down there. Draco may have cleaned up his looks, but he's still a warlord."
Xena looked over the encampment again. "No way. That's not the camp of a warmaker. Too open."
"How could he change so much in four months?" Gabrielle was still skeptical.
"Ask him." Xena stepped out from the ledge, finding a path down the mountain wending its way to the valley floor.
Unable to resist, as she trusted Xena's instincts implicitly, Gabrielle followed.
The two women were challenged at the perimeter of the camp and told to wait while Draco was summoned. Xena patiently studied the camp; Gabrielle was a bundle of pacing anxiety. She remembered every minute of her last meeting with Draco, cringing again at the declarations of unending love. Gabrielle stopped pacing. There was only one for her.
With a look of gentle admiration on her face and a gaze of concern, Gabrielle watched as Xena greeted Draco with the firm forearm clasp of kindred warriors.
"What brings you here, Xena?" asked the dark-skinned warrior.
Xena turned, bringing Draco's attention to Gabrielle with a wide sweep of her arm. "We were in the neighborhood. I heard of a man who needed an army."
Draco smiled at the Warrior Princess. Then his gaze fell to Gabrielle. "I don't need an army anymore," he said, his eyes raking over the bard's trim muscled figure. "Just a few to help with cleaning up this province."
Xena looked around. "No more war spoils?"
Draco shook his head. "I turned most of it over to the Athenian authority. They'll see it gets to the right people. The rest I sold to pay my men in coin -- for staying with me."
Xena nodded. Made sense. A different kind of man worked for pay instead of spoils, a more loyal man, a more reliable soldier. And since coin didn't go very far, a smaller cadre of men was the natural result.
"And how do you feed them?" Gabrielle asked.
Draco looked affronted. "I've made arrangements with a few farming towns in the area to trade defensive advice for supplies."
Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. In explanation to the warrior, Xena said, "You have to admit, this is quite a turnaround."
"I thought about this a lot since we last met, Gabrielle." Draco grasped the bard's hands. She had to crane her neck to meet his gaze.
Xena remained at her back as she answered the look in Draco's eyes. "I'm sorry, Draco. This isn't right. I can't love you. You're doing wonderful things, but ..." She removed her hands from his and placed them over Xena's hands on her shoulders. "I don't love you. I won't."
Draco's face darkened. But he looked from Gabrielle to Xena and stepped back. "So I did all this for nothing?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Please don't think that. You are doing good. That's always the right thing. You have my friendship, Draco. Anytime. Anywhere you need it."
Xena smiled. "And with hers comes mine, Draco."
Gabrielle looked up over her shoulder as Xena removed a hand and grasped Draco's arm again. The warrior princess' arm rubbed Gabrielle's side as the bard was caught between the two.
She bit her lip and extricated herself as Xena and Draco concluded their exchange. "Anytime," Xena echoed as they finally let go.
Draco nodded. "I'll remember." To Gabrielle he turned a warm smile. "Thank you."
Gabrielle demurred and simply inclined her head. She wanted to leave. "We'd better get going, Xena. The message said we didn't have a lot of time."
Xena looked at her friend strangely, but nodded, catching the hint. "You're right. Let's go."
"Goodbye Draco," said Gabrielle as Xena led the way out of the former warlord's camp.
What was that all about?" Xena asked when the two women settled by the fire that night.
"What?" Gabrielle picked at her food.
"I haven't seen you shoot down anyone so effectively since you laughed in Joxer's face outside Hestia." Xena tied off stitching in her wrist guard and carefully bit off the extra length of sinew.
Gabrielle couldn't concentrate on eating while watching Xena work. It was at night, times like this, when the warrior slowly faded into the sunset to be replaced by the woman draped in moonlight. As Xena shrugged out of each piece of armor and leather, her appearance softened. First, as always, the brass-tooled bustiere was carefully inspected and set aside. And Xena's shoulders would release the constant stiffness.
Then, the thigh-guards and boots would come off, along with the cloths she wrapped around her feet. And Xena wiggled her toes. Gabrielle liked that moment a lot. It made her see the child Xena had been. The bard would imagine a barefoot child running through the fields outside Amphipolis so long ago. While her toes wriggled, Xena always checked every inch of the leather and lacing for wear.
Gabrielle liked to tell her stories while Xena was shedding her warrior self. Tonight was no different. As Xena removed her other wrist guard, Gabrielle spoke. "Would you care for a story tonight, Xena?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Is it going to be a thinly veiled lecture?"
Gabrielle was affronted. "No. You haven't done anything today to be lectured about." She grinned broadly then softened to a warm smile. "The moonlight is beautiful. I was reminded of a love story."
Xena smiled. "A love story, hmm? All right, I'm listening." She set aside the rest of her armor, sitting on the log bathed in golden moonlight. She reclined as Gabrielle began her tale.
The bard's voice slipped an octave lower. And in this narrator's voice she began:
"I shall tell you of the love of Zeus and Danae, mother of famed Perseus.
"Zeus spied a young woman walking along the shoreline of the kingdom of Thebes. He was entranced. She was golden. Smooth, sun-kissed skin, hair in riotous silky curls. He had a craving to see her eyes." Gabrielle opened her eyes having closed them to envision Danae in her head. Across the fire, she saw Xena watching her and for a moment was lost in firelit blue eyes.
Danae had brown eyes, Zeus had found when he swept down to see. But Gabrielle continued aloud, "Zeus transformed himself into a goose and flew down from Olympus. Danae offered the goose some crumbs and the god looked up into eyes as soft as the clouds and bluer than a clear sky."
Gabrielle's gaze remained on Xena as she spoke. Now her voice changed to that of Zeus, a throaty rumble. "'I am the god Zeus,' he said, transforming himself into his familiarly carved human form before Danae's gaze.
"Danae jumped in surprise," Gabrielle continued, resuming the narrative voice. "She offered a hand when Zeus held out his, and dropped a curtsey to the King of the gods. 'Who are you?' Zeus asked.
"'I am Danae, daughter of the King of Thebes,' Danae answered simply." Gabrielle's voice was delicate, unpretentious femininity defined, about a half octave higher than her own voice and with a silkier edge to the consonants. Gabrielle continued to switch between the voices of Zeus and Danae as the two conversed in her story on that beach an age ago:
"I would like to walk with you," Zeus said, offering an arm to Danae.
Danae placed her hand just below his crooked elbow. "I'd like that," she acknowledged.
The two walked down to the surf, stepping in and out of the rushing waves crashing the shore. There was laughter on the beach that day. Danae found Zeus quite talkative, not that she was all that sure exactly what she should have expected.
Zeus found a woman unafraid of her opinions and who talked not of fanciful things, but of practical things. Quite a change from his wife, Hera. Danae told him of her father's kingdom and how she wanted to correct the poverty she saw.
Zeus offered to fix it all for her, unwilling to see the frustration on Danae's face. But Danae declined. "What good will it do in the future? I must teach the people how to care for themselves."
Zeus nodded, impressed by her wisdom.
Gabrielle stopped speaking as her gaze fell on Xena. The warrior was resting her arms across her kness, gazing into the campfire. She was very still. "Xena?"
"I'm not asleep, Gabrielle. Just thinking. Go ahead with your story." Xena's eyes lifted from the flames, meeting Gabrielle's. The warrior dropped her eyes after another moment though.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena wrinkled her nose, then relaxed her face. Then she briefly frowned before removing evidence of that as well and returning her blue eyes to Gabrielle's face. "You tell stories like no one I've ever met, Gabrielle. I know most of the heroic tales. Who doesn't? We've all heard them since we were children. But somehow when you tell a story it's different. It's new. It's like I've never heard it before.
"Zeus and Danae in love? Who but you would have thought it? I never did. Zeus had always taken advantage of her. At least that's how I understood it."
Gabrielle smiled. "Gods love too, Xena."
"Gods feel passion in my experience, Gabrielle. Not that softer emotion." Xena sat up straighter and turned her shoulders so she was not looking at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle sobered. She touched Xena's shoulder. "Ares?"
"He wants me, Gabrielle." Xena's shoulders sagged with that admission. Gabrielle read, as always, that Xena was uncertain she could defend against the dark God of War.
The bard moved closer and said fiercely, "Well he can't have you, Xena. I won't let him."
Xena looked at Gabrielle's hand on her shoulder and then up into the bard's green gaze lit with the fire's glow. Gods above, she believed the younger woman. She shook her head. "No," Xena said, though she wasn't sure what she meant by it.
"Xena, I love you," the bard continued with intensity. Xena realized that Gabrielle wanted her to believe. The warrior couldn't take her eyes from the bard's as Gabrielle grasped her chin. "He can't have you. I love you." Gabrielle's voice became rough, silky and she bent her head, capturing Xena's mouth beneath her own.
The kiss was brief, but made Xena shiver. Gabrielle pulled away abruptly, moving back to the other side of the campfire. She kept her eyes averted and gazed only at the flickering flames of the fire.
Neither woman spoke, uncertain what exactly had just happened. Xena was not quite sure what to make of Gabrielle's actions. The bard was passionate in an argument, always determined that Xena see her point. But a kiss? What was the point there?
She remembered leaning to kiss Gabrielle when they had connected in the brief moment when Autolycus gave Xena's spirit control of his body. That gesture had been for solace. Gabrielle had looked so lost, so alone. Xena had felt the compelling need to do something to restore her hope, to wipe away the tears.
"Thanks, Gabrielle," said Xena finally. "I feel better now."
Gabrielle blinked, a bit surprised that Xena had nothing more to say. "Umm, you're welcome." She bit her lip, still tasting Xena on her mouth. Could Xena not know? "Why don't you get some sleep? I'll take first watch."
Xena looked around assessing their surroundings. "I don't think we'll have any disturbances."
"Good. Then you should sleep." Gabrielle grabbed up her staff and walked around to the other side of her log.
Xena frowned. "Gabrielle?"
"Are you mad about something?"
Gabrielle realized then as she turned around she was stiff as a tree. She consciously worked the tension out of her muscles and turned to face Xena. "No, I'm not. Well, maybe. But not at you. At Ares. I'm sorry he bothers you. I'd stop him if I could."
Xena nodded. "I've dealt with Ares. I can handle him." She looked up at Gabrielle. "He won't get me. I won't let him." She smiled. Gabrielle smiled back and returned to her blanket by the fire, setting the staff on the ground beside her.
She rolled onto her side and pillowed her head on her arm, watching Xena roll over getting comfortable. Finally the warrior rolled toward Gabrielle to find the bard watching her.
"Something bothering you?" Xena asked.
"No," responded Gabrielle. "But something is bothering you. What is it?"
"Draco. I'm worried he's going to get hurt."
Gabrielle stifled her rough tone as she replied, "Draco's a big boy. He can take care of himself. I thought you said Cupid removed the arrows' spells."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"I watched you today. You still like Draco." Gabrielle bit her lip, hearing a distinct note of jealousy creeping into her voice.
"Of course I like him, but I don't have the hots for him. I'm just concerned."
Gabrielle recanted, hoping to cover her slip. "Okay, you're right. I'm a bit concerned about him too."
"Besides," Xena commented, "Why would you care who I liked or didn't like?" Xena paused, thinking. "You weren't too crazy about Ulysses."
Gabrielle propped herself on her elbow and poked Xena in the chest. "He was married, Xena. I'm a bit old fashioned, okay? You don't go around with married men."
"Well, I don't either. I didn't think Penelope would want him. He'd been gone TEN years." Xena closed her eyes, her face softening as she dreamed. "I didn't want to think it."
Gabrielle closed her eyes against that softened look. Xena is going to be the death of me, she thought.
"Yes, Xena?" She responded keeping her eyes closed against seeing the warrior's face.
'Do you think it will ever happen?"
"What?" Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena didn't sound right.
"That we'll each find someone who makes us happy? Settle down?" Gabrielle groaned. Xena mistook that for disbelief. "Don't think I'll find a man who'll see me as anything but an ex-warlord?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I don't know, Xena. Truth to tell, except for Marcus, I don't know any man you've met who wasn't as much in love with you, as afraid of you."
Xena ducked her head. "Palemon was nice, once I got him to stop being so admiring all the time," she recalled the young warrior who'd helped her rescue the bard from a fiery death.
Gabrielle blurted, "He wanted to kill you, Xena. That's not love." She tried to redirect the conversation. "What do you think my chances are?"
"Of finding someone to love you?" Xena chuckled. "Ditch me so I don't scare any away and you'll have suitors in no time."
"I'd never ditch you, Xena."
"Then be prepared to grow into an old maid."
"Hey, that's not a very flattering image."
"Don't be. A man would have to be pretty incredible to make me stop traveling with you, anyway." Gabrielle smiled at Xena. "So you're stuck with me until this demi-god makes an appearance."
Xena smiled, warmed inexplicably by the thought. "Thanks, Gabrielle."
"Anytime." She rolled away from Xena and smiled into her arm. It had been an interesting pillow talk session. Maybe she could make a breakthrough soon.
The next morning Gabrielle's nose twitched and she opened her eyes to the sight of a de-scaled fish swinging in the air over her face. She screamed. Xena, holding the slimy thing by the gills, fell backwards, laughing as Gabrielle sat up.
The bard slapped at the fish. "I don't like meeting breakfast before it's cooked, Xena," Gabrielle growled.
"I just wanted to see how long before the smell woke you up."
"Faster than it would have taken me to roll you off the damned blankets."
"Can I help it if the sun's barest rays on the horizon aren't enough to rouse me from sleep?" Gabrielle stood, presented their frying pan and wrinkled her nose when Xena dropped the fish into it.
"It may surprise you," Xena said, wiping her hands on a cloth. "But I don't like waking up at dawn as much as you think I do."
"But -- "
"I do it because I have to, Gabrielle. To keep us safe -- and keep up my skills."
"I'm sorry I cause you so much concern." Gabrielle now noticed the slight sheen of perspiration glistening on Xena's skin. Wisps of bangs were wet against her face. Gabrielle felt a deep guilt for a moment. Xena must have noticed.
"Don't be. I'd be a lot more concerned if you stopped being around." The warrior touched the bard's shoulder and walked over to Argo, cleaning up the mare for the journey ahead.
Gabrielle filleted the fish and set about frying the pieces over their campfire. "Where are we off to today?"
Xena thought about that a moment and decided she'd had enough of western Greece. "Let's cross the mountains and check out the towns to the southeast."
Gabrielle nodded as she turned over a filet with her fingers. "Can I ride with you today? I'm not up for mountains."
Riding that day had never seemed so interminably long to Xena. Gabrielle was up behind her on Argo's back. The bard had her arms wrapped tightly around Xena's waist, and her thighs pressed against the warrior's. The contact was electric, playing havoc with her concentration. She wondered if Gabrielle felt the same unusual sensations.
Gabrielle grinned, pressing her face into Xena's back and hiding a smile at the warrior's sharp intake of breath. Xena had been squirming all day. Now, as it neared evening, Gabrielle was beginning to have hope. She took a deep breath inhaling the warrior's scent, a combination of oiled leather and musk.
"I think we should stop and make camp," Xena finally said. "Unless you want to ride all night."
Gabrielle nodded. Xena turned Argo down a deer path off the mountain road. The two women found a clearing. The mountain river tumbled down a short incline making a waterfall about twice as tall Xena.
Gabrielle wasn't all that uncomfortable from her ride aboard Argo, but it was apparent Xena had been. The warrior practically jumped off the mare's back and was pulling off the saddle before Gabrielle had completely dismounted. Xena dropped the saddle and strode around the clearing collecting sticks.
Gabrielle removed Argo's bridle and patted the mare, releasing her toward the river's edge. She turned to watch Xena assembling their firepit. Intent on her task only, the warrior quickly struck flint and fanned the new fire.
As the flames grew quickly, Gabrielle knew it wouldn't take long for the fire to burn down low enough for cooking. She suggested Xena go for a swim while she tended the fire.
"Are you sure?" asked Xena, wondering why when she desperately needed space, she was even arguing.
"Positive. It'll be a while before the fire's ready. You might have time to practice your forms before washing up under the falls. You won't have to wake up early tomorrow just to practice."
Xena looked at the waterfall and spotted the outcropping of rock just above the whitewater. She said, "I'm going to the top of the falls. Yell if you need anything."
Don't worry, Gabrielle thought, I will. She turned back to the fire as Xena walked off. She unpacked their saddlebags and laid out the blankets on one side of the fire. On the other side, she rolled a small log close as a seat.
When she straightened, she looked up to the top of the falls to watch the rest of Xena's practice. The warrior fought an imaginary enemy as she stood with her back to the river below. Xena stepped back and Gabrielle thought she might step off the rock ledge.
Suddenly the battle cry of the Warrior Princess pierced the stillness of the evening's silence. It made Gabrielle jump to her feet. Xena leapt straight up, executed a tuck and twist and landed facing her point of take off. The sword followed and Xena ended the pattern with her arms fully extended, sword blade level at shoulder height. Gabrielle shivered; Xena had just sliced through the throat of her "opponent."
Gabrielle sat down, keeping one eye on the fire as she broke apart raw vegetables for a pot of soup. She kept the other eye on Xena, as always entranced by the woman's supple movements as she made putting her body and weapons through their paces seem effortless. The sunset burnished the warrior's glistening skin in hues of gold and orange. The bard quaffed some of the soup to wet her throat, which was suddenly dry.
Gabrielle put the pot to the side of the fire, to let it simmer. Then she got to her feet and walked to the river's edge. Wetting her hands, she wiped her face and throat. She filled the water skins and then looked back up at Xena. The warrior must have decided she was through exercising. Xena leapt straight into the air again, this time over the falls. She rolled head over heels once and landed feet first in the thigh deep water just beyond the falls' foaming rush. She walked to within a length of Gabrielle.
Up close, Gabrielle could see the pulse pounding against Xena's throat, could see the droplets of perspiration in relief against her brow. "Dinner's almost ready, "Gabrielle said.
"I'll wash up," replied Xena.
Gabrielle returned to their fire while Xena tossed her weapons, armor and leathers to the shore. Nude, she walked into the pounding waterfall.
Xena shivered at the chill of the water and rubbed at her face with both hands. What is wrong with me, Xena asked herself. She rubbed her arms and legs briskly, letting the water pound against her back and stomach. The sensation didn't alter the pounding of her heart or the pulsing of her stomach muscles. It was as if she was expecting sex tonight. But there wasn't any relief within days in any direction.
Xena stepped completely behind the waterfall, letting the sound of the crashing water fill her ears as she settled on a narrow ledge. She closed her eyes. Trying to meditate was not helping. Snapping open her eyes, she decided she needed relief. Now.
She listened for the sound of Gabrielle's voice on the other side of the waterfall. The bard was apparently practicing one of her stories. Xena began to rub her hands over her body down across taut muscles and soft breasts to the center of her aching need. Xena closed her eyes again.
In her mind, her hands became Marcus' hands, bringing relief as they plunged repeatedly to her depths. His voice urged her to her release. As the waves washed over her, weakening her knees, a new face surfaced in Xena's mind, new hands touched her. She imagined a new voice whispering...Gabrielle?
Xena's eyes shot open and she sat up quickly, slipping off the ledge and falling into the water. She looked around and sighed with relief. She stepped through the veil of the waterfall and walked toward Gabrielle seated at their fire, spooning soup into a bowl.
"I was just about to call you," commented Gabrielle as she put down the bowl and tossed Xena a towel. "Soup's ready."
Xena wrapped the towel about herself and sat down on her blankets. As she tucked the last corner, she noticed the red flush covering her shoulders and the swell of her breasts. Heat suffused her face, no doubt coloring her cheeks with the memory. It was too much to hope, Xena knew, as she looked up to take the bowl of soup, that Gabrielle wouldn't notice.
"Never knew a waterfall to be hot," the bard said, as she pressed the bowl into Xena's hands.
"Hmm," responded the warrior as she quickly swallowed some soup. The flush didn't dissipate as Xena felt Gabrielle's eyes remain on her.
Then Gabrielle touched her shoulder experimentally. Xena's muscles went rigid, preventing a jump that would have embarrassed both her and Gabrielle. She looked up to find Gabrielle looking down, her green eyes filled with concern. "Maybe you ought to wear a tunic under your armor for a few days. Looks like a touch of sunburn."
Xena set aside her bowl and grabbed Gabrielle's hands. "Thanks, but I'm fine, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle nodded, pulling her hands from Xena's and settled back down on the log again. She watched the warrior pick up her soup and resume eating.
The bard couldn't help the smile that welled up from somewhere in her middle to cover her whole face. She was now glad she had put their blankets side by side. Maybe tonight she could snuggle up to the warrior. Her strategy on Argo's back had obviously put Xena in a mood. A little more enticement might tip the scales.
Gabrielle knew, from Eponin, that some women liked the company of other women sexually. Gabrielle herself hadn't really thought about the issue until she had acknowledged a feeling of jealousy when watching Xena and Ulysses. She realized then, reinforced by the memory of loss when Xena died, that she didn't ever want to be separated from the warrior.
She hadn't considered a sexual aspect to her love for Xena until the warrior's hugs aboard Cecrops' cursed ship. The revelation of needing to touch and be touched by Xena had been unsettling. But since seeing Xena with Draco, Gabrielle was determined to try and find out if Xena could feel the same for her.
If the flush, which was now beginning to fade on Xena's skin, was any indication, Xena had been under that waterfall thinking some very hot thoughts about someone. Gabrielle wondered if any of those thoughts had involved her.
Xena finished her soup and passed the bowl back to Gabrielle. "Thanks."
"Here's a shift." Gabrielle fished one out of her bag. "It'll be softer against any sunburn than your leathers," explained Gabrielle, almost daring Xena to argue. She tossed the thin woolen sleeveless top at the warrior. Xena held it up to her body. The bard silently noted it would barely cover Xena's thighs.
Xena nodded and went down to the river to fetch her leathers and armor. In the privacy she put on the shift and got herself under control. Gabrielle is just being nice, she scolded herself. "You've been without for a quite a while, Xena," she told herself. And knew she was attempting to lie to herself.
It wasn't that Xena hadn't been sexually gratified for a while. Xena had become attracted to Gabrielle. The younger woman's softness and innocence were like a fountain of youth. She was strong in a way Xena didn't believe she herself ever would be, because Gabrielle had a peace of the spirit.
Xena wanted the secret to that peace. Xena snorted, smoothing the shift over her hips. Who was she kidding? She wanted Gabrielle.
Xena didn't know the first thing about seducing a woman. She'd seduced plenty of men. She'd been around a lot of women: The Amazons, M'Lila. But she'd never been with any of them. Few she'd even considered friend, much less considered sleeping with.
Then as she sat at the water's edge, reluctant to return to the blankets at the fire, she thought about Gabrielle. Would Gabrielle even want this? She's been kind to me in ways no one else ever has. But was that just Gabrielle's way? Or was it more?
Her head spinning, Xena rose and returned to the the fire, finding Gabrielle already laid out on her blankets. The bard's arm pillowed her head as she studied the stars. She wore a shift as well. She stood for a moment, just looking at her friend's lithe body. Her legs to mid-thigh were bare, and the muscles shaping them were lean and firm. Xena shook her head and laid down next to Gabrielle and turned onto her back to gaze up at the same sky.
"Want another story tonight, Xena?" asked Gabrielle keeping her eyes on the sky.
"No, I don't want to dream about any gods tonight," Xena replied. That, it would turn out, was a mistake.
As she slept, Xena was treated to a mental parade of the various loves of her own life: Borias, Petracles, Caesar, each bringing her to ecstasy then abandoning her at the pinnacle of their relationship. She dreamt of Hercules. The passion had been real, but the feelings didn't run to love. She dreamt of Ulysses. His was almost a puppy love, so sweet and tame, filled with soft looks and gentle caresses.
Marcus lived again in her dreams. He gave her passion and compassion. He spoke to her of love, loyalty and shared loss. He took her to passion's heights and clung to her as they both toppled the precipice. His hands gentled the pounding pulses of her body, and stroked her face, her hair, her breasts.
Marcus' hands became softer, more tentative, stroking her brow, her cheek. His voice became a throaty whisper, breathing words of love in her ear. His breath blew across her neck and a hand stroked her belly.
It wasn't Marcus' hands. Xena's eyes snapped open and she found herself wrapped in Gabrielle's sleeping embrace. The bard's hands rested on Xena's stomach, her even breathing tickled the warrior's neck and her body pressed to Xena's back. It was like the ride aboard Argo only they were lying down.
Xena rolled onto her back and lifted the bard's arm so she could slide free. The movement awakened Gabrielle. "Sh, go back to sleep," the bard murmured, and inexplicably to Xena, grasped the warrior more tightly around the middle and closed her eyes returning to sleep.
Now afraid of offending her friend, Xena did not continue her attempts to move from Gabrielle's grasp. The warrior stifled a groan and closed her own eyes, attempting to return to sleep.
Gabrielle awakened a little before dawn. The warrior had finally succumbed to sleep and Gabrielle accounted herself a victory as she removed herself from Xena.
She had to hold the warrior's head carefully as she slid her arm free. Xena had curled in ever so slightly and her ebony head had found its way to the crook of Gabrielle's shoulder. Xena would definitely not appreciate waking up and discovering in her sleep she'd succumbed to such a soft moment.
As she sat up looking down at the warrior's sleeping face, Gabrielle realized how much of her energy she spent protecting Xena from her own soft side. At first it seemed best to do it -- Xena became vulnerable when her softer emotions surfaced at the wrong time. Gabrielle had, without even thinking about it, taken on the task of showing those emotions for the both of them. She would cradle an injured child when she saw from the warrior's clenching and unclenching fists that Xena wanted to -- desperately.
But as evidenced by their pillow talk the other night, maybe this 'surrogacy' of emotions could be dropped. Xena was beginning to handle expressing herself with more equanimity.
"Are you going to keep staring at me?"
Gabrielle laughed and buffeted the warrior's shoulder. "How do you do that? Eyes closed even," she remarked as Xena opened her sky blue eyes with a slow smile.
Xena sat up. The two women rose to their feet in tandem. Gabrielle shook out their blankets, doused the fire and brought the rolled blankets and saddlebags to Xena, who was securing Argo's tack. The warrior took the supplies and lashed them to the back of the saddle. The two women dressed separately and returned to Argo.
"You never answered my question," Gabrielle said as she straightened her skirt.
"What question was that, Gabrielle?" Xena swung onto Argo's back and reached down to help Gabrielle up behind her.
Once she was settled, Gabrielle reminded the warrior. "I asked, 'How do you do that?' I mean of course your ability to see me do something or someone else do something without actually seeing them."
Xena laughed. Her voice was light when she answered, "I can't let you in on all my secrets." Gabrielle poked at the warrior's ribs. It didn't hurt but Xena grunted obligingly. "It's something I picked up. It's like melting into your surroundings, letting the air or sounds flow around you as if you were a leafy tree. Any changes are instantly picked up."
"But I was just looking at you."
"Your breathing hitched and from the angle I knew you were sitting above me. I guessed that you were watching me."
"You do this all the time?"
"Well there are times when I don't focus enough, or I'm not calm enough. Then the skill just vanishes."
"Is that why you sometimes just tell me to stay out of a situation? So you can concentrate?" Gabrielle squeezed Xena's waist. "I'm getting pretty good at defending myself. You don't need to break your concentration for me."
Xena shook her head. "It stopped being a simple matter of looking out for you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle put a hand up on Xena's arm, below the armor. "What is it now?"
Xena turned her head and laid a quick kiss on the back of Gabrielle's hand. "Just your presence breaks my concentration."
As if to prove her mistress' words, Argo stepped in a rough section of road without warning and both women almost lost their balance.
Xena regained it first and with a quick hand kept Gabrielle pinned to the saddle as well. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand reflexively taking a deep breath. "I see what you mean." Xena smiled over her shoulder. Gabrielle pushed at Xena's cheek forcing the warrior to look ahead. "Eyes forward, please."
Both women laughed.
The trip went easy as the path crested in the mountains and the two women began their descent into eastern Greece just after midday. Xena saw signs that a band of raiders had recently been through. Even Gabrielle noticed the most obvious. Both women dismounted as they approached a burned out grain store. No random brush fire would be preceded by a long trail of boot prints scuffling in the dirt. A battle had gone on here very recently.
"What should we do, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"Let's find the villagers first. Make sure everyone's all right." Xena mounted up.
"Then you'll track the raiders."
Xena smiled, the calculating battle grin. "You read my mind, Gabrielle."
"Better wipe that grin off your face before we meet any villagers," commented the bard.
"Scary?" Xena wiped the grin off her face and replaced it with a bland expression that coaxed a laugh from the bard.
"A normal smile will do, Miss Warrior Princess. You look like you swallowed a frog." She reached up for a hand into the saddle.
As Xena pulled her up, Gabrielle was treated to a flashing of the warrior's 'normal' smile. The sight took the bard's breath away. Amused by the reaction, Xena said, "Satisfied?"
Gabrielle swallowed. "Very," she finally managed.
The two trotted off on Argo down a widened path that Xena figured led to the village.
Xena and Gabrielle came to the village without incident, and Gabrielle exclaimed aloud at the sight of burnt out homes and scattered, dead livestock. "Who did this?" she asked the warrior as they dismounted and began the task of trying to find someone, anyone, among the wreckage.
Xena shook her head. "I don't recognize any pattern. Must be a new group trying to make a name for itself over here." She pointed to a squat building that seemed reasonably intact. "You check in there." She untied Gabrielle's staff from Argo's saddle and tossed it to her. "And be careful."
Gabrielle smiled as she caught the Amazonian gift. "You too." She watched Xena walk to a nearby hut and start moving the burnt wood aside in an effort to get within. Now Gabrielle turned to the building she'd been given to search. It was a small mudbrick structure, and thus only looked to be damaged by smoke. She stepped through an entryway that must have at one point been a wooden door.
She was in a small alcove and looked around for a way to turn. There was an opening to the right she ducked through. Now, as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light here, she was startled. "Xena! I found them! Xena!" Her eyes welled with tears.
The warrior was at her side before Gabrielle could turn around and run back out to fetch her. She looked past Gabrielle and grabbed the bard's head and shoulders, pulling her against her chest for solace. The warrior groaned. "Is this everyone?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder and bit her lip. "Looks like a lot of them. But someone had to bring them in here. Raiders don't clean up after themselves."
Xena nodded. "Well, let's find that person. Or whoever. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Gabrielle and Xena remained close as the two women searched the rest of the building for signs of a living being. Each woman avoided looking at the roomful of laid out bodies, each wrapped in burial cloths, ready for interment.
They found a young man about Gabrielle's age coming from the southeast. He had a shovel in one hand and a pickaxe in the other. Gabrielle approached him first, stepping from the building's shadows.
"Hello," she began. The young man jumped.
"Who are you?" He looked beyond her to the squat building. "Why are you here? There's nothing left to raid."
Gabrielle nodded. "We know. I'm Gabrielle." She motioned Xena forward. "This is my friend Xena. Can you tell us where the men went who did this?"
The young man took in the measure of the warrior and stepped back. "I was off hunting for a deer to offer for Myria's hand. I only saw their backs as they rode away." The young man looked around. "Everything was in flames."
Xena nodded and stepped forward, noting Gabrielle's smile of support. "So you cleaned up everything and just now?"
"I was getting burial plots ready." He lifted the shovel and pickaxe briefly before his arms sagged to his side once more. "That's our temple, to Zeus. I figured the bodies would be safe in there until I returned."
Xena nodded again. "You were right. Even raiders don't defile temples." Xena started looking around the dirt. "Do you remember which way the raiders rode when they left?"
The young man pointed northwest. Xena nodded. "I'll find them," she said. "Gabrielle, I'll get Argo. You see if you can't help --" She looked meaningfully at the young man.
Gabrielle stepped forward again. "Well, Handel, let's see what's next? How about some food for you?"
The bard led Handel away from Xena. The warrior went to fetch her horse and follow the raiders' trail out of town.
It was nearing dusk when Xena found the raiders' camp. She still didn't recognize the standard. A new threat to the region. Well, they won't be around long enough to try this again, she thought, studying the encampment, looking for the best surprise entrance.
It was becoming too dark now to take on a full assault herself. But, she grinned. Nothing says I can't take out a few sentries. She crept around to one of the sentry posts and snuck up behind a bearded man in only brass-studded leather armor and helmet. She leapt in silence landing in front of him with her sword drawn and already at the ready.
When he charged her, though he could barely make out her form in the fading light, she permitted herself to engage the battle. She needed quiet and she needed control. After seeing all those bodies, and the grief on Gabrielle's face, as well as the weariness of the sole survivor, Xena desired revenge on their behalf. But if she gave into it. Only the gods knew what would happen.
There was a quick series of parries and thrusts, finally Xena's blade found its mark, deep in the sentry's chest, cutting off his air before he could scream. In silence, she stole away from the scene.
Gabrielle greeted Xena when the warrior returned. She looked over her friend critically. "Everything all right?"
"I found their camp." She studied Handel who was dozing on a bed in the anteroom of the temple. "They're small. Only about 50 men in the whole party, but I'd like to get rid of them before they do this again."
Gabrielle sighed. She knew what Xena meant by 'get rid of them.' "Xena, can't we just find an Athenian detachment and send them here to arrest them?"
"The nearest Athenian detachment is posted back on the other side of the mountains. We're on our own here."
Gabrielle nodded. "I understand."
Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I think I can do this quietly. But it will take a few days to whittle down their numbers before I can face the rest at once."
Gabrielle hugged Xena. "I know you'll do it quickly."
"Help Handel here while I'm busy, okay?"
"No problem." Gabrielle traced a finger over Xena's cheek. "Remember to watch your back."
Xena smiled. "I will."
That night, Xena took out two more sentries at the camp. In the dawning light the raiders found their dead compatriots. The Warrior Princess kept her vigil. But the raiders did not yet come looking for the killer of their friends.
She crouched in a bush, thinking about lots of things, notably her last conversation with Gabrielle. The green-eyed bard had seemed to acknowledge the battle within Xena without saying a word. What a gift to me, Xena thought.
With those in the camp busy burying their dead, her mind returned briefly to the odd experience at the waterfall two days before. Marcus? She asked in silence. What am I doing thinking of her this way? No answers were forthcoming, so Xena returned to her work.
Back in the village, which Gabrielle had finally learned was called Notch, Gabrielle and Handel were moving bodies to the graves dug the previous day. Handel had found a rickety wagon to load a few of the bodies at a time and drive them out. Gabrielle assured him it was all right to hitch Argo to pull the wagon.
While seated next to Handel, Gabrielle's thoughts drifted away from the task at hand to the Warrior Princess. She wondered briefly how many more men Xena had ambushed during the night. Hopefully by dusk, Xena would return and let her know she was safe.
Over lunch, which they took back at the temple, Handel and Gabrielle talked of Myria, and his life in Notch.
"I guess I'll have to move on," Handel said.
"It might be best," Gabrielle agreed. "The fields are all burnt and the grain store -- Xena and I saw that when we first arrived -- is nothing but ashes. You could probably make your way to a bigger town." She smiled lightly.
"I'm a pretty good farmer," Handel said. "Maybe I can rent a plot from a landowner. Start over somewhere."
Gabrielle grasped his forearm in a gesture of support and smiled warmly. "Good thinking."
Xena returned then, hungry and tired. She'd spent some time cleaning her weapons and herself before she returned. She didn't want Gabrielle to have to think about what Xena was busy doing any more than necessary.
She walked in as Gabrielle was standing, collecting their dishes from lunch. The bard looked up at the sound of footfalls. The smile which lit her face made Xena feel ten times better. "Xena," cried Gabrielle. Again, she felt the critical examination as the bard's eyes raked over her body. "How are you?"
Xena ignored the bruises and sat down. Her eyes were dark with memory, but she put a lightness into her voice, not knowing that Gabrielle knew it was forced. "Hungry."
Handel brought the warrior some bread and a small portion of the offering meat which had been kept in a small corner of the temple. "This is what we have for now."
Xena ate the bread, and nodded that both should sit down with her. "Tell me how it goes here." Handel took a seat across the table and Gabrielle straddled the bench next to Xena.
The two related everything, and Handel guiltily confessed to using Argo as the wagon horse. Xena waved away his sorrow. "Argo does -- like the rest of us -- what needs doing. Don't think about it again, understood?"
Handel nodded and fell silent. Gabrielle picked up the thread of conversation.
"I was telling Handel he ought to head for a bigger town after we're through here."
"Good thinking. There really isn't much left to start over here -- for only one man."
Handel nodded, answering the unspoken question. "Yes, it does appear I was the only survivor. Gabrielle and I haven't come across anyone else."
"I should be able to call out their leader in another day, maybe two, depending."
Handel's brow drew together worriedly. "I'd like to be there, Xena."
"It's too dangerous." Xena was met by two equally undenied stares. "Gabrielle, if I get their leader, they'll disband. They won't be a threat to the rest of the area. I've got them scared now. Tomorrow I add in the possibility that Zeus himself is taking revenge."
"How are you going to do that?" asked Handel.
Xena and Gabrielle shared a nod. "There's a storm coming. We're going to harness a little lightning," replied Gabrielle.
The three shared a small smile.
Xena went out that night with a small handful of kites tied with brass moldings from the hinges of the village doors. Each one she tied to a tree around the raiders' camp. The lightning started before the rain began to really pelt the earth. By the time the rain was falling full force, the lightning was filling the sky. Finally one bolt struck a tree tethered to a kite. It collapsed into the encampment. Xena couldn't have planned the confusion any better.
She watched as the raiders stumbled away from the fallen tree and pulled others, dead, from beneath its broken branches. She heard mutterings of "Zeus!" and "Gods save us!" as the men crowded into the few untouched tents.
She sneaked back into Notch as the moon broke through the clouds and the rain began to slow. She found Handel and Gabrielle asleep on the bed Handel had been using to doze earlier. The two were sleeping close but not touching. Xena settled on a chair nearby and found a bucket to upturn and use for her feet. She removed her armor, but kept it and her sword and scabbard within easy reach as she laid back and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle awakened a few moments later, thinking she had heard a noise. She looked around the room and spotted Xena asleep in the chair. She smiled and carefully got off the bed, leaving Handel to gently snore alone.
She crossed to the chair and crouched next to Xena's sleeping form. "You really ought to find a bed," she coaxed the warrior awake.
Xena's eyes lifted and blue swam in green for a long moment. "I didn't want to disturb you and Handel."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Disturb me anytime, Xena," she told the warrior. "Come on, let's find a bed."
Xena and Gabrielle stood. Gabrielle collected Xena's armor, while the warrior picked up her sword and scabbard. The two searched the temple for another room with a bed. They finally found one, about two doors away from the room Handel was using. Together they laid down.
Before letting Xena fall asleep, Gabrielle asked, "How did it go tonight?"
"Zeus may be helping us after all," commented Xena. "The one tree struck by lightning fell right into the middle of the camp."
"See, Xena, not all the gods are against you. You've got the King of the Gods on your side."
"Handy if I ever want another child out of wedlock, hmm?" commented Xena wryly, bringing to mind the story Gabrielle had told of Zeus and Danae.
"You'll see," Gabrielle said, brightly, ignoring the jibe. "Zeus is helping us."
"If he is, it's because of you, not me," Xena snorted. "That story probably made him think soft thoughts all over again for Danae."
Gabrielle smiled. "You think so?" She watched as Xena rolled over and giggled when the warrior tapped a finger on her nose. "I guess you do."
Xena smiled, for the first time in almost two days, it wasn't a forced smile, but genuine happiness. "Gabrielle, you're wonderful," she told the bard.
Gabrielle said nothing. Her heart however beat double-time as the warrior closed her eyes and drifted into sleep with a smile on her lips. "Good night, Xena," she whispered as she too, closed her eyes.
The leader of the raiders had apparently decided that Zeus was somehow responsible for the decimation of his raiding party. He showed up outside the temple, shouting the name of the King of the Gods and demanding it stop.
Gabrielle and Xena awakened to the yelling and crept into the shadows near the door to watch the leader becoming a little unhinged.
Xena decided it was time to meet him. "Get me one of the priests' robes, Gabrielle. I'm going out there."
"Right," Gabrielle crept back from the doorway then rose and ran off to the priest's rooms to fetch the robe.
In a few minutes, a robed priest stepped from Zeus' temple and walked calmly toward the ranting raider. In a deep voice, her face hidden by a cowl, Xena asked the raider, "Why return to this place? Zeus has promised your destruction."
"Bah," countered the raider, faced now with a human he viewed as far beneath him.
"Bad choice," countered Xena, throwing off the robes and brandishing her sword. The leader absorbed this for a minute and then Xena yelled her battle cry, shattering whatever control he had over himself.
The rest of his raiding party charged into the area, as the battle between the two leaders engaged. Xena was caught in the center of this. One warrior against 25 raiders. Gabrielle, watching from the darkness of the temple, decided the odds needed evening up, just a little. She went to fetch her staff and wake Handel.
Within minutes it was the three of them fighting from the center of a force of 20. Xena had dispatched five to Hades while Gabrielle and Handel were readying themselves.
Xena concentrated on the leader, but his followers were loyal. Several tried to interfere in the one-on-one she was trying to have with him. She felled several with her sword and advanced on the leader with a grim smile. It was the one Gabrielle had tried to get Xena to wipe off her face before they entered town. Battle lust had come home to roost.
The warrior turned from the leader to handle a larger underling who thought to sneak up from behind. She leapt over his head and landed behind him, but the flat of his sword found her back. She quickly turned her sword on him and sliced his cheek and nose. He fell away clutching his face; he would live, but a nasty scar would be a reminder to never try and sneak up on the Warrior Princess ever again.
Xena found the leader and decided, as her body began aching, enough was enough. Time to get this over with.
She engaged him and refused to give ground. Once though, the flat of his sword crashed against her left wrist guard. Xena heard the bone crack, and angered, sent her sword into his belly, ending his life. The fight was over. All of the raiders who remained standing, fled when they saw their leader drop away from Xena's fatal blade. Gabrielle and Handel chased them with staff and pitchfork until they were gone deep in the woods.
Cleaning up after the battle took less time than the battle itself, which hadn't been all that long. There were a few bodies to add to the burial list: raiders whom Xena had killed. But the task was soon done and the threat was now over.
The firelight helped Gabrielle as she arranged the salves and bandages. Xena walked up; she shrugged at the look of surprise from the bard.
"I tried lifting off the armor. My wrist won't cooperate." The warrior lifted her left hand, a splint encased the wrist.
Gabrielle sighed. "Come here." She coaxed Xena next to her at the fire. She unhooked the warrior's shoulder braces. Then carefully she lifted away the leather and brass pieces. She sucked in a breath at the sight of Xena's bare shoulders. "You're one big bruise. Who hit you here?" She gingerly traced one discolored patch of skin, from mid shoulder blade to the middle of Xena's neck.
"The big one with the scar across his nose and the gouge in his cheek," Xena replied with a wry smile.
"Which of those scars did you give him?" Gabrielle flashed a smile of her own as she rubbed salve into the bruise.
Xena got a gleam in her eye and her reply was echoed by Gabrielle. "Both."
Gabrielle shook her head as she continued to treat Xena's bruises. No cuts, just bruises. The only thing broken appeared to be the wrist. "You got off lucky this time. How's the wrist feel?"
"I could use a good swig of port," Xena responded only half in humor.
Gabrielle retrieved the wineskin. "It's only about half full, but you're welcome to it."
While Gabrielle carefully helped her out of her leathers, to tend the rest of the bruises, Xena downed the port. The fire from the bard's touch on her skin was dimmed by the fire in her belly from the liquor.
Gabrielle needed this contact with the softer Xena. Watching the warrior in battle took the bard's breath away. But now, slowly revealing the woman, Gabrielle was reminded forcefully of her attraction. She rubbed salve into more bruises but absorbed the feel of flesh beneath her hands.
It was warm flesh, supple. Not hard as she wanted to appear to her enemies. Gods, I can't do this to her. "Xena, I'm sorry." Gabrielle pulled abruptly away from the warrior's back.
"What is it?" The distress on Gabrielle's face brought Xena's hands up awkwardly to caress the bard's cheek. Gabrielle's eyes were wide and reminiscent of the look of loss she'd seen on the bard's face when she was in Autolycus' body. Oh, no, somehow I've worried her again. She tried for lightness. "My back's not that bad. Is it?"
Gabrielle couldn't meet Xena's eyes. She shook her head. When that movement jarred Xena's immobile wrist, Gabrielle grabbed the warrior's hands and pulled them into her lap, unwilling to hurt the woman. "It's not that." She lifted her gaze finally, pinning Xena with her green eyes. "I can't touch you anymore without --" The bard's hands gestured toward Xena and fell back in defeat. "I just can't."
"Were you worried about me today?" Xena tread lightly. If Gabrielle had been scared during the battle today, Xena wanted to be sure to put her mind at ease quickly. She was surprised when Gabrielle firmly shook her head.
"No, you've taken on tougher odds before. This was easy. I knew it going in." She studied Xena, waiting for the inevitable questions. She drank in the sight of the woman's bare shoulders, the smooth line of her throat and the sparkle from the firelight that danced in her eyes. She was startled when Xena finally spoke.
"Then what is it?" Xena straightened, wanting to give solace but uncertain for what. The motion made her leathers slip further down her hips, and Gabrielle caught sight of the supple muscles of Xena's stomach.
Gabrielle swallowed, fisting her hands in her lap to slow the thoughts in her head. "Do you remember a conversation we had about a week ago? Since then I've had a lot of time to consider what was said...What I said. Have you thought about it?"
Xena remembered the conversation and the bard's fierce kiss. It had caused an invasion of Xena's dreams for days. "Yes, I remember," she replied warily.
"How do you feel about it? About what I said?" Gabrielle kept her eyes on Xena's face, watching the play of a muscle in Xena's right cheek. Oh gods, she hates me for reminding her of a weak moment.
Xena's voice was curt, tight, as she tried to answer, but came away with only a half-truth, not sure where the bard was leading. "I told you I'll take care of Ares. He's my problem."
Gabrielle gasped. "No, that's not it." She touched Xena's side, running a hand along the woman's ribs. She pulled away as Xena looked down to see Gabrielle's paler hand against the suntanned flesh of her own body.
When Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's again, the bard found confusion in the warrior's crystal blue eyes, and, she noticed, Xena breathed sparingly. "Xena," Gabrielle sighed. She hurried on in a rush before she lost her nerve. "I've been trying to seduce you for nearly a week! You haven't reacted once!"
"Gabrielle!" Xena turned red everywhere she wasn't black or blue. "I -- You've been --" Xena put her right hand over Gabrielle's as it fisted in the bard's lap. "I'm not -- "
"Xena, I love you. I've been trying to find out if you feel the same way or if I'm completely stupid to --" The bard started to push to her feet, but Xena's grip on her hands prevented anything more than a crouch. The warrior wasn't going to let her go.
"Well, you are definitely not stupid, Gabrielle," Xena interrupted quietly.
The soft voice completely stole the head of steam Gabrielle was working up. But heat of another sort was already building. "What does that mean?" She sounded strangled, even over the roaring in her ears. Would Xena wave off her emotions, believe that Gabrielle had a bad case of hero-worship?
But the look on Xena's face didn't look like when she'd put down Ulysses. It was open, a bit shy (if one could say that about a Warrior Princess), and somewhat uncomfortable. "I don't know what to do about it, but Gabrielle --:" It was now Xena's turn for her nerve to begin to fail. She added quickly, "I've been fantasizing about you since that night."
Gabrielle watched, a grin beginning to play at her mouth, as Xena became even redder as the silence following that statement lengthened. Mercifully the bard broke the silence. "Mind if I do something, Xena?"
The warrior looked up. "What?" Now Xena sounded strangled. Her blue eyes were worried, but her hands reached for Gabrielle, drawn by the warmth in those green eyes and a power beyond the warrior's comprehension. What can I do? She's my other half. I hope she knows what she's doing to me.
"This." Gabrielle leaned forward and pressed her lips to Xena's. Her hands caressed Xena's shoulders as she slipped her mouth from the warrior's, across her cheek to her ear. Gabrielle whispered huskily, "I hope you know this is what I've wanted, Xena. Always." Xena's head fell back, caught in the same whirlpool she went to every time the bard told a story, caught by that voice, that catch of breath that showed the bard's passion for life. "So tell me. What made you so hot under that waterfall?"
Xena's eyes shot open. "That was you!" In response to Gabrielle's question, Xena grasped Gabrielle's hands. "I can show you," she offered with a soft smile. "Gabrielle --"
"I love the way you say my name." Gabrielle found herself pulled across Xena's lap; Xena's hands moved to Gabrielle's cheeks.
The woman's hands, so sure with a sword or chakram, now trembled. "Gods, Gabrielle," she breathed, drowning in green eyes. Her love for this young woman had grown to fill her entire heart, and it scared her.
"Sh, Xena." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hands and pushed them aside. "Let me show you." Gabrielle eased down and captured Xena's mouth in a kiss eliciting passion. Xena moaned. In that moment, the warrior completely dropped away unleashing the woman. Gabrielle's hands stroked Xena's flesh, followed closely by her mouth over the sensitive places. Shivers coursed through Xena when Gabrielle kissed the apex of her neck and shoulder.
"Talk to me. Tell me what to do -- for you." Xena needed to hear the bard's voice, to fall away into the sea of feeling that only Gabrielle's presence and voice could create.
"I'd tell you a story, but I'm a little busy right now." The bard chuckled, her breath enhancing the kisses on her way down Xena's collarbone. She shifted, and her hair brushed Xena's skin, making the warrior shiver. Gabrielle shifted to find a better position over her warrior. Xena couldn't help a small yelp of pain when Gabrielle pressed her knee into the warrior's broken left wrist.
Worry lining her face, Gabrielle stopped and pulled back, critically examining the warrior, eliciting another moan from Xena, this one of an entirely different distress -- the ache of being alone. "Are you all right?"
With her good right hand, Xena pulled the bard's face to hers for a quick kiss. Her sigh was half-laugh as she murmured, "Stay off my wrist and I'll be fine."
Gabrielle returned to her joyous task -- discovering the woman's responses. She stroked across Xena's stomach and watched as the muscles contracted at her touch. Xena laid back. "You have such strength, Xena. Ever since we started traveling together, I've watched you. I admire the strength you show, and that which you hide -- the strength you have when you fight and when you love. I often wondered if it couldn't be just for me." She kissed the warrior's stomach, smiling into the soft skin when she felt Xena jump.
"Gabrielle, I don't --" Xena's breath was thready; Gabrielle glanced up to see the warrior's eyes were closed. "I'm not sure --"
"Sh, but strength can be soft. You've proven it. Let me show you your softness." Her hand slipped lower. She stroked down Xena's body, and pushed aside the rest of the warrior's leathers. She threaded her fingers through Xena's mound of dark hair. The slight tug on her mons released a flood of sensations in the pit of Xena's belly. Gabrielle stroked a single fingertip over Xena's clit. The woman's hips leapt off the blankets. "Gods," breathed Xena, grasping Gabrielle's shoulders, but the younger woman wasn't finished.
The bard sat back, taking her hands from Xena for the moment. The warrior opened her eyes. Gabrielle answered the questioning look with a raised eyebrow. Xena, despite being caught in a maelstrom of sensations, smiled. "Xena?"
"Gabrielle," answered the warrior, sitting up. She touched the bard's hair in awe. "You really feel this way about me?" Xena shook her head in amazement.
"I always have. And I've known since you came back to me from the other side that I never want anyone else." She caressed Xena's cheek. "And I hope you don't either, because I discovered I can be very jealous." Gabrielle captured Xena's mouth again in another kiss, this one conveying less passion than possessiveness.
Xena reached up and touched Gabrielle's mouth. "You always have the right words," she marveled. "I want to make you happy, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle shook her head. "You've not run from me, which I believed was possible. No, let me show you how much I care for you."
The bard leaned back, supporting her head with her other hand so she could watch Xena's face. She slipped a finger into Xena's wet core. Then another. "You're so soft inside," Gabrielle whispered, watching a tear escape Xena's closed eyes. "It's nothing to be afraid of. It's beautiful. As you are. I want to always help you be strong, Xena. But it's the softness I will always cherish."
Caught by the love expressed in the bard's words, Xena's eyes flew open. Gabrielle fell into pools of mesmerizing turbulent sea-blue as she felt Xena's muscles contract convulsively around her finger. The bard wiggled her fingers just barely and felt Xena bear down, a climax catching the warrior off guard. "Gabrielle!" The bard's name burst from the warrior's lips. Xena felt every muscle in her body go slack as her core soaked Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle's fingers left Xena's center and stroked hip, then side, and finally cheek to soothe. Xena tried to calm her racing heart. "Gods, Gabrielle. I never imagined. I -- Have you done this before?"
The bard shook her head. "Only in my dreams, Xena."
Xena smiled. She grasped Gabrielle's hand, feeling the dampness of her own release on the bard's fingers and kissed the woman's lips gently. "Next time," she breathed against the bard's mouth. "Next time you have a dream, wake me. I'd like to share it." Xena's voice began to fade as exhaustion settled in nestling with the warm feelings.
"You just did," replied Gabrielle, kissing Xena on the nose, as the warrior's eyes closed and she snuggled to the bard's breast.
Sleep didn't last long for Xena. Being caught in love with her bard, the warrior was willing to remain aside so that the woman could enjoy the precious time. Xena was still a woman of the moment, unwilling to let something lie if it could be otherwise.
Gabrielle was stroking her hair and the sensations coaxed her to wakefulness. "Gabrielle?"
"Can I bring you the same happiness?"
"Are you saying you're happy?"
Xena nodded into the bard's shoulder. This was new territory and Xena was a little surprised to find herself needing guidance.
"Do what makes you feel wonderful."
"Huh?" Xena pushed to her elbows next to the bard and met smiling green eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I like gentle touches. Caresses. And watching your face. I love watching your muscles flexing beneath the skin."
Xena smiled. "So that's why you gave me pleasure that way."
"Did you like it?"
"I did. No one ever knew that before. All my...other...Never mind." Xena was suddenly reluctant to bring up anything from her past. Somehow, she decided, that would tear this peacefulness apart.
But Gabrielle wanted to hear it. Xena wanted guidance, and Gabrielle knew only what Xena would tell her of her experiences. "Go on," she coaxed with a gentle brush of her knuckles against the warrior's cheek.
"I don't want to think about them," Xena said. "It doesn't mean anything. Not anymore."
Gabrielle sighed. "How can I be the more experienced one, Xena? Have you never really been loved?" She touched the woman's lips. "I really love you. All of you. Past, present and future. Tell me what you like. Or if you prefer, show me."
Xena blushed. "I -- oh, gods, Gabrielle. I do desperately want to love you. But I'm not sure I know how. The men in my life were a focus for passion, mostly battle lust. But with you, I feel -- I don't know. Somehow it's different. You're different." She sat up and glanced back down at Gabrielle, who looked up with only patience and love shining in her green eyes. "What I feel for you isn't lust. It's..." She took a deep breath, and continued, "Incredible. You're a part of me. I don't think I could ever do without you." Xena fell silent trying to examine her emotions and put them into words.
Gabrielle waited. What Xena was expressing was worth her patience, until the warrior could get it out. The bard sensed that soon enough words would fail and Xena would seek her arms again.
"In my experience, sex was always about power. Something given for something obtained." Gabrielle nodded. She'd guessed as much. Maybe that was why Xena was having such a hard time taking the act of sex and seeing it as an act of something non-possessive, a non-power struggle, an act of love.
"What do you think I want from you?" asked Gabrielle, putting to words the question that might put Xena on track to her emotions.
Xena shook her head. "I don't think you want anything."
"That surprises you?" Gabrielle sat up, putting her hand on Xena's bent knee, as the warrior encircled her knees with her arms. "That's not exactly true, though, you know."
"I do want something, Xena." Gabrielle lifted the warrior's chin as her shoulders started to droop. "Don't worry. I'm hoping to help you give it to me."
"What is it?"
Xena's smile was spontaneous then. Her bard had yet again found the right words. "Gabrielle, I think I'm ready to show you."
Gabrielle smiled coyly. "Oh really? Well, maybe I'm just a little hungry...how about later?"
Xena laughed and the two women sank back to the blankets. Xena was tentative at first, but Gabrielle encouraged her, removing her own top. "You could never hurt me, Xena." Gabrielle found that Xena was an eager pupil. She questioned everything. "Gods, Xena, stop talking," Gabrielle finally managed as Xena's breathy questions sent shivering tingles across her stomach. "I had to find the most talkative woman in Greece, who doesn't speak nearly as many words out of bed as in it."
Xena laughed. The bard's reactions to her touch were gratifying, and it never seemed like a power play, unless it was somehow Gabrielle wielding power over her. The bard was beautiful in her passion.
Xena touched Gabrielle's body, exploring the taut muscles of her stomach, caressing the lean muscles of her thighs. But she liked Gabrielle's face and throat most of all. There was something about feeling the bard's pulse against her lips and tasting the tongue that spoke such wonderful words that brought Xena again to her own precipice.
"Gabrielle, I want to bring you with me over the edge," Xena whispered. "Help me."
Gabrielle's eyes opened slowly, having been pressed shut against the roiling of sensations in her body as Xena touched and kissed her. "Touch me, Xena."
Xena's hand stroked down across the planes of Gabrielle's stomach and she felt the well-tanned leather of the amazon skirt. Her hands slid up beneath the skirt, caressing the muscles of her legs. At the apex of her thighs, Xena found Gabrielle wet and warm. "Did I do that to you?" Xena asked in amazement, stroking the wetness she found. She looked up and found Gabrielle biting her lip. "What is it? Am I hurting you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Gods, Xena, I told you you'd never hurt me. But always believe me. This is the best torture you've ever conducted."
Xena smiled, burying her face in Gabrielle's shoulder and taking a deep breath of the bard's sun-kissed fragrant hair. Below, her fingers found the bard's clit and it was barely a touch, but Xena found herself knocked aside by the violent reaction of Gabrielle's hips. "Hey!"
"Then stop teasing me," pleaded Gabrielle. She rolled over and kissed Xena.
"All right," replied Xena, who followed that with a stroke of a finger deep into Gabrielle's center. A flood of warmth eased her way, as, at the same moment, the bard found her release and convulsed around the warrior's fingers. Gabrielle's scream was caught in Xena's mouth, and the older woman's ears rang with the echo even before the sound finished coming from the bard. "Gods, you are loud."
Gabrielle was a bit sheepish as she focused her eyes on Xena's face. "I'm sorry."
"Were you this loud on your wedding night?" asked Xena tentatively. Suddenly, she felt like she was competing with the dead Perdicas, which was absurd, but even in just the last candlemark, Gabrielle had convinced her to go with her feelings. The results were often very rewarding.
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't think so. I was too nervous." She looked at Xena. "With you, on the other hand, I feel anything but nervous." She pushed Xena onto her back and kissed her way down to the peak of a breast.
Xena threw her head back, reveling in the pull that the bard's suckling caused not in her breasts, but in her stomach and lower. "Gabrielle," she sighed.
"Say it again," whispered the bard, moving to the other breast. "Call me, Xena."
"Gabrielle," she sighed again.
Gabrielle and Xena fell asleep cradled in each other's arms. Xena felt soft as she drifted into a peaceful sleep. But it wasn't scary. Gabrielle had shown her so much, and tonight had only proven that the warrior woman could be both warrior and woman. She looked into Gabrielle's sleeping face and felt tears pricking at her eyes. I love you, Gabrielle. Even Marcus couldn't make me feel both at the same time.
She knew then, that that realization must have been with her all the time. That's why Gabrielle so easily replaced Marcus in her daydreams. She kissed the bard's shoulder and fell asleep surrounded by the smells of their lovemaking and Gabrielle's heart beating next to her ear.
Gabrielle awakened the next morning to find Xena leaning over her, dressed in her leathers. She smiled at the soft look in the warrior's eyes before the sun was blocked out and they were nose to nose. The warrior's lips brushed over her own. Gabrielle sighed and murmured, "Mmm, that's a nice way to wake up. Much better than a fish in the face." Xena laughed.
"I did make breakfast this morning," commented Xena as she trailed kisses over Gabrielle's breasts, throat and stomach.
"Well," said Gabrielle. "If I have to die, this is definitely the way to go."