The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Perdicus, and other characters from the show Xena Warrior Princess belong to Renaissance Pictures and those who now hold the rights to the show.

This story begins the morning after Gabrielle leaves Poteidaia in the episode, "Sins of the Past." It is very much Perdicus’ story; so if you really despise Perdicus, don’t even bother reading this. Though Perdicus’ story, it is his perceptions of Xena and Gabrielle, their relationship, and his feelings about it. And everything happens prior to Seasons 3.

Disclaimer 1: The sex. There are a couple of paragraphs of boy/girl action, but I make up for it with many pages of explicit scenes of physical intimacy between two women.

Disclaimer 2: There is reference/dialogue from actual episodes from the show.

Dedications: To my Xenite friend, Carol Johnston whom I miss terribly. It’s been a year and I hope you can hear my daily thoughts to you. To my other buddy, Jay who is always an inspiration and brings such meaning to my life.

 

What Perdicus Knew

by

Portia Richardson

PortiaOnly@aol.com

 

It was the morning after the big ruckus in town and everyone had gotten a late start. Adrian and Dysis had spent the dawn of the new morning in each other’s embrace. Adrian was so relieved that his wife had been saved from that slave trader, Hector that he vowed to tell and show her more often how much he loved her. He began keeping his promise the previous evening, taking her to bed immediately after the rescue and only leaving their bedroom to fill mugs of wine many candlemarks later.

Now, Adrian and his eldest son, Lander were out on their land taking care of the oat fields and harvesting chickpeas to dry and later take to the village mill. The other male children in the family would join Adrian and Lander after their breakfast.

Breakfast was an unusually large production. Dysis was in a wonderful mood, humming and singing so lark-like as she served her sons and daughter. Perdicus sat at the head of the table since his father and older brother weren’t there and quickly ate his breakfast of four eggs and an entire loaf of his mother’s honey-flavored bread.

"Slow down, Perdicus. The oats will still be there."

He sighed as he pushed back from the table. "Ah, mom, that was great."

"Are you actually full?"

"I could probably eat some more, but I want to go over to Gabrielle’s and catch her before she starts her chores."

"It’s far too early to call on her, son. Soon you’ll be married and can see her all you want, but give the girl some rest. You saw her yesterday."

"Only for a while. I don’t know what I would have done if she had been kidnapped by that…that man! And you, too, and sister."

His sister, Chloe looked at him and said, "Like you care. It’s all about Gabrielle." She whined her comments obnoxiously.

"Shut up." Perdicus smirked.

"You shut up."

"No, you shut up."

"No, you."

Dysis placed her hands akimbo and stared at two of her children. "I want both of you to hush. Now. Look at your brother–so behaved." Farris intently dissected his egg, trying to separate the yolk from the whites. "Farris, stop playing with your food."

The young boy looked up at his mother before returning to his morning meal surgery.

"Do you need me to help clean up?" A hopeful look adorned his face. He really wanted to leave.

Just as she was answering, a loud knock was heard at the door and the entire family turned to stare as Herodotus pushed the door open and ran into the main room, gripping Lila’s shoulder tightly.

"Have you seen Gabrielle?" Herodotus asked frantically.

"Gabrielle, no. I was just coming over to see her." He paused looking at Herodotus, then Lila. "She’s missing? Do you think she’s been kidnapped again?" Perdicus had leapt from his chair and crossed the room.

"Yes, yes apparently." Herodotus frowned. "Kidnapped."

"Uh-uh," Lila chimed in, but Herodotus moved his hand from her shoulder to her ear and gave it a rough twist. "Owww."

"Gabrielle’s been kidnapped…sort of," he whispered the last part.

Perdicus gazed curiously at his future father-in-law. "What do you mean?"

Before her father could hurt her, Lila decided to quickly tell her story. With fiery precision she told Perdicus and his family all that she knew. "In the middle of the night last night I woke up to hear her trying to sneak away. When I sat up I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was going to join up with Xena and…"

"Join with Xena? That she-warrior who helped us get those slave traders away from the women? That’s ridiculous." But even as he said it, Perdicus had a sick feeling in his stomach and he knew it had nothing to do with breakfast.

"Yeah, she was following Xena to wherever she was going."

"Wh-when did she leave?" Perdicus asked bewilderedly.

"Candlemarks ago. For some reason, Lila thought it was a better idea to get her beauty sleep instead of trying to protect her sister. She didn’t tell us until breakfast time when Gabrielle didn’t take her place at the table." Herodotus glared at Lila. He planned on beating some sense into her later. She was far too immature for her age, so self-involved, so unwilling to look at the larger picture. A child much younger would have known to alert parents that their sister was about to do something very foolish. "We’ve just learned about it. After we checked their room and saw that her treasured belongings were missing, we came over here. I was hoping that maybe she was here or that the two of you had perhaps gone off together. If this is true…if she is trying to follow that warrior, I don’t know what will happen."

Perdicus nodded numbly. Gabrielle had been gone before the sunrise. She had probably passed the outskirts of several villages unless she ran into a warlord or slave trader along the way. If that had happened, she could be on her way to a port to be sold almost anywhere. He had heard that slave traders did business with merchants in Gaul, Britannia, and North Africa. Or worse, those Amazons could have captured her. She could be dead already. The thought of this made Perdicus’ head spin and he reached for a nearby table to control his equilibrium. "We’ve got to find her," he said weakly. "We’re to be married."

"Exactly. I mean, who knows what’s going on or what that woman has done to her. Xena is a killer. They call that bitch the Destroyer of Nations. But she could be a rapist, too. She could have her way with Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s a virgin."

"Do you seriously think…" Perdicus couldn’t even finish the thought. His precious Gabrielle was truly in jeopardy in so many ways.

"Of course, that’s what I think. That’s why I’m here. Hecuba is putting together a pack for you. I’ve brought a horse, but you might want to stay close to the ground to follow her tracks. You do know how to track, don’t you?"

"Yes, a little bit."

"Good. Now, you can make a great deal of headway while the sun is still up. Find my daughter."

"Shouldn’t we put together a party to hunt for her?" Perdicus believed that the more people who knew the better the chance of locating her.

"I’d rather not have the town know about this. It’s something that should stay between our two families." Herodotus tilted his head up to look at Dysis. "Don’t you agree?"

"Yes, of course. This is a private matter."

"Frankly, Perdicus, it doesn’t speak well for you that my daughter has run off with some crazed warrior when she’s to marry you."

Lila had been silent, but her youthful heart forced her to speak. "Maybe she doesn’t want to marry. Maybe she doesn’t love you, Perdicus."

"What?" both Herodotus and Perdicus shouted.

Lila stared at the dirt floor. She had already said too much and even she realized it. Gabrielle had shared her true feelings with her in sisterly secrecy. Lila shook her head, angry with herself for having divulged so much. "Nothin’. Never mind."

Perdicus’ eye twitched and what little self-assurance he possessed seemed to float from his body as his shoulders slumped forward.

"Well, are you ready, boy?"

"Yes, yes. Umm, when do we leave?"

"We? I’ve got a house and farm to tend, I can’t go traipsing across the land looking for your betrothed."

"But she’s your daughter and you’ve just said she’s in danger."

"It’s time for you to be a man, Perdicus. Go do the right thing and bring your future wife home." Again, Herodotus glanced at Dysis. "I trust you will tell Adrian about Perdicus’ journey and explain its import on the marital arrangement and the merging of our farms."

Dysis nodded. She didn’t like Herodotus and wondered if his last comment was simply a request to pass on information or a threat regarding the future. If her family didn’t need the resources that Hecuba and Herodotus possessed, they would never have agreed to the marriage. Gabrielle was a lovely and kind-hearted girl, but with the wife came the family and Herodotus, if nothing else was not her mug of tea.

Perdicus waved lightly at his sister, brother and mother, and followed Gabrielle’s father and sister out of the house.

* * * * *

Perdicus figured that Gabrielle had to have made good time. No one knew Poteidaia and the land around it as well as she did. From when she was old enough to walk, she would wander off, lost in her head, living some imaginary adventure, and he and his older brother or Gabrielle’s parents would find her in a field or cave or sitting in a tree. She had dozens of places she’d go off to for solitude and to make up stories. One thing Perdicus knew was that Gabrielle would be very far from home before things started to look unfamiliar. He also knew that she was smart and would have hitched a ride from a local or figured out a way to get a horse if catching up with the warrior was her goal. If only he knew which way the warrior had been headed.

When he left Poteidaia, he immediately headed southwest, but it soon became apparent that Gabrielle had not ventured that way. He turned around and simply headed west from the village center, but again, he was wrong. He rode northeast all day, only jumping from his horse when he thought he saw a new track or temporarily lost the ones he had been following. He was sure that he was on the right track as he followed smallish footprints down the main road outside of Poteidaia. Most of the tracks he had seen were definitely men’s, but these tracks were more delicate looking and fresher. Soon, he was off the large road used for wagons and carts, and had moved to some small paths that ran parallel to the road. Perhaps there had been trouble and Gabrielle had decided that some cover would protect her.

He moved hastily, yet stealthily through the brush and trees. He had ridden for candlemarks before he heard the sound of others on the path and he swiftly took cover. The idea of running into bandits or marauders before he could find his betroth not only frightened him, but it kept him worried and edgy. Gabrielle would need him. He couldn’t give up out of fear or surrender defeat.

The first night he camped not too far from a village he’d never visited. He was still in Thrace, but he had never been this far northeast. The village, according to his rudimentary map was called Amphipolis. He thanked the gods that Gabrielle had taught him how to read maps a few seasons ago. In the morning, he would speak to locals and find out if either warrior or young girl had come through.

His small fire didn’t warm him and he was terribly lonely. He knew his father and Herodotus would have called him a coward and child, but he couldn’t help it. He cried. He cried for himself and for his lost girlfriend. His fears got the best of him as he sobbed when he thought about Gabrielle being raped or beaten. After long moments, he scrubbed his face with his fist and vowed aloud, "I’ll find you, Gabrielle. Don’t worry."

He had slept late. His night had been fitful and filled with terrifying dreams of harlots and warriors battling it out in a field where they bloodied and murdered in the hopes of winning their prize, Gabrielle. Having been shaded from the sun by the large oak trees in the forest he missed the sunrise. As he stared up at the sky, trying to get his bearings and determine the time, he frowned that the sun seemed to be directly overhead. Six candlemarks I’ve wasted. Six. I was already practically a full day behind them, now this. Okay, I’ll get to this village and see what they know. Maybe she spent the night there. As soon as he thought about that, he wondered if she had spent the night alone or willingly or unwillingly in the company of another man. He grimaced at the very idea of it. As he fed the horse an apple and some oats, he considered his plan. What if Gabrielle really doesn’t want to come home? She left. Can I force her to return with me? Of course, I can. She’s my betrothed. She has to obey. But when did Gabrielle ever obey? He thought about their last conversation. All he had said was ‘c’mon Gabrielle,’ but his future wife practically ignored him. In front of his friends and other village men, she had told him what she was going to do. ‘I’m going to stay here and talk to Xena.’ That was no way for a girl to talk to her soon-to-be mate. It’s not that she didn’t respect him, but she was so strong-willed. Perdicus liked that about her, but he also hated it. What if she says that again? I’m going to stay with Xena? Boy, I don’t know what I’d do.

He had mounted the mare and as soon as they began he heard the animal wheezing. Perdicus loved animals and he refused to push the older horse. He slowed their pace. Perdicus had decided that once they arrived in the village of Amphipolis, he’d have an animal healer look at the horse. In the meantime, he’d be as gentle as possible.

"Would you rather I got off your back? Too tired?"

The horse whinnied and Perdicus dismounted.

"Better?"

The horse whinnied again and seemed to nod her head. The horse and the man walked on.

* * * * *

The first thing Perdicus did in Amphipolis was ask for the nearest animal healer. At the hut, Perdicus greeted the woman politely.

"My horse. I don’t know what’s wrong, but she’s wheezing and seems to be in a lot of discomfort. I’ve traveled kind of far in the last day or so and she’s not used to it, "he explained. "She’s all lathered right now and we’ve only been walking in this cool breeze for three or four candlemarks. I don’t know…I don’t know what’s wrong with her."

The healer walked silently around the animal and then, once facing her opened the horse’s mouth and checked her teeth. The healer looked at each tooth and gum. After that, she examined the horse’s eyes, her nostrils, rubbed her hands up and down her fore and hindquarters. Finally, she turned to Perdicus and solemnly stated that the horse was quite ill.

"I need to put her down? But I need her. I’ve traveled a ways to find my betrothed. She went missing from our village, Poteidaia and I have to find her, take her home."

"Poteidaia? I think Cyrene told me that the young girl with her daughter was from Poteidaia."

"Is this Cyrene…Is Cyrene’s daughter named Xena?"

"Oh, you’ve heard of her. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself, but she’s not that cruel warlord she once was."

"I know, she saved our women from enslavement by this trader."

"Sounds like Draco. He was here, too, but he walked away empty handed."

"He didn’t kidnap anyone?"

"No, Xena stopped him. Thanks to the girl."

"The girl with Xena? Where’s she?"

"She and Xena left town already. Don’t know where they’re headed. You might check at the Inn, that’s where Cyrene lives and works."

Perdicus was excited. He might catch them if he was only a few candlemarks away. "My horse?"

"Sorry, friend, but this horse isn’t budging. If you tried, you wouldn’t get her too far out of town. Let me give her some herbs so she can go peacefully."

"But I need to move fast. Where might I purchase another horse?"

"Ask around. Ask at the Inn."

Perdicus spoke softly to the old mare, then pushed several dinars into the healer’s hand, and walked away quickly, never looking back. That horse had belonged to Lila. She had cried for a horse of her own when Gabrielle first got Timpani. Gabrielle’s pony was slight, but feisty. This horse was tall and loyal, but hadn’t the power in her old bones to keep up a good trot.

As he headed for the Inn, he wondered where this journey would reach its end. He hoped that Gabrielle would come to her senses and walk away with him. As he played in his mind the romantic scenes of the next time he’d see his betrothed, he reached the Inn, entered through the door, and looked around. Spotting a bar wench, he asked, "Is there a Cyrene here?"

The wench pointed at the older woman behind the bar drying mugs.

"Thank you." He straightened. This is a warlord’s mother. I hope she doesn’t kill me.

"Excuse me," he said as he cleared his throat. "I was wondering if you might be so kind as to tell me where your daughter, Xena and her traveling companion are headed."

"Are you a bounty hunter?"

"No m’am. My name’s Perdicus. The girl your daughter is with is my betrothed."

"And?"

"I’d like to catch up with them to ask of their plans; when they might be returning to Poteidaia, our home."

Cyrene was a mother, friend, neighbor, and a great bartender. All of these things made for a good listener and she had a feeling that Perdicus’ story might be a doozey. She handed him a cup of tea and came around to the front. "On the house. Go ahead and quench your thirst and tell me how your betrothed has ended up traveling with my daughter and being her supporter."

Perdicus loved talking about Gabrielle. He was so in love with her and he knew that in time Gabrielle would learn to be more expressive with him.

By the time Perdicus finished, Cyrene had a clear picture of Gabrielle in her mind. Everything the young man said seemed to be much the same as the image she had of her from their brief meeting–the girl was open, fair, just, kind, and quite the talker. What surprised Cyrene was Perdicus telling her that Xena and Gabrielle had met not even two nights ago. Gabrielle seemed like a good friend to Xena, but more unpredictably, she didn’t seem afraid of her warrior daughter. Either Gabrielle was extremely naïve or Xena had really changed, or both.

Perdicus explained that he needed to purchase a horse to continue his journey and asked if Cyrene might know of someone looking to sell a fast, strong, and reliable horse for not too many dinars.

After purchasing a new horse, Perdicus returned to the inn to gather his things. He stared out at the sky again. Apollo’s chariot had begun its descent and it was too late for Perdicus to follow. He bit the inside of his lip and cursed his stupidity. He wasted time telling a stranger how Gabrielle would make the perfect wife for him. He’d be lucky if they’d ever marry at this point.

With a friendly arm tossed around the man’s shoulders, Cyrene lightly pulled his body into hers. "You’ll stay here tonight. And it’s on the house. You’re a young man who needs to save his money for his new life and wife. I’ll put you up in Xena’s old room. How’s that sound?"

"I thank you, m’am. I’ll leave bright and early tomorrow. I want to thank you for your hospitality and conversation. You’ve eased my burden somewhat. I think Gabrielle’s at least safe with Xena."

"That she is, son. That she is."

* * * * *

Perdicus didn’t know why he was taken aback, but he was when he saw a basket of food at the foot of his bed. Cyrene had packed breads, fruits, nuts, and cheese for his trip along with a note wishing him well and asking him to pass a message on to her daughter.

He secured the basket on the horse’s saddle and began heading east. That’s where his betrothed and Xena had continued. Spotting their tracks, he followed their path out of Amphipolis.

Just before nightfall, he came to a small campsite. There were no warm embers and it looked to be a day old. Woodland creatures had not yet scavenged all the scraps of cooked meat that had dried on a roasting stick. He could tell that two people had slept at the site--one on one side of the fire, the other directly across. The grass still lay flat where they had slept.

Perdicus stayed a day or two behind Xena and Gabrielle for half a moon. No matter how fast he pushed the new horse, she never got into a groove to give her all. The horse he had purchased in Amphipolis he named Perga, a combination of both his name and his beloved’s and she was as stubborn as Gabrielle. Perga would tear out quickly when the mood struck her, but other animals, sweet smelling flowers, and every piece of fruit that lay on the road easily distracted her. When she wanted to stop and take in her surroundings, all Perdicus could do was wait for her to finish.

At each town and village, he heard remarkable stories of his future wife & Xena. He sat slack-jawed when he learned that Gabrielle had met and befriended Pandora; Gabrielle had brought the Titans to life and those old gods thought of her as a goddess. She is a goddess to me, too, Perdicus thought. Already she had had more adventures than they had experienced in their entire lives. No wonder she left. He was angry with her for leaving, but admired the duo who crossed the land coming to the aid of those who couldn't help themselves.

Day after day, Perdicus would arrive at Xena and Gabrielle’s last campsite long after they’d gone. As each day passed, he observed something new and different about these sites. The changes were small, but significant. The first change was their sleeping arrangements. They didn’t seem to be sleeping directly opposite each other any longer. Each site showed proof that they were becoming comfortable with each other and their nighttime positionings were moving them closer and closer to the other. Perhaps, he thought, Xena found it more secure to have Gabrielle a bit closer. Second, he detected a certain tidiness at the site that hadn’t been there before. He couldn’t explain it, but there was a sense that things were being tended to. Thin roasting sticks were found at those first sites–the only form of cookware as far as he could discern. Now, there were indentations where a frying pan had sat near the fire. There was evidence of torches having been lit around the circumference of the fire. Maybe Xena and Gabrielle had talked through the night or Gabrielle had weaved a funny tale for the warrior’s ears. During the first days of his search for his betrothed, he had guessed that the two women sat in darkness at night except for the small fire. Next, he noticed that the warrior’s horse was no longer right at the area, but a few paces away on her own. When he walked the cold campsite, he saw evidence of long raven hair mixed with long blonde ones on a log. The two women had both sat on the log brushing their hair out after bathing.

Perdicus had never been so far from home and he knew he would have to turn back soon. There was no way of getting word to his family and they were undoubtedly worried about him. Deciding to give it one more day, Perdicus rode harder than ever. He rode so long and hard that he didn’t know when to stop. It was Perga who made that decision, coming to a halt just as the sleeping man atop her started slipping off the saddle. He jerked awake and slowly made his way off the horse to look for shelter for the night. Having spent so many days on the road, Perdicus had learned the best way to hunt for Xena and Gabrielle’s site, the site he always claimed for his evening breaks. He climbed the tallest tree and scanned the land.

Sure that he’d see only a clearing where a campsite had recently been, Perdicus gasped in surprise and relief when he actually saw two bodies sleeping at a site. He narrowed his eyes and focused on the two travelers. A blonde head was turned away from the fire, facing into the forest. He saw Gabrielle’s beautiful face and smiled softly. Gabrielle? I have found you, he said to himself. There wasn’t much open space between Gabrielle and the other body, but it was respectable. Another person could probably sleep between them, Perdicus thought. He sat in the tree and watched quietly. The things he had noticed about the campsite were true–there was a frying pan, there were two mugs, a couple of plates, and a wineskin. Xena’s armor and weapons lay beside her, opposite Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s boots were at the foot of the thin bedroll where she slept and Xena’ boots mimicked that position on her own bedroll. It was a homey site and he figured that it was Gabrielle’s influence that had brought that about. He saw doused torches sticking out from the ground near where they slept. Everything about the site looked like home except the roof was a black sky filled with a million twinkling stars, the floor was natural earth covered in leaves, moss, and twigs, instead of the bare dirt floors of their homes in Poteidaia. There were no chairs made by carpenters, but they could sit on fallen logs, a lucky gift from Zeus’ thunderbolts, no doubt.

As he sat there, he thought that he could watch Gabrielle all night. She looked radiant and peaceful. Right then, at that moment, Perdicus had never been more in love–his betrothed was adventurous yet she could make a home from nothing. He watched intently, leaning his back against the trunk of the tree while sitting on a thick branch. Morpheus easily entered his mind and he drifted to sleep with happy feelings about his upcoming reunion with his future wife in the morning.

Perdicus had been sleeping no more than a candlemark when he was jerked awake again. His head flew back and bumped the tree trunk. Rubbing his hand on his head and feeling for a bump, he peered down into the campsite. Unfortunately, he was too far away to hear what was being said, but he heard Xena screaming and saw her thrashing about under her bedroll. In an instant, Gabrielle was awake, crawling over to Xena. Perdicus had wonderful vision and hearing, but he was still too far to catch words and see expressions on their faces. It was his mind’s eye and mind’s ears that picked up on all that he was missing. Gabrielle wasn’t panicked, just concerned. He saw Xena sit up and blindly reach out for her hooped weapon, but Gabrielle reached out to her, pulling the Destroyer of Nations into an embrace, cradling her head in her innocent arms. Perdicus couldn’t look away. Gabrielle showed no fear at all. Even when Xena pushed her away, his betrothed only inched in closer, never surrendering her hold on the warrior. He watched as Gabrielle rocked Xena like a mother would her child and he saw the ex-warlord settle in, take comfort in Gabrielle’s soft reassurances, and weep softly until she had calmed completely. Slowly, Gabrielle and Xena lowered themselves onto the bedroll and Gabrielle continued to hold her and he watched in awe as his future wife placed peck after peck of soothing kisses on the top of the warrior’s head. After a while, Gabrielle stretched out her arm and pulled her own bedroll toward her and flung it over the two of them to sleep.

Perdicus was mystified by what he had seen. He sat in the tree most of the night and wondered over it. The night turned pleasantly into dawn and Perdicus pulled his teeth cleaning stick out of his waistband and counted the notches on it. He had been following them for seventeen sunrises and sunsets. In such a short time, Gabrielle was comfortable with this dark, older woman. Perdicus used his pocketknife to make the first part of the next notch. As he flossed, he watched as the campsite below began to awaken.

Xena took control of the morning. Dressed only in a soft looking shift, Xena picked up the waterskin and shook it, smiling to find that there was still plenty of water within. The warrior poured the contents into two mugs, felt for a warm spot on the fire and placed the mugs on top of it. Next, she walked over to her weapons and opened the saddlebag that rested beside them. She pulled out a pouch and reached her fingers in to retrieve a few pinches of tea. After dropping the tea into the mugs, she brushed off her hands and went back to her weapons. Perdicus watched the warrior leave the center of the site and move to an area not far from her horse. He sat amazed as he watched her stretch her lean body, bending at the knee and lunging forward, turning her torso left, then right, and bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet. Gabrielle, notorious in Poteidaia for arriving late for anything that took place in the early morning, remained tucked away under the bedroll.

As soon as Xena completed her warm up, she twirled her sword in her hand and began her weapons’ drill for the day. She fought an invisible foe as if she were under attack from all sides, feinting left, squatting while waving the sword from that position; she leapt at least twelve paces straight up and somersaulted back to the ground; she ran her opponent through from behind and from the front. Perdicus grinned as he saw her beckon the enemy with a wave of her hand. Xena used her sword in her left hand and retrieved her chakram from her waist loop with her right. She sent the chakram sailing through the air, hitting several trees, and a boulder before returning to her. Too bad Gabrielle’s missing all of this. When Perdicus turned, expecting to see his betrothed sound asleep, he quirked an eyebrow as he watched her, watching Xena. Gabrielle was on her back, reclining on her elbows as she took in the warrior’s every move. Perdicus could almost see the green of her eyes as they widened with each leap and intricate dance Xena made. Gabrielle’s betrothed didn’t know where to look--Xena’s drills were fascinating, but the hero-worship on Gabrielle’s face was something he’d never seen before.

When Xena finished her morning workout, she returned to the campsite, barely glancing over at Gabrielle who was now on her side, eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Oh, Gabrielle, you lazy bones. Perdicus chuckled to himself. Xena grabbed a larger pouch from the saddlebag and walked to a nearby brook, removed her shift, and slid into the water before Perdicus got a good look.

Each morning Perdicus had discovered that he could bathe and clean off yesterday’s road dust because he was staying at one of Xena’s chosen campsites and she always found a place to camp that was near fresh water be it river or brook.

This was the first time he had been so close to the travelers and he thought that now was a good time to prepare for the day’s journey. If he got lucky, Gabrielle and Xena would stay in a village or town and he could speak to Gabrielle without it sounding threatening and demanding. It’s possible that she’d believe that I just wandered into the town just as they had and I was traveling elsewhere, he thought as he began his descent from the tree. He spent some time thinking of these new scenarios and when he looked up from his ponderances, he was still high enough in the tree to see the campsite and to watch Xena exiting the brook. He turned to look at Gabrielle and saw her making a mad dash from the bushes back to the blanket. She positioned herself so she could take full advantage of the sight of Xena returning from her morning’s bath while maintaining the pretense of sleep. The warrior stood tall and proud in her nakedness and from what Perdicus could see, she had every right to feel pride. She was stunning, magnificent, and captivating. Gods, I sound like one of Gabrielle’s talky characters. But Xena was all of those things. He tore his eyes away to look in Gabrielle’s direction. Although he couldn’t make out her expression or see her eyes, he knew that she was wide awake and could just tell that her eyes bore into the warrior. He watched as the rhythm of her breathing changed to deep, laborious breaths that she tried to regulate it. When Xena moved across the site, Gabrielle turned restlessly in her bedroll as if a noise had disturbed her dream. Now, she was looking directly at Xena who squatted to take the floating herbs out of the mugs. Perdicus thought he saw Gabrielle swallow hard. When Xena stood, she was holding a mug and sipping casually from the morning’s first cup. She glanced down at Gabrielle and smiled just before tossing a handful of dirt in Gabrielle’s face.

"Wake up. We’re not going to get out of here until nightfall as slow as you are."

Gabrielle spurted and spit out the dirt as she sat up, making a show of yawning and blinking her eyes as she stared openly at Xena’s nudity. Her waking up performance was such that Xena didn’t question the stares, thinking it was just the way the girl arose in the morning–a look of confusion at morning and delight at another day. "I was having the best dream. Do you want me to tell you about it?"

"No."

"Oh, c’mon, Xena. It’s filled with symbolism and strange ideas. Maybe you can tell me what it means."

"Gabrielle, a dream is a dream is a dream. They have no meaning."

"Oh, but you’re wrong," Gabrielle said as she stood and shook out her bedroll. She was wearing a pale pink shift that was too large for her. Perdicus guessed that it was Xena’s and then thought, Nah. Xena in pink? Can’t see it. Must belong to Gab’s mom.

"Humph," Xena grunted.

"Morpheus helps us to work out our problems through dreams and things that we’re feeling and don’t know how to say when we’re awake can come out in dreams." She paused and stared at her new friend. "…and things that are difficult for us and trouble us come back to us over and over in dreams."

Xena gulped down the remaining tea, not wanting to think about another nightmare-filled evening. She wished for a way to keep her sleeping thoughts locked behind a heavy wooden portal, never to be exposed, but this was the price she had to pay for the things she had done. "Let’s get a move on, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle knelt and rolled Xena’s bedroll, still glancing up surreptitiously at the warrior. It was evident to Perdicus that there was more than hero-worship in her eyes now. Gabrielle had never looked at him like that. How he wished it so, but not once was there even a hint of passion or desire in her eyes. He might have been mistaken, but he didn’t think so–there was more than a hint in her eyes.

Gabrielle stood and walked over to Xena and touched her lightly on the elbow. The touch was chaste and something she would have done to practically anyone at anytime, but for Perdicus, the touch seemed intimate. Why he felt this way he didn’t know. "Do I have time for a quick bath?" she asked.

The warrior nodded and Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s discarded pouch and headed through the trees. Perdicus, being a man of integrity who had a great respect for his betrothed turned his focus to Xena when Gabrielle bent and pulled the hem of her shift to remove it. While Gabrielle bathed, Xena placed her hands directly on the ash of last night’s fire. Most of it was out and the spot where she had warmed the tea, she covered with the dry soil that she scooped up from the ground. The torches that had gone out candlemarks ago were broken into small sticks and left on the ground. She reached into Gabrielle’s bag and pulled out an eighth of a round of cheese and using her breast dagger, sliced off several chunks for the two of them. She grabbed her shift from the ground and shook out the broken leaves and bits of dust and hung it over a low tree branch. It was at this moment that Gabrielle ended her bath and pulled herself out of the brook. Much to Perdicus’ joy and horror, she remained nude as she walked back to the site. He felt something stir inside his loose fitting pants and closed his eyes blocking the temptation from his view. It was odd that he could admire Xena’s body and find it spectacular, but it was Gabrielle’s virginal innocence that aroused him beyond belief. When she pulled herself out of the water, he had seen her breasts and they were larger than he had imagined. Even though the nipples weren’t erect, the pink areolas had excited him. He was surprised to see the reddish-blonde triangle of hair at the apex of her legs. It’s not that he didn’t know she wasn’t a child, but they had grown up together and she never really let him close enough to feel how she had developed. Shaking his head, he tried to get the image of those luscious, creamy breasts out of his head, but as soon as he thought about trying not to think about them, they were the only things on his mind. He sighed deeply at the thought of one day holding them tenderly in his hands, feeling their warmth and finding comfort there. He imagined tasting them for the first time and how Gabrielle would find equal pleasure in that touch. Perdicus wasn’t particularly experienced, but he did know that women and men liked how breasts made them feel. He sucked his lips into his mouth and clamped down hard. When he opened his eyes again, Gabrielle stood before Xena combing out her hair as they spoke. Now, it wasn’t Gabrielle who garnered his attention, but the warrior. Whatever Perdicus was feeling as he sat in the tree, Xena was feeling too. It was revealed on her face as her eyes narrowed and she appraised Gabrielle’s naked body. Though both women acted as if it were natural and uneventful for them to stand naked together, he could sense the sexual tension from his perch. He saw Gabrielle’s skin flush and glow a soft pink in the morning light under Xena’s scrutiny. A seductive smile crossed his betroth’s lips briefly, then an embarrassed grin, while Xena continued her long gaze. Perdicus’ head throbbed as he looked on. How dare she look at my fiancée that way? How dare she think she can just have her? And what is Gabrielle thinking, looking at her like that? She’s just asking for trouble. Gabrielle is playing with fire. He wasn’t going to wait for the next village, he was going to get out of that tree and go over there and take Gabrielle home.

He pulled himself from his sitting position and hung from a branch above as he regained his balance. Xena suddenly looked up in the trees in his direction and he could have sworn that she looked directly into his eyes, but then, she turned back to Gabrielle and smiled. Whatever lust she had experienced seemed to have dissipated. She had looked like she was ready to devour Gabrielle, but instead of moving toward her, Xena moved away, grabbing the pouch from her.

Xena opened the pouch and pulled out what looked like cinnamon bark and rubbed it between her hands, crushing it and letting it fall onto her shift. She patted the fabric spreading the fragrance all over the cloth. Gabrielle had hung her shift and Xena performed the same task. When she was finished, she lightly touched Gabrielle’s shoulder and her new traveling companion nodded.

Their slow and lazy morning picked up suddenly. Gabrielle slipped on her underthings and the familiar blue top and jacket her mother had made her ages ago. She tied her skirt, then walked over to Xena to help her with her armor. Again, Perdicus felt like he was not just eavesdropping, but intruding on a very intimate scene. Gabrielle seemed so relaxed in this setting, with this person who was no more than a stranger. This isn’t the first time she’s helped her with that, he thought. It was at this revelation that Perdicus had a self-revelation as well–he wasn’t fearful or worried, he wasn’t angry with Gabrielle, he wasn’t terrified of the warrior. No, he was jealous. Jealousy pulsated in every vein; such a powerful emotion he had never experienced. No boy in Poteidaia had ever made him feel threatened, but this woman, this she-warrior did. If he thought he could win by pummeling her, he would have been at that campsite in a heartbeat and done just that. But he had no intention of adding insult to injury and having Gabrielle look on as he got the tar beaten out of him by a woman. He’d go to the next village. Gabrielle would listen to reason.

* * * * *

With each step, Perdicus fumed. Land, land, and more land, but not a hut, not a yurt, not a hovel to speak of, just a vast emptiness of land.

Candlemarks later, the valley turned to forest and just as Perdicus was entering, probably a half a candlemark behind that Hydra, his new name for Xena and his betrothed, he heard strange cooing in the trees. He paused and closed his eyes trying to determine what kind of birds he heard. He was very familiar with birds and their calls having had a small aviary as a boy. The calls sounded similar to doves, but not quite. He quieted his heart and listened more intently. When he opened his eyes again, it was with the knowledge of where he was. He backtracked to the beginning of the forest and looked for a sign.

"ENTERING AMAZON COUNTRY–NO TRESPASSING.

AMAZONS WELCOME!

MEN--DO NOT ENTER!

CENTAURS--YOU’RE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE RIVER--GO!"

"Damnit!" Perdicus said just above a whisper. "Damnit!" Gabrielle and Xena were on Amazon land. The only village for miles and it’s gotta be an Amazon village. Great.. Perdicus and Perga headed back through the valley. Once they were in the clearing, he mounted the horse and guided her to the south where he thought he’d find water and perhaps some berries. What food Cyrene had packed him was long gone and catching rabbits in the clearing had been impossible. (Anyway, Perdicus preferred fish to meat. Even on his parents’ farm he had bonded with the animals and couldn’t bear to sit down and have a meal of them). He would just fish for dinner if he found a pond or brook or river. There has to be a river around here. That sign told the Centaurs to go back to the other side of the river. He sniffed the air and knew he was on the right track.

He crossed the river and tied Perga near some tall grasses that she munched on while Perdicus waded naked in the water hoping to catch a slow moving fish swimming past. He spent the day, slamming his arm into the water to grab a fish and missing repeatedly. The fact that this was a frustrating task and so far had offered no return didn’t bother him. He became obsessed with this task and continued plunging and coming up empty in the frigid water.

Unexpectedly, a hush fell over the area. Perga’s whinny was cut off mysteriously and Perdicus stood stock-still in the water, staring across toward Amazon land, but saw no one. When he turned back to look at Perga on Centaur land, he faced about two dozen spears all aimed at his throat.

"Uh…hi?"

"Get out."

Perdicus walked to the edge of the river and gingerly climbed out. "Hi guys. I was just fishing in the river here and well, they’re just not biting today."

The Centaurs stared down at him believing him an interloper and liar.

"Ummm… I’m not Centaur."

The leader of the group, Ganecles grunted as he looked Perdicus up and down, lifting an eyebrow when his eyes passed over the young man’s shriveled private parts. "That’s obvious."

Perdicus looked down and then with chagrin said with a lilt to his voice as if asking a question, "The water’s cold?"

"What are you doing on Centaur land, boy?"

"Umm…I was on the other side of the river. I had been following two women…"

"Amazons? Are you insane? If they had caught you, by the time they’d finished with you, you would have been body parts for the vultures."

"No…" Perdicus stared up at the other Centaurs and then turned to the leader. "Can I put my clothes back on?"

Ganecles nodded and the other Centaurs put away their spears. Perdicus explained why he was on their land as he quickly dressed. "So, that’s my story. I’ll be on my way. I can wait for them to come out on the other side at their borders."

"What makes you think they’ll be coming out? Many women who are not born to the Amazons and enter the village never return to outside life. They like being around other women. It’s a community that works for them."

"Oh, Gabrielle will come out. We’re betrothed," Perdicus stated.

"How did your girlfriend end up with this warrior?"

Perdicus had never felt so dejected and he told the truth with such a pained look that all of the Centaurs empathized with him. "She ran away. She left me without so much as a word." He plopped onto a large, slimy river rock and placed his face in his hands as he cried. "I don’t know what to do. I…I think the warrior might be my competition at this point. I’m…"

Ganecles gave him a hard, appraising look. "Get up. You’ll get her attention if she sees you crying like that, but you won’t win her back. C’mon. Get your horse. You look like you could use a real meal and some rest."

_____

A man and Centaur, both scouts came pounding into the Great Hall of the Centaur village. There, they explained that the Amazon Terreis had been killed and that the Amazons had taken Phantes, a loyal and royal Centaur as prisoner. Immediately, the village became chaotic. Phantes was the son of the Centaur leader, Tyldus. He had to be saved or they would all die trying. Centaurs and men ran quickly for weapons while the elders in the village gathered to discuss strategy, negotiation, and possible war. Perdicus had been seated in the Great Hall with some of the Elders when the news hit and now he had been cast aside as Centaur business was conducted. More scouts and spies were sent out to obtain more information.

Perdicus roamed the village hoping to lend a hand and listening for any news about Gabrielle. He certainly didn’t want them to go to war with his fiancée in there. He came upon a group of boys, men, and Centaurs practicing war games.

One boy pointed his sword at another. "You die now, Amazon."

"Hey, why do I have to be the Amazon?" his partner protested.

"Cause I said it first."

The second boy shrugged and went along with the game. A young Centaur looked on, watching the technique of the others. He turned to Perdicus and said, "Can you handle a sword?"

"Not really. I’m not a fighter, I’m a farmer."

"I’ve farmed myself. The name’s Damen and you are?"

"Perdicus of Poteidaia. I just got here from the…"

"Oh, right. You were hunting Amazons or some such."

"No, not really. I was…"

"I was kidding, Perdicus. C’mon, guy. Pick up a sword. I’ll show you how to be a man and use it. We might need it sooner than we think."

Perdicus bent to grab one of the several swords lying in the dust on the ground. All heads turned when another scout returned shouting his report at the top of his lungs. "The murdered Amazon was an Amazon Princess. Those warriors are out for blood. They’re going to kill Phantes."

Perdicus’ face was etched with concern, but when he turned to look at Damen, the Centaur smiled like he had just finished a big helping of canary. "Another Centaur has been sentenced to death." Perdicus said angrily.

"Phantes is smart and charming. Oh, he talks a good game, but he’s no killer. I have faith in the right thing happening. We want to hunt on Amazon land, but we have no interest in killing them. Phantes especially doesn’t. He’s always been attracted to wild women. The gods will look after him."

"Hmmm. I’ve been praying to all of the gods for over a moon and still my betrothed isn’t with me."

"Gee, Perdicus, don’t you think the gods have better things to do than get your woman back for you? You have to do some of your own work, ya know."

"Yeah, that’s why I’ve traveled so far from home. But you’d think at least Aphrodite would have heard my plea."

"Who’s to say she didn’t hear it? You think you’re the only one who’s lost his love? Aphrodite keeps busy, I’m sure. Plus I hear she loves to party. You’re on your own, guy."

As soon as one scout left, another one appeared with more information. "There’s a new Amazon Princess. It’s a young one, too, and cute. Blonde, green-eyes, nice body, kind of a baby face…"

Damen shouted over the village, "Are you matchmaking for us or scouting, stupid."

The scout smirked at Damen and continued, "Her name is Princess Gabrielle and she’s the one who will kill Phantes according to Amazon law."

At the mention of Gabrielle’s name, Perdicus sank to the ground. "Gabrielle," he whispered. "No."

"I take it Gabrielle is your betrothed," Damen said as he nodded his head in understanding. "It gets more and more interesting around here, I tell ya."

The Centaurs continued preparing for battle all through the night. Tyldus, their leader was sending parchment after parchment to the Amazons hoping to bypass a war that neither wanted. The Amazon queen, Melosa, rejected each one.

Earlier in the day, Tyldus had met with his one-time enemy, Xena who assured him that this was not Phantes time to die, that another killer was in their midst and it wasn’t a Centaur. She would prove it. He was counting on it.

_____

The spy runners for the Centaurs were fast and evidently stealth because they were able to penetrate the Amazon compound and come back with detailed intelligence about what was going on in their enemy’s territory.

"The warrior, Xena has proof of Phantes innocence, but the Queen refuses to hear it. She says our brother must die tomorrow when Apollo’s chariot is at its highest in the sky. The new Princess has challenged Melosa to a fight to the death for control of the Amazons."

Perdicus had been listening, but he shouted above the din, "No! Gabrielle’s not a fighter. She’ll surely get killed. No, we have to stop this." Something had to be done before Noon tomorrow.

The spy ignored Perdicus’ outburst and continued, "The Princess has chosen a Champion to fight on her behalf. The Champion is Xena, the Warrior Princess."

"Champion?" Perdicus didn’t understand the titles being lobbed about.

But Damen was there to help him out. "Champion is usually the stronger person who fights or performs duties on behalf of the leader if the leader chooses not to participate. The Champion generally speaking gets the dirty work, but they are loyal to their Sovereign. Oh, and you know what else, guy? The Champion is usually the Consort, too."

"Huh?"

"I think this Xena is doin’ your woman."

Perdicus’ anger spilled over and he pushed the Centaur has hard as he could trying to knock him flat, but Damen barely budged. "Shut up. Stop it. That’s a lie."

Damen looked down at him. "And when Princess Gabrielle named Xena as her Champion, she was letting it be known that the warrior was hers. I’m not saying it’s true, just that it’s usually the case. You’ve got your Champion, an ex-warlord at that. Something’s gotta be in it for her to do all the grunt work. What do you think Xena’s getting out of helping Princess Betrothed?"

Perdicus refused to answer.

"A little lovin’ is my guess."

As one by one and two by two the Centaurs left the village to cross the river onto Amazon soil, Perdicus’ raged inside. He felt like a big nothing. He hadn’t the personality or whatever it was that Gabrielle needed to keep her in his life; he wasn’t a warrior or fighter and couldn’t help the Centaurs; and even if he had wanted to try, they wouldn’t allow it. This was a fight for the Centaurs and the men who lived seasons round on the land. He never felt more impotent. Gabrielle really was lost to him. He knew that she had been different from other girls, knew that her interests lay outside of Poteidaia and that she dreamed of adventure, but he hadn’t guessed this was what she really wanted. He was forced from his thoughts when another runner entered the village.

"The Champion and the Queen fought. The Champion defeated the Queen or should I say former Queen. There is a new queen. Princess Gabrielle is now Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons and she has declared there will be no war between her people and the Centaurs."

The Centaurs and men cheered and shouted, but were silenced by another runner who bellowed in a deep bass, "Tyldus and our Centaur brothers, along with our neighbors and friends, the Amazons…" Whispering was heard throughout the village center as Centaurs tried to wrap their minds around their old enemies as new friends. "Tyldus and our Centaur brothers, along with our neighbors and friends, the Amazons fought together today," his voice boomed. "Bringing peace and an alliance to a land that had not known either. We fought bravely, proudly and were victorious against Krykus, the warlord and mastermind behind the murder of the Amazon and the framing of our brother Phantes. Phantes is a free Centaur again."

Damen asked, "What about the Queen?"

"Gabrielle or Melosa?"

"Either."

"Queen Melosa has returned to her place at the helm of the Amazon nation. Princess Gabrielle has agreed to serve as Princess, but has decided to continue her journey with Xena."

Perdicus frowned and walked off.

Much later, Damen sought Perdicus and found him sitting beside the river drinking from a jug of wine. ''Do you think you'll be able to drink your problems away?''

''I’m tryin’.''

"I’ve found, my good man that the drink will only help you forget your problems temporarily. When you sober up, the problem’ll be waiting for you, but you might have added other problems to it."

"Don’t care. Doesn’t matter."

"Sure it does, Perdicus. I like you. You’re a decent guy with a good heart. I envy that since Tyldus and everyone else have told me that mine is a tad cold. But you know wherever I walk is like the desert sands."

"Huh?"

"Cold heart, warm hooves." Damen laughed at his own joke. "Seriously, Perdicus. Sitting here drinking and staring out at Amazon land is not going to make her come here. She doesn’t know you’re here and even if she did, it might only be guilt that makes her come to you. You wouldn’t want that, would you?"

"No, I’d want her to come to me and with me because she loves me."

Damen gently nudged a rock from the ground with his hoof as he went on, "She wouldn’t have gone in the first place if she truly loved you and she certainly wouldn’t have left you without saying goodbye if she didn’t want to be free of you and her obligations. You might not want to hear it, guy, but I’m just being honest. I am known as a forthright Centaur, a straight-shooter, if you will. I’m not gonna hold back to spare you. This is how I see it."

"You’re right. I know that." Perdicus took another swallow of the wine and sighed. "It’s time for me to go home."

"Now, you don’t have to do that. You’ve got choices. You’ve seen some of the world now. Why go back to your little village?"

"Because it’s my home. With or without Gabrielle, it’s my home."

Perdicus stood and patted the Centaur on the shoulder. "You’re a good man, Damen."

"That’s Centaur to you, guy."

Perdicus nodded. "You’re a good Centaur. A wise Centaur." He smiled at him and said, "A wise ass Centaur." The Poteidaian handed him the jug and walked over to Perga. "Thank you."

"Gods speed to you, guy. Oh, yeah. I brought you some food for your journey. Could you get it off my back?"

Perdicus shook his head disbelieving. It seemed that Damen knew Perdicus’ plans before Perdicus had known. "A good Centaur, you are."

He pulled the bag from his friend and returned to Perga where he stowed the food in his saddlebag, and mounted the horse. He smiled briefly and guided the reins so that the horse was heading toward home.

* * * * *

Moons had passed. No one had heard from Gabrielle, though there were rumors about her. Visitors to Poteidaia had spoken of a young blonde companion to the fierce warrior Xena. Whenever Gabrielle’s name was mentioned, a dark cloud hovered over Herodotus and he shot daggers at Perdicus. Things hadn’t gone well for the man when his eldest daughter fled the town. There had been no merger of land and property, Herodotus and Hecuba’s childrearing skills were called into question, and it seemed that Lila’s free-spiritedness made her guilty by association. It would be a miracle from the gods if any eligible man in the village would want anything to do with her.

But if things were shaky for Herodotus and his family, they were much more unstable for Perdicus. He was the laughingstock of Poteidaia. He had actually heard children singing a song about ‘old man Perdy who lost his lovey.’ His so-called friends whispered about him and not even behind his back. Whenever one of his friends did something foolish, the others would chide him with, ‘what are you doing, pulling a Perdicus?’ or ‘Are you a man or a Perdicus?’

It was as if his heart was being pulled out bit-by-bit, left hanging in a tree for Zeus to set aflame with thunderbolts, then that crisped, blackened, and shrunken heart would be handed back to Perdicus to use though it served no real purpose. He had lost love, lost his way, lost his manhood, lost it all and for what reason? There didn’t seem to be one. There were days when he simply stayed in bed and his parents, Adrian and Dysis allowed it. They figured that it would just take time. Perdicus had been in love with Gabrielle since he was three years old. He wouldn’t get over her in just a season.

Why couldn’t she love me? Why can’t I have her? Why won’t she come home?

Aphrodite rolled her eyes as she listened to that mumbled nighttime chant of his again. Every night just as he’d fall asleep, he’d ask the same questions.

"Dude, you wanna know? It is so time to move on, so here’s why."

Perdicus drifted off and moments later, he was lost in Morpheus and Aphrodite’s realm.

* * * * *

Xena sat on a hard boulder, her bedroll used as padding against the cold granite. She held her sword in her hand, braced on her bent knee and swiped it repeatedly with her whetstone, sharpening it for the next day of fights with bandits. Xena still wore her full armor and boots. Gabrielle was on her own bedroll. Her light blue cover up was off, but she wore her peasant top and rust colored skirt. She wore no boots. Gabrielle lay on her stomach, head resting on a hand, a quill dangled from between her lips as she considered what she was writing.

"Xena?"

"Hmm?"

"Did I tell you the story about of Hero and Leander?

"Yup."

"Hero and Leander lived on opposite sides of the water, but they fell in love anyway. Each night Hero would hang a torch to light Leander’s way to her. Leander would swim to her, but one day the torch went out and he lost his way and drowned. He died…"

"You told me this one, Gabrielle."

"So Hero was so upset that he had drowned that she flung herself into the water and drowned, too. Just so she could be with him."

"Yup."

"Well, I’m adding a few bits here and there. It needs to be more expressive. I’ve got to show the longing, the desperate need that both have for each other. I just don’t know how to say it."

"That’s because you’re young. You need experience to write about those things."

Gabrielle nodded slightly thinking about that. "But I feel…I mean I’ve felt that." She turned so that she was on her back. "I know about romantic love and a heart beating faster whenever the other person is near and knowing you can’t live without that person. I know those feelings Xena."

"Do you now?"

Gabrielle sat up. "Yes, absolutely. The longing to kiss, hold…"

"There's more to longing than that Gabrielle. There's this overpowering craving to consume the person. Why there have been times in my life when consequences didn't matter. For example, when I met...."

"I'm not a child, Xena. I hear you and I know what you're saying. To not just kiss, but to give myself completely, to let her know that she’s all that matters, to give her unfathomable pleasure, for her to please me in a way I've only dreamed of, to taste all of her..." Gabrielle paused, realizing for the first time what she had revealed. Her eyes widened and she clamped both hands over her mouth. Gabrielle wracked her brain for a convincing lie to explain her private thoughts. But when she gave the warrior a sidelong glance, she saw that Xena had placed her sword and whetstone on the ground.

'Xena? Let me explain.'' Had she just ruined everything? Gabrielle was finally on good footing with her sullen companion. Lately, Xena hadn’t been trying to ditch her when she had the opportunities. She had accepted her on the road with her and now Gabrielle realized that she had probably jeopardized all the gains she had made. Anyone could see the hero-worship she had for her, but admitting to longing for a woman? Xena would never go for it. At least Xena didn’t know that she was the object of Gabrielle’s dark and lustful thoughts.

Xena tilted her head and measured the words of Gabrielle’s confession. They made her curious. "Come 'ere, Gabrielle. Help me with my armor."

Gabrielle stood and slowly moved toward the warrior. She wondered if Xena was going to hurt her or scorn her in such a way that she’d have to suffer embarrassment until reaching the next town to make a quick escape.

"C’mon. Help me out here."

Gabrielle stood just off to the side of the warrior and raised shaking hands to undo the clasp of her breastplate. Xena maneuvered her leg against the outside of Gabrielle’s and used her strong thigh muscles to push her companion between her legs. "That’s better," Xena whispered.

Gabrielle stared at Xena in confusion. She had no idea what the woman had planned for her and uncertainty caused her hands to quiver in the worst way. The task became more unnerving because Xena’s eyes pierced Gabrielle’s and the warrior said nothing. First one clasp, then the other was unfastened and Gabrielle lifted the breastplate from Xena’s chest. She moved to place it on the ground, but Xena’s hand grabbed Gabrielle’s wrist. "Just let it drop."

It slipped from Gabrielle’s hands making a loud clanking noise as it landed on the ground. Xena pulled Gabrielle to her and kicked the breastplate aside. "My leathers." Xena paused before adding. "Please."

Gabrielle was beginning to understand what was happening and her pulse began to race. She slowly slid the first of the two straps down her shoulder, then reached around and quickly accomplished the task of removing the second one. Xena stood for only a moment to shimmy out of her leather battle dress and then returned to her spot on the rock. When she pulled Gabrielle closer, Gabrielle inhaled Xena’s earthy scent that was mixed with cinnamon. Xena took hold of Gabrielle’s wrist again and guided her young, inexperienced hand to her shift-covered breast. The warrior’s eyes never left her companion’s until Gabrielle’s eyes closed when her hand surrounded Xena’s full breast.

"Oh, gods," Gabrielle said weakly.

Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s other wrist and moved that hand to the warrior’s other breast.

"Oh, dear gods," Gabrielle repeated.

Xena’s head lolled back and her eyes closed as she guided Gabrielle’s hands over her breasts. When she looked up at Gabrielle, she saw a look of intense pleasure, fear, and anticipation. Slowly, she slid her own hands away allowing Gabrielle to experiment as she pulled her down for a deep and prolonged kiss. Gabrielle’s tongue moved urgently in Xena’s mouth, trying to fulfill so many of her desires. Xena moaned throatily and muttered, "Oh, yes," through the kiss.

"Our first kiss," Gabrielle whispered, barely relinquishing her hold on Xena’s lips, tongue, and mouth. Her hands never stopped massaging Xena’s breasts. She loved how the nipples seemed to grow harder and harder as she tortured them with tiny circles of her palm through the thin material of her shift. But the kisses overwhelmed her and she had other plans for her mouth. She pulled away only to lower her head and press her mouth against the cloth of her shift that covered Xena’s breast. The beginnings of her fantasy were almost complete as she listened to Xena groan under her touch. "Oh, yeah."

Finally, Gabrielle needed to feel flesh against her teeth and pulled the shift to the side to expose Xena’s left breast. She marveled at it like it was the first time she had seen it. She glanced at Xena for only a moment before she lowered her head and gently licked around the heavy roundness, learning its size and heft. Slowly, she began to suck on Xena’s nipple and she heard the warrior groan above her and felt Xena’s fingers in her hair as the warrior pulled her even closer. Gabrielle reached inside Xena’s shift and managed to pull the cloth down and expose Xena’s other breast. She massaged and squeezed it while continuing her mouth explorations on the other side.

Xena was surprised when Gabrielle’s hand stopped its ministrations, but then the warrior heard the sound of Gabrielle pulling her top out of the waistband of her skirt. Once the blue peasant top was hanging freely, Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s hand and roughly shoved it under her top. Xena could feel Gabrielle’s heart pounding as her hand covered her breast and knew that her heart matched Gabrielle’s rapid beat and that her groans corresponded with Gabrielle’s. The young woman’s labored breath caused her chest to heave as she arched into Xena’s touch. Gabrielle repositioned herself so that she could focus on Xena’s right breast. She kissed and sucked it as if she were worshipping it. "Oh, Xena. Yes."

"You’re very good at this, Gabrielle. So good," Xena spoke softly while her thumb and forefinger pinched Gabrielle’s erect nipple.

Gabrielle pulled away again and returned to Xena’s hot mouth. She kissed her deeply, panting into her mouth as the warrior moaned into Gabrielle’s. Gabrielle liked what Xena was doing to her, so she began doing the same to Xena. Xena groaned loudly when her nipple was pinched long and hard and that groan was caught and swallowed by Gabrielle’s eager mouth.

She looked into Xena’s eyes as she pushed back. "By the gods, this is what I’ve..." Gabrielle started, but when Xena used the apex between two of her fingers to send jolts of shock to Gabrielle’s nipple and elsewhere, she could say no more. She just went back to kissing her.

"This is what’s been missing. All this time, this is the longing, Xena. This is it," Gabrielle muttered between their lips.

Xena opened her eyes and focused on the green eyes that stared back at her filled with desire and love.

Love, Xena thought. She abruptly pushed away from Gabrielle, her hands exiting from underneath her top. "Hold it." But Gabrielle pressed forward reaching out with her hands to embrace Xena’s face between them and possess her as she kissed her again. Xena grasped her wrists again, but this time instead of guiding her to her body, she simply held them away from her. "Hold it."

"What? What is it?"

"We’ve gotta stop this."

"Oh, please Xena." Gabrielle shook her head decidedly. "I want to be with you." She wiggled out of Xena’s strong hold and stared at her. "Am I doing something wrong? I thought…"

"It’s not that, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle linked her fingers between Xena’s and stared down at the warrior. "Then what is it?" Her eyes were hooded, her skin a beautiful pink hue, her breathing irregular, and the last thing she wanted to do was talk, but she wanted to know Xena’s thoughts.

Xena pulled her shift up and repositioned her breasts while clearing her throat. "Gabrielle, this isn’t a good idea."

"Don’t you want me? I…I thought…" Gabrielle took a seat next to Xena on the boulder and waited for the warrior to tell her why they weren’t now laying on her bedroll in each other’s arms. She noticed that tiny beads of sweat had broken out on Xena’s forehead and that she was also having trouble breathing.

"Gabrielle, how do you feel about me?"

"Huh? I…" Gabrielle didn’t know what to say. If she said too much she’d lose Xena for sure, but maybe this was a side to Xena she knew nothing of. Maybe Xena wanted her to tell her how much she loved her. Something told her not to risk those words, though.

"What are your feelings?"

"You’re my best friend. I’ve never had a friend like you. I…I feel so much when I’m with you. I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled or more alive."

"You were going to marry that boy at home. Perdicus? Didn’t you have those feelings for him?"

Gabrielle’s head pulled back. This was surprising. Could Xena want a promise that she wouldn’t leave her like she had done Perdicus. "Oh, Xena. It’s not the same, not at all. Not even a teeny, tiny bit. I liked Perdicus, but ours was practically an arranged marriage."

"He seemed to care for and love you."

"Yes, he did, but I didn’t feel the same. I didn’t love him. I wasn’t ready to be married."

"That’s my point."

Gabrielle was stunned, but carried on. "And that’s my point. I didn’t feel for him what I feel for you."

"Right."

"Right."

"No, Gabrielle. You didn’t marry him or give yourself to him because you knew your feelings weren’t as strong, that you didn’t or wouldn’t be able to love him the way he loved you."

Now she was beginning to understand. Gabrielle nodded softly. Xena rubbed her hand up Gabrielle’s forearm. "Gabrielle, long ago I had forsaken love. I didn’t think anyone could or would love me and I refused to let myself discover love. This heart wasn’t meant for it. I’ve lived like that for a long time."

"But you’ve been with…"

"Mostly, when I took them to bed or I allowed them to take me to bed it was because I needed something that they had. Iolaus comes to mind."

"But what about Hercules?"

"He’s different."

"Did you love him?"

"No, but I care deeply for him."

"And me? Do you care for me?" Gabrielle brushed the hair away from Xena’s eyes to get a closer look at her. It was an easy, gentle gesture that came so naturally to her. As she ran her fingers through her hair, Gabrielle wondered why she’d ask such a question. The answer was obvious. Xena liked her, but not nearly as much as she had liked the demi-god.

"Yes. Gabrielle, I know you’re not blind. I’m sure you’ve seen the way I look at you." Xena waited for Gabrielle to respond, while tenderly pulling the smaller hand from her hair.

"Yeah, I guess. I thought so. Sometimes." She placed her hands on her knees so as not to reach out to the warrior again.

"I care for you. I’m attracted to you, but I just don’t possess those feelings of love that you talk about." Xena shrugged at her own misfortune and what she knew made her tremendously pathetic. "I can’t."

"You might. I think you have a high capacity for love if you’d just open up to it."

"Anything’s possible, but now…I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t give yourself lightly and because of that, I won’t take what you offer."

"But…but Xena." Gabrielle felt like she was on the verge of tears and tried hard to control her shaky voice.

"Gabrielle, you were noble enough to leave Perdicus so as not to hurt him. Let me try not to hurt you, all right? I don’t deserve someone like you. I have a past that if you really understood, you’d run away from me so fast it would take the dust moons to settle."

"That’s not true. Through thick and thin, Xena. Surely, you’ve seen that I can be loyal?"

"Gabrielle, your being loyal to me is not enough. You wanting me is not enough. Me desiring you can’t be enough. You deserve someone who’ll love you. I don’t know if that will ever happen between us. I’m sorry."

Gabrielle lowered her eyes and stared at the hands that now rested lightly atop her knees. Those hands had so recently caressed Xena’s breasts and had experienced something she now realized she had dreamed of all of her life–loving a woman. But those same hands mocked her. She had known this touch. Could she carry on without it now? Out of the corners of her eyes, she gazed at Xena’s hands, too–hands that had made her feel new and awake for the first time. Would she forever only have the memory of those hands on her body and never encounter the pleasure she had derived from them? Gabrielle shook her head. "All right. I’m sorry, too, Xena." Hopelessly optimistic, she added, "But maybe things will change. Maybe we’ll both change enough. We can try."

Xena nodded, but there was no reassurance in the gesture.

After long moments, Xena stood and looked down at the dejected woman. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" Gabrielle said distractedly.

"You’re probably feeling a lot of things right now including… Well, I guess we kind of left each other in quite a state…What I’m saying is…is…Umm, I’m going to take a walk around the perimeter, make sure everything’s safe, go fill our waterskins. You stay here. I think we both need some time to pull ourselves together, again."

Gabrielle looked up with an expression of pure confusion. "What?"

"Uh…Gabrielle, you’re probably very aroused and…Do you know how to relieve that pressure? Do you know how to pleasure yourself?"

Gabrielle laughed with a dismissive sniff. "Yeah, Xena. Go ahead and take your walk."

Xena picked up her sword and walked past the fire. Gabrielle called out, "Take your time. Then she muttered quietly, "I’m going to need it."

* * * * *

That next morning, Perdicus woke slowly. A bit disoriented, he rubbed his eyes and yawned as he sat up. He sighed, recalling the dream and said to himself and the gods, If that was real, a vision of the truth, show me a sign. Instantly, Perdicus heard the unmistakable sound of a loud roaring thunder that ended in a deafening clap. He looked out of his window at the bright sunlight and blue skies. "Okay, okay. I see now." He knew that the gods had come to him in the night. His dream was real and he had to accept it.

_____

There had been signs up at the local taverns and on road posts encouraging village boys to sign up and join with armies. Perdicus had never paid much mind to those signs, but today, he stopped and read the Greek characters carefully. "Be a Man. Fight for Your Beliefs." Be a man, Perdicus thought. How many times have I heard that? From father, Herodotus, the Centaur Damen, and I’ve said it to myself so many times. Are you a man or are you Perdicus? was the taunt of the season. Be a man.

Perdicus of Poteidaia entered his family’s home for what he was sure would be the last time and packed his belongings.

* * * * *

The world was smaller than he’d realized. Of all the people to see in the middle of a war zone, he had not expected his former betrothed, Gabrielle with Xena. So, they were still traveling together and surely an intimate couple by now. Perdicus was surprised to see Gabrielle, but the pain he had felt for so long was gone. He didn’t feel anger, either and that was something he had carried around a long, long time. There was admiration for Xena not feelings of competition and after his many moons of mercenary work, he saw her as simply a warrior and not the she-warrior he had demonized.

Gabrielle was still beautiful and her easy smile and happy personality had not disappeared after this time on the road seeing who knows what. Their friendship had survived his whirlpool of emotions at her departure. He still liked her a lot and Gabrielle seemed to feel the same--too bad he was caught up with the responsibilities of war to really sit with Gabrielle and enjoy her company. She was the sunshine in his gloomy existence. Everything seemed brighter with her near. But Gabrielle knew Perdicus too well and even though he claimed to be over her, to have moved on, to finally understand his purpose in life, she saw through him. Whenever they could spare a moment alone, Gabrielle questioned him about his reasons for signing up with the Trojans to fight in Troy, so far from home, so far from the farm. Each time Perdicus gave the same answers–he was where he wanted to be, he wanted to be part of the bigger picture of love–to witness a fight in the name of love. Perdicus calmly explained that Gabrielle need not worry after him. His words were heard, but not believed and Gabrielle felt terribly guilty. She had driven him to this when she ran from home and their upcoming wedding in the middle of the night. Thinking about it now, she became conscious of what life must have been like for him. Leaving him behind to face her family and the village must have been unbearable. Of course he needed this escape. Because he knew her and loved her, Perdicus saw the guilt in her eyes and pleaded with her to believe him. He was a fine soldier and in his element for the first time just like she was with Xena. He wouldn’t dare tell her how he had trailed her like a love-sick puppy, how he had begged the gods to intervene, how he was a joke back in Poteidaia. Fighting this war was a good thing for him, it was just what he wanted.

One thing Perdicus noticed was that Xena was completely focused on Helen and her dilemma. Gabrielle seemed to be less than an afterthought and he wondered how his friend dealt with that. What he saw was that Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind. She was enjoying his company and not mentioning the warrior or the mission at all. He saw love reflected in Gabrielle’s eyes when she looked at him and hoped that at long last she appreciated the mistake she had made just before dawn that morning in Poteidaia. Even though he hadn’t done much in life, he was making up for it. Perhaps she saw that they could have adventures together, that he could be tough and strong, something she obviously admired. The two of them were clicking together the way he used to dream they would. Gabrielle wanted to be with him. She had been wrong to leave him.

In the enclosed city of Troy, Gabrielle and Perdicus shared their innermost thoughts and a tender kiss. The war was escalating and the time they were spending together might very well be their last. Again, Gabrielle apologized for her lack of judgment back in Poteidaia, but Perdicus, who really was a man now, owned his part in the way things had turned out. He knew he had pushed Gabrielle forward, proposing and making a show of their upcoming nuptials before her mind was ready for it. He knew he was at fault, too for allowing her to walk over him the way she did, but that was all water under the bridge. He saw her love and when she kissed him and explained that she couldn’t be more honest than that, he knew it was true. Perdicus’ heart thudded in his chest and he knew the Fates were on his side, after all. The Fates brought Gabrielle to him and gave them a chance to talk and find love again.

When the fighting was over and the Trojans had defeated the Greeks, Gabrielle and Perdicus talked. His first thoughts had been that they would return to Poteidaia together, that they would continue with the lives they had planned, but Gabrielle suggested that he join with them on the road. That certainly wasn’t something he would consider. When he saw the way Gabrielle gazed at Xena, he knew that at most he’d only share her love. He’d never fully possess it. The warm, fluid eyes were fixed on Xena’s every move. Gabrielle’s love for the warrior would have been perceptible to a man without sight. Sure, Gabrielle loved him, but the intensity was missing. Beneath her sweet feelings for him, all he saw in her eyes was guilt. She felt guilty for having dumped him, guilty for in some way encouraging him to pick up a sword, guilty for his pain. He didn’t want her that way, so he pulled back, told her he had other plans, wished her well in life and on her travels. Misplaced hope was put away, dreams for their future together were hidden again. Life would go on without Gabrielle. He was going to make that happen.

* * * * *

Perdicus traveled throughout Greece fighting in armies for causes he believed in. There were a few other men in his group of traveling soldiers and he knew that many had the same story–jilted by a girlfriend or wife or boyfriend in some cases. Everyone was using war as a flight from their past.

Perdicus sat with two of his friends at the bar in a tavern. The army he rode with had been on the outskirts of this town fighting off a group of Barbarians for three days. The Barbarians insisted on taking the night off from fighting and often drank with the army they fought during the day. The former boy from Poteidaia noticed the Barbarians who seemed to be having a wonderfully drunken time with the bar wench.

"Hey, Perdicus. You see somethin’ you like?"

"Hmmm. Where?"

"Sitting next to the Barbarians, those five women over there. And it looks like two of them are just your type."

Perdicus turned on his stool. "What’d you mean?"

"Shiny green eyes, shiny blonde hair. Sexy smiles. Gonna make a play for one of ‘em?"

"Why wouldn’t I?" Perdicus had made himself over. He was a ladies’ man and a guy’s guy. By all outward appearances, he exuded confidence. The young soldier stood and unconsciously pulled down and straightened the protective chest guard of his uniform as he made his way to the table of women.

His two friends shook their heads and turned to face the bartender.

The first friend said, "He’s still got it bad."

"He does okay. I should be as lucky as Perdicus. Girls fall all over him."

"Yeah, but in his eyes, the right one never did. He hasn’t met one woman he’d like to spend more than a night with."

"Yeah, well either have you."

"I know that, but my case is different. I don’t want to. Perdicus won’t let himself."

"Whatever that means," the second soldier said shaking his head.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, warlords, bandits, conniving children, and Xena’s past were testing Xena and Gabrielle. Twice, Gabrielle had parted ways with the warrior in the hopes that Xena might come to her senses. She had decided she wanted to be a real traveling bard and thought she might need training. She was accepted to the Academy of Performing Bards in Athens, but all that she learned was that her life’s purpose was not to be cooped up in a lecture hall. She was meant to do so much more and that more was on the road with Xena. She had missed her companion terribly, but she hadn’t missed the nightly anxiety of watching Xena struggle with her feelings and always choosing to push away from her. When she returned from the Academy, she anticipated that absence would make the heart grow fonder and Xena would take that next step, but she didn’t.

Dysis, Perdicus’ mother sent word to him that Gabrielle had been in Poteidaia, but hadn’t stayed long. She made a point of telling him in the lengthy parchment that Gabrielle had arrived alone in Poteidaia and seemed out of sorts. She explained how Gabrielle believed in this former warlord, Meleager and how the two of them had saved the village from invaders. Dysis didn’t have the heart to tell him that Gabrielle didn’t see her parents and that his former betrothed hadn’t even asked about him.

When Gabrielle returned to Xena, it was evident that Xena felt closer to her and that the days apart had been difficult ones for the stoic warrior. Still, Xena only allowed Gabrielle to see so much. Night after night, Gabrielle replayed that evening so many moons ago by that time. With just a moment’s thought, she could call up the deepness of Xena’s voice when she had said to her, ‘you’re very good at this, Gabrielle. So good." Alone around the campfire, Gabrielle would whisper those words to herself, imitating the warrior’s groan as she fought off, then surrendered to her finger’s skill against her clitoris.

Xena knew she needed to say or do something, but she didn’t know how. Too much time had gone by for her to casually mention that her desire was still strong and that she greatly wanted to feel the young woman’s hands on her again. Xena walked to the water to fill the skins each night, then she’d lean against a stump or log, spread her legs, and push the straps of her leathers away from her center. She never bothered to remove her breeches, she’d just slip her fingers inside and stroke herself until she felt the shuddering magic of her orgasm start to rip through her. In her mind, she could hear Gabrielle’s sigh and her softly saying, "Oh, Xena. Yes."

One night, not too long after those horrible events in the Thessalian temple, Xena took her nightly stroll to the brook near their campsite. She sat thinking for once instead of simply satisfying her physical need. Her mind wandered back to the scene where everyone had given up on Gabrielle and told her to let the girl go peacefully to the other side. Xena wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t. She had pleaded with Gabrielle not to die, not to leave her, and Gabrielle showed them. She came back. She came back to be with her. It was then that she truly comprehended her situation. She didn’t just like Gabrielle’s company on the road, but she needed her companionship. Moreover, she didn’t want just a best friend, she wanted Gabrielle as her lover. After over ten winters of forsaking love, she could scarcely understand the feelings she had. In her soul, she knew what she felt–that this was love, not the lust she gave in to occasionally, but love. However, she didn’t know how to express it without sounding silly and without making herself vulnerable and open for heartache. She wanted to burst with these feelings, but she was a warrior and a warrior did not skip and sing songs of love. How should she behave? What should she say to Gabrielle? She realized that she’d been at the shore for over a candlemark and slowly made her way back to the site. Gabrielle was asleep and she found herself staring down at the young woman and thinking, this is love.

The next night Xena sat underneath a waterfall and bathed. As she brought herself pleasure, she thought of how it would feel to have Gabrielle touch her and how Gabrielle had reacted to her touch. Again, she heard Gabrielle’s alluring voice call to her in her thoughts, softly saying, "Oh, Xena. Yes," and Xena answered immediately and aloud, "I love you, Gabrielle," just as she exploded.

* * * * *

Perdicus tossed and turned on the ground. He was sleeping at a campsite for ten. His nine companions snored loudly while he struggled to get comfortable on the hard ground. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw a parade of dead men–all men he had killed in battle. For Hades’s sake, I’m not a soldier. What am I doing? Why? I should be honoring Demeter, not stopping in Ares’ temples with other soldiers leaving an offering. I should be tending to my flocks. This is stupid.

He quietly stood, rolled his blankets and picked up his sack. He took his sword with him, but hoped that the next time he used it, it would be to nail it onto the wall above his fireplace at home. He was done with fighting.

* * * * *

Was he being a fool to trail after Gabrielle and Xena? No, the Fates had deemed it so. The Fates never would have placed him in Troy at the same time Gabrielle and Xena were passing through if it hadn’t been meant to be. The Fates wanted Perdicus and Gabrielle together. He was sure of it. Greece was large, Gabrielle could have been fighting for good almost anywhere, but she was in Troy and he was in Troy. It was meant to be. It was.

Perdicus hadn’t lost his tracking skill when it came to Gabrielle and Xena. It didn’t take as long as he thought to locate them. He chose to make his presence known instead of watching them from afar. Now was the time to be decisive. He was a man, a former soldier and he was ready to live the life he wanted with the woman who should have been his wife already.

When he walked into the campsite, he was almost struck dumb by the beautiful vision of Gabrielle. He felt like he had aged several winters in just one season, yet Gabrielle looked as fresh and as innocent as the last day he had seen her in Poteidaia.

By the gods, she is beautiful, he thought. He had wasted what felt like a lifetime, so he told her what was on his mind. Dropping to his knee, he looked up and asked, "Be my wife?"

Gabrielle was flattered by Perdicus’ desire to still want her after she had betrayed him. There last time together in Troy had been sweet and she had nothing but warm feelings for him. Her heart belonged to Xena, though. The question was did Xena’s heart belong to Gabrielle yet? Apparently, not. Gabrielle waited and waited for Xena to ask her not to marry him.

"I’m going to tell him no." Gabrielle had hoped Xena would at least say ‘good,’ but all she said was if marrying him would make Gabrielle happy that she would be happy for her. Doesn’t Xena have any feelings of love for me? Doesn’t she care that I could go off with him? Perdicus is sweet. He’s tender and he loves me. I want to feel that from someone. I want to experience that kind of love. Please Xena, tell me to stay.

It was decided in her mind. She loved Xena and even if the warrior couldn’t or wouldn’t express that same love, Gabrielle was willing to hold out, to wait for her to come around. She knew in time that Xena would. She was so close already.

But the Fates had another plan. Xena’s greatest enemy had escaped from prison and was determined to destroy Xena and all that she protected. First, Callisto and her army attacked a small village, killing everyone in sight, no matter man, woman, or child. She killed in Xena’s name to strike the first flame in her war against the warrior woman she hated with a depth beyond reason, beyond sanity; the woman who had taken all that she had loved. Xena, along with Gabrielle and Perdicus who had started traveling with them, fought Callisto and her army fiercely. Gabrielle struck with her staff again and again, downing each soldier who came forward. Xena used her chakram a number of times to disarm the lowlifes who had attacked the village. As the two women fought, Perdicus did what he had been doing for moons–killing those who stood in the way of everyday people’s happiness. He plunged his sword into a soldier, then stood stock still, and suddenly began to weep. The battle raged on around him, but he was paralyzed. Killing, killing, and more killing. No matter what others thought of him, he couldn’t continue this life. Even if Gabrielle found him weak and not manly, he couldn’t take another man’s life again. He had convinced himself that he was a soldier and it was right for him, but he wasn’t and it wasn’t. He hated it. He hated fighting for good not because he didn’t want to see good throughout the land, but because he simply didn’t have it in him to kill. How had he lost himself and could he ever recover? In the midst of this fight, he gave up. Let them kill me, but I won’t lift this sword again, he thought as he let it fall to the earth. This is me. I am not a killer. I am not a soldier. I’m a man in love, but this price is too high--just too high for me. He dropped feebly to a log in the town square and cried. When Gabrielle saw him in such a state, she fell to her knees beside him and he told her his truth and she understood that this was the man Perdicus had always been. She also knew that the man whose life he had been impersonating lately was something that he had done for her, because he thought she’d want him that way. What a sacrifice he had made for her? What a strong love he possessed to want to change for her? How could she walk away from that, from him? When Xena arrived, looking dazed from the battle, Gabrielle looked up at her and said, "The answer is yes."

As far as Xena was concerned she had royally screwed up her life. Gabrielle was leaving her all because she couldn’t share her feelings. Perdicus wasn’t weak. He could stand before the world and announce his love. She couldn’t do it. Despite the depth of her love for Gabrielle, she couldn’t make her mouth work to say it. This was exactly what she had meant when she told Gabrielle she deserved better than what she had to give. Perdicus would love her and let her know on a daily basis. That was the kind of woman she wasn’t.

She listened to the priest of Aphrodite bless their union and wish them joy and happiness, while her heart broke. As each moment passed, she told herself it wasn’t too late, that she could make this stop. Even as the priest presented them as husband and wife, Xena shouted in her head, Say something. Tell Perdicus that the two of you love each other. Carry Gabrielle out of the temple. Kiss her and tell her you love her. Just kiss her. She did nothing, but smile dimly, attempting to hide her abject misery. Xena congratulated the newlyweds and spoke with Gabrielle privately. She promised to visit and knew she never would. Visiting Gabrielle in the home she would make with Perdicus was like being sentenced to Tartarus in this realm. Simply knowing that they would go off together that evening and he would make love to her was worse than enduring an eternity of fights with warlords in Hades.

Xena rode Argo far away from the inn where Perdicus and Gabrielle were staying. She couldn’t bear to hear or see them. Her self-hatred had grown exponentially that night. If she had just been able to tell Gabrielle she loved her, then maybe they’d be together, maybe they’d have a tomorrow on the road together, but she hadn’t told her. The warrior had wished the companion who had become such a vital part of her life the best of luck in her new life and walked away. At least Gabrielle would never know how hurt and saddened Xena was.

But Gabrielle did know. She stood at the window of their room in the inn staring out into the darkness. She was worried about Xena and hoped that she’d continue on her path of good and not let the inner darkness engulf her the way the black sky had covered this night. Their wedding night could not be delayed any longer. She turned from the window and asked if their first daughter could be named after Xena; it would be her way of honoring her friend. Perdicus readily agreed.

Slowly they became comfortable with each other. Perdicus had waited all of his life for this moment and he wasn’t going to hurry through it. Every ounce of feeling he had for Gabrielle he planned on demonstrating. He would not rise to his passion without her accompanying him. Kissing her slowly, he smiled to himself as she kissed him back.

Perdicus made love with Gabrielle with an abundance of tenderness. She was quiet and obviously anxious about their first time, so he was careful to soothe and relax her. The young man whispered words of love, reminding Gabrielle that there was never a time in his life that he hadn’t wanted her, that he had dedicated himself to her long ago, and promised that he’d always take care of her. Perdicus touched her body lightly through her gown. With her hands, she let it be known that she wanted her clothing to remain on. Perdicus’ fingertips danced across her breasts and belly and when he snuck under her gown, he used his fingers on Gabrielle for a long time, making her ready for him. As he pushed his body against hers, he entered her with a slowness built on love. As they consummated their marriage, he noted that the passionate Gabrielle that he had dreamed of was absent. This Gabrielle was shy and timid. He was reminded of the olive tree in his parents’ yard. The tree stood squat, strong, and still, but then a flock of birds would come along and disrupt the quiet as they hopped from limb to limb. Suddenly, the birds as a group would take off, leaving that olive tree swaying and quivering in the wind, but soon, the branches would settle down and return to their stillness. That was Gabrielle. She moved with him, but he knew that it was her simply bending to accept him and not her own unleashed passion.

Although he tried, Perdicus was raw emotion and the very idea of being inside his wife sent him over the edge quickly. She held onto to him as he strained, then collapsed on top of her. Gabrielle’s hands caressed his warm, damp back and she whispered to him, "You love me so much. Thank you for that, Perdicus. Thank you for showing me how much you care."

Perdicus kissed her shyly on the cheek. "I do, Gabrielle. I love you with all my heart and all my soul and all that I have to give in this world."

"I know. I know."

He blinked down at her a few times, then gently lifted and pulled himself out of Gabrielle with a sigh. He rolled onto his back and breathed deeply. "I’ve wanted you for so long." He turned his head to face her and she reached out for his hand, but said nothing.

He sighed again, a deep long exhale, then he yawned. Gabrielle patted his hand and dragged it across her hip and up to her belly as she turned on her side. Perdicus spooned against her back and whispered into her ear, "I know I haven’t given you pleasure yet. I meant for us to reach our peak together." He laughed. "I guess I was too excited."

"That’s okay," she said while facing the door to their room.

They were quiet, each lost in their own thoughts. Perdicus’ thoughts were filled with their future–the house he and his older brother would build for them now that they were married. He and Gabrielle would raise sheep, not for slaughter, but for wool. They would start a family right away. He couldn’t wait to have a child that looked like the two of them, even if the baby would be named Xena. Naming the baby after Gabrielle’s companion was the least he could do. Xena had taken good care of Gabrielle on the road and had kept her safe. He owed her and he knew Gabrielle loved her. Just how much she loved the warrior, he didn’t know.

"Gabrielle?" he said softly, "Are you asleep?"

"No, no I’m awake, Perdicus. What is it?"

"Gabrielle, could I ask you something?"

"Of course. You’re my husband. You can ask anything of me."

"Well, I don’t want it to be like that. You have a right to keep your own counsel, but you should know, I’m here for you if you ever want to talk things out with me about us or anything."

"Thank you, Perdicus," Gabrielle whispered.

"You don’t have to thank me for loving you," he said softly as he nuzzled her neck.

"You were going to ask me something?"

"Uh…yeah." He cleared his throat before he began, "Gabrielle, I wanted to talk about Xena. About you and Xena."

Immediately Gabrielle turned in his arms to face him. Worry lined her face. "What is it?"

"Gabrielle, I know you love her and that she means the world to you…"

"You don’t want to name our daughter after her?"

"No, it’s not…I mean, yes, of course we’ll name our daughter, Xena. No, what I wanted to ask is how you really feel about her. I sense that you love her deeply."

"I do. She’s my best friend, Perdicus. She’s saved my life more times than I can count and I know she’d do anything in her power to keep me from being hurt or having to make a decision that would be against my nature. She’s actually quite thoughtful once you get to know her. She thinks of me before she thinks of herself."

"And I bet you’re the same way. I’ll bet that you tried to protect her in everyway you could--protecting her from her past, protecting her from people out for her head."

Gabrielle wondered how Perdicus could know so much about them. "Yes, I did. I see so much in Xena if she’d just give herself a chance. She doesn’t think she can redeem herself, but she already has. In just these few moons, I’ve seen her save so many lives and she acts like it’s just a regular day. And she’s right–that is her day, saving people, saving lives, setting things right. I love helping her to do that."

This was the most excited Gabrielle had been in their bed, Perdicus noted. He looked deep into her eyes and asked what he knew he didn’t want to know, "Are you in love with her? Have you been with her like we were together tonight?"

Gabrielle sat up. Dumbfounded she stared at him, shocked that he would ask such a thing in their wedding bed. She didn’t answer. The young woman was trying desperately to come up with a diplomatic way of expressing her feelings. Her mouth opened and closed as she considered, then changed her mind about what she could say. Finally, Perdicus came to her rescue. "It’s okay, Gabrielle. I understand. She’s very beautiful and she’s been so good to you. Knowing the kind of woman you are, your warm heart, your loving ways, it doesn’t surprise me." That is what he told her, but he really couldn’t understand this Xena thing. It was a mystery. Gabrielle had known the woman for just a few seasons. She had known him for eighteen Springs. Dysis had taken him to Herodotus and Hecuba's home to see the new baby when he was a small child. Gabrielle had been alive all of a day when he'd first laid eyes on her. Surely there time together meant something more than friendship. It did to him.

"We…Xena and I tried once. It didn’t work out. It wasn’t what she wanted."

"But you did."

"Yes." She paused before adding, "But Perdicus, I’m here with you and that’s what counts."

Perdicus wanted Gabrielle so much that he didn’t have the heart to say that what really counted were her reasons for choosing to be with him. He wanted to believe that it was love, but his heart told him that it was her guilt. He refused to listen to his heart about this. "Of course it does, sweetheart."

"Even if I have these feelings for Xena, I will try to be a good wife to you. I promise that."

"That sounds like a promise I can live with," he commented lightly. I want you to be a wife who desperately loves her husband. Will I ever have that? Perdicus pulled his wife to him and embraced her tightly hoping to give her a little of the love and passion he felt. She twisted in his arms and her lips parted to accept his tongue. Gabrielle pressed in to him, wanting to assure Perdicus that she was going to make this relationship work.

He pushed back and smiled at his lovely wife. "We have tomorrow, Gabrielle. Let’s get some sleep."

* * * * *

The next morning, Perdicus awoke to find Gabrielle staring out the window again. No longer in her gown, she was wearing her brown skirt and green top. Already, Perdicus missed seeing her in the virginal white dress or the pretty white gown she had worn to bed. Gabrielle was so lost in her thoughts, that she didn’t hear him move toward her. She jumped in surprise when he wrapped his arms around her, but when she turned to hug him, her eyes lit up and she grinned widely.

"Are you happy?"

"Yes. You were so gentle with me. Everyone should have a first time like that. You took away all my fears, Perdicus."

"Then, come back to bed with me," he suggested as he walked backward, holding onto her hands and leading her back to their bed.

"Oh, let’s start the day. I’ve just been waiting for you to wake up. There’s a beautiful meadow covered in flowers right over there," she said as she turned back to the window. She slipped her hand from his and pointed outside. "Let’s take a walk there and pick some flowers."

"For your hair?"

"Uhmm-hmm."

Perdicus stood behind Gabrielle again and kissed the top of her head and sniffed her hair. "The flowers will be envious, Gabrielle. Your hair smells sweeter than any flower."

"Come on, Perdicus. Hurry, get ready. Let’s have some fun."

* * * * *

The newlyweds stood in the flower meadow and enjoyed each other’s company. Gabrielle had had romantic dreams of being in a meadow of flowers with her love. Not too long ago, she had hoped that it would be Xena she would share this tender walk with. She understood that it would never be Xena and Xena had been right–she did deserve love. Perdicus hadn’t been her choice as a partner, but now she saw that she was being idealistic. What he presented was the longing of most women–a man who worshipped her, who treated her well, and respected her. How could she complain?

As they walked through the flowers, she philosophized on the meaning of life and all that it offered. She knew love with Xena, though it wasn’t all that she wished for, but it was there and with Perdicus there was love, too. She nodded, finally understanding love in all its incarnations. She turned to her husband and put her arms around his neck. "I know what love is, now. It’s life. Everything is united by love alone."

As Perdicus was about to respond, Callisto responded for him. The crazed warrior attacked them without provocation. The newlyweds were unarmed and Perdicus stepped in front of Gabrielle to protect her from harm. In the process, Perdicus was downed by Callisto and left struggling for breath. As if on cue, Xena rode onto the scene and fought Callisto off as best she could. The troubled woman wanted to see heartache, though and if she couldn’t get to Xena’s heart by killing Gabrielle, she would do the next best thing. She ran Perdicus through, killing him almost instantly, then she rode off with a maniacal smile. Gabrielle knew true anguish as she poured her body over her husband’s. Just moments ago, they had been walking hand in hand, alternating between talking and saying nothing, enjoying the company of his wife and her husband. Now, a blade had ended it all for her–their dreams of the future, their plans for tomorrow, children with the only man she had ever loved. She howled above him, but it was too late for Perdicus he was gone.

* * * * *

Perdicus was wearing his black leather vest, a white shirt with puffy sleeves and brown leather pants. His pants were tucked into his boots. How could he have been in a meadow and suddenly be elsewhere–standing alone in a great stone hall. He looked around bewilderedly, wondering what had happened to Gabrielle and where he was. Maybe I didn’t marry Gabrielle. Maybe I’m in the middle of a dream. Gods, but it seemed so real. Maybe this part is the dream. Maybe I’m still sleeping and when I wake up, Gabrielle will be beside me. He shook his head violently hoping to clear the cobwebs and make sense of his current situation. He glanced around again. A large stone throne embedded with gems sat at the far end of the great hall. There were a series of platforms leading to the throne, but not a soul was in this room and there were no other adornments. It must be a castle, but where are the swords on the wall, the art, the animal heads?

"Hello? Hello?"

Hades, in a flash of light appeared on the throne. "Welcome Perdicus?"

Perdicus turned and was surprised to see a formidable man standing behind him. He wondered how the man had appeared without him hearing a door open or his boots move across the floor. Perdicus smiled, knowing that he should be polite and charming until he found out where he was and why. "King…?"

"King?"

"Yes, aren’t you a king? Is this your castle? Where am I?"

"I’m Hades. Welcome to your new home." His outstretched arm waved across the room.

"Hades?" Perdicus’ brow furrowed and he shook his head. "I’m not dead."

"I’m afraid your wound was a mortal one. You died almost instantly. Charon just dropped you off."

"But I just married–just last night. I can’t be dead."

"I realize it’s a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s true and in time, you’ll learn to like it here. I was just reviewing your case."

Perdicus’ eyes never stopped moving around the room. There had to be a way out of this cruel joke. He wondered if Xena had punctured him with a dart that rendered him unconscious and brought him to this place. She couldn’t stop the wedding, but she could stop our lives together. "Are you working with Xena?"

"No. Well not directly. Xena has brought many a mortal to me, but you’re not one of them. Your injury came from…"

"Callisto," Perdicus said flatly.

"Right. You remember?"

"Yes, she knocked me down, then came after me. She stabbed me with her sword." When he said this, realization hit. He really was dead. "Isn’t there anything you can do to help me? I’m not ready. I just got married."

"It’s your time."

"But what about Gabrielle. Shouldn’t I be able to hear her thoughts?"

"Yes, when she speaks directly to you, that is, after I’ve set up that connection. First, I need to prepare you for your resting place. You’ve been a good man, Perdicus. Even when you were fighting as a soldier, you showed compassion and loyalty. There is only one place for you and that’s the Elysian Fields. Congratulations."

Perdicus could not have cared less about Elysia. He wanted to be with Gabrielle in the earthly realm. "Please, if you’d just let me go back to her for a little bit. I promise I’ll come back. Let me say good-bye."

"No, sorry. That can’t happen."

Perdicus sobbed. "Let me see her then. Let me hear her…hear her thoughts. Please. Something, anything. I can’t crossover without something."

"You’ve crossed over, young man. Anytime Gabrielle calls to you in her mind, I will make sure that you’re here to hear it. That is something I give to all of you."

"But, I’ll be living in the Elysian Fields. Won’t I be relieving the same moment in time? How will I know her thoughts?"

"It’s sort of complicated, but let me try to simplify it. You’ll be in the Fields and living your happiest moment. However, if Gabrielle or any of your loved ones call for you in their thoughts, I will bring you here so that you can hear what they have to say. When that person is no longer addressing you, I’ll send you back to the Fields."

"This is so unfair," Perdicus fell back, leaning heavily against a pillar. "When Gabrielle and I first told our parents, I was so happy. I looked forward to what we were about to begin and now that we have it, you and the goddess Celesta take me from her. It’s not fair."

"Celesta never takes anyone before their time, Perdicus. I know you don’t like it, but it was your time."

"Can I hear Gabrielle?"

Hades nodded and the hollow echo of the large room took on an eerie, ethereal sound as a lyre played softly and Hades and Perdicus heard Gabrielle’s wailing, "No. No, Perdicus. Oh, no. Xena! Oh, no. Oh, no. No. Oh, no, no Perdicus."

Perdicus’ eyes glistened with tears as he listened to his wife’s pleas. "Why do this to her?" He heard her crying. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I love you."

When Hades spoke, the empty sounding echo of the room was back and the lyre had ceased. "Perdicus, what I want you to do is think about the happiest moment in your life. Close your eyes and put yourself right back there." Hades’ voice was relaxing, almost hypnotizing. "That’s it, relax."

Perdicus’ eyes were closed and the tension on his face disappeared as he was lulled into this quiet place by Hades.

"Do you see it, Perdicus? You’ve never been happier. You’ve never felt this good. Everything is right with the world."

Perdicus’ head fell forward as a smile crossed his face.

* * * * *

Gabrielle couldn’t get over it. Callisto had killed her last innocent as far as she was concerned. She was going to go after her and make her pay for killing Perdicus. Her revenge was palpable. It had encompassed her head and heart and now this entity called vengeance coursed in her soul. Callisto was going to die!

* * * * *

After dinner, Gabrielle and Perdicus had gone for a walk. As they walked they discussed how great it was that their parents were getting along and that the dinner his mother had cooked had been a great success. A candlemark or so had passed and Perdicus turned to Gabrielle and asked, "Are you ready?"

"Yes. Yes, let’s go back and tell them."

The young couple laughed as they ran through the village back to his parents’ home. At the door, the young man bent and kissed the woman lightly on her cheek. "I love you. Ready?"

"Ready," Gabrielle answered as he swung the door open.

"Mom, Dad. Herodotus and Hecuba. Gabrielle and I would like to make an announcement. We love each other and have decided to marry as soon as possible. We couldn’t be happier and we’re ready to start a new life together, forever."

* * * * *

This is for you, Perdicus. Gabrielle moved forward with her sword, prepared to strike. She was close to Callisto, ready to plunge her sword into her. It was the right thing to do. She knew this. Perdicus’ death had been a tragedy and killing his murderer seemed just and honorable, but Perdicus suddenly appeared in her thoughts.

_____

Hades sat at his throne and looked down at Perdicus who listened to Gabrielle’s thoughts. This is for you, Perdicus. I’m avenging your death. I’m going to kill her. I’m going to kill that evil bitch for you.

_____

Perdicus stood in the center of the hall and listened. He shook his head in despair.

_____

Gabrielle stood a breath away from Callisto who slept in her contraption of a chair. She recalled how she had begged Xena not to become a monster if anything happened to her, then she recalled Perdicus’ words from just a couple of days earlier. He had said, "But you never kill. I know that. I love you."

_____

"That’s right, Gabrielle. Stay good. Don’t wear murder as a chain around your neck. It’ll pull you down."

_____

Gabrielle let the sword fall to her side as she sighed. Perdicus. I couldn’t even kill for you. Forgive me.

* * * * *

Back in the Elysian Fields, Perdicus’ joy was a moment away from exploding his heart. After dinner, Gabrielle and Perdicus walked together. As they walked they discussed how great it was that their parents were getting along and that the dinner his mother had cooked had been a great success. A candlemark or so had passed and Perdicus turned to Gabrielle and asked, "Are you ready?"

"Yes. Yes, let’s go back and tell them."

The young couple laughed as they ran through the village back to his parents’ home. At the door, the young man bent and kissed the woman lightly on her cheek. "I love you. Ready?"

"Ready," Gabrielle answered as he swung the door open.

"Mom, Dad. Herodotus and Hecuba. Gabrielle and I would like to make an announcement. We love each other and have decided to marry as soon as possible. We couldn’t be happier and we’re ready to start a new life together, forever."

Adrian, Perdicus’ father came around the table and slapped his son on the back. "Congratulations, son. Welcome to the family, Gabrielle."

"Thank you."

"Herodotus, we’re going to be fathers-in-law. What do you think of it?"

Herodotus grinned an unkind, teeth baring grin. "Then we’ll be splitting property?"

Gabrielle stared at her father in disbelief, but before she could speak, Hecuba stood and ran to her daughter. Isnt this the best news, Lila? Look at your sister. Oh, Gabrielle, she said hugging her eldest daughter, Im so happy for you. Perdicus is a fine young man. The two of you will be so happy.

* * * * *

The Elysian Fields was working out nicely for Perdicus. The young man merrily relived this day over and over, smiling broadly each time he received well wishes, grinning toothily every time he bent to kiss his betrothed.

For the first moon, Perdicus would be right in the middle of shaking his father’s hand or hugging Hecuba when he would be pulled from his looped life in the Elysian Fields to instantly appear in Hades great hall. Each time Perdicus would listen attentively as Gabrielle would voice her sorrow and regret. Perdicus. Dear, Perdicus, if I hadn’t been for me, none of this would have happened. I feel so terrible. I can’t dream any more. All I do is sleep. I knew the danger. Xena had warned me that people might try to harm me because of her and I knew it and got you involved anyway. Please, please forgive me, Perdicus.

The eternally young man lowered his head and sighed. "Hades, how long will she suffer like this?"

"It’s hard to say. Some carry around their pain season after season. Others don’t."

* * * * *

Finally, things were back to how they had been. The past few moons had been very trying for Gabrielle. Callisto had somehow switched bodies with Xena. When Xena’s soul was in Callisto’s body, Gabrielle had to tell herself several times a day that she was dealing with Xena, not Callisto. It had been a difficult time. Each morning she’d awaken to see Callisto’s face, the face of the man who had killed her husband and she wanted to scratch those brown eyes out, then that face would smile and speak to her and the voice and intonations would be so obviously Xena’s. It was Gabrielle’s worst nightmare come true–the woman she desired most trapped in the body of the only person on earth she truly hated. The one good thing was that the passion that had been growing prior to the body switch had died. Gabrielle had been uncomfortable with her feelings of desire prior to that change. How could she still crave Xena when her husband had just died? Something was very wrong with her mind. So, during their travels, when Xena existed in Callisto’s body, Gabrielle was relieved. Maybe she was shallow, but the thought of touching Callisto and having to look into Callisto’s eyes while making love was something Gabrielle found repugnant.

But things were back as they should be and Gabrielle’s feelings had returned with a power of their own.

On this night, Gabrielle wore a white shift that was very similar to her wedding nightgown. It was a simple shift that she used at night after she washed her clothing. Gabrielle cherished this time of their long day. Their evening meal was finished. Both women had prepared for the next day and now they could really relax, talk about the day and rest the sore muscles that had been put to the test during fights and battles in villages and fields.

Today had been an easy and good day. Xena and Gabrielle simply had to trick a heartbroken king and help an old toy maker. Both women had had fun.

Gabrielle lay on her stomach on her bedroll staring at the small wooden lamb that she had placed in front of her. "Xena, I still can’t believe you got this lamb for me. It really was my favorite toy when I was a little girl. I absolutely love it."

"Again, you’re welcome, Gabrielle. I knew it meant a lot to you."

"Funny, I remember Perdicus always hiding it from me when we were really little. He knew it was my favorite." She paused to reflect on that time of her life. Perdicus was always doing something to get her attention. Perdicus, do you remember that time…

* * * * *

In Elysia, Adrian had just said, Congratulations son. Welcome to the family, Gabrielle when Perdicus suddenly stood before Hades.

"Gabrielle has a message for you, Perdicus," Hades said.

Perdicus nodded and listened.

* * * * *

…you buried my toy lamb in the flock my parents were raising. I asked you what you had done with it and you said the lamb is with its family. You were so silly especially when you couldn’t remember where you buried it. Remember how my father tore into both of us for digging holes in the yard ‘cause all the sheep were tripping? Gabrielle nodded her head at the memory, then returned to the moment. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled at Xena and said, "Lookit. I pull the tail and watch the mouth."

"You’ve shown me a dozen times."

"But it’s so funny."

Xena was dressed in her beige shift. She had checked the perimeter as soon as they had arrived at this site and felt perfectly secure. Immediately, the breastplates and body armor had been removed and she stood next to the fire with only her shift on. Her underthings had been removed, washed and were hanging on a tree branch drying. She flung the tea residue from her mug onto the ground and walked over to Gabrielle’s bedroll. The warrior dropped down beside the bedroll and crossed her legs. She picked up the lamb. "What’s the big deal?"

Gabrielle’s hand surrounded the warrior’s as they both held onto the little, wooden lamb. "See, watch this." Gabrielle pulled the lamb’s tail and the little wooden face brightened as the mouth opened. "It’s adorable," she said.

"Humph."

Gabrielle imitated the lamb’s mouth and said, "You don’t think that’s cute?"

Xena noticed that Gabrielle was surreptitiously trying to sneak a peak up Xena’s shift, but she chose not to comment on it. Instead, she said, "Cute? Cute, Gabrielle? I don’t think I’ve thought anything was cute since I was six summers."

Gabrielle laughed and continued her imitation, opening and closing her mouth. Even though her mouth was putting on a silly show, Gabrielle’s eyes were burning into Xena’s skin. She couldn’t stop glancing at the bit of thigh exposed under Xena’s shift. Xena let the lamb drop and grasped Gabrielle’s chin with her hand, holding the woman’s mouth open. She bent and kissed her soundly. It was unexpected, but Gabrielle quickly caught up with Xena’s interest. She scooted to her knees and continued the kiss, while pressing her hand against the warrior’s back to move her closer.

Xena’s eyes closed and she could feel her eyeballs roll back in her head as Gabrielle not only claimed her mouth, but also left her feeling weak and breathless.

When Gabrielle pulled away, she stared at Xena waiting for the warrior to comment. Xena simply smiled and reached for the younger woman again. This time it was Xena who put her all into the kiss.

"Gabrielle, two can play that game," she muttered.

Gabrielle pulled back and gazed into the warrior’s eyes. "If we’re playing a game, you’d better tell me the rules cause I really, really, really want to win."

"There are no rules, Gabrielle. And we both win. It’s whatever the players want. Is this what you want?"

"Yes, and much more." Gabrielle didn’t give Xena an opportunity to respond to that. Her lips were melting into the warrior’s again. Her tongue sought and gained entrance and she sucked on Xena’s tongue, then swirled her tongue against Xena’s teeth, cheeks, and the roof of her mouth. She moaned into Xena’s mouth as she pulled her forward, forcing the warrior on top of her as she ground her body against her.

"By the gods, Gabrielle."

* * * * *

There was only one thing Hades could do with Perdicus who was silently weeping and that was get him back to the Elysian Fields in a hurry. Perdicus was devastated by what he had heard and witnessed. The good thing about being dead was that one forgets the unpleasant events they’ve witnessed when the living speak to them. Once the dead are back in the Fields or Tartarus, the lives of the living have no relevance. A moment after weeping pathetically, he was laughing with Gabrielle, holding hands as they entered his parents’ home.

* * * * *

Gabrielle’s mouth explored Xena’s neck, sucking hard on the flesh, using her tongue to lick up and down the protruding vein, leaving teeth marks on the bronze skin. Xena’s head was thrown back giving the young bard all the access she was requesting. Her body shivered at the contact, but she couldn’t help but smile when she heard Gabrielle growl seductively.

The exuberance of her youth was barely contained. Gabrielle’s hands palmed Xena’s ass through the shift. She squeezed the round, firm flesh while her mouth continued the assault on her neck and collarbone.

"Oh, Xena."

Without really understanding or knowing why she was doing it, Gabrielle shifted her body so that her leg was bent and pressed against Xena’s center. The warrior grunted as she began sliding against Gabrielle. Xena kissed her with abandon. She had held back for so long and each day saw her feelings for Gabrielle grow beyond measure. Just when she thought she couldn’t feel more, Gabrielle would do something or say something that would add to Xena’s mental checklist of why she loved her. And as her emotional love grew, her physical desire for her followed in its wake. Those kisses and stolen caresses from moons earlier played over and over in her mind and now after so long they were finally moving forward.

Gabrielle slid one hand up Xena’s back, gently moving Xena’s night shift up, too. Her green eyes closed when she felt Xena’s wetness against her leg. "Oh, gods, Xena. You…you feel so good to me," she said when she pulled away from Xena’s soft lips.

"Gabrielle…" Xena whispered. Xena’s blue eyes were glazed over and she was no longer able to focus. She licked her lips as she bent again to claim Gabrielle’s. The bard’s kisses set her on fire, but when Gabrielle fondled her breast, Xena thought she could feel the blaze in her belly. "Gabrielle… I had given up hope… that we’d have this…I thought when you…married Perdicus that…Oh, gods…my chance…"

Even in the throes of passion, Xena felt the change in Gabrielle. The smaller woman’s hands froze and her body was no longer moving in rhythm with Xena’s. The warrior couldn’t help it, she sighed heavily. "Gabrielle," she said as she slipped off of her and plopped down beside her on the bedroll. "I wasn’t thinking."

Gabrielle rolled over, her back to Xena. She wrapped her arms around herself in comfort, hugging her stomach. "I’m sorry, Xena. I want this. I really do."

"It’s still too soon. The man you loved was snatched from you and you’re grief-stricken…"

"It’s not that." Gabrielle sniffed.

"What is it? It doesn’t seem like you’ve changed your mind about us?" Xena’s breath was labored. It wasn’t until now that she realized how close she had been to her climax. She lightly touched Gabrielle’s shoulder in an effort to turn her around, but Gabrielle shrank from the caress.

"No. Don’t. Please, don’t."

Xena was leaning on her elbow while looking down at the bard. She shook her head in confusion. "What’s going on, Gabrielle?"

"Xena, Perdicus died for nothing."

The warrior’s eyes narrowed as she tried to comprehend what Gabrielle was saying. "What do you mean? He died trying to protect you."

"Right. Protecting me. His wife. The woman he loved…" She sobbed and cried out, "who didn’t love him back." Gabrielle sat up. "Xena, I’m not grief-stricken. It’s guilt that’s tearing me up. He’s dead. He was a good man and one of my oldest friends and if I hadn’t pretended to feel more for him, then he’d still be alive."

Xena reached out again, but was rebuffed. She didn’t care. She pulled Gabrielle to her, repositioning both of them so that she was sitting and Gabrielle’s head rested in her lap. "His death was not your fault. Do you hear me? Not your fault," Xena said plainly. "Callisto killed Perdicus to get back at me through the two of you. I wish it hadn’t happened. Neither one of you should have gone through that because of my past. I guess if blame is being doled out, I am the one at fault. Me and my wild, uncontrolled army."

"No, Xena. I can’t let you take responsibility for this, too. It was Callisto. I do know that. It’s just that…"

"You’ll learn to live with the guilt because when all is said and done, Gabrielle, you can’t change anything. If I could correct all of my mistakes, set things right for the people I’ve hurt, I’d do it in a heartbeat, but I can’t. When I think of those villages I torched and destroyed, sometimes killing entire towns…" Xena shivered. "Well, it puts me into the darkest place I can go. Trying to rise above that, to see some light and hope is hard. Because of you, I see light and I feel hopeful. I never have before, but I do now and with you, all I can do is try to do good and right now. You’ve got to find ways of bringing joy back into your life."

Gabrielle wept softly. "This guilt. This guilt. Xena, it’s not just that he’s dead, it’s also that I don’t even really miss him. When I think of him, I think why haven’t I been spending more time thinking of him. And when I try to recall the texture of his hair or his smile, the image fades before I can get a grasp on it." She hiccupped as she tried to breathe between her tears. "I’ve known him all my life, Xena. Calling up his voice or his smile or what he looked like shouldn’t be hard. It should be easy, but I can’t. And that makes me wonder what kind of person I am. I believe love is the answer, but I never loved him the way he loved me."

"Our feelings for others can’t always be mutual. Just think what a quiet and boring world we’d have if everyone felt the same at the same time. This guilt about Perdicus will eat you up."

"I know, Xena. I know that. I’m trying." She wiped away the last of her tears and laughed. Gabrielle looked up into the blue eyes that warmed her heart. "I think I was on the right track before."

"I’ll say. I’ve never been so…" Xena shook her head unable to come up with the right word.

"Not even with Marcus."

"Not even." Xena looked down at her. "How did you feel about it? Us?"

"Everything seemed to fit, seemed so right. I’m sorry I killed the mood. I want to keep going in this direction. I’m sure of that--if you do. I just don’t think I’m ready yet."

"That’s okay."

"I doubt that you’re okay."

"Hmm? What do you mean?"

"I’m kind of surprised either of us were able to stop. Physically, I’m so ready for this. It hurts."

Xena nodded. "Oh, yeah. I’m feelin’ that pain, too."

Gabrielle sat up and pulled Xena to her lips. "Thank you for being so understanding. I promise I’ll get over this. It’s just too soon," she said before planting a deep kiss on her lips, her tongue wrapping around Xena’s as the kiss intensified.

"Gabrielle," Xena said breathlessly. She cleared her throat. "I’m…I’m going to go…"

"Don’t go anywhere."

"Gabrielle." Xena’s voice quivered. It was a necessity, an itch that had to be scratched, and a need that had to be satisfied. She had to leave the campsite.

"No, Xena, please stay."

"Gabrielle, I need some relief. I’ve gotta take care of this. I won’t be able to function."

"I feel the same. Stay here with me. You don’t have to leave."

Xena smiled. "Gabrielle. Really? That’s what you want?"

"I’m not quite ready for us to be completely together, but I can’t bear being away from you."

"Are you sure? I don’t know about this."

"Please."

Xena stood and walked the few paces to where she had unfurled her bedroll. She looked over at Gabrielle again, a question on her face.

"Please," Gabrielle pleaded as she reclined completely on her bedroll.

Xena cleared her throat again. No one had ever watched or heard her give herself pleasure. It had always been an act just for her–to relieve battlelust, to feel loved, to help her fall asleep, to climax after being with a lover who hadn’t taken her where she needed to go. "And what about you?"

"I’m right with you. We can…together."

Xena lay down on her bedroll. "Should I stay over here?"

"Yeah, I think. If that’s okay."

"’S’okay."

Both women lay quietly on their respective bedrolls, waiting for the other to start. Moment after moment passed and it seemed like they’d fall asleep unsatisfied.

"Xena?"

"Yes." Xena’s voice was terse. She was so wound up.

"Nothing. You’re so quiet."

Xena didn’t answer.

Gabrielle touched the spot under her shift where Xena had pressed her body. It was still sticky with Xena’s essence and Gabrielle couldn’t help but move her fingers through it, capturing any remaining moisture. She brought that finger to her face and sniffed it, her eyes closing in pleasure at the musky fragrance. Before she realized what she was doing, she had slipped that finger into her mouth and was sucking on it gently. The taste triggered her desire and she could feel the flow oozing from between her own legs. She groaned and squeezed her legs together.

"Tastes so good," she said softly–almost secretly, but Xena’s keen ears heard her.

Xena could make out Gabrielle in the darkness sitting up, pulling her shift over her head, stretching out on her bedroll completely naked. She also removed her shift, hurling it behind her almost into the low fire that still burned.

Xena’s hands moved to her breasts and she gave them a powerful squeeze

There was no need for words. Both women heard the other moaning and groaning as they pleasured themselves together.

One of Xena’s hands had moved down her torso, across her belly and was now rubbing the mound of thick hair between her legs. She spread her lips with one hand and placed a finger on either side of her clitoris. She slowly began to move her fingers up and down against her clit. Softly, she responded to her own caresses. "Ah. Oh, gods. Oh, Yes."

Gabrielle’s fingers lightly tickled her clitoris, too. Her method was different, but the results were about to be the same. Gabrielle moved one hand back to her breast and with an open palm, made tiny circular motions against her nipple. She was getting close and it would only be a few more moments before she dropped over the edge. Slowing her pace, she tried to time herself to Xena. Gabrielle focused on her hearing trying to discern Xena’s quiet moans from the evening’s forest sounds.

Xena closed her eyes and went with the strong feelings that were centered between her legs, but spreading out to her toes. She began to rub all of the wetness over her labia and against her entrance. Knowing her body and recognizing that she’d never been this aroused, she had to push a couple of fingers inside.

As Xena pumped inside, she bit down on her lip to keep from screaming. Two fingers weren’t enough. When she pressed a third finger inside. She grunted just loud enough for Gabrielle to pick up. Gabrielle’s eyes widened and she turned to watch Xena in the darkness.

Gabrielle could just barely make out Xena’s pleasuring sounds, but it was enough. She grabbed her breast and dug her fingers into her full flesh as her finger worked furiously on her clitoris. She was so close and she knew that Xena was, too.

Xena’s body lifted from the bedroll and she held her body taut as the muscles in her arm clenched from the work they were doing. Xena was with Gabrielle, following her lead and the climax tore through her leaving her feeling like she was being ripped open. Her fingers were tightly gripped by her womanhood as the flow that had been non-stop continued and covered her fingers, and hand.

Gabrielle’s body bounced on her bedroll, then she flung her body onto its side and squeezed her legs together while her body quivered and twitched. She breathed deeply through her nose as her chest heaved from the exertion of her orgasm.

The warrior couldn’t move. She fell back and landed loudly on the thin bedroll.

The young bard was unusually quiet and unmoving.

"Gabrielle? Are you all right?"

Gabrielle groaned, but didn’t really answer. She, too was spent. It had been a long time since either woman had taken their time pleasuring herself. Usually, Gabrielle rushed through it because her feelings were at surface level, her desire for Xena always on her mind, and just imagining the warrior walking toward her in the nude with passion in her eyes would cause Gabrielle to orgasm in mere moments. Xena didn’t like the idea of leaving Gabrielle alone for too long. She was a woman who knew how to give herself the release she needed in a fast and efficient way. Tonight, she had been leisurely and enjoyed the climb, the peak, and finally the slow descent.

"Gabrielle," Xena started breathlessly. "If doing this with you near can give me this kind of pleasure, I can’t imagine what will happen when we actually…" Xena shook her head. "Hearing your voice and those sounds."

"Yeah. I know I want this. I just feel like I have no right to the pleasure of another person, the pleasure of you after what I did to Perdicus. I need to get over it. I need to figure out a way."

"You will."

Gabrielle yawned. "I think you’re going to have a hard time waking me in the morning."

Xena smiled. "Close your eyes, Gabrielle. We’ll sleep in."

The soft snores were heard almost instantly. Gabrielle was asleep and Xena still tingled. She wanted to crawl over to her companion’s bedroll and hold her in her arms and as the night turned to morning, to fill her with the love she felt. As she lay there, listening to the woman sleep, Xena acknowledged that she had yet to tell her that she loved her. She prided herself on being afraid of very little–she could fight off anyone and any entity, but she couldn’t string those eight letters together to say ‘I love you.’ She felt it. She just couldn’t say it. It suddenly occurred to Xena that Gabrielle had not said those words, either.

* * * * *

 

Their days and nights melded from one into the next and Gabrielle was having the adventures she had always dreamed of. She and Xena had taken on a mission that involved a beauty contest and Gabrielle could scarcely control her emotions whenever Xena appeared. Xena was Miss Amphipolis, the most gorgeous of the contestants and Gabrielle pretended to be her sponsor. At one point, Gabrielle was discussing part of their plan to find the perpetrator of the crimes, but Xena was in a teasing mood. She had crossed her long legs, her dress was open to her thigh and she reclined on a chaise offering herself up as bait to Gabrielle. As she spoke, trying desperately to focus on what needed to be done, Gabrielle wondered what Xena would do or say if she simply dropped to her knees and crawled over to her, spread her legs, and feasted on the warrior. See, it was hard to remain focused on the mission.

The other sponsors were all men and they treated the women they represented as objects. Gabrielle hoped she wasn’t as superficial, but Xena was stunning. That was Xena’s fault, not hers.

It was at the end of the contest that Miss Artiface beckoned Xena to the stage. Xena, as Miss Amphipolis had bonded with this beauty contestant, but Gabrielle hadn’t expected the lanky winner of the contest to bend over the warrior and give her a full mouth kiss that lingered for far too long. Gabrielle was dumbstruck and filled with jealousy. She pined to kiss Xena like that, even more passionately. She wanted to turn Xena’s world upside down. Gabrielle wanted to kiss her in a way that would make her forget every Hercules, Marcus, Draco who had crossed her path. When she finally got over her fears, regrets, and guilt, she was going to love Xena in a way that the worldly warrior had no words or concept for. That was her plan. But now she wondered if Xena was moving on, giving up on her and the slow progress they had been making. Perdicus…

 

_____

Perdicus stood in his black vest and brown trousers listening as his loved one spoke to him.

_____

Perdicus, I have to get over this. People die. I’m sorry you did. I will always keep you in my thoughts. That is one thing I can promise and I know I can and want to do. You will always be my closest friend, after Xena. I want more with her, but I keep seeing your pained face, seeing you doubled over, clutching your side, trying to straighten up to save me. I keep seeing that and I think how can I go on and be happy, how can I give myself to someone when he died for me. I owe you that. Don’t I?

_____

"What does she want me to do? Send her some sort of sign? I don’t know if I want to. Hades, every time I come here, I hear her say the same thing. Not once has she said, I love you and wish you were back in my arms, my husband."

"I know, son."

"And I am and always will be her husband. She is a widow because of me, but all she’s talked about is loving Xena and liking me. Why do you bring me here to hear this?"

"The living need to know that you can hear their thoughts. It helps them to process their lives."

Perdicus pounded his fist into the nearby pillar. "I don’t want to help Gabrielle process her love for someone else. I don’t care. Why don’t you just let me stay in the Fields and be happy there? Why do you call me here all the time to hear this stuff?"

Hades’ mouth twisted into an odd shape as if he were both contemplating what he wanted to say and trying to decide just how much he should speak. Perdicus glared at the God.

"Oh. I said ‘all the time,’ didn’t I? Let me guess, hardly ever? I have no sense of time, but tell me the truth, Hades. When I’m in the Fields, everything is wonderful. I see my beautiful betrothed and I couldn’t be happier, then you bring me here. I only remember my visits when I return to your palace and you let me hear her. I don’t know when I was last here, though. In mortal time, when was the last time she thought of me, talked to me in her thoughts?"

"Perdicus, that is irrelevant. Gabrielle and Xena are very busy people. One can’t spend their time thinking of dead loved ones and saving lives."

"When was the last time? I have a right to know."

"No, you don’t. And don’t you dare speak to me again with such a tone." Hades smoothed out the leather cape that rested on back of his throne, then he picked it up and swung it around to land on his shoulders.

"Then please let me stay in the Elysian Fields. I can’t bear to hear from Gabrielle. It hurts."

"Perdicus?"

"Set my mind at ease. How often does she think of me?"

Hades glared at him.

"Has it been a few hours, a day, several days, a half moon, an entire moon?" With each period of time mentioned, Perdicus’ voice became louder as Hades stood his ground and chose not to respond. All of Perdicus’ worst fears were coming to fruition. She’s only pretending to give a gods’ damn because it looks good. She never cared.

"I’m ready to go back to the Elysian Fields." Perdicus waved a hand in the air. "Sounds like she’s done with me, anyway."

* * * * *

As they walked down the beach to catch a boat off the isle, Gabrielle didn’t hesitate to ask, "Xena, what was with you and Miss Artiface? Did something happen between the two of you?"

"Hardly."

"She kissed you like she was the love of your life."

"Believe me, Gabrielle, that was just for show."

"I mean, you did seem surprised, but maybe that’s because she did it publicly. I know how you are about your privacy."

"No, that’s not it."

"But you were surprised?"

"Uh-huh?"

"And you and Miss Artiface had never done that before, alone, privately?"

"No, Gabrielle."

"Did you like it?"

"No, not at all."

"Why? Bad breath?"

"No, very sweet."

"Rough skin?" Gabrielle was determined to get to the bottom of this and if she had to play ‘Twenty Questions’ with Xena, she would.

"Surprisingly smooth," Xena said with a big grin.

"Just not your type, huh?"

"No, not really my type."

"Why?"

"Umm. A variety of reasons, Gabrielle. Why are you so interested?"

Just as Gabrielle was about to answer, she fell into the deep tracks of another war wagon. "I’ll be glad when this beach is back to normal," she said as she leaned on her staff to stand.

"Your interest?"

"Uh…well, you know. I’ve just never seen you kiss anyone like that."

"I didn’t kiss Miss Artiface. Miss Artiface kissed me. Different."

"I mean, I know about Hercules and Marcus and…it’s just that…well…"

"Yes?" Xena was barely able to control her amusement as she tried to get Gabrielle to say what was on her mind.

"Well, I’ve never seen you kiss another woman. Other than me."

"And you still haven’t." Xena laughed heartily.

"Yeah, I have. Miss Artiface is a woman, Xena."

"That’s where you’re wrong, Gabrielle. That beauty contestant was no woman."

"Xena, she was a tad forward, but…"

"No." Xena laughed. "No, Gabrielle. Miss Artiface was no Miss. Miss Artiface is a man and I’ve known for days."

"A man?"

"Yup."

"Miss Artiface with the long legs, sexy little swish when she walks, nice rear end."

Xena turned to look at her and smirked, "My you certainly gave her the once over."

Indignantly, Gabrielle said, "Xena, Miss Artiface was your competition, just like all of the other contestants. It was important as your sponsor to be aware of what they were bringing to the table. My interest was all part of the mission."

"Uh-huh. Right."

"It was."

"Yeah, okay."

"It was."

Xena nodded as they continued walking toward a hill to look out for their ship.

"So she was a he?"

"Yep. A nice man."

"Good," Gabrielle said terminating her end of the conversation.

"Good?"

"Yes." Gabrielle kept climbing the hill, refusing to add to her embarrassment for thinking that Miss Artiface was after Xena or that Xena had wanted her.

"What’s good about it?"

"Nothing." Gabrielle said curtly.

Xena sighed and said, "Are you going to write about this?"

"Oh, yes. I was thinking about calling it Queen for a…"

Before she could finish the title, Xena stopped her, "Gabrielle!"

* * * * *

The next two moons were spent on small disagreements between neighbors, helping to draw up treaties between sworn enemies, and aiding a village in creating a dam to hold back the river that was ruining the crops.

There had been one other time that they repeated the intimacy they had shared moons ago at the campsite. Xena chose to stop, though she knew it was something Gabrielle wanted. The warrior believed that Gabrielle could start moving toward her and away from her grief if that element weren’t part of their evenings. For Xena, pleasuring herself with Gabrielle watching and listening made her feel lonely. Even though the climaxes were powerful, she felt this emptiness brought on by not truly making love with her companion. This was not as good as it got.

Each woman thought that even though there friendship was growing, the desire for physical intimacy seemed to have disappeared. Both women were wrong. Gabrielle spent her nights writing scenarios for seducing Xena. Xena spent her evenings lost in thought about the ways she would take her inexperienced partner.

Those days, Gabrielle had decided not to think of Perdicus. Whenever she did, her resolve to make changes faltered and she’d have to start again, telling herself that it would be okay to seek pleasure with Xena.

* * * * *

They had traveled far southwest, nearly out of Greece and there seemed to be people who needed help every step of the way. They were heading back toward the east, when Xena saw a sign post for Cirra. Cirra., the village where Xena’s army had destroyed many lives including Callisto’s. Her army marched in, burning at will, raping, pillaging, and making demands on the town. It was the first time she felt that she had lost control of her men, but then she figured they needed to let off some steam. In the process, women and children were killed and Xena felt bad about it, but what was done was done. She had no way of knowing that her army’s actions that day would come back to haunt her again and again. She, Gabrielle, and Argo traveled to Cirra just to see what had become of the village. They stood on a hilltop looking down at what seemed to be a prosperous town with no sign of what had gone on there seasons earlier. Xena needed to get closer, she needed to understand her actions that day and how she had let things get so out of control. She rode Argo down the hill and looked around. It was as innocuous as any other town. Nothing about it said a crazy girl would be raised here who would lose her mind and her compassion. This was where Callisto’s dreams fell apart. Xena had never been sadder, but realizing that she had left Gabrielle at the top of the hill, she guided Argo’s reins out of the village and back up the hill.

But when she arrived Gabrielle was gone. When Xena took off to find her, she had no way of knowing that her life would forever change and the young girl she traveled with would have to reach down inside herself to find the strongest of courage, intense bravery, and the deepest of love.

Xena rescued the girls and women including Gabrielle who were being held by vicious and barbaric warriors. During the rescue, the native warriors who were determined to end the Warrior Princess’ life had set a trap. One of warrior’s arm reached high and came down swinging, slicing into a thick rope and propelling a gigantic log forward in the direction of Xena. The log was moving too fast for Xena to evade. It rammed into her body and she dropped to the ground. Gabrielle, who had been trying to save the village girls and women, ran back to find Xena sprawled out, barely conscious next to a tree.

The next days were a blur. In an early lucid moment, Xena told Gabrielle to take her north, to Mt. Nestus, a mountain range that was unfamiliar, to a healer Gabrielle had never heard of. The gods tested Gabrielle as she moved them North with frigid temperatures, snow drifts taller than any she’d ever encountered, hunger, sleep deprivation, fear of abandonment, regret, and worry over the woman who should have been her lover long ago.

At Mt. Nestus, Gabrielle met Nicklio, the healer and pleaded with him to save Xena, but it was too late. Nicklio, shook his head announcing that Xena was gone.

* * * * *

Xena was somewhere between the earthly realm and Hades. She wasn’t sure where she was, but she knew she wanted to just close her eyes and complete her journey. She had outwitted death many times, she had been saved from it so often that there were times she felt immortal, but now, she was ready.

Nicklio looked at Gabrielle and shook his head. "She’s gone.

"She can’t be gone," cried Gabrielle.

Gabrielle grasped Xena’s arm and cried, "No. No."

Many, many moons earlier Gabrielle had been seriously injured and everyone had said she had crossed over, but Xena wouldn’t let her go. Xena had begged Gabrielle to wake up and through the fog of near-death, Gabrielle heard that plea and pulled herself back into the realm to join Xena. Now, it was Gabrielle who did the commanding and surely, she thought, her love was strong enough to bring her back.

"Let her pass over," Nicklio gently suggested.

Gabrielle sobbed over the still body, "Please wake up. Wake up. Wake up," she begged.

Pressing her body against Xena’s, hovering over her, shoving her to awaken her, Gabrielle tried and tried to revive her. She was only unconscious, not dead. She could and would awaken. "Oh," she wailed. "Oh, please wake up. Please."

Nicklio was supposed to be this great healer, the only one Xena trusted to help her. Why wasn’t he helping? Gabrielle looked up at him and pleaded with him, too. "Oh, do something. Do something!"

Nicklio had done quite a bit as he worked with Xena’s damaged body. He had rubbed her body with special oils infused with herbal compounds that could keep Xena in a comatose state for an extended period of time. He wasn’t sure how long it would work, but perhaps Xena would act quickly. If the warrior wanted to come back as much as her companion needed her back, he could halt death. It was temporary and he chose not to tell Gabrielle. He didn’t want to give the young woman false hope. It was best if she said her goodbye and mourn in case Xena wasn’t the fearless, unbeatable, brilliant woman he remembered.

Xena slipped from the earthly realm and she sensed that she was beginning her descent to Hades. She knew that’s what should have been happening, but suddenly her old friend M’Lila appeared and told her she had a destiny and even though it felt to Xena like now was her time to die, it was not. M’Lila urged her to open her heart.

When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen, M’Lila said.

And then she heard the sweet voice of her beloved Gabrielle. Gabrielle sobbing and pleading with her, Xena, I know you can hear me-- wherever you are. I know you always told me to be strong. I can’t be-- not now. You can’t leave me. I know it’s not your time. I can feel it in my heart. I should feel this emptiness that I’ve never known before, and it scares me. Xena-- above all-- just remember your destiny. Remember it and fight. Just, fight to come back. This world needs you. I need you.

Xena’s eyes darted around looking for Hades or Celesta, but they were nowhere to be found. She was in this weird kind of plane with images falling backward and disappearing before her. She felt boxed in and unable to free herself. She could still hear Gabrielle sobbing. Her companion was nearly hysterical with grief and disbelief. Xena hoped that Gabrielle’s wish would be enough to return her to her. "I’ve got to go back."

But getting back wouldn’t come easily. Xena remained in such deep state of sleep that she was for all intents and purposes, quite dead.

* * * * *

Gabrielle stayed with Nicklio long enough to rest Argo and to get some much needed sleep as well. She insisted that she sleep next to the hearth, next to Xena’s body. The first night she awoke shortly after falling asleep. She shook her head as she thought about the dream that Xena, the Warrior Princess had died from an injury caused by a log. It was absurd. But then she turned her head and everything was as it had been in the dream. Xena lay stretched out on a slab, her body still. There was no rise and fall of her chest, her eyeballs didn’t move left and right as they did when Xena slept. Her weapons were hanging on a couple of wall hooks, not by her side as always. "No, no. Gods, please no."

Nicklio was at her side instantly, kneeling to draw her to him. "Sssh, little one. Xena has crossed over. She’s at peace." He pushed a mug of tea against Gabrielle’s lips, "Drink this. You need rest. You’ll die, too, if you don’t sleep."

"Let me die. Let me be with her."

"Oh, I didn’t know Xena long, but I knew her well. She wouldn’t want that, friend. She’d want you to carry on. Drink this for Xena."

Gabrielle would do anything for Xena, so she drank the liquid and almost immediately, calmed, feeling warm and relaxed. She slid from Nicklio’s arms and slipped back into sleep on her bedroll.

Perdicus. It’s me, Gabrielle. Perdicus, I know I haven’t talked with you much. Perdicus, do you see Hades? Can you give him a message for me? Tell him that I need Xena. Tell him to bring her back to me. I can’t go on without her. I don’t want to. Please, Perdicus help me if you can. Tell Hades, we need her, that her work isn’t finished here. I’m not strong enough to go on without her. Please, Perdicus. Help me

.

Perdicus turned to Hades. "Catch that?"

Hades nodded.

"So Xena is really dead?"

Hades shrugged. "She hasn’t come here. She might have some affiliation I know nothing of. She could be in another land of death."

"Will I be able to meet with her if she comes here?"

"I don’t know if that’s a good idea."

"Oh, of course, she’ll be in Tartarus to live out her eternity." Perdicus nodded. "I wouldn’t see her, would I?" he added almost pleasantly.

"What makes you think that? Xena has done nothing but good for many seasons now. Yes, her time prior to meeting Hercules and Gabrielle was her most deadly time, but when I look at my books, Xena has redeemed herself."

"How could she possibly have made up for killing entire villages? You have a strange way of reconciling your books."

"If Gabrielle calls for you again, I’ll let you know."

"Before I go, when was the last time I was here."

Hades glared at him and said, "It’s been a long while, Perdicus. A good long while."

Perdicus’ eyes went cold. It’s been a while and even when she does finally think of me, talk to me, it’s to ask for help with Xena. Gods, why did the Fates put that woman so close to Poteidaia the day Draco’s slave traders invaded? My life had been going just fine before that.

* * * * *

While Gabrielle slept for two days, Nicklio finished off the sarcophagus that he had started over ten winters earlier. He knew some day Xena would be brought to him and he also knew that he would only be able to assist her to a degree. He hoped that what he had done would be enough. If Nicklio failed as a healer, he would be the consummate carpenter, creating a final resting place that was specifically for the warrior, a sarcophagus with the same scrolled swirls as those M’Lila had worn on her tunic and that Xena had honored by placing on her warrior’s breastplate.

Each day, Nicklio would listen to Gabrielle howl at the discovery of finding that she wasn’t dreaming. Throughout the day, she would sit beside Xena’s lifeless body, hold her hand, and weep. It broke his heart to see her in such a state, but he knew that it was part of the process. Either Xena would return to her or Gabrielle would eventually go on, begin making decisions about her future, and learn to live without Xena beside her.

When Gabrielle felt strong enough, she stood before Nicklio and thanked him for his kindness. He had helped her to place Xena’s sarcophagus on the litter that Argo would pull off the mountain and toward Amphipolis. It would take almost a season to make the journey, but Gabrielle was determined. She knew from the first day they met that Xena wanted to be laid to rest next to her brother, Lyceus and Gabrielle was going to make certain she was.

* * * * *

Gabrielle, in many ways hoped to never make it to Amphipolis. Although the burden was physically great, traveling with a litter that held this heavy sarcophagus, Gabrielle didn’t mind. Somehow, she seemed calmed by it. Xena was close by. But it was in the mornings that she had to face the loss. The loss was eating away at her. Each morning she woke as she had every morning since her first night at Nicklio’s and said, "Every night I see it happen. Every morning I wish it were a dream. Xena."

Several days into her journey toward Xena’s home village she came upon some thugs hoping to make their fortune with Xena’s dead body. A lot of men and kings were willing to pay big dinars for proof of her death. Gabrielle knew she’d fight them to the death to hold on to Xena, but she didn’t have to. Iolaus showed up and he made fast work of the bandits. When he asked why Gabrielle was alone, she began to sob. "She’s gone," she was able to get out. She paced as she told Iolaus what she was thinking. "She just left me. How could she do that? She just left me. I want to hate her for that."

"No, no you don’t," Iolaus said with gentleness in his voice.

"But I miss her. There’s so many things I wish I could have told her. Why didn’t I when I had the chance?" Gabrielle couldn’t tell Iolaus all of the things she was feeling, those emotions were too raw and too personal.

She heard him ask, "What would you have told her?"

She sniffled, the tears falling softly over her cheeks. " I would have told her-- how empty my life was before she came; and all the lessons I learned; and that I love her." Iolaus had no idea. No one did. She hadn’t told Xena, but she should have. Xena, I love you with a depth I had never known existed; I love you with a passion that the gods would envy; every bit of my heart, every part of my soul exists to love you. I should have told you, but didn’t. Now, I can’t.

"Gabrielle, you just did." How could Gabrielle have forgotten the dead could hear her thoughts? Perhaps it was because she couldn’t think of Xena as dead.

* * * * *

No matter how many times Gabrielle stood at Xena’s sarcophagus, talking to the dead woman, she couldn’t convince herself Xena was truly gone. It felt different than it had when Perdicus had died. She felt the void of his death instantly. Where there had been life, there was none. With Xena, it wasn’t the same.

* * * * *

Perdicus stood in Hades’ great hall and listened to Gabrielle yammer on about the difference between her feelings for Xena and those she held for him. His arms were crossed over his chest and occasionally, he cut his eyes over to glare at Hades.

Perdicus, have you seen Xena? Do you know if she hears my thoughts?

Xena had been leaning against a pillar on the outer section of the great hall. Her fingers were steepled and she jabbed her forefingers repeatedly into her forehead as she was lost in thought. She looked up when she heard her name and paid attention.

Perdicus, can you send me a sign or have Xena send me one that she hears me, that she’s been hearing all that I have to say?

Xena pushed off the pillar she had been leaning on and walked into the room.

"Xena!" Hades was surprised to see her. "How did you get here? Celesta didn’t tell me…"

"I don’t think I’m dead, Hades--at least not completely and I have no intention of staying. Sorry to disappoint."

"You’re the only mortal who just drops in whenever the mood strikes her. No other mortal could survive the trip. Yet you keep coming back." Hades was ready to question her about this latest visit, but Perdicus stepped in.

"Xena?" Perdicus’ salutation dripped with anger. "Welcome to your new home."

"Think again, Perdicus. I’m not staying. "Celesta didn’t bring me. Charon didn’t give me a lift across. Not dead."

"You’re as dead as I," he said with a smile.

"Well, I might be sort of dead, but I sure as Tartarus don’t plan on staying that way."

"Try all you want, Xena, but once you’re in Hades grasp, you’re his."

"Hades and I have an understanding, don’t we God of the Underworld."

"You’ve always been good to me, Xena, but I’ve been good to you. The relationship has always been fair. I am surprised to see you, though."

"I’m weak, but not dead. I’ve gotta get back, back to Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle," Perdicus said tearfully. "Your Gabrielle. She sure isn’t mine. Have you been listening to her sobbing and crying non-stop? She’s angry because you left her. She loves you and did everything you asked of her and you still left her."

"I’m going back," Xena said definitively. "This is temporary. I’m getting back to her."

"Do you hear her?"

Xena, I need you. Please, let this be a bad dream. I’ve waited all of my life for you and now you’re gone. Let this be a dream. I’ve never hurt like this. When Perdicus died, it was a horror, a terrible injustice, but I knew that I’d go on. Perdicus knows that. I’ve talked to him about it….

I know it, but I don’t like it."

"She married you, Perdicus. She married you," Xena said with so much hurt and anguish that Perdicus was momentarily taken aback.

"So what? She loved you." He turned from her, staring at the far wall, sinking into his own despair.

"I’m not going to fight with you about it."

Perdicus suddenly turned and rushed the warrior, giving her a hard shove at the shoulders. "Why not? Why not fight me? I’m no coward, Xena."

As Xena regained her balance she asked, "No one’s calling you one, Perdicus. Is that how you want to spend eternity? Fighting me? Hades could arrange it, problem is I won’t be here much longer."

Xena didn’t wait for a response from Perdicus. Her mind was back on a plan to get her back into the earthly realm. "I’ve got what? A day, Hades? Can I make this right in a day?"

Hades sighed deeply. "This is all highly irregular. As far as I can tell, you’re not supposed to be here, so every restriction we have is moot. If you can find a way home before I sort this out, you’re free to leave."

Perdicus was standing beside them, his face a mask of incomprehension, confusion, anger, and rejection. Xena stared at him and did feel sorry for him. She understood how he felt. If Gabrielle rejected her, she would be just as devastated, just as willing to lash out at the one Gabrielle did love. She looked to Hades again. "I think Gabrielle’s finished. She hasn’t said a word in a while. He should go back to Elysia."

"Of course." Hades wasn’t thinking about Perdicus, either. He was trying to come up with a solution for Xena. He waved his hand and Perdicus disappeared, most likely walking toward Gabrielle, grabbing her in a fierce hug, and swinging her around in a circle while shouting, "Thank you for agreeing to be my wife

Xena and Hades looked at each other and blurted out in unison, "Ambrosia."

"Yes, yes. I think that’s your answer, Xena. It will turn a mortal into an immortal. It’s food for the Gods. I think it could bring back the almost dead. The thing is, you’ll have to get to it and that means finding a mortal who can get you to it since your body is obviously out of commission."

"I know just the person."

"It has to be someone…. How should I say, wily, sneaky, clever?--someone who, of course, cares for you and will do what he or she can to help you. The person has to be athletic, a quick thinker, and a fast talker wouldn’t hurt. You see, to get to the ambrosia, you need the Dagger of Helios and the map. Both are kept under lock and key and guarded. You need someone who…"

"I need Autolycus," Xena said. Her body swayed nervously as she concocted a plan in her mind. "Hades, I need to find a mortal. Can you locate this guy for me? We call him, well he calls himself, ‘The King of Thieves.’ His name is Autolycus and last I heard, he was wandering around…"

"I know the King of Thieves. He accidentally just sent me two warlords who fought each other to the death while he escaped with a priceless gem. I know exactly where he is in fact. Xena, you don’t have a lot of time. I’ll get you into his body, but the rest is up to you. You have to get him to the location of the dagger, get him to steal it, then get him to find a way to reunite you with your physical body. Some how, he has to get you and your body to the ambrosia. There are about a hundred ways this can go wrong."

"But it won’t," Xena pierced Hades eyes as she spoke. She was the only mortal who could look a god in his eyes and not blink, not feel intimidated, not feel inadequate. The fact that she could do this, made Hades blink. "I’m ready. Do your thing."

* * * * *

It hadn’t been the easiest mission Xena had ever carried out, but she was able to slip into Autolycus’ body while he slept off a hangover. She remained unseen and unheard, letting him make his way to the temple that stored the Dagger of Helios. It was when things started getting out of hand that she took over and let her presence be known. Surprisingly, after the initial shock wore off, Autolycus was willing to help Xena. He figured there was potential profit in it and the warrior was a friend.

* * * * *

Gabrielle had met up with Ephiny and a group of Amazon warriors who came to pay their respects. After doing so, Ephiny explained that the Amazon Nation was in turmoil and Gabrielle, as the Amazon Princess and rightful heir to Melosa’s throne was needed to lead their people. The fate of the Nation rested in either Gabrielle’s hands or the hands of Velasca, a power hungry, violent, Amazon who felt justified in her brutality and aggression. Ephiny begged Gabrielle to think long and hard about her future and the future of the Amazons before leaving them to travel to Amphipolis.

Xena-- I’ll always love you-- but I know I have to let you go. I always thought of you as my home, and when you left-- I felt so lost. Maybe, my new home is here. Gabrielle had decided. She would take Xena’s ashes to Amphipolis and then return to the Amazon Nation to rule as their new Queen.

As she watched the preparations for the funeral pyre, she thought of Perdicus. Perdicus, I can’t believe I’m here again, so soon, saying goodbye to another person whom I cared for. I’m going to take Xena’s ashes to Amphipolis. I had promised her that a long time ago and she would want it that way. I’ve tried to tell her, but I don’t know if she can hear me, sense me. If you see her or if Hades sees her, tell her that I’m taking care of her, abiding by her wishes because I love her.

_____

"Gods, has she no idea how cruel she is?" Perdicus whined. "I died fighting to save her. I died the day before we were to travel back to Poteidaia to start a life, but she didn’t care. Yeah, sure. She gathered wood for a funeral pyre and watched as Xena hefted my body onto it. She and her big, she-warrior friend both lit those torches, and walked around the pyre and set me ablaze. They probably giggled at their luck. Big, dumb Perdicus was out of the picture, no longer a threat to them being together. By the gods, I loved Poteidaia, but it didn’t even occur to her for one moment to take me home or to take my ashes home. No, she told Xena that my ashes should be spread across the meadow where I died; that it would be a fitting memorial to me. Even in death I have been a blind man. I see now. Oh, I see. It wasn’t to honor me; it was convenient. Let’s just dump him here and be on our way. Out of sight, out of mind."

Hades rolled his eyes as he listened to Perdicus rant. He would have sent him back to the Elysian Fields, but he could still hear Gabrielle in the background talking to the young man. Gabrielle’s voice was merely ambient sound as Perdicus raged over what he perceived as another uncaring act by Gabrielle. "Perdicus, I know you don’t believe that. From what I know of Gabrielle, she is a very loving, tender woman who thinks of others before she thinks of herself."

"Oh, please. Spare me. Gabrielle thinks of Gabrielle. She ditched me when we were to be married, then once we were married and I died, she scattered my bodily remains in a field near some village I’d never visited prior to the day before. And then, she sends a scroll to my family giving them the news. I know that because…" Perdicus whined in a high effeminate voice, Perdicus, I’m letting your parents and brothers and sister know what happened. I’m sending this scroll with a messenger right away. They should know.’ Gee, thanks for telling my parents in a scribbled note that I’m dead. That personal touch should make them feel good. Gabrielle is all about Gabrielle. But she loves Xena and she’ll do whatever she can to fulfill her love’s wishes."

"If that’s what you want to believe, I can do nothing to persuade you otherwise. Why put yourself through this?"

"Because you keep sending for me!" Perdicus yelled at Hades. "I don’t want to come here! Leave me be!. Let me live out eternity without having to deal with this heartache. I’d be better off in Tartarus then coming here to listen to her talk about Xena."

"We do the living a service by opening our hearts to them as they speak to us."

"Hades, no offense, but since you are the God of the Underworld, why not do the dead a service and not put us through it?"

Hades shrugged. He stood there wishing Gabrielle would finish all that she had to say to her dead husband because this man was about to make him start shooting fireballs. If Perdicus weren’t dead, he would be if he didn’t stop with all of the irritating comments.

* * * * *

Hades had spoken with Celesta a number of times and his sister was adamant about this not being Xena’s time. She, frankly didn’t know what was going on or how Xena had ended up in the Underworld. Hades was spending most of the day and night in his great hall listening for information regarding the events going on in the earthly realm. He knew that Xena’s soul and spiritual self co-habitated with Autolycus and they were on Amazon land trying to get to her body. He didn’t know much else unless Gabrielle spoke to Xena. Since Xena wasn’t there, Hades listened to her thoughts.

Xena? Look. They made me Queen. She laughed. Me, the little girl you found in Poteidaia.

It sounded to him like Gabrielle must have been standing over Xena’s sarcophagus speaking to the warrior.

It’s time that I let you go. See, I…I have to find my own life--just as you were searching for yours. You know, there are two kinds of tears: tears for those… she cried softly. …who leave you and tears for those who you never let go. And I won’t say goodbye to you, Xena ‘cause we’ll be together again. One day.

Hades heard so much pain and longing in Gabrielle’s voice and he whispered a thought to his sister Aphrodite that somehow these would-be lovers find a way back together. "Go, Xena, go. Time is running out," Hades said aloud.

* * * * *

When Autolycus was caught trying to steal Xena’s body, Gabrielle refused to believe his motives, but when she heard Xena’s battlecry coming from Autolycus and watched as he leapt and somersaulted across the Amazon square to land on top of the flaming funeral pyre, she knew in her heart that Xena was not only sending a sign, but that she was there with her and trying to come back. As she had done for seasons, Gabrielle abandoned everything and followed Xena.

When Autolycus and Gabrielle were completely alone in the forest, Xena took control of Autolycus’ body so that she could not only speak to Gabrielle, but also hold her.

Xena willed a dreamscape to appear where she and Gabrielle could speak as they always had. Slowly, the dreamscape evolved into a place where they could meet.

"Yes, Gabrielle, it’s me. I want you to do something. Close your eyes. Close them tightly, and think of me. Gabrielle. Gabrielle. It’s me. I’m not dead." Xena said, looking down at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle was dressed in her Amazon garb and looked like she had aged many winters in just a few days. A tiny wrinkle ran up and down between her eyebrows and Xena couldn’t recall having seen it before. There was an unbelievable sadness in Gabrielle’s eyes, too. That look she had never seen. Gabrielle was always upbeat, filled with life, filled with hope for the future. Gabrielle still looked beautiful, but she also seemed tired and rundown. Hopefully, Xena would be able to bring that brilliantly jovial woman back with her own return.

"Xena?" Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief. How could this be? She wondered.

"At least, not completely."

Gabrielle knew that this encounter was unusual and probably wouldn’t last, but there were questions that needed answers, questions she had been asking herself nearly every candlemark. "Why? Why did you leave? There’re so many things I want to say to you."

Talking to Gabrielle at this moment was the most important thing Xena could do. If getting to and eating the ambrosia didn’t work, at least Gabrielle would know that Xena’s feelings for her were strong enough to make her try to return and that she would always be there for her in some way. It was crucial to Xena that Gabrielle knew this because Gabrielle had changed her life so dramatically. She was a different person and warrior with Gabrielle beside her. She wanted her to know that the young sidekick’s dreams for her were appreciated and accepted. "Gabrielle-- you don’t have to say a word. We don’t have much time. I need to get to the ambrosia; otherwise, I will be gone."

"Xena, I can’t lose you again," Gabrielle said as she tried to hold back tears to no avail. My gods, she can’t come back to me just to leave me again. I couldn’t bear it.

"Gabrielle, I’ll always be here."

Xena bent down and leaned in as Gabrielle tilted her head upward and leaned forward. Their kiss was tender and filled with true love that would last an eternity. The passionate kisses they had shared before in many ways couldn’t compare to the depth of feeling that this one sparked in each woman. When the kiss ended, both women knew that the other loved her more than any other and they knew that each would go to all mortal lengths to help, protect, and be with the other. It was a kiss that said all that they had ever spoken to each other, yet also promised love that would be unending.

* * * * *

After a mad chase for the ambrosia, fighting villains, a little torture, many threats, and more violence than Gabrielle and the Amazon warriors had never witnessed, Gabrielle slipped the food of the gods into Xena’s mouth. To say Gabrielle was overjoyed was an understatement. When Xena blinked and then smiled warmly at Gabrielle, her heart was mended.

It would take days before all the fighting would end. During that time, Gabrielle had to face her archenemy again, Callisto.

Gabrielle tried to reason with Xena. They didn’t need Callisto, despite the fact that she was an immortal. There had to be another way to fight their Amazon enemy, Velasca. But Xena was determined and said it was the only way; she had to use Callisto.

"No, you don’t! Every time I close my eyes, I hear her voice! I hear Perdicus scream. Now, I have to live with that till the day I die. What makes you think-- that Callisto would help you?" Gabrielle was desperate to find an argument against using her. Callisto needed to stay hidden away from the world forever.

But Xena won out. She promised Gabrielle that it would be okay and eventually, it was. Both Velasca and Callisto were destroyed in a river of lava. The Amazons thrived under Ephiny’s leadership, while Xena and Gabrielle took some time to heal their emotional and physical wounds before heading back on the road.

* * * * *

At the Amazon Nation, Amazon carpenters and smithies worked to get the village that had been devastated by Velasca’s wrath rebuilt. While they hammered, nailed, and soldered, Xena and Gabrielle slept in the hut of the Amazon Queen. Gabrielle gave Xena long massages, stretching out her limps that were stiff. Most other people’s limps would have atrophied, but Xena was only a little sore. In fact, she didn’t need Gabrielle’s massages, but having her friend’s hands on her was something she found immensely pleasurable.

They had been with the Amazons for over two moons. Xena was back to her old self and knew that she could handle any problem that crossed their paths. She had spent the last part of their stay with the Amazons running drills with other warriors and exercising to exhaustion. Gabrielle had spent her days learning Amazon law and rules and ways to govern. Though that wasn’t her plan, there might be a time when she would be called upon to lead her adopted people. If that happened, she would be ready. Now, both women were eager to continue their lives on the road.

The night before, they lay side by side in bed as they had been every evening. Xena suggested that they return to Amphipolis.

"Gabrielle, that was a really close call. I came back mostly for you, but also I want to make things right with my mother and at some point, when I think he’s ready, with Solon."

"Oh, I understand, Xena. I want you to stay connected to your family. And already I think of Solon as…"

"A younger brother."

"Hardly," Gabrielle said a bit miffed. "I think of him as my son."

"You would have been nine or ten winters old when you gave birth, then."

"Xena, the implication is that if I thought of Solon as my brother, I’d be thinking of you as my mother and I can assure that my feelings for you are nothing like those I’ve ever had for my mother."

Xena smiled, but didn’t say anything. In the time they’d spent recuperating, neither woman had made any overtures or suggestions about deepening their relationship to add a more physical element. This was the first time that Gabrielle had hinted it was something she still wanted. Going to Amphipolis as it turned out would be providential in Xena’s mind.

"Speaking of your mother, Gabrielle--do you want to go to Poteidaia for a visit?"

"No."

"Sure?"

"Yes, Xena." Gabrielle sighed. "I’ve gone to Poteidaia twice now and seeing my parents is not something I’ve wanted to do. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. I guess it’s guilt or anger or just feeling like a child around them or worse, feeling invisible. My home is here with you and going to Amphipolis sounds fine. I like Cyrene."

"What about Lila?"

"We keep up through scrolls. You know, it’s funny that whenever I hear from her, she never writes, ‘Mom and Dad miss you’ or ‘Mom and Dad send their love.’"

"Maybe she forgets to write it."

"You don’t know Lila. Whatever she hears, she repeats. If you want to keep something a secret, everyone in Poteidaia knows not to tell her. If they had asked about me, Lila would have told me. It says a lot, don’t you think?"

"Yeah, it does. I’m sorry, Gabrielle. Maybe in time, your parents will change." Xena hesitated, then added, "People do."

Even in the dark, Gabrielle sensed Xena’s soft smile. She turned to her and asked, "When you were away from me, were you able to hear my thoughts?"

"Sometimes. It was a bit tough with the craziness going on in Autolycus’ brain." She chuckled.

Gabrielle reached for her hand in the darkness and grasped it tightly. "Then you know how much I love you. I love you with all my heart; with every beat of my heart."

"You know, before…" Xena hesitated, not sure if she wanted to get into this subject, but knew that she needed to. "Before, when we kissed and touched, I stopped you. I said that I didn’t feel the way you did and I didn’t want to hurt you."

"Yes?"

"I know that what I feel for you is strong and I don’t know if I deserve you…no, I don’t deserve you. Anyway, I know you could probably do better with someone else. I mean, I’ll never be exactly what you want or need…"

"You’re just what I want and need, Xena. You’re exactly the person I want and need."

"Uh…I’ll try to do right by you, all right? If you’ll have me."

Gabrielle kissed Xena lightly on the cheek and both women sighed contently, but there conversing was over for the night. Their hands remained entwined even after Morpheus came to them and drew them into sleep.

* * * * *

Cyrene was nothing short of ecstatic to have Xena back in Amphipolis. All of the townspeople were hearing good things about Xena. Her daughter was a changed woman or a better description might be that she had returned to the person she once was. Xena had been an idealistic child having firm beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust. Even at the age of four winters, Xena was the little protector of all of the other small children. The big kids hadn’t dared bully them with her around. Watching her tall, strong daughter now, Cyrene could still see a glimmer of the child who fought for the weaker ones. Xena was truly back and it was plain as day that this younger woman, Gabrielle played a large role in the return of the kinder, more compassionate Xena. It was just as obvious that Xena had found love.

Over the seasons, Cyrene had heard rumors that Xena was a sexual charmer. So much like her father, Cyrene had thought. With Gabrielle, it seemed that Xena was the one getting charmed. Xena’s eyes could take on the coldest, most heartless and piercing stare and Cyrene had not only witnessed it many times, but had been on the receiving end during Xena’s teen years. Sitting in her inn this night, the warmth in those blue eyes melted all who were captured by her gaze no matter how fleeting. Xena’s mother noticed that whatever kindness Xena gave to others was only the residual tenderness and affection she bestowed on Gabrielle.

"What are your plans for tomorrow, Xena?" Cyrene asked.

"Ummm," Xena began languidly. "I think I’ll take Gabrielle across to the fortress. We’ll spend the day."

Gabrielle cocked her head in question, but only listened to the conversation while taking in all of the other sights of the patrons at the inn.

Cyrene nodded and smiled. So Xena is quite serious about this feisty girl. Well, good for her. Gabrielle is a beautiful and sweet person. "What time will you be leaving?"

"Early. You’ll probably be in the kitchen preparing the meals for the day. We won’t disturb you."

"Xena, I want both of you to have a morning meal before you go to the fortress."

"Mother, it’s not necessary." She leaned in and whispered, "Frankly, I don’t think I’ll be able to eat much. I haven’t been there in a long time."

"It’s much the same as you and Lyceus left it, though Corban asked if he could graze his sheep there."

Xena’s eyes flashed briefly as she thought about what the fortress and surrounding areas might look like with grazing animals all over it. "Does that mean we’re going to have to deal with sheep dung?"

"No, I’ve been up there and I know that Corban followed my instructions to the letter. He’s left the fortress clean."

"Okay, okay. What is this fortress?" Gabrielle interjected.

"You’ll see tomorrow." Xena stared at Gabrielle until Gabrielle became self-conscious under the intensity. "Gabrielle, I need some time to deal with family matters tonight. Mom can set you up in your own room."

Cyrene and Gabrielle looked at Xena with matching expressions of disbelief. Xena stared back but said nothing. Instead, she sipped from the mug of warmed wine that was her mother’s specialty drink.

As her mother and companion continued to look at her, Xena was forced to respond, "It’s just that I kind of want to have a conversation with Lyceus alone. If that’s all right."

"Of course, Xena." Gabrielle remembered that she had walked in on Xena’s conversation with her brother at the family crypt. Xena was closer to no one and if she needed time alone with him, that was something she could understand.

"Thank you."

Cyrene was surprised that Gabrielle would be so agreeable. It was obvious that the two women were used to sleeping beside each other. She wondered if Gabrielle was truly upset and just keeping a stiff upper lip about it, but when she turned to look at her, Gabrielle’s expression was that of deep love and understanding. Gabrielle was perceptive when it came to Xena and her needs and seemed to give her daughter the space she required.

Cyrene stood and said, "Let me get your room together, Gabrielle. Is there anything you’d especially like in there?"

"No, Cyrene, just some blankets and a mug of water, perhaps."

"This is a classier inn than that, Gabrielle. I’ll see what delights I can come up with." Cyrene left the two women sitting at the table. Xena leaned in and patted Gabrielle’s hand. "This is the last night you’ll sleep alone. Promise."

The word ‘promise’ made Gabrielle’s heart skip a beat. She knew that the word comprised love, passion, friendship, trust, honesty, and their souls. Gabrielle was promising everything to Xena and knew that Xena was doing the same.

When Cyrene returned the two women said their goodnights to Xena’s mother and a few moments later, to each other in the hallway. The evening’s parting to Xena’s mom was sweet and familial, but in the corridor, Xena backed Gabrielle against the wall and holding her chin, began to kiss her deeply. Slowly she moved her hand from Gabrielle’s chin to lightly caress her neck, then further down to hold her shoulder as the kiss became less controlled. Gabrielle moaned into Xena’s mouth and Xena did likewise as both woman tried to devour the other. Gabrielle’s hands were on Xena’s waist, squeezing her enthusiastically, flexing her hands as she got lost in Xena’s warm mouth.

Xena pushed back and smiled. "I’ll see you in the morning. We’re leaving early."

Gabrielle looked into Xena’s eyes and one corner of her mouth went up and then a grin spread across her face. "Do you think you can carry me to my room?"

"You’re a big girl."

Xena turned and walked down the hall. Only once did she turn back to see Gabrielle still leaning against the wall, eyes closed, and trying to recover from Xena’s kisses.

* * * * *

Xena had changed out of her armor and leathers, then the rest of her clothing to sink into the lukewarm bath her mother had left for her. She was sure that Gabrielle had the same arrangements in her room. Her bath smelled of cinnamon oil and Xena smiled that her mother remembered her favorite fragrance.

When she finished, she sat on her bed at the foot and stared into the mirror. Nothing about her looked different–long dark hair, blue eyes, skin the color of a hardworking farmer’s. In her eyes, she didn’t see the changes that she knew had taken place in her life. She was no longer a pirate or warlord; she didn’t brutalize men for amusement; and now, she could still have a good day fighting, but she didn’t crave or even want a good kill. She was an Amphipolitan woman, home to visit her mother, traveling with her companion. Of course, Xena was an Amphipolitan to be reckoned with. Kicking ass was her vocation, after all; people should be intimidated by her--it would serve them well to be afraid. These blue eyes could instantly let someone know they had done wrong and would have to be dealt with, but now when she looked at them, she saw peace and a contentment she hadn’t known since she and Lyceus played war games and tried to hook the biggest and best fish. She had done something right to have Gabrielle by her side. Xena shook her head wishing that Lyceus could have met Gabrielle. Toris really liked her, so she knew her younger brother would have to.

"Lyceus, brother. I miss you." Xena spoke aloud. "I’ve been thinking of you more and more because before Gabrielle there was no one who understood me better than you. I just hope I never let her down. She’s so open and honest and well…you know me. I keep things close." She shook her head. "She loves me and she tells me now. She held back waiting for me to say it, but she finally told me. I know she expected me to say the same, but I didn’t. It’s not that I don’t feel it, I do, but…" Xena paused and bit her lower lip. "But…whenever I’ve said that–I love you--the person’s been taken away from me somehow--either by death or my own stupidity. You were killed because we went after Cortese. Lao Ma was so disappointed in me that I left her. Akemi? She broke my heart in so many ways. Remember that Amazon I told you about, Anokin? She learned to hate me. Then Solon. I held him in my arms and told my son I loved him, then gave him away. I don’t have much of a success record with those I love."

Xena began to cry. A sole, pitiful tear spilled from her eye and drifted casually down the plane of her cheek. She was feeling sorry for herself. Perhaps she would never have and hold love "You know, she’d walk away if she knew all I’d done. I know she wants me to share my life with her, but some of the things in my past…" Xena swallowed hard, and stared at her reflection. "She couldn’t forgive me for some things. And, being with me, aren’t I putting her in danger? Gods forbid we run across Caesar in the future. I don’t think I could control myself. I’d go after him and Gabrielle--she’d never understand it. And what if she finds out about Japa? Or the kidnapping in Chin? Or what I did to the Valkyrie up North? See, brother? See? If I tell her all, I lose her, but if I don’t and she finds out…" Xena sighed. "And I’ve talked to you over the seasons, Lyceus. You know that there are many more people like Callisto out there. We will never be safe. Gabrielle will always be in danger. I know I should take this risk. My brother, the risk-taker. Yeah, so am I. Why does this risk frighten me so?" Xena stared at her hands for good long time before looking up. "I think I’ve been angry a long time that you were taken from me. So, not only am I with Gabrielle, but I can finally truly say goodbye to you." Xena smiled and then said to her reflection, "Lyceus, in the morning we’re going to the fortress. Remember? I will always miss and think of you, Lyceus. Wipe the dirt off your face, kid." Xena chuckled.

She picked up the shift that had been left for her on the bed and pulled it on over her head. She stood and let it slide over her body. She paced her small childhood bedroom for a few moments before she began to voice her thoughts. "Hades, I’m not his loved one, but I need for Perdicus to hear my thoughts. Could you get him for me, please?"

She didn’t know if Hades would allow Perdicus to leave the Elysian Fields, but she hoped that when she began, he’d hear her.

* * * * *

Perdicus, you have to free, Gabrielle. Shes a young woman who has a right to live her life the way she wants. I know she couldnt be all that you wanted, but she can be that for me. She wants to give me her love and I want to love her. Youre standing in the way. Im not trying to be a bitch. She needs to move on. Im asking you, if you do love her, to set her free. Show her that you love her enough to want to see her happy. You have a good life in the Elysian Fields, why not let her have a good life here? It wasnt her fault Callisto killed you. Blame the Fates if you need to blame someone, but not her. Not, Gabrielle. I love her, Perdicus. She loves me. Let her go.

"Did you hear that?" Perdicus laughed maniacally.

Hades’ hearing was in perfect working order. The plea was so heartfelt that if it had been in his power to send Gabrielle a sign that she should live her life, he would, but it was all up to Perdicus. "Yes, of course. What are you going to do?"

"I wonder what people would think if they knew that Xena, the mighty warrior princess was literally begging me for a favor."

"Perdicus, she’s asking you to do a favor for your widow."

"Gabrielle never belonged to me," Perdicus said.

"Then it makes perfect sense that you make that known to her."

"I can’t. If I do, what will I have? My life would have been a lie."

Hades walked over to the mortal. He didn’t give comfort easily, but sometimes his mortals would become so distressed that they needed his shoulder or embrace. He stood beside Perdicus and put his arm around his shoulders. "I’ve never seen a man love so strongly. That’s something you should be very proud of, Perdicus. Why don’t you let Gabrielle know that she should go on without the guilt that plagues her?"

"What will I have?" he cried.

"You’ll always have the fact that you loved someone completely, wholly, and the best you knew how. You’ll have the pleasant memories of how it felt to tell your families. You have got to do this, Perdicus. You’re always pissed off when you come here. I guarantee that once you take care of this, when Gabrielle speaks to you, it will be much more fulfilling for you."

"I’ll think about it," he said with anger in his voice.

"Don’t. Do it now. Do it, so you can rest, too."

* * * * *

Gabrielle finally made it to her room, but she was weak with desire for Xena. She could barely wait for tomorrow just to see the warrior. What else the day held in store would be a mystery until it happened, but she had a feeling it would be all that she wished.

As she bathed, she told herself that she needed to keep Perdicus out of her head. If she just didn’t think about the tragedy, she would be ready and able to take those next steps. She kept telling herself this as she dried her body, slipped on her clean shift, and snuggled in the thick blankets that Cyrene had left as her bed linens. Just before she fell asleep, she forced herself to think only of Xena and their future. That’s what she wanted to dream of, not those tortured dreams of Perdicus. She had preferred it when she couldn’t dream at all right after he had died to the dreams she’d had lately. Xena would be her focus tonight, not Perdicus dying, not Perdicus awkwardly making love to her, not the look of failure on his face when he told her that he wasn’t really a soldier. She refused to have dreams of her guilt when she could dream of the many tomorrows she would share with Xena.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, thankful that the rush to get here from the Amazon Nation had left her exhausted, despite the excitement of tomorrow. Sleep would come easily.

Gabrielle had been sleeping about two candlemarks when she rolled over from one side to another, bunching up her flattened pillow for a bit of cushion in her sleep. She slept on, but even this state was able to acknowledge the softness of the blankets and their fresh smell of rosemary and other herbs.

Before long, Gabrielle’s eyes darted left and right rapidly as a dream took over her subconscious mind.

After dinner, Gabrielle and Perdicus had gone for a walk. As they walked they discussed how great it was that their parents were getting along and that the dinner his mother had cooked had been a great success. A candlemark or so had passed and Perdicus turned to Gabrielle and said, "I love you, you know that, right?"

"Yes, of course, I know. You told me fifty times today," she answered with a grin.

"I’m eighteen summers old and am ready to marry. Our parents would love for us to join"

"Uh-huh," Gabrielle said nervously.

I want you to be my wife." Perdicus turned to face her as they had been walking hand in hand and forward. He stopped. "I would love that…"

 

"Oh, Perdicus…"

"But the thing is, Gabrielle, you’re only sixteen and a half summers. I think you need more time."

Gabrielle didn’t speak. She simply nodded, not in affirmation, but asking him to continue.

It would be unfair of me to just say we should do this when youre not as sure as I. Im willing to wait for you.

Gabrielle stared into his eyes and knew that her next statement would hurt him, but she needed to know everything. "What if I’m never sure? Perdicus, I so want to have adventures, maybe become a bard. I want to see more than Poteidaia."

"Then maybe you can do that someday, Gabrielle. Maybe we could even do it together."

"But what if I decided to be on my own. Perdicus, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, but marriage?"

"Gabrielle, I love you and if you decide that I’m not the one for you, it will hurt. I won’t tell a lie. It will truly hurt me, but I want you to be happy. If someone else makes you happy, then I will wish that person all the best and ask her to love you at least as much as I’ve loved you. I will let you go. You should experience the kind of love I feel for you. I won’t deny you that."

"Perdicus, what will we tell our parents?" She was more relieved than she could begin to express. Gabrielle knew that Perdicus was practically walking down Hestia’s aisle with her; she knew that he couldn’t wait for one of the priestesses to bless their union. The love she felt for him bloomed with his offer to wait and Gabrielle actually felt lighter than air.

"They only hope that we’ll marry. Nothing has been made final. Don’t worry about the parents. This is between us."

"Perdicus, it won’t take me long to decide. I’m not there yet, but I will be."

"You might or you might not. That’s okay, Gabrielle. That’s okay."

* * * * *

The next morning, just after dawn when Xena lightly knocked on the door of Gabrielle’s room, she was sure she’d have to go in and actually wake her. Gabrielle liked to sleep late every chance she had and if Xena wasn’t there to wake her, Gabrielle could stay lost in Morpheus realm many candlemarks longer than most. Surprisingly, she could hear Gabrielle’s booted feet pad across the room and the door opened. Xena’s heart jumped into her throat as she looked at Gabrielle. She was dressed in her green top and brown skirt, her boots were still a bit dusty from the road, and everything about her looked just the same as it had for the past few moons. But there was something different in Gabrielle’s eyes–a look of both optimism and anticipation.

"Hi," Xena said almost shyly.

"Good morning, Xena," Gabrielle answered as she entered the hall and closed the door behind her. "So we’re off to this fortress, huh?"

"Yep." She and Gabrielle walked down the hall and down the few steps leading to the main room of the inn.

"Are we meeting a king? Militia?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.

"No, I suspect that the fortress will be deserted." Gabrielle could tell that Xena was purposefully being cryptic.

"Then why are we going?"

"I think it’s something you should see, is all."

The wonderful smells of Cyrene’s early morning cooking permeated the main room. Xena and Gabrielle could smell various breads baking, the pungent aroma of rabbit stew on the hearth, and the ripe odor of root vegetables boiling, too.

"Are we going to eat first?"

"Uh…I…why don’t we eat when we get back?"

"Xena is that you?" Cyrene called from the kitchen.

"Yes, mother. Gabrielle and I are on our way to the fortress."

Xena, don’t leave here without a little something," Cyrene shouted from the kitchen just before she walked through the door into the main room. She was carrying a bundle wrapped in linen. "You might be able to go for candlemarks without food, but I don’t think this one would appreciate having to go hungry. I saw her eat last night–she has a healthy appetite."

Gabrielle blushed, but accepted the bundle that Cyrene pushed into her arms. "Thank you."

"It’s just a couple of slices of bread, some cheese. You can work up quite a hunger trekking across the land. I know, I’ve done it before. Xena, your manners as always leave a lot to be desired."

Xena lowered her eyes to the floor and without raising her head, looked up at her mother. "You’re right. Sorry."

"Go on with the two of you. And for Zeus’ sake, stay out of trouble, if you can, out there."

Xena nodded and guided Gabrielle to and then out the door. Cyrene smiled at the two departing figures and thought, I’ll see you tonight.

They walked through town, even though their destination was directly behind Cyrene’s inn. There were just too many obstacles out there--several wells, animals grazing, piles upon piles of chopped wood, and overgrown grasses. Cyrene didn’t want visitors to the inn curiously wandering out past the inn’s backyard. That land was family land and private. As Xena and Gabrielle walked through the village, Xena glanced around. Not much had changed in Amphipolis since she lived here. It was still home. She had lived on the sea and in Chin and Japa. She had traveled to the Caucasus Steppes and had spent many moons with the Norse people. Xena was a world traveler, but this place, Amphipolis was her most treasured land. Taking a deep breath she thought that it smelled like only Amphipolis could and the rich soil was Amphipolis soil, the sky was a beautiful sunrising pink and orange, so much like other sunrises, but distinctively an Amphipolis one. She loved this land and these people and hoped someday that they would truly welcome her back and love her as they once had.

"What are you thinking?"

"Ummm. Just how quiet it is. When the merchants come out, you can’t hear yourself think, but right now, it’s nice."

"Yeah, it is nice walking next to you."

"Ah, so you’re glad I left Argo at the inn’s stable?"

"Well, not glad. It’s just that I don’t really want to ride Argo if I can help it and I know I would want to be near you, so… I guess I am glad. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love Argo because I do."

"I know."

They past the last building in the town and were now standing at the foothills. "We’re going up there, to the top?"

"No, now we’re going straight out that way," she said pointing well beyond the field in front of them. "Up there, is nothing really. Just another good hiding place for Toris should danger come his way." She laughed, thinking that Toris was no longer the coward he had once been when he fled up the hill to escape Cortese and his men.

Gabrielle squinted. "Shouldn’t I see the fortress? I don’t see anything."

"It’s well hidden, Gabrielle. C’mon."

 

* * * * *

Daylight had fully arrived just a few moments before they reached the edge of the field. Xena had timed it so. She wanted Gabrielle to take in the splendor of the fortress when the daylight formed both bright areas and shadows on it.

Gabrielle was astounded by what she viewed. "By the gods, Xena. What is this?"

"What’s it look like, Gabrielle? The fortress, of course."

What Gabrielle saw in front of her was an exquisite archway of canopied trees. There were about thirty trees on each side, each bending inward to touch those on the opposite side. The limbs were full with leaves and the sun’s light dappled onto the beautifully lush grass, so short and thick that it reminded her of the plush Egyptian carpets she had seen the vendors selling in Athens. She was drawn to it and wanted to sink her toes into it immediately. "Gods, I want to take my boots off."

"Go ahead. I’m the only one here and I’m used to the smell."

"Xena!"

"Just kidding, Gabrielle."

Quickly, Gabrielle untied her boots and held onto Xena’s upper arm as she removed both. "Oh, this is bliss. It feels incredible. How in the world does this grass stay so short? How did these trees grow like this? Look at all of these beautiful yellow daisies. They look like they’re part of the grass. Whose place is this? Is this the fortress?"

Xena nodded. "My mother rents out the land to local farmers so they can graze their sheep. All that munching keeps it fairly low, but I’m sure Toris has been out here with a scythe, too. This is mother’s pride and joy–besides us that is." Xena smiled as she recalled the many stories of the fortress.

"You know, Xena when you said fortress, I was kind of expecting a big wooden or stone building, towers, a few causeways, a heavy locked gate."

Gabrielle was turning in small circles, trying to take in all before her. The trees, had they been standing erect would have been gigantic. Bending, they made for a thick roof overhead.

"Expect the unexpected with my family, Gabrielle. Lyceus and I named it ‘the fortress.’ We’d climb up onto some of the higher branches and that would be our lookout point where we’d survey the area for enemies and warlords. Actually, this place has had many names since its inception. My grandfather and his brothers created it. They had named it ‘Mt. Amphipolis,’ but one of my great uncles thought that the gods might take offense thinking they were creating their own Mount Olympus. The name was changed to ‘Demeter’s Haven.’ My mother liked to come up here and sing with her friends. ‘Demeter’s Haven’ lost out to ‘the Muses Sphere.’ When Toris was about ten summer’s, he named it Toris’ Hideout. That’s original." Xena laughed.

While Gabrielle walked a few steps into the semi-enclosed area, Xena leaned her hand against a tree and removed her boots, too.

"It smells so wonderful out here, too."

Xena glanced down at her feet and had a silly smirk on her face when she looked up. Gabrielle shook her head and said, "We all wish, Warrior Princess. Really, what are all of those scents?"

"Walk through the fortress. On the other side, you might discover the answer to that question."

Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s hand and dragged her along. As they made their way through, the fragrance became stronger and when they reached the end, Gabrielle’s breath caught for a moment in her throat and then she gasped in pure glee. There was a wondrous meadow covered in lavender and rosemary. Bordering the meadow of herbs were vivid purple crocus and delicate white amaryllis flowers.

"Ah, this is where your mother got the herbs for my bath."

"And I thought I was just eager to get to the fortress and was smelling it in my mind." Xena grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her back into her before she could stray too far. "Oh, that is you. Ummm."

Gabrielle burrowed in to the warrior’s chest. Xena wasn’t wearing her armor–no breastplates, no leathers, but a peasant-styled blue and gray top and a black skirt that was as short as Gabrielle’s. It felt so good to the younger woman to just rest her head on Xena’s chest without having to deal with the sharp edges of the metal and bronze of her breastplate. Gabrielle reached up and put one hand on Xena’s neck, guiding the warrior’s head down to her waiting lips. Gabrielle’s lips pressed against Xena’s as her eyes closed and the warmth of Xena’s soft lips infused her body with longing. Slowly, Xena’s lips parted and her tongue reached out to caress Gabrielle’s mouth. Gabrielle was receptive and her mouth opened to take Xena’s tongue. Their two tongues danced together, rubbed and swirled against each other, and explored the inside of the other’s cheeks, slid across the other’s teeth and made delicate patterns on the roofs of each other’s mouths. Gabrielle pulled back and looked at Xena, then reached up and brought her mouth to hers again. This time Gabrielle lightly licked the tiny vertical lines that lightly creased Xena’s lips. She was utterly fascinated with those lips. They weren’t especially different from any other’s lips, but they mesmerized Gabrielle. Playfully, Gabrielle bit Xena’s bottom lip and Xena opened her eyes and cocked her head in warning. "Gabrielle…"

Gabrielle grinned and took off running in the field of herbs.

Xena stood and watched her companion take off across the field. She shouted, "Gabrielle, you’ve got to be kidding. I can catch you with one good leap."

"I dare you, Xena. I dare you," Gabrielle called out.

Xena didn’t have the room she normally had in her battledress, but this skirt was short enough to get the job done. She ran a few paces, then leapt into the air, somersaulting across the field to land directly in front of an out-of-breath Gabrielle. "What’d I tell you?"

"You’re supernatural. It’s not fair. You’re just too good."

"You have no idea," Xena whispered this tease in Gabrielle’s ear.

"And a braggart, too." Gabrielle was suddenly breathless and it wasn’t because of the running.

"Not bragging, just being truthful."

"Prove it."

Xena pulled Gabrielle to her in a way that lacked the gentleness she had previously used. She was forceful and demanding with her touch and her mouth. Xena kissed her with abandon, making Gabrielle groan and become weak-kneed. "Oh, Xena," Gabrielle muttered.

Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms, cradling her as she walked, and never letting go of the claim she had on her lips. Gabrielle pushed back and said, "What are you doing?"

"This rosemary’s kind of prickly. It doesn’t bother me, but it’ll bother you if you’re laying between the branches with pointy leaves puncturing your body."

"I see. Back to the fortress," she commanded with a giggle.

Xena carried Gabrielle slowly through the meadow while Gabrielle ran her fingers through Xena’s hair and then began kissing and sucking her neck. Xena moaned. "You smell so good right here," Gabrielle said as she kissed the pulse point and pronounced vein bulging from Xena’s neck.

"Oh." Xena stumbled, but righted herself and kept walking to the elusive fortress. It seemed to be moving further away the closer Xena stepped toward it. Finally, she arrived at the opening of the arched trees and bent to place Gabrielle on her feet. They held hands as they walked through the dense tunnel of trees.

"I can’t tell you how spectacular I find this. Have you brought others here?"

"Does Lyceus count?"

"No."

"Then no. I’ve only been here with family and it’s still that way. You’re my family, Gabrielle."

"I feel the same, Xena."

Gabrielle loved the way the grass felt between her toes and under feet. She was staring down at the natural carpet when her eyes landed upon a basket hidden discreetly between two tree trunks. "What’s this?"

"Humph. I didn’t think two slices of bread and some cheese would hold you or mother. It looks like she’s left us a meal or two." Xena bent and picked it up pushing the contents around, examining all of the many treats.

Gabrielle peeked into the basket, but the food didn’t seem to hold the interest it normally would. ‘Your mother’s written you a note," she said as she pulled out the parchment and handed it to Xena.

"No, you go ahead and read it. What’s she say? Not that I can’t imagine."

Gabrielle quickly unfurled it and read, ‘Dear Xena, I know what Gabrielle must mean to you for you to bring her to this special place. A mother dreams of her children finding happiness and someone who can both excite their heart and calm it. Gabrielle seems to do both. The Muses’ Sphere or as you kids call it, The Fortress is a place blessed with love. Your grandfather and great uncles brought their loves here–your grandmother, your two aunts, and two uncles. All of them possessed an abundance of love for their partners be they women or men and those partners showered them with season upon season of joy. The first time I brought your father here, we conceived Toris…’

"Ewww. Don’t wanna hear about that, thank you." Xena frowned.

Gabrielle punched her playfully in the arm as she continued. ‘Toris brought his betrothed here the night they married. I hope that this day brings you the pleasure that we have all experienced inside the cocoon of these trees with the sweet smells surrounding us. I love you, daughters.–Cyrene.’ That is so sweet, Xena. Your mom wrote daughters, not just to you."

"Like I said, Gabrielle, you’re family."

Gabrielle let the parchment drop to the ground and turned to look at Xena. With a raised eyebrow, she asked, "I might be family, but would your sister ever kiss you like this?"

Gabrielle pulled Xena down to her face and kissed her with a fevered passion. She finished the long, heated kiss with a smack and a question in her eyes.

"No. No, I don’t think if I had a sister she’d kiss me like that."

"I’m not family, Xena. Right now, I am so not family."

They kissed again as Xena maneuvered Gabrielle against a tree trunk. She pushed her long frame into her, feeling her curves molding and pressing against Gabrielle’s. Her tongue never slowed as she danced in Gabrielle’s mouth. All she heard was Gabrielle whimper and that seemed to drive her to give more of herself. She wanted to show Gabrielle in her kiss that she was her world.

Gabrielle pushed Xena even closer. It was as if she were trying to turn their two bodies into one–that one of them would just melt and meld into the other. As they kissed, Gabrielle at first rested her hand on Xena’s lower back, but slowly she made her way down until one and then two hands were palming Xena’s ass. She squeezed the muscled flesh and her heart hammered in her chest. Xena’s pelvis tilted forward, pressing into Gabrielle, the thin skirts not really providing much barrier between them.

They stood about halfway inside the tunnel of trees, but slowly, Gabrielle started to slide downward, pulling Xena along with her to the ground. The kissing didn’t cease. In fact, it became more insistent from both women. Xena latched onto Gabrielle’s neck and sucked it, knowing that she was presenting her desire in a strong and powerful way. Once on the ground, Xena moved her lips from Gabrielle’s momentarily while she quickly worked the ties of her green top through the eyelets, exposing Gabrielle’s breasts. "Oh, Gabrielle. You’re beautiful." Xena’s mouth dropped to the creamy flesh and licked all around one breast before pulling Gabrielle’s nipple into her mouth. Her lips encased it, while her tongue licked the underside of the nipple, then circled it before sucking in earnest. While she occupied both their minds with erotic thoughts, Xena moved one hand to Gabrielle’s waist and quickly, as if she’d done it a million times, popped the fastener of Gabrielle’s belt out of the small loop that held the skirt together. The skirt fell open, and became a small covering on top of the grass where Gabrielle laid.

Gabrielle moaned deeply, her voice, low and seductive. "Oh, Xena. That feels…" She grabbed Xena’s head and pressed it to her chest, while she arched her back, allowing Xena to draw in more of her flesh.

When Xena looked up at Gabrielle, her dark hair hung in her face, covering most of it, but Gabrielle could see her blue eyes between strands of hair and it filled her with so much love. She reached down and squeezed Xena’s shoulder and whispered huskily, "I love you."

Since her mouth was otherwise engaged, Xena used her eyes to smile and share the sentiment. Xena moved from one breast to the other as she used one arm to keep Gabrielle on the thickly carpeted grass. It was just so pleasurable that Gabrielle could hardly be stilled. Her body writhed beneath Xena’s, but little did she know that her body would be in for so much more very soon. Gabrielle groaned as Xena lightly nipped at her breast before sucking its entire fullness into her mouth. The action was intense and Gabrielle cried out passionately. "Oh, gods, yes."

After spending long, leisurely moments driving Gabrielle’s response to new heights, Xena moved up her body to kiss her again. When she did, her skirt bunched up around her thighs and Gabrielle took advantage of that immediately. Her hands swiftly moved to Xena’s ass and she closed her eyes when she felt the warm flesh in her hands. Xena wore nothing under her skirt and Gabrielle was absolutely thrilled to feel so much skin in her hands. She kneaded Xena’s ass that evidently was very sensitized because Xena moaned with the contact. Gabrielle’s kept one hand where it was, but the other she moved up and between them, caressing Xena’s breast through her top. "Take it off, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded.

Xena knelt with one leg between Gabrielle’s leg and the other on the outside of her right leg. She pulled the top off and threw it so that it landed neatly on a low hanging branch. Gabrielle’s eyes were half closed as she watched Xena strip. Xena pulled one long tie on her skirt and the entire thing fell around her landing on top of Gabrielle’s thighs. "Oh, gods." Gabrielle’s eyes slowly moved from Xena’s eyes and lips, to her heavy breasts, down further to her slim waist and full hips, and then across to the bushy triangle between her legs, her tanned thighs, and then back up to her face. "You’re so stunning, Xena," was all Gabrielle said before she tossed Xena’s discarded skirt off of her own thighs and then pulled her down again.

Both women groaned when their nipples rubbed against each other. They could feel the wiry hairs of the other lightly touching their thighs. . Xena was just a moment away from going too far to turn back. She paused and said tensely, "If this is too much for you, Gabrielle, tell me now. Please. I want you so badly. If you want me to stop, say it now. Tell me now if you’re not sure."

"Don’t you dare stop. I want you." Gabrielle groaned. "I want to love you."

Xena bent and kissed her again. And again, Gabrielle’s hand inched between them and this time she moved her hand over Xena’s breast, reveling in its fullness. More than anything on earth at that moment she wanted to claim them with her mouth so she edged her way from beneath Xena and flipped her over. But Xena had a plan of her own and before she could take another breath, Gabrielle was on her back again with Xena hovering over her.

Xena returned to the breasts she had claimed and feasted upon them. It felt so grand that one moment Gabrielle thought if this was as far as they got, she would be completely satisfied, but the next, she knew there was so much more she wanted to experience with her partner. Xena lay beside her, but leaned over, using both hands to tweak and pinch Gabrielle’s nipples. Green eyes gazed at Xena as if the warrior held the mystery of life in her possession, and then those verdant eyes would shut as she hissed out her pleasure between gritted teeth.

Soon, only one hand remained on one breast and Xena’s other hand was slowly making its way down Gabrielle’s body. Her thumb stroked and flicked across the flat plane of Gabrielle’s abdomen while her hand lazily created its own circular pattern that barely grazed the skin. Xena noticed that Gabrielle’s entire body was covered in gooseflesh and that the younger woman’s body was now in constant motion; her hips thrusting upward in the hopes of leading Xena to her need.

Xena’s body followed her southbound hand. Her head was parallel to Gabrielle’s leg and she let her hair fall gently over Gabrielle’s thigh causing the blonde to shiver. Now, both hands had moved below Gabrielle’s waist. Xena was lying on her stomach and she grasped Gabrielle’s leg, lifted it and slid under it to come to rest between Gabrielle’s legs. Even though she was a novice at this type of love, Gabrielle knew what she needed and desired from Xena. She bent her legs and opened herself up to Xena.

Xena’s heart thumped loudly in her chest. Although she had taken many women lovers over the seasons and she had performed a variety of intimate acts with them, some how this meant more. In her heart she knew that Gabrielle was her last and most significant love. As her fingers began to open her up, Xena began to cry. She bent her head so that Gabrielle couldn’t see just how vulnerable she was right then. She gently caressed Gabrielle’s labia between her forefingers and thumbs, then ran her fingers over the slick inner folds. Gabrielle gasped in pleasure as her hips tilted upward. As Xena slid one finger up and down Gabrielle’s womanhood, she heard the blonde whimpering and moaning above her. "Oh, Xena. Aaah."

Her scent was both earthy and mild. She smelled of lavender, rosemary and the slightest hint of cinnamon. Xena smiled knowing that Gabrielle used the spice for her, knowing that Xena would be the only one to know that she wore it and where.

Xena’s wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s hips as she pulled her forward and bent to kiss her triangle of hair the color of the setting sun. She placed a few small kisses there, then opened her mouth and pressed in further to taste her fully. Gabrielle cried out in wonder. "Gods, yes."

If there were doubts that Gabrielle wouldn’t like this touch, Xena was corrected. She loved it. Gabrielle rose up on an elbow and stretched the other arm to run her fingers through Xena’s hair. Occasionally, Xena glanced up to see Gabrielle’s head thrown back, her long blonde hair matted to her forehead and hanging down her back, her face pink and flushed, her chest heaving, her breasts full and firm with nipples swollen and pointing to the roof of the trees. She looked divinely sexual. Xena returned her focus to Gabrielle’s center of desire, her engorged and throbbing clitoris. Xena sucked Gabrielle’s pleasure core into her mouth, taking tiny swipes with her tongue. While her mouth was locked on Gabrielle’s sweet secrets, Xena’s arm reached up to grasp a handful of Gabrielle’s breast. She palmed her nipple, then gently squeezed it between her fingers sending jolts of pleasurable pain throughout her body. The mixed sensations of having her breasts caressed and touched while Xena’s mouth licked and sucked between her legs was were almost too much for Gabrielle. "Oh, Xena. Xena. Oh, oh. Xena, feels so good. I… Xena…"

Xena held Gabrielle’s hips in place as she eased off slightly, changing the pace and pattern of her loving. She turned and kissed the inside of Gabrielle’s thigh, then licked up and down it. She turned back to where she had been and blew warm hot breath onto Gabrielle and watched as her lover quivered. Gabrielle’s abdomen contracted and Xena saw Gabrielle jump and jerk with the motion. Xena’s arm came from around Gabrielle’s leg and she used her hand to open Gabrielle up again. This time, when she bent in, she licked up and down both sides of her folds, licked all around her clitoris, then used her fingers to spread the folds while she licked the area just underneath her clitoris. Gabrielle was impossibly wet and Xena’s lips and cheeks were sticky with those juices.

The amount of pleasure Xena was taking from all of this was more than she could have imagined. She had often wondered how Gabrielle would be to bed-- would she move like she walked? Fluid? Athletic? Relaxed? Yep, Gabrielle was all that. And the sounds she had made the few times she had overheard her knowing herself couldn’t compare to the noises she was making now. Gabrielle grunted and moaned, screamed out and groaned. She puffed out tiny gasps, low, seductive growls, and deep utterances of passion.

It had been a good idea to leave the Amazon village and travel to Amphipolis. It had been a better idea for the two women to walk to this beautiful field and finally be together. Gabrielle would have been embarrassed and probably would have censored herself if she had thought anyone could hear them. Here, she was vocal and loud, letting Xena know how much she loved what she was doing to her. Her eyes closed tightly as a feeling deep in her gut began to slam into her chest and heart and center where Xena continued to dine on her. She couldn’t begin to describe the feeling and frankly her mind had shut down its ability to form coherent thoughts or words. What was going on inside of her controlled her. This was true love. Others had loved her and she had been intimate with Perdicus, but she had never made love before. Gabrielle’s entire being was wrapped inside of Xena. "Xena! Xena!" she screamed out. "I love you!" she said as she finally slipped over and collapsed into her climax. Her body froze, hyper-erect above the lush grass. Then she dropped, her strong, athletic thighs locking Xena’s head in place, pulling the warrior with her as she tossed and turned coming down from the powerful orgasm.

Xena gingerly moved from between her legs and climbed up the short body to look at Gabrielle face-to-face. "Taste yourself on me," Xena said as she ground her lips down onto Gabrielle’s still panting mouth.

Gabrielle sucked Xena’s tongue into her mouth and was amazed by her own taste. She liked it, but it was knowing that she now kissed the mouth that had known her as no other ever had that sent her body quaking again.

"Oh my gods," she choked out from between their touching lips.

Gabrielle was panting as she tried desperately to get air into her lungs. With slightly opened eyes, she gave Xena a sidelong glance as if to ask, ‘what did you do to me?’

"So, am I a braggart?"

Gabrielle breathed rapidly through her nose and she wiped her hand over her face, "I’m dedicating an entire scroll to your technique," she said haltingly. "You know I’ve been keeping a running list of your many skills. I can see that one scroll won’t be nearly enough to cover this particular arena."

Xena laughed and bent to kiss her again. She laid half on top of Gabrielle and half on the grass. As she watched Gabrielle breathe, she whispered into her ear. "You are so sexy. You’re so hot."

Gabrielle shivered and then Xena added softly as she moved her hand between Gabrielle’s legs, "so wet. I want to taste you again."

"Gimme a few moments. I think I’m about to die."

"No, no you’re not."

"I think so."

Xena turned and rested on her back, yet stayed so close to Gabrielle that her body was touching her from Gabrielle’s head to foot. Xena stared up at the roof of trees. She remembered talking to Lyceus and a few times Toris, too, about ambushing enemies here; about creating obstacles to snare attackers in the fortress; how this was the perfect place to plan strategy. She never thought about why her grandfather and his siblings had created this place. She remembered them as loving men who were at times randy in their talk. It was never a secret that this family grove was all about love and loving. Xena had never understood that, but she chalked that up to being a child with dreams of adventure and fights. But even as she lived her adult life on the seas and in exotic lands, she never thought of this place. Not once did she think she might like to bring Borias here or Akemi or Hercules. The serenity of the fortress crossed her mind when she was with Lao Ma, but not as a sanctuary for the two of them, but in comparison to the haven Lao Ma had presented Xena. It was only now with Gabrielle that she had felt the necessity to come here, to bring Gabrielle here, and to make love to her for the first time on this spot.

Xena licked her lips and tasted Gabrielle on them. She sighed and smiled, then turned to look at her lover. Gabrielle’s eyes were closed and she also had a soft smile on her face.

"What are you doing?"

"Thinking about forever."

"Huh?"

"Thinking about how we will be together forever. I will never let you go. Never, Xena. I am so happy. I want this to last always and I was picturing it. You, all gray-haired with a few wrinkles around the eyes, making love to me up here."

"Sounds nice. How would you look?"

"Like I do now, of course," Gabrielle turned to face her and grinned. "I will always be youthful…"

"Oh, lucky me. I get to grow old while my girlfriend is doing favors for the gods to keep her youth, huh?" In her heart, Xena knew that warriors seldom had the luxury of growing old. A warrior’s days were numbered, but she wouldn’t spoil this moment and she laughed at the vision of the two of them winters from now.

"Yeah, exactly." Gabrielle said as she innocently began to touch Xena’s body. Her eyes closed as she molded one of Xena’s breasts in her hand. "You’re so firm and…"

"Not sagging yet, huh?"

"Oh." Gabrielle’s eyes closed. "You feel so good, Xena. Really, so good." She dropped her head and took her nipple into her mouth as her hand cupped the breast. She sucked with a hunger that wouldn’t be easily sated.

"Oh, yeah. Ummm, you mouth is so warm. Oh, Gabrielle, that’s it."

As Gabrielle massaged one breast and pinched Xena’s nipple, she felt herself becoming even wetter. Touching Xena like this, the way she had dreamed for so many moons excited her beyond reason. Gabrielle could feel her inner thighs slick with her fluid and she could sense it flowing from her in a constant wave. Gabrielle circled Xena’s areola with her palm, scratching across it with her short nails, while sucking the other one long and hard. Xena thought the gods wished they had it this good. Though Xena loved what Gabrielle was doing, she wanted to show her new lover how much she cared for her. Xena was more than aware that she had yet to say the words to Gabrielle. Good gods, I know how I feel. I told Lyceus. I even told Perdicus. I need to tell her. But she knows, anyway. She has to know how I feel, right?

Xena moaned, but pushed away from her. Her eyes flashed heat as her eyes darkened and again, she turned Gabrielle onto her back while she half sat up, half reclined. She leaned on one hand while the other moved between Gabrielle’s legs. As her fingers danced against Gabrielle’s swollen folds, Xena stared into her eyes. Her expression was serious as she tried to force the words she urgently wanted to say out of her mouth. She saw Gabrielle lick her lips and slowly shut her eyes as Xena’s fingers found new spots of arousal. Instead of saying what was on her mind, Xena’s eyes followed her hand. Gabrielle had one leg bent at the knee, while the other was stretched out in the grass. Xena fingers moved between the inner folds. "You’re so wet for me, Gabrielle. Listen." She moved her fingers to Gabrielle’s entrance and lightly tapped at the opening making a sloshing sound. Gabrielle moaned loudly.

"I want to go inside you. Is that okay?" Xena asked. She had always taken what she wanted. In her past, especially with men, Xena was not only the initiator, but also the one who controlled all aspects of the sex. With the women she bedded, she had been affectionate, but there had always been some ulterior motive–to glean information, to win a bet, to gain some sort of power. However, she was compelled to treat Gabrielle with a tenderness that had been lost to her.

"Xena, you’re already inside of me." Gabrielle sighed and she pressed her hand against her heart. "You’re already so deep inside me. Please, Xena take me."

Xena pressed two fingers together, then entered Gabrielle slowly, not wanting to overwhelm or frighten her. Gabrielle became accustomed to the touch quickly and bent and raised her other leg in order to intensify the feeling. Xena sighed as she felt the wetness surround her fingers. She moved down a bit further and pushed in deeper.

"You’ve always been inside me, baby," Gabrielle whispered.

Xena found a rhythm that seemed to please Gabrielle a great deal. She pushed in slowly, then slid her fingers out about halfway before plunging in again.

"Uh," Gabrielle groaned.

Xena pushed in again.

"Uh."

Deeper.

"Oh."

Her fingers danced within her while sliding in and out.

"Oh."

She pushed in again.

"Uh."

Again.

"Uh."

Gabrielle’s eyes were half-closed, her mouth slightly parted, the tip of her tongue resting at the corner of her mouth.

Deeper.

"Uh. Oh, yes. Umm."

Xena moved just a bit faster as she stared at Gabrielle’s face that was contorted in pleasure. Her fingers slid in and out quickly as she pressed into her, Xena’s fist bumping against Gabrielle’s clitoris with each thrust.

"Oh. Oh. Oh, Xena. Yes."

Faster.

"Uh."

Xena’s forearm bulged as she worked a third finger into Gabrielle.

"Oh. Uh. Uh. Uh."

She filled her up over and over.

"Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh. Oh."

Gabrielle gritted her teeth and she hissed a long inhale representing the joy she was taking from Xena’s attention. Her hips were in continuous motion, undulating, writhing, pressing into Xena’s hand.

"Oh, Xena. Xena. Xena. I love you, Xena. Yes."

Even faster.

"Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh. Oh, gods. Oh."

Xena was on her knees, pushing into her lover. The experienced woman could feel the physical changes inside Gabrielle and knew that she was close. Gabrielle’s inner walls had thickened and were billowy and very hot. Her hold on Xena’s fingers was stronger and where she had already been tight, she suddenly became tighter. Xena was very turned on by Gabrielle’s response that she was dripping onto the grass. The warrior pressed her thighs together to take some of the edge off of her own desire while she pleased Gabrielle, but it didn’t work. She needed it bad. She could scarcely think for feeling that she might pass out from her need. She grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and pressed it into her folds while she continued pumping into her and caressing her hardened clitoris with her thumb.

Gabrielle gasped at Xena’s wetness and that was what sent her over the edge. "Oh, Xena. I’m there. I’m falling. Help me. I’m there," Gabrielle screamed out as her hand slipped away from Xena and her arm dropped onto the thick grass. Her entire body was contracting–between her legs, her abdomen, her shoulders twitched as did her toes. Xena plunged deeply into her a few more times, then slowed, until she came to rest inside of her. She kept her fingers there, enjoying the pulsing going on inside of Gabrielle. Honestly, Gabrielle just as she reached her peak, felt as if she were going to die. Her heart seemed to stop and she felt dizzy as she whirled upward, then spiraled down. It was unbelievable.

Gabrielle licked her lips and slid her hand between her own legs. Her fingers, that already glistened from Xena’s love juices were now covered with hers as well. She popped two fingers into her mouth and tasted a wonderfully pleasant mix of herself and Xena. "Umm. Nourishment," she said softly.

Xena fell onto her side and grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and licked the fingers as well. "Umm. Better than anything in mother’s basket."

"Not a good time to mention your mother, Xena. Not a good time at all."

Gabrielle weakly got to her knees and straddled her partner. "Okay, Xena. No fast moves, cause you might hurt me. I’m not at my strongest right now."

"Gabrielle, why don’t you rest? You don’t have to…"

Gabrielle placed her finger over Xena’s lips to quiet her. "Lips for kissing, not talking," she said as she bent to claim Xena’s remarkably soft and talented lips. The kisses that had started out so passionate at the beginning of the morning were even more so now. Xena wanted to get lost in Gabrielle’s mouth forever. Yet, Gabrielle’s breasts were too inviting to ignore. Xena cupped one in each hand and pulled and massaged them. Of course, this action made Gabrielle groan loudly, but Gabrielle had been loved and now it was her turn to show Xena. Soon Xena became confused about what she wanted. Gabrielle continued kissing her, but one hand was kneading Xena’s breast roughly and without a shred of tenderness. Xena looked up into Gabrielle’s eyes and saw that the young blonde was dazed, her eyes glazed over, lost in her own feelings.

"Xena, ever since the first time we touched like this it’s all I’ve thought of. Gods, I want you."

Gabrielle maneuvered down Xena’s long body and immediately slid between her legs. She paused and stared at Xena’s womanhood. Xena was drenched. Her outer lips were a deep pink, almost purple and when Gabrielle opened her up, she saw a very ripe clitoris waiting to be loved. "Gods, Xena. You’re gorgeous." Gabrielle inhaled deeply and the headiness of Xena’s scent made her both dizzy and happy. She was absolutely thrilled to be able to have complete access to Xena’s most private parts. "Just gorgeous."

Xena stared down at Gabrielle, silently pleading with her to ease her discomfort. The warrior was so aroused that she was afraid of what she might do if she weren’t satisfied soon. Desperately, she tried to calm her racing heart. This was after all Gabrielle’s first experience with a woman and she should be able to go at her own pace. Her own pace was just too slow for Xena, though.

"Go ahead," she ordered while pushing Gabrielle’s head to her center, but Gabrielle pushed back, not ready to use her mouth on her.

"Let me just look at you a moment. Please."

Xena bit her bottom lip and blinked a few times. This was pure torture and she suspected that Gabrielle knew it.

Suddenly a float of butterflies swarmed from wherever they had been sleeping or resting in the fortress and flew over Xena and Gabrielle. It was an marvelous sight to witness dozens and dozens of large, multi-colored butterflies flying in no particular pattern around them. A few landed briefly on their naked bodies, but soon took flight again, joining the others as they gracefully flapped their delicate wings while passing through.

"Did you see that? I’ve never seen such butterflies or that many."

"They come every season around this time." Xena said roughly. As a child, the butterflies had intrigued her and she would catch several to examine. Right now, she had no interest in them, only Gabrielle and her fingers and her mouth giving her pleasure.

Gabrielle smiled, but quickly lowered her gaze and using one finger, slipped between Xena’s labia and slid that finger through the wetness, feeling the fullness of the outer lips and the thin, wing-like inner folds. Without another moment’s hesitation, Gabrielle used her thumbs to pull back Xena’s outer lips and held them open with her thumbs and fingers. Now, Xena was fully exposed and open to her. Green eyes bore into her and just Gabrielle’s gaze made Xena’s body feel scorched.

"You’re like a butterfly here." She bent and for the first time, used her mouth to bring Xena satisfaction. She licked the full and swollen outer lips and said, "My beautifully winged butterfly." She licked the inner folds and then her lips surrounded Xena’s clit that was protruding impossibly. Xena went wild. She moaned loudly causing Gabrielle’s insides to leap and dance in joy that she could bring her this pleasure. As she licked around Xena’s tight hole, Gabrielle’s nose moved back and forth over Xena’s clitoris. The warrior clutched Gabrielle’s shoulder, and then ran her fingers through the long blonde hair. She groaned as Gabrielle’s touch made her leave the ground again and again. Gabrielle kissed Xena’s womanhood, planting small tiny kisses over every part of it. Xena thought the kisses there were very similar to the way Gabrielle had kissed her mouth earlier. Her clitoris was just like her tongue as Gabrielle circled it, pushed against it, licked its sides. Her outer folds were like the inside of her cheeks, warm and slick and Gabrielle slid her tongue across those folds. Next, Gabrielle returned to Xena’s hardened center and nipped at it with her teeth just as she had done to Xena’s lower lip earlier in the morning. The whole time, Gabrielle’s thumbs moved up and down Xena’s very sensitized folds.

Such a delightful sound Gabrielle had never heard. It was lovelier than Orpheus playing his lyre or Pan’s flute. This was the purest of music to Gabrielle–filled with emotion and passion, alluring and enticing, and beckoned her. Gabrielle’s eyes closed and she sighed unable to deny herself anything. She open mouth kissed Xena’s at the apex of her legs, allowing her tongue to move freely and unconstrained, rambling over every bit of that small, musky space. Xena moaned a guttural sound that voiced her ultimate pleasure. Gabrielle never slowed. Her mouth was in constant motion. Her nose and cheeks joined her lips and tongue–all taking part in transporting Xena down the road to bliss. As Gabrielle loved Xena, she muttered to her. "I love you."

She licked and sucked. Xena groaned.

"I love you, Xena."

Gabrielle bit and chewed on her folds. "I love you."

Xena grunted.

"I love you."

Xena tightened her hold on a fistful of Gabrielle’s hair, but Gabrielle didn’t cry out in pain. Instead, she whispered into Xena’s center, "I love you."

Xena shouted, "Oh, gods."

Gabrielle answered, "I love you."

"Ugh. Ugh. Oh."

Gabrielle swirled her tongue around Xena’s clit again and again. "I love you."

"Ah…ah….ah."

Blonde hair wisped across Xena’s thighs, tickling her there as Gabrielle rubbed Xena’s outer folds once more before removing one hand to grasp Xena’s hip. Her other hand rested atop Xena’s triangle of hair and her splayed fingers held Xena open.

"Oh, yes. Yes."

"I love you so much Xena," Gabrielle softly spoke just a breath away from Xena’s center.

"Gabrielle, Gabrielle…Oh, Gabrielle…I…"

Gabrielle moved her hand back to Xena’s beautiful butterfly and pushed one finger into Xena’s entrance and immediately curled it under and gently massaged the spongy spot where the nerve endings that made up the back of Xena’s clitoris lay protected by this layer of skin.

"Oh, gods. Gabrielle…"

"I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you, Xena," she said as she massaged her and felt the muscles inside begin to twitch and contract violently. "Xena, I love you," she added just before slipping Xena’s clitoris between her lips and sucked it mightily.

"Ohhhhhhh! Ah. Ah. Ah." Xena bucked as the orgasm seemed to jump out of her. It was as if her climax had a life of it’s own life and she a mere host to it. She had never in her life fallen so hard and so completely.

At Xena’s nonverbal insistence, Gabrielle moved her mouth away from Xena’s center, wiping her damp face on Xena’s inner thigh.

Gabrielle sighed. She already knew love and what it was to be in love with Xena. Now, she knew utter contentment. All of those years of knowing that something was missing, but not knowing what had ended with this act. Complete love, fulfilling love, passionate love. Xena love, Gabrielle thought.

One shuttered eye slowly opened and Xena looked down at Gabrielle whose head still rested on her thigh. "My gods." Xena breathed deeply, still unable to catch her breath. That was the best ride she’d ever been on in her life and she wondered if it was because of Gabrielle’s innate skill as a lover or something else. Because she loves me? Because I love her?

Gabrielle grinned up at her. "Can I take a little nap? Right here?"

Xena sat up on her elbows. "Come up here. Let me kiss you."

Gabrielle was too overwhelmed with feelings to move. She didn’t want to break down in tears. What she needed was a bit of time to process all of this and to just relax. "I’ll be right up." Instead, Gabrielle fell asleep. Xena looked at her for a few moments, then dropped back down onto the grass and she, too fell asleep with one hand entwined in Gabrielle’s hair.

Less than a candlemark later, Xena awoke slowly when she felt a tickling on her private parts. She waved a hand across it to shoo away the insect but it continued. The warrior yawned and sat up on her elbows again to see Gabrielle using the very tip of her tongue to lick long strokes up and down her nether lips. "Gabrielle," she said deeply, her voice still blanketed with sleep and hoarse from the groaning she had done earlier. "You realize I’m older than you. You’re not going to see me gray-haired if you keep that up."

"What if I told you that I just can’t get enough? You’re my new favorite food."

Xena laughed. "You’re giving up cheese and fruit and nutbread. No more shwarma?"

"Yes, I will get all of my sustenance from right here. This is my nourishment, my source." Gabrielle said and immediately bent to use her tongue on Xena’s inner lips.

Xena moaned, but reached down and patted Gabrielle on the cheek. "Gabrielle, come up here. Let me kiss you."

"I want to love you."

"You can do that up here, too. C’mon."

Reluctantly, Gabrielle pushed up onto her hands and knees and crawled up Xena’s body. Xena reached up and pulled her down to her waiting and wanting lips. They kissed like they had earlier, but there was a depth of feeling that went beyond what they had experienced before. After many, many kisses, Gabrielle broke away and smiled at Xena. She shook her in disbelief. "This was so worth the wait. Do you think we can give up our life on the road, find a field somewhere…" She looked around and said as if a brilliant idea had just come to her, "Maybe here and I can love you all day and night." She nodded her head. "We could wake up to the smell of lavender and make love to greet the day. Then, we could make love to praise Apollo for a beautiful day or Zeus if it’s raining, then later, I could…"

"No, later, I could cover my tongue with your essence. Later, you could make all the gods jealous by calling out my name and later, I could make all the gods furious by shouting your name."

"I love the way you said my name during…"

"Gabrielle. Gabrielle."

The women kissed again and while doing so, Xena took hold of Gabrielle’s hips and placed her so that her right leg pressed against Xena’s pubis and Xena’s right leg did the same against Gabrielle. "Let me guide you, Gabrielle. Just press into me, baby and let me guide you."

Gabrielle nodded. Her eyes already hooded, her sex already covering Xena’s leg with her passion. "Okay. Teach me, guide me."

"Press into me," Xena said huskily as she moved Gabrielle against her. "Now, use your hands and open yourself up for me."

"Ah. Oh, that’s nice."

Xena spread her legs a tad more and when she did, her hard clit pressed against Gabrielle’s muscular leg.

Strong warrior arms set the pace, but Gabrielle, with her voice steered the rhythm of their lovemaking. "Oh, that’s good."

"Yeah, it’s very good. It’s all so good, Gabrielle."

As the two women slid against each other, Gabrielle bent to kiss Xena and they moaned into each other’s mouths. While they made love, the float of butterflies returned from their trip. As they circled in the tunnel of trees, they lighted on the two women and seemed to watch them bring each other pleasure. A butterfly landed on Xena’s cheek and it looked like a beautiful and exotic tattoo. Another flew onto Gabrielle’s shoulder and rested there whispering to her about love. Xena moved Gabrielle faster on top of her. There sweat and juices made their bodies slick and there was no friction between them. Gabrielle’s back arched as she moved closer and closer to her climax. A butterfly landed on her breast and Xena’s eyes focused on the picture of the colorful green, yellow, and black butterfly in the foreground tickling Gabrielle’s full, creamy breast.

"Oh, Xena. You’re all I want. Now, Xena. now."

Xena’s fingers pressed into Gabrielle’s hips, holding her tightly and she knew that she was leaving a mark, but she had to hold on as she went over this cliff. She was falling fast. "Yes. Yes. Yes."

* * * * *

The shady trees provided protection to their skin. Apollo’s sun was high and bright in the sky and they hadn’t stopped loving each other for candlemarks. They were both sleeping soundly, spent and exhausted. Gabrielle was on her stomach and Xena lay beside her with one large hand still between the blonde’s legs. That hand was so warm and happy there, nestled in Gabrielle’s hidden embrace.

When they awoke, they dressed each other to return to the inn, but while dressing, they both ended up undressed again.

* * * * *

The town wasn’t as quiet as it had been in the morning when they left for the fortress, but the bustling that had gone on during the day was long over. Vendors had folded up their tables and carts, mothers were home cooking, fathers were cleaning their tools after a long day in their shops and farms. Xena and Gabrielle didn’t speak as they moved from the outskirts of town toward the inn. Both women were lost in their own thoughts.

Perdicus. It’s me, Gabrielle. How are you? I hope you’re happy in the Elysian Fields. You deserve happiness. Perdicus, I am so happy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way. I have you to thank for that. Did you know that you came to me in a dream last night? You did. You told me to not feel guilty about anything. That helped me. If you knew about coming to me, thank you. Thanks for that. And Perdicus, the way you loved me showed me what love could feel like. After Xena, you are my closest friend. I love you. Not the way you wanted and I finally know how that must have felt for you–to have all these feelings for me and not have them reciprocated. The thing is, Xena hasn’t told me that she loves me. Not once. It hurts, but I know she does love me. I could feel it in her touch, in her eyes, in her smile. I can wait to hear her say it. I hope I don’t have to wait too long. I think my love inspires her, makes her happy. I hope so. I might come to you for advice sometimes. Please don’t mind. I want to stay connected to you. I’ll love you always dear, Perdicus. You know, the song I wrote for you I’ll perform in Athens some day. Everyone will know about you, my friend.

* * * * *

Perdicus grinned at Hades. "Did you hear that?"

Hades nodded.

* * * * *

Xena’s eyes zipped across the square. They landed on the windows of every home, glancing in to see if anyone was looking out. She wanted to kiss Gabrielle or at least hold her hand, but enemies could lurk anywhere. Not everyone in Amphipolis was glad about her visit. Too many people had lost their sons under her leadership and that was something that was not easily forgotten. Xena needed to touch her lover, though. She didn’t want the euphoria of the day and the events at the fortress to end. Instead of an embrace, she lightly touched her shoulder as they continued down the path. Brother, bet you didn’t expect to hear from me twice in a day. Gabrielle and I made love today for the first time. I know you don’t want to hear about it and frankly, it’s not your business. I wanted to just tell you that I love her so much. She knows I love her, too. No, I haven’t told her yet, but I will soon. I love her and will forever.

* * * * *

The evening crowd of travelers and townspeople were already eating the hearty meals Cyrene and her staff had prepared and many of their cups had been filled numerous times when Xena and Gabrielle walked into the inn. The customers all turned to the door to see who was entering, but when they saw the two young women, they turned back to their conversations. Xena was carrying the basket and dropped it off on the counter, nodding to the barmaid. She and Gabrielle were heading straight upstairs. The walk had only served to increase the sexual energy between them. They had been discreet and platonic through town, but now they wanted to undress each other again and experiment with making love in virtual silence. They were back at the inn and had to be quiet with their passion. Luckily Xena’s room was laden with pillows and blankets. The warrior had a feeling that Gabrielle would need some extra help embracing hushed loving. Xena was positive she’d need help, too.

Just as they were climbing the stairs, Cyrene called to them. When they turned, Cyrene was rummaging through the basket of food.

"Girls, you didn’t eat."

THE END

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