Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.

Violence: We’re mixing Xena, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Octavian here. What do you think?

Subtext/Maintext: R. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.

Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: texbard@yahoo.com

Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." I’ve taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, but then, so does the show.

Gabrielle's beautiful oasis poem was actually written by Maureen Shaffer. Special thank you to Maureen for lending her wonderful talent. Give her feedback at shanach@home.com


Part 9

(posted August 7, 2000)

By Texbard


"Come, my beloved, let us go out into the country ...

... There I will give you my love."

-Song of Solomon 7:11-12, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.


The warrior stood high atop a sand dune, her arms crossed over her chest, surveying the tiny cloud of dust way off in the distance that she prayed was Octavian's army. The breeze stirred up, whipping her light cloak back from her long frame, and pelting her legs with grainy sand and other desert debris. She gave an annoyed tug to the garment, pulling it back around her body against the continued onslaught of wind and sun. She peered back behind her in the other direction, judging the low angle of the pulsing bright orb. They only had a candle mark or so until sunset, and she debated between using the remaining daylight to put them that much closer to Octavian, or making camp and getting an early start at dawn.

Her eyes trailed down below her perch, where Gabrielle patiently waited, their horses and gear nearby. The bard and the animals were also taking a beating from the elements, and the weariness showed on Gabrielle's face, her normally open features drawn tight from the constant battle against a head wind that had battered them for most of the day. Xena scrutinized her partner's face more closely, and frowned as she noted the dark pink tint on the bard's nose and cheeks. At least we have horses. The warrior managed to smile.

They had been traveling for three long days, a day longer than she had thought it would take to reach Octavian, and they had at least part of another day yet to go. Riding across the rough terrain had been one of the hardest things they had done in a while, much harder than riding in snow or even through the mountains of Greece. The ground was not solid, and sure-footed as they were, the small Arabian horses that Cleopatra had loaned them were cautious less they stumble and fall.

To make matters worse, in the constantly shifting sands, it was difficult to determine distance by sight alone, and the intense sun complicated things by playing tricks on her eyes. She was loathe to guess how long it would take to reach the speck that hopefully was their goal, other than to tell herself that certainly, they could get there before the end of the next day, especially since Octavian would be pressing westward while she and Gabrielle pushed east.

"Gabrielle?" Xena called down to her partner, who was looking away from her, but her voice was carried in the wrong direction by the wind. She groaned and cupped her hands around her lips and nose, forcing her lover's name from deep in her gut. "Gabrielle!"

The bard turned and looked up, her expression an open unspoken question, waiting for whatever the warrior had to say. Talking was just too much effort and besides, every time she opened her mouth she got sand in it. She had developed a distinct dislike for sand, especially the way it felt when she accidentally bit down on it between her back teeth.

"I think I see Octavian's army due east of here, but they're so far away, I'm not one hundred percent certain it's them yet." The warrior saw her partner's shoulders sag and then kind of shrug in an almost defeated posture.

"That's good." Gabrielle tried to sound excited, but her tone was flat, and she looked down at her boot tops, which were mostly buried out of sight. She had also discovered how much she hated the sensation of sand between her sweaty toes. Ugghh. Her nose wrinkled.

Okay, she's really tired. Xena panned the area, making a three hundred sixty degree turn, looking for a good place to pitch a tent. Ah. A couple of hundred meters south was a patch of hearty scrub that appeared to be spaced apart enough that the tent edges could be spread out in the middle and anchored securely to the brush with some rope. She looked down at her partner and their weary eyes met. "Can you see those bushes and small trees over there?" She pointed toward her discovery.

Gabrielle shielded her eyes with her hand and gazed in the direction the warrior indicated. "Yeah." Please please please, let's be stopping. The bard's lips were pressed together in a thin grim line.

"Whaddaya say we make camp there and start out at daybreak tomorrow?" The warrior placed her hands on her hips and grinned as the bard visibly brightened.

"I say let's get a move on before you change your mind!" Gabrielle smiled and gathered the horses' reins, holding out one set to Xena as the warrior half-shuffled, half-slid back down from the dune.

"Thanks." Xena gave the bard a leg up onto her horse, carefully helping to tuck the ends of Gabrielle's own cloak back and underneath her legs so they wouldn't fly up in her face while riding. She patted a muscular calf and smiled in silence, grateful to see a hint of a sparkle returning to the green eyes. "Ready?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle clucked to the dainty white mare she rode, and was already quite a bit ahead by the time the warrior managed to mount her own almost-black stallion. She made an effort to slow the animal down, giving Xena time to catch up. Cleopatra told them the two horses had been together since they were colt and filly, having been born mere candle marks apart in side-by-side stalls to brood-mares who had themselves been dropped from the same mother. It was hard to believe the two animals were related, but the Egyptian explained that the pair each favored their sires rather than their dams. Like the dromedary camels, these horses were specially bred to withstand life in the arid climate into which they were born.

They reached their destination, and Xena was pleased to find that some of the trees nearby were actually tall enough to provide some meager shade for the horses. In a race with the sun, they quickly pitched the tent and laid out their bedrolls inside the light canvas shelter. The warrior unsaddled the horses and brushed them down, while Gabrielle rummaged through their packs for food. It was much too hot for a fire, and a warm meal wasn't very appealing anyway. They had subsisted for three days on dried strips of lamb, pita bread, and dried fruit mixed with nuts.

The warrior poured oats into twin feed bags, and then retrieved one of several water skins they carried, carefully filling two water bags so as not to waste even one drop of the precious life-sustaining liquid. She hung all four containers from low branches and stood back, watching the animals in amusement. At the smell of water, both horses' ears pricked up, and they wickered softly before plunging their velvety muzzles into the bags, lapping eagerly and snorting water from their nostrils as they drank.

She wrapped the saddles in their own saddle blankets, using the weight of the fine-tooled leather tack to hold the edges down underneath them, and then trudged the short walk back to the camp area. Gabrielle was out of sight, and the warrior peeled back the flap that covered the tent opening, to find her partner sprawled face-down on her bedroll. Poor baby. She's exhausted. The warrior stooped down and dropped to her knees, crawling over to her soul-mate. "Hey." She touched a sun-burned cheek with the back of her fingers. "You gonna eat?"

"No." Gabrielle's voice was muffled against the flaxen blanket she was laying on. "Just want to sleep, if that's okay with you. I put some food out for you. It's on a tin plate in the corner over there." A limp hand raised and pointed toward the un-appealing offering. Both warrior and bard were ready for a meal, any meal, that didn't consist of something dried and wrinkled.

Two black eyebrows furrowed. It wasn't like Gabrielle to miss a meal, even if she was faced with consuming the same thing for the third day in a row. Her partner's metabolism was much too fast for her to go too long without food, and after their hard day of travel, it was important for Gabrielle to eat to keep her strength up. "Sweetheart, you need to get up and have a little something."

"Not hungry." The bard rolled over onto her back, keeping her eyes closed, and took Xena's hand from her cheek, holding it loosely against her well-toned belly. "See. No growling. The beast is happy for once."

The warrior smiled and softly caressed her partner's exposed midriff. "Doesn't matter. You still need to get something in your stomach. We've got another long day ahead of us tomorrow. I don't want you passing out in the middle of nowhere."

"Then tie me to the horse." Gabrielle mumbled. "Or better yet, just shoot me with a cross-bow and put me out of my misery."

"Sorry." Xena's hand stilled against the golden-brown skin.

"Not your fault." The bard forced her eyes open. "I could have stayed in Cairo. And thank you, by the way, for not suggesting that I do that."

"I know better by now." The warrior resumed her finger motions. "Besides, this is one time when despite the danger, I'd rather you be with me, even during battle. If anything goes wrong back at Cleopatra's palace, and Antony figures out what we've planned, I don't want you anywhere near him."

"Oh gods." Gabrielle chuckled. "Xena, he will be fit to be tied when he gets out here and finds out Cleopatra's navy isn't going to back him. Didn't you say Octavian's troops out-number Antony's by about two to one?"

"Yeah." The blue eyes took on a faraway look. "And once Cleopatra's ground troops switch sides, it'll be four to one. And the navy will be on either side of the isthmus, but only to block Antony in, rather than giving him assistance." Xena and Gabrielle had already traveled across the narrow neck of land that connected Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, and the warrior had made careful mental notes regarding the terrain and distance from one side to the other. At one point it was only about a mile and a half wide, and flat enough that both bodies of water could be seen while standing on a slight rise in the middle. Xena had already calculated and plotted, and determined that that narrowest spot was the best place to confront Antony.

She had even gone so far as to borrow Gabrielle's quill and a piece of parchment, and had stayed up late the previous night, making sketches of the layout of the land and noting the various possible points for frontal and rear attacks, both of which she planned to employ in defeating the over-confident Antony. She had yet to discuss battle strategy with Octavian, her last carrier pigeon message having gone out right before they left Cairo. Her tactical mind had taken over though, and she already had her arguments planned, to convince the rightful heir to the Roman Empire that he needed to follow her lead if they were to work effectively with the Egyptians.

She and Cleopatra had agreed on an initial set of possible maneuvers, and had come up with a system of flag signals. Cleopatra would not be part of the confrontation, but she was to meet in secret with the generals of her own troops to discuss plans with them. They would follow Antony across the desert, leading him to believe they were there to back him up. In reality, they were to watch for Xena's banner, and were to carry out orders that went with whatever color she bore. She had a staff and five different flags in her bags, hoping she would be flying the bright blue one, that would indicate that the Egyptian troops were to simply fall back and keep Antony from retreating, while Octavian's troops would launch a frontal assault. The other banners indicated various alternate plans that included some side attacks and a sketchier, less strong division of the Egyptian army.

"Then we're sure to win." Gabrielle interrupted her partner's thoughts, drawing her back to the present.

"Let's put it this way, sweetheart." The warrior's eyes grew very serious. "If we don't win ... if Antony gains control of the Empire, I'd be inclined to go home, pack up your family and my family, and whatever Amazons and friends want to follow us, and move far away from Greece."

"Xe ..." The bard raised up on her elbows. "Is it that bad? Where would we go?"

"Yeah." Dark lashes blinked slowly. "From what I've heard of Antony, I could not ... would not live under his rule. If we had to go all the way back to India or Chin, or to the northern Amazons, or head down the Nile to the uncharted territories, that's what I'd do. Although ... more than likely if Antony wins the battle with Octavian, I will already be dead, because that's the only way I would allow him to win."

Gabrielle's eyes grew wide and she squeezed the warrior's hand with surprising strength. "We are going to win, aren't we?"

"Of course we are." There's no other choice. Xena forced a smile she didn't feel, and cupped her partner's face with the other hand. I'm scaring her to death, and for no good reason. If everything goes like I think it will, in about a fortnight, we'll be on a boat headed back to Greece. "Gabrielle." The warrior crept to the corner and picked up her plate of food. "Share this with me, please?" She held a dried fig under the bard's nose, which scrunched up in response.

Reluctantly, Gabrielle took the offering and chewed on it half-heartedly, swallowing and almost gagging as the lump slowly slid down her throat. Xena continued to feed her by hand, absently eating her own share as well, until the plate was empty. She watched as her partner flopped back down onto the bedroll and closed her eyes. The bard still wore her boots and her red leather skirt and matching top, having been too tired to change when she first entered the tent.

The warrior quietly exited their tiny dwelling, and stood up, stretching her back from side to side and studying the sun, which now hung almost even with the horizon, painting the land in long shadows and reddish-gold light. She made her way back to the trees where the horses were tied, and stooped down, plucking at some stalks from a large aloevera plant. She detoured to a smaller tarp that covered some of their supplies, and picked up one of the water skins. She smiled and re-entered the tent.

The bard was almost motionless, but her shallow breathing indicated that behind the closed eyelids she was still awake. Xena tugged a piece of linen from a saddle bag and sat down cross-legged next to her partner, and began removing Gabrielle's boots and clothes. As she started to lift her partner to pull her top over her head, the green eyes fluttered open.

"Xenaaaa." The bard's voice was exasperated. "Please. Not tonight. I'm just too tired."

The warrior laughed. "Don't worry. I promise you, you're gonna enjoy this."

Gabrielle kept one wary eye open, watching as Xena used the water skin to wet down the linen rag. The warrior finished taking off her partner's clothing, ignoring the minor protests, and then began a carefully thorough washing of Gabrielle's sand and dust-covered body.

"Gods." The bard sighed. "That's nice."

"Told you you'd like it." Xena continued, making sure to get in between her partner's toes and behind her ears, as well as other more private areas, removing sand from places it had no business being. She finished, not needing to dry the bard's skin, the desert air having done the job for her. "Now, for the really good part."

Gabrielle's eyes popped open, as the warrior spread soothing cool aloevera juice over her sunburned face and body. "Guess I didn't do so good at keeping covered up today."

"Yeah." Xena worked the fresh-smelling, slightly sticky substance into her partner's skin. "Almost every time I looked over at you, your cloak was flying open. But ..." She finished her task and tossed the aloevera cuttings out of the tent. "... you're not too red. It looks like it'll brown up in a few days."

"Mmmm. Good. I ... oh ..." Full lips nibbled their way up Gabrielle's bare torso and met her mouth in a long undemanding kiss. Xena finally pulled back and brushed the blonde bangs off her partner's warm forehead. She helped the bard get a loose sleeveless sleep shirt on, and then pecked her lips one more time. "Sleep sweetheart. I'm gonna tidy up outside and then I'll come join you."


The warrior turned right before leaving the tent. "Yeah?"

"Thank you, for taking care of me." Gabrielle reached out and touched a firm thigh that was in reach.

"I'll always take care of you." Xena squeezed her partner's hand. "Back in a bit, I promise." She grabbed the water skin and another piece of linen, and stepped back outside.

The sun had gone down and the air was noticeably cooler. The warrior released a sigh of relief and stripped her clothing off, making quick work of washing her own travel-weary and dirty skin. She moved to the supply stash and dug a fresh sleep shirt out of a bag and drew it over her head, and then sat down on a very dry and bleached-out log.

In less than a week, you'll be fighting the battle of your life, warrior, only this time the fate of the Roman Empire and Greece is on your shoulders. Xena rested her forearms on her thighs and looked down at her feet, sighing heavily. Her mind wandered back to the fight with Pompey and Caesar, as she and Gabrielle led the Amazons in a similar high-stakes battle. And I eventually ended up on a cross because of it. She shuddered. And so did she.

She ambled over to the horses and spent several long minutes petting them and cooing over them, before she rested her cheek against the shoulder of the black stallion. "No offense boy, but I really wish you were Argo." She hated riding into battle on a strange horse. Argo knew her, so well that the war horse often anticipated her moves without her having to direct the well-trained mare.

She pondered the coming confrontation, turning the circumstances over in her mind. It would by no means be the largest army she had ever faced, nor the most intelligent military mind, or even the most tactically difficult approach. By comparison, she had led much larger armies over much harsher terrain. While the surrounding desert was not easily navigated, the area on the isthmus where she hoped to cross swords with Antony was lush and green, the vegetation drawing from the water on both sides. And it was fairly flat. No. She reasoned to herself. If I weigh the facts alone, this should be a piece of cake. But this time ... Well, she sighed. This time the stakes were so much higher.

Where's my courage? She hated the fact that she was doubting herself. A warrior afraid to charge into battle ... might as well find a new line of work. And that was just it. A part of her reluctantly acknowledged that on a certain level, maybe, just maybe, she was no longer a warrior. I'm a protector, true. She would never hesitate to defend Gabrielle, or her family, or the Amazons, or any number of other people that might need her. But am I a warrior?

"I don't know, are you?" Ares materialized from out of the darkness, and Xena instinctively pulled a dagger from her boot, cursing herself for not having her sword or chakram on her. But who would have thought she'd need it out here in the middle of nowhere, where any threat could be seen for miles?

Damn. I can't believe I didn't feel his presence. She relaxed slightly when she realized who was paying her a visit, and tucked the dagger back out of sight. "Didn't know rats could survive in the desert." Her upper lip curled into a snarl.

"Oh come on, Xena. What is it with you?" The god of war circled her and then leaned nonchalantly against one of the taller trees in the sparse grove. "One minute you're calling on me for help, and the next you act like I'm your worst enemy."

"Aren't you?" She stood with her feet in a wide stance, her arms folded over her chest and her chin jutting out.

"You cannot seriously consider me to be worse than Callisto, or Alti, our Dahak. Or especially Caesar." Ares looked hurt.

"You're my father." The warrior's voice shook slightly. "You could have spared me and my partner from the harm caused by all four of them, or any of the other beings that have hurt us. But you didn't. You just stood by while time after time, our lives were almost destroyed."

"How do you know I didn't keep things from being worse than they were?" The god of war shifted, crossing his feet at the ankles and leaning back further against the rough tree trunk.

"If you were trying to help, why were you always there at the worst of times?" Xena studied the dark presence, searching him to see if she saw any trace of herself in his eyes.

"I am a god, Xena, and I'm not perfect." Ares started to move forward, but stopped and resumed his position when he saw his daughter flinch. "Zeus doesn't allow me free reign. You see me as meddling in your life, don't you?"

"Frankly, yes." The blue eyes snapped in hurt anger.

"Well, not everything you saw as meddling was for personal gain, whether you choose to believe me or not." The dark god cleared his throat. "Take Dahak, and Britannia, for example. I wasn't allowed to protect Gabrielle, but I was able to cause one nasty storm to brew right over that temple she was in, so that your attention would be drawn there."

"I ... um." Xena suddenly found the material of her sleep shirt to be very interesting, as she nervously fiddled with the hem. "Never knew that."

"I know. And Chin. If I hadn't helped Gabrielle get there, you would have died, Xena." Dark brown eyes blinked sadly. "I realize it caused a great deal of strife between you two, but the alternative would have been worse. And Illusia. Who do you think helped Solan create that place?

"Y ... you?" The warrior moved a few steps closer to her father, and stopped next to the white mare, running her fingers through the light grey mane. "Why?"

"He's my grandson, for Zeus' sake! He hated seeing you and Gabrielle torn apart over his death. He loved both of you. And he hated not having closure with you before he died." Ares idly stroked his beard. "Guess I was just in a grand-fatherly mood that day, but I saw so much of you in him. I helped the kid fix things between you and Blondie. I didn't make him any promises, just told him I'd set things up so that you two had a chance, if you both had enough desire to work it out. I felt like he deserved that much from me."

Xena's eyes narrowed and she pointed at her father, rage evident on her face. "But you came to me up on that mountain top and convinced me Gabrielle was my worst enemy. And after that, I ... I ... that was my lowest point, Ares, and you spurred me to do it."

"I had to do something to get you to go to her. You certainly weren't going to go kiss and make up, so I did what I had to do. Getting you angry did the trick." The god of war tilted his head, regarding her intently. "Of course I wasn't convinced Illusia would work. I made an effort, mostly to humor Solan. I could have easily let it be. You would have come back to me. You had no one else. I was surprised that you and Blondie managed to figure out all the riddles I placed there. I kicked myself for several days after you two got back together."

"But ..." The alto voice trailed off.

"I'll admit that to this day, I wish you were still leading an army, and that you still depended on me to help you win. But the gods have different plans for you, and I got vetoed." He cautiously moved to the opposite side of the horse. "That's why I came. I can hear your thoughts you know, even across the Mediterranean. This is an opportunity for me to see you do what you do best. If you want my help with this battle, you got it. Let me ride with you, Xena. Fight with me, and I will assure you a victory."

The warrior suddenly bristled. "No." She paced angrily back and forth, gesturing and causing the horses to paw the ground and turn in jittery circles on their lines. "Is that why you came here? You sell me a pack of lies and try to make me feel beholden to you, so that you can trick me into fighting for you? Nuh-uh. No way. I have news for you, Daddy. This isn't your kind of fight, understand? It's for the greater good of Greece. It's not for treasure, or glory, or power. It's for something much more simple, for human rights and freedom. And I don't need you to help me fight it. I'm a warrior in my own right, and I'm perfectly capable of doing this without you." She stomped off in a huff, not even bothering to make sure he left.

So Xena, you call yourself a warrior after all. Glad you got that settled. The god of war watched his daughter's retreating back with a great deal of bemused pride. Maybe you'll thank me later. He chuckled. I have already helped you. Your anger gave you back your confidence, and gods you are so beautiful when you carry yourself that way. Ares grew more thoughtful. And whether you like it or not, you have never so much as raised your sword without me, because I am part of who you are. And ... He raised his hand, prepared to return to Olympus. ... That was no pack of lies. His wrist rotated, and he disappeared in a cloud of red smoke.


Breakfast had been a mostly-silent affair, breaking camp even quieter, and now they had ridden for at least four candle marks without saying a word to each other. Xena's dour expression clearly communicated her desire to be left alone, and Gabrielle was too hot and weary to do her usual job of drawing the reticent warrior out of her carefully-constructed shell. Every rise gave them a clearer view of the far-off dust speck, which was indeed looking more and more like Octavian's army. And then they would descend again, and suddenly it was as if they were totally alone in all of the vastness of the desert.

The terrain had gradually altered and was now a mixture of dried up dead vegetation interspersed with patches of sand and darker dirt. It looked like the area hadn't seen so much as a drop of rain in many moons. The bard had fallen several paces behind, and was content to stay there, allowing Xena's horse to break a bit of a path through the sand and brush for her. She reviewed the previous evening's events, trying to figure out what had happened to put such a damper on her partner's disposition. The warrior had been in high spirits, almost playful, when she had left the tent after the impromptu aloevera application. Gabrielle had fallen gratefully asleep, so deeply that she didn't hear Xena return to the tent.

At one point during the night, the bard had woken up to hear her lover mumbling in her sleep, obviously having bad dreams. Gabrielle had rolled over and gently prodded the warrior onto her side before she had curled her smaller body against Xena's, rubbing the muscular back and whispering comforting words into the sleeping warrior's ear until she felt her partner relax into more peaceful slumber.

She had quickly fallen back asleep herself, not waking up again until she heard Xena outside the tent, stumbling around the camp and packing things up, in one of the foulest moods Gabrielle could recall in a long time. At one point, the warrior had actually drop-kicked her chakram across the camp site, muttering something under her breath about gifts with strings attached. Oh boy. The bard had decided to keep a safe distance.

Well ... The bard tried to comfort herself. As far as I know, I'm not the source of the problem. Now .... She studied the stiff shoulders that signified the continuing dark cloud hanging over her partner's head. ... What to do? Gabrielle sighed and looked up at the almost white-hot sky, at a complete loss as to how to make things better. As she topped the next rise, Xena was way ahead of her, already halfway up the next grassy dune. The bard peered off in the distance and blinked. No. It can't be. She stopped her horse and closed her eyes for several long minutes and then opened them again, but the view hadn't changed.

"Xena, can you come back up here please?" She called loudly against the constant wind.

"Why?" The warrior's voice was raspy with dis-use, and she was quite irritated at being asked to backtrack over the difficult ground.

"Dammit, Xena, will you just get over yourself and do this one thing, and then I'll leave you alone to brood for as long as you want me to, okay?" Gabrielle felt badly about the harsh words the minute they were out of her mouth, but they had the desired effect, as two dark brows shot behind the warrior's bangs and then she wordlessly turned her horse and made her way back to her partner's side.

"What is it?" Xena made a conscious effort to be civil.

"I think I need to have my eyes checked by a healer." The bard looked at her partner with more than a little confusion in the green orbs.

"What's wrong?" The warrior forgot her own problems, suddenly concerned about her lover, and was off the black stallion in an instant, looking up at Gabrielle. Gods. The sun. I should have had her wear some kind of hat or something. "Are they hurting? Have you burned them or ..."

"No, it's nothing like that." Gabrielle chuckled, realizing Xena's fear. "It's just that I think I'm seeing things."

"Huh?" The warrior cocked her head in question, waiting for more information.

"I swear, either I'm crazy, or there's a lake with trees way over there." She pointed off in the distance.

In a smooth swift motion, Xena re-mounted her horse and guided it over beside her lover, looking past the bard to follow her gaze. She smiled for the first time that day. "Your eyes are just fine, love, and you're not crazy. I'm the one that's been so busy thinking that I haven't been paying attention. That, my bard, is an oasis. Cleo told me about it, but I didn't think we'd reach it before we made contact with Octavian. And Octavian be damned, we are going there and no further today. Besides, I'm sure he'll see it too and veer in that direction."

"An oasis?" Gabrielle half-turned to regard her partner, noting a more familiar even expression in her soulmate's countenance. "What's that?"

"A pool in the middle of the desert that is fed by some deep underground spring. Draws all kinds of animals for miles around, including those of the two-legged kind." She grinned.

"Two-legged?" The bard was even more confused.

"Us, sweetheart. Come on, I bet we can get there in less than a candle mark." She urged the stallion forward, feeling lighter in the saddle than she had since they first left Cairo.

It was closer to two candle marks when they reached what proved to be a small lake, surrounded by tall trees, lush green grass, and flowers. Xena circled the area once in search of any dangerous animals, and was pleased to find that none were on site. "Guess they come around at night. We'll have to be careful about that, but for now, we're safe. Let's head over to that little grove of trees and make camp, and then go for a swim. Sound good?"

"Sounds great!" Gabrielle lightly kicked the white mare's sides and the little horse sprang to life. In no time they had the tent pitched and a cozy efficient camp area set up. The warrior unsaddled the horses and went through the familiar motions of brushing them down. There was no need to retrieve oats or water bags, as the animals would be able to feed freely on the thick grass and drink from the lake.

Xena turned around and the bard was nowhere to be seen. "Gabrielle?" She peeked inside the tent and found nothing but their bedrolls. Hmmmm. She grinned evilly. "Gabrielle!" She yelled, hoping to bring her partner out from wherever she had gone. "I'll race you down to the lake. Last one in is a rotten ..." A loud splash cut her off, and she spun around to see a trail of her lover's clothing leading toward the bank that sloped down to the water. Well I'll be damned. That little ...

The warrior quickly yanked off her boots and struggled with her armor, dropping everything in a heap on the ground, and with an ear-piercing whoop, took off at a run and launched into a surface-skimming racing dive as she reached the edge of the shore. Water had never felt so good. She spotted her partner and swam toward her, stopping just short as she flipped over on her back and shot a well-aimed stream of water from her mouth, hitting Gabrielle in the center of her stomach. The bard was also floating on her back several feet away with her eyes closed, and made a deliberate show of ignoring her partner's attentions.

Uh-oh. Alarm bells went off and Xena mentally ran through the morning's events to try to figure out what was wrong. Let's see ... got up ... choked down some fruit and pita bread ... broke camp ... rode here ... she saw this oasis ... and ... gods I am such an ass. The warrior clearly recalled her lover telling her to get over herself, and that she would leave her alone for as long as she wanted her to. Xena, you big dumb idiot. You haven't said hardly one decent word to her since last night. In fact ... you've barely talked to her at all.

And this day had not been one of the ones marked by the comfortable silences they often shared. Even those times were sprinkled with idle comments, especially on Gabrielle's part, but this morning the bard had been uncharacteristically quiet. The warrior had been puzzling through her encounter with Ares since dawn. 'Course, how would she know that, warrior, since you haven't bothered to tell her about it? Okay. Time for some damage control.

"Hey." Xena swam over to her partner and treaded water, carefully choosing her words. "Thanks for noticing this place. I was so out of it, I might have ridden right past it."

"Hmmpphh." The bard flipped over and swam to shallower water, draping her forearms over a rock that poked out of the water and resting her forehead on them, allowing her legs and torso to float out behind her.

I've obviously screwed up worse than I thought I had. The warrior simply watched Gabrielle move away from her, and sighed. She spied some flowers growing on the far bank, and grinned. She paddled over and hoisted herself out of the water, and plucked some of the fragrant blossoms, and careful to hold the flowers above the water, swam back to where the bard was sunbathing. "Hi. I picked these for you."

One green eyeball opened and lazily rolled toward the offering. The bard's nose snuffed at the red and yellow blossoms, drawing in the sweet scent. "That's nice." The eye closed in indifference, and she settled back down against the rock.

O ... kay. Xena cautiously laid the bouquet on top of the rock, and was grateful that her partner didn't fling them into the water. "Gabrielle?"

No answer.

"Are you hungry?" Food, that'll get her. "It's already past lunch time, but too early for dinner. I could make you a snack or something."

"More dried fruit and lamb." The bard's words were garbled against her arms. "No thanks. I'll try to get excited about them in time for dinner."

"I was thinking more along the lines of say ... oranges or coconuts." The warrior eyed several fruit trees not too far from their tent.

"Well ..." Gabrielle actually turned her head to look at her partner this time. "That might be good." In reality, it sounded like a banquet to the bard, but she wasn't going to let Xena get away with trying to make things better between them by giving her things or doing things for her. Not that she didn't appreciate it on a certain level, and it was endearing to see her partner trying, but it just wasn't enough this time. Her anger had been slowly building all morning, and flowers and oranges just weren't going to cut it. Gods. I feel so ...

"Baby, I'm sorry." The warrior moved in next to her, assuming a similar position against the rock. "I ... don't want to be left alone to brood, okay?"

"That's a start." Gabrielle raised her head, shifting so that her chin was on her hands. "I'm listening."

"I wasn't thinking. I ... well I was thinking, but I wasn't paying attention to how I was treating you." Sad blue eyes met suddenly-interested green ones. That's better. "Last night, after I left the tent to wash up, Ares popped into camp."

"Well why in Hades didn't you just tell me?" The bard blew out an angry breath and closed her eyes momentarily. She opened them again and blinked back tears. "Xena, all morning, I felt like that useless kid from Potadeia again. Not your partner, certainly not your lover. Not even your friend. I was reduced to being the tag-along, wondering why you felt the need to be so ... so ..."

"Self-absorbed?" Xena offered, reaching out to wipe the tears from the corner's of her lover's eyes. I put those there. The warrior was filled with self-loathing.

"Yes, since you put it that way." Gabrielle managed to smile. "Xena, gods know I love you. But I hate it when you shut me out like that. I don't expect a lengthy speech. You're entitled to your own time to think. But it's not just you anymore, it's us. Your moods effect me honey, more than I think you realize. They always have, but being your lover, that magnifies things. I would have appreciated some small explanation of what was going on. That's all it would have taken."

"You could have asked." The warrior pouted.

"Xena." The bard reached across and traced the protruded lower lip. "I don't always want to have to ask. Sometimes, I'd like for you to think to talk to me. Besides, you were so prickly, I was almost afraid to approach you."

"I'm sorry." The warrior captured the finger and drew her partner's hand in, kissing the knuckles. "It's Ares ... I know that's not a really good excuse, but it's all I have right now. I feel so off balance with him."

"Because of him being your father?" Gabrielle moved closer until their shoulders were brushing together.

"Yes. It's almost like he's trying to make everything up to me." Xena frowned. "But then he always turns around and wants something from me in return."

"What did he want this time?"

"Wanted to fight with me, help me beat Antony." The warrior's voice shook with anger.

"Xena, on the surface, why, exactly, is that such a bad thing?" The bard nudged the broad shoulder slightly.

"Because he told me a bunch of lies first, trying to make me feel beholden to him." Gabrielle read the pain in her lover's eyes, and wished she had the power to thrash a certain god of war.

"What kind of lies?" The bard pushed wet locks off her partner's face and allowed one hand to slowly trail down the tanned cheek.

"Tried to get me to believe that every bad thing that ever happened to us, that he was there and kept it from being worse." Xena closed her eyes and sighed.

"Bad things?" Gabrielle flipped and ducked under a long arm, sliding between her partner and the rock.

"Yeah. Like Dahak, and Chin, all of that." The warrior felt her lover's legs wrap around her waist under the water, and she pulled Gabrielle closer for comfort.

"Do you think he was telling the truth?" Xena's head was bowed, and the bard leaned forward until their foreheads were touching.

"What do you mean?" Xena snorted. "Of course not. He just said those things to try to get me to fight with him, and he hit below the belt in the process."

"Honey." The bard settled her weight around her lover's hips. "I'll be the first to admit that Ares has pulled some pretty low stunts since I've known him. All in an effort to win you back to his side. So I can see why you would be inclined to distrust him."

"Buh ..." Gabrielle kissed her quickly, silencing her.

"Let me finish, please?" The dark head nodded in consent. "But since Eli brought us back from the dead, he hasn't been around that much. And when he has, he's been ... different. I think he really may, in his own convoluted way, be trying to be a father to you."

"You're serious?" A dark brow arched in surprise.

"Yes." Gabrielle pursed her lips in thought. "That's not to say that I trust him either. Just that I'm willing to cut him a little slack, maybe give him a chance to prove himself to you, if that's what he's trying to do. What was going on right before he showed up?"

"Oh." I was talking to the horses and thinking I had no business going into battle because I was afraid. The warrior's pride stung at the internal admission. "I was just standing out by the horses trying to sort out my feelings about fighting Antony."

"And how were you feeling?" The bard's voice grew soft, and she unconsciously ran her hands up and down her partner's upper arms.

"Unsure of myself. Wondering if I had the courage to fight, and hating myself for having doubts, knowing that so much was on the line." Xena's face reddened slightly, feeling a bit of shame at her own perceived weakness. "He just made me so mad. Of all the times to show up and play head games with me ..."

"And how did you feel after he left?" Gabrielle lightly touched her lover's face with one hand.

"Angry. Ready to do battle." Even as she spoke, the warrior's eyes blinked in sudden comprehension.

"So." Gabrielle smiled, watching her partner's own words sink in. "You were saying something earlier about oranges and coconuts?"

Xena was glad for the change of subject, and took her lover's hand, leading her toward shore. "Don't move." She left Gabrielle standing on the grass and quickly retrieved two towels from their bags, tossing one to her partner. While Gabrielle dried off, Xena grabbed an extra blanket and a length of rope, and fashioned a hammock of sorts between two tall trees, and then moved over, picking the bard up and carrying her to the inviting swing, lowering her gently down under the high shady branches. "You rest, your majesty, while I go get you your royal snack." She winked at her soulmate and disappeared from the bard's limited view, which consisted of blue sky and gently-waving tree branches.

She's learning. Gabrielle chuckled, as her ears picked up the sound of Xena pulling on her leathers. And she's so cute when she knows I'm mad at her, that I can't stay that way, at least not for long.

A loose-fitting tunic landed on top of her, dropped there as the warrior jogged by on her way toward the orange trees. Yeah. The bard sat up and pulled on the light pale-green linen. She's definitely learning.

"Hey." Xena returned several minutes later and laid four large oranges next to her partner. "Can you start peeling these? There's a couple of things I need to take care of and then I'll be back to share them with you."

"Xena ..." The warrior disappeared again and Gabrielle heard a distinct splash. "Xena, you just dried off, what are you doing?" The bard tried to sit up in the unstable hammock, but couldn't see where her partner had gone. Whatever. She picked up an orange and thought for a minute, remembering how Xena had peeled them on the boat when they were traveling up the Nile. Oh, yeah, I think she ... The bard dug a thumb into the thick fragrant flesh and began to remove the outer orange skin.

"I've got a surprise for you." The warrior suddenly appeared, standing over her with a grin that conveyed she was about to burst. "I was picking the oranges, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sun reflecting off something silvery that flashed in the water for a second." Xena slowly brought her hands around from behind her to reveal two rather large fish. "How would you like to have something besides dried lamb for dinner tonight?"

"You are a goddess!" Gabrielle's eyes shone in eager anticipation of the coming feast.

"Nope." Xena smiled. "Only half ... goddess."

It was one of the few times Gabrielle had heard her partner actually make light of her demi-god status, and she chose not to comment. "I could just kiss you." The bard suddenly found her lips covered with her lover's mouth, as the warrior took her up on the offer.

Xena gently teased her partner for several long minutes before she pulled back and allowed the banked passion to show plainly on her face. "I hope, my love, you'll do more than kiss me. Later, I mean. After dinner and all ..."

To hades with after dinner. "Xena." Gabrielle trailed one finger across the upper seam of the warrior's leathers. "Why don't you go string the fish and put them back in the water until we're ready to cook them, and come back over here and cuddle up with me in this hammock, while we eat these oranges? Hmmmm?" She hooked the finger under the edge and pulled her lover closer, raising a coy eyebrow before she kissed her again.

"I think I can manage that." The warrior grinned and took care of their soon-to-be dinner in record speed. On her way back to Gabrielle, she stopped and regarded a coconut tree. She looked up and grinned, and gave the trunk a forceful shake, sending two of the rough-textured fruits crashing to the ground. She split one open against a rock and then returned to the hammock. "Hey, sit up a bit, I've got another surprise."

Gabrielle smiled and raised up on one elbow. Xena held one of the coconut halves in front of her and the bard drew back, eyeing the strange-looking food with some trepidation. "What is that?"

"Coconut. Sip some of the milk. It's sweet. You'll like it." She pressed the hairy shell against the bard's lips, and Gabrielle poked her tongue into the thin opaque juice. Her eyes lit up and she grasped the offering with one hand, sipping gingerly.

"Wow. That is good." She finished off the fruity substance while Xena drank from the other half. The bard watched her tall partner, enjoying the angle, looking up at the lean muscular body and the inviting curves with a gentle glow on her face. "Hey." She whispered softly. "You going to join me here or not?"

The warrior noted the slight flush to her partner's skin, hoping it wasn't just from the sun. Her libido awakened with a vengeance, and with a quick flick of her wrist, she tossed the coconut shell aside. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do right now." She reached down and traced Gabrielle's lips with her thumb, and then carefully grasped the edge of the bard's swinging cradle and rolled in, pleased that the arrangement forced them to lay squished against each other.

Gabrielle offered her an orange slice, which Xena snapped up between her teeth, playfully nipping the bard's fingers in the process. "Mmmm. Sweet." The warrior licked her lips. "So was the orange."

The bard blushed in response and then placed another slice between her own teeth, waggling her eyebrows in invitation as the warrior drew close, biting off half and allowing her lips to linger against Gabrielle's before she pulled back. They continued to exchange orange slices, until they had eaten most of three of the round pieces of fruit, and the warrior finally leaned into her lover and kissed her thoroughly, sans orange slice.

"Gods I love you." Xena brushed her finger tips across Gabrielle's face. "I'm so sorry I treated you badly this morning. I don't ever want to hurt you. Ever."

"It's okay. You're forgiven." The bard leaned into her lover's touch. "I know you didn't mean to. I think ..." Gabrielle bit her lower lip. "... we're bound to occasionally hurt each other's feelings. I mean, if we didn't care, we wouldn't get hurt, would we?"

"Guess not." The warrior's hand moved up again, combing her fingers through the pale blonde hair. "You and I, we both feel things very deeply. And we're so close, I guess that makes it hurt even more when we do have misunderstandings."

"Yeah." The bard was enjoying the light scalp massage, and closed her eyes. "This has been one Hades of a trip, hasn't it?"

"You can say that again." Xena chuckled and shifted to her side, trailing the hand lower down her partner's midline and then underneath her shirt, making contact with the smooth flesh of Gabrielle's stomach. "It's just been one thing after another."

"And I don't think either of us really wants to be here." The bard's muscles contracted pleasantly against Xena's fingers, and she unconsciously pressed herself even closer to the long enticing body next to her, one hand reaching out eagerly to make contact with the bare flesh of a firm thigh and the other entwining itself in the long dark hair.

"Nope." Xena's lips and tongue licked a slow sensual pattern across her partner's neck, and her breath caught as small fingers teased her own inner thigh, pushing her legs slightly apart. She rolled onto her back, pulling Gabrielle on top of her, and paused until the rocking hammock settled a bit. "Well ... right here.. right now ... isn't such a bad place to be."

The green eyes grew dark, revealing the bard's desire, and she felt herself melting into Xena's touch, as long fingers managed to pull the shirt over her head and then began to paint fiery trails across her back and down her sides. "Here is a very very good place to be." The warrior's lips silenced her and Gabrielle quit thinking, and simply let herself feel.

Oh yeah. Xena needed this. Needed it desperately. It's been what ...? Five days? Too long ... oh Tartarus, who has spare brain cells to count at a time like this? The warrior growled deep in her chest as she felt her lover react to her, and she slid one hand between them, moving teasingly down Gabrielle's torso. "Mmmm." Her fingers skillfully touched well-known sensitive places on the bard's body as she made her achingly slow descent. "Love touching you like this. Feeling you against me."

"Xena please. Need you." Gabrielle whimpered as one long arm wrapped around her, pulling her tightly against the warrior, while Xena's other hand worked its magic, evoking sensations that started as a faint throbbing and eventually exploded inside, spreading out in waves from her groin. "Gods. Xena. I ..." She closed her eyes, and allowed herself to get lost in the pleasurable feelings her lover's fingers and lips were causing.

"I've got you, sweetheart." The warrior captured her lover's lips again, just as the bard cried out. "Love you so much, Gabrielle. You are a gift to me."

Long minutes later, Gabrielle found herself wrapped in a living, breathing blanket, as Xena pulled her down against her shoulder and side, and encircled her with her legs and arms. She traced figure eights against a sweaty warrior chest, and was aware of the uneven rise and fall of her own rib cage, as her body came down from the high places her lover had taken her. As her heart rate slowed, she rolled over, nipping at Xena's nose before her lips made a leisurely exploration of the warrior's own mouth and lips. "I love you, Xena."

"Love you too." The warrior sighed as a small hand began working at the laces of her leathers, and she sat up slightly to allow Gabrielle better access to the rawhide strands that were criss-crossed down her back. The bard succeeded in untying the sturdy leather strings and started to push the shoulder straps down Xena's arms, when a large hand suddenly planted itself firmly in the middle of her back.

"Yow!" Gabrielle jumped, until she realized it was her partner's hand that was holding her still.

No no no no. The warrior screamed internally. Gods be damned. I can't believe this is happening. Again. "Um ... Gabrielle. We need to get you dressed."

"Huh?" The bard cocked her head, and then she heard it too. Far off, the sounds that could not be mistaken for anything other than an approaching army. "Let me guess, Octavian's found the oasis."

"Sounds that way." The warrior rolled out of the hammock and tightened her laces, and then bent to retrieve her armor from the ground, along with her boots.

"By the gods, Xena. Are we ever gonna get a break?" Gabrielle sat up and reluctantly tugged the linen shirt over her head.

"Well ..." The warrior ran an appreciative eye along her partner's form, right before the shirt fell into place. "One of us sure got something." She chuckled.

"Oh yes." The bard stood and pulled Xena close, kissing her slowly. She pulled back and looked up into the pale blue eyes. "I did. Now ..." She ended where they had started, trailing her finger along the upper curves of her lover's breasts, watching the tanned skin twitch in her wake. "... you see if you can manage to keep them from pitching their tents near ours, and tonight ... after dinner ... I'll make sure you get the same." She leaned in, kissing her partner's cleavage. "I'm not even close to being done with you."

The warrior groaned and rolled her eyes in frustration. "With a promise like that, rest assured, love, by the time I'm done talking with Octavian, you're gonna barely even know the Romans have arrived. I'll see to that." She pecked the bard's lips quickly, and then made a running mount of the black stallion, not even bothering with saddle or reins, as she used her powerful thighs to drive the small horse toward Octavian and his men.

Gabrielle's eyes twinkled as she watched her partner ride away, and she threw her head back and laughed.


"Gods!" Xena returned to their camp site a few candle marks later, sweating and frustrated. On many different levels. "I'm starting to remember all the things I didn't like about leading an army. They're so ... so ..." She stopped and gave an appreciative sniff to the air. "Gabrielle, that smells great."

The bard turned halfway around from the fire, where she was crouched, basting the fish fillets in a mixture of orange and coconut juice. The white fleshy meat was coated in more coconut and orange peelings, mixed with crumbs of pita breading and a bit of olive oil. "I hope it tastes as good as it smells. It's kind of an experiment. Today was the first day I've ever seen a coconut, much less tried to cook with one."

"Baby." The warrior plopped down on a flat stone near the fire. "Everything you cook tastes good. In fact ... you taste good." She grinned at the blush her comment received, and then set about removing her boots and armor. The sun was starting to set, and she stretched her legs out, giving her toes a wiggle in the cooler air, as they were set free from the confines of leather. "Speaking of smells, I guess I better go take another dip in the lake."

"What were you doing over there, anyway?" Gabrielle moved to a tin bowl that she had filled with more orange slices, which she had also rolled in coconut. She popped one into her mouth and her eyes lit up at the flavor that washed over her taste buds.

"First, I had to make up lame excuses about why Octavian and his entire army had to stay on the other side of the lake." The warrior dropped her weapons down next to the rock. "And I finally had to pull Octavian aside and sort of spell things out for him."

"You didn't." The bard turned bright red. "Xena! I'm not going to be able to face him now."

"I didn't spell that clearly. I just told him that you and I wanted privacy so that we could bathe in the lake and change clothes and stuff without worrying about anyone seeing." Of course I had to wink several times while I told him that, but I'm thinking I better not tell her that part. The warrior managed a most innocent expression.

"Oh. I guess that's okay." The bard flipped the fish with a long stick and then poked at the red-hot wood chunks underneath the pan. "What else did you all do?"

"I helped them get settled in, and Octavian and I talked about our agenda for tomorrow. I went over some maps with him and talked to him a little bit about the various strategies Cleo and I came up with. I told him what kind of numbers and maneuvers we might expect from Antony's army." Xena's face glowed faintly, warming to her topic. It had been a while since she had been involved in planning a battle with a real army. "We decided that tomorrow we'll go through some drills early in the morning before the hottest part of the day, mostly for his men to get used to my style. After lunch we'll do some organizing of the men into ranks and make sure our weapons and everything are in top condition. And we'll pack up most of the camp, except for just what will be needed for dinner preparations and sleeping. Then we'll eat and turn in early. The next day we start our march back across the desert to meet Antony."

Get used to her style? Gabrielle frowned and set the fish aside in the edge of the coals so it wouldn't burn. She sat down next to her partner and rested one hand on Xena's thigh and laid her head against the warrior's shoulder. "Xena, are you leading Octavian's army into battle?"

"Um ... yeah. I am. We talked about it and decided that would be the best thing, since I'm the most familiar with what we will be facing. And he has very little actual battlefield experience." She drew her opposite leg up, wrapping her arms around it. "Listen. I'm beyond trying to tell you what to do. I would like, very much, for you to stay at the rear of the troops."

"Where I'll be safer." It was a merely a statement of fact, not angry or offended in tone.

"Yeah." Xena turned her head to the side, laying her cheek against her upraised knee and studying her partner with cautious eyes. "If anything were to happen to you, I'm not sure how I would live with myself."

"But Xena, don't you see?" Gabrielle reached across and stroked the sleek head. "If anything were to happen to you, and I wasn't there beside you to try to help you, I would have just as hard of a time dealing with that."

"I just ..." The blue eyes closed as the warrior waged a more personal battle inside. "... after the crucifixion. I can't let you be in that kind of position again." I wouldn't survive watching her die again.

"Xena." The bard turned on the rock and crossed her legs loosely, so that she was facing her partner from the side. "When .." She paused and swallowed hard against the sudden lump that formed in her throat. "... when I watched you go down in that court yard, if I hadn't picked up your sword and did my damnedest to try to save you, I might as well have just fallen on it instead. That's how much it would have hurt to watch you die without me doing anything to try to stop it. If that guy had managed to stab you, the guy I threw that lance at, or if they had made me watch you be crucified while I lived. Xena ... I couldn't ..." She trailed off and brushed now free-flowing tears off her cheeks.

The warrior quickly pulled her into a tight hug, and kissed the top of her lover's head. "I never knew. I mean, we've talked about it, but I was always feeling so guilty about you dying because of your association with me. It never occurred to me ... I didn't realize you felt that way. I guess I should have but ...."

"I already watched you die, and leave me behind once, Xena. It was hard enough then. Now ... I'm in love with you." The bard sniffled against her leather cocoon. "I hope someday, when we're both very old, we can just slip off together peacefully in our sleep. I don't ever want to be left behind again. In any way. In battle. In life. In death. I want to be by your side, fighting the good fight. I would rather die by your side Xena, than live alone, do you understand me?"

Full lips brushed across blonde hair again. "Yeah. Because I feel the exact same way."

They sat glued together in silence for a quarter candle mark, the fish forgotten, the oranges forgotten, Octavian and battles and everything besides each other forgotten. The warrior reflected again on what she could possibly have done to deserve Gabrielle's love, and finally shrugged, pulling her partner closer and gently rubbing the bard's back as she rested against her. "Hey." She cleared her throat, breaking the silence. "I still need a quick bath, and we should probably eat that delicious fish you cooked before it gets cold."

"Don't want to move." The bard mumbled against her partner's shoulder, before she kissed it. "But you're right. Besides, I want to get on to fulfilling a few promises I made to you earlier." Her blunt nails grazed Xena's leg before she gently pushed away from the now-groaning warrior.

"You are gonna pay for that later." The taller woman raised one eyebrow and then stood, stretching her long frame upward, lifting her arms over her head and looking down at Gabrielle, who was obviously enjoying the show. "Back in a minute." She grabbed a towel and trotted away toward the water.

By the time she returned, Gabrielle had dished up two plates of fish, garnishing it on the side with the coconut-covered oranges. She had also cracked open another coconut so that they could drink the sweet milk with their dinner. She debated briefly, and then changed from the green tunic, to a shorter, sleeveless white one that laced up the front, and decided to leave her feet bare. The air was now pleasant, a touch on the cool side as night settled in, and the edge of the western sky glowed with residual tendrils of sunlight that outlined the edges of far sand dunes in a dark red dusty haze.

"Beautiful night, isn't it?" Xena tossed her towel over a tree branch, and pulled a light cream-colored shirt of her own from a saddle bag, quickly drawing it over her shoulders and buttoning it up the front, the color nicely accentuating her darkly-tanned body.

"Absolutely gorgeous." Gabrielle's voice caught in her throat, and the warrior turned, and grinned, realizing that her partner was looking at her rather than the sky.

Xena's eyes sparkled in the firelight. Never has anyone look at me like that before her. It wasn't just lust, although she read plenty of that on the bard's face. It was desire born of pure and unselfish love. Gabrielle didn't want anything from her at this moment. All her lover wanted to do was give back to her. The warrior shivered, although she wasn't cold. Let her lead warrior, it's what she wants right now. She slowly walked over to the rock where the food was spread out, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle's as she sat down very close to the bard. "Only you could take a couple of fish and some pieces of fruit, in the middle of the desert, and make it look like something from the finest tavern in Athens."

Blonde eyelashes blinked shyly at the compliment, and Gabrielle handed Xena her plate. "I just thought ... we might not get another chance for a few days to be alone together. I wanted tonight to be special. Just you and me and all those stars up there, Xena."

"It is special. Because you're here with me. That's all I'll ever need, love." The warrior leaned in and tenderly kissed her partner and then sat back up, picking up her fork and stabbing a piece of the flaky fish. She lifted it to her lips and popped it in, and then rolled it around slowly in her mouth, savoring the welcome treat. "By the gods that's even better than it looks."

"Really?" The bard basked in the warm praise, and dove into her own plate. "Mmmm. It is good, if I do say so myself. Oh yeah, here. I almost forgot." She reached around and retrieved the two coconut halves, complete with hollow reeds she had pulled from the edge of the water to sip through.

"You think of everything, don't you?" Xena smacked her lips after a long swig of the fruit juice. "Dare I ask what's for dessert?"

"For you, some more of those orange slices over there. I tossed them in a little bit of the coconut and some honey." The bard indicated with one hand toward a bowl on the far edge of the rock.

"What about you?" The warrior's brows furrowed in confusion. Gabrielle merely raked her eyes up and down Xena's body, and allowed a tiny grin to play at the corners of her mouth. When she was certain she had made her point, she looked back down at her plate, savoring the moment more than the meal.

Oh. A warm tingling sensation began to build in the warrior's middle. I don't think I've ever been anyone's dessert before. She finished her fish at the same time as Gabrielle polished off her own plate, and smiled, as the bard shifted, sitting up on the rock and indicating that Xena should sit on the ground between her knees.

The warrior sat down her empty plate, and quickly scrambled to her appointed position, leaning back so that her head rested comfortably against Gabrielle's stomach and the bard's knees were up on either side of her. They both faced the lake, and the bard proceeded to quietly feed Xena the orange slices from over the warrior's shoulder, stealing a bite herself from time to time, but mostly just enjoying her own view of the top of the dark head which she stroked with one free hand, occasionally allowing her hand to trail lower across the back of the warrior's neck, shoulders, and upper chest. "I love your skin, Xena. It's so soft."

"It loves what you're doing to it." The warrior closed her eyes as Gabrielle began a gentle massage of her tight shoulder muscles. "Didn't realize I was in knots until now."

"I could tell." The bard used her thumbs to work on some particularly tough spots. "You were carrying yourself kinda stiff. Of course, there are lots of ways to get you to relax."

"Lots?" Xena tilted her head back and around, to find Gabrielle's face very close to hers.

"Yeah, but some are more pleasant than others." The bard closed the distance, softly nibbling at her partner's lips, tasting the sweet lingering flavor of honey and coconut. She gradually deepened the kiss, using her mouth and tongue to fan the flames she knew were smoldering just under the surface. "I've wanted you for so long."

"Mmm." The warrior turned, rising up on her knees to face her lover, enjoying the sensation of the small but strong arms that circled her upper back. "Me too. I was trying to count earlier. I think until this afternoon, it had been at least five days."

"Longer." Gabrielle moved from the warrior's mouth to the sensitive skin below an ear.

"Longer?" Xena was finding it hard to concentrate, and she braced one hand against Gabrielle's knee, while the other one riffled through the short blonde hair.

"My whole life." The bard's breath was warm on the warrior's skin. "I've wanted you my whole life, Xena. I just didn't know it." Gabrielle whispered and then nipped at the spot. "Until you ... I never knew what this could be like." She moved still lower, kissing her way down Xena's throat. "To want someone so much you feel like you are just going to burn away into a little pile of ashes if you don't get to touch them."

"Gabrielle ..." The warrior managed to keep talking. "In our next life, I hope you're still a bard. Or a minstrel. Or something like that."

"If I'm with you, love, that's all the inspiration I'll need." She pulled Xena closer, pressing her legs firmly against the warrior's hips, and started to unbutton her lover's tunic, as she felt long fingers working at the laces of the shirt she herself was wearing. A strange rustling noise gave her pause, and her hands stilled, as she peered out toward the water. "Oh Xena, look."

"Huh?" The warrior reluctantly turned around. "Oh." She smiled. At the edge of the lake, a small herd of oryx lapped at the water, a mixed group of adults and younger ones that were playing among themselves until their mothers gently butted them towards the water.

"Aren't they cute?" Gabrielle slid down to the ground, and suddenly found herself sitting between Xena's legs, as the warrior pulled her back against her chest and long arms wrapped around her waist.

"Yeah." The warrior propped her chin on Gabrielle's shoulder and pointed further across into the shadows. "Look over there."

"Oh." A pair of spotted cats were also partaking of the cool lake, their unique eyes glowing in the pale moonlight. In the taller grass nearby, three pairs of smaller eyes peered out in wonder, a litter of kittens that waited for their parents to bring them down to the water. "What are those?"

"Cheetahs." Xena looked toward the horses, which were stomping nervously on their lines as they eyed the medium-sized felines. "I hate to leave this little seduction, because I am really really enjoying it, but I think I better go move the horses so that the fire is between them and the lake. Don't want anything to try to make a meal of them. In fact, I probably should build at least one more fire, and have the horses surrounded by it. The wild animals won't go near flames."

"Don't take too long." Gabrielle scooted aside so her partner could stand up. "There are some perfectly good stars up there just begging to be gazed at." But they'll never rival the sparkle in her eyes. The bard smiled up at her partner with open affection, and blinked as the eyes in question captivated her all over again. "Hey, will you get me a scroll and a quill while you're up?"

"Sure. I'll be back before my place grows cold." Xena quickly got the horses re-situated, staking them on long lines closer to the tent, between the fire that was already burning, and another one she built off to the side, so that the tent and the two fire rings formed a protective triangle with the horses in the middle.

Gabrielle continued to watch the growing crowd down by the lake, as a pair of camels clopped their way down to the water's edge, two twin babies cautiously following behind them. Oh. The bard was mesmerized, watching the interaction of the various mothers with their young, both protective and playful, alert eyes darting about for any sign of danger. But for some reason, what she thought would normally be natural enemies were sharing the large drinking bowl at respectful distances form each other, the diverse species keeping near their own kind, but allowing the presence of the others.

Xena came back, the bard's scroll case slung over one shoulder, and brushed her hands down the front of her tunic before she sat back down, drawing Gabrielle back against her in their previous position. "There. That should keep them safe." She gazed at the now-peaceful horses with satisfaction.

"Xena, there's something I don't understand." The bard turned her head to the side and looked up at her partner's face.

"What's that?" The warrior grinned and pecked Gabrielle's lips, taking advantage of their position.

"Um." The bard paused, once again tasting coconut. "These animals. Where are they during the day? It's way too barren all around here to sustain life."

"I think, if I studied the maps correctly, not too many miles south of here are the beginnings of some heavy grasslands. They probably travel from there." She shifted, resting her chin on Gabrielle's shoulder again, talking low in her ear. "Cleo told me they're having some pretty bad droughts right now. I suspect that the water sources where the animals live are drying out, and they're forced to travel further and further from their territory to find it."

"That's sad." The bard peered out into the darkness where the cheetahs and oryx were drinking, still keeping a healthy distance from each other. "Why don't the cheetahs attack the oryx while they're so handy?"

"In times of drought, animals that would normally be mortal enemies are forced to share scarce resources. They don't behave in natural ways, and are more concerned about quenching their thirst than constantly hunting each other." Xena studied the animals more closely. "It's a water hole code of honor or something."

Gabrielle giggled and intertwined her fingers with those of a hand that was trailing back and forth across her stomach, drawing it up and kissing the warrior's inner wrist. "Or maybe the cheetahs are just luring the oryx into a false sense of security."

"Maybe." Xena grew thoughtful. "It's a strategy I've used before." Her senses suddenly stood at full attention, as slight tremors shook the ground beneath them. Slowly, almost as if in a dream, out of the edges of the darkness, a pack of massive animals appeared, stalking toward the water with a presence and grace that was overwhelming.

"Xe .... Xena." Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as saucers. "Are those ... elephants?"

"Yeah. Shhhhh." She pressed her fingers against her partner's lips, and bent in to speak quietly to her lover. "They're probably harmless, but these African ones, they're a lot bigger and a lot less predictable than those ones we saw in India."

"And a lot closer to us." The bard hissed. "Oh. Xena. Look. One of them has a baby. The largest elephant was walking a bit apart from the rest of the pack, nudging her little one along with gentle prods of her long flexible trunk.

The pack, which consisted of five adult females, reached the water and clustered around the smaller member in a protective circle. The majestic creatures stood in the shallows of the water, using their long trunks to alternate between drinking, and hosing each other down in a playful bathing ritual that had both warrior and bard shaking in silent laughter. The mother elephant was giving special attention to her calf, spraying the bawling little animal with a fine mist from her snout.

"Reminds me of you this afternoon." Gabrielle whispered. "When you shot that water at me."

"Hey." Xena swatted the side of a muscular leg. "My nose isn't nearly that long."

"I don't know ..." The bard turned and teasingly pretended to measure her partner's perfectly proportioned nose, before she gave it a little nip, and then yelped as the warrior once again took the opportunity to kiss her. She sighed and then settled back down to continue watching the activities down by the lake.

"That mother elephant ..." Xena pointed across. "... she's pregnant, carrying really low, too. Bet she's due in several more moons. Her other baby is probably almost a year old. It takes them a while to reach maturity. She's had plenty of time to get pregnant again. They carry their babies for well over a year."

"Ugghh." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Glad humans don't take that long."

"Ooo. Me too." The warrior winced, remembering her less-than smooth pregnancy with Solan. "If I ever do it again, I'd prefer to get it over with as quickly as possible, I'd do it in less than nine moons if I could. That'd be ..." She suddenly grew quiet, mentally kicking herself, remembering a barn in Britannia, and the terror and confusion in her lover's eyes as she gave birth to a child that she had only discovered she was carrying mere candle marks earlier. "Gabrielle. I'm sorry." Talk about not thinking. "I didn't mean to bring up ..."

"Don't." The bard turned completely around, kissing her partner to silence her. She pulled back and captured the warrior's face between both hands. "This night is perfect, Xena. Don't spoil it with guilt, and digging up things we've already worked through, at least for the most part. I didn't take what you said in any vein other than how you meant it."

"Good." The warrior tugged at Gabrielle's shirt tail, urging her back down until the bard was curled up sideways against her in the nest of Xena's arms and legs.

"They're so protective of their little ones." The bard watched the elephants, noting that as they moved around, at least one of the adults was always looking out for the smaller one.

"Yeah." The warrior rested her cheek against her partner's head. "They live together in family units, usually with several females and younger ones. And one of the females is sort of the head elephant."

"Kind of like the Amazons." Gabrielle giggled.

"Exactly." Xena pecked her partner's forehead. "They spend their lives with the same group. I've even heard that they show emotions, just like people. Like when one of them dies, the others will gather around and appear to mourn. Even shed a few tears like humans do."

"Really?" The bard watched the pack with even more respect. "That's pretty amazing, Xena."

"I remember ..." The warrior smiled sadly. "That time between when I left Hercules and I met you. Argo and I, all we had was each other. I'd talk to her, well a much as I talked to anyone back then. And I used to swear she understood me. Knew when I was happy or sad. Sometimes she'd just nudge me, like she was trying to make me feel better. Those were some pretty rough days for me. I had no idea what I was going to do next. I always had a healthy respect for animals. But Argo taught me that all living things more than likely have feelings. A lot more than we give them credit for."

"I've always thought they do, but elephants crying. Wow. Who would have thought?" The bard smiled, watching as one of the adult elephants gently prodded the wandering baby back toward the pack. "Xena, I think our children are going to be very lucky. They're going to have a whole village of Amazons looking out for them, not just us."

"Gods." Xena let out a deep belly laugh. "Can you picture Pony holding a baby."

"Now there's a visual image." Gabrielle chuckled along with her. "You think she and Raella will ever have kids?"

"Not unless they find a donor and do that whole tube insertion thing you and I discussed a while back." The warrior imagined the blush she knew was creeping across her partner's cheeks. "Because any man that comes near Raella with intent to become familiar with her ... in that way. He'll more than likely meet his fate at the end of Pony's sword. And as for Pony, I'd believe ... well, let's just say that there's a greater chance of my copulating with Callisto and bearing a child, than of Pony getting pregnant."

"Callisto? Like that would ever happen." The bard giggled. "You use some pretty bizarre analogies sometimes, Xena. Where'd that one come from?"

"Don't know. I'm sorry I even said it." She laughed. "Musta come from some sick twisted place deep inside of me."

"You can say that again, but don't." Ewww. Gabrielle shuddered, trying to get the image out of her head.

They grew quiet again, both reflecting on the sweet scene beside the lake, as the animals and their babies continued to interact with each other. The bard closed her eyes, leaning into the warrior and inhaling the tantalizing clean smell of her partner's skin. She thought about the way the elephants lived, and the sense of community she saw there. Gabrielle had always known that she wanted children ... someday. But now ... She nuzzled Xena's neck and felt the warrior's arms tighten around her. Now that vision was much more clear in her mind.

Suddenly it wasn't just some vague faceless baby suspended sometime in the unknown future. The future was with her right now, holding onto her with the same fierce loving protection she knew Xena would have for their family. Our family. Wow. The bard tried to picture their children in her mind, a mixed tribe of blonde and brunette little ones with various shades of blue and green eyes. They had discussed it before, in more general terms, and she just knew that no matter how they accomplished it, their children would be a equal parts of both of them.

Gabrielle opened her eyes again and glanced down at her stomach, trying to visualize a baby growing inside of her. She gasped silently, as Xena chose that very moment to drop one hand down solidly against her lower abdomen. The warrior quietly rubbed her partner's belly, trying to imagine what it would be like when the bard did decide to have children. Next time, I'm going to be there for her ... and for our children. Our children. Xena realized that some part of her had finally accepted that any babies that either of them had would fully belong to both of them, no matter how they managed to conceive them.

After several long minutes, the bard placed her hand over her partner's and their eyes met in silent understanding. The warrior pulled Gabrielle tightly against her and tilted her head to the side, as they shared a slow tender kiss. She broke apart for a quick breath, and then planted tiny kisses and nips along the bard's jawline until she reached Gabrielle's ear. "Whenever you're ready, love ..." She kissed a sensitive spot that sent shivers down the bard's spine. "... I want them too."

A single tear spilled down Gabrielle's cheek, and the warrior gently kissed it away. Without a word, the bard reached around her lover and tugged a piece of parchment and a quill from her scroll case, which lay on the ground beside them. She shifted, leaning back against Xena's chest, and drew her knees up, laying the fresh untouched paper against her legs. She smiled as large hands came to rest on her hips, and the warrior peered over her shoulder.

"Suddenly inspired, love?" The warrior brushed the side of her face against Gabrielle's cheek.

"Yeah. Sorry. I just have to ..." The bard trailed off as the point of the quill began to scratch against the textured material, and Xena watched her soulmate's words unfold before her eyes:

Dome of sky dusted with diamonds

Glittering dots spark in our vision

All becomes still

Magical shapes, one big hunchback

Slowly form beyond water's edge.

Reflections of families paint shadows on dust

Scimitar oryx stamp the earth daintily,

Groups lip at water,

Spotted cheetah skulks to the side, yellow eyes glow patiently,

All sizes, all ages, mixing and melding, sipping and gulping.

Mesmerized by tiny copies of the giant camel,

Miniature oryx with baby horns butt playfully,

Fascination stills a mind and my eyes grows wide as

A great bellied gray body tenderly sprays its

dainty small mirror with misty crystals.

Suffused with longing to wrap our own little image

Close to our hearts,

I nestle my head close to her neck,

Her arms pull me in closer,

She feels what I want.*

The warrior's chest heaved as her emotions welled up inside, and she kissed the pale head and moved her lips down until they were once again very close to Gabrielle's ear. "You, my love, are wrapped around my heart. I want to always feel you there. And I promise you, I will love and protect you and our children for as long as I live." As soon as Gabrielle set the parchment down, her arms automatically wrapped around the bard's waist. "Gabrielle. I hope ... when we do have them, that they take after you."

"Us, Xena. I want them to get the very best of both of us." She lifted one of the warrior's hands and kissed it, and then laid it against her belly. "You and I, Xena, we're going to make a family together."

"Yeah." Xena smiled into the darkness. "Together."

They continued to watch the activities around the edge of the water, and gradually moved from that to a quiet observation of the tents and tiny dots of light from the campfires across the lake where Octavian's army was probably getting ready to go to bed. Gabrielle leaned back against her comfortable warrior pillow, and looked up at the stars, studying the patterns they made, which were fairly similar to the ones they saw at home in Greece.

The warrior patiently answered several questions that Gabrielle had, giving her a few navigation and time-keeping lessons based upon where the stars were located. From there they moved on to their playful game of picking out shapes in the night sky, and the bard shifted a bit, until she was once again resting sideways against Xena. She idly unfastened the buttons on the warrior's tunic while they talked quietly, and then slipped one hand inside, reaching warm skin, and began a gentle teasing motion with her fingertips, which quickly drew her lover's attention away from the sky.

"You wanna move this into the tent?" The warrior's voice was husky with a sudden flood of desire, and a rakish grin appeared on her face.

"Yeah. I think we better." Gabrielle paused as their lips met and Xena's hands moved around her waist, pulling her into a more accessible position. When they came up for air, the bard rested her forehead against the warrior's chest. "Let's go." Suddenly, the world tilted and spun, and she found herself lifted up in strong arms, and just as quickly, landed on her bedroll with a pair of fiery blue eyes mere inches from her own. "How'd you do that?"

"Do what?" The warrior's hands were busy pulling the laces from their eyelets on Gabrielle's shirt.

"One minute I'm out there. The next we're in here. And I don't remember the trip in between." She felt her shirt being worked over her head, while Xena nipped her way up the bard's abdomen as it was revealed to her.

"I think ..." A kiss to her lower stomach. "... I was ..." And another to her navel. "... distracting you ..." Several nips up her midline. "... with a kiss." She settled down next to the bard, using her lips and hands to good effect.

"Mmmphhh." Gabrielle gently pushed away. "Like you are right now." With her own swift magic, the bard rolled, pinning her lover underneath her. "Xena." She pulled open the unbuttoned tunic. "Gods. You take my breath away." Her eyes softened at the sight in front of her. "Do you have any idea how much I want you right now?" Slowly, the bard lowered herself down until their bodies were touching all along their lengths. "Please." Her mouth found the peak of a breast and she kissed it, and felt the lungs beneath her expand sharply. "Xena, let me love you, okay?"

"Okay." The warrior willed herself to follow her lover's lead, instead of taking control, which was her natural inclination. "I'm all yours, sweetheart. Am ... am I allowed to touch you?" She ran one fingertip up the bard's bare side.

"Absolutely." Gabrielle traced full lips with her own fingers. "Touch all you want to."

"Good." Xena began a light stroking motion up and down her lover's back, using both hands, as she felt the bard's body moving against her, and Gabrielle lay claim to her in a way that only she could.

The bard felt the change, as the body beneath her alternately relaxed and then tensed, and the warrior's heartbeat picked up speed. "I want to feel you when I love you, Xena." Gabrielle's hand wandered lower while she captured her partner's lips with her own.

Xena groaned, as she felt her lover's touch where she needed it most. As the intense internal waves rose and then crested, their eyes locked, as the warrior openly shared her pleasure with her partner. It was a profound moment for both of them, and something new on the warrior's part, who found herself allowing one more barrier to be torn down, as she laid herself emotionally bare before the only one she would ever trust to hold her heart.

"I love you, Xena." Gabrielle continued to use her lips and fingers to draw out the warrior's pleasure. "It's okay, love. There is no part of you that you can ever show to me, that will change that. If anything, I'll only love you more."

Finally, the blue eyes closed, as a few tears squeezed out from behind her eyelids. She felt her partner kiss them away, and she slowly, almost shyly opened her eyes. "Hi." The green eyes were still gazing down at her, grounding her. "You ..." She reached up, touching the familiar face. "Incredible, my love. Gabrielle, I've never ... at least not like that. Not with anyone."

The bard smiled. "I know. Or at least I guessed. Your eyes. So beautiful when you're like that. all shining, and dark, the most brilliant deep blue. Thank you, Xena. I wanted to feel, but you let me see too."

"Gabrielle. I don't ever want to look at you and not find myself in your eyes." She pulled the bard down against her side, so that Gabrielle's head was resting on her shoulder and her arms were wrapped loosely around the bard's body. "And I want you to be able to look at me, and see yourself reflected back. You are the best part of me. Every day, you give me the courage to reveal a little bit more of myself to you."

"No matter what happens in the future, Xena ... you have given me a gift." The bard tenderly kissed the warrior's upper chest. "I will always remember tonight, and how close I feel to you right now. It's something to hold on to."

"You my love, are something to hold on to. I don't weave tapestries with words like you do, and I've never written a line of poetry in my life. But I have one I'd like to share with you. It's not mine, but it sort of describes how I feel when you touch me." Xena's voice whispered softly into her lover's ear:

You came

when I was longing for you,

and to my heart suffering in passion's fire

you were

delicious ice.**

"Xena." The bard raised up on one forearm. "I didn't know you memorized Sappho."

"Not only memorized, love. I've met Sappho." The warrior smiled. "She lives on Lesbos, remember?"

"Oh yeah, I forgot." Gabrielle studied the pale eyes, which gazed back at her intently. "I have one of hers for you, too:"

No, my heart

can never

change toward

you who are so


The bard was rewarded with a soft kiss, and Xena pressed her lips against her ear again:

Now in my

heart I

see clearly

a beautiful




by love.****

"Oh, yeah. That's a nice one." So this is what it feels like to be surrounded by love. The bard was thoroughly enjoying their unexpected exchange. "And then there's the one that always makes me laugh, short and to the point."

To Eros ...

Xena grinned and finished it for her.

... You burn me.*****

They both dissolved into laughter, the tickling vibrations of their ribs pressing together only serving to increase their mirth. After several minutes, they managed to calm down, knowing they needed to sleep. "Hmmmm." Gabrielle mused aloud. "Xena, warrior poet. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

"Gabrielle." The warrior's voice dropped to its lowest register. "Not one word beyond this tent, you got me? Especially not to any of your Amazons."

"Not even Pony?" The bard teased.

"Specifically not Pony."

"Awww, but Xena."

"No." The warrior was emphatic. "You go spreading around stuff like that, and I'll have to start kicking Amazon butt from one end of the village to the other to maintain my reputation."

"Fine." Gabrielle mock pouted. "It's just so charming."

"Only for you, love." Xena kissed the blonde head. "And I'd prefer to keep it that way."

As she began to drift off, the bard reflected thoughtfully. Funny, how a day that started out so positively awful turned out to be one of the best days of my life. She smiled as she felt her lover's hand splay across her belly, in a gesture she could only assume Xena was going to adopt more and more often. That's nice. She laughed gently. "Xena, honey. There aren't any babies in there yet."

"I know." The bard felt the lips brush across her head again. "I just like to imagine them there. I think when it's real, you'll probably have my hand permanently attached to your stomach for the entire nine moons."

"I wouldn't have it any other way." Gabrielle snuggled up closer, draping one arm across Xena's waist.

"Gabrielle." There was a slight tremor in the warrior's voice. "I ... I love them already."

Xena's words were greeted with silence, and she thought her partner had already fallen asleep. But then the small body she held rolled in her arms, and a pair of misty green eyes appeared above her face. "In all my life Xena, when I tried to imagine what the person I would fall in love with would be like, I never came close. You ... are so much more than I ever hoped or dreamed of." She kissed the warrior and then trailed her fingers across a high cheek bone. "So much more."

Slowly, she slid back down against her lover's side, and the soft night music settled in around them, lulling them into peaceful slumber, wrapped in each other's arms.


Continued in Part 10

*Gabrielle's poem by Maureen Shaffer, August 2000. Please see the disclaimers at the beginning of the chapter to get her e-mail addy, and let her know how beautiful it is.

**Homecoming, ***Her Friends, ****Eros, and *****To Eros, all from Sappho- Poems, a new version, translated from the ancient Greek, copyright 1998, Willis Barnstone (translator), Green Integer Books, Kobenhaven/Los Angeles.

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