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 program Xena: Warrior Princess. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.

SPOILERS: Tiny ones in part two of this story for The Rhinegold and The Ring. And a bit of explanation. My Xenaverse is true to the show through the end of season four. After that, I depart from the show. But Xena's past is part of my Xenaverse. Therefore, the parts of The Rhinegold and The Ring that deal with Xena's past also exist in my Xenaverse.

Violence: None to speak of, other than perhaps a few Warrior Princess icy stares.

Sex: This is most definitely rated NC17. It is a trip to Lesbos, for crying out loud. It's a slow build-up, but once it gets going, hang on.

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

Setting/Time-Frame: This story falls sequentially after "Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and begins about four months after the end of that story. It was supposed to be a short story, a bit of fluff, nothing more than a PWP ("plot, what plot?") tale. Somewhere along the way it took on a life of its own, developed a bit of a plot, and grew to almost 100 pages. This has become the sequel to Cleo. "The Eyes of Eire" will be the sequel to "Divinity."

A Note on Style: This is my first attempt at writing in the first person for an entire story. It is told completely from Xena's point of view. A few people have asked about how stories are conceived, and my usual answer is the characters tell me what to do, and that Xena, especially is in my head. So, this is what is in my head, thank the gods not all the time, or I'd need to travel with a bucket of ice. <G>

Special Thanks: Skylark, Murphy, Tazflyer, Lesia, LJ Maas, DebK, Stacia, TLC, Mark, Kerry, Sue Rice, Mombard, Inspired Lor, Storybird, and all the ex-Guards who provided ongoing feedback and beta-reading for this story while in draft mode. More thanks to the Texas Pups. It took a long time to find a group of local friends who share the Xena obsession. It's nice not to watch alone anymore. Y'all are the greatest.


Join my updates/discussion list at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Texbard/join

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I'll be posting updates to my stories in progress to these two lists. The first list is for those who would like to get updates as well as interact with me and other readers. The second list is for those who want updates only with no discussion. Remember that you can choose "digest" or "web only" if you don't want too many extra e-mails. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me. I'll still be posting completed chapters of the stories to MaryD and ForevaXena.

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Part 1

By Texbard


I've crept into your temple,

I have slept upon your pew,

I've dreamed of the divinity,

Inside and out of you,

I want it more than truth,

I can taste it on my breath,

I would give my life just for a little, little death.*

*Melissa Etheridge, from "Angels Would Fall." If you don't understand the "little death" imagery, e-mail me privately and I will explain. All I can say is that the first time I listened to these lyrics, I just thought "whoa." Great double-entendres.


I am watching as the captain guides our boat into a large slip at the docks of Lesbos. It has been a pleasant journey. The weather held out, we only had to spend one night on the boat, and Gabrielle didn't get sea-sick. That alone would make any boat trip a success in my mind.

Gabrielle is leaning over the rail next to me. I love to watch her when we first arrive in a new place. Her eyes get big and bright, and she usually has a million questions for me. After almost six years, it's nice to know that some things never change.

When I first met her, her incessant chatter annoyed me to no end. Now I enjoy it. And she likes to tease me, reminding me that back then, I had trouble forming a complete sentence. I talk more now, she talks less. Like so many other aspects of our life together, we have become more balanced.

She's not a little girl anymore, I've watched her grow up before my very eyes. And she's grown up very nicely, I might add. But somehow she has managed to retain her child-like wonder of new places and experiences. It's one of the many things I love about her. I see things through her eyes, beautiful and magical things, that I would otherwise not notice at all.

After what seems an eternity, they lower the gang-plank and we are allowed to de-board. I place one hand on her lower back, guiding her down the long slanted platform. As if she couldn't navigate it by herself. It's just automatic for me, in certain circumstances, to do things like that. I like feeling connected to her, if only through a simple touch.

"Xena, what about our bags?" She looks at me in confusion, when she realizes I don't have them slung over my shoulder.

"I ... um ... Gabrielle, I tend to get special treatment on Lesbos. And it's been a long time since my last visit. When I sent word to Sappho that I was planning a trip here, she responded that she was preparing her finest guest house for me, and that I could expect, as she put it, the 'usual treatment'."

"What did she mean by that?" We reach the end of the gang plank and Gabrielle tucks her hand in my elbow. I love it when she does that. It can mean many things, but from the look on her face right now, I can tell she is a little bit afraid. Uncertain what to expect here. I plan to put her at ease.

"Means that our bags will be delivered to the guest house, that we will have entry to the most exclusive taverns on the island, unlimited use of horses, carts, and cart drivers. Basically, love, it means we are going to be pampered while we're here." I smile at her reassuringly. She smiles back.

I lean closer and whisper in her ear. "I think the Amazon queen deserves some pampering, don't you?" This earns me a soft kiss on my shoulder. She can kiss me there anytime she wants to. For that matter, she can kiss me anywhere else on my body she wants to. I'm not picky.

I suddenly remember part of the special treatment I used to receive here, and make a mental note to find Sappho and head it off at the pass. I have a reputation, so to speak, on Lesbos. In my war lord days, I visited here every chance I got. Sometimes I brought someone with me, but more often than not, I simply showed up. The people that run the island always made sure I had companionship.

I could have the same girl my entire trip, or I could have a different one every night. Whatever I wanted. It was my reward for spending large amounts of dinars here, in the taverns and in the gaming rooms. No one cared that I hadn't come by a single coin in an honest manner. Dinars were dinars and I could buy my way into the good graces of anyone I wanted to.

Although I usually had no problems finding girls all by myself, after my first night on the island. What is it about being a war lord that attracted women ... and men ... for leagues around? I can only assume they were intrigued by the danger, or the potential for adventure. I'll admit I have a damn good body, one that I work hard to maintain. Fighting your way across Greece will do that. And I've been told my bedside manner is impeccable. I grin to myself. Gabrielle certainly hasn't complained.

I'm trying to remember if I mentioned in my message to Sappho that I was bringing my betrothed with me. Gods. Surely I did. What if I didn't? I decide, on the spot, that we better go directly to Sappho's private tavern. It's one of those places I'm always welcome. I need to have a word with my old friend. The last thing I need is to go to our guest house and find some sweet young thing waiting for me.

That would be really bad, in several ways. Not the least of which would mean that Gabrielle would probably get the house, and I'd be banished to the stables for the remainder of the trip. Talk about embarrassing. I can just see going back to the village and chatting it up with Pony at the warrior fire circle. "Yeah, I went to Lesbos and didn't get laid the entire time." A visit to Sappho is definitely first on the agenda.

"Gabrielle, how would you like to meet Sappho?" I watch her face, knowing the tenth muse is one of her idols. Her whole face lights up. I love being responsible for that.

"Right ..." Her voice squeaks. She's so cute when she's excited. "Right now?"

"Right now." I steer her toward a row of passenger carriages. Sappho's private tavern is at the top of the island, on a cliff overlooking the western sea. Like Zakynthos, a nightly toast to the sunset is ritual there. I help Gabrielle into a carriage and settle in beside her. I tell the driver who I am and he practically stands at attention. He asks where we want to go and I tell him to the top.

This means the tavern at the top of the island. They actually call it "The Bitter End." I know in the past, some activities I have participated in there have almost been the end of me. He pulls out of the line of buggies, and we are soon speeding along the lush tree-lined roads that twist and wind around to the peak of the island.

Gabrielle is looking around, taking in everything. I can see the poems forming behind her eyes already. On one particular curve, we momentarily break away from the trees and are on a vista overlooking miles of white sand beaches and turquoise water. She squeezes my arm. "It's even more beautiful than I imagined."

I drape an arm across her shoulders and pull her closer to me. "Wait until you see the view from the top." Her eyes shine with anticipation and she looks happier than I've seen her in days. This trip has already been worth every dinar, and I haven't removed a single stitch of clothing yet. Mine or hers.

In no time at all, the carriage pulls up at the end of a long foot-path that leads up to The Bitter End. There are bright-hued flowers lining the trail, along with more green trees. I feel smug, thinking of our friends back in the Amazon village. Winter has just begun, and they will probably see their first snow this week. Not here. Here in paradise, it's spring time all year round, with occasional bouts of summer.

As we make our way toward the tavern, I'm wondering for the hundredth time, what I'm doing here with Gabrielle. My sweet, pure, naive Gabrielle. Okay, so she's not really completely like that anymore, but that's how she was when I met her. Consequently, sometimes I still think of her that way. I tell myself we are here to appease her curiosity more than anything. I've been here many times. She knows this, she knows the reputation of the place, and she's curious. This trip is for her, not me.

Here's the thing. I don't need Lesbos to get excited about being with Gabrielle. All I have to do is look at her and I'm good to go. Hades, all I have to do is think about her. I'm thinking about her right now. She's walking beside me while I'm thinking about her. Oh gods. I'm on Lesbos with a girl that can merely look at me and make me weak in the knees. I am in some serious trouble.

We enter the tavern and I blink, adjusting to the dimmer light conditions. It took a bit to get here, because Gabrielle had to stop and smell the flowers. Literally. There are now several tucked into her hair. I put them there. She's still the prettiest flower of all.

"Xena?" My bard is tugging on my arm and I turn to look at her. She has the strangest expression on her face. I follow her gaze toward a table that is tucked into an alcove draped by a semi-sheer curtain. I can tell that behind the curtain are two women, neither of whom are fully-clothed. And neither one is eating. At least not the food on the table.

"Welcome to Lesbos, Gabrielle." I tilt her chin up, diverting her eyes away from the activities at the table and toward me. "Remember, I told you things were a little ... free here?"

"Uh-huh." Her eyes grow thoughtful and I can read a question on her face.

"Sweetheart." I caress her cheek. It's so soft under my fingers. "I would never, in a million years, do anything to embarrass you. And removing any of your clothes in public is one of those things. Well, maybe your boots, to get more comfortable, but that's it. We're here to have fun. If something's not fun for you, we won't do it."

She seems relieved by that and manages to look around the rest of the room. It's nice. Sappho has re-done the place since my last visit. The bar and floors are all made of a rich dark red wood, and I detect the scent of cedar, so I'm guessing she imported the lumber from Lebanon. Her bar is well-stocked with every libation known to man, and more dark wooden shelves bear mugs and steins of all sizes. Ornate Greek tapestries hang on the walls, and in addition to several of the more private table settings, there are tables and benches grouped together throughout the open part of the room, in a manner to encourage conversation between tables. A raised platform runs the length of the far end of the room, for public performances. Sappho loves intellectual discussion and poetic recitation.

I swallow, as my eyes follow a spiral staircase that leads up to the second floor. There are rooms up there, free for use by anyone who is distinguished enough to be welcome in this establishment. Rooms for those who require more privacy than a sheer curtain. I am well-acquainted with those rooms, and I silently will away the image of scooping up Gabrielle and carrying her up there. I am such a dog, in so many ways. But not now. Not yet. I can behave.

Instead, I make my way to the bar and tell the bar-keep to let Sappho know I am here, and will be waiting for her on the terrace outside. He hears my name and with no further discourse, immediately pours up a mug of the finest port in the house. I am pleased mightily. I look over for Gabrielle, but she has already disappeared through the open doorway that leads to the outdoor tables. I order her a fruity drink and then join her.

I step onto the terrace and just stop for a moment to take in the vision before my eyes. Gabrielle is standing near the railing, looking out toward the sea. She's wearing her white outfit, the one I bought for her in Egypt. She changed into it right before we reached port, because she thought it would be a nice outfit for vacation. I couldn't agree with her more.

The sun is shining in her hair, making it impossibly more blonde, and the breeze is ruffling her skirt up a bit, providing me with a nice view of her legs. Legs that are unbelievably soft on the surface, yet firm underneath, and they taste so good when I nibble on them. And gods, when she wraps them around me ... better stop now, warrior, before those rooms get some use after all.

She turns and smiles at me. "You were right. The view up here is stunning."

I make a point of raking my eyes very slowly from her feet up to her head, lingering for a bit on her bare midriff and the lovely curves immediately above. "No argument there."

She looks around and we are alone on the terrace. "Come here, Xena." She opens her arms and holds them out to me. I place the mugs on a table, before I move toward her, drawn like Ulysses to the sirens. Soon I am lost in her, kissing her until I realize I'm the only thing holding her up.

I pull back and she's breathless, looking into my eyes. She wants more and I can provide it. I brush my fingers back through her hair and then around the back of her head, and pull her back to me. Her mouth is so sweet, and I feel my heartbeat quicken, as she opens it, inviting me in. Who could refuse such an invitation? There is nothing in the world but her body against me, her hands running up and down my back, and her delicious lips playing with mine. Until I hear someone clear their throat behind me.

We break apart and I turn to see Sappho standing in the doorway, completely amused. And I feel Gabrielle bury herself against my side, thoroughly embarrassed. Oops.

"Well, well, Xena." Sappho's robes flow behind her along with long dark hair that spills down her back past her waistline. She is aging well, and looks exactly the same as she did the last time I saw her. "It would appear that you haven't lost any steam in the six years since I've seen you."

"Hello, Sappho." She leans in and kisses me on first one cheek and then the other. This action brings a curious Gabrielle out of hiding against my leathers. She looks up at me and then at Sappho, working on a puzzle. She knows that no one greets me in this manner. I am a forearm clasping kind of girl, and avoid physical contact whenever possible, except for with Gabrielle, of course. I sigh internally. There is a story here, and I am sure I will have to share it with her.

The tenth muse turns to Gabrielle and looks her up and down. Then she smiles graciously. "And you must be the famous bard, Gabrielle." She gives my bard a round of cheek-kissing. "Welcome to Lesbos. It's an honor to have you here."

"Thank you." Gabrielle finds her voice.

"I understand congratulations are in order." Sappho motions us both to the table where I left the drinks. I notice a third drink is now sitting there, a mug of honey mead. "Xena told me she was bringing her betrothed to the island."

I silently thank several gods that I apparently did remember to include that information in my message.

"Gabrielle, I'm impressed." The tenth muse raises her mug and we do likewise, clinking them together.

"Why?" My bard is still feeling shy, and her voice is very soft.

"Because hearts are breaking across much of the known world." Sappho takes a long drink from her mug, leaving us hanging. "Word on the street is that the Destroyer of Nations has been conquered by a beautiful Amazon queen." She leans in closer and winks. "No woman before you can claim to have brought the Warrior Princess to her knees." She turns to me with a mischievous smile. "You have been on your knees for her, haven't you Xena?"

I feel Gabrielle bury her face against my leathers again, while I gulp down half my drink. Sappho chuckles, our actions are response enough. "Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you." Xena and I are old friends, and banter has been one of the hallmarks of that friendship.

"It's okay. Xena and I banter with each other a great deal too." Gabrielle sits up tall, like the queen she is. I'm always amazed to watch this transformation. It's like she reaches deep down inside herself and pulls out spare reserves of courage and dignity. She always comes out looking like a shining star. I know she's been the light on my path for a long time now.

"Xena, do you mind if I have a word in private with your lovely betrothed?"

Sappho's words catch me so off guard that all I can do is agree. "Sure. I'll be inside at the bar." My bard is just as surprised, and I feel her hand tighten on my arm. "It's okay, love." I lean over and whisper in her ear. "She doesn't bite. Or at least she knows better than to bite you."

I wait at the bar forever. Well, at least long enough to consume another mug of port. I slowly nurse my mug while I tap my fingers on the polished wood and look around impatiently. It's late afternoon and the other more-distinguished guests on the island are beginning to make their way into the tavern for the sunset toast. I spot someone from my past coming through the door. I don't remember her name. I probably never knew it. But I did know her, so to speak, in one of those upstairs rooms. She spots me and smiles in instant recognition. It is time to get out of here.

I tip the bar-keep and slide off the barstool. I hate to be a pest, but all my nerves are standing on end. As I move back toward the terrace door, it suddenly occurs to me that Sappho is wrong. I have lost my steam. At least for this place and the kinds of people I used to spend my time with here. All my steam is directed at one blonde bard these days. I don't want to sit alone in the bar without her. I'm off the market for life.

I stand in the doorway and watch. Gabrielle has made a new friend. I wouldn't have expected anything less. She is in animated conversation with Sappho, and their hands are both gesturing about while they talk. The tenth muse is charmed by my bard. But not in a way that would threaten me or give me cause for worry.

Gabrielle senses my presence and she pauses to look up and smile at me. It is a gentle easy expression that tells me she is much more comfortable than she was just a short while ago. She looks back at Sappho and clasps her hand. "Thank you." She kisses the muse on the cheek and rises from the table. Sappho quickly follows.

"Ready to go check out our quarters?" My bard's voice is so innocent, but I recognize a tell-tale note that immediately gets my blood racing. I'm getting laid tonight.

She raises a coy eyebrow and passes me, and I surprise her, wrapping my arms around her waist from behind. I kiss her on the side of her neck, just below her ear. "I thought you'd never ask." I kiss her again and release her. I look across the room and the girl from the past is watching. Our eyes meet and she looks pointedly away. Good. Got that matter cleared up with a minimum of fuss.

Gabrielle turns around and places a hand on my face. "Xena, I'll go get us a carriage. I think Sappho wants to talk to you now, just for a minute." Before I can say anything she is halfway across the room and I am left watching her shapely derriere move underneath her skirt. Conquered? Oh, yeah.

"You are whipped, aren't you Xena?" Sappho's hand comes to rest on my arm.

"Whipped?" I grin evilly. "You know that's not my style."

This earns me a hearty laugh from my old friend. "Xena, seriously. Gabrielle is completely in love with you. And I see it on your face. You feel the same way."

I can only nod faintly, and look down at the ground.

"You are fortunate, my friend. True love rarely knocks on the door more than once in a lifetime."

"I know." I look back up and meet Sappho's dark eyes. "What I have with Gabrielle ... I ..." I can't speak. She means more to me than I can articulate. She is everything to me. I feel my heart swell up in my chest and I swallow. Sappho seems to understand.

"Love becomes you, Xena. Go on and get out of here. I've asked Gabrielle to perform one night while you're here. It would be a treat for my guests. But other than that, I truly hope I don't see you around here much. My guest house should more than provide for your needs. And desires." She looks at me pointedly. "Of course I would like a chance to catch up with you, say maybe over a drink one afternoon."

"Okay. I think I can manage to squeeze that in." I kiss her cheeks. Old habit. "Thank you."

She merely nods her head a bit, and pushes me toward the front door.


Part 2

I'm laying naked on the bed, waiting for my bard. She told me to take all my clothes off, get in bed, and not move until she gets back. Who am I to argue with orders like that? She has played this game with me in the past, before we ever came to Lesbos. And she never fails to deliver after making such a request. If Gabrielle told me to get naked and go wait for her in Argo's water trough I'd do it. She's that good.

I scored major points with her for landing us this guest house. I think she spent an entire candle mark exploring it. Not that it's all that big. But it is very nice. Like The Bitter End, it is also on a cliff, only it's overlooking the eastern sea, so we can watch the sunrise. Well, I might be watching the sunrise. I'm not sure if Gabrielle has ever seen one. My bard is not a morning person.

There is a covered porch that runs completely around the house, and there are porch swings and benches placed strategically so that you can sit on any side and have a nice view. And each side has at least one rather wide padded bench for ... um ... outdoor recreational activities. I hope we get to break in every one of them. I'm all for being close to nature.

The inside is decorated tastefully and simply, just like I like it. I think Sappho may have had a few pieces of art removed. She knows I don't like things to be too busy. Gabrielle loves the main sitting room. Sappho spent a lot of dinars on that, because it has floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook that same eastern sea. Glass is not easy to come by in these parts, and has to be imported from Chin.

There is a fireplace that has a cozy arrangement of chairs and a bear-skin rug in front of it. And there is another nice comfy padded high-backed bench that faces out the windows. There is even a desk in one corner so that Gabrielle can write in her scrolls if she wants to. I think that may have been put there especially for my bard. I need to remember to thank Sappho for that later.

In a corner beside the window is a table where we can eat any meals we choose to have served in. And here is where I think Sappho has outdone herself. There are a stack of checklists on a shelf with instructions on how to order whatever you would like for each meal of the day. All we have to do is read a list, like for example, breakfast tomorrow, check off what we want, and leave the list in a basket that is outside by the front door. Someone comes around at night and collects the lists, and in the morning they will deliver the food to our door.

We also have a nice, very very nice, bathing room, with a sunken round tub, a fireplace, and a fur-covered high platform in front of the fire, wide enough for indoor recreational activities. I can't wait to make use of that either. I think we should give outdoor recreation and indoor recreation equal time.

What's really amazing about the bathing room is that it is just like the ones in Pompeii. The water is heated by underground springs, and we don't even have to go outside to the bushes to do our business. Sappho had some flushing toilets sent over from Pompeii. Now, I have seen them before, but Gabrielle has not. She was pretty funny to watch. She kept pulling the chain to watch the water swirl around. When I finally explained to her exactly how to use it, the expression on her face was priceless. I have a feeling we may be getting an addition to our bathing room back in the Amazon village.

But what really took a long time for my bard to explore were the two bedrooms. One is fairly traditional, with a large four-poster feather bed, yet another fireplace, a wardrobe where we can hang our clothes, and a privacy screen you can change behind. I remember Gabrielle's little show she put on for me in Egypt, where she used the privacy screen. Gods I hope I get a repeat performance here.

But the other bedroom. It's something unique to Lesbos. Gabrielle's mouth flew open when she first saw it. It has a four-poster bed, too, but there are little iron rings embedded in all four posts, for connecting chains or ropes, or just tying someone up in general. In the middle of the room is an upright contraption you can use if you'd rather tie someone up in a standing position. I think my bard almost swallowed her tongue when I explained that to her.

I was thankful to see the row of empty pegs along one wall. Those pegs normally hold an array of whips, chains, and other instruments used for sadism or masochistic activities. Sappho knows me well, and had those removed. That is not what I am into, and never have been, despite persistent rumors to the contrary. I make a mental note to thank my old friend for this. I think it would have frightened Gabrielle. I don't ever want her to be afraid of the physical aspect of our relationship, and I intend to do my best to make sure that she never is.

She was pretty overwhelmed as it was. That room has everything you could ever want for role-playing, games, or just pure and simple pleasure. It has a long rack of costumes and lingerie, a shelf full of vials of scented body oils, and more toys than I have ever seen in one place. I had to explain to Gabrielle what each of the toys was, and what they are used for. I haven't seen her quite that red in a long time. Although she did take her time picking each item up and studying it.

After that, I had to have a long talk with her. I think that room was a little more than she expected. I love her so much. I don't care if we go into that room at all while we're here. I don't need any of that stuff to become aroused. All I need is Gabrielle's beautiful face, her incredible body, a nice comfortable place to lay down, and the love that we share. I make love to her with my heart, first and foremost. True, there are some things in that room I think we could have a lot of fun with, but I can take them or leave them. The only thing I can't leave is her. She's a required part of love-making for me.

After we talked, she seemed much more relaxed. I decided maybe a bit more relaxation was in order, so I found a flask of honey mead. We took it outside and sat in one of the swings, watching the water, sharing the mead, and necking. I love necking with my bard. I could kiss her for candle marks, and never go any further. And that's pretty much what we did, right up until a servant girl arrived with an unexpected complimentary basket of finger foods for dinner. How many people are going to sneak up on us while we're kissing on this trip, anyway?

It's probably a good thing the food was delivered, because we had consumed quite a bit of the mead. Now finger foods are some of my favorite things to eat. We moved inside and stretched out on the rug in front of the fireplace. I built a fire, since the sun was starting to go down, and we fed each other the fruit and cheeses and bread from the basket.

I think the mead was starting to effect Gabrielle. She gets this little gleam in her eyes when she wants me. I live to see that gleam. She finally pushed the basket aside and pushed me down onto the rug. Then she crawled on top of me. That always feels so damned nice. She fits perfectly against me, like our bodies were meant to be together. We kissed some more and I was really starting to get into it, when she just stopped all of a sudden. She is such a tease. Anyway, that was when she ordered me into the bedroom.

I can hear her rummaging around in the other bedroom. The one we have quickly come to refer to as "the playroom." That's a good sign. Whether we use any of the stuff in there or not, I'm glad she's not afraid to go in there. I try to imagine what she's doing in there. Is she putting on one of those costumes? Maybe picking out a vial of exotic oil? Oh gods. I'm already wet and she's not even here yet.

I am looking expectantly toward the doorway when she walks in. She looks a bit shy. She's blushing, in fact. This melts my heart, every time. Gabrielle wants so badly to please me, but sometimes she's not quite sure of herself. Oh, my love. You please me by your mere existence.

She's holding something in her hands. I look more closely and realize it's a harness. And a phallus. A double-headed one. Yes! Gabrielle wants to play after all. And she picked out my favorite toy. It's my lucky day.

"Xena." She looks at me with her head ducked in that cute little self-conscious tilt that makes me want to grab her and kiss her, or hug her, or something. Anything, to let her know she's doing just fine. "Do you think you can show me how to buckle this around your hips?"

My mouth is completely dry. I am certain that every ounce of fluid in my body has fled to points south. I swallow and finally find my voice. "I think I can do that. Come here, love."

I stand up and she walks toward me. I start to reach for the harness and she slaps my hands away, and proceeds to wrap it around my hips and legs. She's a fast study. Then I notice her hands are shaking and her breathing is uneven. Not the good kind of uneven, the scared kind of uneven.

"Gabrielle." I gently remove the phallus from her hands and lay it on the bed. I quickly finish all the buckles on the harness for her and then I place both hands on her shoulders and look into her eyes. "We don't have to do this."

She gives me a tiny crooked smile, and at this moment, I would do anything, and I mean anything, she might ask of me. She's breaking my heart. "Xena, I ... I want this. With you. I want you to show me how it's supposed to be."

I pull her into my arms and hold her for I don't know how long. I remember her story about her wedding night. Perdicus was so clueless. He hurt my bard, and even though I know he didn't mean to, it's a good thing for him he's already dead, because I just might kill him if he weren't. On their wedding night, he basically kissed her a few times and then got right down to business. For all practical purposes, he raped her. Stupid selfish boy.

And my poor sweet Gabrielle didn't know any better. Until she and I became intimate, she spent all that time thinking there was something wrong with her because she didn't enjoy what Perdicus did to her. There isn't a damned thing wrong with her. She's the sexiest person on Zeus' green earth.

I hope on this night I can help erase her memories of what that first time felt like. My bard should be savored slowly like a fine port or wine. You have to enjoy everything about her ... her flavor and her scent, the way she looks, and then you take all that and swirl it around in your mouth for a long time, and let it wash over your senses before you swallow it.

"Sweetheart." I press my forehead against hers and look into her eyes. They aren't quite as frightened now. Gods I love her. "Do you remember the first time I ever entered you?"

She nods a little bit and blushes.

"We're going to do this just like that, only this time we'll use the phallus instead of my fingers. We're going to take it real slow, and if you feel any pain at all, you let me know, okay?"

"Okay." She reaches for the phallus and I grab her hands, and kiss each one of her knuckles and then the insides of her wrists and palms. Then I let her pick up the toy. She reaches down toward me and stops, not quite sure what to do. "Baby, you have to insert the smaller end inside me before you fasten it to the harness."

"Xena." She looks at me with genuine concern. "Are you ready for that?"

I bite off a laugh. "Oh baby. I have never been more ready." She smiles then, and moves closer, pulling me down for a kiss. She slides one hand down and between my legs, and I instantly widen my stance for her. Then I feel her touch me, and I almost collapse as she uses her fingers to test the truth of my statement.

"Gods Xena. You are ready, aren't you?" She sucks on my lower lip and then kisses me some more. And suddenly I feel the toy slip inside. Every muscle in my stomach contracts with intense pleasure.

I take a deep breath to try to steady myself, and then I reach down and grasp the phallus in one hand, and use the other to fasten it into place. This particular toy is carved of pure ivory, fairly plain, with a smooth surface. Gabrielle is watching all of this, her face a mixture of passion and curiosity. She makes a little face, and I know she is trying to get used to seeing the extra part down there that I don't naturally have.

Finally, she reaches out hesitantly and touches it, at first running her finger tips up and down it, and then she closes her hand around it. She looks up at me and I see an imp hiding behind those innocent green eyes. She slowly pushes it deeper inside of me and then pulls it out, and I groan before I can stop myself. She is encouraged by that and repeats her actions a couple of times, before I have to stop her. Much more of that and it will be all over before I even get started.

I step back, just a bit, and make a leisurely trip down her body with my eyes. She's still wearing her white outfit, and I slowly remove her top. I love her breasts. They're perfect and I love the way they feel in my hands. I take her in my arms again and begin to slowly kiss her, gradually working my tongue into her mouth. I can feel her nipples pressing against my rib cage. That feels nice. My bard is responding to me. My hands wander down her back and then under her skirt.

She smiles against my mouth, as my hands make contact with her bare backside. She's already removed her underwear. "Surprise." She whispers, and then she begins to kiss my neck. I move my head to the side and let her have her way with me, while I enjoy the sensation of her firm flesh in my hands. Her lips move further south and I arch my back into her.

Then I turn the tables and capture her lips again, kissing her for a very long time. She feels the toy pressing against her stomach and I feel a curious hand slip between us again. Oh no. I nip that in the bud and move down to her neck, and begin a very intent trip down her torso, kissing and nipping her warm skin all the way to the edge of her skirt, which I finally reach around and remove.

Gabrielle is finally standing before me naked. She's gorgeous. In addition to the nice layer of muscle she's developed, she's just shaped so perfectly. Pretty curves in all the right places. This is not the body of a little girl, by any means. She's a beautiful woman and I intend to let her know just how much she pleases me. "Do you have any idea how stunning you are?"

She blushes very nicely and leans in close, and kisses me on the top of one of my breasts. I remember Sappho's words from earlier in the day, and I slowly drop to my knees and look up at her. He eyes are a beautiful dark green. They get that way when we're together like this. I still sometimes can't believe that it's me she wants when she looks like that. Get down on my knees for her? Oh, yeah. You bet. As often as possible.

I wrap my hands around the backs of her legs and lean down. Beginning with her calves, I nibble my way up, giving equal attention to both legs. As I reach the apex of her hips, I nudge her legs apart and nip at her inner thighs. My bard trembles as I do this, and I smile against her skin. Finally, I allow myself to inhale deeply of her scent. This only serves to make me wetter. My kisses move steadily inward, and then I hear her whimper, as I take my time where she needs me most. "You taste so good." I look up and then kiss her between her legs one more time, before I stand back up.

She's ready now. Or very close to it. I pick her up and gently lay her down on the bed, before I lay down next to her on my side, our bodies touching all along their length. And then I am so into her, touching her everywhere, enjoying the sensation of her body responding to me, and hearing the tiny little noises that tell me she's enjoying what I'm doing to her. Her hands are eagerly exploring my body in return, and I can feel us melting into each other. We press closer together and begin to move toward the edge. I can't wait to jump. She'll catch me. She always does.

I can never get enough of this, and I will never grow tired of her. It's what being in love has done to me. It doesn't matter how many times we come together, each time is new. And each time I fall even more in love with her, amazed that the feelings can go any deeper than they already do. She holds my heart and my soul, and I am glad to give them to her. I know she will take good care of them.

And now she is giving me something in return. Another level of trust as we explore something new together. This time I am going to get to hold her in both arms while I am loving her. I can kiss her if I want to, and watch her eyes, see what she is feeling and react more quickly if she needs something more. That's why I wanted to use the phallus. It frees up my mouth and my hands, and gives me more ways to pleasure her.

There was a time when a toy like this helped me to feel powerful. Not with her. Her love empowers me, but I don't need to control her. All I want is to give her pleasure, and make her feel very, very loved. Which she is.

I know I can't hold back any longer, and I don't think she can either. I gently roll on top of her, bracing my weight on my forearms on each side of her. She closes her eyes as I stroke her face, her cheeks, and her hair. I lean down, still braced on my elbows, and I kiss her, slowly at first, gradually deepening the contact. I hear her breathing get faster and I pull back to look at her.

"Xena." Her face is so gorgeous and her eyes are all misty. She spreads those lovely legs and pulls me down between them. I sigh and settle down against her. This is one of my favorite places to be. The phallus is now pressing into her stomach. Her eyes grow wide as I shift around a bit, and she can feel it moving against her skin. At the same time I feel it press deeper inside, and I moan softly.

I lower the rest of the way down and begin to feast on her breasts. I love the sensation of her flesh in my mouth, and I draw as much of it in as I can. I can hear small whimpers coming from the back of her throat, and I move from one side to the other. She arches her back up into me and I wrap one arm underneath her, holding her against me.

She begins to move her lower body against me and I take the cue and move my hips a bit lower. I reach up and cup her face, brushing my thumb across her lips, as I gently tease her with tiny movements of my hips, barely touching her with the dildo. I slip one hand between us and sigh as I reach her silky wetness. I play there for a little while, stroking her warmth until I feel her hips start to push up against my fingers.

"Xena, please." She looks at me in complete frustration, and I almost laugh. She's totally adorable. Her skin is flushed, her pupils are dilated, and her voice has taken on a demanding tone. I take the opportunity to run the phallus through her wetness, coating it. "Oh gods."

"Did that feel good, baby?" I rub the toy against her some more and she pushes against it.

She can only nod and she instinctively opens her legs wider for me. I slowly slip part of the way in and feel the toy pushing deeper inside of me at the same time. I stifle a groan. I need to concentrate on Gabrielle's pleasure. I look up and her eyes are closed. "Is this okay?"

"More." She whispers and opens her eyes. I lower my head and begin to tease her breasts again, flicking my tongue slowly across her nipple. She whimpers in frustration and then yelps, as I gently bite down on her skin and at the same time, I slide all the way inside.

"Ohhh." She moans loudly and I pause and look up.

"Baby, did I hurt you?" Oh gods. I am suddenly afraid that I didn't take enough time with her. Just like Perdicus. I reach up and caress her face and wait for her to respond. I sigh with relief. From the look on her face, she is definitely not in pain.

"No." Her eyes are glowing with passion. "So full."

I smile and continue to touch her face and hair, keeping my lower body still while she gets used to the sensation of the phallus inside of her. Her face is beautiful. I haven't seen that expression since we made love for the first time. I gave my bard her first orgasm. She looks very similar to the way she did then. As if she didn't know something could feel this good.

I feel her relax, and I duck my head to kiss her, and begin to move my hips, pushing the toy in and out. I have gone to the Elysian Fields. I am holding Gabrielle in my arms and kissing her while I make love to her. "Baby, I've wanted this for so long." I whisper in her ear before I kiss the skin on the side of her neck.

I can feel her hands on my back and then she wraps her legs around the backs of my thighs, which forces me deeper inside and at the same time pushes the toy further into me. I groan and lean down. I am about to kiss her when she opens her eyes. "Xena, are you okay?"

I smile and reach beneath her back again, pulling her body against me. "Oh, yeah. Just ... everything you're feeling right now, love. I feel it too."

She looks confused and I can't help but kiss her. "It's two-headed, remember."

"Oh. I kinda forgot." She looks very pleased, knowing that we are sharing this together.

We establish a rhythm and I raise up, bracing myself on my hands. I need the leverage. I angle my lower body to give her maximum contact, and I feel her moving closer to her release. I know I am. I want to stay this way, but she won't let me, and with surprising strength, pulls me back down against her.

That is all it takes, and I feel the waves start to rise. "Oh gods, baby." It is too much. Every inch of our bodies are touching, her hips moving in time with mine, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around me. I reach down between us and stroke her, taking her over the edge with me. We keep our eyes open and look at each other, sharing the pleasure. I watch her face, knowing what I am doing to her, and I can't believe how much I love her. We catch each other this time. I cannot describe how I feel. She takes me further and deeper than anyone else, and I willingly let her.

I watch her face as I pull out, and she shudders again. There is a part of my bard that needs some extra loving, and I intend to give it to her. I glide down her body until my shoulders are pressing against the backs of her legs. She is completely open to me and I kiss her very tenderly. Just like I would her mouth, slowly, gradually deepening the contact. The minute she feels my mouth on her she whimpers and I feel her hands on my head. And then she cries out as I take her back up again.

When I am done paying homage to this particular part of her body, I crawl back up and kiss her soundly. I know she can taste herself on my lips, and I moan softly into her mouth. "Gabrielle, I love you. You are my heart."

Long minutes later I am on my back, holding her against me in my arms. Her breath is still uneven, and I can feel her heartbeat hammering against my side. I kiss her head and my hands continually rub up and down her back, gentling her. This is one of my other favorite places to be. I could hold her like this forever, and be completely happy.

"Xena." She nibbles on my collar bone. "I knew you could do that so that it would feel good."

She raises up and we share a long, slow kiss. Gods I love this woman. She collapses back down against me with a heavy contented sigh. She's come the rest of the way back down. I kiss her on the head and whisper little non-sense words in her ear. I tell her how beautiful she is, and how good she makes me feel. Most of all, I tell her, several times, that I love her.

"Xena." She is tracing her fingertips against my upper chest, sometimes moving down to my stomach. For some reason she always does this after we make love. It feels really good. "Sappho kissed you on the cheeks."

I sigh and shift, and realize I'm still wearing the dildo. I quickly remove it and the harness, and then I push her onto her back and I lay on my side, raising part way up on one arm so I can look at her while I talk to her. It's my turn to trace patterns on her skin. "Yes, she did."

"You don't normally let people get that close to you." She frowns, not in an upset way. She's just confused.

"Gabrielle. I met Sappho after I first left Amphipolis. I was young and very cocky. I had just started to build my army. She was in Athens, performing at the palladium. I was not into poetry by any means. Some of my men actually talked me into going to see her perform."

My bard laughs. "You are kidding, right? A bunch of scraggly soldiers?"

"Believe me, I didn't think they were serious either, until I heard her speak. Her poetry, as you know, is very sensual. She's about fifteen years older than me. At that time I was about half her age. She is still very attractive today, but then, she was in her prime. She was stunning. Here was this beautiful, sophisticated woman, whose voice was like thick honey as she spoke. I thought I had to have her." I pause and watch my bard's throat move as she swallows hard.

"Anyway, after her show, I managed to break through the people crowded around her and get close enough to her to pull her aside and talk to her." I laugh at my own much younger self now. "I used every line I knew, but she wasn't biting. Finally, I settled for a drink with her in the finest tavern in Athens. And let me tell you. Back then, I was nobody. The only reason I was allowed into the place was because I was with her."

"So what happened?" I can tell Gabrielle is feeling insecure. She has no need to be.

"Nothing." I look across the room for a moment, remembering that evening. "And everything."

"Everything?" My bard's eyebrows raise and I chuckle.

"Not like that, sweetheart." I am still caressing her skin, and I move my attentions to her hair. I love the way it feels when it sifts through my fingers. "Gabrielle, how long did you talk to Sappho this afternoon?"

"I don't know." She frowns. "Probably a half candle mark."

"But in a half candle mark, she drew you in, didn't she? Made you feel like the most important person in the world." I watch her face and her eyes grow wide, as she realizes I am right.

"Yeah, she did."

"Imagine an entire evening like that." I move my hand back down to her stomach and rub it with my palm. It's so solid I could bounce a dinar off of it. "Gabrielle, Sappho was my first real friend, other than my brothers. Growing up, the boys in Amphipolis didn't like me because I could beat them up, and the girls didn't like me because I played too rough."

"That is Sappho's greatest gift, above and beyond her poetic skills. To befriend without judgment. She knew exactly what I was all about. Knew I was trying to get her into bed. Knew I wanted to make her another one of my conquests, that I could go back to my men and brag about. And while she was having none of that, at the same time, she reached out to me, and made me feel like I was worth something."

"Xena, I'm glad she's in your life." My bard's voice is very soft, and I lean down and kiss her.

She pulls me back down and it is my turn to let her hold me. I lay my head against her shoulder and I can feel her hands brushing through my hair. She knows I love that. My mother used to comb my hair out every night. It was one of the few times during the day when she stopped all her flurry around the inn and focused solely on me. I think that's why I love it so much now when Gabrielle plays with my hair. It makes me feel cared for.

I think about Sappho. There is so much more that I am not ready to share with Gabrielle. I will eventually, because we have made a promise to each other. No more secrets and no more lies. Those are what got us in trouble in the past. That and just failing to communicate at all. But we have an understanding on the secrets. We can take our time in sharing them.

The tenth muse and I parted ways that night we met, but not before she gave me an open invitation to visit Lesbos whenever I wanted to. An invitation she never withdrew. And I never took advantage of her hospitality. I terrorized my way across Greece but when I was on Lesbos, I was a model of decorum.

And Sappho always accepted me without judgment. Even after it broke her heart to watch what I had become. Each time I visited her island, she treated me like a human being, and not the monster I was. She tried to make me think about my life, but she never pushed.

Then I met Caesar. And I lost M'Lila. And I met Lao Ma. And watched Grinhilde put on a ring and become a monster. And I took up with Borias. I visited Lesbos, right after I returned from the north lands, before Borias and I took to the road. I was at a cross-roads then. Lao Ma had tried to steer me in the right direction, but I was intent on revenge against Caesar, and against the world in general for all the pain that had permeated my life.

I had disappeared into the north lands for a while, thinking to steal the Rhinegold and use its power to defeat Caesar. It took me a long time to gain Odin's confidence, but I played him with every ounce of deceit and cunning in me. And it worked. I stole the gold from the Rhine maidens and forged it into a ring that would give me ultimate power. My plans were falling into place. Right up until Grinhilde managed to take the ring from me.

I thought I had her locked away, but as I chained her into her eternal tomb, she grabbed my arm and pulled it through the bars, and slipped the ring from my finger. When she took the ring, my plans evaporated. I couldn't fight her in her monster state as long as she had the ring. I had to flee the northlands, for more reasons than one. Grinhilde was locked away, but Odin and the remaining Valkyrie were not. It was only a matter of time until one or more of them came after me. I was the demon from Chin and they were going to exorcize me.

It was time for plan beta, to go back to Greece and find Borias, and build an army to defeat Caesar. It would be more difficult without the power of the Rhinegold, but I was determined to beat him, one way or the other. But I detoured by Lesbos first. I needed time to think. And rest. And re-group. My world was slowly crumbling and I had to figure out how to re-build it.

That visit to Lesbos was different. I didn't chase women. I didn't play in the gaming rooms. I spent a great deal of time sitting alone outside my guest hut, or at the bar at The Bitter End, slowly nursing a bottomless mug of port. Sappho came to me at the bar, and took me upstairs to one of those rooms.

I was in so much pain, and she was ready to comfort me in the only way she thought I could relate to. After all that time, she was ready to offer me the thing I had sought after when I first met her. I remember that night so vividly. She kissed me for a long time and then we took each other's clothes off. But when all was said and done, I couldn't go through with it. I think Sappho could have handled it, but I couldn't. A tiny part of me realized that I needed her friendship more than I needed the brief physical escape she was offering me.

I remember breaking down and crying. She took me to bed and held me all night long. Other than Gabrielle, I think she's the only woman I have ever slept naked with without having sex first.

She asked me if I loved Borias, and I told her no. He was just a means to an end, and if I had to sleep with him as part of the deal, then so be it. She continued to talk to me that night. She told me that one day, I would realize who I really was, deep down inside. And she said that someday, the beautiful soul of a woman was going to steal my heart from me. She told me that no matter how many men I spent my time with, that she knew me, and that I was not suited for male companionship, at least when it comes to matters of the heart. It was going to take a woman to make me complete.

I eventually cried myself to sleep. It was the last time I cried until I met Hercules. In the morning when we woke up, my resolve had hardened. I kissed her one last time and quietly told her that I had to go. Had things I had to do. I could read the disappointment in her eyes, but even then, she didn't judge me. She told me that I was always welcome on Lesbos.

She continued to welcome me with open arms. We were a bit more distant after that, but she still did her best to be there for me and to try to talk to me. I became more and more famous, for all the wrong reasons, and I would go to Lesbos and spread around my ill-gotten wealth.

The last time I was here was right after I left Hercules, and right before I met Gabrielle. Sappho and I talked for a long time that visit. She saw the change in me and I could tell she was more happy than she could express. We didn't solve much, because I had absolutely no sense of direction.

And I was terrified.

All I knew was that I couldn't go back to being what I had been for the previous ten years. When I left that time, she told me I would find my way. She told me to keep myself open, and to look for guidance in places I wouldn't normally think to find it.

She and I have a lot of catching up to do, although I am certain she has already heard a lot about my life over the past six years. Gabrielle's stories are told all over Greece now. Not just by her, but by other bards as well.

I realize Gabrielle is asleep, and I kiss her shoulder and pull the covers up over us. It's been a while since my bard held me while we sleep. I secretly like that very much. Sappho was right. I did find my way. In the beautiful soul of a woman who stole my heart. And all because I allowed myself to be vulnerable to a young village girl from Potadeia. Thank the gods I had the good sense to take Sappho's advice to heart.

I finally give in to sleep, surrounded by the arms of the only other person who accepts me without judgment. And loves me without measure.


Part 3

I am sitting on one of those wide padded benches on the porch, staring out at the water. It's almost dawn. The eastern sky at the edge of the ocean is starting to turn dark pink, and higher, it is more of a royal blue tint and less of the dark, almost black, navy shade of night time. Funny, I used to hardly notice things like that until I met Gabrielle.

I'm drinking some mint-flavored tea, with a bit of honey. I used to not bother with the honey, either, until I met her. It's something she and I drink almost every morning. She's still asleep right now, though, and I plan to let her sleep as long as she wants to.

My bard had a nightmare last night. She's been having them a few times a week ever since we got back from Egypt. I hate when she has bad dreams, and I hate it even more that I'm partially responsible for them. She'd finally reached the point where she had quit dreaming about the crucifixion, just in time for me to go and almost die on her again.

I got hurt pretty bad when we were fighting Antony. One of his men sliced the top of my left leg open, almost to the bone. I almost died on the battle field from blood loss. Gabrielle took care of me and got me back to the healer's tent. Apparently then I got a really bad infection and almost died again. I actually don't remember much of it, because at some point I passed out and stayed out for a few days.

Ares transported us back to Cairo from the battle field. I haven't seen or heard from him since then. Technically, I guess I didn't actually see him then, for that matter. I'm sure he'll come back around, eventually.

It's hard for me to think about the fact that he's my father. Now that I know, there's a new dynamic to our relationship. It's as if we are both trying to get along, or something like that. At least he hasn't tried to cause us any harm in a long time.

I don't even want to contemplate why he used to act like he wanted to seduce me. I know the gods are not adverse to incest, but it's kind of disgusting to think about it, so I try not to. I am grateful to him for getting us back to Cairo. From what Gabrielle told me, I don't think I would have survived the journey over land.

But like I always have, I healed quickly. And just like Gabrielle said, I was doing things like running and jumping before I really should have. I can't help it. It makes me crazy to not be able to get around. It's been a little over three moons, and I am basically back in as good of shape as I was before.

Except that I have this long fine scar that runs from the top of my leg all the way to my knee. It's a fine scar rather than an ugly one, only because Gabrielle is so skilled at stitching me up. She's certainly had enough practice. I do feel pain sometimes in the leg, especially if it is cool or damp outside, but there are several parts of my body that do that. Reminders of many other injuries I've had in the past.

Last night was pretty bad. I woke up to hear her mumbling in her sleep, and she was still holding onto me, practically in a death-grip. It took some doing to get myself untangled from her. In the process she woke up and just started crying. I hate it when Gabrielle cries. I always feel so helpless to do anything for her.

I did manage to reverse our positions, so that I was holding her. She sort of buried herself into my side, and she reached down and started tracing the scar on my leg. I kept having to re-assure her that I am very much alive and very much okay. I think she was confused from the dream.

She did eventually calm down, and fell back asleep. I, however, slept fitfully for the rest of the night, and finally gave up completely about a candle mark ago. I debated on just staying in bed with her, or coming out here, but she could be asleep for a long while yet. I decided maybe some hot tea would clear my head. I just wish I could do something for her to make the nightmares go away. I guess, like it was with the crucifixion, it will be a matter of time more than anything else.

I am surprised when she appears in the doorway, wrapped up in the blanket from the end of the bed. Her hair is all tousled and she has an expression on her face that tells me she is definitely not fully awake yet. She scowls at me. I think she looks adorable.

"Come here, love." I pat the space next to me and watch her as she slowly makes her way toward me. She pauses and then curls up next to me, laying on her side with her head in my lap. I stroke her hair, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. "Good morning."

"Not morning yet, Xena." She sighs. "Don't like waking up in a cold empty bed."

"Sorry, sweetheart. I couldn't sleep, and I thought you'd be out for a lot longer." I continue to stroke her head. "Hey. What are you wearing under there?" I tease her, trying to make her smile. She does, just a little.

"Your favorite outfit."

My turn to smile. This means there is nothing under there but my bard and her beautiful skin.

"Wake me when the sun begins to rise." I feel warm breath against my leg, as she yawns.

"Okay." I slip one hand beneath the blanket and lightly scratch her back. I swear whenever I do this, if she were a cat she would purr. I continue until I feel her breathing slow down, and I know she is asleep again.

I can see her face in profile, all soft and relaxed. She looks like a little kid when she's in Morpheus' realm. I love to watch her sleep. It calms me for some reason. She seems so peaceful and innocent, like that young village girl I first met.

She has changed so much since we first began to travel together, both inside and out. Sometimes if I start trying to reconcile the Gabrielle I know now with the one I knew then, she is barely recognizable to me. Her body was soft then, now it is filled out and firm with muscle. Her breasts and hips are fuller, but her waistline and arms are more chiseled, as is her face. She had a baby face back then. Not now. Her outlook is much more serious, and she doesn't automatically see the bright side every single time anymore. She is still a bard, but in many ways she is also a warrior, ready and able to fight if she needs to.

Sometimes I miss the younger naive Gabrielle. But we all have to grow up, and she has certainly done a much better job of it than I did at her age. She's been with me for almost a fourth of her life. I hope that I have been, in some small measure, a positive influence on her, although deep down inside I can't bring myself to believe that is true. I can't help but wonder how different her life would be if she hadn't chosen to follow me, and had stayed in Potadeia instead. And along with that, I can't help but feel guilty sometimes.

She has suffered greatly because of me, both directly and indirectly. People have hurt her simply because of her association with me. Not to mention the times I have ignored her, or talked badly to her, and the couple of times way back, when I hit her. I really hate myself for that. And I can't even bring myself to think for very long about everything I did to her after Hope killed Solan.

That was my lowest point. Even lower than my warlord days. I almost killed the one who means the most to me. And her love for me has been the driving force behind every single thing she has ever done to me or for me. Her actions and thought processes are not always perfect, but her motives are always pure.

I know she has forgiven me. I also know that I don't deserve her forgiveness. And gods help me, there is a part of me that will never forgive myself. Last year, or I guess it's been almost two years, when I found her in the woods outside Potadeia, after she dove into that lava pit with Hope, I had never been more happy in my life up to that point. But the rest of that year was really difficult. India, especially, was difficult, even though that is where we learned that we are eternal soulmates.

Me with an eternal soulmate. Imagine that. I wonder what kind of life we shared together in the past. Were we lovers? Friends? And was it as hard a life as we have sometimes had in this one? Will it be better in the future? If our last encounter with Alti is any indication, apparently not. We will still be fighting, or at least Gabrielle will be.

Anyway, last year, I kept having those crucifixion visions, and I tried to leave Gabrielle several times. We were not lovers then, but we were the best of friends. Well, as best of a friend as I have ever been to anyone. But she wouldn't let me leave her. She kept hanging on with the same consistent stubborn love and concern that she first gave to me in my mother's inn at Amphipolis. It was a few days after I rescued her from those slavers on the day we met. She turned right around and rescued me when I was ready to just give up and let my villagers stone me.

I fought so much before, during, and after the trip to India. I wanted so badly to deny our destiny together, our friendship, and the very real romantic physical love I felt for her, that I refused to acknowledge. I was so afraid she would be hurt or killed because of me, that I was willing to give up our life together. And I fought my own self-doubt about who I was and what path I was meant to be following. The crucifixion changed all of that.

In the Elysian Fields there was no reason left to fight anything. If Eli hadn't brought us back, I'm not sure what would have happened. I don't know how long we would have stayed in the Fields, or when we might have begun sharing another life on earth together. These are things I do not fully understand.

We have dealt with so many different gods and philosophies, I'm not completely certain which ones will try to lay claim to us the next time we die. I don't know if our destiny is already set in stone, or if it changes depending on what we do in this life. All that I am finally certain of is that no matter how many lives we are granted, or which place we may go for the after life, that our souls are meant to be together. I can't deny that any longer. And I no longer want to try to.

When we came back to life, I decided to let whatever would happen, happen. It took us all of two days to admit we were in love and consummate our relationship. That was a surprise. A very good one. No one can fulfill me on so many different levels, like she can. She has laid claim to me, heart, body, and soul.

This is my blessing and my curse. To spend the rest of my life completely in love with someone I absolutely do not deserve to be with. Gods help me, she is my salvation, both in this life and on the other side. I know this to be true. Without her I would be long dead by now, spending eternity in Tartarus. Or worse. And I love her so much it sometimes frightens me. I can't bring myself to think about the day when death might separate us, even for a little while.

She has chosen to be with me, for reasons I cannot fathom. So I am determined, as best I can, to make sure she never regrets that choice. I plan to spend the rest of my days with her, doing everything I can to see that she is happy. I know that there are things I have no control over, and that there are outside obligations we both have to fulfill, but as much as I do have control, I want to make her smile as often as possible. I want her to know, every single day, that she is loved. She deserves the very best that life has to offer. Poor thing, somehow she got me as part of the package.

Every day I remind myself that my one goal in life is to get this, to get us, right. I told her that in Egypt. Coming back from the dead changed everything for me. I am still a warlord. But my most important role is that of lover and best friend. Someday I will be too old to fight, if I am lucky enough to grow old. But I will never outgrow her.

She wants children. And Amazon law requires her to produce an heir to her mask. When I learned of this, I had mixed feelings. I knew I would be supportive of her, but I had doubts about my own abilities to help raise children.

But we had a magical night in Egypt, at an oasis in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, I wanted very much to have children with her. My feelings for her that night ran deeper than ever. It was as if I could already see our family in my mind's eye, and I began to love them then, even though they have not been born yet. I still love them because they will be a part of both of us.

I guess that sounds crazy, but we will find a way. If I have to go to Ares, I will, and I don't like to go to him for anything. I am hoping that Artemis or Aphrodite might be willing to help us out. There has to be a way for Gabrielle and I to create a child together.

But if we do have to find a seed donor, I will deal with that. I will still love them and care for them as if they were my own. They will be hers, and she is mine, so they will be mine. I've never looked forward to the future before. Now I do. I have good reason for the first time in my life.

I look up and realize that the edge of the sun has just started to appear at the far side of the ocean. My hand is still under the blanket and I gently grasp her shoulder and shake it. "Gabrielle, the sun is coming up."

Her eyes slowly open and she looks out at the water and then up at me. She smiles dreamily, and I can tell that once again, she's not fully awake. She rolls over on her back with her head still in my lap, and continues to gaze at me.

"You're going to miss it if you don't roll back over." I stroke her hair and she grasps my hand and kisses it. This causes me to get goose bumps all out of proportion to her actions.

I laugh and pull her up into a sitting position between my legs, and settle her blanket over both of us. She is leaning back against my chest and I circle her waist with my arms, my hands resting flat against her stomach. I love holding her like this, so close. I can smell her sweet scent and feel her soft skin against my fingers. I rest my chin on her head and we watch the sun as it creeps into view.

"Oh Xena. It's beautiful." Her eyes are half-open, squinting against the brighter light. I know she's taking in all the colors in the sky and making up poems in her head. If I'm not mistaken, this is her first sunrise. Or at least the first one she's had time to stop and study. The poems should be extra good.

"It sure is." I'm not looking at the sun. I'm looking down at her face as she tilts her head back and looks up at me. I close the distance and kiss her, as my hands make light circles on her stomach.

We break apart and continue to watch as the full sun appears on the horizon, and suddenly it is daylight. The sky is blue now, just like that. My hands are still playing on her skin, and she sighs and leans back further into me and closes her eyes. I feel her reach down, and she takes my hands from her stomach, and draws them up to cover her breasts.

I am immediately aroused, and I remember what we did last night. "Have I told you how incredible you were last night?" I press my lips against her ear as I resume the movement of my hands, this time where she has made it clear that she wants them.

She tilts her head back and kisses me, while she takes one of my hands and pulls it down between her legs. She opens herself up to me, and I sigh, as my fingers make contact with the wet silky warmth of her. My bard needs me, and I am not about to deny her. Like I ever would.

This is sweet and simple. Nothing like the intensity of last night, but every bit as satisfying. I lean back further into the high cushion behind me, and continue to kiss her lips and stroke her, listening to her breathing quicken, and feeling her body moving against me. She breaks off our kiss and releases a quick breath, and I feel her climax, rather than hear it. She shudders one last time and then turns sideways, and lays her head against my chest. I wrap my arms around her, holding her close in the nest of my legs and body.

"I love you Xena." I feel her lips brush across my shoulder.

Then I feel her fingers tracing the scar on my left leg again. I kiss her head and pull her even tighter against me. "Gabrielle, I love you. I'm not going anywhere, sweetheart. I plan to be here for you for a long long time to come."

"Promise?" Her voice is trembling and it makes my heart feel tight in my chest.

"Promise." Gods. How do I know I can keep a promise like that? I've just told her that I promise not to die for a long time. I think about that, and realize that it is going to require some changes. Changes I'm not sure I'm prepared to think about early in the morning on the island of Lesbos.

A candle mark later we are still outside on the padded bench. She is asleep on her side and I am curled up behind her. We are spooning, covered by the blanket. I hear footsteps and sit partway up. A servant appears from around the corner with a basket on her arm. I remember that we ordered breakfast for this morning.

I press a finger to my lips, signaling to the servant not to make any noise. I motion with my head toward the spot on the porch beside the bench. The girl smiles and quickly sets the basket down, and disappears before I have a chance to tip her. Not that I have any dinars on me right now. I make a mental note to see that she is compensated later on today.

The servants on Lesbos have seen it all. Gabrielle and I curled up under a blanket is nothing compared to what I am sure the girl sees on a daily basis here. Still, I am glad Gabrielle didn't wake up while the girl was here. My bard, believe it or not, is modest. Even though she's covered, she would have been embarrassed for a stranger to see us like this. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no problem with it.

I admit that when it comes to her I am possessive. It's not an ego thing. Well, maybe just a little. It's more the knowledge of who I am and the fact that she is with me. My possessive actions are more a warning than anything. A way to tell those who might harm her to think twice before they mess with her. Because if anyone hurts her, they will have to answer to me.

I lay back down and snuggle up against her back. The morning air is still chilled, and I am going to stay right here and keep Gabrielle warm while she sleeps. For as long as she needs me to.


Part 4

We ended up sleeping until mid-morning, something we haven't done in a long time. By then my bard was famished, so we shared the contents of the breakfast basket, which consisted of ham, bread, fruit, and cheese. And I made us some more mint tea. After that we decided a bath was in order, and in the process, we tried out the fur-covered platform in the bathing room. Can I help it if Gabrielle decided to return the favor to me from this morning? She's such a giving kind of girl. Lucky me.

After we finally managed to actually take a bath, we realized that we had a good part of the day ahead of us with absolutely no plans. No tracking classes for me to teach, and no Amazon disputes for Gabrielle to resolve. We're not used to being without obligations. We sat outside and tossed out ideas about what to do. It was a really nice morning and to tell the truth, we weren't in any hurry to go anywhere. After a while Gabrielle looked out toward the water and said, rather decisively, that she wanted to go to the beach. So that settled that.

We packed up a few things and walked down to the main road to catch a buggy ride. Another wonderful feature of Lesbos is that several carriages make constant circuits of the main road system on the island. If you want to go somewhere, all you have to do is hail one going in the direction you want to travel. It's a lot like being in Athens or Rome, only a lot less crowded and much more scenic.

It's mid-afternoon now, and I'm sitting on a blanket watching my bard. My favorite scenery of all. She's walking slowly along the edge of the water, looking for shells. She's got quite a collection going. Every time her hands get full, she brings her treasures over to me and lays them out on the corner of the blanket.

When I'm not watching Gabrielle, I am content to sit back and observe the few other people on the beach. Thankfully, none of them are familiar to me. Although that doesn't necessarily mean I haven't met some of them.

That's the frightening thing about this island. I've been here a lot, and in a manner of speaking, I've been introduced to many people. There are dozens of women just like the one I encountered at the bar yesterday. Pretty, nameless faces that I spent some meaningless pleasurable candle marks with. Some of them lived here then, and may still live here now. Many are under Sappho's employment.

Gabrielle comes running up to the blanket with a large conch shell. "Look, Xena." She has a huge smile on her face. I could look at that smile all damned day long. "It's one of those shells that you can put up to your ear and hear the ocean." She holds it up to her own ear, and then bends down and holds it against mine.

I listen for a moment, enjoying Gabrielle's happiness much more than the actual experience of hearing the strange noises in the shell. I nod and smile back at her. "That one's a keeper." I don't mention to her that every shell she has picked up appears to be a keeper. We many have to hire an extra horse just to pack all of them back to the Amazon village with us. I've already had to send a couple of shells back to the water with her. Ones that started to creep across the blanket. Apparently they were still occupied.

She lays the conch shell down on the blanket as if it is a piece of fine pottery from India, and then she's off again, this time walking in the opposite direction. I lay back on the blanket and look up at the sky. It's bright blue with a cluster of white billowy clouds. Not the kind that bring rain, just the kind that blow slowly across the sky and provide occasional shade from the sun. I haven't relaxed like this in a long time. I love the smell of sea water. The breeze is soft against my skin, and the waves continue to break on the shore in a constant musical pattern.

I must have closed my eyes. In fact, I guess I fell asleep, because next thing I know, I feel a kiss against my cheek, and I open my eyes to find Gabrielle hovering over me with a familiar mischievous grin on her face. "I couldn't resist." Her smile softens. "Xena, you're so beautiful when you sleep."

"Just when I sleep?" I tease her, and remember having similar thoughts about her just this morning.

She slaps me playfully on the arm and I capture her hand. She pretends to struggle, and I flip her over on her back, and pin both of her hands over her head, as I straddle her and hold her legs tightly between my knees. "Surrender?"

"Oh, yeah." Her eyes have that look she gets when she is aroused, kind of droopy and crinkled at the edges, and they get this sort of dewey look to them. It's hard to explain. All I know is that it makes me feel giddy every time I see it.

I look at her and I feel a pleasant throbbing sensation points south. I know we are just playing around with this submission game, and I tell myself that I am not, AM NOT, going to make love to her on the beach in broad daylight for just anyone to walk by and observe. Not that it wouldn't be permissible. And not that many others haven't, myself included. In fact, I'm kind of surprised we haven't already seen some public sexual displays this afternoon. It must be a slow day.

But I just don't think it would be something my bard would enjoy. In fact, I know she would be humiliated, and that is the last thing I would ever want to make her feel because of something I do to her. I curse quietly in Sumarian and Gabrielle frowns. "What's wrong, Xena?"

I realize I've still got her pinned and I let go of her wrists, and loosen my grip against her thighs. "Nothing." I smile at her. "I ... just ... gods I want you." I bite my lower lip for emphasis.

She smiles at me and pulls me down so that I am reclining on my side next to her. "Xena." She runs her fingertips up and down my arm. That is not helping the situation any. "Patience, honey. I think you're really going to like what I have planned for tonight."

I know my eyebrows shoot up at this remark. She has plans for tonight? And here I thought we were playing this whole trip by ear. Who knew? "Huh?"

"You heard me." Her fingers have found my collar bone and then they trace the hollow of my throat. I swallow hard. "Last night ..." Her fingers travel down to my cleavage. Nope, not helping at all. "... when I was looking around in the play room ..." They trace the swells of both breasts. I'm wearing my leathers with no armor right now, and she hooks her fingertips inside the top edge, teasing me without mercy. "... I found more toys than we could use in one night."

I can't help but reach out and touch her, rubbing the flat of my hand against her bare stomach. She's wearing her red outfit, the one I bought her in Manolie's village. I am grateful for several things at this moment, among them, the fact that my bard likes to expose her midriff, and mainly, that she seems to be gaining a sense of adventure when it comes to games in our bed. I can hardly wait until tonight. Come on, sundown.

Her finger tips travel back up and she traces my jawline, urging me forward. Okay, so I guess a little public fully-clothed display is okay with her. I capture her lips and nibble at them, and press myself against her, riding the waves of sensation I feel every time I kiss her. I feel her hand at the back of my head, holding me in place, and I can't help but slide my knee between her legs.

She whimpers and presses herself against my leg. Gods. Of its own volition, one of my hands pushes underneath the edge of her red top, and I stroke her nipple with my thumb, feeling it instantly harden. The whimper becomes a moan and our kisses grow more hungry. I push my leg up and rub it against her.

I almost forget we are on the beach. After I don't know how long, I force myself to pull back. Much more and I don't think either of us would care where we are. But she would care later, and therefore so would I.

We are both breathing hard and her eyes are that lovely dark green color. I press my forehead against hers and kiss her nose. "Sorry, love."

"Mmmm." She runs her fingers through my hair. "Don't be sorry, Xena. That was nice."

Nice? Okay, I'll give her nice. Along with hot and wonderful, and completely frustrating all at the same time. "Yeah." I peck her lips.

"Tell you what." She cups my face in her hand. I love it when she does that. It makes me feel special for some reason. "Why don't I walk up to that drink stand ..." She points toward a small open booth that sits several meters up the beach from where we are. "... and get us a couple of mugs of juice, while you catch your breath. Then when I come back, we can slow this way down, Xena, maybe just cuddle a little bit, take a nap. Does that sound okay to you?"

"Yeah." I brush her bangs across her forehead. "I think I got worked up so fast because I was thinking about what you said. You know, about tonight."

"I know." She kisses me quickly and then I watch her walk away. She's got that cute little hitch in her hips, pronounced by the effort of cutting a path through the loose deep sand with those small bare feet of hers. That's not helping things, either. I groan and flop down on my back on the blanket.

What I need ... I can't have right now. So my next choice is ... I sit up and look out at the sea. Yeah. That's what I need. I get up and lope down to the water, and plunge in, swimming out until it is deep enough to dive under and get completely covered. I surface, feeling my blood boiling a little bit less. Cold water. Yeah. That helps.

I turn around and see Gabrielle talking to a couple of women at the drink stand. Her back is to me, and the women are smiling. Then she takes two mugs from the merchant and begins to walk back to our blanket. I haul myself out of the water and also head for the blanket. I get there first and look toward her. Uh-oh. That is not a happy face.

She gets back and wordlessly hands me my mug. "Gabrielle, what's wrong?" Her eyes won't meet mine, at first.

Slowly she looks up at me. "Nothing, Xena." Her eyes tell a different story. I see pain there and I want to know where it came from.

"Gabrielle." I try to reach out to her and she slaps my hand away. Okay. Now I am hurt. "Fine." I toss the full mug down onto the sand and stalk away, taking purposeful steps toward some boulders that start partway up the beach and make a long trail out into the water. I walk all the way to the end of them and sit down, dangling my feet in the water, letting the cold saltiness cool me off even more.

I know I am being childish and right now I don't care. I hate it when she does that. We are more than lovers. We are best friends. It cuts me to the core when she shuts me out like that. Makes me feel like I did something wrong. Now I'll admit that there are many times when I have done something wrong. But gods be damned, this time I just can't think of anything I did between when she left the blanket and when she returned.

Then it hits me. Something happened when she was at the juice stand. It's the only logical explanation. But what? She walked up, she bought juice, she talked to two women, she came back. What could possibly have gone wrong in that short period of time? Unless ... I turn and look down the beach, and spot the two women, sitting together on a blanket quite a ways down from where Gabrielle is. Someone said something to upset my bard.

I smile bitterly at the irony. How many times have I silently stewed over something and left her to figure out by herself what was going on? How many times has she asked me if she did something wrong, when she didn't? I am always surprised when she does this, because usually I haven't a clue that I've been acting like a complete ass. Okay, so I'm getting a taste of my own medicine.

I get up and walk back, glad for the slowing effect of the deep sand, which gives me some time to figure out what I want to say to her. She has retrieved her journal from one of the bags, and she's laying on her stomach writing, her legs kicked up in the air behind her and crossed at the ankles. Her quill is moving furiously in short angry strokes. Gotta be careful here. She's obviously working out whatever is bothering her.

"Gabrielle." She keeps writing and ignores me, which I expected. "I'm sorry."

The quill pauses and she lays it down and sits up, hugging her knees to her chest. She is looking down at the ground. "Me too."

"Can you please tell me what's wrong?" I sit down across from her, careful not to touch until I'm certain it's welcome.

"No." She shakes her head and continues to look down. "There's no point."

"Gabrielle." I scoot closer and tilt her chin up. Oh gods. She's been crying. "Baby. I don't care if you don't think I can help. What I do care about is that you're hurting and I have no idea why."

"I can't tell you." Her lips tremble.

"Why ever not?" I brush her lower lip with my thumb.

"Because I don't want to hurt you." Her voice is a bare whisper.

I put two and two together and smell a rat. Two rats. One or both of those women at the juice stand must have said something about me that hurt her, and that she thinks would hurt me if I knew about it. "Gabrielle. I have very thick skin. I've been called horrible things in several different languages, and I've learned to let it roll off my back whenever possible."

"We're having such a nice time, Xena." She reaches down and rolls her scroll up while she talks, I assume in an effort to avoid looking at me. "I don't want to spoil it."

"Gabrielle." I hesitantly touch one of her knees and am thankful when she doesn't slap me again. "Having something like this between us will spoil it."

She looks up now and I can tell she understands the truth of what I've just said. She sighs and takes both of my hands, and holds them in her lap. "Those women down there ..." She looks over her shoulder. "... when I was getting the juice, one of them asked me what my price is, and if she could be next on my list after you were done with me. Said I must be pretty damned good in bed for you to keep me past breakfast time."

"Gabrielle." I push down the urge to pick up my chakram and behead the two women. "Don't listen to them." I look at her and try to gage if humor might make her feel better. I decide to risk it. "She got one thing right. You are pretty damned good in bed. But you know that's not why I keep you around."

She's not smiling and I could kick myself right about now. "Xena, there's more."

I see a fresh tear run down her cheek and I pull one hand free from hers to brush it away. "I'm sorry, baby. What else did they say?"

"I showed them my ring, tried to tell them we are betrothed. They just laughed at me." My bard is crying in earnest now. "They said it doesn't mean anything. They said you've given women jewelry before."

Oh gods. People have damned long memories. "Gabrielle. That's true. In the past, when I was here, sometimes if someone pleased me, I bought them things. I had the dinars to blow. It didn't mean anything. These rings ..." I clasp our hands together between us. "... they mean something. They symbolize a promise we made to each other, sweetheart. I promise to love you, and only you, for the rest of my life. And in a few moons I'm going to make those promises all over again in front of all our friends and family."

"I know. Xena. I understand that. It means everything to me." She brushes her fingers across my ring, tracing the braided bands. "It's just they ..." She swallows and looks at me, her eyes filled with incredible pain.

"What? Please Gabrielle ..."

"They ..." She takes a trembling breath and my fingers are itching to grab my chakram. "... they asked if we were going to finish the show." She looks down and I have to lean very close to hear her. "They said it has been a long time since the warrior princess fucked a whore on this beach."

Right now I am wishing I'd never brought Gabrielle to Lesbos. I have a reputation here, and I was foolish to think that people would forget about me after six years. I can't even deny or refute anything the women said to her. I did use women and throw them away after breakfast, and I did have sex with some of them on the public beaches here. It was a total ego stroke for me. I'm not like that now, but what is killing me is for anyone to think the love of my life is for hire.

"Gabrielle." I brush more tears away and tilt her chin up again. "I ... I don't know what to say to you to make this better. Please. What we do in our bedroom ... is so far removed from anything I've done here in the past. I love you, and when I express that to you on a physical level, that is what it is ... making love. And that's something I've only done with one person, you."

"Xena." She captures my hand and kisses it. "I don't care what they think about me. Well, not very much." She finally gives me a tiny smile. "I hate that they think you're still like that."

I look away, realizing that she already understands that the women were telling the truth about me. I feel gentle fingers probe my chin up, and it is her turn to force eye contact. "Xena, I don't think you're like that now, but I'm not naive enough to deny the truth. I know you've changed. I want everyone else to know too. It hurts my heart for people to say things like that about you."

"And I hate for anyone to think that you're my whore." I feel a tight sensation in my chest and realize that I'm very close to tears myself. "Let me think about this." I take her hands again and stroke the backs of them with my thumbs. "Do you know that I've never drawn my sword on Lesbos? Hades, I've never even thrown a punch here."

Her eyes widen in surprise and I continue. "Yeah, all that time I was a warlord, I never had a single fight here. I'd kind of hate to start now. Especially considering the point I'm trying to prove."

"True." She gives me a full smile. "Why don't we lay down, Xena? I think we were planning on some snuggle time right before all of this happened."

"You still want to be seen with me like that after what they said?" I am relieved. I was afraid she might start walking three feet away from me in public.

"Xena, I have never been ashamed to be seen with you." Her words make me feel all warm inside. Not a sexual kind of warmth, just one that makes me awfully glad I'm in love with her. "I am so proud to be with you Xena, I sometimes feel like I am going to burst."

This makes me feel impossibly warmer. "I'm glad you feel that way, sweetheart." Even though I don't deserve it. "Because I am always so glad to be seen with you. Talk about doing wonders to improve my reputation.

She giggles and I smile at her and lay back, choosing a position where I can keep an eye on the two women. I pat my stomach and she lays down on her back, perpendicular to me, using me as a pillow. I drape an arm across her middle and feel her rest her arms across mine. "Sleep, baby, while I think of a way to do some damage control."

After a while the rise and fall of her stomach slows and she is asleep. She's got a pretty firm grasp on my arm, though, and I hope she's not having bad dreams. With slitted eyes, I study the women further down the beach. I know that I look like I'm asleep from this far away. Every now and then they look toward us and sometimes I hear them laugh. This makes my blood boil and I have to concentrate on staying calm.

I watch the sun move across the sky. After about a candle mark, the two women get up and start walking toward the communal bathing house. All of the public beaches on Lesbos have one. I lightly tickle Gabrielle's stomach and she wakes up and frowns at me. "Hey. I'm sleeping here."

"I know, but I think we need to go wash off all this sand and sea water." I sit up, forcing her up with me, and gesture toward the bath house. "Gabrielle, do you trust me?"

"With my life." She frowns again, this time with concern. "Why?"

"Can you follow my lead in the bath house?" I smile, as part one of 'save my bad's reputation' falls into place.

"Of course, but why do we need to go take a bath at this very second?" She's kind of cranky when she first wakes up, but in a charming sort of way.

"Because your two friends just went in there, and I'd like to make a point to them." She gives me one of those looks. The one that wants to know if I plan to bash any heads together. "No violence, I promise."

She smiles. "Great. What do you need me to do?" She stands and brushes some sand off her skirt, and then helps me shake out our blanket and fold it up. I shoulder our bags and weapons, and take her hand, and lead her toward the baths.

"Nothing yet." I squeeze her hand. "Just prepare for me to dote on you a bit in there, okay?"

"Oh." Her voice is playful. "That'll be rough, but if you insist, I guess I'll just have to put up with it." She flips her foot up and kicks me on the behind for good measure.

I kick back and almost trip us up. So, to make my plan even better, we enter the bath house laughing, which is completely unplanned, but totally perfect. The two women are talking when we enter the room, but they quickly become silent, watching us.

There are several sunken tubs in this bath house, and it is a large room. Almost the size of one of those indoor practice fields in Athens. In the middle of the room is a huge pool of cold water, and the tubs of warm water are spaced out on either side of it. The two women are in the one nearest the door. Therefore, I choose the one furthest away from them, on the other side of the pool. They can see us fine, but I still want privacy where they can't hear us.

I don't let go of Gabrielle's hand until I spot a low bench next to our chosen tub, to place our bags on. Then I retrieve a robe and a set of towels, along with a fresh cake of soap from a set of shelves.

"Xena." Gabrielle whispers at me. "Those women will be able to see us. You know ... naked." Leave it to my bard to state the obvious. Gods know I've missed the obvious more than once. Being in love with her, for example.

"I know. Trust me, remember?" I run my fingers back through her hair in a comforting motion.

She smiles for me and I help her take her clothes off, shielding her with my own body from the view of the two women. Then I quickly drape the robe around her shoulders and tie it securely at her waist. The only person who got to see my lovely bard's body was me. She starts to help me undress, and all I allow her to do is loosen the laces at my back. After that, I gently make it clear that I want to do the rest myself.

I strip down to bare skin, and forego a robe. There are two reasons for this. I simply am not modest and never have been, and I want those two women to see that six years have done nothing but improve my muscle tone and shape. This is not for my egotistical benefit.

Everything I am doing is calculated to communicate that Gabrielle is not a whore for hire. No one defers to a whore they have hired, or helps them undress in a public bath house. And conversely, if I had hired Gabrielle, I would have expected her to undress me. The only reason I would defer to a whore in any way is if I was unattractive, and needed to treat one with extra gratuitousness in hopes of gaining extra sexual favors in return.

"Sweetheart, why don't you get in the tub, and I'll wash your back." She looks at me and then walks slowly to the edge of the tub. I step next to her, between her and the women, and help her with her robe, and offer her my hand to steady herself while she uses the steps. Once she's in the water, I sit on the edge of the tub and motion for her to back up to me.

"Relax, baby." I lean down and kiss her on the head. "Let me pamper you." I know that the women can't hear me, but they can definitely see. And they are watching. I use a sea sponge to scrub my bard's back, and then I wash her hair. Only after her needs have been completely met, do I slide into the water with her. I do let her wash my back and hair.

We are about to finish up when Sappho enters the bath house. This is just getting better and better. The best way in the world to gain credibility on Lesbos is to be in the good graces of the tenth muse. There's only one reason she would come to this place, and that's if she specifically needs to speak with someone in here.

She bypasses the two women, both of whom are staring with open mouths. I smile and sit back on a ledge under the water, and pull Gabrielle against me, so that she's sitting between my legs with her back against my chest. I wrap my arms around her middle and look up as Sappho makes her way toward us.

"Xena. Gabrielle." She kicks off her sandals and hitches her skirt up, and sits on the edge of the tub dangling her feet in the water. I am loving this. It is now obvious to the two women that we are familiar enough with the tenth muse for her to be comfortable with such actions. She tosses her long hair back over her shoulder. "One of the drivers told me he dropped you off at this beach earlier. I'm glad you're still here."

"What's up?" I am rubbing my bard's stomach under the water, and I smile, feeling her muscles flutter against my hands.

"I was wondering if you two might join me at my table at The Bitter End for dinner tonight? And if perhaps tonight might be the night you would tell stories, Gabrielle? I'm expecting a large crowd, and I would love to provide them with the best entertainment on the island." Sappho kicks idly at the water, wiggling her toes.

Gabrielle looks over her shoulder and back at me. "I'd love to, if Xena is up to it." My bard has a huge smile on her face. Sappho just paid her a high compliment.

"Of course. We'll be there." I kiss her cheek. "Sappho, can you do me a huge favor?"

"Anything, Xena. You know that." She sees the devious look in my eyes, and hers twinkle back at me. The tenth muse always did have a taste for humor.

"See those two women at the far end of the room?" I glance to the side, knowing they've been watching the entire exchange, and also knowing they are dying to hear our words. And can't.

"Yes." Sappho's eyes narrow.

"I don't care who they are, can you make sure they are invited to dinner tonight too? Not to sit at your table, just make sure they're there to hear Gabrielle perform." My bard looks back at me again, and this time she is completely surprised.

"Well, of course." Sappho scoots closer. "But can I ask why?"

"It would seem they haven't been treating Gabrielle with the proper respect. They don't seem to understand who she is." I kiss her on the other cheek, just for emphasis. "When you introduce her to your guests tonight, can you make sure that they know that not only is she my betrothed, but that she's also queen of the Greek Amazons?"

Sappho gives me a knowing smile and then she winks at Gabrielle. "Rest assured to both of you ..." She looks pointedly toward the other end of the room. "... by the end of the evening, there will be no mistaking who either of you are."

"Thank you." I feel the muscles in my back and shoulders relax. I didn't realize I was tense.

"Yes. Thank you." Gabrielle also relaxes. I am glad to be partially responsible for that. "Sappho, if you will take care of making sure they know who I am, I will take care of letting them know who Xena is."

"I don't doubt that you will." Sappho reaches out and clasps forearms with Gabrielle. I watch two bards cutting some sort of deal that I apparently missed. And then it dawns on me. Gabrielle has her own agenda.

"Gabrielle ..." I groan internally.

"Not a word, Xena." They speak in unison and I am effectively silenced. That's scary.

I was so busy thinking of how to save her reputation, I forgot about mine. But she didn't. She's going to redeem me with her stories tonight. Oh gods. I hate that. Okay, I secretly love it, that she thinks I'm some kind of hero. I just hate having to sit there while the other people in the room watch me when she's speaking. There's always this one moment when they realize I'm the subject of the story, and I get a collective group stare. Makes me want to crawl under the table, every time.

"Now, if you two will excuse me, I have dinner preparations to oversee." Sappho gets up and makes her way to the door. She pauses and leans down to talk to the other two occupants, and they look pretty damned smug when she gets up and leaves. Good. My mother always said that pride comes before a fall. I can't wait to watch them tumble.

We finish our bath and get ready to go back to the guest house to dress for dinner. I don't even bother to look at the two women as we leave. Although they can't take their eyes off of us. Heh.


Continued in Part 5-8

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