DISCLAIMERS: See Parts 1-4


Part 5

By Texbard


We enter The Bitter End and are immediately escorted to the outdoor terrace. Sappho is having pre-dinner drinks served out there. The sun has just set and servants are lighting several tall torches to illuminate the area. We missed the toast, but that's okay. There will be other nights for that.

Tonight is for Gabrielle. And she looks mouth-watering. She's sure having that effect on me. She's wearing her Amazon leathers. The ones that have the tiny little top and matching skirt, with a very nice expanse of stomach exposed in between. She almost didn't pack them but then I asked her if she would. I think it is still my favorite outfit of all the ones she owns. Besides her bare skin, that is.

She's been letting her hair grow out because she wants it longer for our joining, or at least long enough to wear some special Amazon hairpieces. Things I'm not privy to see until the actual ceremony. It's not quite down to her shoulders. I helped her braid some feathers and beads into it, and she looks every bit the Amazon queen that she is. She has her sais tucked into her boots, and she even has one of my daggers strapped at her hip. The one I got in Alexandria with the ivory handle that has the willow tree and waterfall etched into it. I carry it with me all the time.

We join a couple of dozen other guests who are milling about on the large wooden deck that faces west of the tavern. A servant sees us and immediately brings me a mug of port and Gabrielle a stein of honey mead. She takes a couple of big gulps. My bard is nervous.

"Relax." I lean down and whisper into her ear, as I rest my hand on her lower back, steering her toward an open spot in a corner beside the railing. "You are going to do fine tonight."

"I don't know why I'm so nervous." She looks up at me and I can see the fear in her eyes. "I'm usually excited about telling stories."

"Baby." I am facing her, playing with the beads in her hair while I speak. "If you're worried about doing a good job of defending me, don't worry. Look around."

She peers over my shoulder and giggles. "They were all looking at us until they knew I was looking back. Then they all looked away."

"Yeah." I trace her collar bone with my fingers, stopping at the point where I can feel her pulse beating against my fingertips. "That's because I just walked out here with the most stunning creature on the island. I don't think I'm going to need much defense after that."

"Xena." The anxious expression re-appears on her beautiful face, and I can't help but brush my hand across her cheek and back through her hair again, trying to smooth the worry lines from her face. "Those two women are over on the other side of the deck watching us."

"Let 'em watch." I drop my hand from her hair down to her waist, on top of her hip bone, and pull her close to me. I lean even closer to speak to her. She smells like honeysuckle from the bath soap, and I have to force myself to concentrate. "They already know who I am, that much is obvious from what they said to you this afternoon. But I'm guessing right about now, they're starting to get a little bit confused about you."

"You think?" My bard finally smiles for me. She's so beautiful in the torchlight.

"Oh, I know." I can't resist giving her a quick kiss, and I note that she tastes even better than she smells. "I'm pretty sure you're the first Amazon I've ever seen on Lesbos. I'd have to ask Sappho to be certain, but you may be the first one ever. Sappho likes to keep the peace around here, and well ... you know Amazons."

Gabrielle laughs. I love to hear that. It's not some little wimpy sound. My bard has a deep laugh that comes from her gut. It's completely spontaneous. "Good point. Xena, can you picture Pony here?"

"Oh gods." It is my turn to laugh. "No beautiful woman would be safe. She'd be chasing every last one of them and she'd be getting in a lot of fights with the partners of the ones who are taken."

"Xena." Gabrielle grows very sober again. "How do you think Raella feels about that? I think she and Pony really love each other. And Raella's so beautiful and sweet and smart. Why would Pony want to experiment with anyone else? I don't understand the Amazons sometimes."

"I don't either." I resume playing with her hair. I've got beautiful and sweet and smart too. I would be a fool to jeopardize that for a romp that would only give me a physical release at best. "Pony and the rest of those egotistical feather-heads are fools."

"Yeah. They are." She closes her eyes for a moment and then opens them again. "I know they say it's just innocent fun and that no one is hurt by it, but it would really hurt me if you slept with someone else. Even if it didn't mean anything."

"Gabrielle. When I asked to be joined with you, I promised to give you everything that I have. Everything that I am. I could never sleep with anyone else. It isn't even my body to give anymore. It belongs to you. I have learned that having sex doesn't amount to a hill of beans if there is no love behind it. It's empty." I grin. "But by the gods, when you're in love ..."

"Lightening and thunderbolts." She says it much better than I would have.

"Yeah. Why would I ever want to go to someone else, when with you I can have ..." I set my mug on the wide railing and kiss her again, this time for a leisurely bit. "... lightening and thunderbolts." I pull back and I'm feeling some of that myself at this very moment, and I remember my bard's teasing remarks about her plans for tonight. "Hey." I run a fingertip up her midline to her chin. "Do I still get a surprise later on tonight?"

"Mmmm." She dips her head and nips my finger. "I have no doubt you'll be surprised." Her eyes tell me she plans to devour me.

I groan in anticipation. "You are going to be the death of me." She rolls her eyes at my remark, but she's smiling. "Gabrielle, someday they're going to find me, dead from complete unrelieved frustration."

"Xena, honey." Gabrielle sits her mug down, too, and places her hands on my hips and pulls me into her. "If that were a cause of death, I would have stood at your funeral pyre a hundred times by now." She stands on her tip-toes and kisses my neck, just below my ear. "You're pretty insatiable. You do know that, don't you?"

"It's your fault, you know." I tickle her ribs and laugh as she yelps and jumps back a step.

"How's that my fault?" She dodges me as I try for more tickling.

"Cause you're just so damned gorgeous." I back her slowly against the wall behind her. "Makes me want you all the time." I kiss her and start to run my hands up and down her sides, when I hear her mumbling against my mouth. I pull back and frown at her. I am ... frustrated, and I am proving her point. All I want to do right now is scoop her up and take her to an upstairs room.

"Xena. Please." She looks even more frustrated, and she has a faint flush to her skin. "We're on a deck full of people we don't know, remember?"

Ooops. Funny how when I'm with her, I tend to forget everything else around me. "Sorry." I stand up tall and try to appear dignified. "I'll try to behave."

"I know." She smiles at me and cups her hand against my face. "Wanna know a secret?"

"What's that?" I know my eyes are shining. I'm getting that warm fuzzy feeling that only she can bring out in me. I used to try to hide it, but finally gave up. It happens too often and in the strangest places. Like on a deck full of people we don't know.

"I love that you are attracted to me, Xena." She looks down. I get the feeling there's something more to her statement. I wait. She looks back up and there is a hint of sadness in her eyes. "All my life, I had big dreams. But I was told to only have small dreams. Sometimes I was told not to dream at all. And I felt like no one ever really saw me. I was invisible to everyone. Just another girl living in a backwoods village. No one ever made me feel special. Until you. When you look at me Xena, I feel so special. And loved. And desired. I'm not invisible anymore. You validate my dreams, Xena."

"Sweetheart." I lift one of her hands to my lips and kiss her knuckles. "I will never stop seeing you. Or wanting you. Gabrielle, you are my dream."

I hear a throat clear behind me and have a vague sense of deja vu. "Sappho." I turn around and feel Gabrielle move in beside me. I drape an arm over her shoulders, and find my fingers playing at the bare skin on her upper arm.

The tenth muse chuckles and shakes her head in mild amusement. "Are you two permanently attached? I've seen you exactly three times in the two days you've been here, and each time, I've found you plastered together."

I merely raise an eyebrow at her. It has no effect. She was never impressed with most of my antics.

"If you two are through making my guests all hot and bothered, it's time to come inside for dinner." She ushers us in and leads us to a table that is front and center beside the stage.

As we make our way forward, I look around and spot our two favorite bitches at another table, just to the side of the stage. Leave it to Sappho to make sure they have a front row seat for their humiliation. They stare at me and I can tell they are confused about Gabrielle and I being seated at Sappho's table. They know who I am, but they obviously know nothing of my friendship with the tenth muse. Fools. I raise the eyebrow again. This time it works, as they both suddenly take great interest in a tapestry on the wall beside their table.

I am pleased, and then look down as we reach our table. It is a rich dark wooden rectangular structure. In true Lesbos style, it does not have chairs, but padded benches that you can sit on, but which are also wide enough to recline upon. I wait for Sappho to take the lead, and I follow. She reclines upon the bench.

Already waiting at the table for her is a long-time companion of hers, Atthis. They have wavered back and forth between being lovers and being just friends, for many years. Atthis moves in and stretches out behind Sappho, and drapes an arm around her waist. So. Their current status appears to be that of lovers.

I stretch out on my side on the bench across the table from them, and smile reassuringly at my bard, as I hold out my hand to her. She takes it, and I pull her down in front of me, assuming a position similar to that of our dining companions. Gabrielle has never taken a meal in this fashion, and I can tell she is a bit thrown off by it. I rub light circles on her stomach and peck her on her shoulder.

"Xena." Atthis smiles at me. "It's been a long time, has it not?"

"About seven years." I look at my bard. "Gabrielle, this is another old friend of mine, Atthis, Sappho's partner." With relief, I can tell from Sappho's eyes that I have not mis-stated the nature of their relationship.

My bard smiles and nods her head graciously. "Pleased to meet you."

"Oh, no." Atthis smiles most charmingly. "The pleasure is all mine. I've been anxious to meet you since Sappho came home last night."

Gabrielle appears confused. My bard still doesn't understand the many reasons she would be a source of curiosity. She looks around toward me and I smile at her, and tighten my grip around her middle. I can feel her body pressed back against me, and it causes a pleasant tingling sensation in my belly. I have to force myself to concentrate on the moment at hand, when every hormone in my body wants to think about later on tonight, when I will get my surprise.

"Why?" Gabrielle leans back into me slightly. I am certain she's not even aware of it. Part of my mind wanders away, wondering what the surprise might be. I quickly realize I've drifted, and mentally slap myself. I've got to stop that, or it's going to be a painfully long evening.

"Sappho has spoken of little else last night and today. She was thrilled when Xena first wrote to her of her betrothal to you, and much relieved when she met you. I must say, Gabrielle, you have some impressive credentials. Accomplished bard, Amazon queen, and from some rumors we've heard in stories, you wield a pretty mean staff." Atthis pauses to take a sip from a cup of mead, and Gabrielle looks back at me with complete shock on her face. I merely shrug.

I know stories of our adventures are being told by other bards, but up until now, I had always assumed they were repeating stories they have heard Gabrielle tell. But my bard rarely makes herself a main feature of her own stories, and she never discusses her own fighting skills. Apparently the legends have grown. Someone that has seen us in action is now telling stories of their own.

Atthis places her cup on the table. "I can hardly wait to hear your stories about our friend Xena. Several bards have come to Lesbos and told tales of the reformed warrior princess in the past six years, but none of them have traveled with her on a daily basis. I'm sure you have insights that will be most interesting."

While Atthis has been talking, servants have brought plates of finger foods to our table. I almost choke on a shrimp at her last statement, and Gabrielle reaches around and slaps me on the leg. "Behave." She hisses at me. "You know good and well I'm not sharing those insights with them."

My bard turns red as she looks up and realizes that she spoke loudly enough for our companions to hear her. I feel her go completely still, and then, instead of her usual routine of covering her face, she begins to laugh. The ice is broken, as Sappho and Atthis join her.

After that, our conversation is easy, and filled with light-hearted banter. I have missed this for so long. I had some very good times in this tavern in the past, and part of it was sharing lively conversation with the very few people in my life I have come to call my friends.

Every now and then I look over at the two women from the beach. They are looking more and more uncomfortable. Good. I alternate my expressions whenever I make eye contact with them, switching from boredom, to raised eyebrow, to evil grin, to murderous glare. One of the rules of warfare. Keep your enemy off balance, and always guessing what your next move is going to be.

Gabrielle begins to share several stories with Sappho and Atthis, ones that I glean she doesn't plan to tell on stage later. I smile to myself. She is using the stories, in a round-about way, to fill Sappho in on much of what I have done and been through since I last saw her. The tenth muse encourages her, asking several very good questions, that spur my bard on.

I am relieved. She is doing a much better job of telling my friends about my life than I would have. I tend to leave out important details sometimes. Things like saving the free world from Antony, defeating the Persian army alone, and being raised from the dead. Twice.

Finally, our meal is served, a large roasted leg of lamb with lots of steamed vegetables garnishing the sides of the plate. Due to our reclining positions, Gabrielle and I end up feeding each other much of our meal. Which is half the point of dining in this fashion. The other half is getting to snuggle in public. I manage to steal several kisses in the process, and am pleased that my bard isn't embarrassed by this. She rather seems to be enjoying the whole experience.

At one point, we forego food completely, and spend several long minutes sampling each other instead. During this exchange, I happen to look up and see the two women from the beach watching us. I almost break off the kiss, not wanting to add to their beliefs about my relationship with Gabrielle.

But part of me just doesn't care. We aren't the only ones in the room behaving in this manner. We are on Lesbos, after all. Besides, they are about to find out just how wrong they are about us. Instead, I pull her closer to me, close my eyes, and deepen our kiss, taking my time to taste every inch of her mouth. I can feel one of her hands on my hip, and hear her breathing quicken.

"Xena." My bard pulls away from me and looks up into my eyes. Oh gods. Her eyes are all soft and dark. "We have to stop now, or I'm never going to be able to tell stories."

I kiss her one more time and look across the table, where we have apparently inspired Sappho and Atthis. I grin. This is as close to as an orgy as I ever hope to get, but I am starting to appreciate the sentiment. I suppose it is different things to different people. For some I'm certain it is because they enjoy knowing that people are watching them, or because they like to switch partners. But I can also understand how others might simply forget there's anyone else in the room besides their partner.

A server comes to our table and refills all our drink mugs. Sappho and Atthis finally break apart and all four of us burst out laughing. Sappho is a little breathless. Her face is glowing, and I can tell she is very much in love with Atthis. I hope they stay together this time. She's been a good friend and she deserves to be happy. "Xena, why do I get the feeling that you two are like this all the time, and not just on my island?"

"We live with Amazons, remember?" I smile and waggle my eyebrows. "Imagine fifty uninhibited women during the festival of Dionysus."

"Oh gods." The tenth muse laughs. "All of them dressed like your lovely betrothed is tonight?"

"Not exactly, but pretty close, yes." Gabrielle is inspecting her own clothing while I speak, and her brows are furrowed in total confusion. She's so cute. She has no clue how completely desirable she is.

"Now there's a vision." Sappho sits up. "Gabrielle, are you ready to tell some stories, or do you want to wait a while longer?"

"I think I can go now." I watch my bard. She is already making the transformation to her public persona. She sits up and squares her shoulders, and her chin juts out just a bit. I sit up and straddle her from behind, placing my hands on her arms and gently rubbing them. I can see tiny muscles in her neck and back twitching in anticipation. Otherwise she seems to be a lot less nervous than she was out on the terrace.

"Very well then." Sappho stands and smooths down her skirt. "Let me introduce you. I had them place a mug of water behind the podium up there. I've heard you tend to move about the stage when you talk, but remember it's there if you need it."

"Thank you." My bard is suddenly relaxed. She has the gift of the muse. I love this side of her. It's so strong and animated and self-assured. When I hear her tell stories, I am reminded all over again of what a complex and brilliant person I am spending my life with. She can draw even me in, until I forget that she is the one speaking, and I am completely caught up in the story.

Sappho mounts the steps and moves to the center of the stage. She clears her throat and claps her hands to get the attention of the few people in the back of the room who aren't already focused on her. "Ladies. Welcome to another wonderful evening at The Bitter End. It is a very special night for me. My dear ... and close friend, Xena, is here visiting for the first time in six long years." She pauses and makes eye contact with one of the bitches. I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing, as both women hunch down a bit in their seat.

"And Xena has brought with her a rare and special treat for us. Yes, the warrior princess has finally fallen. With her is her betrothed, Queen Gabrielle of the Greek Amazons, better known to most of you as Gabrielle the Bard." I watch the women during this entire presentation. They both look directly at us before they can stop themselves. I give them a glare that I hope makes their underclothes wither. I can see them both swallow from where I sit.

I return my attention to Sappho, who is giving the most drawn-out introduction I can ever recall. She pans the room and smiles. "Most of you here enjoy art and literature, and many of you have heard a few up-and-coming bards perform. Namely Orion and Euripides. What you may not know is that five years ago, Gabrielle entered a bard's competition with them at the famous Athens City Academy of Performing Bards. Gabrielle won that competition."

I study our two bitches again. This time they are simply looking down. And squirming. They dare not leave. It would be the ultimate insult to both Gabrielle and Sappho. To leave would be to kiss their social standing goodbye. If they haven't already.

My attention is drawn back to my bard. I am still sitting behind her. Her neck and shoulders are flushed. She's not used to the accolades she is receiving. I bend down and kiss her on top of her head, and feel her relax against me. "You're going to be just fine." I whisper into her ear and kiss her neck.

Finally, Sappho motions to Gabrielle, and she takes the stage, as a thunderous round of applause greets her. I sit back and take a long sip of port. One of the women from the beach looks over at me, and I grin, and waggle an eyebrow at her. She blushes. I can tell she doesn't know what to make of me. It is the first time I think I am going to truly enjoy hearing Gabrielle tell stories about me.

And then my bard begins to speak. Ahh. Our good friend King Gregor and the baby Prince Gabriel. Interesting. I think about this. Gabriel was a baby abandoned in a basket in the river. Gabrielle and I rescued him and King Gregor eventually adopted him as his heir.

Of course he didn't have a name when we first found him. I told Gregor and Pandora to name him Gabriel. Gabrielle and I hadn't been traveling together very long then. I remember making camp that night. I lay awake for a long time wondering what had possessed me to tell them to name their baby after this quirky village girl I had reluctantly come to call my friend.

Rescuing baby Gabriel was one of the first times I went out of my way to help someone just because they needed help. There was nothing about the situation that otherwise directly effected me. It was the beginning of a pattern to our life on the road together, where time after time, we would help people just because they needed us.

Babies always seem to bring turning points for me. I think of the baby I spared right before my army turned on me. Gabrielle smiles at me as she continues to tell her story. We both know that baby I saved from my army was the beginning of my road to redemption, and in a roundabout way the reason I somehow ended up rescuing Gabrielle and her fellow villagers from slavers outside Potadeia.

And now she and I are planning to have a baby. Or babies. Eventually, sometime after we are joined. Talk about turning points.

My bard completes her story and I realize that our audience is sophisticated. I didn't get the group stare I had so dreaded when they all understood that I was the warrior who saved the baby. I join them in applause, and take another sip of my port. The two women from the beach are looking pointedly away from me. They can't run and they can't hide. They are stuck right where they are.

Now Gabrielle grows more somber. I hear her describe her own fear and despair, as she found herself aboard Cecrop's cursed boat, doomed to sail the seas for the remainder of her life. And then she describes my leap from a cliff onto the deck of the boat.

I swear, every time she tells this story, that leap becomes impossibly longer. And higher. And the number of flips increases. It just didn't seem like that big a deal at the time. The alternative, a life apart from my best friend, was unthinkable. I had no other choice. I had to get to her, so I did. That's all there was to that.

I have quit watching the bitches. They bore me now. My bard is much more interesting. She ends her second story and I wait. She typically tells three stories, and I wonder what she has in store for her finale.

She clears her throat and moves to the podium, retrieving the mug of water. She sips slowly and I watch her wipe her free hand on her skirt. My bard is nervous. I am confused. She's already warmed up. I ponder this. She must be getting ready to tell a new story. She looks at me and I give her my most encouraging smile. Her chest rises and falls in a calming breath.

"This is a story about choices." She swallows, clearing a tiny tremor in her voice. "And compromises, and sacrifices that are made in the name of love." She begins describing our trip to India, and our second meeting with Eli, and her decision to throw her staff into the Ganges River. Okay, this is definitely new. My bard telling her own story. I settle back and really listen, wondering where she is going with this. I am rapt, as she describes much of our last year together before the crucifixion, including the battle between the Amazons and Pompey. I expect it to end there, but she keeps going.

My bard is absently rubbing her thumb up and down the ivory handle of my dagger at her hip. I look very closely and detect a slight shaking in her knees. My breath catches as she begins to describe her capture by the Romans and her time in prison, hearing the crosses being built outside her prison cell. She tells of her overwhelming joy when I showed up to try to rescue her. Finally, she describes that last battle in the prison courtyard.

I feel a tear trickle down my cheek, and I brush it away quickly and look around. Sappho saw, and she gives me a trembling smile, her own eyes close to spilling over. Gabrielle and I have talked about that battle many times, and her decision to pick up my sword and try to defend me. But I have never heard it this way, told through the eyes of a story-teller. The emotions are somehow more raw, the descriptions more vivid. She ends her story just short of the crucifixion itself, but it is clear to her audience that a crucifixion did take place.

Her ending itself is the real clincher. She describes two friends in a prison cell, who know that in a very short while they are going to die together. She doesn't share the intimate details of our conversation in that cell, but she does describe overwhelming emotion, and the knowledge that in the end, the peaceful bard had learned that friendship and love are worth fighting for, and even dying for. She takes a deep breath and bows slightly, indicating that she is finished. When she stand back up, she brushes away tears of her own.

As Gabrielle leaves the stage, there is no applause, but rather a stunned silence. Applause seems inappropriate, although I hear a few sniffles around the room. My bard returns to our table and sits down. I immediately pull her into my arms and hold her close, feeling her body shiver against me as I rock her slightly. Finally, low conversation begins to pick up around the room, and the focus is off of us. Gabrielle looks up at me and presses her lips against my ear. "Are you mad at me?"

"No." I hug her even tighter. "Why on earth would I be mad at you, sweetheart?"

"That was some pretty personal stuff." She reaches up and runs her fingers through my hair.

"Yes. And you were very brave to tell that story." I study her face. It is still very pensive. "Gabrielle, can I ask you why?"

"Why I told that story?" She bites her lower lip.

"Yeah. I know it's hard for you to talk about all of that. I'm just surprised, more than anything."

"It was the most powerful story I could think of that illustrates how much we love each other, and how much we're willing to sacrifice for each other." She picks up my left hand and covers it with her left hand, twining our fingers so that our rings are side-by-side. "No one, Xena ... no one tells me these mean nothing, and gets away with it."

I feel a huge lump stick in my throat, and I can't speak. I think my bard just defended my honor. No one has ever done that before her. I look over where the two bitches are still hovering at their table, trying to blend into the woodwork. My rage rises. Gabrielle just showed an incredible amount of courage, and laid her soul bare before a roomful of strangers. Because of them. I know what I need to do.

"I'll be right back baby." I stand and kiss her on the head. "Don't go anywhere."

"Where are you going?" She tugs at my arm.

"I have a score to settle." I look toward the two women, who are still watching me.

"Xena." She's still holding onto my arm. "No fighting, please?"

"Only with words, love." I kiss her again and pull away, making brief eye contact with Sappho and Atthis, who have been watching us with great fascination. I had momentarily forgotten they were across the table from us.

As I approach the bitches, they both look at me, and then look at each other, and then around, I assume trying to find a way to escape. I give them my most feral smile, allowing just the barest hint of my darker side to come out and play. I hate to admit this, but I am truly enjoying the expression of pure terror on their faces. I have them cornered. They are mine.

"Ladies." I place my hands on their table top and lean over, getting in their faces. "I understand that earlier today, you had some questions for my lovely betrothed. Is that true?"

They look at each other and back at me, and I watch the blood simultaneously drain from both their faces. "We ... um ... that is ..."

"Shut up." I snarl at the idiot. "Before you make me really angry." I lift my hands and crack my knuckles, and then I resume my stance. "Her price. I believe you wanted to know her price. I can answer that. She's priceless. Her value to me cannot be measured. I have killed more than once to protect her. And I am perfectly willing to do that again if I have to. Is that clear?"

They both nod and slink down into their seats. "And I believe one of you wanted to know when I would be 'done' with her. I can also answer that one. I will be done with her when pigs fly and Tartarus freezes over. Have either of you ever been to Tartarus?"

They both shake their heads negatively. I think they've forgotten how to talk. I grin and pull up a chair, turning it around and straddling it backwards, resting my forearms across the high back. They are in chairs too. Sappho didn't give them a table with padded benches.

"I've been to Tartarus. A few times." I feel my upper lip curl and my nostrils flair. "It's very warm there. Not a bit of ice to be found. So ... does that answer your question as to when I will be 'done' with her?" Another nod confirms that they understand me.

"Now ..." I lean in and allow my anger to show in my eyes. "... let's talk about the disrespect you showed her this afternoon. You can say ugly things about me all damned day long, and I won't give a rat's ass about it. Your petty little opinions of me mean nothing to me, because you mean nothing to me. She, on the other hand, means everything to me. I am in love with her. You say ugly things about her, and I get pissed off. She is no more a whore than I am a milk maid. You said things to her today that made her cry. I can promise you that if you ever make her cry again, I will make sure that you know what it is to cry as well."

"We're sorry, Xena. Really." One of them, a mousey little brunette, finds her voice. "We had no idea ..."

"Yeah?" I lean closer until I know she can feel my breath on her face.

"Yes." She backs away.

"Well then go tell her that." I gesture toward my bard, who is talking with Sappho and Atthis, in between stealing anxious glances at me. "Now."

I stand and wait for them to do likewise. Slowly, they rise and meekly follow me back to our table. Gabrielle stops speaking in mid-sentence and remembers to close her mouth. Atthis and Sappho do not. "Gabrielle, these two ladies have something they'd like to say to you."

"G ... Gabrielle ..." The mousey one speaks. I have yet to hear a word from the other woman, a little tart of a redhead that has been shaking in her boots since Gabrielle first took the stage.

I nudge the mousey one. "She's royalty, remember?"

"Oh." The mousey one looks petrified for a moment. "Your highness." I am so enjoying this. "We are both truly sorry for the things we said to you on the beach today. We beg your forgiveness."

My bard stands and looks like she is about to burst out laughing, and I am not far behind her. "You're both forgiven." She moves closer to the two women and the mirth leaves her face. "You know, you shouldn't be so quick to make assumptions about people. I've learned that you should get to know a person before you pass judgment on them. Take Xena, for example. If I had only listened to the stories I had heard about her ... if I hadn't taken the time to get to know her ... I would have missed out on a whole lot of good stuff in my life."

"Yes ... your highness." The two women speak in unison, and my bard takes a seat. I move around and sit down beside her, and pull her close to my side.

Sappho, however, stands. "Ladies. I'd like a word with you out front, if you don't mind." Now they both look even more frightened than they did when I approached their table. They've pissed off the tenth muse and they know it. I watch them follow Sappho toward the front door, and I chuckle.

"Xena, that was priceless." Atthis rests her elbows on the table and leans toward us. "Serves them right. While you were talking to them a minute ago, Gabrielle filled us in on exactly what they said to her this afternoon. Idiots."

"Who are they, anyway?" I take a sip of port and swirl it around in my mouth before I allow it to slide down my throat. My bard is still very quiet, and I wonder if she is still thinking about her story. I look at her and smile, and brush some stray hairs out of her eyes.

"Sappho checked them out after she talked to you two at the baths. Seems they are two married women, wives of some fairly high-ranking government officials." Atthis grins wickedly and I know the rest is going to be good. "They come here three or four times a year on vacation, as paying customers, not as special guests of Sappho. Their husbands have no problem with it because they assume their wives will be perfectly safe on an island full of women. What the hubbies don't know is that those two have been having an ongoing fling with each other for ten years now."

A whistle escapes my lips. "No kidding?"

"No. And rumor is that at some point in the past, they had a little lover's quarrel while they were here." Atthis pauses to take a drink, and wipes her hand across the back of her mouth. "Apparently after the fight, the brown-haired one decided to find her comfort elsewhere, and came on to you during some big gala we held here. They say you turned her down stone cold in front of several of her friends."

"Ah." I rack my brain and can't even remember the incident. Which is no surprise, really. But it explains a lot.

"Yes. They both have reason to want to hurt you. The brunette because you rejected her, and the redhead because her lover chose you to try to exact revenge." Atthis pauses and looks up as Sappho returns to the table.

"Well." She sits down in a huff. "That's taken care of."

"What did you say to them?" Gabrielle peers anxiously at her.

"I told them to pack their bags and be on the first boat bound for the mainland in the morning. They're no longer welcome on my island." The tenth muse looks more than a little peeved. If I were Atthis, I'd be doing my best to keep Sappho happy. I'd hate to be the one to ever tick her off. I know about these things. Sometimes black powder can come in bard-sized packages.

We continue to talk with Sappho and Atthis for another candle mark, and gradually merriment returns to the table. Between Sappho and Gabrielle, I feel that I am going to have very few secrets left by the time they are done. I am in a good humor though, and allow most of their teasing to float right on by.

I am still thinking about later. The entire time we've been talking, my bard has been idly running her fingertips up and down my leg under the table. It's more than a little distracting. Our conversation begins to wind down, and I make plans to meet Sappho for an afternoon drink tomorrow. To catch up. Sappho and Atthis finally excuse themselves to go mingle among the remaining guests, and I find myself alone with my bard.

"Gabrielle." I lean close and nip my way up her neck until I reach her ear. "Take me back to our cottage and take me to bed."

She takes my face in both her hands and gives me a long, very sweet kiss, sending more lightening and thunderbolts shooting through my system. She pulls back and takes my hand, and hauls me up to my feet. "Let's go."


Part 6

Outside the tavern I approach one of the carriage drivers. Gabrielle is in the tavern doorway, saying goodbye to Sappho and Atthis. I dig into my belt pouch and retrieve a twenty-dinar piece. "See this?" I lay it down on the seat next to the driver. "If you can manage to keep your eyes directly ahead for the entire trip to our cottage, and not ever look back at us, it's all yours."

The drive nods stoically, but I detect the tiny smirk on his lips. All the people who work or serve on Lesbos are trained with discretion as their motto. They know secrets that could ruin lives and fell kingdoms. My reasons for giving him extra incentive are much more simple. I want to have a romantic carriage ride with my bard, and I don't want her to feel any prying eyes watching us.

She finally joins me and I give her a hand up into the back of the buggy. I climb in beside her and tuck the lap robes around us. There is a slight chill in the air. I'm glad of it. The driver is true to his promise. He never turns around, as I give him the word to proceed to our guest house.

The minute we are away from the tavern, I am all over her. And she's doing a very good job of reciprocation. Gods. I need more hands. I take a deep breath to slow myself down, and then I capture her lips, tasting them first with my tongue and then covering them, enjoying the sensation of her body relaxing into mine as I explore her mouth. She tastes like the sweet honey mead she's been drinking.

Reluctantly, I leave her mouth to conquer new territory. I kiss my way down her throat and across her collar bone, and push a leather strap aside. I hesitate for a minute. There is a third party with us, albeit one who is keeping his promise to me.

I look up and even in the darkness, I can see her eyes shining back at me, her lips parted slightly in anticipation. I lower my lips and push the strap the rest of the way down, and place a series of warm wet kisses on her mostly-exposed breast. She whimpers at this, and I feel one of her hands on the back of my head, encouraging me.

I sigh, and reach under the blanket, pushing her skirt part-way up and easing her legs apart. My fingertips dance up her inner thigh and I tease her, a promise of things to come. I resume my attentions to her breast and I feel her body trembling at my touch. "Gods. So nice, sweetheart."

I move my lips up to her ear, kissing the very sensitive spot just behind it. My fingers move in further, until I reach incredibly wet warm fabric. "I want to make you come." I whisper in her ear and continue to touch her, with feather-light strokes, asking permission.

I feel her hand wrap around my wrist, and she gently tugs it away, until it is once more resting on her thigh. I am denied. "Xena." She whispers breathlessly. I can tell it is taking a great deal of control for her to speak. "Not here. Please."

"Okay." I temper the motions of my hands, and I kiss her lips softly. I can wait. "I love you, Gabrielle. So much."

She surprises me by climbing into my lap, straddling my legs, facing me, and I feel her breath, warm against my ear, causing pleasant tingles to run up and down my spine. "Xena." Her hands are playing in my hair and she kisses my neck. "Tonight, you don't get to make me come until I make you come first." I feel several sets of muscles flutter in anticipation, as her words register.

I look at her and waggle my eyebrows. "That can be arranged." I capture one of her hands and pull it down between us, inviting her to make good on her statement.

She grins and pulls her hand free. "Behave." She nips my earlobe and then unbuckles my chest armor, and pulls it over my head, laying it on the seat beside us. Our lap robe has long since fallen to the floor of the carriage. I feel her lips on my skin, moving across my chest and down to my cleavage. My body is so confused. She tells me to behave and then she does this? Maybe there is a trace of Tataka still in there somewhere.

"Xena ..." She comes up for air. "... I am going to give you the climax of your life ..." She cups my breasts through my leathers. "... but it's not going to happen in the back seat of this carriage." She leans in until her lips are pressed against my ear. "Hang on warrior princess. When this carriage stops, your ride has just begun."

"Who are you and what have you done with Gabrielle?" I look into those green eyes, sparkling in the moonlight, and she laughs disarmingly, and lowers her lips back down to my chest. Yep. It must be Tataka. She is evil and obviously trying to kill me. I groan and reach back into my belt pouch, this time digging for a ten-dinar piece. I reach up and slap it on the front seat next to the twenty. The driver doesn't even flinch. "Speed this carriage up double time, and that one's yours too."

I swear I hear him chuckle under his breath. But our buggy does speed up considerably, and I am relieved when our guest house comes into view. 'Relief' being the most operative word right now. During the remainder of the ride, Gabrielle has unlaced my leathers, pushed down both shoulder straps, removed the rest of my armor, and generally tortured me without mercy. I am not going to survive whatever she has planned for me when we get inside.

I toss the various pieces of my displaced armor onto the grass, and somehow manage to get her and me out of the carriage. I don't even hear the driver pull away. I am too busy backing her slowly down the pathway to the front door, kissing her the entire way.

"Xena." She is actually laughing at me. Pure evil. "Things would go a lot faster if you would let me turn around and walk inside."

"Oh yeah?" I scoop her up against me, tucking her legs around my waist. "How about I give you a ride instead?" I quickly close the distance to the front door, and back my way into the cottage. I grab a flint and striker from an entryway table and light a lantern one-handed, never letting go of her.

I carry her and the lantern into the bedroom, and lay her down on the bed. I set the lantern on the night stand and pause, and wink at her, and make a slow show of removing my boots and leathers, peeling them down my body. I can tell she is enjoying this, the hunger in her eyes quite evident. I feel a tiny shiver as I feel them on me. When I am finally naked, I crawl up on the bed and hover over her on my hands and knees.

"Nice, Xena." She gives my body an approving appraisal and runs a blunt nail from my navel all the way up to my nose. This causes even more shivers. "There's only one problem."

"Problem?" I look around. Warm bed, naked warrior, soon-to-be naked bard. I'm not seeing any problems here. Nope not a one. "What's wrong?"

"Wrong bedroom." She smirks and watches my face.

"Wrong ... bedroom?" Oh my gods. Gabrielle wants to go try out the bed in the play room. I lean down and kiss her slowly and tenderly, and pull back, brushing the backs of my fingers against her face. "That can be fixed."

I take her hand and ease her up, and grasp the lantern. But it is her who leads me into the other room. Her eyes never leave mine during the transition. I can't even describe what I read there, but it makes me feel like a damned furnace has been ignited in my center.

She takes the lantern from me and sets it aside, and pushes me back onto the top of the quilt. It feels just like the other bed, and I am puzzling over what her intentions are. The only difference between this bed and the other one is that this one has those ... I swallow hard ... iron rings.

"Don't move." Her voice commands me, and her eyes are dark with passion. I wouldn't dream of moving from this spot. I am dying to see what she has in mind. She glides over to the wardrobe and digs around. She turns and grins over her shoulder at me, and then she comes back. She's holding some long colorful silk ties. I swallow hard again.

"Xena." She sits on the edge of the bed and I immediately reach out to her, curling a hand around a convenient thigh. "Do you trust me?"

In answer, I raise my arms and lay them back over my head, palms up, and stretch my legs out to their full length. I repeat her words from the beach this afternoon. "With my life, baby." I am a picture of submission.

She climbs over me, and gives me the sweetest kiss, and then I feel my bard begin to tie my wrists and ankles to the iron rungs. I watch her, as best I can, and she occasionally pauses to smile at me, a touch of shyness on her lips. She pulls the ties through the rungs until I am laying in a spread-eagle fashion. "Xena." She finishes and sits down across my hips, as if I am a piece of furniture. "They're not tied real tight. I know how you feel about control. Just remember that no matter what, all you'd have to do is pull fairly hard, and you'd be free."

I nod. I'm still processing what's happening here. I have to admit, I'm already highly aroused. There is nothing but love shining back at me in her eyes, and I do trust her. She smiles at me and gets off the bed, and gives me the same type of show I gave her, performing an impromptu striptease for me. Which I greatly appreciate.

When she is finished, she picks up one more tie from the end of the bed. I hadn't noticed it until now. She sits down again and bites her lower lip. Gods she's so gorgeous. All she's wearing are a few feathers and beads, and a smile. "Xena. Can I blindfold you?"

"I ... um ..." I am in shock. Not a bad shock. Just ... shock. We've gotten to know each other very well on the physical level. Although we are still learning new ways to please each other all the time. She constantly surprises me. And no one has ever been able to get under my skin like she has. In the best of ways.

We've come a long way from that first time in the inn at Mt. Ymarro. Not that it wasn't one of the sweetest moments of my life. But we've lost a lot of inhibitions since then. And that's a good thing. Because our love-making is constantly fresh. A blindfold is not something I would have expected from her, but if that's what she wants to do, then by the gods, I'm going to let her do it. I smile at her. "Sweetheart, you can do whatever you damned well please to me."

"Gods I love you." She traces my lips with her fingertips, and then leans down to kiss me. When she sits back up, she gazes into my eyes for a very long moment. I drink in the sight of her. The love in her eyes and the soft passionate expression on her face makes me feel like I am going to dissolve into a puddle. And then my world goes dark, as she gently ties the blindfold around my eyes, moving around and lifting my head up into her lap to secure it.

My other senses immediately begin to compensate, and I hear the soft rustle of her movements against the quilts, and smell the honeysuckle scent on her skin, along with a faint hint of her own sweet musky fragrance that makes my mouth water. I feel her kiss me softly and then the bed shifts, as she gets up. "Xena, I'll be right back." I can actually hear her bare feet padding against the hard wood floor and out of the room.

I lay there, listening. I have very sharp ears anyway, but with the blindfold I hear every little sound. The tree branches outside blowing in the breeze. A night owl hooting. I can even hear the water crashing against the rocks down below the cliff our cottage is built on. And I can hear Gabrielle out in the main room, making some noises I can't identify. I pay closer attention, and I can hear the sound of metal against wood, a faint chopping noise.

Time is difficult to judge, but she isn't gone long. I hear her walking back in and she sets one ... two ... items down on the bed table. A brush of air, and the shift of her weight on the bed, and then I can feel her breath on my face, and smell the overwhelming scent of honey. Then she kisses me and the taste of honey explodes on my lips and tongue.

"Oh gods." I can't help it. She tastes so good. "More." I pout as she pulls away. Then I feel her sit down, her bare bottom resting across my hips.

"Xena." I hear her doing something with the items on the table, one of which I am guessing is a container of honey. I draw in a breath and I can smell ... fruit.

"Now we're going to play a game."

I chuckle at this. "Sweetheart, you mean we haven't already been playing a game?"

"Oh no." She traces my breasts with light scratches of her nails, and I am immediately wet. "That was the warm-up."

I feel her move, and then her lips are near my ear. "Let the games begin." I moan softly at the purring sound in her voice.

"Here are the rules." She sits back up and I detect a familiar teasing note in her words. "I am going to hold pieces of honey-coated fruit under your nose. You have to guess what kind of fruit before you get to eat them."

I nod in understanding, and bounce my hips up, and feel her go off-center for a moment. I can play too. "Hey." She lightly slaps my stomach. "Cut it out or you don't get any fruit at all."

"Who says I want to eat fruit right now?" I allow my voice to drop to it's lowest register, making my desires quite clear.

"Oh Xena." The purring cat returns. Or Tataka. "There are many kinds of fruit."

My mouth begins to water. I am not going to survive this, but I'd at least like to stay in the game long enough to get my favorite fruit. I feel her lean toward the bed table again, and then I smell ... "Too easy, love. That's an apple."

"Very good." I feel the fruit press against my lips, and I take it, tasting sweet apple juice and honey wash across my tongue as I bite down on it. I hear her crunch down on the leftover part and then I hear her chew and swallow.

"What's this one?" I inhale and think for a moment. "Pear."

"That one wasn't so easy, was it?" She giggles and offers me the pear slice.

"Nope." I grin around my mouthful of fruit. "It's pretty similar to apple." I swallow and smell honey again. And ... "Strawberry."

"My personal favorite." She shifts and leans closer, and when I accept the fruit, I manage to get her fingertip with it. I am pleased when I hear her draw in a sharp breath. I hold it gently between my teeth and then suck on it, before I release her so I can swallow the bite of strawberry.

"Okay Xena." She moves around again and her hips move away from my stomach. "This one should be a bit more challenging for you."

I sniff the air. All I can smell is honey. And Gabrielle's own warm skin. I suddenly realize that her voice is coming from slightly above my head, and I guess at which kind of fruit she's offering me. I grin and open my mouth, flicking my tongue across a puckered bit of skin.

"Ah. The most tasty fruit on earth. Honey-coated bardic nipple." She giggles, and then I hear her breath catch, as I take her offering between my lips and savor it slowly, like the delicacy it is. Of course, I reflect, if anyone else were to try to sample this particular fruit, they'd reach a sudden demise on the receiving end of a swift chakram toss.

She pulls away from me and sits back, settling against my stomach again. Oh gods. She's so wet. I groan in appreciation.

"You like that, do you?" She teases me, moving her shapely rear end in a small circle against me.

All I can do is nod my head and groan some more, but thank the gods she has come to comprehend warrior-speak. She takes the hint and begins to slide those luscious hips up and down my torso, leaving a warm wet trail on my skin. She moves a bit more fervently, and I hear some tiny little mewling noises. Bard-speak. That's nice. We may not speak exactly the same language, but we completely understand each other.

I want her desperately. I want to taste her and feel her, want to possess her and make her feel things that only I have ever made her feel. I love her so much I am certain my heart will explode someday. "Over me, baby." I finally manage to spit out. "Please."

"Not yet." She leans down and nips my earlobe. She kisses me and then I feel her shift and then ... gods ... she is using that sweet mouth on my breasts. I feel lightening bolts shooting from my nipples directly to my groin. I hear a moan and then realize it came from me. I forget for a moment that my ankles are tied, and I try to press my legs together. Oh gods. I am going to die.

I suddenly realize that this is the first time she's done this when I couldn't see her. I always enjoy watching her, but by the gods, the other sensations are intensified when sight is removed. I can feel her, most certainly, but I can also hear her and smell her. Her scent is intoxicating. I have to fight the urge to break free from my restraints. I want to touch her so badly I could scream, and I am certain the ache between my legs is going to kill me.

"Gabrielle. Please." Strong yet soft fingers brush my hair back, as if to gentle me, and I feel her lips on my mouth. Gods she tastes good and I want more. She is teasing me again, kissing me, but pulling back each time I try to deepen the kiss.

"Xena." She nips her way across my jawline and then kisses a trail down my throat to my chest. "Gods I love you so much. Relax for me. Please."

"Relax?" I laugh wryly. "Baby, I am aching for you and you want me to relax?"

"You don't have to do anything honey." She moves lower, and I feel her plant a circle of kisses around my belly button. My stomach muscles contract strongly with each touch of her lips against my skin. "Let me love you, Xena. Let me soothe your pain."

We both know that she speaks of more than just the throbbing between my legs. She's the only one who can see to the bottom of my soul. She knows the darkness that lives there and she loves me anyway. This is a truth we rarely discuss.

I have committed unspeakable acts against thousands of innocent people. There have even been a few times when I turned my anger against Gabrielle. I would like to believe that it will never happen again. And I don't think it will. Gods help me, I don't want it to. But there is always a remote possibility that it will. She knows this too. And yet she loves me. And she forgives me for the pain I have caused her in the past, and the crimes I have committed against other people. Even though I will never be able to truly forgive myself.

The darkness has tortured me since I watched my brother Lyceus fall to Cortese. And there are times when I fear the pain will suffocate me. It is a never-ending battle for control. Myself versus myself. It is a darkness I am certain I will never be completely free of. No one knows this but her. She sees it. She lives with it, every day of her life.

For a very long time now, she has been the one who reaches down, into my most shameful places, and is able to pull me back up into the light that is her love for me. She is the one who illuminates my way. And at the same time she is my way. She surrounds me and drives back the demons that taunt me. They cannot survive in her presence. She is everything that is good and pure in my world.

She has given me a respect and a dignity I do not deserve. She believes in me. This forces me to work hard to live up to that belief. And sometimes when I'm feeling especially good, I can almost muster up a small measure of self-respect. I would never be able to do this if it weren't for her. She is the best part of me.

The world watches us and sees me as her protector. And I am. They sometimes see my bard as weak. They couldn't be more wrong. She's the strongest person I know. Much stronger than I am. The truth is that I need her a lot more than she needs me. If I were to ever say this out loud, she would deny it. But in the long silences of the night, when I hold her close to me, we both know the truth.

"Soothe my pain?" I repeat her words. I feel myself surrender to her, and my whole body relaxes into the warmth she is creating with her lips and hands. I swallow and feel a tear escape from one of my eyes, trickling down until the blindfold stops it. I know she can hear the catch in my voice. I have never felt more naked and vulnerable than I do at this moment, and yet I have never felt more loved. "Gabrielle, you're the only one who can."

"I love you Xena." She slides lower and kisses my inner thighs. As if she were kissing my lips. "I will always love you. No matter what."

I feel her hands slide under me and grasp my behind, forcing my hips to tilt upward. And then she kisses me again, much closer to where I am longing to feel her. The first contact causes my entire body to jerk, and I cannot hold back the groan this causes. Then she deepens the contact and every nerve ending I have suddenly stands at attention.

Now there is something totally erotic about laying on your back, buck naked, blindfolded, and tied spread-eagle, with your girl working magic between your legs with her mouth. I think I've forgotten how to breathe. Every fiber of my being has become focused on the sensations she is evoking. There is nothing else in my world at this moment but her lips and fingers, and a need that only she can satisfy.

I cannot speak and thank the gods, she doesn't need any direction from me. We have shared a physical relationship for over eight moons now. By now, I am certain she knows my body almost better than I do. And right now, she's doing a damned good job of proving it. I know I am not going to last long, and can already feel the edges of my climax.

Then I feel her enter me, stroking me slowly and sensually, while she continues to use her lips and tongue to good effect. I feel all the sensations swirl together, rushing up too quickly to fight. I feel my body convulse and vaguely hear someone scream. And then realize I'm the one screaming.

And then she's there, untying my ankles and wrists, and pushing the blindfold up over my head. I immediately pull her into my arms. I am crying. She is soothing me, looking into my eyes to ground me, whispering words I don't comprehend. They work anyway, and I begin to float back down to earth. She kisses me and lays down against my shoulder, tracing those familiar little patterns on my skin.

"You ... um ... Gabrielle ..." I try to speak and she kisses me again to silence me.

"I know." Two words, but that is all I need to hear. She understands me. I don't have to say anything at all.

"Xena, I love you so much." My bard is trembling. "I wish you could love yourself, even a tiny bit."

"Don't give up on me, sweetheart." There. I do find some words that make sense. "If anyone can teach me how to love, myself or anyone else, it's you."

"I'll never give up on you, Xena." She raises up on one arm to look into my eyes, and brushes a few remaining tears off my cheeks. "Don't you know that by now?"

I tighten my grip and gently roll her over. I spend the next few candle marks showing my bard just how much she means to me. In the way that she likes it best. Slowly and thoroughly, with light touches where she needs them, and firmer touches in other places. My lover has a lot of nice buttons, and I want to make sure I push all of them.

And much later she is laying on her stomach. She's almost asleep and I am peppering her back and shoulders with small kisses. Finally, I force myself to let her really sleep, and I lay down with my face resting between her shoulder blades. I drape an arm across her and down her arm. I love sleeping with her like this, covering her partly with my own body. Where my ear rests against her back, I can hear her heartbeat. It is the most peaceful place I will ever be.


Part 7

I am sitting at a table on the terrace at The Bitter End, waiting for Sappho. Three times in three days I've been here. I chuckle. It doesn't fit me anymore. I've outgrown it. And grown into other things that mean so much more.

Gabrielle is in the Lesbos marketplace. I haven't seen her eyes that big in a long time. Probably since the Alexandria market. It is like nothing she has ever seen before, even in Athens. There are no cluttered open booths. It is all enclosed luxurious shops, each one offering drinks and refreshments to its patrons, and each one with merchants eager to fawn over every woman that walks through their door. Her parting words to me were for me to take my time visiting with Sappho. I am praying to the gods that at the end of this day, we have enough dinars left to buy our passage home.

It is a beautiful afternoon. My bard and I spent the first part of the morning in bed, just snuggling. Then we ate breakfast and moved out to the porch and spent the second part of the morning doing some more snuggling. I don't know what it is about her, but I am perfectly content to sit and hold her, and watch the day roll by.

We talked some. About our upcoming joining ceremony in the spring, and some of the things we need to get done before then. Her sister Lila is going to come stay with us for an entire moon before the ceremony. Not literally with us. We will put her up in a guest hut near our hut. Gabrielle hasn't spent much time with her since she left Potadeia to follow me, almost six years ago.

When they were younger, Lila was almost raped by their uncle, and my bard blames herself for not protecting her. She told me about it while we were in Egypt. We learned a lot about each other during that trip. Her uncle will not be invited to our joining ceremony. My bard doesn't want him there, and frankly, if he did show up, I would probably have to kill him.

Not only did he try to rape Lila, he used to get drunk and beat both of them when he was supposed to be taking care of them. Bastard. I can just imagine what a cute little kid Gabrielle must have been. And she's always been so trusting and optimistic. The thought of anyone hurting a sweet little kid like that makes my blood boil. Even more that it was Gabrielle.

Gabrielle thinks that Lila is afraid to get married or leave home because of the abuse by their uncle. She wants to spend that last moon before our joining getting re-acquainted with her sister. I think it's a good idea. Plus, that way Lila will be there to help Gabrielle with last-minute plans. I am not very good with a lot of that stuff. It is just as well that my bard will have someone else around who probably shares her same good taste.

Lila and I get along pretty well. She was really nice to me at Gabrielle's birthday party in Amphipolis two years ago. I think Lila has a little bit of my bard's adventurous blood. At least she's not afraid to travel. She did seem to have a thing for Joxer. I guess there's no accounting for attraction. Unfortunately, Joxer didn't seem to return her affections. Also unfortunately for Joxer, he's dead now.

I remember when I first figured out that Joxer was in love with Gabrielle. It was when Cupid's son, baby Bliss, ran amuck with some of Cupid's arrows. I got hit and fell in love with Draco. Draco got hit and fell in love with Gabrielle. Gabrielle got hit and fell in love with Joxer. What's really funny is that I was almost the first one she saw. Joxer jumped in the way at the last minute.

We were talking about that just the other day. Every time something happens to Gabrielle that she is put under the influence of some substance or force that decreases her inhibitions, she always seems to gravitate to me. It happened a long time ago with that henbane-laced nutbread, and all of a sudden she thought I was beautiful. And when Tataka took over her body, she later admitted to me that she was having feelings of attraction to me. She did try to climb up my body and lick me on the face. And when Cupid's arrow hit her, my name was the first word out of her mouth.

I've often wondered if we would have figured things out a whole lot sooner if she had seen me first. Or if I would have wanted Cupid to remove the spell on her. Anyway, that night after Cupid put everything back the way it was supposed to be, we were camping and Gabrielle had a good laugh over her temporary infatuation with Joxer. But I saw the pain in Joxer's eyes. And I knew then that he was in trouble. It just wasn't going to happen. Maybe with someone else, but not with Joxer.

Early on there were so many young men that I thought Gabrielle was going to end up leaving me for. And at first, I wasn't terribly bothered by that. I actually expected it. It wasn't until she married Perdicus and then he was killed, that I realized that maybe my feelings for her were a little deeper than I had been willing to admit. I was sorry for her pain, but there was a tiny part of me that wasn't so sad that he was gone. I know that's selfish, but that's how I felt.

I don't know exactly when she quit looking at every cute guy that came along. And I don't know when I quit thinking about Marcus, or Hercules, or any of the other people from my past. Gabrielle's experience was certainly very limited. Solely to Perdicus. I had been with many people, men and women. You would think I would have known what was going on between us, but for some reason when it came to her, I was completely blind for a very long time.

I think it's because I had never truly been in love before, and so I didn't recognize it for what it was. And it happened very gradually, over a long period of time. I can't pin-point the precise moment that I fell in love with her. All I know is that I have been in love with her for a long time. Well before we were crucified. It just took death for me to admit it. Just like the first time I ever kissed her, I was dead. Funny, she had to have her inhibitions removed to admit her feelings for me, and I had to be dead. What a pair we are.

I look up and Sappho is standing over the table, shaking her head and grinning. I didn't even hear her approach me. "Don't even bother explaining the look on your face, Xena. There's only one person you could be thinking about that could cause that expression."

"Hey ..." I start to protest, and she just laughs at me.

"Save it. I saw you last night. And the night before that." She leans over me and kisses both cheeks, and then she sits down. "If I had any doubts about your feelings for each other, they were all squelched last night. You both positively glow in each other's presence."

"Yeah?" I sit up and I know I am half-scowling, half-grinning back at her. "Well you were doing a little glowing of your own last night, if I recall."

I watch the tenth muse blush. She reaches up and smooths her hair back, and shifts in her chair. I made the great Sappho squirm. "Atthis." She gets this dreamy little look in her eyes. "Yes, we've been a pretty steady item for about two years now, Xena. I think we both finally admitted that we are better together than apart. Have you and Gabrielle ever broken up and then gotten back together?"

It is like a hammer slamming into my chest. I think about the Deliverer and Dahak and Hope. And the death of Solan and all the horrible things I did to her after that. Sappho knows nothing of Solan, and I am not prepared to share that part of my life with her. It is too painful. I know my eyes flinch away from her. I also know that she doesn't miss much. "Not exactly." I look at her and force myself to make eye contact. "Not as a couple. But a while back, when we were still platonic friends, we went through some very hard times that almost tore us apart."

"Your Gabrielle has been through a lot in her young life, hasn't she?" Sappho looks up as a server brings us some tankards of dark sweet ale.

"Yes." I sigh heavily and I know my friend can read my eyes. She always could. "Most of it because of me."

"Xena." Sappho reaches across and touches my arm. I allow it. "Don't be so hard on yourself. She loves you. Very much. You have no idea how badly she wants to please you."

"Yeah." I swallow some ale. "I do."

"No." She brushes my arm with her finger tips. "You don't."

I raise my eyebrows at her. Not for her actions. Her actions are familiar, and I know they are those of a good friend, and nothing more. I am confused at her words. "What do you mean?"

"Xena, why do you think you're here?" She sits back and crosses her arms.

"Because Gabrielle knows I've been here, and she was curious." It's true, I reason with myself. We talked about it the night I asked her to be joined with me. And we've discussed it several times since then. She always has lots of questions about what I've done here.

"So you think this entire trip is all about Gabrielle?" Sappho gives me a piercing stare, and I suddenly wonder what I've missed.

"I ... that's what I thought it was about, yes." I take a large gulp of my ale, grateful for the distracting burn as it slides down my throat to my stomach. "She's the one who wanted to come here."

"Think again." She leans across the table and touches my arm again. "Xena, would you like to know what we talked about while you were sitting inside at the bar two days ago?"

"I don't normally intrude into Gabrielle's private conversations." I find myself on the defensive and I still don't know why.

"And that's admirable on your part." She smiles at me. "But this is something I think you need to know."

"What?" I take another drink and steel myself.

"I didn't ask her about you and her. I didn't need to. It was obvious to me how much in love you two are the minute I saw you together. And I didn't ask her about your life over the past six years. I've heard enough from stories to know that you've changed. And have become everything I always knew you could be. Including finding someone like Gabrielle to give you guidance."

"Thank you. That means a lot coming from you." I am both humbled and pleased at her words, and I know it shows on my face. "So what did you talk about?"

"I asked her what her expectations were." Sappho eyes me and sips from her own mug. "What she wanted to get out of her trip here, it being her first visit and all."

From her tone and expressions, I get the feeling the tenth muse is about to tell me something I am not going to like. "And?"

"She had no expectations for herself, Xena. There wasn't a single specific experience she wanted to have while she is here." Sappho looks almost sad as she continues to speak. "I even ran through a list of fantasies we could create for her, and she declined all of them."

I almost choke on my ale. My sweet shy Gabrielle discussed sexual fantasies with Sappho? After she had only known her for maybe a half candle mark? "Sappho. You know me. And you know my patience level. Is there a point here?"

"You know there is." She takes a long sip of her ale, I think to make me suffer. "Do you want to know what her fantasy is?"

This time I do choke. After I cough and splutter for a few moments, I excuse myself and walk over and lean over the railing to look out at the sea and regain my composure. And I am hurt. And angry. Gabrielle has some private fantasy that she was willing to share with Sappho, but not with me? I don't understand.

I feel Sappho move in beside me, and she rubs my back. "Xena. You may be fighting on the side of good now, but it is obvious that your pride is still firmly intact."

I turn my head and give her my best scowl. She pats my cheek. "Shove it back down, Xena. That doesn't work on me and it never did. Before you become angry with Gabrielle, ask yourself this. Have you ever asked her about her fantasies?"

"Well of course I ..." I stop. And think. While it's true that at times, I've let her take the lead in our love-making, that's just it. I let her. She didn't take without asking first. Last night for example. But I've never just come out and asked her what she wants or needs. I have always assumed I knew. "No." I look down. "I guess I haven't."

"I did. And she answered." Sappho leads me over to a more comfortable bench on the terrace and I numbly sit down.

"Xena, Gabrielle told me that she wanted to come to Lesbos so that you could make some new memories here. Memories that include her, and not the scores of women you've been with here before her." The tenth muse turns and faces me.

Oh gods.

"There's more."

"Go on." I think.

"Xena, she wants to know that she is enough for you. She told me that her experience is basically limited to what you have taught her. She's afraid that she can't measure up to your past. She asked me if I had any pointers for her."

I glare at Sappho and she slaps me on the arm. Not real hard.

"Stop it already. I didn't give her any specifics about things you've done here before. Hades, Xena. I don't really know what all you've done here before. Who could keep up with it? That's your personal affair. But I do know your reputation, and that's what Gabrielle is afraid she can never live up to. I told her to just go with her heart. And to not be afraid to experiment with you. I do know this about you Xena, you are known for being a very attentive and giving lover. I was fairly certain that there was nothing Gabrielle could propose to you that you wouldn't be receptive to. Am I right?"

"Yeah." I grin sheepishly at her. "And she's definitely surprised me a few times already. If she wanted to help me make new memories, she's certainly achieved that part of her goal."

"Good for her." Sappho looks quite pleased with herself. "Now, my friend, you know what you have to do, don't you?"

"Put her fears to rest, once and for all." I look out at the sea, wishing I were with her already. I've told her, several times, that she is all I could ever need. I just never thought to show her. "Sappho, I hate to cut this visit short, but there's a bard I need to go find."

"I thought so." Sappho escorts me to the front door of the tavern. "Xena, you do know that I'm always here if you need me, don't you?"

"I know." I kiss her lightly on the lips. We both know it is an affectionate gesture between friends. "Thank you."

I make my way to a carriage and climb in. "Take me to the market area." As we speed away, it occurs to me that we have done things a little backwards. I never courted Gabrielle. That is about to change.


Part 8

The carriage drops me off near the main portal to the market place, a large arch that is more decorative than functional. I start to cross the road when I spot a little tavern on the other side of the street from the market area, sitting directly on the beach. I don't know if it's a new place or an old place. All I am sure of is that if I've been in there before, it's been so long that I don't remember it.

I change direction and pause at the entryway, looking around, trying to determine if they serve food, or just drinks. I find no one inside, which is fairly simple, just a bar with several tables. There is a very small stage tucked into a corner. Certainly nothing like The Bitter End. I move through the room to the back door and step outside.

It is beautiful. A nice wooden deck area overlooking the beach and the dark blue-green water. It is not on a cliff, but on a gentle slope that leads down to the water's edge. Tables are scattered across the deck and there is another outdoor bar and a large open grill in the center of the deck. It vaguely reminds me of the tavern we frequented on Zakynthos.

In a cozy corner of the deck, off by itself, is a table for two next to an outdoor fireplace, an open pit built of large pieces of rock. It is perfect. I make my way back inside and call up the stairs, which I assume is the residence of whoever owns the tavern. "Hello? Anyone up there?"

"Just a moment." A raspy female voice greets me.

Eventually, an older woman, heavy-set, with graying hair, comes down the stairs. "Can I help you?"

"Do you serve dinner out there?" I gesture toward the open back door toward the deck.

"Yes, we begin serving every evening, one candle mark before dusk." She eyes me without fear or curiosity, and I assume she must know who I am.


"What else is there?" The woman laughs and her eyes twinkle.

"True." It is a island, and seafood is a staple here. "I'd like to reserve that table by the fire pit for this evening."

"Don't take reservations." She looks me up and down and her eyes come to rest on my belt pouch.

Okay. I know how to play the game here. I dig into my pouch and pull out a ten-dinar piece. "Let's try this again." I give her my most charming smile. "I'd like to reserve that table by the fire pit for this evening, for two."

She takes the coinage from me and studies it. "Queen Gabrielle of Amazonia?"

"Yes. That's where I live." I try to remain friendly. "Are my dinars good here or not?"

"Yes, yes. They're good." She looks me up and down again. "Table for two, eh?"

"Yes." Is this woman deaf or forgetful? Or just annoying.

"Another ten will get you candle light, a flask of my special reserve wine from Gaul, and a table side serenade by my lyre player." She give me a knowing grin.

"How about fresh flowers on the table?" I reach into my pouch again. "Daisies. They have to be daisies. Not those white and yellow ones. The ones that come in all different colors." Those are my bard's favorites.

"I can arrange for that, at no extra charge." She watches me. "Get an extra five while you're in there."

"Why?" I pause and my eyes narrow. She's starting to really get on my nerves.

"That'll get you two tickets to the open-air show down the beach. Starts a candle mark after sunset." She leans close to me. "From what I here, it's a romantic sort of production."

I sigh. "Fine." I need all the help I can get here, and if I have to endure a play, so be it. I find the fifteen additional dinars and hand them over to her. I have no idea if I've just made a deposit on our dinner, or paid for the whole thing. At this point, I don't care. I just want to get out of here and go find Gabrielle.

"So I'm set, then?" I am already moving toward the front door.

"Yes. I'll see you a candle mark before dusk." She steps back toward the stairs and I hear her mumbling to herself a she begins to ascend them. "Wait until I tell Heloise the warrior princess is dining in my tavern tonight."

I shake my head and groan internally, and cross the street toward the market place. There is a good-sized group of shoppers milling about, but it's not so crowded that I feel claustrophobic. Something I'm prone to, for some reason, when it comes to markets. I have no idea where Gabrielle might be. We were to meet at the arch by dusk, so she's certainly not expecting me in the middle of the afternoon.

I begin walking down the center of the plaza between the rows of shops. It's been over two candles mark since I left her here, so I'm certain she's been past all of these shops already. I study each one, trying to determine if she might have gone in or not. With the exception of a few places, she probably visited all of them.

One window display catches my eye and I am drawn to it like a moth to a lantern. A huge array of weapons and weaponry. I am fairly certain my bard did not patronize this shop. I scan every item in the window and pause to chuckle at a sign. 'All blades as strong as if forged by Hephestus.' I snort out loud. Right.

I make my way inside and retrieve one of the daggers from the window. I pluck my chakram from its loop at my hip and look around to see if anyone is watching. Satisfied I'm not being observed, I run the edge of my chakram along the flat of the dagger blade, leaving a fine scratch. I replace the chakram and pull out my breast dagger, and make another scratch. Strong as Hephestus my ass. More like cheaply-forged low-grade steel.

I lay the slightly-damaged merchandise back in the display case. I don't consider my actions to be unscrupulous. I am making sure that any warrior coming in to purchase a new blade won't be tricked into buying that cheap piece of fake horse manure. The blade would break after very little use. It could mean the difference between life and death for someone.

I suddenly remember that I need a new whetstone. Hopefully not everything in this shop is poorly made. Of course I am on Lesbos, it's not exactly a haven of weapons craftsmanship. I make my way to a table at the back of the shop, where I find a variety of whetstones, chamois cloths, armor bits, and other small warrior toys.

The owner of the shop comes out from a back room. "What can I do for you?"

"I need a whetstone." I pick up one and rub my thumb across the rough grainy surface. I draw my sword and pause before testing it out. "May I?"

"Go right ahead." I begin to sharpen my sword, pleased with the results. "Must be my lucky day." The man makes idle talk with me.

"Why's that?" I peer at him, careful not to cut myself.

"You're the second beautiful woman in as many candle marks who has come in here looking for a whetstone today." He smiles at me, giving me the once-over.

Great. One who wants to flirt. "Oh, yeah?" I re-sheath my sword and place the stone on the table, preparing to pay for it.

"Yeah. Just sold a stone exactly like that one to a cute little blonde, less than two candle marks ago."

I pause. "Shoulder-length blonde hair, white skirt and top, about this tall?" I hold my hand up at shoulder level.

"Yeah." He raises his eyebrows in surprise. "She looked a bit like she could hold her own in fight. Was packing a nice pair of sais. Used them to test out the stone. But she said the stone wasn't for her. It was a surprise for her betrothed. Hey." He eyes my hand, which is still in mid-air. "She was wearing a ring exactly like that one."

"I know." I grin at him. "Um ... sorry, but I don't believe I'm going to buy the stone after all."

"No?" He looks hurt. "Something wrong with it?"

"No." I smile. "It's perfect. I just remembered. I think I already have one exactly like it."

"Okay." He looks at me as if I've lost my mind.

"Oh." I turn back toward him from the doorway. "You might want to find yourself a new arms broker. The one you're using is selling you cheap second-rate goods."

"Hey." He shouts after me, but I ignore him, and make my way back out onto the plaza.

I keep telling myself that when she gives me the stone, I will act surprised. I can do surprised. I ... will ... be ... surprised. That settles that. I keep walking, looking carefully inside every shop to see if Gabrielle is inside any of them.

I keep smiling like an idiot. I can't believe she remembered I needed that stone. Or that she knew exactly which one to get. We haven't bought any gifts for each other since Alexandria. Except for this trip. It was our winter solstice gift to each other.

In fact ... that little sneak. We promised no gifts except for the trip. Okay, bard, you broke the rules, I can too. I suddenly find myself becoming one of the shoppers. I spy a shop full of frilly-looking things, take a deep breath, and dive in.

One candle mark and several packages later, I decide I need to quit shopping and make a more concerted effort to find my partner. I am carrying a basket. Me. A shopping basket. The merchant in the last shop felt sorry for me because my arms were so full, and gave it to me. How in Hades am I going to explain a shopping basket full of wrapped items to her?

I get an idea. I really want to wait and give her all this stuff later, when we're alone. I flag down a servant girl. "Hey, you know the guest cottage on the eastern cliffs?"

"Yes." The girl looks at me in awe. Great. Does everyone around here know who I am?

"I'll pay you ten dinars to run this basket up there." I flip a coin out of my pouch.

"Okay." She smiles. "Right away. Thank you."

I retrieve one small package from the basket and pocket it, and watch her take off. Now my hands are free, and I can concentrate on finding Gabrielle. After several trips in and out of shops, I pick up her trail. Finally, I round a corner and spot her, at what appears to be a food cart. I should have looked there first.

I grin and slow my steps, deciding on the best approach. I crouch down and sneak up, and stand directly behind her. I'm so close I can smell the sandalwood oil she used on her skin after our bath this morning. Gods she smells good. I shake my head to clear it.

She's about to take a bite of an apple tart. Just as she lifts it to her lips, I reach around and snatch it from her hand.

"Hey!" She spins around and then smiles. And then frowns. "Xena! Give me that."

Oh. She's hungry. I detect the tell-tale grumpiness in her eyes. And the faint growling sound from her stomach. I smile and hold it out to her, indicating she should take a bite. She smiles coyly at me and complies. "Thuft wresre a shorf vishit."

Luckily I've shared a meal and conversation with her many times, and I understand her completely. "I decided I'd rather spend the afternoon shopping with you."

She reaches up and makes a great show of feeling my forehead for fever. And swallows her tart. "Hmmm. You don't seem to be overly warm."

"Not yet. But if you're offering to heat me up, I'm game." I give her a lascivious grin. She backhands me on the stomach. "Guess not."

"Later." She leans up on her toes and purrs in my ear.

Gods. I want to ... I force myself to concentrate on the moment at hand. This is about courting Gabrielle, not about getting laid. I smile internally. Well, not at this moment, anyway.

"I'll hold you to that." I waggle my eyebrows at her and hold out my arm. "So, shall we shop?"

She gives me the most curious appraisal, and then slips her hand around my forearm. I notice she's carrying her travel bag over her other shoulder. "Want me to carry that for you?"

Her eyes look almost panicked. "Um ... no. Thank you, Xena. It's not very heavy. I'm fine."

Ah. That must be where my new whetstone is hidden. "Okay. If you get tired of carrying it, I don't mind."

She looks at me again and shakes her head slightly, just a tiny grin playing at the corners of her mouth. I realize I've basically just offered to carry her purse. I don't ever carry purses. Very un-warrior-like.

We spend most of the afternoon looking at everything, and buying almost nothing. Although I've probably already bought more in one afternoon than I have in all of the rest of the past year. She doesn't seem to be eager to purchase any more goods either, and I notice there are several bulges in her bag. Hmmmm.

I am enjoying her company. We laugh at a lot of the same things. Silly looking hats. Funny looking people, although we try not to laugh loudly enough for them to hear us. The wide-eyed kid in her is out in full force, and she has to explore everything. I am seeing through her eyes, as we look at jewelry and paintings and pottery and clothing.

She stops to admire a painting that appears to be a view very similar to the one we see from the porch of our guest house. It is of a sunrise from atop some cliffs. I can tell she likes it a lot. "That would look nice over the fireplace in our bedroom back in the village." I offer, and she rewards me with the brightest smile. I think I just bought us a painting.

I watch her haggle with the artist, a master at work. Gabrielle being the master, that is. Finally, they reach a mutually-agreeable price, and I open my belt pouch and retrieve several ten-dinar coins. We arrange for a runner to deliver it to our cottage and I look up at the sun. It's been a long but nice afternoon, and it is almost a candle mark before dusk.

"Gabrielle, I made reservations for us to eat dinner across the way, if you're interested." Gods, I hope she doesn't say she isn't hungry. Like that would ever happen. "And um ... there's this ... show afterward. I don't know much about it, but it was included with dinner."

Her eyes light up and she moves in front of me, facing me, and takes both my hands in hers. "Did I just hear you say you're taking me to dinner and a play?"

"Yeah." I squeeze her hands. "I mean ... if you want to, that is." Why in Hades do I feel so awkward with the woman I am betrothed to? I feel like a kid asking a girl to my first village dance.

"I'd love to." She reaches up and draws my face down, and gives me a tiny peck on the lips. That's nice. I can taste apple on her lips.

I escort her across the road to the tavern, and through the interior out to the terrace. I am relieved to find most of the tables already occupied. Good. I didn't pick a bad tavern. The owner from earlier in the afternoon recognizes me, and immediately leads us to the table I reserved.

True to her word, there is a cluster of multi-colored daisies in a vase to one side of the table top, and a triad of candles in the center. On the other side is a wineskin and two ceramic mugs. I hold out a chair for Gabrielle and after she takes her place, I slide into the seat across the table from her.

Gabrielle appears to be in a daze, and is looking around, taking it all in. The sun is low in the sky near the horizon, and a cheery fire is blazing in the pit next to our table. The smell of sizzling fish wafts over from the grill, and the low conversation of the other patrons creates the atmosphere of a party. Slowly, my bard's gaze returns to the table.

"Daisies." She looks up at me. "Xena, none of the other tables have flowers on them."

"That's their problem." I smile at her and uncap the wine flask, and pour the sweet dark liquid into our mugs.

"You ... arranged all of this ... all by yourself?" She looks incredulous.

I feel myself blush. "Yes. I just ... wanted to do something special ... for you. Do ... do you like it?"

"I love it." She reaches across and takes my hand, and lifts it to her lips, giving me a soft kiss.

I use my free hand to give her a mug, and then I lift mine, and clink it against the rim of hers. "To the gorgeous girl I want to spend the rest of my life with."

She blinks at me, and opens her mouth, and then closes it. I take a sip of my wine and swallow. "I love you, Gabrielle."

"I love you too." She whispers, and then takes a sip from her own mug.

We spend several long minutes just gazing into each other's eyes. Her eyes are so beautiful. Right now they're almost turquoise, with little golden flecks floating in them. She's glowing, and I think it's more than the nearby fire. Amazing what a little adoration can do for her self-esteem.

"Xena, are you feeling okay?" Her brows furrow and she squeezes my hand, the one she's still holding.

"Never better, why?" Gods. I must have really been slipping in the sex-free romance department. I make a mental note to send Sappho some flowers tomorrow.

"No reason." She smiles and appears to relax a bit. "This is really nice, honey. How'd we rate this table?"

"Nothing but the best for you." This earns me a nice blush.

A server brings us two plates of food, and we spend the remainder of our meal feeding each other, talking about the afternoon, and looking out at the water. When the sun sets, everyone on the deck raises their mugs in a toast, and cheers, just like at The Bitter End. Gabrielle laughs merrily during this group toast, and her cheeks are flushed. Probably a touch of the wine, and I hope, a reflection of her feelings for me.

I am falling in love with her all over again. A slight breeze is ruffling her hair and her white outfit is showing off her tanned skin very nicely. She's joking with me, telling me several little funny stories she has stored in her repertoire. It reminds me a lot of our early days on the road together. I keep part of my focus on her story, and part of me is wondering, not for the first time, how I got lucky enough to find this absolutely charming girl sitting across the table from me.

I notice that she's wearing the garnet bracelet I bought her in Manolie's village, and I reach out, fingering the delicate silver chain. She smiles at me. "Remember when you gave this to me?"

"Yeah." I think back to those first days after Eli raised us from the dead. She needed new clothes, and quite on a whim, I went out one morning while she slept in, and bought her a new outfit, the red one, along with the bracelet. I gave the bracelet to her that night, after she performed for the patrons of Manolie's inn. One thing led to another, and we ended up sharing a rather heated kiss right there in front of everyone. And then I took her upstairs and made love to her for most of the night. "I think there are still a few little old ladies in that village with their eyebrows permanently attached to their hairline."

She giggles at this. "Xena, what is it about you, that I can just look at you, and forget there's anyone else in the room?"

"Don't know." I am still playing with her bracelet. "But whatever it is, it must be catching, because I have it too."

While we've been talking, the lyre player has been making his way from table to table, playing different songs for different couples. He reaches our table and pauses to study us. He smiles and begins to strum an instrumental piece, one that is traditionally played at weddings.

Gabrielle blushes and ducks her head. I reach across and tilt her chin up, and run my thumb across her lips. Lips that are so full and soft. And that I'd like to kiss right about now. The lyre player finishes his song and I tip him. I can't remember the last time I shelled out this many dinars in one day. It's been worth every bit.

She reaches around and digs down into her bag. "Xena, I got you something." She lays a small package in front of me. "I know I wasn't supposed to, but I saw this and ... I just wanted to get it for you."

I pick up the package, and barely manage not to frown. It's not the right weight to be the whetstone. Now I am curious. I look at her, and tear open the wrapping, and open a small box. Nestled in the box is a strip of braided leather, the same color as my leathers. It has a tiny leather loop on one end, and a small brass knob on the other.

"It's a bracelet." Gabrielle picks it up and lifts my wrist. "May I?"

"Of course." I watch her fasten it around my wrist, just below my gauntlet. "That's really nice, sweetheart." I study it more closely after she's finished.

"I know you're not much into jewelry." She bites her lower lip. "But I thought that looked kind of like something a warrior might wear. I don't expect you to wear it on the road or anything, I just thought maybe for special occasions ..."

"I love it, Gabrielle." And I do. If for no other reason than it's from her. It really is a nice-looking piece. "Thank you." I look around the area. Our plates have been cleared away, and some people appear to be making their way down the beach toward the area where the show is supposed to be. "You want to walk that way?" I nod toward the water.

"Yes." I get up and take her hand. She removes the daisies from the vase and we make our way down a set of wooden steps and end up in soft sand. I wrap my arm around her shoulders, and feel her arm slip around my waist. "Nice night." She looks up at me and her eyes are all shiny.

"Yeah." I stop and fish a small box out of my pouch. "I got you something too." I hand it to her and we stop while she opens it. She keeps looking at me with this cute little smile on her face. She finally gets it open and pulls out an ivory hair comb I got for her. It has little flowers etched on it.

"Xena." She looks at me with big eyes. "It's so pretty." She tries to tuck it into her hair with her free hand, and gets it a bit lop-sided.

"Here." I retrieve it. "Let me help you." I brush her hair back on one side with my fingertips, and then slip the comb into place, pulling her hair up on one side over her ear. I trail my fingers back and cup her face with my hand. "So beautiful."

My bard blushes. "Thank you."

I lean in and kiss her, brushing our lips together a few times. I can feel the ocean breeze at my back, and feel one of her hands on my shoulder, her fingers digging in slightly. I can feel the other hand against my arm, holding on to her bouquet of daisies. She tastes like the sweet wine we've been drinking, and I deepen the contact just a bit, sliding my hands down to her hips and pulling her closer. I could stay here like this all night, but I reluctantly break off and drape my arm around her again, and resume our trek to the open-air theater.

We reach the area where the stage is set-up and an usher hands us two blankets and two pillows. How handy. The slope leading up from the stage has been terraced, so that people can recline without rolling down the hill, and still be able to see over the people in front of them. I find us a spot fairly far up-slope. It's a warrior thing. I don't like having a lot of strangers at my back for a long period of time.

I remove my chest armor and spread out my blanket, and toss my pillow down, and take Gabrielle's pillow and toss it down beside mine. "We can use your blanket to cover up from the chill." I grin at her. "Unless you'd rather not sit so close to me."

She grins back at me and plops down on the blanket, and holds one hand up to me. I take it and she pulls me down next to her. We spend a few moments getting ourselves settled, and end up spooning, facing the stage, with my bard reclining in front of me. I pull the extra blanket over us, and wrap one arm around her waist. She snuggles back against me, just as an actor appears on the stage.

The play is a new one, untitled, by Orion. Gabrielle gasps and looks back to remind me that Orion is one of her friends from the academy in Athens. We watch, as several actors take the stage, and begin to tell the story of Ulysses and the sirens. I groan. And then am pleased, as it becomes apparent they have failed to include me in the story. Thank the gods. So they got their facts wrong. I can live with that if it means watching the production in peace.

Gabrielle is not pleased. "Xena." She hisses. If this play makes it very far, it's going to go down in history that you weren't there."

I smile and pat her stomach where my hand is resting. "Gabrielle. It's okay. I don't mind. Really."

"I need to send word to Orion about the importance of getting his facts straight." My bard is muttering under her breath. Finally, I feel her relax back against me.

After the play is over, another actor comes out on stage and announces that the "adult" entertainment will now begin. I groan internally. I have seen so many of these productions on Lesbos. Cabarets composed of mostly, if not totally, nude dancers. True to my memories, several naked women take the stage and begin to perform some dance routines.

I am bored with the performance, but slightly amused at the same time, because I don't think Gabrielle has ever seen anything like this before. It's not vulgar dance, it is supposed to be 'art,' as Sappho calls it. I grin, observing my bard as she watches.

Her hair is right under my nose, and it smells like clean soap and fresh sea air. I nuzzle my face into her hair and inhale deeply. I forget about the stage and begin to explore her salty skin. She's wearing the white top I got her in Alexandria, that only has a strap on one side. I kiss a completely-bare expanse of neck and shoulder, taking my time to make a trail all the way down to her arm.

She looks back at me and frowns. "Xena, aren't you going to watch the show?"

"I'd rather watch you." I mumble against the nape of her neck, and then I nip it, causing her to shiver.

"Really?" She turns more fully around, which moves my playground out of reach temporarily.

"Really." I pull her back against me and resume my activities.

"Xena." She's watching the stage while she speaks. "There are six completely naked, totally fit, beautiful women dancing on that stage down there"

"And your point is?" I begin making circles with my hand against her bare stomach, and I kiss her right below her ear.

"You are telling me you'd rather watch me?" Her voice catches and her stomach muscles contract strongly as I bite down teasingly on her neck.

I reach around and gently tilt her head back to make eye contact. "Always."

She turns completely toward me and pulls my face down to hers, and gives me a long, very sweet kiss. I push her down onto the blanket and roll partway on top of her. She opens her mouth, inviting me in. I accept, allowing my fingers to trail down her side and across the tops of her legs, as I explore her lips and mouth with reckless abandon. Gods she tastes good, and I feel her body molding itself to mine.

We're on Lesbos, it's dark, and half the couples around us are engaged in similar activity at this point. I really want to take things further, a whole lot further. But I know her. Not a good idea. I force myself to pull away from that sweet mouth, and I look down at her, brushing my fingers through her hair and caressing her face.

"Xena, do you want to watch the rest of the show?" Her chest is rising and falling in uneven breaths, and her fingers are playing against the skin just above my leathers, sending very pleasant chills down my spine.

"Sweetheart, I wasn't watching the show in the first place, remember?" I peck her on the lips and smile.

"Oh, yeah." She runs one finger down to my navel, locating it through my leathers, and making circles around it. "How about if we go back to our cottage, and I give you a private show?"

"I'd like that very much." I lean down and kiss her slowly, enjoying the sensation of her kissing me back. I help her up, collect our things, and soon we are in a carriage headed toward the eastern cliffs.


Continued in Part 9-11

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