Illuminations of the Soul by Cousin Liz

Illumination Of The Soul
by Cousin Liz

Summary: Gabrielle is summoned home and is joined by Xena who is not too warmly welcomed by the bard’s family.

 

 

Chapter 01

 

The well traveled road wound its way through the countryside. The trees on both sides had begun to change color and the crunch of dried leaves under foot was something that Gabrielle always loved to hear. She appreciated the cooler days for traveling, except for the price paid at night. ‘Soon it will be getting downright cold,’ she speculated to herself. They were nearing a town and Xena intended to stay only long enough to buy supplies and get a worn buckle on Argo’s saddle replaced.

Gabrielle, who had been discussing the recent exploits of their last adventure, fell silent. She could sense the change in Xena. Back ramrod straight; she sat tall in the saddle. Chin up, shoulders squared and her normally blue eyes now icy gray slits. ‘And that look.’ It still sent shivers down Gabrielle’s spine every time she witnessed the transformation. ‘This must have been what greeted the unfortunate people of the villages and towns that Xena and her army raided. The Warrior Princess.’ Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to picture the scene.

First impressions meant everything and Xena had this down to a science. She wanted no trouble from anyone in town. Although her warlord days were past her, the look still served it’s purpose. “Gabrielle,” Xena said suddenly, thrusting a protective arm in front of her friend who had been walking along side Argo. With her other arm, she pulled Argo to an abrupt stop. Xena sat there motionless, listening.

“What is it?” Gabrielle asked in a hushed tone. “Highway robbers? A deadly animal? A hungry cyclops? Joxer?”

“No, no, no and NO,” Xena chided her friend for her vivid imagination. Even though the town was not yet in sight, she could just make out the sounds of people. Many people. “Something is going on in the town up ahead. I hear the sounds of too many people to be coming from a place of that size. Keep alert,” Xena warned. “There could be trouble.” They continued on.

Gabrielle gripped her staff tighter and gave a few warm-up swings, loosening her muscles. A small smile worked its way across her face. ‘Yes! She didn’t even try to make me stay behind this time while she went on ahead. Nor did she make me climb onto that beast of a war horse of hers, and hide behind her.’ It had taken nearly two years, but Gabrielle felt that Xena was finally trusting her to hold her own in a battle.

They rounded a bend in the road and the countryside opened up onto recently harvested fields. In the distance stood the town. “Wow. It looks like the entire population of the town is out. Xena, they’re having some kind of a celebration!” The young woman’s eyes danced with excitement.

“From the size of the crowd, I’d say the people from the surrounding villages are there also. Must be their harvest festival.” Xena caught the look in her young friend’s eyes. “Maybe we could have a look around… if you’d like?”

“Oh Xena, could we?”

“Sure, Gabrielle. C’mon.” Xena reverted back to her warrior princess persona.

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Even with all of the distractions the festival had to offer, Xena and Gabrielle’s entrance into the town did not go unnoticed. It never did. Xena was not one to blend in easily. Clad in black leather and armor, with a flowing mane of long black hair, the six-foot frame atop the behemoth golden mare stood in stark contrast to the smaller green-eyed strawberry blonde walking along side.

They continued through the village, heading for the inn. “I’m going to stable Argo and give her a good brush down. Why don’t you see about getting us a room for the night,” Xena said as she dismounted her horse.

“I thought you wanted to pick up supplies and be on your way?”

“I know that’s what I said, but I think a short rest will do us all a world of good. Even Argo.” At the mention of her name, Argo turned her head and let out an appreciable snort.

“OK, OK,” Gabrielle laughed as she stroked the flank of the mare. “I’ll see to the room. Then I think I’ll check out the marketplace.”

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With a room for the night rented, Gabrielle enveloped herself in the crowd. She really enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. She had just spent the last five days traveling the road, with Xena and Argo as her only source of companionship. Mind you, she wasn’t complaining, but sometimes Argo was a better conversationalist than Xena. Everywhere she looked, children were laughing and running, many with brightly colored painted faces.

Husbands and wives strolled hand in hand, while young couples were seen in the embrace of each other. The merchants hawked their wares, while jugglers walked the street, tossing brightly colored balls in the air, sometimes between themselves. Off to the left, Gabrielle saw a crowd gathering around a small, raised platform where a man was swallowing swords. Minstrels roamed the street, their lively music sometimes cutting through the din of the festival crowd.

Gabrielle was excited at the prospect of doing a little shopping. ‘Nothing like a little bartering to get the blood flowing,’ she thought to herself. There was everything imaginable for sale here. Food stalls abounded. From the necessities of meat, cheese and breads, to sweets and pastries. ‘I’m definitely going to have to check that stall out later,’ she reminded herself.

Bolts of fancy woven cloth decorated a stall, while further on, an old white-haired man displayed fine leather work. Gabrielle stopped to delicately finger a beautiful hair barrette. Intricately woven, threads of white and silver silk were braided around individual strips of leather, forming a beautiful white flower which glistened in the sunlight. Gabrielle knew not to even bother to ask the price. ‘No amount of bartering will ever get that piece to an affordable price.’ It wasn’t that they were hurting for money. It was just that the cost of living on the road could sometimes be unpredictable. ‘And even with all of my best bartering skills, the price of that barrette would still be equivalent to the cost of a week’s worth of supplies, including Argo’s.’ She moved on before the merchant had a chance to strike up a conversation.

Gabrielle headed off to buy the supplies they needed and find the dessert stall she spied earlier. She would pick up a few treats to surprise Xena. She knew that as much as Xena hated to admit it, she had a sweet tooth almost as big as her young friend’s. With her shopping done and the treats tucked safely away in the bottom of her satchel, Gabrielle headed to where she would most likely find Xena.

Xena was just leaving the Blacksmith’s; Argo’s saddle resting comfortably on her left shoulder. “So?” inquired Gabrielle, as she approached.

“The buckle’s been replaced. Good as new. How’d your shopping go?”

“Great! I got everything we need and I had a wonderful time looking around.”

“Good. Let’s get this stuff put away.” Knowing how her young friend thrived on crowds, Xena continued, “there’s still some time until dinner. Maybe we can have a look around.”

Gabrielle’s eyes lit up at the prospect. She knew how much Xena disliked crowds. “Really? If you’d like… I saw this guy swallowing swords earlier. Over there.” She pointed in the general direction of the platform.

“Swallowing swords, heh? We’ll have to check into that. Never know when it might come in handy,” Xena replied in her best serious voice. She turned and started to head to the stables with Argo’s saddle before Gabrielle could see the grin working its way onto her face.

Gabrielle stood there looking after her friend incredulously. ‘Never know when it might come in handy?’ she repeated to herself. ‘Heh. I sure hope she’s joking. Then again… Xena rarely jokes about anything.’ Gabrielle shook her head trying to disengage the image that was forming of Xena and her sword, and took off after her.

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Chapter 02

The sun had begun to set by the time Xena and Gabrielle returned to the inn. They had spent a rather uneventful afternoon taking in the sights, although sometimes Gabrielle felt like they were one of the attractions. ‘I guess we do make for a rather odd couple,’ she mused. She didn’t even want to begin to guess what people thought she was doing traveling with the likes of the warrior princess. ‘Best to not even go there,’ she reminded herself. Nobody ever came right out and said anything, but she could feel herself being watched. She knew Xena could feel it too, but she never let on. ‘I guess she’s used to it,’ but for Gabrielle, it still made her feel a little queasy whenever it happened.

They sat in their usual spot at the back of the tavern. Xena leaned against the back wall, surveying the room before her. Her friend sat across from her.

Gabrielle enthusiastically sliced another large chunk of meat from the steak before her. Her eyes sparkled with glee as she held it up for a moment’s examination before devouring it. She was in the Elyssian Fields and loving every minute of it.

“I guess you’re going to want me to add cow to my list of dinner quarries now,” Xena said with a bemused smile on her face.

“Oh Xena -” Gabrielle almost choked as she attempted to swallow her latest mouthful. “You know I love what you catch for our dinner. I can just picture the warrior princess stealthily tracking some poor farmer’s milk cow out in his pasture. And what would you tell him Xena? ‘Well, you see… my friend was just hankering for a big juicy steak.’ I don’t think he’d go for that.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. It’s not often we get to eat this well.” It didn’t happen often, but there were days when try as she might, no animal would snare itself in one of the traps she had set. And there wasn’t always a river nearby with a ready source of fish. Meals those nights consisted of bread and what little dried fruits, smoked meat or cheese they had left from their last stop at a village. Gabrielle never complained, although her stomach usually gave her away. Xena’s face clouded over at these thoughts.

Gabrielle had been busily slicing off another large chunk from her steak when she glanced up and noticed that Xena had gone away. “Xena,” she called softly. Xena was staring down at her plate of food, her arms resting on either side of her plate. She looked up. Gabrielle’s heart sank as she looked into her eyes. ‘What could she have been thinking about to cause such sadness to mar the beauty of those blue eyes?’ Gabrielle thought. She instinctively began to reach across the table to cover Xena’s hand with hers, but pulled up short at the last moment and wrapped her fingers around her mug instead. They were in public, she reminded herself. She just had a hard time restraining herself sometimes. She always tended to talk with her hands. They seemed to have a life of their own, and went where they wanted.

“Hmm,” Xena said as she came back to the present.

“What were you thinking about?” Gabrielle tried to ask nonchalantly.

“Oh, nothing in particular. Just trying to give my stomach a chance to catch up,” Xena replied as she went back to her meal.

Gabrielle knew it was pointless to try to gain access to the warrior’s thoughts. If they had been alone, she would not have let the subject drop so easily. She would have prodded Xena a little and maybe gotten somewhere. However, in public, Xena wore her warrior princess armor inside and out. Gabrielle understood, though. It had kept them from being bothered or harassed on more than one occasion.

As they continued their meal, Gabrielle tried to fill the air with light talk, attempting and finally succeeding in bringing Xena out of her funk. “Wow! I don’t think I could eat another bite,” the bard exclaimed as she pushed her empty plate away and leaned back on her chair, patting her bare midriff.

Xena rolled her eyes. “Considering you polished off everything on your plate and then went back for seconds…” A smile formed on Xena’s face. “I guess that means you don’t have room for dessert?” she asked, first smelling and then seeing the trays of nutbread that were being brought out of the kitchen and placed on the bar.

Gabrielle turned and followed Xena’s eyes as she focused on the dessert. “Nutbread! Well… I guess I *could* find room for a small piece.” Gabrielle’s eyes danced at the prospect. She watched as the innkeeper began to slice the loaves.

“I’ll go and make sure she cuts you a generous piece,” Xena said as she rose and made her way to the bar. Gabrielle watched her go. She noticed that as Xena passed people at other tables, they almost recoiled from her, fearful of her touch. Gabrielle knew Xena could feel this — this cold vacuum effect that hung in the air around her. To be around so many people and still be alone. Gabrielle wondered how Xena could live with it.

The warrior arrived a few minutes later balancing two plates of nutbread and a large port for herself and a cider for Gabrielle. “Here you go,” she said, as she sat back down and sipped her drink. She watched as Gabrielle descended on her dessert. ‘Where does she put it?’ she contemplated.

Gabrielle was soon licking her fingers and pinching up the last of the crumbs from her plate. “Oh Xena, that was the best nutbread I ever had.” Looking down a little embarrassed she continued, “I even think it was better than my mother’s.” Xena silently pushed her untouched dessert over to Gabrielle. “No Xena, No! I won’t. I know you like nutbread too.” Gabrielle pushed the plate back to her friend.

“Gabrielle, I got it for you.” Xena began to push the plate back across the table. Gabrielle put her hand out and stopped it midway. Both women continued to stubbornly push the plate in opposite directions. “This is getting us nowhere.”

“Truce,” Gabrielle said softly, not wanting anybody seated at the table next to them to overhear the warrior princess losing a battle. “We’ll share.” Both women slowly released their grip on the plate, but kept their arms extended in case the other changed their mind.

Gabrielle broke off a piece and held it out for Xena. She knew it was the only way she would get her to eat any. Reluctantly Xena accepted it and sat back. “Hmm… This really is good.” She looked up to see Gabrielle watching her.

“I told you so.”

“That’s why I wanted you to have it.”

“Xena.” Gabrielle said with slight exasperated. “You have got to learn to indulge yourself. You’re always doing good things for other people. You’ve got to stop and do them for yourself once in a while.” She broke off a small piece of nutbread and popped it into her mouth. “See, it’s not that hard.” Gabrielle broke off a larger piece and handed it to her friend. She continued in this manner until she had successfully fed the rest of it to Xena.

Xena quietly resigned herself to the force feeding. She knew when it was useless to argue with her bard. ‘And maybe she’s right. When was the last time I did something for no other reason than to please myself?’

“Xena? Do you hear that?” Gabrielle asked as she turned to look for the source.

“Uh huh,” Xena murmured. She was leaning back against the wall, eyes closed, arms crossed, her legs stretched out and extended under Gabrielle’s chair. The soft strains of instruments being tuned floated in on the night air. Many of the couples who had finished eating were already starting to disappear outside.

Gabrielle got up and approached the innkeeper. “Excuse me, Androniki. I was wondering. What’s going on outside?”

“The town is holding an evening dance,” she replied. “There’s no building large enough to have it in, so we simply have it outside, under the stars. It’s a bit brisk tonight, but everybody will warm up fast enough when the dancing starts.” She motioned Gabrielle towards the window. Gone were the stalls the merchants used earlier, and lanterns had been hung throughout the center of town. A small group of people could be seen in front of the Blacksmith’s shop, readying their instruments. Families and couples were beginning to gather, coming from all directions. “You should come join us. The dance is always quite fun.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle replied. She turned to look at Xena, who hadn’t moved from her spot. This was not an easy task that lay ahead of her. Gabrielle knew Xena was not the least bit interested in some silly dance. Come to think of it, in the last two years they had been together, she had never seen Xena dance. ‘Well, there was that time when she went undercover at the Miss Known World Pageant, but that doesn’t count. That was business.’ They did attend the reception held in their honor by King Gregor and Pandora, after Xena successfully rescued the baby. And there was dancing after the dinner. Xena simply sat there wearing her patented look-at- me-the-wrong-way-and-die warrior princess look. No man dared get close enough to ask her to dance. She stayed for a little while, before disappearing with her excuse of needing to check up on Argo. The bard wondered what Xena would ever do if she didn’t have that horse to fall back on as an excuse.

Gabrielle walked back over to their table. By now the place was practically empty. “Xena. Xena?” At first, Gabrielle thought that Xena had nodded off, then thought better. ‘Xena never nods off.’ Xena’s eyes opened and met the bard’s. “I was wondering… that maybe… that is if you’re not too tired…”

“Sure.”

“… we could go outside and watch the dancing… for a little while that is…” Gabrielle blinked and gave her head a small jerk and shake as she realized that Xena had spoken.

Xena stretched the muscles in her arms as she held them out straight and stood with a fluid grace to her full six feet. She motioned to the speechless bard to proceed with her to the door. ‘Gabrielle seldom asks for anything, and damn if I’m going to deny her some simple pleasures in her life. And the look on her face when it dawned on her that her request had been answered was priceless,’ Xena chuckled to herself. ‘Worth the last dinar I have to see that.’

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Chapter 03

The grounds outside were now teeming with life. The music had begun, and couples were whirling to a lively tune. Even the young children were off to the side attempting to mimic their elders. Most of the oldest folk were seated on benches and chairs that were drug from neighboring stores and homes.

Xena stood on the porch at the corner of the inn. She had found a patch of shadow that the nearest lantern could not breech. She leaned against the building sipping the port she brought outside, her left foot resting comfortably on the lower railing at the side of the porch.

Gabrielle leaned over the front railing, craning her neck to the left and then to the right. “Xena. It looks like the whole town has showed up tonight! I’ll bet not a single person is left at home. Everybody is having such a good time. It’s nice to be in a town where everyone is not in fear of an advancing warlord. We’ve seen plenty of that already.”

Xena wondered how many town’s festivities had been ruined by her and her army during her warlord years. She downed the rest of her port, struggling to push those memories back from where they had escaped. Gabrielle walked over and stood next to her, trying to steal some of her body heat. She rested her head on the warrior’s shoulder, wistfully watching the couples, now dancing in each other’s arms to a slow song. Xena watched Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. There was such depth of emotion to her young eyes, but Xena could not be sure what Gabrielle was thinking. She just wished that Gabrielle could have her heart’s desire, and Xena would do anything to make her young friend happy. ‘She must see herself in the arms of a charming young man, being held and loved as they move with the music.’ The mental image of this shook Xena back to the present. ‘And this will never happen — not with me hovering over her. No man will dare get close enough to even speak with her.’ “Gabrielle, I need to go check on Argo.”

Gabrielle knew what this line really meant. Xena was tiring of the dance and wanted an excuse to disappear for the rest of the night. “Xeeena.” Gabrielle drawled, letting her friend know that she knew what she was up to.

“No Gab. I promise. I’ll be back in a little while.”

“You promise?”

“Yes, I promise.” With that, Xena left.

Now Gabrielle was perplexed. She was sure Xena was looking to get away for the rest of the evening. ‘But if Xena makes a promise, she keeps it. I wonder if this time she really simply wanted to check on Argo? I guess I’ll never figure her out.’ Gabrielle moved back over to the center of the porch. The lantern on a nearby post lit up her red-blonde hair, and the dance of the flame sent fiery streaks pulsating down the strands of her hair.

Xena stood off in the shadows of a nearby building, keeping an eye on her friend. ‘Just in case anybody tries to do her harm,’ she told herself. After only a couple of minutes, Xena got her wish. A handsome young man approached Gabrielle. Xena suppressed her desire to wrest the young man’s gaze from her friend and send him packing. ‘Get a grip on yourself, Xena. This is obviously what Gabrielle wants and needs.’

“Hi, my name is Andreas,” the young man said, looking up at Gabrielle.

“Uh… hi,” Gabrielle replied, looking down at her hands. She knew this would happen as soon as Xena left her alone. ‘Now where is that warrior princess when I need her.’

“I was wondering if you’d join me for the next dance?” The young man asked, gesturing toward the couples.

“Oh uh — heh… I’d really love to you know, but… ah… you see… just the other day I took a tumble off a horse and my leg is still giving me some problems.” She began to massage her upper right thigh for effect. “Otherwise, I would have loved to dance the next dance with you.” Gabrielle tried to let him down as nicely as possible. He bowed, turned and left. ‘Quick thinking, girl. He almost had you.’

Xena watched the entire too brief exchange. She was too far away and there was too much noise to pick up any of the conversation, but she was sure that he had asked Gabrielle to dance. ‘The young man seemed pleasant enough,’ she pondered. ‘I wonder what he said to make Gabrielle decline? If he said anything to upset her, I’ll… I’ll…’ Xena did her best to get back under control as she returned to the porch.

“I’m back, just like I promised.” She wanted to ask Gabrielle what happened with the young man, but knew her friend would get upset if she found out Xena was spying on her.

“Oh… hi Xena,” Gabrielle said, suppressing a yawn that was a little too over theatrical. “You know, I’m really getting tired. I think I’ll turn in now,” she said sleepily, absentmindedly massaging her upper right thigh.

Xena didn’t believe Gabrielle was tired for a minute. She looked the bard over carefully, trying to see if she could ascertain her true motivation. Concerned, Xena asked, “What’s wrong with your leg?”

“Oh this… nothing. Old war wound.”

“If it’s bothering you, let me take a look at it,” Xena said, concern for her friend growing.

“No, no, that’s alright. Heh — I was just kidding!”

“Ga-bri-elle.”

“Really Xena, it’s nothing.”

“O.K. If you insist. I’m a bit tired too,” she said, trying to change the subject. “I think I’ll turn in also.” Xena was still concerned as she noticed Gabrielle favoring her one leg over the other as they entered the inn. She first noticed Gabrielle rubbing her leg as she talked to the young man. ‘It has something to do with him. I’ll get to the bottom of this…’

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Chapter 04

The music from out front wafted up to the room, entering through their window at the back of the inn. Gabrielle stood at the open window, gazing out upon the night sky. Xena busied herself, getting a fire going in the large fireplace, which took up most of the wall to the left. For such a small town, the inn provided spacious and clean rooms. To the right of the window stood a large bed in the corner. To the right of the door was a chest with wash basin on top. Another chest stood just to the left of the door. When Xena had a warming blaze lit, she walked over to the near chest and began to methodically remove her weapons and armor. She knew she hadn’t really needed them on earlier; it was just that she felt almost naked in public without them. ‘And one should always be prepared,’ she reminded herself.

“A dinar for your thoughts,” Xena said, as she turned to find Gabrielle still staring out the window.

“Oh, nothing. I was just listening to the music,” Gabrielle said softly, as she turned to face Xena.

“Why didn’t you take that young man up on his offer for a dance earlier?” Xena blurted.

“Xena! You were watching!?!”

“I was just rounding the corner when I saw him turn and walk away. I didn’t think he was there to ask you the time of day!”

“Oh.”

Xena felt guilty for the deception, but continued her gentle prodding. “You seemed so happy at the dance. I thought you would’ve wanted to participate.”

“Well, yeah. It’s just that… well… ” Gabrielle looked down, fidgeting with the top of her skirt. She would not finish.

Xena covered the distance between them in a few long strides. She took Gabrielle’s chin in her hand and coaxed her to meet her eyes. “What’s wrong,” Xena demanded. “Did he say something to upset you. I’ll find him and teach him how to treat a young lady.” Xena hissed the last part out through clenched teeth.

“NO, NO Xena!” Gabrielle suddenly became very scared for the poor man’s life. She knew what Xena was capable of doing. “He was a perfect gentleman.”

“Then why didn’t you accept his offer?” she asked, becoming even more confused by this new fact.

“I… can’t dance.” Gabrielle said it so softly, that Xena almost didn’t hear her.

“Is that all?” Xena mused. “I was ready to go and take his head off.”

“Is that all? Is that all!” Gabrielle was becoming indignant. “I’ve tried and tried. I just get so confused with my feet that I end up making a fool of myself. At the barn dances we had back home in Poteidaia, my family practically disowned me, my dancing was so bad. Poor Lila tried to teach me, but eventually gave up. It was useless.”

Xena could see the look of utter futility in her eyes. “Ga-bri-elle.” She reached down and softly clasped one of her friend’s hands. Xena rested her other hand on Gabrielle’s waist, and took a step back so she was at arms length from her.

Xena told herself that what she was about to do was strictly for Gabrielle’s benefit, and that it had nothing to do with the fact that it would be a perfect excuse to touch her young friend. And she seemed to be finding excuses more and more often to do just that.

A friendly pat on the back, or a touch of her forearm. The times she cherished the most were at night. Xena wasn’t sure exactly when it started, but some time ago, by some mutually unspoken consent, their bedrolls began to be laid out next to each other. Everything stayed strictly platonic, but sometimes Gabrielle had a tendency to end up with some part of her body draped over the warrior. And Xena never complained. She simply lay there motionless, reveling in the warm touch of the bard and wishing it would never end.

Gabrielle froze in her place, uncertain what Xena’s next move would be. She trusted her friend with her life, although more times than she cared to admit. Xena locked eyes with Gabrielle and simply said, “Let me show you how.” She lifted the small hand clasped in hers and held it out to the side. “Just listen to the music and follow my lead,” Xena said, a smile spreading across her face.

“XENA!” exclaimed Gabrielle, as she quickly began to try to keep pace with her new dance partner. A smile reached Gabrielle’s face, quickly replaced with a look of grim determination as she concentrated on watching Xena’s feet, trying to mimic her steps while not smashing one of the warrior’s toes. It was useless. After only a few moments, Gabrielle became so worried that she did just that. “Oh Xena, I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed, pulling to a stop. A tear began to roll down her cheek.

“Gabrielle, I’m fine.” Xena tried to console her best friend, while wiping away the tear. “Look. I’ve still got my boots on. I go into battle wearing these. I didn’t feel a thing. Honest.”

“It’s hopeless, Xena. I told you I couldn’t dance.”

“Gabrielle, we’ve only just started. You’re good with your staff, very coordinated. And you pick up the different moves I teach you quickly and efficiently. What was one of the first things I taught you when facing an opponent in battle?”

Gabrielle thought for a moment and replied, “Look ’em in the eyes. Always maintain eye contact. You can tell what your opponent’s next move will be from their eyes.” Dawn broke over Gabrielle’s face as she realized what she was saying. “That’s just -”

“- like dancing,” Xena finished the sentence. She held her young friend’s chin in her hand and locked eyes with the most beautiful hazel green she had ever seen. Without taking her eyes from the bard’s gaze, Xena released her chin and lightly trailed her hand down Gabrielle’s arm, once again finding and clasping her small hand. She placed her other hand back on Gabrielle’s waist and began to move with the music.

Gabrielle felt captured by the powerful blue pools of Xena’s eyes. She couldn’t break contact if she tried. They moved about the room, keeping up with the moderately paced song that was playing outside. A smile formed on Xena’s lips, and Gabrielle infectiously caught it from her. As far as Gabrielle was concerned, she no longer had feet. She felt as if she was gliding over the floor, following those blue eyes wherever they lead. As the song came to the end, Xena spun Gabrielle out and then back towards her, catching her in her powerful hands before she had a chance to make contact.

“XENA! I did it! I really did it! I danced!!” She caught Xena off guard as she threw her arms around her waist and gave her friend a big hug, burying her face in Xena’s chest. The bard was in shock. She didn’t believe she had just danced — and with Xena! She tried hard to burn into her memory what it felt like to be swept around the room by the woman of her dreams, certain she would never get another chance to feel this close to her.

Xena froze. She was not sure what to do. When she heard Gabrielle start to softly cry, she wrapped her arms around the young woman, wondering what was wrong. They stayed like that for a long minute. When Xena felt her friend’s tears had stopped, she gently peeled her away from her chest and looked down at her.

“Oh Xena, I’m sorry.” Gabrielle saw where her tears had left the front of Xena wet. She absentmindedly began to wipe them away with her hand, oblivious to the effect it had on the warrior.

“Gabrielle, it’s fine. Never mind,” Xena got out, as she took the young woman’s hand from her chest. She tilted the bard’s head upwards and wiped the few remaining tears from her face. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m just so happy. I… I know it sounds silly, but I was always so ashamed and embarrassed that I couldn’t dance. People would make fun of me when I tried, so I stopped trying. I just can’t believe how easy it is. How easy *you* made it. Thank you.”

Xena couldn’t help herself. A wry smile caught the corner of her mouth as she stated, “I have many skills.” They both broke out in a fit of laughter.

A lively piece had just begun, and Gabrielle was surprised when once again she was swept off her feet as Xena’s eyes carried her aloft. They continued in much that same fashion for the next dozen songs. At one point, Xena showed Gabrielle the steps to a traditional Greek folk dance that was being played, and was delighted to find that Gabrielle picked it up as easily as she had any staff maneuver.

“Oh Xena, I don’t know when I last had so much fun,” Gabrielle exclaimed as the song came to an end. The last two songs had been particularly fast-paced, and Gabrielle was pleasantly exhausted. As no song immediately began, she figured that either the musicians were also in need of a break, or were done for the night.

Xena could see a slight flush on Gabrielle’s face, and wondered if there was one on hers too. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. I just wish you’d told me sooner that you couldn’t dance. I would have been able to show you in time for the dance. Then you wouldn’t have had to turn that young man away.”

“True. Um… Xena? If we had stayed, would you have asked me to dance?” Gabrielle looked into Xena’s eyes and saw the pain of her soul.

Xena, surprised by her directness, took a couple of steps back and sat on the edge of the bed. She knew Gabrielle deserved an honest answer, but didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Gabrielle walked over and quietly sat next to her, allowing her friend time to gather her thoughts. “No,” Xena said softly. “Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but…”

“Yeah, I can just see it now. Parents grabbing their children and running for the hills. Wouldn’t want their little ones exposed to two people dancing, now would we?” Gabrielle said sarcastically, the firelight catching a single tear as it ran down her face. “Xena, why are people so cruel?”

“I don’t know Gab, I just don’t know.”

The strains of a slow, melodious tune broke the silence. Xena stood, bowed deeply and offered her hand to Gabrielle. “Would you honor me with this next dance?” Gabrielle beamed as she accepted. Just before they began the bard’s body betrayed her. Before she realized what she was doing she had closed the arms length distance Xena had maintained throughout the evening. She rested the side of her head against the warrior’s chest and waited.

Xena’s first impulse was to run. Yet every fiber of her being wanted this. Needed this contact. She just wasn’t sure if Gabrielle knew what she was getting herself into. Slowly, hesitantly, she allowed her arm to wrap around her friend’s back. She rested her cheek on Gabrielle’s head and they danced. The bard no longer maintained eye contact, but felt confident she could follow the beat of Xena’s heart. For Xena, the contact was magnetic. So conscious was she of the bard’s body pressed up against hers, that Xena was sure she would falter and crush one of Gabrielle’s feet. She pushed everything but the music from her thoughts, and they danced as one in the warm glow of the fireplace.

‘There is no place on this earth I’d rather be right now,’ thought Gabrielle, as she buried the side of her face deeper into her friend’s chest. She had known for some time that her feelings for Xena had changed; grown. And she suspected Xena might have been feeling the same way towards her. Now she thought she had her answer. The wall Xena erected to keep the outside world from knowing her true feelings was useless at such close proximity. ‘Ah Xena,’ Gabrielle thought, as a small smile played on her lips. She could feel the warrior’s heart flutter and quicken as she held her close.

The song came to an end and the people outside clapped and voiced their praises to the musicians for a wonderful evening of music. Xena and Gabrielle continued to stand in each other’s arms, neither one wanting to break contact. Gabrielle knew she had to proceed slowly. Xena could be a bit skittish at times. She had felt her freeze and almost bolt just before, but she also knew that Xena would not make the next move. It was up to her. Gabrielle raised her head and brushed her lips against Xena’s. She quickly returned to those lips for another small kiss before returning to the comfort of her friend’s chest, hugging her tight. After a moment, she released her and stood back, giving her friend the space she knew she required.

Xena just stood there, the tingling sensation of Gabrielle’s lips still pulsing on hers. “Gabrielle?” The bard could hear all of Xena’s questions and fears in that one word. In response, she ran her finger slowly down the warrior’s arm, feeling muscles jump and twitch under her touch. “Are you sure you’re not just reacting to the music, to the dancing?”

Gabrielle brought her eyes up to meet Xena’s. She had never felt such intensity for another person, not even Perdicus. “I’m not sure,” she honestly admitted. “But I know how I feel about you, how I’ve felt for some time now.”

Xena held her emotions in check as her mind raced over this new bit of information. ‘Can this actually be happening? Could she be feeling the same way I do? Does she even know that two women can– What if this is just some form of hero worship… I couldn’t…’ “Gabrielle.” Xena took the young woman’s hands in hers and gave them a squeeze. “It’s late. I think it would be best if we tried to get some sleep.” Smiling, she bent down and gave the bard a soft kiss on the cheek.

Gabrielle took a tentative step forward, stopping only inches from making contact with Xena. She could feel the electricity in the air surrounding them. She saw the love Xena had for her for the first time, and suddenly realized that she had seen this look numerous times before, always when the warrior thought she wasn’t looking. A quick glance down from her horse, a lingering gaze across the campfire, in the first few seconds when Xena finally woke her in the morning. She had just never allowed herself to hope that what she saw was love. Now, she had no doubt.

She carefully placed the palm of her right hand on Xena’s stomach and felt the warrior instantly tense. Looking up into her eyes she saw the last of Xena’s emotional walls crumble at their feet. What remained was a woman. Not a warrior, or some bigger than life hero. Just a woman. Someone with needs and wants. Someone vulnerable. Gabrielle slid her left hand over Xena’s shoulder and around her neck. She buried her fingers in her hair as she reached up on tip toe to lightly reclaim her mouth. Sliding her right hand around her companion’s waist she pulled her in, deepening the kiss at the same time.

All of Xena’s senses converged on those lips. The lips that she had longed to taste were now eagerly seeking hers. “I uh… think I’ll go tend to the fire,” Xena said as they finally broke away from each other. She realized that what she saw in Gabrielle’s eyes was definitely NOT hero worship. It took all the willpower she could muster to turn her back on her and walk away, but she knew she had to give Gabrielle time. Time to be sure that this was what she really wanted. Because Xena knew that there would be no going back to simply being friends if either one of them faltered in the next step to this budding relationship.

Gabrielle stood in place for a moment — transfixed. She couldn’t believe what she just did. What Xena allowed her to do. ‘Now what? Do I wait for her to make the next move?’

Both women fell into their established routine. Xena built up the fire as Gabrielle washed at the basin. She donned a clean shift and got into bed as Xena took her turn at the basin. Gabrielle moved to the far side of the bed, against the wall. She and Xena had slept together plenty of times in the past, but tonight would be different. Gabrielle could feel her own tension grow as Xena slipped into a clean shift and got under the covers. She felt herself holding her breath, not sure which way to turn.

Xena lay on her back, praying to the God Morpheus to take her. She could feel the tension emanating from Gabrielle, but was not sure what she could do. After a couple of long, agonizing minutes, Xena extended her left hand to Gabrielle and said softly, “C’mere.” Gabrielle slowly inched her way towards Xena, allowing her friend to wrap a strong arm around her. She buried her face in Xena’s shoulder, and both women eventually fell asleep.

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Chapter 05

Xena awoke as the first rays of light filtered through the trees and splashed across the room. ‘I must be coming down with something,’ she thought groggily to herself. She felt both extremely warm and chilled at the same time. It wasn’t until she focused on her surroundings that she realized her dilemma. Sometime during the night, most of the covers had been tugged away from the right side of her body, leaving her exposed to the chill night air. Goose bumps played up her arm and leg.

Her left side, though, was radiating heat. All of the covers were bunched up there, obscuring the weight that had ensconced itself. Xena slowly and carefully peeled back the top edge of the covers and had a peek underneath. She found the heat source. ‘Gabrielle.’ Sometime during the night Gabrielle had, shall we say, mounted and buried herself into Xena’s left side. Her right arm had dug itself under the warrior and her hand had a firm grasp of shift. Her left hand was cupping the bottom of Xena’s left breast, while her head rested comfortably on top of it. Gabrielle was straddling her friend’s left thigh, and to make matters worse, her left knee was planted firmly between Xena’s legs. Xena found her second heat source.

It took only a moment’s thought for Xena to realize that *this* would not be a good position for Gabrielle to be in when she woke up and found Xena lying awake. ‘What am I gonna do?’ Xena tried to come up with a plan of action. ‘Or better yet, maybe a plan of inaction. If I just lie here and pretend to be sleeping, it will give Gabrielle a chance to wake up and extricate herself from me. And she will be none the wiser.’ But Xena knew that if Gabrielle found herself in this predicament, she would be so embarrassed and guilty that it might seriously jeopardize their relationship before it even got started.

‘Nope. Plan A is out. Hmm… Plan B. I could possibly wiggle myself out from under the bard. She *is* a heavy sleeper and I’ve gotten out of tighter spots than this before.’ Xena pondered this plan for a few moments. ‘Let’s see. Should I remove her hand from my breast first, or her knee from -‘

At this precise moment Gabrielle stirred a little, grinding her knee into the warrior.

‘Oh Gods!’ Xena screamed to herself, as she bit into her lower lip. ‘Her knee — definitely her knee.’ Xena fought every muscle in her body, trying to stay in control. ‘But what if she wakes up? Gods, what would she think I was doing?’ Xena tried to play the scenario out in her mind. She tried to see it through Gabrielle’s innocent eyes. ‘She could think I was… well… trying to have my way with her.’ Xena cringed at the thought. ‘Especially if she knew I’d been with other women. And not all of them by their own choosing. I would lose her for sure.’

Xena focused all of her energy on the problem at hand, trying hard to ignore the other hand that was still cupped under her breast. ‘Ah, Plan C. This will require precise timing and placement.’ Ever so carefully Xena peeled back the covers, exposing all of Gabrielle. She slowly reached over to the bard with her right hand, two fingers extended in the same position she used to apply pressure points. Xena knew it was now or never. With a slight arch of her back to uncover the arm that Gabrielle had buried under the warrior, she reached over and found the bard’s most ticklish spot.

Gabrielle was airborne. Xena dove for the floor and executed a perfect tuck and roll and came up in a crouch in front of the fireplace. With lightening speed, she retrieved the poker from against the wall and was tending the fire when Gabrielle’s eyes flew open, her scream still emanating from her lungs.

“XEEENA!?!” Gabrielle was crouched on top of the bed in a defensive posture. “What the — where — my Gods!!!” Her eyes were wide with fear. She was sure she was being attacked.

“Gabrielle. Are you OK?” Xena was over to the bed immediately, trying to comfort her friend. “You must have been having a nightmare. Everything’s OK now.” She cradled her trembling love in her arms, feeling guilty for what she had just done. Then she thought again of the alternatives, and knew this was for the best.

After a few minutes Gabrielle calmed down, but still held onto Xena. “I guess it was a nightmare,” she mumbled, her face still buried in the protective warmth of her warrior. “I don’t even remember it.”

“That’s for the best then,” Xena replied. Then the woman of few words spent time talking in calming and hushed tones, stroking Gabrielle’s hair and assuring her everything was alright.

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The rest of the morning proved to be much less eventful. They spent a quiet breakfast in the tavern and had their bags packed and settled on Argo. There was a cool crispness to the morning air, and the dew was still settled when they quietly left the town. Gabrielle, as usual, preferred to walk. Even though this slowed them down somewhat, Xena didn’t mind. She had calculated that at this pace, they would still reach their destination on time.

Gabrielle spent the morning regaling Xena with story after story. Xena was certain that this was the best part of the trip. The stories Gabrielle told during these times they spent alone together were not the same stories she told when she had an audience. Audiences always seemed to want to hear of the exploits of Xena, Warrior Princess. And Gabrielle usually obliged them. Xena, on the other hand, always felt awkward hearing about herself. She preferred to hear about the exploits of others.

After a stop along the side of the road to rest Argo and enjoy a leisurely lunch, the two continued on their way. “Where is it that we’re heading?” Gabrielle asked again.

“Torone,” replied Xena. “I got word that a week ago a terrible storm blew through the village. I promised Yannis that if he ever needed help, I’d be there.”

“And Yannis — he was in your army?”

“He was a lieutenant,” Xena responded. ‘And one of the few people from that time I still consider a friend.’ “He gave up that life and is now a farmer.”

“Did the storm do much damage?”

“It destroyed some of his crops and leveled his silo. They’ve already salvaged what crops they could, but I want to help him in the rebuilding.” The genuine compassion Gabrielle had for somebody she did not even know touched Xena, and made her feel even more guilty for the story she was feeding her. ‘I know I should tell her the truth. She’s not a child anymore.’ Xena just couldn’t bring herself to admit to Gabrielle where they were really heading. They spent the better part of the afternoon talking about everything and nothing.

Gabrielle, for her part, was loving life to its fullest. Except for the minor altercation she had this morning with demons from her sleep, the last twenty-four hours were the best time she had in her life. ‘Xena treated me like an adult when she thought there might be trouble. Then she volunteered a night’s stay at the inn. She even spent the entire afternoon with me at the marketplace, at her suggestion.’ Gabrielle turned these bits of information over and over in her head. ‘Things really have changed in the last two years, but when?’ It had been such a slow process that Gabrielle couldn’t pinpoint the beginning. ‘I guess I just wore her down.’

Gabrielle continued to chew on these thoughts and others, and the more she chewed, the less palpable they became. ‘Is this change in Xena something she wanted, or is she merely giving in to my constant prodding?’ Gabrielle began to work the events of the last twenty-four hours over in her mind again, in light of this new thought. Looking back, Gabrielle was now sure that the real reason Xena left her alone at the dance was so that she would have been more approachable. ‘If Xena really loved me, she wouldn’t have allowed that to happen. She wanted me in the arms of someone else. Anyone else but her. She stated herself that had she known I couldn’t dance, she would have shown me in time for the dance, so that I could have accepted the offer to dance from that man.’

Xena noted that it was quiet. Too quiet. She glanced behind to see if the bard was still there. What she saw concerned her. Gabrielle was scuffling along, head down, brows knitted together. She appeared to be holding a conversation with herself. Her mouth worked at forming words, but none came out. “Gabrielle,” Xena called back to her friend. There was no response.

Gabrielle chewed harder on these new thoughts, and a bitter taste was forming in her mouth. Remembering last evening, she realized that during the entire dance lesson, Xena had kept a respectable distance between them. ‘*I* was the one who first instigated contact. *I* kissed her.

Xena slowed Argo. She was becoming more concerned. She knew it wasn’t unusual for Gabrielle to sometimes go off into a world of her own; Xena always thought that was where some of her bard’s best stories came from. ‘But it’s not the smartest thing to do when you’re out on the road. Even if you do have the warrior princess to keep you safe.’ Xena watched as Gabrielle came abreast of her and Argo, and continued on, oblivious of her surroundings. “Gabrielle?” Xena called out. Again there was no response.

‘Gods, I’m so confused,’ Gabrielle cried to herself. It was then that she looked up and realized that Xena and Argo were no longer in front of her. She panicked and gripped her staff with both hands spinning wildly around. There, some thirty paces behind her, sat Xena on Argo. A look of total confusion was evident on both women’s faces. “Xena. What are you…” Gabrielle did not finish the sentence. She merely started to head back the way she came.

Xena urged Argo on and met her half way. “Gabrielle. Are you OK?” Xena tried to figure out what was on her friend’s mind to no avail.

“Uh, yeah. I guess so,” the bard said, wobbling slightly where she stood. She leaned on her staff for support.

“You don’t look so good. You’re as pale as a ghost.” Xena was now really concerned for her friend. ‘She seemed fine just a little while ago.’ “Give me your hand,” she instructed Gabrielle.

“No Xena, really. I’m fine.”

“Gabrielle. You’re pale as a ghost and you can barely stand. Now give me your hand.” Xena gave her that look. She was not going to take no for an answer.

The last thing Gabrielle wanted was to make physical contact with Xena, but she understood the look she was getting from the warrior. There would be no questioning her command. She finally relented, and soon found herself easily plucked from the earth and sitting behind Xena. Gabrielle sat as far back in the saddle as was possible, and tentatively held onto the warrior at the sides of her waist with just her fingertips. She prayed to any God that was willing to listen to not let her fall off.

Xena was not sure what was going on behind her, but she needed to feel Gabrielle to know that she was still there and alright. Momentarily dropping the reins, Xena reached behind herself with both hands and grasped her young friend’s hands in hers. She wrapped Gabrielle’s arms around her waist, and clasped both her wrists firmly in one hand.

Gabrielle never had a chance. Before she knew it, she was pressed tightly against the back that she had tried so hard to distance herself from. She flushed with desire as Xena urged Argo on, and the rhythmic movement of the warrior’s body rubbed against hers.

“There’s a quiet clearing a few miles up the road,” Xena commented more to herself than Gabrielle. “We’ll stop there for the evening.”

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Chapter 06

Xena normally didn’t mind the quiet, but not at the expense of her friend. Gabrielle had been distant and withdrawn the entire evening. She still went about her chores helping to set up camp, but hardly a word was spoken between the two. Xena went off to lay her traps, and ended up bringing a nice sized skinned and dressed rabbit back to camp. Gabrielle quietly accepted it, and roasted it to perfection as usual. When Xena noticed from across the fire that Gabrielle did nothing more than pick at her food, Xena did the only thing she could think of. Gabrielle watched as Xena went over to the saddle bags and rummaged around inside. She returned and sat next to Gabrielle. Xena waited in silence. Slowly, Gabrielle raised her eyes and met Xena’s. Xena smiled and handed her a cloth bag.

Gabrielle hesitantly accepted it, not sure just what was going on. She looked back into the warrior’s blue eyes, lost again in the ocean before her. Gulping hard, she forced her eyes from Xena and to the package in her lap. She reached inside and wrapped her hand around a familiar object. Her eyes lit up as she extracted an entire loaf of nutbread from the cloth bag. “Xena! Where did you get… You got this from Androniki, didn’t you?” Gabrielle asked and answered her own question.

“I knew how much you liked the stuff. So when I went up to get you a slice, I informed her that I was hoping she would still have a loaf left to sell me later on. I’m not sure, but I think I may have been a little intimidating. She answered yes so quickly and emphatically, you’d have thought I was going to burn the town to the ground if she had refused.”

“Well Xena, you can sometimes be a little scary, even when you don’t mean to.” Gabrielle watched Xena for her response, already regretting her comment.

“Gab… I’ve never… I’ve never scared you, have I?” Xena wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.

“Well… uh…”

“When!?!”

“Do you remember when we first started traveling together? You could be very intimidating when you wanted your way. At first you scared me. Earlier today when you wanted me to ride with you and I refused… What would you have done if I hadn’t given in?”

“I… ” Xena didn’t know how to answer. She never even considered the possibility that she would be refused. “You know I would never hurt you.”

Gabrielle tried to reassure her. “Oh Xena, I know you never would.” She reached out and touched her forearm. “But Androniki and the others don’t know this. When you’ve got that look, you can be very intimidating.”

Both women sat in silence, absorbed in their own thoughts. Xena was in shock. ‘How could I have not known how I made her feel? I love her.’ Xena was sure she could feel her heart being ripped from her chest. Her insides churned and she was positive she was going to be physically sick. ‘Gabrielle’s been acting strange all afternoon. Has she changed her mind about us and is too afraid to tell me? Gods! What does she think I’d do to her?’ “Gabrielle? I know something is bothering you.” Xena tried to speak in as calm and reassuring a voice as she could. “When you’re ready to talk about it, I’ll be here for you.” Xena got up and went back to the other side of the fire.

Gabrielle just sat there, her emotions in flux. She loved Xena so much. ‘But does she love me? How could she love a simple girl from Poteidaia? I’m not even sure how to love another woman.’ Gabrielle absentmindedly broke off a hunk of the nutbread and began to eat. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until her first mouthful. Gabrielle smiled to herself. Xena never failed to do the little things that showed her how much she really cared. ‘Xena is truly a good friend, but could she be more?’ Gabrielle decided she needed to know.

She got up and crossed to Xena’s side of the fire. Wordlessly she sat and offered her a piece of nutbread. Xena dutifully accepted. She had already learned her lesson when it came to defying her young friend. “Xena?”

“Mm?”

“About last night.”

Xena froze. She knew this was coming. ‘Hell, I even asked for it.’ Xena knew she owed it to her friend to look her in the eye, but she just couldn’t do it. She continued to stare into the fire. “Yes Gabrielle?”

“You left me alone on purpose at that dance, didn’t you?” It was more a statement of fact than a question. She didn’t give Xena a chance to respond. “You set me up. Why, Xena? Why?”

Xena sat there, not sure of how to answer. She wanted to tell Gabrielle that it broke her heart to leave her alone there. That she loved her and that it was all a big mistake. ‘But if she is having second thoughts, I need to give her a way out.’ “I thought it was for the best. You deserve better than me.”

“*You* thought it was for the best?” Gabrielle grabbed Xena by the shoulders and spun her around to face her. The startled warrior’s first instinct was to strike back, but she caught herself in time and quietly allowed the bard to vent her frustrations. Gabrielle seized her chin in her hand and thrust Xena’s face up to meet hers. “Did you ever stop to consider what *I* thought was for the best?! No! I’m not a little girl, Xena. I know what I want. I want you…” Gabrielle continued to hold Xena’s gaze. “I love you.”

“I never thought you had any feelings for me in that way. I was afraid that if I admitted my feelings, I’d lose you.” Xena tried to look away, but Gabrielle had a lock on her eyes that she could not break. “And then today — you were acting so strangely. I thought maybe you changed your mind and didn’t know how to tell me.”

“Oh Xena.” Gabrielle released the death grip she still had on the warrior’s chin and cupped her cheek in her palm. “I had talked myself into believing that you didn’t love me. Why do we do this to each other? You’ve got to tell me what you’re thinking. I don’t know if I can take much more of this.”

“I wasn’t the only one to hold back on my feelings. And you. A bard,” Xena allowed a little lopsided grin to cross her face.

“Heh… well… you know this bard stuff can be hard work sometimes.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled at the sight of the smile on her friend’s face. “Xena?”

“Yes Gabrielle?”

“I’m starved.” With these two words, Xena knew she had her friend back for sure.

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The next two days were spent in their usual routine. Up early in the morning, and after a quick breakfast, off on the road. A stop for lunch, and on again until dinner. They passed other travelers on the road, but mercifully there was no trouble. In the evening, Xena would find a quiet spot off the main road, where they made camp. Gabrielle spent time writing in her scrolls, while Xena sat across the fire, catching up on some mending of her leathers, gauntlets and greaves.

If days were pleasant, the nights were even more so. With their bedrolls next to each other, they spent the time before sleep in each other’s arms. Sometimes discussing the day’s events, sometimes looking up at the stars dreaming, and sometimes not saying anything at all. Xena soon came to realize that Gabrielle’s bold advances the night of the dance were short lived, as the bard quickly reverted to her normally modest ways. Even so, Xena found herself relishing the quiet kisses of her naturally curious friend and gave her all the time she needed to become comfortable with their new relationship.

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The third day was quickly looking like it would drop into the history books as a repeat of the last two when the sky opened up. It happened so quickly and with such intensity that it even caught Xena off guard. Slanted sheets of stinging rain began to pelt them down the front of their bodies. They were soaked before they had a chance. Still, Xena dismounted Argo and pulled their capes from their traveling bags. “Here,” Xena shouted, trying to be heard over the din of the storm. She wrapped one of the capes protectively around Gabrielle. “It’s too late to stay dry,” she laughed, “but at least it’ll help absorb the sting of this rain.” She quickly wrapped the other cape around herself.

Tugging on Xena’s arm to get her attention Gabrielle pleaded, “We’ve got to turn back.”

Xena turned her back to the storm and stood squarely in front of her companion, trying to block her from the incoming stabs of rain. “I wish we could,” Xena replied, looking into the eyes of the woman she loved. “We haven’t passed any suitable shelter in three candle marks. And we’d never be able to out run this storm. Our best chance is to head into it, and hope to break through to the other side.”

Gabrielle couldn’t hear every word Xena said, but she heard enough to understand what direction they were headed in. She squeezed Xena’s arm and nodded her head in the affirmative, too exhausted to try to shout. She didn’t particularly like this plan, but knew Xena would do anything to keep her safe. That’s why she was positive she must have not heard Xena correctly, when the warrior shouted out the next part of her plan. “Repeat that!” Gabrielle looked at Xena incredulously.

“I said,” Xena raised her voice as she bent closer to Gabrielle’s ear. “I want you to ride up front with me on Argo!”

“Yep! That’s what I thought you said,” she shot back, grabbing the front of Xena’s cape for emphasis. “No way — uh uh — sorry. I’m not getting up there.”

“You’ve got to ride if we’re going to make it through.”

“Fine. Then I’ll ride in back.”

“You won’t be safe. I’ll need two hands on Argo’s reins and it’s just too slippery. I won’t take that chance. Please.” Xena executed a fine argument, but that last word was all it took. Gabrielle planted a kiss on Xena’s cheek as she gave her a quick hug. They walked over to where the mare was impatiently waiting. “Sorry for ignoring you girl,” Xena said, as she patted the flank of her horse. “I’ll get us out of this.” Argo turned to look at her, too miserable to respond. Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle. “I’m going to lift you up first, then mount behind you. Hold on to the saddle horn when you get up there.”

Gabrielle turned her back to Xena, expecting her friend to give her a boost so she could throw her leg over the saddle, when Xena spun her around and swiftly lifted her up so she was sitting side-saddle. The sudden change in altitude caught Gabrielle by surprise, and she clung to the saddle horn for all she was worth as Xena swung up in the saddle next to her. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” Gabrielle shouted, as her left hand frantically grasped Xena’s arm for support. She watched as Xena wordlessly opened her cape to the storm to accept her to her body. Gabrielle didn’t need a written invitation. She buried herself into the front of the warrior, disappearing into the folds of Xena’s cape. With her trembling package securely fastened around her waist, Xena headed straight into the storm.

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Chapter 07

The flicker of light through the trees ahead was a welcome sight for Xena. They had successfully made it through to the other side of the storm and the rain had eased up significantly. Gabrielle was still nowhere in sight. She hadn’t come up for air since she buried herself into the warrior, and Xena didn’t have the heart to disturb her. She silently headed for the light.

“Gabrielle. Gabrielle? C’mon. Time to wake up.” Xena spoke quietly into the bundle she uncovered when she opened her cape. They had stopped in front of an inn in a small village. ‘I can’t believe what this girl can sleep through,’ Xena mused to herself. She stroked the bard’s back with her right hand, while her partner’s head slowly raised itself from the left side of Xena’s chest.

Very bleary green eyes came within inches of sparkling blue ones. Gabrielle tried to focus. Xena let out a chuckle at the sight of her friend, her breath tickling the back of Gabrielle’s throat. “Wha’s so funny?” she managed to get out.

“Oh… I’m sorry. It’s just that… well… you look like a drowned rat,” Xena animated, as tears of laughter rolled down her cheeks.

“Well, you try burying yourself under all of this,” Gabrielle replied, indicating both her and Xena’s capes. “I think I sweated off at least five pounds!” She leaned back and slowly filled her lungs with cold fresh air, trying to clear the fog from her brain. Looking around she continued, “Where are we?”

“I’ve found us an inn for the night. There’s not a dry place to camp for miles.” Gabrielle warmed quickly to the thought of a *dry* bed. Xena quickly dismounted and helped Gabrielle slide down into her waiting arms.

“Ooo, I’m stiff.” Gabrielle stood on wobbly legs, rolling her head trying to get the kinks out. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think I could use a hot bath.”

“Then a hot bath it is. I don’t think you could get any wetter, but the soak will help to loosen your muscles. Why don’t you get us a room while I stable Argo.”

“Sure thing.” The thought of getting out of this rain was music to her ears. She accepted her staff, which Xena had retrieved and assembled, and headed for the warmth of the inn. The perceived notion of pending warmth was soon forgotten as Gabrielle entered the inn. Silence hung in the air as the dinner crowd and the innkeeper turned to eye the stranger. It dawned on Gabrielle that the long black cape and hood covering her face were the cause, so she quickly threw back the hood and opened the cape, hoping to belie their fears.

Small murmured whispers passed amongst the dinner patrons, as the innkeeper still regarded her with a critical eye. Gabrielle donned her best bardic smile as she approached him. “Hi. I’d like to rent a room for the night.”

The innkeeper openly eyed Gabrielle up and down, pausing too long at her bare mid-riff and small green halter top. Gabrielle started to feel like a side of beef, being considered for purchase. She looked away to the dinner patrons, unable to meet the eyes that were now boring through her. It was then that she realized that every other woman in the inn was covered from head to foot. The only skin showing was their hands and face. Gabrielle self-consciously wrapped her cape back around herself.

“Are you alone?” the innkeeper asked, his eyes once again roaming over Gabrielle, recalling the sight.

“No. I’m waiting for -”

“Well then, Missy,” he interrupted. “Why don’t you have a seat and wait for your man to get here.” He wasn’t used to dealing with women folk, and was real curious as to what kind of a man would let his woman run around half naked.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d like a room now.” Gabrielle was soaked and exhausted, and was simply not in the mood for this. “And besides,” she added, “the ‘he’ I’m waiting for is a ‘she’.”

A look of disgust replaced the leer on the innkeeper’s face. “I run a family business. Why don’t you two take it back outside in the woods, with the rest of the animals.”

“My friend and I just want a room for the night. We don’t want any trouble.”

“I bet that’s not all your *friend* wants,” the drunk at the bar to Gabrielle’s right slurred. “Maybe a little midnight snack too, hum?” He leaned over and suggestively fingered the front of her cape.

Gabrielle disgustedly tore away from the offense, and glared at the people gawking at her.

“We ain’t got no room for the likes of you,” the innkeeper said, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth. “You best be on your way. Now get out of my inn.”

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Gabrielle ran from the inn and straight into the arms of a startled Xena, who reflexively dropped their bags on the ground and embraced her back. Gabrielle didn’t mean to, but tears came as she clung to her. She berated herself for not taking care of the situation, but she was just too tired to think straight. “Gabrielle! What’s the matter? Are you hurt?” Xena pulled her friend off of her, and carefully checked her over in the moonlight.

“No, I’m fine.” She grasped the warrior’s hands, stopping the examination. “The innkeeper… he… he wouldn’t rent me a room.”

“Wouldn’t?” Xena raised Gabrielle’s face to meet hers. “Are you sure you understood him correctly?”

“Oh yeah. I understood him just fine. He said he doesn’t rent rooms out to our kind.”

“Our kind?” Xena heard herself again repeating what the bard just told her, but she didn’t believe getting a room for the night was going to end up being such a big deal. Xena’s voice lowered into a growl. “What did he mean by *our kind*?”

“He assumed I was traveling with a man, and when I corrected him, he said he ran a family business and that we should take it back outside with the rest of the animals.”

Xena saw red. “C’mon, Gabrielle. Let’s get us a room.” Xena grabbed their bags and entered the inn, keeping Gabrielle protectively behind her.

The tall black caped figure just stood there, eyeing the innkeeper from the folds of the hood. The innkeeper stood there for a moment, thinking that maybe he had heard the little girl wrong. She was obviously with a man after all. He started to relax a little, trying to think of an appropriate way to apologize for his earlier remarks, when Xena dropped their bags, pushed the hood back off her face and threw off her cape.

“Xena!” Gabrielle pleaded, as she tried to put a restraining hand on the warrior’s arm. Xena’s name echoed as it passed along the lips of the patrons. There were also reverberations of Warrior Princess, Warlord, and murderer.

Xena thought about taking care of this in a polite manner, but she was cold and tired and hungry and wet. ‘And a cold, tired, hungry and *wet* warrior doesn’t know the meaning of polite,’ she grimly reminded herself. The bar, which was the only protection the innkeeper had between himself and a very pissed off warrior soon disappeared as Xena vaulted it and had him pinned up against the back wall. Her actions were so quick he was still holding the drink he had just poured. “Thanks,” Xena drawled, as she took the drink and downed it with one swallow. “Don’t mind if I do.” She placed the empty mug on the counter to her right, and slammed her right hand on the wall, just inches away from his head. She leaned into him, her whole body a breath away from his. He was forced to look straight up to meet her glare, and the water from her hair slowly dripped onto his face.

With her left hand, Xena executed a little maneuver she had learned from her warlord days. It wasn’t lethal, but prolonged use could cause disability. It was also a great attention getter. If done right, it was subtle enough not to call attention to itself from anybody else watching. And Xena didn’t want her young friend to see her inflicting any pain. She slid her left hand between them and gathered a handful of his baggy pants at his waist. With a simple twist of her wrist and a raising of her forearm, Xena let his own pants put a strangle hold on his manhood. She lifted her forearm another inch, and the poor man was now attempting to support as much of his weight as he could on his toes.

“I thought you were in the business of renting rooms,” Xena hissed through clenched jaws. She ratcheted her left forearm up a few more degrees, and he could quickly feel his manhood disintegrate.

“I run a clean — respectable family business,” he managed to get past the lump in his throat. He was too scared to think what that lump might actually be. “I didn’t want any trouble.”

“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it. Now, my friend asked politely about a room. Now it’s my turn. I’d like a room.” Xena’s arm ratcheted up a degree. “And hot baths.” Ratchet. “And hot food.” Ratchet. “And drink.” Ratchet. By this time all he could do was violently shake his head yes. Words were beyond his comprehension to form. “Thanks,” Xena smiled. She patted him on the right side of his face, as she lowered him back to the floor.

Xena lifted her head and straightened her shoulders back to her full six feet, and fluidly walked around the bar and back to where Gabrielle was still standing. She nonchalantly gathered her cape and their bags from her friend, and placing a protective arm around her love, led her to the stairs. There they followed the now wincing innkeeper as he showed them to their room. No one in the crowded room below dared to comment on the physical contact the warrior was showing her friend as they ascended the stairs.

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Chapter 08

“Here,” the innkeeper meekly said, as he showed them into their room. Using the candle he carried, he went about the room lighting candles. He then proceeded to the fireplace, where he attempted to get a fire started. He found it increasingly difficult to do so, while trying to keep an eye on the warrior. He was scared for his life now that he was alone with her.

“I’ll get that,” Xena barked at him. She appreciated the way he almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of her voice. ‘Very reassuring.’ She smiled. He turned to her but would not make eye contact. “I want a tub with plenty of hot water brought to the room. And hot food and drink. And plenty of extra blankets and towels,” she added as an afterthought. When she realized the man was still standing there she finished, “Now!” He was out the door in a flash.

“Wow! That must have been some look you gave him.” Gabrielle stood there looking at Xena in wide-eyed wonderment. “He wouldn’t even look you in the eye. Must have been a real attention grabber.”

“Yeah. You could say that.” Xena chuckled as she realized that the entire time the innkeeper was in the room, he never took his eyes off her left hand. “A real attention grabber.”

Xena soon had a fire going. “Here, give me that thing.” She walked over to Gabrielle and lifted the soggy cape from her shoulders. “This thing weighs a ton.” She dragged two chairs over to the fire, and laid the capes as close as she dared. Xena returned to her friend and directed her to sit on the edge of the bed. She pulled the blanket from the bed and draped it over Gabrielle’s shoulders. Gabrielle just sat there. All her strength had seeped from her body. And to top it off, she had a pounding headache.

“Let me give you a hand. We’ve got to get you out of these wet clothes.” Xena knelt before her, and worked on getting her boots off. The wet leather laces stubbornly complied after a few strong tugs. Xena then went to work on the laces of her top and finally her skirt. For Gabrielle’s part, she simply obeyed Xena’s commands to lift her arms, stand and sit. When Xena was done, she had a beautiful, naked, freezing bard sitting before her. Xena wrapped the blanket around her trembling friend and began to vigorously rub her arms and legs, doing what she could to generate heat. A tentative knock on the door stopped her efforts.

Xena made sure Gabrielle was properly covered and called, “Come in.” She stood and turned, putting herself between her friend and the door. When Xena saw that the tub had arrived, she moved the chairs with the wet capes to the side of the fireplace, and directed the two young men to place the tub in front of the fireplace. They quickly did as instructed, and proceeded to make numerous trips to the hallway to retrieve buckets of hot water. When the tub was full, they brought even more buckets in and placed them near the fire. As they were readying to leave, one of the young men eyed the young woman’s clothes strewn about the floor and met the icy cold stare of the warrior. Grabbing his friend by the arm, they beat a hasty retreat. As soon as they exited, two young girls appeared at the open door.

From their ruddy complexion and round, freckled faces, Xena knew they had to be daughters of the innkeeper. “Come in,” she called to them. They hesitated for a moment, not sure they loved their father anymore for sticking them with this chore. Xena saw the normal signs of fear that she evoked, and gave them a warm smile as she sat on the bed next to Gabrielle. She hoped the change in her height would also help to put them at ease. The older girl entered first with a tray laden with food. She placed it on the small table inside the door. The younger girl still stood rooted in the doorway. Xena gave her a winning smile and said, “C’mer.” The girl automatically obeyed, a smile spreading across her face. Xena took the blankets and towels offered her, and placed them on the bed behind her.

“Kristin, come here!” her older sister begged. She wanted to get out of the room before that warrior ate them for dinner.

“Kyra, she’s nice! I told you she wouldn’t eat us!” Kyra just looked at her younger sister, not believing that she had just let the warrior woman know her deepest, darkest fear.

“Eat you!?!” Gabrielle startled them both with a laugh as she playfully punched Xena on the upper arm. “What have people been filling your imaginations with?” she wondered out loud. Kristin quickly backed away from the two women, not sure she wanted to be witness to what the warrior would do in retaliation for being struck. She stopped cold when she saw Xena place her arm around the strawberry blonde haired woman and give her a gentle squeeze.

“Kyra. Please give your father a message from me. Tell him thank you for the quick service, and that I don’t want to be disturbed. You can come for the dinner dishes tomorrow.” Both girls nodded and quickly left.

“So now you eat children,” Gabrielle admonished her. “Since when was there a change in your diet?”

“Two moons ago. Didn’t I mention it? A mystic healer told me I should get more young meat in my diet.”

“I think she meant veal and lamb.”

“Oh. Now you tell me.” Both women erupted into fits of laughter.

“Xena, where do they come up with these stories?” Gabrielle asked, as she wiped a tear from her face.

“I don’t know, Gab But they never cease to amaze me.” Xena stood in front of Gabrielle and helped her to her feet. “Now, let’s get you in that tub before the water turns cold.” She unwrapped the precious bundle before her and took the now damp blanket and Gabrielle’s clothes to lay them by the fire.

Gabrielle made a beeline for the tub. “Oh, Xena. I didn’t think it could feel so good to get wet all over again.” Gabrielle slowly lowered her tired limbs into the hot water.

Xena brought the tray of food over to the tub. “We best eat this while it’s hot. I’m not in the mood to have to go downstairs to get it reheated.” Xena handed her friend a hot bowl of stew while she quickly peeled herself out of her wet leathers and wrapped a blanket around herself. She settled herself next to the tub and the two quietly ate their meal.

Gabrielle used the last of the bread to sop up the remaining broth in her bowl. “That was really good! Even though he is a royal pain in the -”

“Gabrielle!”

“Well he is, Xena. Like I was saying. Even though he’s a *royal pain* he certainly serves a fine meal. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. All I could think of earlier was a nice, warm, dry bed. Now look at me. Sitting in a tub pickling my skin and stuffing my face!” Xena reached in the tub and ran her fingers through the water. “Hey! You getting fresh with me?”

“Only if you ask nicely,” Xena teased. She got up from the floor and retrieved the kettle of hot water she had placed over the fire. She carefully added it to the tub. “Here,” Xena said, taking the bar of soap in her hands. “Let me wash your hair.” She knelt behind Gabrielle and lathered her hands. She gathered the strawberry blonde tresses in her hands and proceeded to wash Gabrielle’s hair, as well as gently massage her neck and temples.

“Ouch! No, no. Don’t stop. That feels sooo good. Yes… a little to the right. That’s the spot.” Gabrielle leaned back into Xena, allowing the warrior healer’s magic fingers to release the tension that had been building in her head. Xena was more than happy to oblige. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been more pampered in my entire life.’ This was yet another side to Xena that she never bothered to try to explain to anybody. They would never believe her. It would surprise people to learn how gentle her hands could be. How the same fingers that were calloused from years of fighting, held such healing powers.

The crackle and spittle from the fire and an occasional murmured whimper from Gabrielle when Xena’s fingers found a tender spot were the only sounds emanating from the small room. Xena was entranced by the sounds coming from Gabrielle. She closed her eyes and imagined how she could make other sounds escape those beautiful lips. ‘Just a small kiss here. And maybe another one there. My tongue running down her… mmm… delicious. And her… Ooo between my fingers… squeezing… pinching. Feeling her… so wet. Taking her. Yes!’

The rhythm of the massage Gabrielle was receiving had changed a few minutes ago, replaced with long, smooth, slow strokes. She had almost drifted off to sleep then, relaxed and lulled into a beautiful dream. Suddenly her heart skipped a beat and her eyes widened when she felt more than heard a ragged breath escape Xena. Xena’s hands had traveled down her neck, over her shoulders, and were now pliantly massaging her upper arms. Down and back up. Down and back up, Xena’s hands worked the flesh of her arms. Xena was leaning further into Gabrielle, her head pressed up alongside her love’s head, lips a breath away from her right ear.

‘Oh my Gods,’ Gabrielle cried to herself, as she felt the muscles in her upper thighs constrict. ‘This is no time for a cramp.’ Try as she might, she had no idea how to relieve it, and had no idea of it’s true source. Another ragged breath escaped Xena’s lips. ‘My, it’s getting mighty warm in here.’ Gabrielle giggled softly. She knew where the source of *that* was coming from. ‘Xena.’ Xena, who now had her earlobe in her mouth, and was lightly sucking and biting on it. Xena, whose hands never ceased in their tireless efforts to touch and manipulate her arms, then back up to her shoulders and now down to her – “Oh… GODS,” Gabrielle groaned, as she found her body arching to meet the warrior’s latest assault on her flesh. She turned her head and captured Xena’s mouth, feeling the power of Xena’s lips crush into hers.

For Xena’s part, she hadn’t realized that it had progressed beyond a simple massage until Gabrielle’s lips found hers. Until then, she was content to simply enjoy her innocent fantasy. Gabrielle’s lips brought her back to reality, and she was startled to realize her fantasy had spilled over when she felt soft and responsive breasts under her hands. Xena yanked her hands from the bard and pushed herself away from the tub. “Gabrielle… I’m so sorry… I… I didn’t realize…” She looked down and examined her hands, wondering how they could have betrayed her.

Gabrielle spun around and watched as the warrior sat there transfixed on her hands. Her mind raced to think of what to say to bring Xena back to her. She had started something that her body needed to have finished. “Xena. Xena…” Gabrielle waited for what seemed like an eternity for Xena to meet her eyes. She extended her hand and said simply, “Please.”

Xena could see the desire in Gabrielle’s eyes, and felt her own passion growing. She reached for the offered hand and lightly brushed fingertips. The connection was magnetic. She found herself drawn into those sea-mist green eyes, and slowly covered the distance. “Gabrielle, I don’t want to -” All thought was lost as Gabrielle brushed her lips over the warrior’s again and again.

“Xena. You didn’t do anything I didn’t want you to do.” She slid her hands around Xena’s neck and pulled her in. Their lips met, and Gabrielle could feel her nipples cry out as they rubbed on the metal surface of the tub. She grasped Xena’s hands and slowly pivoted in the tub, allowing her head to fall back on the warrior’s chest. With slow, deliberate movements she brought Xena’s hands around her neck and down her chest, breaking the surface of the water and urging them on. “Xena… please,” Gabrielle begged, as she urged the warrior’s hands over her soft flesh.

Xena marveled at the boldness of the bard as she felt small hands pressing hers down. She leaned into Gabrielle and began to slowly massage her breasts. Gabrielle pushed back into the warrior and arched her back as she turned and found her lips. Xena savored the taste of Gabrielle’s lips with her tongue, and with a small flick, was soon sweeping it over her bard’s teeth. Gabrielle started to say Xena’s name, and that was all the enticement Xena needed, as Gabrielle swiftly found a large, warm tongue battling hers for space in her mouth. Xena’s tongue was like a small child’s; inquisitive, exploring every recess, touching and tasting. Gabrielle moaned deeply, clutching the rim of the tub with white knuckles. Xena responded by lavishing more attention on the now erect nipples below the surface of the water. She rolled them between her fingers as Gabrielle’s body was propelled further and further into Xena’s expert hands.

“Xena… Please!” the bard begged, as Xena left her mouth and ventured around to taste her neck. She lingered over the taut skin of her partner’s arched neck for a moment, before beginning to trail hot kisses down to the water’s edge. Gabrielle, fearful that Xena would stop once she reached the water, thrust her body upwards. Her breasts broke the surface of the water like two newly formed islands. This was an unneeded move on the bard’s part. Xena was already willing to drown to get to her targets of desire and had no intention of stopping when her tongue hit the water.

Xena knew this was Gabrielle’s first time with a woman, and she desperately wanted to be as gentle as possible with her. Even though she had been with Perdicus for one night, Xena was not sure what he had showed her, since Gabrielle had always been bashful when it came to matters of intimacy. All of these wonderful, rational thoughts were soon lost on Xena as she witnessed those two beautiful breasts heaving to meet her. She descended teeth first to meet the right one, biting the hard nipple with uncontrollable lust.

“Xena!… Oh… Gods!… XENA!” Gabrielle panted, trying to force air past her scorched throat and into her lungs. “PLEASE!” She strained to force more of herself between Xena’s teeth. The muscles of her thighs were so constricted that you could have bounced a dinar off them. All of her weight was now being supported by her heels which she had dug into the bottom of the tub, and her hands, which had become permanent fixtures to its sides. When Xena stretched to lavish the same attention on the left breast, Gabrielle had her pleas answered. Xena’s left breast brushed over the bard’s cheek and fell into her waiting mouth. The feel of Xena’s erect nipple in her mouth sent Gabrielle over the edge. Her screams may have been somewhat muffled at the time, but Xena felt them course through her body and she followed Gabrielle moments later.

Xena supported Gabrielle’s now limp body, fearful she would simply slip under the water otherwise. “Xena?” Gabrielle whispered.

“I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I think my headache’s gone.” She looked up to see the lopsided grin on her lover’s face.

“Oh, I can’t wait to see my next patient’s face when I try out my new remedy!”

“Don’t you even think about it.”

“No?”

“That one you save for me. And I feel like I’m going to have a sudden surge in headaches.” She softly laughed as mock exasperation spread over Xena’s face.

Gabrielle looked down at the puckered skin of her fingers and sobbed, “If I don’t get out of this water soon, this may become permanent.” She sat up under her own strength, and Xena retrieved a towel from the bed. Refusing to make eye contact with Xena as she returned, Gabrielle admitted with great embarrassment, “I… I don’t think I can stand on my own.”

Xena smiled apologetically, only now realizing the true effect she had on Gabrielle. “Let me help you.” Xena slung the towel over her shoulder and stooped over the side of the tub, scooping Gabrielle up in her arms. She cradled the bard to her body and headed for the bed. There, she slid Gabrielle to her feet and with one arm supporting the bard under her shoulder, she proceeded to wrap the towel around her. Xena scooped her back up and gently placed her on the bed, lingering for a moment to steal a kiss. Before Gabrielle had a chance to return it, Xena broke away. “If you start something now,” Xena sheepishly admitted, “I’ll never get my bath.”

“Xena! I completely forgot. Why didn’t you remind me?”

Xena threw a guilty look over her shoulder as she headed to the fire for hot water. “I was a little preoccupied,” she confessed. She filled the tub once again with hot water and made quick work of her bath.

Returning to the bed carrying two white shifts, she tossed one to Gabrielle. After drying herself with a towel, she snatched the bard’s discarded towel and went to lay them by the fire to dry. “Xena. Could you bring me my satchel?”

“Sure.” She returned and handed it to Gabrielle, who was now sitting with her back against the headboard. Xena sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, combing her hair.

Gabrielle dug around the satchel a moment, and produced a small multicolored tin. She presented it to Xena. “What’s this?” Xena inquired, as she worked the top off.

“Dessert!” Gabrielle beamed.

Xena’s eyes lit up when she spotted the small treats. Where did you find them?”

“At the harvest festival. I know they’re your favorite.”

“They were my favorite,” Xena corrected her, as she popped one in her mouth.

Gabrielle looked dejected. “Were?”

Xena leaned over and furnished Gabrielle with a long, smoldering kiss. “They’ve got stiff competition now,” she husked, as they both came up for air. She proceeded to place one of the treats between Gabrielle’s lips, and popped another one in her mouth. “But that doesn’t mean we still can’t enjoy them,” she finished, smiling.

Xena added more wood to the fire before returning to bed and blowing out the last of the candles. She crawled under the covers and joined Gabrielle, who was lying with her back to Xena. Rolling onto her left side, Xena wrapped her right arm around her love’s waist and pulled Gabrielle to her. She draped her arm around her chest and nestled her chin atop her head, realizing they were anatomically built for each other. Gabrielle flinched when Xena’s hand brushed across her breast. “Gabrielle. Are you OK?” asked an alarmed Xena. “I didn’t hurt you earlier, did I?” She instantly felt guilty about her aggressive actions during their lovemaking.

“Well… I am a little sore,” she admitted. “But a nice sore,” she added quickly, as she gave her friend’s arm a reassuring squeeze.

“I’m so sorry. You should have told me. Do you want me to get you some salve?”

“No. I’ll be fine. You know…” Gabrielle paused. She was glad she had her back to Xena. She wanted to be open with her, but knew that what she wanted to say she couldn’t bring herself to say to Xena’s face. “I never knew it could be so… so intense.” Gabrielle could feel her face flush just thinking about it.

“But Perdicus?” Xena was all too aware of the one night Gabrielle had with him, though she normally tried to push it to the recesses of her mind.

“Well, he… ah… he knew it was my first time, and he was so sweet, so gentle.” Gabrielle thought back to that night. “Too gentle,” she admitted. “I never felt with him what I felt with you.”

It suddenly dawned on Xena that what Gabrielle was trying to say was that she never achieved orgasm with Perdicus. ‘But she did with me.’ Xena smiled at this realization.

Gabrielle wiggled back a little further wanting contact with as much of Xena as she could possibly manage. “It can’t get any better than this,” she murmured more to herself than Xena.

“Just wait.”

Gabrielle stiffened for an instant, and then relaxed as Xena pulled her in, enveloping her in warmth and love.

Chapter 09

Xena cinched the saddle securely to Argo, leading the horse out of the stable and around to where Gabrielle was waiting at the front of the inn. She knew that if they were going to reach their destination on time, they would have to pick up their pace. She finished packing their supplies on the war horse and turned towards Gabrielle. “Gab. I’d really appreciate it if you’d ride with me today.”

“Xena. Is it really necessary? You know…” Gabrielle saw *that look* momentarily flash over the warrior’s face, quickly to be replaced. ‘Gods. She’s trying so hard.’ “You know,” she continued, “I’d really love to ride with you.” She threw her arms around Xena and gave her a big hug.

“Mind you, I’m not complaining, but what’s this for?” Xena hugged her right back, lifting her up off her feet and enveloping her in powerful arms.

“For loving me.”

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Gabrielle clung to Xena atop Argo. She had found out by trial and error that if she buried her face into Xena’s back and closed her eyes tightly, she almost didn’t mind the ride. She simply imagined herself atop a horse with much shorter legs, though the mental picture she formed of riding behind the warrior princess on top of her childhood pony sent fits of giggling laughter through her body.

“Are you OK back there?”

“Yeah Xena, I’m fine.” Gabrielle gave her a reassuring hug as her body still quivered with laughter. “Just taking my mind off the height.”

Xena switched the reins to her right hand and held Gabrielle’s hands securely against her with her left. “I’ve got you. You’re not going anywhere.” Gabrielle felt so safe, she eventually dozed off. On the other hand, the continuing friction between their bodies shot bolts of heat to the warrior’s core. Xena mentally berated herself for agreeing to this trip. The timing couldn’t be worse. ‘Just when Gabrielle and I are beginning to take the first steps towards being together, we have to be headed *there*.’ But Xena knew she wouldn’t back out of a promise, even though it meant she would probably not get a chance to touch Gabrielle for the next few days.

After a few more miles, Xena saw the fork in the road. ‘It would be so easy to take the left road.’ She would just explain that something unavoidable came up. ‘No one would dare question me, but a promise is a promise.’ Xena urged Argo to the right, on to Poteidaia.

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Xena never had much use for any of the gods. She preferred to live her life without their petty interferences, but that didn’t stop her from praying to any who would listen to her that day. If she could just make it a little farther before Gabrielle stirred, she might be safe. ‘Well, not safe, but at least it would be too late for me to turn around.’ Xena knew that with Gabrielle’s insistence, she might be willing to break that promise. And as much as she wanted an excuse, she had never broken one before, and didn’t want to start now. Especially with Gabrielle’s family.

‘I owe you one.’ Xena mentally thanked whichever god had heard her plea. The village of Poteidaia lay before her, and Gabrielle was still quietly snoring. Xena paused. She wasn’t sure if she should wake Gabrielle now and prepare her, or continue on and let things fall where they may. She had her answer when in the distance, a young brunette began to wave her hands frantically and came running towards them. It was Gabrielle’s younger sister, Lila.

“Gabrielle! Gabrielle!” Lila called out as she came running up to meet her sister.

“Lila?” Gabrielle mumbled into Xena’s back.

Lila faltered as she got closer. She now had a better view of her sister. Gabrielle sat slumped against Xena, her arms resting loosely around that warrior. Xena’s grasp of her sister’s arms seemed to be the only thing keeping Gabrielle from falling to the ground. Lila shot a look through the warrior that she hoped conveyed the message; ‘If *anything* is wrong with my sister, I’ll kill you.’

Xena had seen that look numerous times in her past. She didn’t let it phase her. “Gabrielle?” Xena shook the bard’s arms, trying to wake her.

“Xena? Oooh, I must have been dreaming.” Gabrielle squinted against the bright light of the afternoon sun. “I thought I heard Lila’s…”

At the sound of her name from her sister’s lips, Lila covered the rest of the ground between them. “Gabrielle! You’re OK!”

“Lila?” Gabrielle opened her eyes against the bright light and turned in the direction of her sister’s voice. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”

“I live here, stupid. What do you think I’m doing here?”

Gabrielle felt confused and just a little bit unsteady. She clung tightly to Xena, not sure if she was experiencing a very vivid dream or reality. ‘This must be a dream. We can’t be in Poteidaia.’

Lila stopped short of reaching out to Gabrielle. She saw the look on her sister’s face. And mixed in with the confusion, she saw fear. Lila froze. Xena saw Lila’s expression change. Still keeping a firm grasp on the bard, Xena twisted around in the saddle to look at her friend. Her love. “Gabrielle. Ga-bri-elle,” Xena repeated, using the strength of her voice to make her friend look up at her. “Listen to me. Everything’s OK. We’re in Poteidaia.”

“No! Xena! You promised! What did I do wrong?” Gabrielle became hysterical. “You can’t leave me here!”

In an instant Xena had swung her leg over the front of Argo and dismounted, never letting go of Gabrielle. She deftly lowered her trembling companion from the saddle. After glancing quickly to Lila, Xena half-walked, half-carried the bard a short distance away. With her back to Lila, Xena supported Gabrielle under her arms as she lowered her head and talked quietly into the bard’s right ear. “Gabrielle,” Xena breathed softly. “You did nothing wrong. Nothing! And I am not leaving you here. I promise. Do you hear me? I love you.” She slowly kissed Gabrielle’s ear, letting her tongue softly tickle her ear lobe.

Gabrielle focused on the attention Xena was giving her ear. “Xeena!” A small smile splayed across her lips.

“Yeah Gab?”

“Quit that! We’re in public! And if I’m hearing you right, my sister’s right behind you,” Gabrielle said under her breath. She was never more happy than she was right now that Xena had long hair, effectually hiding her roaming lips and tongue.

“Sure, if that’s what you really want.” Xena murmured as she nibbled again on her young friend’s ear.

“I… I… Oh Gods Xena! Please…” Gabrielle was certain that if Xena had not had a firm grasp of her, she would have crumpled to the ground by now in a quivering mass of desire.

Xena was positive that through her careful ministrations Gabrielle was now assured that she was not going to leave her, ever.

“Xena? Why are we here?” She was still feeling a little uncertain. This was the last place she thought the warrior would want to visit. Especially the way her family treated her in the past.

“I received an invitation,” Xena said matter-of-factly. Like she always got invitations from people who hated her. “And I knew how much you disliked it whenever I left you behind. So here we are.”

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped. She was glad Xena was still supporting her. “An invitation? From whom? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Yes. Your mother. Surprise!”

Gabrielle had to stop and match the answers up with the questions. She hated when Xena answered her in this fashion.

“My mother? She sent you an invitation? Why? And don’t you answer me like that again,” she added dryly. She knew Xena was well aware of what she was talking about.

“Well… in reality, the invitation was to the both of us,” Xena admitted sheepishly. “And I have no idea why she sent for us. I guess you’ll just have to ask her.”

“Oh Gods!” Gabrielle exclaimed. She had forgotten that Lila was still standing there. “Lila!”

Lila’s head jerked to attention. She had been standing there transfixed on the scene that was playing itself out in front of her ever since Xena had shot her that look. She hadn’t been able to hear the conversation, but could tell that Gabrielle had settled down noticeably. “Brie?”

Gabrielle ran over to her sister and gave her a big hug. “Oh Lila. It’s so good to see you.”

Lila pulled out of the hug as a cloud covered her face. “Are you sure about that? It didn’t seem like you were so happy to see me a minute ago.”

Oh that. Well… you see… I was confused,” Gabrielle stumbled over her words. Her mind was racing to come up with some kind of an excuse. “Xena told me we were going to Torone to see an old friend of hers. I’d been asleep for the last couple of hours of the ride and when I awoke and heard your voice, I thought it was all a dream.” Gabrielle hoped her lame excuse would suffice. She didn’t know how she could begin to explain her ranting about broken promises and being left here.

“But Brie -”

“Lila.” The force with which Xena spoke that one word stopped Lila cold. “Don’t you think your mother would want to know that Gabrielle is here.” This sentence came out sounding more like a command to action than a question.

“Yes, Xena. Right away.” Lila took off running. She found herself halfway home before she realized she had moved from her spot.

Xena covered the distance between Gabrielle and herself. “Oh, Xena. Thank you.” Gabrielle watched as her sister retreated. “I didn’t know what I was going to say to her.” Xena bent over and whispered something in Gabrielle’s left ear. “Xena!” She playfully swatted the warrior on her forearm. Xena grinned and began to apply the same ministrations to that ear that the other one received earlier. “Xena! Oh…”

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Chapter 10

After Xena was sure that neither ear was lacking for attention, she proceeded to lead Argo and Gabrielle the rest of the way to Gabrielle’s childhood home. “I’m going to stable Argo,” she said, as she headed to the family’s barn. “Why don’t you go say hello to your parents.”

Gabrielle knew how hard this had to be on Xena. Her parents blamed her for their little girl running off with Xena. ‘Yeah. Like she ever had a chance to decide otherwise for me. She couldn’t have shook me if she tried. And now, she’s stuck with me,’ she chuckled to herself. “I think I’ll give you a hand,” Gabrielle called out, as she followed Xena into the barn. Xena looked over her shoulder after having removed Argo’s saddle and gave her friend a raised eyebrow in response. “I know, I know. I just can’t help it,” Gabrielle admitted. “I have no idea why they sent for us. And I guess I’m just a little scared.” She thought for a minute, finally realizing there was one question she had forgotten to ask. “Why didn’t you tell me we were coming here? Why the big ruse? Was that their doing?”

Xena began to brush Argo as she spoke. “At first I was going to tell you, but I knew that you’d spend the entire trip worrying about why we were summoned. It would have eaten away at you. And yet you would’ve still ended up coming. They’re your family. I just wanted to spare you for as long as I could.” Xena stopped brushing Argo and turned to her partner. They were alone, although Xena wasn’t sure when somebody would be poking their head inside, wondering what was taking them so long. But right now, she just didn’t care. She took Gabrielle in her arms and held her. Just quietly held her until she could feel her relax. “I’m here, and I won’t let anything happen to you.” Gabrielle felt warm and safe. She was nestled into her own private cocoon where the outside world could never touch her. Here in her love’s strong arms she was home. Really home. That last thought made Gabrielle suddenly jerk out of Xena’s embrace. “What’s the matter?!” Xena said, as she looked quickly about the barn trying to figure out what the source of Gabrielle’s fear was.

“Gods Xena! What if Lila or Father had walked in on us? I’m… I’m just not ready to deal with that right now.” Gabrielle looked apologetically at Xena, afraid she had hurt her feelings. “I’m sorry.”

Xena picked up Argo’s brush and continued where she had left off. “You have nothing to apologize for. I understand.” But she didn’t. ‘Why can’t her family simply be happy for her, instead of trying to mold her into something she’ll never be. Gabrielle would whither and die if she had to stay here. She needs adventure and travel, meeting new people. And damn if I’m going to let anybody stand in her way.’

Gabrielle walked up and placed her hand on Xena’s forearm, causing her to stop in mid-stroke. “Thank you,” she said, looking up into Xena’s gaze.

“Think nothing of it,” Xena said lightly, trying to change the bard’s mood as she gave her a little grin and a tousle of her strawberry blonde hair. Handing Gabrielle the brush she added, “Here. You said you’d give me a hand. Finish brushing Argo while I stow our gear.” Gabrielle gave her a smirk, realizing that it was her own words that were now putting her to work.

Lila was waiting for them in the front yard when they emerged from the barn. “Well, I better get this over with,” she whispered to Xena. She put her best smile on and turned to once again greet her sister. “Are they inside?”

“Mother is,” replied Lila. “Father’s away on business. He left a couple of days ago to take a load of merchandise to Athens. He won’t be back for at least a week.” Lila watched as relief washed over her sister’s face. “I thought you’d appreciate that.”

Gabrielle looked at Xena and then back to her sister with a puzzled look on her face. “Why did he summon us, if he knew he wasn’t going to be here?”

“He’s not the one who sent the invitation,” Xena reminded her friend.

“I just figured -”

“Father has had this trip planned for months,” Lila added.

“Then mother knew he wouldn’t be here when we arrived. What in Hades is going on?”

“Why don’t we go in and find out,” Xena suggested. “You’re not going to find the answers standing around out here.” With this evidently simple answer to her questioning, Gabrielle followed Lila into the house, followed closely by a very reluctant warrior.

All of Gabrielle’s old insecurities rushed back to her as she entered the house. Of wanting, needing more. Of feeling trapped, both in this house and in this town. Her breath caught in her throat threatening to burst her lungs, as she inhaled the familiar, stifling, choking, stale air. The essences of the independent woman and the Amazon Queen that she had evolved into quickly turned and fled out the door, and Gabrielle’s shell was left with an insecure, desperate child. Lila had continued on to the kitchen, oblivious to the change overtaking Gabrielle.

Xena hesitated, noticing Gabrielle’s slumped shoulders and drooped head as her young friend retreated into herself. ‘*This* is the better life I’d threatened to bring her back to?’ Xena was alarmed at the effect the place had on Gabrielle. She recalled the dogged determination she was subjected to from the young girl from Poteidaia as she had tried vainly to rid herself of her newfound and unwelcome traveling companion. ‘No wonder she was willing to defy a murdering warlord to escape from here.’ Xena extended a tentative hand to Gabrielle, brushing along her arm and down to her fingers.

Gabrielle could feel herself tumbling out of control, reverting back into what she had fought so desperately to escape. She knew there was no use fighting this repressive feeling, and was about to resign herself to her fate when she felt a small glimmer of hope. She struggled against the insecurity, desperation, and hopelessness to frantically lunge at what she knew was her only chance of survival. Gabrielle seized at the lifeline before her and held on for dear life.

Xena grimaced in pain as the death grip Gabrielle now had on her hand was promising to dislocate a finger or two. She watched silently, waiting for Gabrielle to come back to her. “Are you OK?” she inquired softly, moving in front of her friend and effectively blocking the view from the kitchen. She didn’t want Gabrielle’s sister or mother to become alarmed at the look on her friend’s face. “Gabrielle.” Xena cupped her love’s chin in her free hand and coaxed her head up. She was face to face with a stranger. Gone were Gabrielle’s normally bright, sparkling green eyes and cheery smile. There was a storm brewing behind the dull gray-green eyes that looked at and past her. Her entire body was tense, and Xena could feel a slight tremor running through herself from the contact she had with the bard’s hand and chin. She could see her struggling to regain control and used the only weapon she had at her disposal to help. Xena slowly bent over kissing Gabrielle and murmuring, “I love you.”

“Xena? I uh… I feel a little light-headed.” Xena caught Gabrielle as her knees began to buckle, and helped her to a nearby chair. She slumped forward, resting her forearms on her thighs.

“What happened?” Xena asked, as she knelt in front of Gabrielle placing a hand on her friend’s shoulder to help stabilize her.

“I don’t know. I… I remember having a hard time breathing. I started to panic, but I don’t know why. Guess ’cause I couldn’t get any air. The next thing I remember is… is feeling…” Gabrielle paused, trying to find the right words to convey her thoughts; but none would come. “… helpless, I guess. Then I felt something tangible, something solid. And I reached out for it, trying to find something… something real.” Gabrielle looked down at her hand and realized she still had a hold of the warrior. She gave a little squeeze, realizing what that something was. “Next thing I know, you’re kissing me in my parents living room.” She looked up at Xena and gave her a small smile. “I’m sorry. It’s just this place. I know I shouldn’t let it get to me, but sometimes I’m afraid of ending up back here, or someplace like it.”

“Gabrielle. You just say the word, and we’re out of here.”

“Thanks, Xena… thanks.” Gabrielle could feel a weight lift off her spirit, and knew a certain warrior princess was responsible. Xena let out a long sigh of relief, seeing the twinkle return to her friend’s now green eyes.

Xena heard the back door to the house open and gave Gabrielle a little nudge as she stood and straightened, followed closely by Gabrielle. Hecuba entered the room, wiping her hands on the apron around her waist. Gabrielle had successfully wiped the last of the fog from her mind, and had donned her best daughterly smile. “Mother!” Gabrielle covered the distance between them and gave her mother a big hug.

Hecuba returned the hug, noticing the change in her daughter’s physique. She was dismayed at the hardness that Gabrielle’s body had acquired. ‘She’s not my little girl anymore,’ she resigned to herself, as she looked past Gabrielle and caught Xena’s eye. ‘And I know whose fault that is.’ Although she was grateful that Xena had been there to stop the warlord Draco’s men from destroying their village and selling the women into slavery, she could never forgive Xena for the price it cost her. A daughter. “It’s good to see you,” she said, as she took a step back and regarded her daughter. “How have you been?”

Gabrielle stole a quick glance at her sister, trying to tell if Lila had mentioned anything to their mother about her arrival in Poteidaia. “Fine. We’re both fine,” Gabrielle replied, as she turned to acknowledge Xena.

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” She gave a slight nod of welcome to Xena for her daughter’s sake. Xena nodded back. ‘I wonder if it’s too soon to check on Argo,’ she deliberated. She knew she was an unwelcome guest, and tried desperately to figure out a way to extricate herself from the scene. ‘If I try that excuse now, Gabrielle will have me for lunch. Hmm, on second thought, maybe that’s not such a bad idea after all.’ She felt a slight flush begin and fought to extinguish it. ‘She’s off limits,’ Xena repeated to herself over and over. ‘Gods. I think a cold swim is in order. A very, very cold swim.’

“Why did you send for us?” Gabrielle finally asked, not being able to wait for her mother to offer an explanation on her own.

“What!? Does a mother need a reason to want to see her daughter? It’s been too long.” Hecuba said all she was planning to say and deftly changed the subject. “I was in the garden picking vegetables for lunch. When Lila told me you were here, I picked extra. Come, let’s eat.” Hecuba took her daughter by the arm and led her into the kitchen.

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and saw Xena hesitate. She was about to say something when she heard her sister. “C’mon Xena. Mother has vegetable soup warming, hot baked bread and fresh vegetables for salad. There’s plenty.”

Xena knew she couldn’t refuse Gabrielle’s sister and followed her into the kitchen. She sat on one of the two benches at the kitchen table and scooted over to the wall when Gabrielle came to sit beside her. Lila helped her mother serve the food and then sat across from Xena. Hecuba soon joined them. Xena leaned back against the wall and surveyed her prison. ‘I’m trapped. There’s no way out and I’m surrounded by three of them. It’s amazing. How do they do it?’ She tried to follow the conversation that was going on all about her, but couldn’t. ‘Hell, there’s less confusion in war. Damn.’ Xena remembered that as a civil gesture to Gabrielle’s family, she had removed her weapons and armor when she was in the barn. ‘I guess sharpening my blade right now wouldn’t go over too well anyway.’ Then she remembered the breast dagger she was discreetly carrying. ‘I could always commit Hari-Kari. They probably wouldn’t notice until dessert was over anyway.’ Xena resigned herself to her fate as she ate her soup and tried to look mildly interested in the conversation, nodding from time to time hoping she appeared to be listening. Unfortunately for Xena, the last spoonful of soup she put in her mouth contained a pea. Which, as the Fates would have it, became lodged in her sinuses as she unsuccessfully attempted to snort it back out through her nose. “Aaaghh!! ”

“Xena! What’s happened? Are you OK?” Gabrielle pounded her on her back. Xena was happy the pea was gone, but really wished she hadn’t swallowed it.

“Yeah… I’m fine.” She took a swig of water, trying to alleviate the burning in her throat. “I guess it just went down the wrong way.” Xena looked apologetically to Hecuba, but gave Lila a strange look. ‘What am I supposed to say to her. Sorry Gabrielle, but I was a little preoccupied with your sister playing footsie with me. Nooo, I don’t think that would have gone over too well as a conversation piece.’ Xena pushed her bowl of soup away, realizing she was no longer hungry. ‘What in Hades am I going to do? I gotta get -‘ Xena froze when she felt the top of a bare foot back on her booted foot, suggestively sliding back up her leg. Xena gulped, trying to show no outward signs of what was going on under the table. The foot moved up higher and was now brushing against her right knee. She remembered Lila had been barefoot since they first met earlier today, and wondered if this had been planned all along. Xena looked directly at Lila, who was ignoring her. She was deep into conversation with her mother and sister. Xena stole a quick glance to her right, wondering if Gabrielle would mind using the bread knife to put her out of her misery, when she caught the glint in the bard’s eyes. And not just a glint, but a wicked, evil glint. Xena slowly leaned back and tried to nonchalantly peek under the table. And there it was. Gabrielle’s left boot was sitting unoccupied under her seat, and her left leg was at an impossible angle with the rest of her body. ‘Gods, that must hurt,’ Xena surmised.

Gabrielle, realizing she had been caught, slid her foot around so her toes were now massaging the back of the warrior’s leg. She turned to Xena and grinned openly, seeing the astonished look on her best friend. ‘Soon to be ex-friend, when Xena gets done with me. Boy, will I pay for this, but she had such a dour look on her face, I had to do something!’

Unfortunately for Xena, the rest of the very long drawn out lunch proceeded in this same fashion. She was sure that by the time it was over, she would have successfully worn down the tops of her teeth. ‘Paybacks are Tartarus, Gabrielle, paybacks are Tartarus.’

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Chapter 11

When lunch was over, Hecuba shooshed everybody out of the kitchen, saying she wasn’t going to be able to get anything done with them in the way. ‘I just want five minutes, make that ten minutes alone with my tormentor,’ Xena thought. ‘Her family can have what’s left of her.’ Before she had a chance to usher the bard away, Gabrielle latched on to her sister’s arm and began to make plans to spend the afternoon shopping. Xena realized round two of this battle also went to her friend, and decided to check out the nearby pond for that now much needed cold swim.

Gabrielle successfully avoided being alone with Xena for the rest of the day. She knew she’d have to relent eventually, but for now she was enjoying the look of frustration evident on the warrior’s face. Xena was used to manipulating her surroundings to usually get what she wanted, but she had never been up against the likes of these three Poteidaian women before. After dinner, Xena excused herself saying she wanted to check on Argo. Lila left also, saying she wanted to get their room ready for tonight.

Gabrielle decided to help her mother, and offered to carry the bucket with the vegetable waste matter to the compost heap out back. As she was about to reenter the house, an arm shot out of the dark and snatched her into the bushes by the house. A large hand covered her mouth, making it impossible for her to scream for help. Try as she might, she could not break free from the person who had an iron grip on her from behind.

“Gabrielle,” Xena said in a low, slightly menacing growl as she spun the bard around to meet her.

“Xena!”

“Just what do you think you’re up to, avoiding me all afternoon?” Xena husked in her best imitation of her commanding warrior princess voice. She bent down and gave Gabrielle a peck on the lips and a wry smile.

“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I swear,” Gabrielle meekly responded, trying to sound as submissive as possible without breaking out in laughter. ‘Oh, she’s so cute when she’s trying to sound tough.’ She returned Xena’s kiss, wrapping her arms around her friend.

“I’m afraid I just don’t believe you. I think I’m going to have to teach you a lesson.” Xena bent over and let her teeth graze over one of Gabrielle’s nipples through her halter. Gabrielle let out a small cry as she threw her head back and arched into the warrior’s mouth.

“No Xena, please. I’ll be good.” She pushed herself further into Xena, feeling her love bury her face into her chest.

“Your actions will not go unpunished,” Xena said with a mouthful of bard. She wrapped her right foot around Gabrielle’s leg and rubbed sensuously up and down her calf, reminding her that she had not forgotten about lunch time. “I’ll take care of you later,” Xena promised, in a mock threatening tone.

“You’re not going to use your whip again, are you?” Gabrielle implored.

Xena pulled out of Gabrielle’s arms, an astonished look on her face. ‘Where in Tartarus did she come up with that one?’ She looked inquisitively at the bard. ‘My whip?’ she mouthed to Gabrielle. Her friend sheepishly shrugged her shoulders and grinned. “I make no promises,” Xena said as she recovered from her shock at her friend’s rather vivid imagination. “I guess it depends on how good you are.” Xena ended the conversation with a long, quiet kiss and embrace.

Xena and Gabrielle thought they had been alone outside. Little did they know they had an audience. Lila.

Even though it had been two years since Gabrielle left, her family still kept her bed in the bedroom that she had shared with Lila. And Lila had gone to the room to make up Gabrielle’s bed. She hadn’t given much thought about where the warrior was going to sleep, but knew that she wanted her sister back in their room for old times’ sake. She had the shutters to the window opened, and was preparing to air out Gabrielle’s quilt when she inadvertently heard Gabrielle call out Xena’s name.

Lila had no intention of eavesdropping, but when she heard that warrior address her sister in that threatening tone of voice, she froze. Then she heard her sister’s timid response. Lila didn’t believe her ears. ‘Is this what it’s really like? Why doesn’t Brie — Gods! She must be too scared to leave her.’ Lila thought back to all those nights that she silently felt sorry for herself for not being the one to have the nerve to pick up and follow her heart.

Lila couldn’t see them, but she could tell they were somewhere to the right of her window. When her sister let out a cry, she shoved her fist in her mouth, trying to stifle a scream. She wasn’t sure what Xena would do if she found out she was listening, but she was frightened for her life. And for Gabrielle’s. Lila remembered back to their earlier shopping spree. Away from the warrior, Lila had confronted Gabrielle about the couple of fading black and blue marks and bruises she noticed on her sister’s arms. Gabrielle had simply dismissed them as being the results of a moment’s inattentiveness on her part during staff practice with Xena. Lila was not so sure about her sister’s excuses anymore. She also became concerned about any marks that could be hidden by clothing.

Lila had decided she was going to confront her sister, until she heard her plead with Xena not to use the whip. Again. ‘I’ll kill that son-of-a-bitch.’ Lila tore herself from the window to look for something sharp.

Gabrielle reluctantly pulled herself from Xena’s embrace. “C’mon, you. Let’s go. It’s almost time for bed.” She tugged on her friend’s arm, expecting Xena to follow.

Xena pulled back. “Listen, Gab. I think I’m going to sleep out in the barn with Argo tonight. You know how she gets when she’s left alone in strange stables.” She furnished Gabrielle with an apologetic eye.

“Xena! You’re a guest here. You’ll do no such thing.”

“I don’t think it would go over very well with your family if I bunked with you, do you?”

“Oh. Well… I know. I’ll sleep with my sister and you can have my bed. It’s settled.”

“No. I appreciate the offer, but I really would prefer to sleep in the barn. Listen. There’s plenty of fresh hay, and you know how I hate to be cooped up if I can avoid it.”

“OK. OK. You win. At least let me give you some extra blankets before bed. The nights are starting to get chilly.” Xena agreed, and they headed back inside.

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‘I wonder if any other room in this place gets any use,’ Xena pondered, once again trapped at the kitchen table with the three women from Poteidaia. She had planned to beat a hasty retreat to the barn, but had been coerced into joining them for dessert. Gabrielle spent the better part of the night regaling her sister and mother with stories about her adventures with Xena. She was careful, though, to soft pedal any of the fighting she was directly involved in. She didn’t want to give her family any more ammunition than they already had in their fight to get her to come back home. ‘I really should have taken the other fork in the road when I had the chance,’ thought Xena regrettably. ‘I wouldn’t wish this torture on Ares himself.’ Xena took another swallow from her mug. ‘Well, at least Hecuba serves good port,’ she mused. While Xena kept strictly to the port, she watched as an entire loaf of nutbread had met its maker, and another one was soon to be sacrificed. ‘It must be in the blood,’ she guessed. Xena drained the last drops from her mug, only to have it quickly refilled by Gabrielle. ‘If she keeps this up, I’ll be spending the night right here under the table.’ Xena had lost count on the number of mugs she had drained a few candle marks ago.

The warrior stole another quick glance at Lila. ‘I better be careful. A few more of these,’ Xena thought, as she brought the mug yet again to her lips, ‘and I’m likely to simply reach over and poke her eyes out.’ Xena was beginning to become unnerved. Lila had spent the entire evening furtively shooting nasty glares Xena’s way, especially every time Gabrielle had jumped to refill her mug. ‘What *is* that woman’s problem?’ Xena tried to recall what little conversation she’d had with Gabrielle’s sister, wondering what had set her off. ‘She seemed fine at lunch. Spent the entire time ignoring me.’ Even after draining her current mug, Xena was still able to coherently decide that using the ‘ole neck pinch on Lila was probably out. She would just wait and ask Gabrielle if she knew what was going on.

The moon was nearly overhead by the time the festivities were over in the kitchen. With an armload of blankets from Gabrielle, Xena trudged off to the barn, and Gabrielle and Lila headed to bed. Lila went out of her way to help Gabrielle get ready for bed. With her new knowledge of her sister’s true relation with that warlord, Lila did her best to look for signs of abuse on her sister. “Lila. Really! I’ve been getting undressed by myself now for years,” Gabrielle exclaimed, as she reclaimed ownership of her booted foot from her sister. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I just thought you’d like some help. Figured you’d be tired after the long day you had,” Lila answered, as she bent back down to remove the boot from her sister’s foot. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment before relenting. ‘I guess I can let her have her own way for the couple of days we’ll be together. She always did like mothering me.’ With her boots off, Gabrielle removed her top and was in the process of slipping off her skirt when Lila returned with a shift.

“Gabrielle!” Lila caught her breath as she stared at her sister’s chest. “What, what in -”

Gabrielle grabbed the shift from her sister and quickly donned it, covering the now faint yellow and purplish bruising around her right nipple. ‘Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn! I forgot all about that,’ she berated herself.

Lila grabbed her sister by the shoulders. “Tell me. How did that happen?”

Gabrielle flinched as Lila’s fingers dug into her flesh. ‘What am I going to tell her? The truth? I was ravished by a six foot tall hunk of burning passion? Nooo. I don’t really think I want to go there. Not with my sister,’ Gabrielle decided, as she unconsciously shook her head no.

“Gabrielle!”

“It’s nothing, really.” She pulled herself from her sister’s grasp and turned her back to the penetrating eyes.

“Nothing. You call that nothing?!”

“It’s… it’s embarrassing. Just drop it.”

“Brie. I’m your sister.”

Gabrielle turned to face her. “I know. That’s why I thought you’d believe me when I told you it was nothing.” She climbed into bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and rolled away from her sister; effectually ending the conversation.

Lila stood there a moment longer, the sight of her sister’s chest burned into her memory. She wasn’t sure how it had happened, but knew damn well who probably caused it. ‘Why is she protecting her? What kind of hold does that murderous bitch have over my sister?’ Lila crawled into her own bed and gingerly reached under her pillow, fingering the large butcher knife she had earlier liberated from the shed.

Lila waited until she heard steady rhythmic breathing emanating from her sister. Certain she was asleep, she removed the knife from its hiding place and crept from her bedroom. ‘I can’t let this go on any longer. Someone has got to stop her once and for all. And if Brie can’t free herself from that warrior’s clutches, I’ll do it for her.’ Lila left the warm confines of her house, and headed straight for the dragon’s lair.

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Chapter 12

Xena’s senses snapped to attention as she focused on the faint creek of the barn door. No amount of port had ever dulled the natural instincts of the warrior within her. Made her a little mellow at times, but never rendered the warrior that was lurking just below the surface incapacitated. Xena was well aware of this. She had once tried to drown that part of herself, with no success. ‘Gabrielle? It would be just like her to sneak in here. I guess she can’t sleep either.’ Xena smiled at the prospect of wrapping herself around her love and burying her face in the sweet smell of her soft hair.

Gabrielle rolled fitfully onto her other side, her hand reaching out to air. Even in her sleep, she could feel something missing. Her other half. Since that first night after the dance, she hadn’t been without the warmth and protective comfort of those two powerful arms. Or the body they were attached to. Gabrielle woke with a start. “Xena?” ‘Something’s wrong.’ As Gabrielle sat up, she noticed her sister missing. ‘Now where could she be at this time of night?’ With a nagging concern for Xena as well as her disappearing sister, Gabrielle grabbed a candle and headed for the barn.

The warrior instinctively took over and caught the approaching blade between her hands as it descended toward her heart. With a quick flick of her wrists, and a well placed foot to the stomach, Xena flipped the shadowy figure over her head and heard it land with a thud onto it’s back. With lightening speed, she back flipped to land squarely on her attacker’s chest, pinned both arms above the head and held them with her left hand, while she snatched the knife and pushed the blade slightly into the soft neck of the would be murderer.

“Xena?” Gabrielle softly called out as she entered the barn. She knew from past experience not to be within arms length when trying to rouse the warrior. It could easily be the last thing you ever did. Gabrielle tentatively moved further into the barn, and froze when the faint light of her candle reached Xena. Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she saw Xena straddling a prone form, and gasped as she caught the reflection of the candlelight off the knife Xena had to their throat. “XENA!” She took another step forward, only to be halted by the look that she caught in Xena’s menacing eyes as her head snapped around to greet her.

The warrior returned her attention to the stationary figure trapped below her. Not one sound had passed their lips since the sudden exhale of breath when they landed on their back. With the advantage of candlelight, Xena tried to distinguish her attacker. “Lila,” Xena drawled, as her eyes narrowed to slits. She backed the blade off a little, but still kept it to her throat.

Up until now, Lila had not spoken a word. She felt the raw power and the ease with which the warrior wielded it, and was positive her reckless actions meant certain death. She lay motionless beneath the warlord, feeling the blade of the butcher knife shaving the non- existent hairs from her neck. At the sound of her sister’s voice, Lila instinctively turned her head, only to be greeted by the prick of the knife point. She wisely turned back, too scared to allow the pleas for her sister to run and save herself to form in her throat.

“Lila?!” came the cry from Gabrielle, as she advanced on the pair. “XENA! What do you think you’re doing?!”

Xena just sat there, acting like she always spent her nights sitting on her best friend’s sister. “What does it look like I’m doing?” she asked nonchalantly.

“Well… uh… you really don’t want to know.” Gabrielle glanced at the knife and back to Xena. “Is that really necessary?”

“You’ll have to ask her,” Xena replied, as she nodded towards the head behind the blade. “She supplied it.”

“What?” Gabrielle moved to stand behind Xena and leaned into her, allowing her arms to easily drape over the warrior’s broad shoulders. She positioned the candle so its light fell directly on her sister. “So what gives?”

Lila watched uneasily as Gabrielle conformed herself to the warrior’s back, forcing Xena to bear her weight. Lila’s lips began to move, but nothing came out.

“Could you repeat that?” Xena asked, allowing a low growl to roll out. “I didn’t quite catch it all.”

“Stop that, Xena,” exclaimed a flustered bard. She slapped Xena on the shoulder for effect.

Lila flinched as she witnessed her sister hit the warrior, and froze as she felt her neck brush against the razor sharp blade. Her eyes darted down frantically to the knife just out of range of her sight, and then pleadingly up to her sister.

“Xena. The knife,” the bard admonished her friend. Xena removed the knife from Lila’s throat, and with a small flick of her wrist, sent it careening into the far wall of the barn. Lila looked on dumbfounded as the warrior obeyed her sister. Her mind raced over the conversation she had overheard earlier between the two, and tried to make sense of it with regard to what she was now witness to. “Now Lila, for Zeus’ sake! What has gotten into you?”

Her sister gulped hard and moistened her lips. She stole a quick look at the warrior, then looked directly at her sister and said, “I… I love you.”

“And you decided to show me how much you love me by trying to kill my best friend?!” Gabrielle was incensed. “Of all the crazy -” Xena reached up with her free hand and squeezed the bard’s hand. Gabrielle sucked in a lungful of air, and slowly let it out through pursed lips.

“She said she was going to hurt you.” Lila sobbed. “I heard her.”

Xena locked eyes with Lila, trying to comprehend what she just heard. ‘Is she jealous that her sister escaped this life? Does she think I picked Gabrielle over her?’ “I said no such thing.”

‘Those eyes.’ Lila could feel her soul being laid open for the warrior’s inspection. She didn’t care. ‘I’m not the one who pillaged towns. Murdered innocent people. Abuses sisters.’ She glowered at Xena, hoping she would see the reflection of her cruelty.

“I don’t know what you think you heard, but you’ve got it all wrong. Xena and I are… are…” Gabrielle stumbled over the last word and barely caught herself. She was about to say lovers. It sounded so natural. “… very good friends,” she finished.

Lila tore her eyes from the warrior and fixed them on her sister. “Brie, you… you pleaded with her not to use the whip. Again.” Tears came to her face as she looked at the shocked expression on her sister.. “A part of me died when I heard you beg.” Lila’s voice grew hard as she continued. “You risked your life to save me when Draco tried to take us as slaves. I owe you my life. I just wanted to help you to free yourself from *her*.” She looked directly at Xena as she spit the last word out.

Silence hung in the night air as the two traveling companions took in this admission. Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s shoulder for support as she felt her knees buckle. She landed on her butt with a small thud next to her sister. A shower of hay plumed in the air around her, and settled over the three women. Xena released her hold of Lila’s wrists and rocked back onto her feet. She took a seat next to Gabrielle and regarded her seriously for a moment. When the bard’s eyes met hers, the giggle fest began.

“Oh gods, Xena. What have we done?”

“We? You’re the one who brought up whips!”

“I did… didn’t I.” Gabrielle started giggling harder, absently picking pieces of hay from various parts of Xena’s anatomy.

Lila sat there rubbing her wrists, trying to get the circulation to return to her numb fingers. “Do you mind telling me what’s so damn funny? How can you let her treat you like that?”

Gabrielle gulped down the last of her giggles, and dried her eyes with the back of her hand, realizing just what her sister must think of Xena. Leaning over, she cleared a spot on the barn floor of hay and placed the candle between them. Satisfied it was safe, she sat back and scooted closer to her best friend, pulling a large hand to her lap. Gabrielle interlaced their fingers and placed the palm of her free hand securely over this bond. Fortified in the strength that was flowing from Xena she turned to her sister. “Lila. What you overheard was… was all a joke. We were just kidding around with each other. We spend so much of our time around people who think that if they look at Xena the wrong way she’ll kill them. If we don’t make light of it once in a while it would really get to us. Honest.” Gabrielle leaned into Xena, and nestled her head in the crook of her shoulder. She stared at her sister, trying to gauge her response.

Lila was about to concede her mistake when she remembered the bruising on her sister’s body. “Well, if she didn’t give you that… that…” She pointed accusingly to her sister’s chest, unable to give voice to what she had seen. Lila saw the momentary flash of guilt that invaded the warrior’s face. ‘I knew it.’ “How do you explain that one?”

Gabrielle reflexively tightened her grasp of Xena’s hand, inadvertently digging her nails into the warrior’s flesh. “I… I told you it was too embarrassing for me to speak about.”

Xena nudged Gabrielle off her shoulder and turned to meet her eyes. “Embarrassing or not, I think your sister needs an explanation. Don’t you?”

“I… ah… I guess you’re right.” Gabrielle looked down at her lap, studying their hands. ‘This isn’t exactly the way I pictured this moment. I don’t know what I pictured, but not this.’ She resigned herself to the task before her, and tried to figure a way to begin.

“We had been visiting the Amazons. They are proud of their skills with weaponry, and whenever we visit it seems it isn’t long before I find myself participating in a friendly, informal challenge.” Xena looked directly at Lila while she spoke, trying to do that ‘Pull your audience into the story thing’ that she had seen the bard do so many times. “During the latest challenge, we took turns shooting arrows right and left handed, attempting to split the arrow from our previous shot using the other hand. Well, the Amazon Queen here was feeling a little left out.” Xena nodded in Gabrielle’s direction.

You could’ve knocked her over with a feather. Gabrielle sat there in disbelief as she listened to the story unfold before her. ‘Xena’s telling a story? What’s she doing? Where is she going with this?’ Gabrielle was glad Xena still had a firm hold of her hand. The physical contact was the only thing that assured her that she was not dreaming. She glanced at her sister, realizing that Lila had been successfully drawn in.

“She’s had some practice shooting right handed,” continued Xena, “but never left handed. After the challenge was over, she insisted I give her lessons. I tried to talk her out of it. She was still trying to get the knack of doing it right handed. If you don’t stand just right,” Xena released Gabrielle’s hand and demonstrated by twisting to her left and pretending to hold a bow and arrow in her hands, “you uh… get caught.” She moved her left hand forward and showed where the trajectory of the releasing string would strike her on the breast. “And your sister, well… she’s got a lot up there not to miss.” Xena gave Gabrielle an embarrassed grin, and unconsciously sought out her hand.

“And I’m too pig headed to know when to give up,” Gabrielle chimed in, finally realizing where the story was going.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Lila, I didn’t even tell Xena at first. Not until she noticed me flinch. And then she had to drag it out of me. I just felt like such a fool to have done it to myself.”

“Then she never…” Lila glanced quickly at Xena and back at her sister. “She never hurt you?”

“No Lila, NO!” Gabrielle released Xena’s hand and gave the warrior a big hug. “She’s too busy keeping me out of trouble.” She gave Xena one last squeeze and turned to face her sister. “I’m sorry we frightened you. I had no idea we’d be overheard. Next time you get a fool notion in your head, come to me first.” Gabrielle scooted forward and gave her sister a hug. “You better get back to the house before mother wakes and finds us both gone. I’ll be along in a little while.”

Lila began to leave when she stopped and turned to Xena. “I’m sorry. I almost killed you.”

“Apology accepted. And Lila. Correction. You almost got yourself killed.” Lila turned and silently left, realizing just how lucky she really was.

“So, what brings you out here in the middle of the night?” Xena stood and began to shake the hay from her bedroll which had been rather unceremoniously trampled on. She laid it out again and reclined her tall form onto it. Gabrielle finished brushing hay from her body, bent over, blew out the candle and joined her.

“I couldn’t sleep without you,” she sheepishly admitted, as she snuggled up to the warrior.

“Funny. I was having the same problem.” Xena wrapped her arms and legs around the small form and rolled onto her back, bringing Gabrielle with her.

“Ummm.” Gabrielle settled herself into a comfortable spot atop Xena. Her head was nestled under Xena’s chin, and she could hear and feel the slow steady breathing coming from under her. The long muscular arms which held her secure were amazingly soft and warm against her skin. “I could stay like this forever,” she murmured into the soft skin of Xena’s upper arm.

“Don’t you have to get back before Lila begins to worry?”

“In a bit. In a bit.” Gabrielle reached behind herself and found the edge of the blanket. She gave a tug and pulled it up over them before settling back down into her favorite spot.

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Chapter 13

Lila turned to the soft sound of approaching footsteps. “Where have you been all night? You had me worried sick.” Gabrielle and Xena hesitated at the entrance to the bedroom before entering. “And look at you. You’re dripping all over the place.” Lila rushed to the trunk at the foot of her bed and removed two towels, tossing one to each woman. “Here. I don’t know about you, but where I come from, we usually take our clothes off before we take a bath.”

“Funny, very funny,” scowled Gabrielle. “It’s coming down in buckets out there.” She lifted her foot to Xena, who held it against her thigh as she worked to loosen the laces and slip it off. “We didn’t get two feet out of the barn before we were drenched.” Gabrielle lifted her other foot to her friend, who successfully removed it from its soaked leather confines.

“You were there the whole night?” she asked Gabrielle, who had moved behind Xena and was toweling her friend’s hair dry. Gabrielle paused as Xena removed her drenched tunic and proceeded to dry her back as her friend toweled herself off up front. “I… uh… I was waiting up for you,” Lila continued, as she found herself staring at the warrior. Xena was never one to be shy about her body, and didn’t give a second thought about getting undressed in front of Lila. Even in the gray stark light that found its way into the room from the storm outside, Xena was breathtaking. Though the warrior’s leathers didn’t leave much to the imagination, Lila was stunned by her natural beauty. ‘Gods, she could have any man she wanted.’ Lila thought about what it would be like to be able to pick and choose to her heart’s desire. ‘I wonder why she’s content to travel with my sister?’ Lila pictured herself married to a handsome young king, and living in a fairy tale castle in a far off land. She quickly snapped out of her reverie, embarrassed at her childish dreams.

Lila watched as Gabrielle, who had shirked off her skirt and halter, was busily drying her arms. “I hadn’t planned on staying out all night,” she lied to her sister. She turned her back to Xena, who began to vigorously towel her long tresses dry. “We had been talking, and I guess I fell asleep.” Xena was drying off the bard’s back when she inadvertently (on purpose) passed her hand over a rather sensitive spot on her friend’s waist. “YEOW!” exclaimed Gabrielle, as she jumped at the unexpected tickle from the warrior. She swung her right hand back and connected a backhand blow to the playful warrior’s stomach.

“Oomph.” Xena doubled over in mock pain as she spun her wet towel into a tight spiral and let it snap, catching Gabrielle squarely on her butt.

“Xena!” the bard cried, as she bent to scoop up her discarded wet towel. Even though they were evenly armed, Gabrielle soon found herself outmatched. Xena advanced, and she found herself in retreat. Gabrielle used her last line of defense when she felt her sister behind her. She spun her shocked sister in front of her, and cowered behind her, using her as a shield. “You wouldn’t dare hit my sister!” Gabrielle triumphantly proclaimed, knowing she had won.

“I wouldn’t, would I?” the warrior slowly drawled, as her eyes narrowed to slits, and a feral smile spread across her face. She bent over until she was eye to eye with Lila, and grinned as she spun the towel into a tighter spiral.

“Xena?” gasped a horrified Lila, as the sight of the approaching naked warrior filled her eyes.

Xena stopped a few feet from her intended victim, and held the towel in both hands in front of her. Letting go with her right hand, she snapped the towel to her left, while taking a step in that direction. Gabrielle instinctively moved in the other direction and was caught off guard by the warrior’s trick move. Xena had used the step to allow herself to pivot in front of Lila and end up on her right side, directly in front of the now exposed bard. Xena seized her and began to tickle her unmercifully, as the bard laughed and cried for her to stop as she fell to the floor trying to get away.

“Stop!… Xena!… No!… I can’t!… Xena!… Please!…” Gabrielle could barely see straight, as tears ran down her face. She had her hands flailing about over her head in a useless attempt to ward off the warrior’s advances. Xena got a few more tickles in before she finally relented. She grasped Gabrielle’s hands and pulled her to her feet.

Gabrielle clutched at Xena’s forearm for support as she stood bent over, trying to catch her breath. “You… are… *ruthless*,” she gasped between lungfuls of air. “I’ll get you… back. Somehow. Somewhere.” She tilted her head up and caught the bemused smile on Xena’s face. “Just you wait.”

Lila quietly watched the exchange between them, and felt she was seeing the true relationship between the two friends. ‘Maybe she’s not so bad after all,’ Lila pondered, as she witnessed Xena for the first time with her guard down. ‘This must be the person my sister decided to befriend.’

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Hecuba made short work of the breakfast dishes and then informed Gabrielle that she was leaving to go shopping in town.

“Ooo shopping! Wait up while I get my rain cape.”

“No, Gabrielle. Lila is coming to help me.” Hecuba fastened her cape and gave her young daughter a stern look. “You know very well that whenever the two of you accompanied me shopping, I never got anything done.”

Gabrielle thought back to the few times her mother relented and allowed both daughters to go with her. They drove their mother crazy with their futile attempts to see and touch everything. “But mother. I’m not a child anymore.”

“I know. And that’s why I definitely don’t want the both of you along. It was bad enough when you were children to get both of you to obey me at the same time. Now that you are an adult I have no authority over you. Anyway, it wouldn’t be proper to leave Xena alone all morning. And I don’t think she’s the type that would enjoy spending an entire morning shopping.”

Xena was about to come to Gabrielle’s defense, but the look in Hecuba’s eyes made her swallow her words. ‘I’m not sure what she’s up to, but I think I’ll play along for now.’

Hecuba had her mind made up and nothing was going to change it. “While we’re gone, maybe you could find the time to change the bed clothes. I realize you’re an invited guest, but you’re still my daughter. That is, if you still remember how to make a proper bed.”

“Mother, I’m quite capable of making a proper bed. You taught me well.”

“Oh. I didn’t think you had much call for it anymore.” Hecuba shot a quick look at Xena, which didn’t go unnoticed by Gabrielle.

“Is there -” Xena stopped when all eyes turned to her. She was going to ask if Hecuba wanted something of her, but began having second thoughts about giving the woman an opening to tell her exactly where she’d like Xena to go, or what she’d like her to do when she got there. Not that Xena would have minded the confrontation, but she was doing her best to avoid one for Gabrielle’s sake. ‘Then again, someone like Hecuba never needed an opening.’ “Is there something I can do?”

“Well, there is wood in the barn that needs splitting, if you’ve got a mind to do a little honest hard work.”

“Mother,” Lila exclaimed. Xena helps a lot of people now…” Gabrielle was surprised to hear her sister stand up for Xena.

“I’ve got a mind,” responded Xena evenly.

“There’s an extra cape to keep you dry and bags for carrying the wood by the back door,” Lila explained, as she hurried to catch up to her mother who had already left.

“Aargh!” Gabrielle fumed. “She has a knack of calling me an adult to my face, and still treating me like a child!”

Xena walked over to where Gabrielle still stood by the window, watching her mother and Lila as they headed for town. She wrapped an arm around the front of her friend and rested her chin on the bard’s shoulder, watching as the two women disappeared out of sight. “Your mother still sees you as the same person you were before you left. She hasn’t had the opportunity to watch you grow and mature over the last two years… like I have.”

Gabrielle wrapped her fingers around Xena’s hand and gave a soft squeeze. “I guess you’re right, but it still hurts.”

Xena left to split the wood that was stored in the barn, and Gabrielle headed to her parent’s room to make a proper bed.

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Gabrielle was smoothing the last of the wrinkles from Lila’s spread when she turned to find Xena relaxing on her bed. “Xena! I just made the bed.”

“Mmm. And a mighty fine job you did. Very nice. Very nice.” Xena sat with her arms folded comfortably behind her head, leaning up against the headboard. She stretched her long legs and crossed them at her ankles, settling herself comfortably on the fresh bed clothes.

“What do you think you’re doing? Now I’ll have to do it all over again.”

“Oh, I was just wondering what it was like to be you. Your thoughts. Your dreams.”

Gabrielle sat on the edge of her sister’s bed, careful not to mess it up too much. “You know, I wasn’t always so hard to wake up in the morning.”

“Oh really,” Xena said as her eyebrow raised in response to this piece of information. “I find that a little hard to believe.”

Gabrielle continued, unfettered by her friend’s lack of belief. “I used to wake up before the sun to have some time to spend with myself before chores. I’d lie there on the bed…” Gabrielle gestured toward Xena with a sweep of her arm, indicating the position the warrior now assumed, “… and dream of visiting far away places. Oh, and this isn’t just a bed, it’s a magical bed.” Xena looked at her with wonderment. “Sometimes it was a wagon with strong sturdy steeds that carried me away in a cloud of dust. And sometimes it was a magical flying machine that soared above the hills and clouds and carried me to distant magical lands.” Gabrielle looked down at her hands that were fidgeting in her lap. “Sounds kinda childish, doesn’t it. I’ve never told this to anyone before, not even Lila.”

“There’s nothing wrong with dreaming. It can give you hope for the future.”

“Yeah uh… I guess you’re right.” Silence fell between the two women as Gabrielle reflected back to a certain day nearly two years ago. “I thought I was going to have to be content to live my life in my dreams. And then I met you. You were everything I needed; an answer to my prayers. I knew that because of you, my dreams could become a reality.”

Xena stared straight ahead, unable to face her friend. “Gabrielle, you better remove me from that pedestal before I fall. I didn’t make your dreams come true. You did. It was all you. You can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it.”

Gabrielle thought about this for a moment. “Anything?”

Xena turned and looked directly at her. “Anything.”

Gabrielle sat there and quietly drank in the vision before her. Even in a simple tunic, Xena was exquisite. She rose from Lila’s bed and walked to the side of her bed, climbed up and knelt beside Xena, forcing her to look up at her. “I wonder if this bed has any magic left in it?”

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Chapter 14

Gabrielle knelt there for what seemed like an eternity, staring into two azure pools of liquid. Trembling slightly, she finally gathered enough courage and hesitantly placed her hands on Xena’s shoulders, bent down and gave the startled warrior a soft kiss. Xena wrapped her arms around the bard and pulled her in, returning the kiss. Her body quickly responded to Gabrielle’s tender lips, the feel of her breasts lightly brushing hers, the touch of her hands as they caressed the back of her neck… Xena quickly realized where this was leading and brought her hands up between them. “Don’t… start something… you don’t…”

Gabrielle studied the warrior’s face, and was now more certain than ever of what she wanted. She bent forward and reclaimed the warrior’s lips. “Xena, sometimes you talk too much,” she admonished, as she came up for air. She trailed kisses to Xena’s left ear and down her neck to her collar bone, where she nipped at the flesh.

“Gabrielle… Your mother… Lila…” Xena fought to maintain rational thought.

“… will be gone all morning.” She grinned at the warrior and playfully licked the tip of her nose. “We have the house to ourselves.”

Xena halfheartedly tried to push the advancing bard away. “But what if they come back early?”

“I…” she kissed Xena’s right eye, “don’t…” she kissed the other, “care.” She straddled Xena and looked directly into her eyes. “I love you.” Gabrielle leaned forward and brushed a strand of hair out of Xena’s eyes and let her hand trail down the warrior’s cheek, over her jaw and down her long neck to the top of her chest. At this point she stopped her hand, becoming very self-conscious of the fact that she really didn’t know how to love another woman.

‘To hell with her family.’ Xena took a deep breath and let the air out slowly, trying to reign in her quickly growing passion. She pulled Gabrielle into her arms and kissed her tenderly. Xena took her time with Gabrielle, allowing them to become comfortable with their new intimacy. Both women continued to exchange soft kisses, while their hands slowly continued to explore each other’s bodies. Ever so gently, Xena ran the back of her hand down the front of Gabrielle’s tunic. When the tips of her fingers lightly brushed over one of the bard’s nipples, Gabrielle let out a whimpered moan and pulled Xena’s mouth to hers. The warrior returned Gabrielle’s passionate kiss, and then gently pushed her away and looked directly into her eyes. She smiled as she reached forward to untie the lace to Gabrielle’s tunic.

“No.” Gabrielle grasped her hands and firmly pushed them away. She sat up and began to blush as she slowly undid the lace while Xena watched, fixated on the creamy flesh that was beginning to reveal itself to her.

“Oh, yes. Please, Gabrielle. I want… I need… your breasts are so beautiful.” Grasping the bottom of the tunic, Gabrielle slowly worked it up over her body. She was surprised that the simple cotton material felt like rough muslin against her now swollen, tender nipples. Their need to be taken drove her, and she quickly freed herself from her tunic and tossed it aside. Gabrielle bent forward and Xena scooted down a little, grasping her with both hands just above her waist and capturing a breast in her mouth.

“Ohhh… Xena!,” Gabrielle grabbed the back of the warrior’s head and ground her breast into Xena’s mouth. “More…”

Gabrielle slid her hips forward and Xena could feel the hot wet trail she left on her thigh. “Mmrumph…so hot… ummm… so wet…” Xena slipped her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her in further, using the bed’s headboard to brace herself. She rolled her tongue around the nipple, marveling at how quickly it became hard. Xena slowly pulled the breast out between her teeth and Gabrielle shrieked at the exquisite pain that simple procedure produced. Startled, Xena pushed Gabrielle away, afraid she had been too rough. “Are you OK? I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“No Xena, no. You didn’t hurt me. I need you… please…” She tried to push herself back into the warrior’s mouth, but Xena had a firm hold around her upper ribcage and held her at bay. She leaned forward and placed feather light kisses in the valley of the bard’s breasts, and slowly licked her way to the other breast. She flicked the tip of her tongue over it a couple of times, as Gabrielle groaned and tried to push herself into the warrior’s mouth. Xena’s hands held her back.

“Xena… please!” implored a frustrated bard. She wanted to feel herself inside her lover’s mouth, and if she had her way, would have delighted in feeling her nipple on the back of Xena’s throat.

“There’s plenty of time for that. Like you said, we have all morning.” Xena grinned as she returned to the task at hand, and continued to trail light kisses over Gabrielle’s chest. Her companion whimpered as she felt shudder after shudder ripple through her unsatisfied flesh. “So sweet…” murmured Xena, as she slowly licked her way up the bard, where she sucked and nipped at the soft flesh of her neck. While never faltering from her ministrations, Xena rolled the young woman to her left and placed her gently on the bed beside her. She gave Gabrielle a quick kiss on the lips, before sitting up and releasing her body from the confines of her tunic.

Gabrielle watched as Xena’s large breasts fell free and swayed before her eyes. Xena looked over and followed the bard’s gaze to her chest and waved her hand in front of her lover’s face, trying to break the spell her bosom held on her. “Gabrielle, snap out of it.” Xena grinned at the surprised look on the bard’s face when she realized she was caught staring.

“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle sheepishly replied. “I guess I still can’t get over the fact that this is real. I’ve dreamed… about us… together. I never thought my dreams would come true.”

“I told you, you can do anything you want…”

“…if I put my mind to it.”

Xena smiled broadly and bent down placing a soft kiss on Gabrielle’s lips. As the kiss deepened, she slowly moved her body over the bard’s, until she was completely covering the young woman. A low satisfying groan escaped the warrior’s throat as she settled herself onto Gabrielle; the exquisite feel of the bard’s naked body under hers.

As Xena’s body enveloped her, Gabrielle was overwhelmed by a connection with Xena that was much more than physical. Instead of feeling trapped, she felt free and content. And it was more than physical contentment, it was somehow spiritual. For the first time in her life, she felt whole. Her soul was at peace. She brought her arms around Xena’s back, and sliding her left arm down to Xena’s hips, pulled the warrior into her. She returned Xena’s kisses with a new urgency. Her entire body wanted, no needed, to feel possessed by this woman, who had already captured her heart and soul.

When Xena felt herself being pulled in she gave up trying to hold herself up on her elbows, and allowed her full weight to settle on the bard. She buried her left hand behind Gabrielle’s neck and ran her right hand along the length of her love’s side, wanting to memorize every inch of her body. When their mouths separated for a much needed moment of breath, Xena whispered, “I love you,” over and over, even after Gabrielle reclaimed her mouth.

Many minutes later, Xena relunctantly rolled off Gabrielle and propped herself up on her left elbow. She allowed her gaze to take in all of her love, admiring the beauty of this lovely young woman. She bent over and allowed her lips to lightly graze across the bard’s lips, while her right hand slowly explored the soft skin of her neck and left arm. Gabrielle buried her right hand in Xena’s hair, twirling the long black mane between her fingers. Xena flicked her tongue across Gabrielle’s lips and kissed her with more passion, while her hand worked its way over the bard’s stomach and idly played with her belly button. She trailed her hand out to Gabrielle’s hip and around back to firmly grasp her cheek and pull her love slightly towards her. Capturing Gabrielle’s mouth, she could taste the soft moans as they escaped the bard as her hand worked its way down her outer thigh. Her tongue won entrance to Gabrielle’s mouth as her hand caressed the soft skin of her thigh and moved in to separate her legs. Xena felt the bard’s body tense and she stopped immediately, removing her hand from Gabrielle. She cupped the bard’s face with her well callused hand and stroked her lips with her thumb. “I promise to take it slowly. If you are uncomfortable and you want me to stop at any time, just say the word.”

Gabrielle looked confidently into her eyes. “I’ve never made love to a woman. Before I met the Amazons, I didn’t even know two women could make love to each other. I… I still don’t know what to expect… but I love you Xena, and I want you. I want you to love me fully.”

Xena smiled and kissed her lightly on the lips, reassuring her that everything was going to be OK. She moved her hand back down to Gabrielle’s thigh and slowly moved it between her legs. The bard tentatively allowed Xena access and the warrior caressed her friend’s inner thigh, being careful to avoid her center. Gabrielle concentrated on Xena’s hand as it left trails of burning flesh wherever it passed. Xena bent lower and suckled a breast, as her hand slid up the front of Gabrielle’s right thigh and massaged her abdomen. Xena looked up from her feast to intently watch her lover’s face as she allowed her hand to slowly move down and come to rest on the bard’s center.

Gabrielle jumped a little but quickly recovered herself, smiling into the blue eyes that captured hers. “Ummm…” She caressed Xena’s cheek with her hand.

Using the palm of her hand, Xena gently massaged her, allowing her time to adjust to somebody touching her there. She moved her finger to lightly cover Gabrielle’s folds and felt how wet she was. “Is that for me?” she asked. Gabrielle gave her a quizzical look as Xena held up her finger and examined the glistening liquid. She moved back up to Gabrielle’s head and applied feather light kisses to her face, while at the same time her hand returned to the bard’s center and cupped her mound. She captured Gabrielle’s mouth and her tongue began a thorough exploration as she slowly moved her middle finger between Gabrielle’s hot wet folds and rested it on her love’s clitoris. Gabrielle’s body stiffened momentarily at this new sensation, before instinctively beginning to move against Xena’s finger in a natural rhythm as old as time. Xena quickened her pace as Gabrielle began to thrust faster and faster against the warrior’s hand. When Xena could tell that Gabrielle would not last much longer, she backed her off from the edge.

“XENA!” Gabrielle screamed, as she frantically grabbed at the warrior’s arm, trying to force it back to her. “Wha — what are you doing? Please!” she begged, looking bewildered as she tried to comprehend why Xena had stopped.

Xena silently moved her hand back in place, but just as Gabrielle was about to try to pick up from where they left off, the warrior slid her hand down a little further and rested the tip of her middle finger at Gabrielle’s opening. She squeezed the bard’s clitoris between her thumb and forefinger and then began to massage it with her thumb as she slowly inserted her finger deep inside.

Gabrielle’s body arched and she found herself staring wide-eyed at the ceiling of her bedroom. ‘My bedroom. I’m in my old bed… in my old room… in my parent’s house… and Xena is…’ All of Gabrielle’s thoughts were swept away as her eyes widened and she gasped at the feeling of having Xena inside her. She never imagined she could feel her love in such an intimate way, filling her, possessing her. “Oh gods, Xena! Where have you been my whole life?” Xena grinned at this last statement, and at the prospect of things to come. Gabrielle’s eyes glistened at this newfound revelation of what love with Xena could be like.

At first, Xena rested her finger within Gabrielle and then slowly slid it out and back in, and picked up the rhythm of Gabrielle’s body as she began to thrust her hips to meet the warrior’s embrace. Xena locked eyes with the bard, and watched intently as the frenzied motions of their connection burst forth and washed over her face. Her climax started as a low, guttural groan, and finally escaped the bard’s lips as she screamed Xena’s name, her body convulsing uncontrollably as she held the bed clothes in a death grip.

Xena covered Gabrielle with her body and held her close for a long time, keeping her hand between Gabrielle’s legs and slowly massaging the aftermaths of her convulsions. She waited patiently as her young friend worked at recovering her composure. When Gabrielle’s eyes opened again, the bard was greeted with a delighted twinkle of blue and an “I love you.” Xena brought her right hand to her mouth and sensuously licked her fingers clean while gazing at a startled bard. She leaned down and with her tongue fully extended, licked Gabrielle’s lips. Gabrielle could taste herself and marveled at the realization that she actually liked it, though none of her bardic skills would allow her to give voice to what it compared to. Gabrielle opened her mouth and captured Xena’s tongue, sucking on it and wondering if Xena would taste the same.

Gabrielle remembered back to the night at the inn, and the fleeting chance she had to have one of Xena’s breasts in her mouth. She chuckled to herself, remembering that at the time she had little choice in the matter seeing how she had been thwapped upside the head with it. She realized this was her chance and released Xena’s tongue and looked her straight in the… chin. She could feel her throat muscles constricting and a lump forming in the back of her throat. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. ‘Why is this so difficult for me? Why can’t I tell her what I want? I’m a bard!’ Gabrielle suddenly started to feel very claustrophobic and put her hands on Xena’s shoulders trying to push the warrior off her.

Xena saw the look of panic in Gabrielle’s eyes and added to that the fact that the bard couldn’t look her in the eye. ‘Oh gods. What’s the matter?’ Xena cried to herself. ‘I thought she wanted this… wanted me…’ The warrior fought the urge to run and instead hurriedly rolled off Gabrielle and tried to give her some space.

“Xena?”

“I’m sorry. I thought you wanted… I’m so sorry.” Xena felt her whole world collapsing around her as she realized she had just lost the one true friend she ever had. She sat up and swung her feet to the ground.

“Xena!” Gabrielle’s arm shot out and grasped the warrior’s upper arm, forcing Xena to turn around and look at her. “Where do you think you’re going?” Xena just stared at her. She had no answer to give. Gabrielle slid her hand down Xena’s arm and clasped the warrior’s hand. “Please. Come back to bed.”

Xena saw the love and desire in her friend’s eyes and a spark of hope flickered in her heart. “I thought you were having second thoughts… regretted what we -”

“No!” she stated emphatically. “Never.” It’s just that I…” Gabrielle started to blush deeply. She continued to hold Xena’s hand and forced herself to meet her eyes. “Damn Xena. After what we just did; why am I still so embarrassed? She looked intently into her lover’s eyes and pulled courage from the love she saw. “I want to make love to you, but I’m not sure how.”

A long held breath escaped the warrior as Xena’s mind registered the false alarm. She brought the bard’s small hand to her lips kissing the palm gently. Xena slowly lay down on her back, giving her friend free access to her body. Gabrielle sat up and marveled at the beautiful woman before her. The bard brushed an errant lock of hair from Xena’s face, allowing her hand to linger on the warrior’s cheek. “By the gods, you’re beautiful.” She leaned over and kissed her tenderly on the lips, before sitting back up to admire her some more. Gabrielle worked at trying to grasp the concept that Xena was all hers, to do with as she pleased. She never saw the warrior in a position of such vulnerability, but when their eyes met, all she saw was the love that Xena held for her, and she was elated.

Placing her hand carefully on Xena’s abdomen, she felt the muscles under her fingers ripple with her touch. Gabrielle slowly moved her hand over the soft skin, pausing to study her belly button. She looked to the warrior’s face for any signs of disapproval, and was rewarded with a huge smile and a soft chuckle. Gabrielle trailed the back of her left index finger up from Xena’s belly button, and could see as well as feel the shudder that her simple touch produced as she hesitantly encircled one of the warrior’s large breasts.

Xena let out a ragged moan as she pulled the bard’s free hand to her waiting mouth and licked and sucked on each finger with reckless abandon. She moaned into Gabrielle’s palm as her friend found the nerve to roll and squeeze the tender nipple of Xena’s right breast between her fingers. The warrior arched into the bard’s inquisitive ministrations, while placing her hand behind Gabrielle’s neck and coaxing her down to take the other breast in her mouth. “Gabrielle… please.”

The bard paused as she poised herself above the now swollen and erect nipple and glanced into Xena’s face. What she saw was a need that only she could fulfill. She turned back to the breast in question and experimentally touched it with her lips. She licked slowly around the outside of the nipple, and discovered she liked; no, relished the salty taste of Xena’s flesh. While never losing track of what she was doing to the other breast, Gabrielle took her right hand and cupped the breast she had been licking, squeezing and kneading it between her fingers. With a firm hold, she brought the nipple up to meet her mouth. The bard raked her teeth over the now hard and puckered flesh and was rewarded for her actions as Xena convulsively arched herself up and used the hand she had behind the bard’s head to drive her mouth firmly into her breast.

Gabrielle was soon applying herself fully to the enjoyable task at hand. She filled her mouth with the ripe flesh, struggling to get as much of it as she possibly could past her lips. Forgetting about the other breast, she used both hands to knead and work what little bit of flesh remained beyond her physical limitations to devour. Her eyes sparkled greedily as she realized that she was truly enjoying herself. She almost felt self-conscious that she was doing it more for herself than for Xena, until she stole a glance the warrior’s way. Xena’s eyes had just about rolled back in their sockets, and her right hand was planted firmly in her mouth while her left still held Gabrielle’s head to her chest in a vice grip.

Gabrielle almost regrettably disengaged herself from the breast, until she spied the other neglected twin. “Umm… yummy!” She pounced on it with no hesitation.

“Oh gods,” groaned the warrior from around the fist she was gnawing on. “I think I’ve created a monster!”

“Um hmm. Mmm…” mumbled a very busy bard, as she licked her newfound friend clean before claiming it as her own. She squeezed the breast with both hands, making the erect nipple stand up at attention. Next she flicked her tongue over the tip a few times before baring her teeth and capturing it tightly between her teeth. She bit down roughly, and was surprised to hear the warrior cry out for more. The bard alternated between biting and sucking until she could stand it no longer and attempted to consume the whole thing right there on the spot.

As much as she was enjoying herself, Gabrielle knew there were still new lands to conquer. She reluctantly pulled herself from her repast, confident that they would still be there if she decided to come back and play. She looked inquisitively into Xena’s eyes. “Umm… how am I doing?” she quirked, as she licked her lips.

“I uh…uh…” Xena stammered, as she fought to regain control, “… not bad. For your first time.”

Gabrielle started to frown until she caught the corner of Xena’s mouth twitch and watched as her lip turned up slightly in the first hint of a grin. “Xena!” The bard hauled off and smacked the warrior in the stomach, which was practically useless, since it was like hitting a brick wall.

“Hey!” Xena broke out in laughter. “C’mere. I’ll show you how well you’ve been doing.” She wrapped her left hand around Gabrielle’s head and pulled her to her waiting mouth, showering her lips, chin and neck with soft kisses. Her right hand sought out the bard’s breast as the kisses quickly became deeper and urgent. Xena fought her rising need to flip the bard on her back and ravish her unmercifully, and broke her hold of the sensitive breast and breathed, “Give me your hand.” She grasped the back of her friend’s hand and placed it on her chest, covering it completely with her right hand.

Xena guided the bard’s hand down and together they explored the warrior’s body. They moved past her breasts to her abdomen, where Xena slowly moved Gabrielle’s hand over each ripple of her taut stomach. She guided their hands to her right hip and around back, where Gabrielle took control and grabbed a handful of butt and began to pliantly knead. She dug her fingers into Xena’s muscled backside, pulling the warrior to her and feeling their breasts collide and rub into each other.

The bard wrestled her mouth from the warrior’s control and began to sensuously lick her way down Xena’s neck. She paused at the small hollow, nipping at the soft flesh. She then proceeded to bite her way across Xena’s right collarbone and down her arm as Xena took control of her hand and guided it down her thigh. Gabrielle could feel the well-honed muscle that resided just below the surface as she moved her hand with Xena’s.

The warrior leaned over and raked her teeth over Gabrielle’s earlobe, bringing the bard’s mouth back up to meet hers. Xena’s kisses were now more urgent, as she felt the heat from her molten juices scorching her thighs. She manipulated Gabrielle’s hand over her thigh to the center of her heat source. Once there, she pushed the small hand against her mound, massaging the ache that was threatening to explode.

The bard tore herself from Xena’s devouring mouth and sat up. The warrior used what little reserve she had left and released her grip of her friend’s hand, allowing her the freedom to explore for herself. Gabrielle ran her fingers through the thick kinky hair of Xena’s center, perplexed at how it contrasted to the hair on top of her head. Xena saw the bard’s brows knit together as she worked on this new puzzle. Gabrielle reached over and fondled a lock of Xena’s long hair, still continuing to lightly twirl her finger in the warrior’s mound. “Xena? They’re so different. Why?”

Xena wasn’t sure how long she could hold an intelligent conversation with her friend, but knew the inquisitive nature of the bard. “I ah… I really don’t know why. Some people are just that way.”

Gabrielle pondered the response while still absently playing with Xena’s center. “I just can’t get over how different it feels.”

“I — hope — you’re having a — good — time,” Xena said, through gritted teeth. Gabrielle turned and realized that Xena was sweating profusely and her eyes were glazed over. It was then she realized that what she was doing was having a profound effect on the warrior. Gabrielle immediately removed her hand and was surprised at the speed with which the warrior captured it and returned it to her center, trapping it under her hand.

Xena let out a long ragged breath as she implored, “Please. I don’t think I can take much more.” She moved Gabrielle’s hand down between her legs, and the bard was astonished with how wet the warrior was. With Xena’s guidance, Gabrielle worked her fingers into the warrior’s folds and marveled at the texture and feel of Xena’s slick center. Xena guided the bard’s finger over her clitoris and her hips involuntarily bucked as she felt the soft skin of her lover’s touch brush lightly over her nub. It was such a different feeling from the callused skin of her own fingers that she was used to. Using two fingers, Gabrielle hesitantly began to massage the warrior, eventually becoming bold enough to pinch and squeeze the swollen nub. Xena knew she couldn’t take much more of this exquisite torture and needed to feel Gabrielle possess her. “Gabrielle… move your hand down -” Xena pushed the bard’s hand further down, and positioned one of her fingers at her opening. “I… need to feel you… inside of me.” Gabrielle slowly inserted her finger inside, very apprehensive of what she was doing. A loud moan escaped the warrior’s mouth and her hips involuntarily lurched as she realized her young friend was touching the most private part of her body.

“Oh Xena, I’m sorry,” Gabrielle cried as she quickly removed her finger. “Did I hurt you?”

“G — Gab, eh — everything’s fine,” Xena stammered as she tried her best to reassure her as she guided the bard’s hand back to her need.

“Umm, you’re so hot,” murmured Gabrielle as she reinserted her finger deep within. She slowly brought her finger up and almost out and pushed it back down, curling the tip and exploring in all directions.

Xena hadn’t expected what this naturally inquisitive nature of the bard would do to her, as her breath started to come in short ragged pants. “Gabrielle… put your thumb — no — over a little… AHHH!… YES!… right there…” Xena reached down and guided Gabrielle’s thumb over her clitoris and the bard began to earnestly massage the now swollen nub as she continued to thrust her finger deep inside the warrior.

Release should have been imminent, but Xena fought it with every fiber of her being. This moment, feeling Gabrielle inside her, was one she had dreamed of for so long. A dream that up until a few days ago, she was certain would never be answered. Should never be answered. She knew she didn’t deserve the love of this beautiful woman, but here they were, consummating their love for each other. And there could be no going back. Gabrielle was hers — freely given, and she to her bard. Xena wanted this moment to last forever.

The tendons and cords of her arms rippled and popped as she dug her clenched fists into the blankets and used her forearms to hold her body aloft. Gabrielle could feel her own need rising anew, and laid her body along the length of the warrior, straddling her left thigh. She thrust her sex again and again against the warrior, keeping time with her strokes deep inside her partner. Xena’s head flew back and she found herself staring at the ceiling, the feel of the bard’s slick center coating her thigh almost too much to bear. Gabrielle dug the fingers of her free hand into the flesh of the warrior’s upper back, and sunk her teeth into the flesh of Xena’s left shoulder. She continued to pump her left hand harder and faster, determined to bring her lover over the top.

“Please… another… ,” the warrior begged between breathes.

Gabrielle paused in mid-stroke. “I — don’t know what you want,” she said frantically, looking at Xena for help.

Xena was no longer able to focus clearly. “Your finger… insert a second finger… PLEASE!”

“Ohhh…” Gabrielle was amazed at how easily Xena’s body accepted so much of her. She quickly picked up on the rhythm of the warrior’s bucking hips, and met them thrust for thrust as she continued to bury herself inside her love. “I wonder…” While never breaking contact with Xena’s enlarged clitoris, Gabrielle brought both finger tips just to the opening of the warrior and deftly added a third before she plunged her hand down as far as it would go.

Xena’s entire body thrust itself upward to meet this final assault on her senses. There was no holding back this time. Her body and Gabrielle had finally won out, as she knew they ultimately would. She stiffened as her inner muscles constricted tightly around the bard’s fingers, not allowing her to reclaim them. With just a couple more frantic thrusts of her hips, the bard joined her lover. Gabrielle rolled completely on top of Xena’s body, holding her close with her free hand and they rode this final wave together as a terrific orgasm rocked Xena to her core.

Xena’s body finally went limp, and Gabrielle gently wrapped her arms around her love. Tranquility washed over her. Nothing could have prepared her for what she was feeling. She had known for some time that her feelings for Xena ran much deeper than friend, but she never knew she would be able to express these feelings in such an intimate way. To be able to give herself fully to Xena, and Xena to her.

Chapter 15

Xena rose with a start and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. “They’re home.” Even though the bard had sworn earlier that she didn’t care if her family had walked in on them, she dove for her tunic and frantically scrambled to put it on as Xena did the same.

Lila entered the room moments later. “Brie, haven’t you finished making the beds yet?” she asked. The blanket, quilt and pillow of Gabrielle’s bed were in a heap on the floor, and Xena and Gabrielle were standing on opposite sides of the bed, straightening the sheet.

“Well sure… that is… it was made, but I decided to give Xena a lesson… on making a proper bed.” Gabrielle glanced up from the bed to her sister, wondering if she was buying any of it. “Xena asked me what Mother meant by making a proper bed. I thought it would be easier to show her.” Lila glanced at Xena but gave her sister a quizzical look before silently leaving the room. Gabrielle looked to Xena, the same quizzical look mirrored on her face. “Your tunic is on inside-out,” Xena whispered.

Gabrielle looked down disbelievingly and shot a look at the door her sister just exited. “Do you think she noticed?”

“Yep.”

Xena and Gabrielle emerged from the bedroom a few minutes later; the bard’s tunic magically right-side out now. Hecuba and Lila were in the kitchen putting groceries away and Gabrielle offered to help while Xena took a seat on one of the benches. “Do you have the nuts?” asked Hecuba, who was gathering ingredients off to one side.

“No… they’re not in my bags,” Lila said as she reexamined the items before her. “I thought you had them.” Both women rechecked their bags and looked at each other. “I thought you bought them,” they said in unison. They turned and looked dejectedly to Gabrielle who realized no nuts, no nutbread.

“How could you have forgotten the nuts?! If I had gone with you, we’d have nuts,” Gabrielle said a bit indignantly as she looked at her mother, though secretly she knew she would not have traded the morning she spent with Xena for all the nutbread in Greece. She was still unwilling to look her sister in the eye, remembering the bedroom scene. “Now what’re we gonna do?”

“You could always make it without nuts,” Xena replied, wondering why such a simple answer to such an overblown problem needed to be voiced.

The three women from Poteidaia turned and looked at Xena as if she had just dropped in from a foreign land. “Nutbread without nuts?” Gabrielle looked at Xena absurdly. “Then it wouldn’t be nutbread!”

The three women turned from Xena and began to banter amongst themselves for a possible solution, while Xena resumed idly jabbing a long wooden splinter she had pulled from the kitchen table under the nails of her fingers, finding it a might sight less painful than having to sit and listen to them.

“C’mon Xena.”

“Wha?”

“You’re coming with me,” the bard said, as she grabbed the warrior’s hand and pulled her from the table. “We need nuts.” The three women, well really Hecuba, decided that the most expedient thing to do was for Gabrielle to go back to town for the nuts, while Hecuba started mixing the ingredients and Lila got her chores out of the way.

The storm had passed and a few rays of sunlight found the strength to push past the retreating clouds and fall to the earth. Gabrielle paused as they stepped through the doorway, stretching her head up and closing her eyes to greet the radiating warmth. “So, what’s this *we* stuff?” Xena asked.

“Well… uh… I didn’t think you wanted to be left there with them.”

“And…”

“And what?” Gabrielle felt the warmth of the sun disappear as it was lost behind a cloud. She opened her eyes to be greeted by the face of the cloud. Xena.

“There’s more Gabrielle. I can see it in your eyes,” Xena said softly, as she hovered over the bard.

“It’s Lila… I didn’t want her to have a chance to question you about me… about us.”

“What do you think I’d tell her?”

“I… I know you wouldn’t say anything on purpose.” The bard brushed her finger over the back of Xena’s hand, being very self- conscious of where they were standing. “It’s just that she can be very persuasive when she wants to be. I could never keep a secret from her as a child.”

Xena closed her eyes to her love’s slight contact, marveling how the simplest of touches could affect her thoughts. She shook her head to clear her mind and looked directly into Gabrielle’s eyes, hoping to get her next point across. “You are *not* a child. And up ’til now you’ve done a fine job of keeping your personal life just that. You’re sister isn’t dumb though… she knows something is up.”

“You don’t think she suspects…”

“I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if she knows two women can… feel the way we do… about each other.”

“What am I gonna do?”

“If and when the time comes… you’ll deal with it. Right now, let’s get those nuts.” They walked off in companionable silence. Gabrielle was preoccupied with thoughts of Lila, and didn’t notice the slight tensing coming from the warrior. Xena could feel the hairs on the nape of her neck do a little dance. Without taking her eyes from the road, she carefully surveyed their surroundings. They were being watched. This wasn’t something new, but the feeling left Xena with a bad taste in her mouth. She didn’t feel threatened, but noticed a rather conspiratorial and consciously organized buzz coming from their secretive onlookers. Xena found her hand moving up protectively to linger a hair breadth’s away from the bard’s lower back as they continued to town.

The weird feeling that Xena had abated as they got closer to town. Oh, they were still being watched. That was something that seemed to dog the warrior wherever she went. But this was the regular kind of staring that she’d almost grown accustomed to. As usual, Xena had decided not to trouble the bard with her thoughts, and soon Gabrielle had pushed aside her own contemplations of a future conversation with her sister, and cheerfully chatted away about town gossip.

As Xena had surmised, it wasn’t going to turn out to be a quick trip. There were plenty of shops that Gabrielle just couldn’t pass up, and she dragged the warrior into each and every one of them. Xena quietly obliged. How could she not? Her bard’s eyes sparkled and her voice sang as she engaged the different shop owners in conversation. ‘How can she put up with me? Sometimes I’m the only person she sees for days on end; and I can barely string two words together.’ Xena fought to push these dark thoughts down. ‘She obviously sees something she likes.’ Xena’s mind traveled momentarily back to the time spent in the bard’s bed. ‘I’ve done my best to send her away on more than one occasion, and each time she fought tooth and nail to stay.

Gabrielle saw the resigned look in Xena’s eyes and realized the torture she must have endured all afternoon being dragged all over the market place. ‘I must be driving her crazy!’ Gabrielle quickly finished her conversation with the merchant and guiltily headed to Xena.

“So,” Xena said, as she bent over and picked up the large bag of nuts that was laying at her feet. “Where to now?”

“Home.” She gave a sheepish grin as she reached for the nuts.

Xena cradled them in the crook of her arm and shooed the bard’s hands away. “C’mon. Your mother is going to kill us for taking so long.”

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Those strange feelings Xena had on the trip to town were absent on the trip home. This should have relieved the warrior, but it didn’t. The opposite was true. The closer to home they got, the quieter it became. Too quiet. Within a mile from home, not a soul was visible. No one in the fields, or out tending the animals, or chopping wood. ‘Where is everybody?’ Xena could feel the emptiness. It permeated her body. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she was certain she would find the houses empty if she’d had a mind to take a look.

Gabrielle stole a look at Xena. She could feel the warrior’s body tense and knew that Xena sensed something that she had not picked up on. “Xena?”

“Where is everybody?” she asked, as she kept her gaze straight ahead.

“What do you…” Gabrielle’s eyes darted left, and then right. The silence was deafening.

Xena shifted the bag of nuts into her right arm and placed her leftarm down protectively in front of Gabrielle. “Keep close. And stay alert.” Cautiously, they covered the rest of the distance to the house in silence.

Xena placed herself between the front door of the house and Gabrielle. She mentally berated herself for allowing Gabrielle to lead her away earlier without a thought to her leathers or weapons. ‘I must be getting soft. This has got to stop. It could cost us our lives.’ Xena gave the bag of nuts in her right hand a couple of practice swings. ‘Well, I’ve made use of worse things as weapons…’ The feel of Gabrielle’s hands lightly resting on her waist and her hot breath tickling the nape of her neck momentarily distracted the warrior. Xena reached behind herself with her left hand and gently pushed the bard away. “I said stay close, but not that close,” she whispered. “Give me room to maneuver.” Xena reached for the door with her left hand and with a sudden push, swung it open completely, giving her full access to the entire room.

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Chapter 16

“!!SURPRISE!!…” The loud chorus from the crowd of people in the house was the last thing the warrior suspected. She was so caught off guard, that she backed up and nearly stumbled over Gabrielle. The bard caught her by the waist and stuck her head out from under the warrior’s raised right arm; still poised to strike.

“…!!HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!” Gabrielle’s eyes lit up at the number of people gathered before her. She pushed herself past Xena and the crowd of well-wishers immediately enveloped her.

Xena just stood there in the doorway, grasping the frame for support. She slowly became conscious of still holding the bag of nuts in the air, and let it drop to her side. She scanned the room and found Hecuba’s eyes, successfully holding her gaze for a moment before she too disappeared amongst the crowd.

“Uncle Cosmo!” Gabrielle exclaimed, as a slight man in his early fifties threw his arms around her and gave her a big hug.

“Hey! You sure have grown since the last time I saw you.” He winced at the strength of Gabrielle’s return hug.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Gabrielle had to remind herself she wasn’t hugging Xena.

“So, how’s the birthday girl? You sure looked surprised!”

“I’m fine. And yeah, this is quite a surprise.” ‘Especially since it’s not my birthday. Not for another full moon that is.’ Gabrielle continued to work her way through the crowd of relatives and neighbors, trying to find her mother.

“Hecuba.”

“Well, I see you remembered the nuts,” Hecuba replied, as she turned to find Xena standing before her. “Would you take them into the kitchen for me?” Xena nodded in agreement and headed for the kitchen, not surprised to feel Hecuba following her.

Lila was in the kitchen filling a tray with meat and cheese when the two women entered. “Lila. Will you please go help your Aunt Effie serve the food. I’ll take care of that.” Hecuba quickly ushered her out of the kitchen and turned to meet the warrior’s cool gaze.

“Well?”

“I wanted to thank you for bringing her home. I miss her, and I worry about her. After Perdicus… she blamed herself, you know.”

Xena knew all too well. She had to repeatedly tell Gabrielle that it was not her fault. Callisto was the one with the sword. She killed him. Even if deep down inside Xena still wondered if there wasn’t something she could have done to prevent it. ‘If inaction is a crime, then his blood is on my hands.’

Hecuba had not noticed the momentary flinch by the warrior and continued. “She said she’d never allow herself to get that close again, but I know time heals all… and I’ve made sure to invite a number of nice young men to this party.”

Xena slumped onto one of the benches at the kitchen table. ‘This is my punishment? To actually have my dream fulfilled, only to have someone try to take it all away?’

“I’m hoping my daughter will take to one of them. It’s about time she settles down and has children. The road is no place for a young woman. I’m sure you would agree with me.”

The door to the kitchen swung open and Gabrielle entered. “Mother? I -” Gabrielle stopped cold when she realized what she had walked in on. Gabrielle knew it would come to this. She could tell by the look on her mother’s face that they were talking about her. And she knew she was going to have to pick sides. Gabrielle silently walked over and took a seat next to Xena, feeling her childhood slipping away for good. She took comfort in the physical contact that their bodies made and looked up at her mother. “It’s not my birthday.”

“I know. It’s not for another full moon, but I wanted to throw you a party. And you know how your father feels about Xena. He would not have allowed her to stay here, and I was afraid because of that you wouldn’t stay either. When he informed me that he would be out of town, I decided to have the party now.” Hecuba turned and started to busy herself with finishing up the tray that Lila had started. “You should be out there. People are going to start wondering where you got to.” Hecuba picked up the tray and left the kitchen, never looking back.

“Soo, what did you two talk about?”

“Oh… just girl talk.”

“Yeah. and I bet I know who the *girl* was.”

Strong fingers worked their magic on the knot of pain at the back of Gabrielle’s neck as the bard allowed her body to slump forward and rest on her folded arms. “Umm… that feels soo good.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and let the tension flow from her body. She wasn’t sure how Xena knew what she needed, but she was grateful.

After a few minutes, the warrior ran her hand down Gabrielle’s back and gave her a couple of light pats. “C’mon, sleepy head. You’ve got a party waiting for you.”

The bard raised her head, blinking the sleep from her eyes. “Do you think they’d notice if we snuck out the back door?” Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena’s thigh and quickly snaked her fingers under the warrior’s short tunic and slid them between her legs. “I can think of a lot more interesting things I’d rather be doing,” the bard grinned, as her fingers found their mark.

“Gabrielle!” Xena extricated the roaming hand and raised an eyebrow at the dejected pout on the bard’s face. When Gabrielle’s questing mouth found the sensitive pulse point on Xena’s neck, the warrior’s thighs clenched tight, attempting to quell her quickly growing passion. “You’re gonna be the death of me yet! C’mon, let’s get this over with.” Xena gave her a little bump with her hip to get the bard moving.

“OK, OK. If you insist.” Gabrielle paused as she reached to open the door and turned to Xena. “But Mother’s up to something. I’m just not sure what yet.”

“She loves you, and only wants what’s best for you. So do I.” Xena reached past Gabrielle and placed her hand against the door, effectively stopping anyone from entering. Bending down, she placed a quick kiss on her cheek. “But you need to decide what that is.” Xena pulled the door open while spinning the bard around and gave her a push back out into the party.

Xena would have been content to stay on the fringes and just observe, but Gabrielle had other plans. She tugged on the warrior’s arm, and Xena glanced down and caught the look on her friend’s face. It was the one that told her she would not only dislike what the bard had in mind, but that she was destined to endure it. “Where do you think you’re going?” she whispered into Xena’s ear as the warrior tried unsuccessfully to slip away. “I think it’s about time I showed you off.” Xena quickly found herself being pulled through the crowd by a very animated bard, as she was introduced to *every* relative and friend there.

“Well, I think that went rather well,” Gabrielle stated triumphantly.

“You mean there isn’t anybody else to say hello to?” Xena asked sarcastically, as she downed the mug of port she had procured earlier.

“Nope. I just wanted to make sure that everybody knows who you’re with,” the bard replied, as she swallowed the last of her punch. “Especially that group of young men over in the corner. They can’t keep their eyes off you!”

“Me?! I think they’re simply jealous of the fact that I’m monopolizing all of your time.”

“Sure… and that clinging tunic you’re wearing that leaves nothing to the imagination has nothing to do with it,” Gabrielle replied, as she inadvertently licked her lips.

“Hey, you better watch yourself now.”

“I think I could use some more punch,” Gabrielle said as she looked down into her empty cup. “I’m suddenly very thirsty.” They made their way over to the tables, where Uncle Cosmo had set himself up as bartender.

“What will it be ladies?”

“Two cups of punch, please.”

“Make that one cup of punch and another port,” the warrior corrected.

“Xena, you really should try the punch,” Gabrielle said as she accepted a refill from her Uncle. “Here.” She held the cup up to Xena’s lips, and the warrior very self-consciously took a sip. “I told you you’d like it. It’s Uncle Cosmo’s secret recipe.” Gabrielle brought the cup to her lips and started to drink.

“Gabrielle.” Xena took the cup from the bard and took another sip. “Secret recipe, huh?” she said as she turned to Uncle Cosmo. “Seems like your still must be working overtime.”

“You mean there’s booze in there?”

“Oh yeah,” replied the warrior as she downed the rest of it.

“And all that fruit does a great job of smoothing out the taste,” Uncle Cosmo beamed proudly. It took a number of tries before I got the proportions right.”

“And how many of these have you had so far?”

“Only two,” the bard answered too quickly.

“Gabrielle… you know how you get when you drink.”

“OK, OK. I had a half a cup earlier when I was looking for Mother, but I put the cup down for a moment, and then I couldn’t find it.”

“I think you’ve had enough then; more than enough.” Turning to Uncle Cosmo Xena continued, “Do you have anything non- alcoholic?”

“Well, I’ve got cider… and some extra fruit juice that I didn’t use in the punch.”

“Make it a cider,” the bard decided. Xena guided Gabrielle over towards the front door; away from most of the guests. “I think I’m going to step out for some fresh air… maybe check up on Argo.”

“No. Don’t leave,” Gabrielle implored, as a look of anger and frustration clouded her features. Xena was glad she had positioned the bard with her back to her guests.

“I’m not leaving you. Just this party.”

“Then I’m coming too.”

“You can’t. You’re the guest of honor. Besides, they’re your family and friends. And who knows how long it will be before you see them again.” Xena reached down and grasped the bard’s forearm. “Stay. Enjoy yourself. And keep away from that punch!” Smiling broadly at Gabrielle, she turned and quickly slipped outside.

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“But Mother,” Lila began to whine. “I’ve spent the last three candle marks introducing every eligible man here to her. It’s not my fault she doesn’t even give them a second look.” Lila’s eyes drifted over to two of the prospective candidates that she felt were especially dreamy. “Each one tried to strike up a conversation with her, but in no time flat Garielle had them disheartenly listening to a tale of Xena.”

“I just don’t understand her. You’d think the world revolves around that warrior.” Hecuba glanced over to where her older daughter was busy restocking her plate. “I don’t think she realizes just how lucky she is. After having already been married and *with* a man, it was a miracle I could find these many men still interested in her.” Hecuba continued to stare at Gabrielle, her fingers unconciously thrumming her hips as a look of quiet defeat began to overtake her features. ‘I’m glad Xena saw fit to leave the party, but what did that accomplish? It’s like she never left my daughter’s side.’

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Chapter 17

Strains of music drifted through the night air. Xena paused from polishing her armor and turned toward the house, listening. The warrior sat motionless on a bale of hay as a vision of Gabrielle and herself dancing played itself out in her mind. ‘There won’t be too many opportunities like that again,’ she sighed. Xena was relieved that she was not at the party. She realized it would have taken more willpower than she possessed not to take Gabrielle in her arms when the music began. Xena’s vision abruptly changed to one of her love in the arms of one of the young men Hecuba invited; and then another and then another. ‘Just stop it — stop it! You know damn well she loves you. She’ll make the right decision.’ Xena laid her armor aside and got out her bedroll. ‘I might as well try to get some sleep. It’s gonna be a long night.’

The warrior had one boot successfully removed when a loud crashing noise rang out just outside the barn door. “Ow! Dammit, dammit, dammit!” Gabrielle whipped her head from side to side. “Shush, you’re gonna wake ‘er.” The bard picked herself up off the ground. Whispering past the finger she held to her lips she called, “Shxeeena… Shxenaaa… they’re playing our song!” Gabrielle pulled on the handle of the barn door. “Hey! Let me in… I wanna dance.” The bard lost her balance again and fell forward, tumbling into the door and falling in a heap on the barn floor.

“Ooph!” When Gabrielle eventually righted herself, she found her booted foot cradled in her arm. She worked unsuccessfully for a few moments at the laces and finally giving up, gave a yank and pulled her foot free, sending the boot sailing. After two false starts, she managed to stand. Xena watched silently as the bard took a few halting steps, her height changing with each step. “Oh Gods… I think I’m seasick,” mumbled Gabrielle as she watched the world in front of her rise and fall. Looking down, she noticed that it was her one booted foot that was making her steps so uneven. With slow determination she brought it up in front of herself, balancing on her other foot. She grasped the boot with both hands, and when she gave a tug, her body did a slow pirouette and she spiraled to the ground. “C’mon Xeena… I know yer in ‘ere.” The bard forgot about her boot and with great perseverance she stood and continued on.

Her hands found their way to the laces of her tunic, but all that criss- crossed lace was too much for her to comprehend. After a few frustrated attempts, she decided instead to wiggle out of it. Somehow she worked one arm free, but her other arm became hopelessly entangled and pinned to the side of her head with the tunic wrapped tightly around her head and arm. “Hey! Who turned out the lights?” Gabrielle exclaimed as she stumbled forward, falling onto Xena’s bedroll.

Groping around in the ‘dark’, Gabrielle came across Xena’s boot. She lovingly ran her hand up the leather only to be surprised and very disappointed when she didn’t come across the soft flesh of the warrior who owned it. “Hey! Where’d ya go?!”

“I’m right behind you,” Xena said, as she stood there holding Gabrielle’s tossed boot. Kneeling next to the bard, Xena worked at getting the young woman back into her clothes. “What do you think you’re doing? Xena said, as she managed to get Gabrielle’s head uncovered. The warrior could smell the alcohol on her breath. “You’re drunk. I told you to stay away from the punch,” she scolded. “I did, I swear. I never touched the stuff.” The moment Xena had Gabrielle’s arm free, the bard lunged at her, throwing herself on top of Xena and knocking her back. “Ummm, where’ve ya been all evening? They’re playin’ our song.” Gabrielle started to move her body against the warrior’s, settling her lips on the soft skin of Xena’s neck.

Gabrielle’s hand began a slow descent over the warrior’s supple leathered form. Xena knew this had to stop, even though her body gave her emotions away as it arched into the bard’s hand, which was cupping her left breast. “Ga-bri-elle.” Xena rolled her amorous partner off and managed to sit her up. She tried reasoning with her as she held her at arms length. “What if Lila or one of your guests were to walk in?”

“They’ll just ‘ave to get their own warrior,” she grinned, as the feisty young woman squirmed her way into Xena’s lap. “Cause I’m not sharing.” Gabrielle wrapped her legs around Xena’s waist and headed for the nearest ear.

“GABRIELLE.” Xena pried the bard from the front of her body. “C’mon. Let’s get you back in the house and get you to bed.” She stood and pulled Gabrielle to her feet.

“Yes, thatsa lovely idea,” the bard replied, as she collapsed into Xena’s arms, no longer capable of standing on her own. “You can tuck me in — and then I’ll tuck you in,” Gabrielle mused, as her hands began to dance over the warrior’s body.

Xena quickly scratched the idea of carrying Gabrielle back to the house. Her partner was much too openly amorous for her to take any chances. ‘But I’ve got to do something. Somebody’s bound to come looking for her eventually.’ Xena lowered Gabrielle onto her bedroll and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “You wait right here and I’ll be right back. I want to get you something.”

Rummaging through one of the saddle bags, Xena pulled out their medicinal pouch. She carefully selected a couple of herbs and a small tin of off-white powder. Into a small bowl, she placed the herbs that she ground with her fingers and a small pinch of powder. The next step was to add hot water and make a strong ‘tea’, but Xena knew she would have a difficult time getting Gabrielle to drink the evil-tasting mixture. Instead, she dug through their food supply and found the tin of honey Gabrielle had purchased at the last town. Xena added just enough water to the cup to dissolve the powder, added honey to the mixture, and mixed it well with her finger.

“Here. I made you something sweet.” Xena lowered herself onto the bedroll next to Gabrielle, who had been waiting impatiently for her to return.

“Ooo, what is it?” the bard asked, as she crawled into Xena’s lap. Xena had decided to not even try to maneuver a spoon into Gabrielle’s mouth, and simply scooped some of the mixture up with her finger and offered it to her friend. Gabrielle happily accepted the offer, enjoying the feel of Xena’s finger in her mouth as she caressed it with her tongue. In a matter of minutes the mixture took effect, and Gabrielle was sound asleep in the warrior’s arms.

Xena cradled the young woman in her arms, enjoying the peaceful breathing and soft mewing sounds that tickled her neck. Even in sleep, Gabrielle had managed to snuggle into her love, her arms wrapped loosely around Xena’s waist. Xena carefully put the bard’s discarded boot back on trying not to disturb her sleep, even though she knew the mixture she fed her contained a powerful sleeping drug.

With Gabrielle still nestled in her arms, Xena lifted herself with her powerful legs and carefully carried her to the house. The music had since stopped, and Xena could hear the muffled movements of people straightening up through the door. She quietly entered, and paused when Hecuba and Lila looked up from their cleaning. Hecuba had a large armload of dirty plates in her hands and simply nodded towards the back of the house, and Xena continued through and into the bedroom. She lowered the sleeping bard onto her bed, and was beginning to remove one of her boots when she paused and said quietly without turning, “Hello Lila.”

Lila moved hesitantly into the room and silently perched herself on the side of her bed. She watched as Xena finished taking Gabrielle’s boots off and covered her with a blanket. Xena instinctively reached down and brushed a lock of hair from the bard’s face before turning to Lila. Lila noted the tenderness of the warrior’s touch and mentally added it to the growing number of inconsistencies she was finding with the previous assumptions she had about the warrior.

“What happened here?” Xena asked, as she grasped Lila’s forearm and steered her to a corner of the room away from Gabrielle. Lila found herself pinned, the warrior whispering intently into her ear. “She was blind drunk and could have easily wandered off into the woods. We’re lucky she stumbled into the barn looking for me.”

“All I saw her drinking the entire evening was cider — I swear. I even refilled her mug a few times myself. She was a bit quiet after you left,” Lila paused when she saw a momentary flash of hurt invade the warrior’s face, and quickly continued, “but after she opened her presents she appeared to brighten. She kept commenting about how good Aunt Effie’s fruit cocktail was — seemed like she couldn’t get enough of it. Afterwards, she spent the better part of the evening regaling anyone who would listen with stories.” Lila looked up and met the warrior’s eyes. “All of the stories were about you.” An uneasy silence fell between them, broken only by Gabrielle’s soft snoring and the loud beating of Lila’s heart. She had never seen Xena so angry before, yet somehow knew it wasn’t directed specifically at her.

“You said she really liked the fruit cocktail. Did you have any of it?” Lila shook her head no. “Neither did I.” Xena and Lila made their way back out to where Hecuba was still cleaning up. “Show me where it is.” Lila pointed out the bowl and Xena tasted the fruit. “Aunt Effie. She’s Uncle Cosmo’s wife, isn’t she?” Lila nodded yes. “I thought so. It seems she uses her husband’s punch to soak the fruit in.” This stuff packs a wallop.” Xena left Lila to help her mother clean up, and returned to check on Gabrielle. “What am I gonna to do with you?” she whispered, smoothing the blanket that covered the bard.

With the majority of the aftermath of the party cleaned up, Lila bade goodnight to her mother and headed for bed. When she entered her bedroom, she was surprised to find Xena slumped in a chair beside her sister’s bed, her head resting on the wall behind her.

“Xena?”

“Hmm.”

“It’s late. Why don’t you try and get some sleep. I’ll keep an eye on Brie. Besides, you said she’d probably sleep right through the night anyway.”

The warrior reluctantly agreed and paused to smooth nonexistent wrinkles from the bard’s covers before silently leaving.

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Chapter 18

The sounds of life waking to another morning penetrated the walls of the barn. The sun had not even begun to rise, yet Xena laid there wide awake, sleep eluding her most of the night. She hadn’t realized how much comfort she had taken from sleeping with Gabrielle at her side. And now she felt lost without it. ‘You’re getting soft, warrior. You never needed anyone, and now look at yourself,’ Xena berated herself. ‘Can’t even get any sleep without your bard by your side.’ Even before that night after the dance, she had relished the closeness they shared at night. She couldn’t remember how it started, but surmised it was probably done out of necessity on a cold night. And it quickly became habit forming — for both of them. No matter what trials or hardships they endured during the day, she knew she had something to look forward to at day’s end. And Gabrielle never seemed to mind, always craving physical contact of any kind.

After rolling up her bedroll and storing it with the rest of their gear, Xena found a particularly soft pile of fresh hay and settled herself down to quietly work on polishing the metal of her armor. The light from outside had slowly found its way under the barn door, and Xena allowed her thoughts to wander over the last week. They were abruptly broken by the creaking of the barn door.

Gabrielle pushed the door open just enough to slip inside, hoping not to disturb her partner’s sleep. “I should’ve known you’d be up by now.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Ssh, not so loud,” Gabrielle implored. She quietly made her way to Xena, even flinching at the noise her boots made as they crunched in the hay. The bard removed the armor and polishing rag from Xena’s hands and carefully laid them aside. “I don’t remember much from last night, but I have a roaring headache,” she whispered, lowering herself into Xena’s arms. “I was wondering if you’d mind using your newfound remedy to ease my pain.”

Not a sound could be heard as Xena sensuously worked the tunic off her young lover and tossed it aside. No words were needed as Gabrielle pushed Xena back into the soft pile of hay and settled herself into her warm embrace. The bard wrapped strong fingers behind Xena’s head and kissed her deeply before working her way down to the laces of the warrior’s shift. Using just her teeth, Gabrielle painstakenly worked at liberating Xena’s breasts from their tight confines. “Just whose headache are you trying to get rid of?” Xena asked as her breath caught in her throat, and she could feel a growing need awakening deep inside her. She wrapped her arms and legs around the bard and carefully rolled over, burying Gabrielle from view as she disappeared into the soft pile of hay.

Even though her head still pounded, Gabrielle never relinquished her hold of Xena and her mouth was still buried in her chest, tugging at the laces. It was at this moment that both women were startled to hear Lila call out, “Xena. Have you seen Brie? I woke up and she was gone. I’m worried. I couldn’t find her anywhere,” as Gabrielle’s younger sister poked her head around the now open barn door.

Gabrielle heard her sister call out for her, and before her brain could engage and clamp her mouth tight, she blurted her sister’s name out through a mouthful of lace. Still, it was rather muffled, coming from somewhere under the warrior. Xena stiffened, hoping Lila hadn’t been close enough to hear, and that she would think Xena was still asleep.

But the small cry of “Brie?” from Lila’s lips ruined that plan. “Brie? Where are you?” Lila called softly, as she took a hesitant step further into the barn. Xena could feel Gabrielle go stiff and felt the tremors as they passed through her. The bard was completely concealed, and Xena thought that if it came to it, she could convince Lila that she was just hearing things. This plan was also short-lived when Lila spotted her sister’s tunic in a heap above the warrior’s head. “Brie!?!” she called out again, with a frantic edge that caused Xena to turn and follow her eyes to the bard’s tunic.

Xena turned back to the nervous pile of flesh beneath her and quietly said, “I think she suspects now.” The warrior did what any friend would do in a situation like that and reached over her head and snatched Gabrielle’s tunic, rolled slightly off the bard and with her back to Lila draped the tunic over her lover’s body. Gabrielle hugged it to herself as Xena rolled off completely, exposing one very embarrassed sister. She rose and retrieved a blanket, returning to wrap it around Gabrielle before taking a seat next to her.

Lila stood there speechless. She had been reluctant at first to come to the barn when she found her sister missing from their bedroom. She had promised Xena that she would look after her, and hadn’t been sure how the warrior would take the news that she failed. Now she wished she’d never come. ‘I see *now* why Brie had no interest in any of those ‘eligible young men’ at the party last night.’ She tore her eyes from her sister, only to have them fall on the warrior. It was then that she noticed that the laces of Xena’s shift were almost completely worked free, and that the warrior was close to spilling out. “I uh… I think… I better leave.”

“Lila, please,” Gabrielle exclaimed, as her sister turned to flee. “We need to talk.”

“I don’t think so,” she stated sharply, as she stopped and turned back to face her sister. Gabrielle stood and took a step towards her. Lila backed up looking fearful and exclaimed as she put her arm out in front of herself, “Gabrielle!”

Gabrielle was frozen in her tracks, not so much by the look on her sister, than by those three syllables. “Gabrielle? What happened to *Brie*? What’re you afraid of? I’m still your sister… nothing’s changed.”

“I don’t understand.”

Gabrielle covered the distance between them and grasped her sister’s forearm, compelling her to make eye contact. “I’m in love.” The bard turned and found Xena’s eyes, absorbing the warrior’s strength and continued, “We’re in love.”

“Love?”

“Ummm… yeah!” A smile spread across her face, as she realized that she was hearing herself say it out loud to someone other than Xena for the first time. ‘And it feels really good!’

“How can you be in love?”

“How can anybody be in love? It just happens!”

“Well, yeah… I know, but not with -”

“Not with what? Another woman? Would it make you happy if Xena were a man?”

“NO!” Lila shot a glance over to Xena. “I never said that.”

Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to back away from her sister. She had steeled herself for this confrontation with her sister. Worked on all the questions and comments that Lila could have for her — debated the issue with herself as to why it shouldn’t matter to Lila or anyone else that she and Xena were in love and happened to both be women. And in one fell swoop, Lila brought all of her hard work to a crashing defeat.

“Then what exactly *do* you mean to say?”

“I don’t care that she’s a woman… I know all about that kinda stuff. It’s just that…” Lila leaned forward and lowered her voice to a whisper, “She’s a warrior!”

“I resemble that remark.” Both sisters jumped at the sound of Xena’s voice.

Gabrielle turned to see the lop-sided grin on her lover’s face. “I’m glad to see you’re enjoying yourself,” she quipped, as she drank in the sight of the warrior’s long form. Xena was stretched out nonchalantly in the hay, her arms comfortably folded behind her head as she leaned against a bale. “I uh… Lila!” she exclaimed, as she turned back to her forgotten sister, failing miserably to hide the blush that she was sure covered her face. “You mean to tell me that it doesn’t bother you that I… with another woman?”

“Well… I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t bother me completely. It’s gonna take some getting used to.”

“And what’s wrong with her being a warrior?”

“I worry about you — being out there with her. I always figured, like mother and father still do, that you’d meet a nice man and marry and settle down. That’s not gonna happen now, is it?”

“No. I like my life just the way it is. And I pray to the gods every day that nothing changes.”

“Does mother know?”

“No!”

“You’re gonna tell her, aren’t you?”

“It’s not the right time. I don’t know if it’ll ever be the right time. You have to promise me that you’ll not breathe a word of this to either of them.”

“I promise.” Gabrielle threw her free arm around her sister for a quick hug and was surprised when she felt her sister’s arms wrap around her waist and hold her close. “I’ll always love you Brie, no matter what,” Lila whispered into her sister’s ear.

Gabrielle could feel her sister’s tears as they lightly dropped on her shoulder. “I love you too,” she whispered back, as both women continued their embrace, laughing and crying at the same time.

Lila gave her sister one last squeeze before breaking the embrace. Her eyes flashed at Gabrielle as the sides of her mouth worked their way into a frown. “I’m still mad at you,” she declared, as she shook an accusing finger at her sister.

“What?!” Gabrielle stumbled backwards, caught off guard by the sudden change in her sister. Xena tensed and fought the urge to come to her love’s defense.

“If I hadn’t walked in on you two and caught you… well you know…” Lila blushed deeply and averted her eyes. She tried to push the sight of her sister appearing from under the warrior out of her mind. “You weren’t gonna tell me about you and her, were you?”

“I thought about it. Especially after you walked in on us yesterday, after you came back from shopping with Mother.”

“Your tunic — it was on inside-out, wasn’t it? I told myself later that I must have just been seeing things.”

“Um… yeah. You kinda surprised us.”

“You mean you… in our bedroom?!” Lila’s eyes flashed to Xena and saw the warrior barely keeping herself from bursting out laughing.

“We used my bed! Anyway, it wasn’t like I planned it or anything. It just happened. And no. I probably wouldn’t have told you about us. I wasn’t sure how you’d take it, and I… I didn’t want to lose my only sister.”

Lila closed the distance between them and grasped her sister’s arm. “You’ll never lose me. You’re my only sister too — remember? Nothing you do will ever change that. And I’m sure that goes for Mother and Father too, if you give them a chance.”

“Thank you. And I’ll think about telling them. Just not right now.”

“OK. Well… listen… I think I’m gonna get a head start on my morning chores. You ah…?”

“I’ll be along in a little while.” Gabrielle leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Xena has something to relieve this headache of mine. That’s why I came out here in the first place.” The bard pulled back and watched as Lila’s expression changed to one of astonishment when she realized what her sister was really saying.

“Brie!”

“She has many skills.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” replied Lila, as she looked over to where Xena was still sitting.

With that, all three women burst out laughing. Gabrielle had never felt so relieved in her life. ‘Maybe there is a chance it will work out with Mother and Father.’

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Chapter 19

Gabrielle made sure she barred the door after Lila left. She was not going to take any chances with another interruption. “Whew! That went a lot better than I ever expected,” she grinned as she flopped down next to Xena. “I’d gotten myself so worked up over it, and for what?” She laid her head against Xena’s shoulder and snuggled closer. “Hey… didn’t she say she already knew that two women could… well you know… be together? Remind me to ask her where she learned about that.”

“How’s your head?”

“Hmm…?” The bard lifted her head and tilted it experimentally from side to side. “Yep, I’d say I definitely have one grade A headache.”

“You mean hangover.”

“Hangover?! But I only had two or three small cups of punch before you warned me off the stuff. And from then on I stayed strictly with cider. All evening. Ask anyone!”

“Enjoy the fruit cocktail?”

“How’d you know about that? Aunt Effie didn’t bring it out ’til after you left.”

For the next few minutes, Xena found herself in the position of bard as she recounted the events of last night. Gabrielle sat there, dumbfounded, as she listened. It was as if the warrior was talking about someone else. She had no recollection of anything much past the opening of the presents. “You mean the fruit cocktail…?”

“Yep.” The warrior concluded her brief rendition of the events with her tasting the fruit cocktail and realizing it was made with Uncle Cosmo’s secret ingredient. She deftly omitted the part where afterwards, she had kept vigil at the bard’s bedside until Lila relieved her. There were some things, like her feelings, that Xena still found hard to talk about. The warrior wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and pulled her close, and the bard happily snuggled in, closing her eyes and feeling the familiar warmth and security that she had come to quickly cherish.

“Hmm?” Upon opening her eyes the hungry little bard spied the almost completed task she had earlier been enjoying. Wiggling loose from the warrior’s hold, she slipped the blanket off from around her body and slid on top of Xena. “Now let’s see… where was I?” Gabrielle pondered this thought for a moment, grinning mischievously. “Oh yeah… I remember!” The bard settled herself on Xena’s hips and placed her hands against the hay bale on either side of the warrior’s head. Never taking her eyes from the bemused expression the warrior was giving her, she slowly lowered her head and continued the excruciatingly slow process of freeing the warrior’s breasts from her tunic using just her teeth. She had but a few more eyelets to go before she would be rewarded, though these last few were fast proving to be the most difficult. The pressure of the warrior’s overflowing bosom was straining the material of the shift and holding the laces taut. Gabrielle found that she had to bury her face between those two luscious breasts in order to get a grip on the laces, and she couldn’t help herself if her tongue decided to do a little exploring first. She wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Xena’s expression soon turned to one of desire as she found her body arching to meet the bard’s playful inquiries. This teasing that Gabrielle seemed to enjoy so much was something new for Xena. In the past, sex for her was something that was always performed on her terms. She took what she desired and always stayed in control. Now everything was different. There was a new element to be considered. Love. She was finding that her love for this woman was one of the strongest emotions she has ever had. Possibly even stronger than the dark emotions that drove her when she was a warlord. This thought frightened her, because she knew that she still found it almost impossible to verbally express her feelings. ‘And if and when they burst forth, I hope she’s strong enough to handle it.’

Another eyelet was successfully conquered and Xena could feel herself on the brink of tumbling out. Her body cried for release, but she buried her hands in the hay by her sides, willing herself to prolong the delicious frustration that the bard was putting her through. Gabrielle watched intently as Xena’s brows knitted together over her half-closed eyes as she silently mouthed the word ‘please’ over and over. The bard decided that playtime was over and with clear determination, set herself on the last eyelet. With one last purposeful tug, she succeeded in releasing the warrior from her snug confines. Gabrielle’s attention was immediately riveted on her prizes, and she stared at them hypnotically, unconsciously licking her lips in anticipation.

With great determination, she broke her reverie and gazed into Xena’s eyes. Slowly she bent forward and licked one of the nipples, paused, and blew on it lightly, watching as the nub swelled and the skin around it began to pucker. Gabrielle was quite curious about just how much the warrior would let her get away with. She had never known Xena to go this long at anything and not be in control. So, with a wicked little grin, she proceeded to repeat her steps on the other breast. For Xena’s part, she arched her body each time, trying to coax the bard to take her fully, while steadfastly refusing to give in to her body’s physical craving.

“Ga-bri-elle…” The word rolled out from the depth of Xena’s soul, tumbling past her dry lips as she fought to maintain sanity. The bard simply ignored her, now placing sweet, innocent kisses in the valley of her bosom. Not to be outdone, the warrior turned her head to the left and captured Gabrielle’s wrist in her mouth, flicking her tongue lightly over the pulse point. The bard frowned as she felt her body betray her as her hips thrust themselves against Xena, and her hands reached behind and pulled the warrior up into her waiting mouth.

“Umm, you cheat,” Gabrielle husked, as she relinquished her hold of one of the breasts and rapidly went to work on the other one.

“Uh huh,” Xena breathed, as she concentrated on the bard’s soft lips while Gabrielle suckled her. This moment was to be short-lived. Try as she might, Xena could not continue to ignore the squirming of her young lover’s body as Gabrielle’s hips were now in constant motion against her. The warrior’s need to be in control was too overwhelming. ‘This is something I need to work on, but not today,’ she thought absently, as she wrapped her hands around her young lover’s head and pulled her up for a feverish kiss. In one fluid movement, Xena had the bard flipped on her back. Gabrielle happily relented to this shift of power, her body melting in surrender under the warrior.

Xena sat up just long enough to lose her shift and with a gentle nudge of her knee, she parted her companion’s legs and nestled herself in between. She bent over and hungrily kissed the bard’s mouth before working her way down and stopping when she reached the valley between her breasts. She could feel the bard’s slick wet center sliding under her stomach, and knew that Gabrielle was ready. She captured Gabrielle’s hands and placed them on the bard’s breasts, rolling and squeezing her nipples between their fingers. Xena returned to licking her between her breasts and then followed a leisurely trail down her body, never taking her eyes from Gabrielle’s. The warrior paused at her belly button and paid close attention to cleaning it thoroughly before continuing on.

While not being entirely sure what was going on, Gabrielle was fairly certain she knew where Xena was heading. She felt an intense and all-consuming fire burning her between her legs, and could literally feel herself pumping out fluids. Her body cried out to be satisfied, though she doubted that anything could satiate her now. The warrior hesitated just before reaching Gabrielle’s soft triangle. She nuzzled her cheek into the soft hair that covered the mound, and then lightly kissed her.

Xena nudged Gabrielle’s legs apart even further so she could comfortably lie between them. She removed her hands from Gabrielle’s breasts and placed them under her hips, raising her so she could position her shoulders under the bard’s thighs. Gabrielle felt very self-conscious as her knees were spread wide and Xena had full access to her. The warrior felt her tension and asked, “Do you want this?”

“Yes… that is I think so,” she responded, looking at Xena with half- opened eyes. “It’s just that I have no idea… nobody’s ever -” She didn’t know how to finish the sentence.

“You are so beautiful, my bard.” Xena nestled her face lightly into her soft hair. “And you smell so sweet.” She kissed her intimately on the top of her mound and said in a low husked tone, “And so very delicious.”

Gabrielle blushed as she could feel her groin throbbing from the verbal as well as the physical attention it was receiving. Kissing her again and again, Xena allowed the tip of her tongue to lightly lick Gabrielle’s slit. “XENA!” the bard cried, as she realized just where the warrior was putting her mouth. “Wha… what are you doing?!” The slight apprehension in her voice could not hide her body’s true feelings as her hips began to buck under the contact.

“Mmmm… I’m making love to the most beautiful woman… mmm… in the world.” Xena slid her tongue between Gabrielle’s lips and lapped at the sweet juices that were flowing from her.

Gabrielle arched her body and found herself staring wide-eyed at the ceiling of the barn. Xena’s fingers parted her lips opening her wide. The bard’s head flew forward and her eyes riveted on Xena’s as the warrior lightly blew on the now exposed clitoris and smiled up at the bard’s now astonished face. The effect sent spasms through the young woman’s body.

Whispering, “I love you,” Xena leaned in and kissed Gabrielle’s swollen nub, taking it into her mouth and between her teeth.

Gabrielle’s juices were flowing freely, covering the warrior’s face and running down her chin. The bard continued to stare disbelievingly down at the sight of Xena nestled between her legs, doing things with her mouth and tongue that she had never dreamed possible. Xena continued to suckle Gabrielle while alternately lapping at her juices. Gabrielle soon began to buck wildly, and Xena brought her left arm up from under and braced the bard’s lower abdomen, attempting to regain possession of her lover’s sex. With Gabrielle’s lower body held fast, she latched onto the swollen nub with her teeth and twirled her tongue over and over the tender flesh.

Gabrielle didn’t think she could take much more of this attention, when she felt Xena’s tongue leave her clit. She was about to whimper for more when she froze, feeling her lover’s tongue poised at her opening. Xena took one last look up at Gabrielle and when she saw the trust the bard held for her she thrust her tongue deep inside, watching the expression on her lover’s face turn from surprise to ecstasy. She continued to stimulate the pulsing nub with her thumb as she thrust her tongue deep inside, again and again. Xena soon felt the bard’s inner muscles constrict around her tongue and knew she didn’t have much time.

She removed her tongue and in its place swiftly plunged three fingers into Gabrielle’s hot liquid center. She pumped faster and faster as she stiffened her tongue and allowed just the tip to fly over the hard nub. This was more than the bard could handle. To feel Xena buried inside her and the absolute joy that filled her lover’s eyes almost sent her into sensory overload. The muscles in her legs twitched and spasmed, and her thigh muscles suddenly constricted, putting Xena’s head in a vice lock. Xena never missed a beat as she continued her frantic pace, all the while watching Gabrielle’s face intently.

Gabrielle thrashed about wildly, clawing at the back of Xena’s head as she attempted to bury the warrior’s entire head into her sex. The only coherency to her speech was to repeatedly shout Xena’s name as she fought for release. Xena broke loose of the death grip Gabrielle had with her thighs and forced herself up so that her head was resting on the bard’s stomach and her left forearm had Gabrielle’s upper body pinned down. From this new vantage point she had much better leverage, and pumped her right arm furiously to drive herself again and again deep inside. She turned from Gabrielle’s eyes, and buried her teeth into the flesh before her, and felt the bard’s entire body go stiff. Xena reached behind Gabrielle’s shoulders and held her up in a half-sitting position as she continued to pump her arm in long, slow strokes. Each time Gabrielle rewarded her with a thunderous release.

When her body had no more to give, the bard collapsed back into the hay. Xena moved to cover her body with her own, wrapping both of her powerful arms around the young woman. She nestled her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder, burying her lips in the soft flesh of her neck.

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Xena was surprised when only a short time later she felt Gabrielle begin to stir and then felt a set of teeth nibbling on her ear. “Mmm… I thought you’d be out for a bit longer.”

“Nn-o,” she rasped. “My — my mouth is so dry.”

“I’ll get you some water,” Xena said as she began to roll off.

“No!” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena and pulled her back down. “Don’t go.” She looked into the depths of those crystal blue eyes and murmured, “I have everything I want… right here.” Xena, whose own body had not found release when Gabrielle climaxed, lay back down on the bard, straddling one of her thighs. Before she could ask her to bend her knee, Gabrielle interrupted her. “Xena. I… I want to taste you.” The warrior dutifully obliged and brought her mouth down on Gabrielle’s. “Mmpfno… mmm… Xxmpheena…”

Pulling back from Gabrielle’s mouth Xena asked, “What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?” Xena reached forward and caught the bard’s lower lip in her teeth and sucked it into her mouth.

Gabrielle shook her head no. She wrapped her arms around Xena’s neck and staring intently into her eyes, pulled her in, kissing her ardently. Without releasing her lips, Gabrielle whispered her wishes into Xena’s mouth. “Xena, I want to taste… to taste *you*.” She really wasn’t sure what to call the hot liquid that was currently soaking her thigh, but she hoped Xena would get the idea.

“Hmm… do you mean this?” Xena slid her hand between them, and brought back four glistening and dripping fingers. She brought a finger to her lips and gave a little lick. “Mmm, is this what you really want?”

“Yes!” The bard’s eyes twinkled as Xena brought one finger after another into Gabrielle’s waiting mouth. She realized that Xena tasted different from the way she had tasted on the warrior’s lips. This taste was exotic. It had the strength to rekindle a fire between her legs that she thought was definitely dead.

Xena felt the bard’s hips waking up under her. “Hmm. Seems like you’re not done yet, my bard. Here, let me help.” Xena pushed her knee firmly into Gabrielle’s sex and slowly ground away.

Gabrielle could feel the fire between her legs starting to ignite, and fought to quell it. “Xena — no — stop.”

The warrior immediately stopped, but continued to hold her knee against her. “I thought you wanted this?” she asked, as she looked quizzically at Gabrielle.

“I did — I do. But there’s something I want more. I want to make love to you, to taste you, to feel myself inside of you.” Gabrielle nuzzled Xena’s neck as she tried to roll her off and was surprised when the warrior didn’t budge. “Xena?”

The warrior sat up and locking eyes with Gabrielle, slowly inched her way up until her knees were planted on either side of the young woman’s head. Gabrielle could feel a lump forming in her throat as she broke contact with the warrior’s eyes and took in the overwhelming sight of Xena suspended only inches above her face. As the musky odor assaulted her senses, she hesitantly ran her tongue over the warrior’s inner thigh, slowly working her way up. Xena gently lowered herself to Gabrielle’s soft kisses and moaned deeply when she felt the bard’s lips kissing her own. “Ga… bri… elle…” she exhaled. Xena reached up and grabbed the edge of the bale of hay and stole a look down at her partner.

The only thing visible were Gabrielle’s eyes. She looked up the length of the warrior when she heard her name and caught sight of the love on her partner’s face. Xena could literally feel the smile spread across the bard’s face. “Mmm Xeeenaa…” Xena watched as Gabrielle disappeared completely from view and moments later felt her lips being slowly parted by Gabrielle’s thumbs.

The warrior whipped her head up and stared unfocused at the ceiling — waiting and wondering for what seemed like an eternity. ‘This is what I get for loving a bard? She’s probably busy down there composing a poem — or GODS, an epic!’ Xena fought her mounting need to reach down and give the bard a hand, and endured the torture that Gabrielle was unknowingly inflicting.

Gabrielle just stared. She had never seen a woman’s sex before, especially not this up close and personal. Or at least she thought she was looking at Xena’s sex. She warily eyed the nub of flesh that pulsed before her, and was amazed to see it jump with each heartbeat. Looking around carefully, she could find nothing else of prominence. She spread Xena’s lips back even further. ‘Nope. Nothing else hiding in here.’ She thought about asking Xena, but quickly dismissed that idea. Working hard at trying to recall what Xena had done to pleasure her, she reached up and gave the hard nub a little flick with the tip of her tongue.

That tiniest of physical contact with Gabrielle almost did Xena in as her body lurched forward. It took every bit of inner strength she still possessed not to vault into the air. “Gabrielle… For Gaia’s sake! What are you doing?!”

Gabrielle peeked out from under Xena and flashed her a sheepish smile. “Heh… I wish I knew. I wasn’t sure if I had the… uh… right spot. Um… guess I did!” The bard disappeared from sight once again, a bit more assured of what she was doing. Wrapping an arm around Xena, she carefully lowered her back down to her waiting mouth. With her free hand she spread the warrior’s lips and ran her tongue slowly up and down the entire length of her love, marveling at the slick softness. She settled her mouth on the hard nub and sucked it into her mouth.

Xena’s hips began to buck violently and her head thrashed wildly from side to side. She had been so near release earlier when Gabrielle had her thighs wrapped around her head that she knew it wouldn’t take much to bring her over. Xena peeled a hand from the bale of hay she was clutching and frantically ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s long tresses, trying to urge her on. “Ga… Gabrielle… please… just a little… more.”

Gabrielle quickened the pace with her tongue, desperately trying to please, but she was rapidly becoming frustrated. Xena was so slippery that the bard lost her place again and again. ‘Damn. If she’d just sit still…’ Xena lurched forward more than the bard had anticipated and instead of once again making contact with Xena’s clitoris, Gabrielle’s tongue imbedded itself inside her. The warrior froze. ‘Well, it’s about time she stopped jumping all over the place,’ the bard mused. Gabrielle was about to go for a lip-lock on the warrior’s throbbing sex, when she felt violent shudders racking Xena’s body. The warrior’s thighs clamped down on the bard’s head, and all thoughts of doing anything, including breathing, were now a mute point in Gabrielle’s mind.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure, but she thought she must have blacked out. ‘I never saw her apply pressure points like that before,’ she mused. When the bard was more aware of her surroundings, she looked up to see Xena slumped forward, her head resting on the top of the hay bale between her arms. ‘Oh no, she doesn’t. That was over way too quick.’ After waiting for her ears to pop, Gabrielle repositioned herself slightly and ran the tip of her tongue lightly over Xena’s folds. When this produced no response from the warrior, the bard slipped her tongue inside and ran it over Xena’s clit. This time she received a satisfying moan from above as Xena’s body began to stir. ‘Ah, that’s more like it,’ Gabrielle grinned. She clamped her hands on Xena’s hips and brought her down to meet her hungry mouth. She sucked the fleshy node between her lips and applied herself to her newly learned skill.

‘What in Tartarus…?!’ Xena’s eyes flew open when she felt the bard happily sucking away, practically humming to herself. ‘Did she ever come up for air?’ “Gabrielle?” Xena looked down between her forearms and was greeted with a flash of sparkling green. She noticed that the gleam in her friend’s eyes was not unlike the look she got when eating nutbread. ‘Uh oh…’ Xena was about to carefully extricate herself from the bard’s grasp and apologize for the quick release that had unfortunately quelled her fire, when a strong and unmistakable throbbing sensation clutched her groin. “Uggh… Oh GODS!!” she cried, as a searing white heat shot from her center and radiated through her limbs. Her head flew back and her body arched forward as every nerve in her body was directed to the point where her flesh made contact with Gabrielle’s mouth. Xena felt her passion quickly rising as her hips started to rock to the rhythm of Gabrielle’s strokes.

Gabrielle was not going to make the same mistake twice. At the first signs that Xena was going to become mobile, she wrapped both arms around powerful thighs and clenched Xena’s sex firmly between her teeth, swirling her tongue over and over the little ball of trapped flesh. The bard looked up towards Xena, but was unable to make eye contact since the warrior’s head was still thrown back. What did catch Gabrielle’s eyes were two delicious mounds of soft flesh. Gabrielle took a chance and let go of the warrior’s thighs and sex. She quickly ran her fingers along Xena’s slick lips and headed for the neglected twins.

Her sticky fingers soon found purchase on two very sensitive nipples, and Xena let out a ragged gasp as her head flew forward to catch the sight of Gabrielle’s hands rolling and pinching her puckered flesh between her fingers. With no firm grasp of the warrior’s lower body to help her to keep contact, Gabrielle simply held her tongue out in place as Xena slid her sex up and down it’s shaft in an ever growing frenzy.

Gabrielle worked hard at trying to bring Xena to climax, but she could tell it wasn’t going to be as easy as it had been the first time. After some time, she decided to abandon the warrior’s breasts and refocus her energy. She wrapped her left arm tightly around Xena’s thigh and pushed the warrior up and slightly back. She repositioned her right arm and quickly plunged three fingers deep inside.

The bard held on for dear life as the force of her entrance into Xena nearly caused the warrior to catapult off of her. The only thing that prevented this was the added weight of Gabrielle’s body and the bard’s dogged determination not to relinquish her prize so quickly.

Gabrielle began to fervently pump her arm, jerking Xena down each time with her left arm to meet her upward thrusts. The bard could see the thick cords of muscle in Xena’s thighs bunch and ripple as the warrior strained to reach orgasm. The need to please Xena as well as her overpowering desire to feel her mouth on her lover’s sex soon clouded all rational thought of the possibility of getting her head crushed between those deadly thighs. It was difficult, but Gabrielle managed to wrap her mouth around Xena’s engorged nub and suck it firmly into her mouth, where her teeth held it firmly in place. She deliriously raced her tongue over the hard ball of flesh, feeling that Xena was quite possibly at the brink.

She was right. This delicious addition to Gabrielle’s assault sent Xena soaring. She never thought she would be loved like this by the woman of her dreams. She still hadn’t fully come to terms with herself over whether or not she deserved to feel this way, but right now all she could do was give in as flaming arrows of passion shot out from between her legs.

Gabrielle felt the sudden change in Xena’s body. The warrior momentarily stiffened before her entire body began to uncontrollably convulse again and again. Her head violently whipped back and forth, sending her sweat-soaked hair flying in all directions. Gabrielle let go of her clitoris, quickly pulling her head safely out from between the warrior’s thighs. She wrapped her left arm around Xena’s waist and buried her face into her stomach, still continuing to pump her fingers deep inside. With Xena’s release imminent, Gabrielle slowed herself and entered Xena with long, strong, deliberate strokes, trying to match the rhythms of the warrior’s repeated convulsions.

Gabrielle pulled the tips of her fingers just to Xena’s opening, and with all the strength she had left in her throbbing arm, rammed them back into Xena as far as they would go. The warrior screamed and her thighs suddenly clenched the bard’s hand in a death grip before her body went limp and she fell in a sprawled heap on top of Gabrielle.

Gabrielle clung to the only part of Xena that was available, the warrior’s left thigh, as she reached around behind herself and stretched her arm to stroke Xena’s back. After nearly a quarter candle mark, she had successfully extricated herself from the warrior’s various body parts, and quietly molded herself around Xena’s curled form.

Sometime later Xena stirred and rolled over, pulling Gabrielle onto her. They laid in each others arms relishing the quiet softness. After what felt like hours, Xena rolled Gabrielle off and laid on top of her, wanting to feel herself enveloping her love. Gabrielle buried her head in Xena’s chest, content at becoming invisible to the world outside.

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Both women continued to lay there side by side, neither one wanting the moment to end. Gabrielle was nestled in the crook of Xena’s left arm, lazily trailing her finger over the warrior’s abdomen. “Hmm, you are so beautiful…” the bard grinned, “and you’re all mine!” She deposited a small kiss on the warrior’s shoulder and looked up when she heard a responding chuckle coming from above. “What?”

“Oh… I was just thinking the same thing — my bard.” Xena leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Though it’s still a mystery to me as to what you see in this ‘ole warrior.”

“Don’t say that.” Gabrielle looked intently into Xena’s eyes, trying to reach the warrior’s soul. “You are everything I’ve ever wanted, and everything I’ll ever need. I love you.” A single tear escaped the corner of her eye and ran down her cheek. She swiped at it with the back of her hand and rubbed her eyes, successfully stopping more from forming.

“Hey… hey. Let’s have none of that. Not from the birthday girl.” Xena reached above her head with her left arm and brought it back around Gabrielle’s shoulder, depositing a small leather bag on her chest in front of the bard’s face.

“What’s that?” Gabrielle asked, as she looked down to the small bag and then back up to Xena.

The warrior shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. “For you.”

Gabrielle sat up, instantly intrigued. She took the bag from Xena’s chest, yet made no move to open it.

“Well,” Xena said, as she sat up and scooted back so she was leaning on the bale of hay. “What are you waiting for?”

“I… I don’t know.” she laid the bag on her thigh and attempted to undo the knot in the leather cord that was holding the bag closed. Her hands were shaking so much that she was finding this simple task impossible.

“Gabrielle?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what…” Frustrated, she handed the leather bag to Xena.

“I’m sorry for the simple packaging. I hadn’t planned on giving you this for another full moon, but since your mother went and moved your birthday up…” Xena worked the knot free and handed the bag back to Gabrielle.

“My birthday?” She accepted the bag from the warrior and laid it carefully back on her thigh. “You didn’t have to get me anything.” Xena raised an expressive eyebrow and that one look said volumes. “OK, OK.” Gabrielle slid two fingers into the bag, and paused as she gave the warrior a quizzical look when her fingers clasped the small object. Slowly she pulled the leather bag away and stopped. “Xena?!” She sat motionless staring at the small piece of leatherwork now resting in the palm of her hand.

“Do you like it?”

“Like it?” She gently ran the tip of her finger over the fine gold embroidery. “It’s exquisite!” she breathed. “Where in the world did you ever find…” Gabrielle went silent, a slight look of concentration showing on her features. “The harvest festival… ” Gabrielle looked up from the barrette, “That old merchant…” and caught the grin on the warrior’s face. “He had hair barrettes for sale…” She looked back down and studied the barrette carefully. “… but nothing as beautiful or intricate as this,” she whispered.

The barrette was oval and approximately four inches by three inches in size. The inside of the oval had been slit into a multitude of impossibly thin strips through which equally fine strips of leather had been both woven and knotted, forming an intricate pattern. Over top of the parts of the pattern which stood out, fine threads of gold silk had been painstakenly embroidered to create a beautiful swirl pattern.

Gabrielle noticed the two leather strips fastened to the back that would serve to hold her hair back in a ponytail and realized she had been viewing the barrette sideways. She turned the barrette ninety degrees so that the oval was now standing up on end. Tears began to fall unbridled from the young woman. “Xena…!” She stared unfocused at her lover’s face.

“I was wondering when you’d notice,” Xena replied, leaning forward and quietly kissing the bard’s tears away.

Gabrielle gave the warrior a quiet thanks and sat back again to carefully study the barrette. She was not mistaken. The beautiful gold swirls, when viewed from the correct angle, were an exact duplicate of Xena’s breast plate design. “You couldn’t have bought this from that merchant.” Gabrielle looked up to study the warrior’s face. “Where in the world…” Xena smiled. “You didn’t, did you?” The bard was rewarded with quickly averted eyes as Xena pondered her hands that now rested in her lap. “Xena… you made this?”

If Gabrielle hadn’t been staring at Xena, she would have missed the whispered “Yes,” that escaped the warrior. When Xena realized that the silence that hung in the air was real, she looked up to see Gabrielle silently watching her. “That afternoon at the harvest festival, after I stowed the saddle and we spent some time wandering around… we passed by that leather merchant. I could feel you hesitate and saw as you looked forlornly over to the barrettes. And then you continued on without so much as a backward glance. I knew.”

“But…”

“Do you remember when you left me at the knife merchant’s stall to wander over to the lady with the display of Amazon wood carvings?” Gabrielle nodded her head yes, recalling all the intricate handiwork she had proudly seen. “I simply stopped at the stand selling cloth and picked up the gold thread.”

“You make it sound so easy.” Gabrielle scooted back until she was resting in the warrior’s embrace.

“For you — anything.” Xena slid her arm down the bard’s back and easily pulled her into her lap.

The kiss was soft yet intoxicating, and Gabrielle wondered what the future with this beautiful woman still had to offer.

 

The End

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