Callisto’s Antidote

by Friction

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LEGAL DISCLAIMER:

Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Callisto and all other characters that have appeared in the syndicated series are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

LOVE/SEX WARNING DISCLAIMER:

This story graphically depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal where you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, stop now, save yourself the time and aggravation. There are many stories out there to choose from.

VIOLENCE DISCLAIMER:

Be warned. There is one fairly violent scene, however; the rest is pretty tame.

NOTE:

This is another ‘first time’ love story. (Half the fun is getting there.) I would like to thank B L Miller for her valuable input. It was very much appreciated.

I welcome comments or constructive criticism at mailto:wlw@penn.com

For those adventurous enough to continue… on to the story

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*****

Part I

*****

~ Chapter 1 ~

It was one of those rare, nearly perfect days where the sun shone brightly in an almost cloudless sky. The warrior couldn't help but smile. The secluded spot she'd happened upon was quite a find.

At the river's edge, runoff collected in a naturally formed rock basin. The pool was just the right size: not overly deep, yet long enough for one person to recline comfortably. Left to bake in the heat of the sun, the water was pleasantly warm… a perfect hot tub.

"Gods… this feels sooo good!" the bard purred. Easing back, she stretched to her full length, the tips of her breast breaking the water's surface. Completely unaware of the sensual image she presented, she called out invitingly. "Mmmm Xena, you have to try this. It feels wonderful."

Sitting downstream the warrior risked a quick glance at her innocent friend and sighed. Never in her life had she ever wanted to 'try' anything more. Inhaling deeply, she plunged her feet into the cool river water and declined the all too tempting offer. "There's not enough room."

"Sure there is," Gabrielle persisted. "I’ll move over."

"Nah, I'm fine here."

"Come on," the bard winked. "You don’t know what you’re missing."

Xena shook her head at the irony in her friend's statement. Lately, she had begun to understand exactly what she was missing. In fact, her physical attraction to the bard had become so compelling; that all too often, she found herself wondering what the young woman would be like in bed. In her fantasies, Gabrielle was not only shy and inquisitive, but bold and adventurous as well, a heady mix of the qualities she found most alluring in her companion.

Struggling to push the erotic thoughts from her mind, the warrior groaned inwardly. She was fooling herself. Gabrielle and she were too different. It could never work…

Or could it?

Turning to watch her friend, she paused to consider.

On some levels, their unlikely relationship was working. It was true, that in the beginning, she'd had her doubts. Generally pessimistic, the warrior tended to cautiously prepare for the worst, while Gabrielle seemed to see only the good in things. Back then, she'd thought the young woman nave, but she'd been wrong. In time, she'd come to realize that, while it was her friend's nature to be kind and trusting, her instincts were good.

Oddly enough, their strange pairing seemed to work to their advantage. Between the warrior's sword and the bard's friendly personality, they always managed to avoid serious trouble.

Unfortunately, her attraction to Gabrielle was a whole other thing. It had developed so gradually that she hadn't seen it coming… hadn't had a chance to shield herself. The bard's tireless loyalty had chipped away at the walls she'd erected so slowly, that by the time she was aware of what was happening, it was too late. Forgiving of her faults and quick to point out her virtues, Gabrielle had shown her what true friendship could be, bringing the warrior the only real happiness she had ever known, until one day; she awoke and found she had fallen in love with her companion.

To the warrior's dismay, it was not only the bard's heart that she responded to, but her body as well. And at the moment, even the cold river water could not distract her from it. She quickly averted her eyes. "Gabrielle, you're going to get overheated if you stay in much longer."

Frustrated, the bard released a heavy sigh. It bothered her that Xena rarely took the time to enjoy the little things… things that in themselves didn’t mean much, but overall, helped to make life more fun. Determined to bring a little joy into the warrior's life, she'd made it her mission to help her friend take notice of the small pleasures they encountered.

"I’m not getting out until you join me," Gabrielle answered stubbornly.

Recognizing the resolve in her companion's tone, Xena reluctantly pulled her feet from the river. In the time they had traveled together, she had learned that the happiness she felt from bringing a smile to the bard's face far outweighed the frustration of giving in to her simple requests. Squaring her shoulders, she inhaled deeply and began stripping out of her leathers.

Gabrielle smiled at the warrior's quick concession. It hadn't escaped her notice, that lately, Xena seemed much more amenable to her suggestions. This realization pleased her.

"Better take a drink," she suggested, handing her their waterskin. "Your skin looks flush."

The bard smiled inwardly. She liked the way Xena was always looking out for her. Taking a long sip, she swallowed and poured the remainder over her face. As it flowed down her neck, she gasped and shivered.

The erotic sight almost made the warrior turn around and put her clothes on. Instead, she took a deep breath and stepped into the pool opposite her friend. Sighing aloud, she lowered herself into the water, allowing the warmth to slowly penetrate her tired muscles. The bard was right. It did feel good… too good. She quickly closed her eyes to remove the tempting vision before her.

"See, I told you," Gabrielle winked. "It really takes the kinks out, doesn’t it?"

"Mmmm, yeah." In spite of her close proximity to the alluring young woman, Xena felt the tension in her mind and body dissolving and gradually, she let go… giving in to the fatigue that she'd been battling for days.

Lifting her hand out of the water, the bard examined it. "Guess it's time for me to get out. I’m starting to wrinkle." Standing, she gracefully stepped from the pool.

Entranced, Xena watched the water slowly cascade down the blonde's beautifully sculpted torso, her eyes helplessly following the path of the droplets as they ran down the bard's gently sloping belly. Swallowing hard, she wet her lips and gazed upon the shimmering triangle of golden curls concealing the bard's sex.

Oblivious to the warrior's interest, Gabrielle turned and walked to the tree where her friend had washed and hung her skirt and top. Rising to her toes, she stretched to pull her clothes from the high branch. Unable to reach them, she turned to her friend. "Xena, can you help me?"

Shaking herself from her erotic haze, the warrior rose from the pool "Sorry, I thought you could reach them." Quickly collecting the garments, she turned to her friend and froze. The sight of her naked friend, flush and wet nearly took her breath away. Her desire surged. In all of her life, she had never wanted anything so badly. Shaken to her core, she reached out, the clothing slipping from her trembling fingers.

Kneeling simultaneously to retrieve them, their eyes met.

Instantly, Xena was lost in a sea of green. Her heart raced as the need to feel the softness of her companion's lips against her own nearly overwhelmed her. Anxiously she searched her friend's eyes, expecting the young woman to shyly look away.

Gabrielle held her glance. Eyes sparkling with desire, she smiled knowingly and reached out, lightly brushing the warrior's lips with the tip of her finger.

The touch was electric.

Xena moaned softly, her entire body tingling. Mesmerized, she watched Gabrielle's lips part as she mouthed the word… 'Yes'.

"Xena... wake up."

The warrior’s eyes snapped open. Blinking rapidly, she struggled to bring the world into focus.

Smiling, the blonde knelt beside her and held out a towel. "You nodded off. I knew a warm bath would relax you."

As flashes from her dream filled her mind, Xena blushed and stood abruptly, not bothering to take the offered towel. "Thanks, but I… ah… I got a little overheated, I'm going to take a quick dip."

Wading into the chilly river, she dove under, letting it shock her skin and numb her raging senses.

The vividness of her dream disturbed her. It was clearly a sign that her control was slipping.

Preoccupied by this disturbing realization, she never noticed the shadowy figure at the edge of the woods.

*****

As Xena felt her pulse return to normal, she turned in the water to call to her friend. The words died on her lips. Callisto stood at the river's edge with a knife pressed viciously to the bard's throat. The warrior's chest tightened in alarm.

"I’m sorry, I… I didn’t see her," Gabrielle apologized. Feeling particularly vulnerable in her nakedness, she awkwardly positioned her hands to cover herself.

Xena looked helplessly toward shore where her weapons lie neatly piled.

"Getting a little careless aren’t we?" Callisto admonished.

Xena didn't answer. Mind completely focused on her enemy, she slowly she began to wade in.

"Oh, nnno," Callisto warned. "I think you better stop right where you are. If you get too close, I might get nervous and slip." Trembling for dramatic effect, she tightened her hold on Gabrielle, and slid the sharp blade lightly over the bard's throat.

A trickle of blood ran down Gabrielle's neck.

"Oops, see what I mean?"

Xena stopped instantly and held up her hands. "Okay, I get the message. What is it that you want?"

"So like you to cut through the chit chat. You always did like to get right to the point." Keeping the pressure of the blade steady, Callisto reached into her belt pouch with her free hand and pulled out a needle. Holding it out in front of the bard, she smiled wickedly. "On second thought, you might want to come in just a bit to improve your view."

Advancing steadily, the warrior tried to distract her enemy while she closed the distance between them. "So what’s your game this time?"

"Can’t you guess?" When the warrior didn't respond, Callisto nudged her captive. "What about you?"

Noting the dark oily substance coating the needle, Gabrielle called out to the warrior. "There's something on it. I think it may be poison."

Callisto grinned. "See, she’s not as stupid as she looks." Pointing the needle at the bard's throat, she smiled menacingly. "You're right, Gabrielle. It is poison… a very deadly one."

Suspecting what was to come, Xena sprinted for shore and launched herself at Callisto. But even as she hurled through the air, her stomach lurched from the certainty that she would be too late.

Unable to move, Gabrielle grimaced as the slender needle punctured her neck.

Task accomplished, Callisto pushed the bard toward Xena.

Quickly steadying her friend, the warrior spun to face her enemy. To her surprise, Callisto was casually seated on a large rock with no weapon in sight. Sensing no immediate danger, she turned to Gabrielle. Her eyes fell immediately to the long needle protruding ominously from the bard's neck. "Are you in pain?"

"No, not much," Gabrielle replied nervously.

"Good, I need you to hold still. I'm going to try to get the poison out." She bent to retrieve her dagger then gently tilted the bard's head to the side. Slowly removing the needle, she made a small incision over the puncture. Pressing her lips to the cut, she drew hard, spitting out the tainted blood as it filled her mouth.

Light-headed, Gabrielle gripped the warrior's hips as Xena drew from her.

Callisto observed the scene with interest. Naked, their bodies pressed together, the women gave the appearance of lovers locked in a heated embrace. She laughed softly.

Finally, knowing further attempts would be futile, Xena stopped and pulled back. Fearful that she hadn't acted fast enough, she cast her friend a worried glance. "How do you feel?"

"I… I'm a little dizzy."

Callisto clapped slowly. "My, my that was quite a show. But unfortunately it served no purpose… unless, of course, the bard enjoys having you suck her neck."

Slamming her foot down on the hilt of her sword, Xena caught it in mid air and was on Callisto in an instant. "What was it?" she demanded holding the weapon menacingly to her enemy's chest. "What poison did you use?"

Unruffled, Callisto smiled. "Such a fuss." She leaned into the sword, allowing it to press against her skin. "This is rather pointless, wouldn't you say? We both know you won’t kill me. You'd be sentencing your little friend to certain death."

Fueled by her concern for Gabrielle; the warrior's anger surfaced quickly. "If you don’t tell me what I need to know, I promise I'll make you wish you were dead."

"Let’s just calm down, shall we?" Ignoring the sword, Callisto pulled a long blade of grass and casually ran it across her lips. "She still has quite a bit of time. Although the poison is quick to enter the blood, it's relatively slow acting. I figure she may have as many as three days." She released a heavy sigh. "Unfortunately, by the second or third day, I fear she'll be praying for a quick and merciful end."

Fury surging, Xena pressed the blade to Callisto’s throat and watched with some relief as a trickle of blood rolled down her enemy's neck. She was obviously no longer immortal. "You're the one who should be praying for an antidote," the warrior threatened.

"Hmm, an antidote?" Feigning a puzzled look, Callisto tapped her chin with her index finger, then grinned. "Yes, of course there's an antidote."

"Hand it over," Xena demanded.

The mad woman smiled and rolled her eyes. "Come now, it would be rather silly to have it on me. Wouldn't it?" In a startling transition, she glared at the warrior, her expression chilling. "To get the antidote, you'll have to travel with me to Cirra. You remember Cirra," she taunted, a sharp edge to her voice. "Don’t you, Xena."

The warrior tensed. "That's nearly three days travel."

"Yes, that's true." She shrugged innocently. "I guess that means that you'll be the one praying… praying that your little bard has a strong constitution because if she doesn't it won't be long before she’ll be joining her husband."

Xena stiffened but lowered her sword. For now, she would have to play along.

"Why Cirra?" Gabrielle questioned warily. "What’s going to happen there?"

"I'm so glad you asked," Callisto declared as she turned to the bard. "You see, when we get to Cirra, Xena is going to kill herself-- that is, if she wants you to get the antidote." She released a contented sigh. "Then I'll have what I’ve always wanted… revenge." Grinning wickedly, she elaborated. "Aside from the obvious significance, I like the idea of having a few days to torment her along the way."

Gabrielle stood in silence, the horror of the situation sinking in.

"For a bard, suddenly you’re not very talkative," Callisto quipped.

"Lay off," Xena warned.

"Yes, maybe you're right. As fun as this is, you have more important things to do." She winked at the warrior. "Like, building a travois for your friend to lie on."

"I can walk," Gabrielle insisted.

Callisto grinned cruelly. "Not for long."

Pushing back her anger, Xena retrieved their waterskin and handed it to her friend. "You need to start drinking all the water you can. Your body will need it to fight the poison." Laying her hand on the young woman's shoulder, she looked at her sadly. "Gabrielle, I'm not sure what poison Callisto used. The travois might be a good idea."

The bard nodded.

"Better get dressed," the warrior suggested. "We should leave soon." Turning, she quickly donned her leathers and began collecting limbs.

When she returned, Gabrielle took a seat beside her and helped secure the branches. "Xena, you can’t let her win," she whispered. "Don’t let her use me to manipulate you." Face stricken, she laid her hand on Xena's arm. "Promise me you won’t kill yourself."

The warrior quickly looked away.

Tightening her grip assertively, the bard commanded her response.

"I’m sorry, I can’t make that promise," Xena replied sadly.

Awash with emotion, Gabrielle lowered her eyes.

Lightly brushing her friend's arm, the warrior forced a smile. "Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that." Tightening the last rope, she pulled the bard to her feet. "We should get going. Why don't you lie back and try this out."

Hating the idea of being so helpless, she appealed to her friend. "If it's okay… I'd rather ride with you... at least while I'm still able."

Xena nodded.

Prepared to take her usual seat behind the warrior, Gabrielle waited for her to mount.

Xena shook her head. "This time, you ride in front. I want to keep an eye on you." Grasping the bard's waist, she lifted her up.

As the warrior settled in behind her, Gabrielle tightened her grip on the saddle horn, her head throbbing painfully.

Feeling her friend stiffen, Xena wrapped her arms around the bard and bent to her ear. "You okay?"

Taking a deep breath, she nodded and allowed herself to relax in the warrior's protective embrace.

*****

~ Chapter 2 ~

 

"So Gabrielle, tell me… what's it like traveling with a murderer?"

"Xena's not a murderer. She's a hero."

"Hmm… that's a new one," Callisto commented sarcastically. "A hero who kills innocent people."

"She doesn't," the bard insisted. "Xena protects the innocent."

Callisto flashed a wry smile. "Like she's protected you?"

"This isn't her fault."

"She's really got you brainwashed, hasn't she? Well, maybe once the poison begins to take effect, you'll change your mind."

Angry, Gabrielle turned to confront her. "If I die, it won’t be Xena who’s responsible… It'll be you!"

The warrior remained silent as the bard defended her. In her heart, she agreed with Callisto. This was her fault. She never should have allowed the young woman to travel with her. And now, because of her selfishness, Gabrielle's life was in real danger.

Somehow, she had to make this right… she had to figure out what Callisto used and find an antidote. Knowing the poison's effects could help, but unfortunately, there was little hope that Callisto would willingly reveal that information... not without being tricked into it.

Slowly a plan began to form in Xena's mind. She pulled Argo to a halt.

Callisto turned to her. "Why are we stopping?"

"I think you're lying about the poison. It's been candlemarks and I don't see any change in her."

"You will, I assure you. I’ve seen this stuff in action. It's quite painful and very effective." Grinning, she turned to the bard. "What about it, Gabrielle? How are you feeling?"

Xena adjusted the reins, giving the bard a subtle squeeze.

Taking her cue, Gabrielle shrugged casually. "Maybe you got a bad batch. I feel fine."

"Enjoy it while it lasts my dear, I guarantee that you won't feel that way for much longer."

"And what is it exactly that I'm supposed to feel?" the bard coaxed.

Callisto opened her mouth to reply, then stopped abruptly. "Ah… but if I told you the symptoms it would spoil the suspense." Pausing thoughtfully, she bit her lip. "On the other hand, I can see that you're simply dying to know." She smiled wickedly.

"That's enough," Xena warned, hoping to spur her enemy on.

Callisto took the bait. "As far as I'm concerned, you have no say in this. I'm calling the shots here and if I feel like sharing all the gruesome details with your little friend, I will."

Xena glared at her coldly, but said nothing.

Flashing a triumphant grin, Callisto focused her attention on Gabrielle. "Mmm… let's see." She tapped her index finger to her lips as she considered. "The problem is knowing where to begin. You see… there are so many ugly side effects."

"Then don't," the warrior retorted. "I for one could do without your gloating."

Feeling Xena's arm brush her leg, Gabrielle spoke up, her tone deliberately anxious. "Xena's right, never mind. I'm probably better off not knowing."

"Probably," Callisto agreed with a sinister twinkle in her eye. "Guess that's all the more reason, I should fill you in." She turned her mare so that she could face them. "They tell me it begins with a fierce headache, the pain so relentless, that it feels like someone is twisting a dagger in your brain." She winked at the bard. "Is that how you'd describe it?"

Afraid her eyes might reveal too much, Gabrielle looked away.

Disappointed, Callisto shrugged. "No, nothing yet, huh?" She frowned. "What about other symptoms: tingling, dizziness, weakness, loss of feeling in your limbs?"

The bard shook her head.

"Well don't worry, by the end of the day I'm sure that you will have experienced them all." She smiled at the warrior. "Not too bad for the first day though, is it?"

Xena ignored her.

Eager to provoke her adversary, Callisto continued. "Unfortunately, tomorrow won’t be quite so pleasant. By day two, her body will start to break the poison down and we'll begin to see outward signs; like nausea, confusion, vomiting, and hallucinations."

As her enemy rambled on, Xena felt the bard tense with dread. Still, as much as she wanted to put an end to Callisto's cruel taunting, she allowed her to go on, hoping that the mad woman would reveal something that might help her to recognize the poison.

Continuing her litany of side effects, Callisto once again focused her attention on Gabrielle. "Poor thing, by day three, I think you'll long for the delirium. By then, your pupils will be fully dilated so I'm afraid you won't be seeing very well. And then, there's the muscle spasms." She frowned in mock sympathy. "Very unpleasant." Enjoying herself much too much to stop, she rushed on. "Oh… and I almost forgot the best thing… speech impairment. A rather nasty side effect for a bard, don’t you think?" Pausing for a moment to allow her words to sink in, she turned to the warrior and winked. "After that… it's just the usual stuff… wheezing, fever, seizures and well... the very last thing... death." She sighed happily. "Of course, if your hero behaves like a good girl, it doesn’t have to go quite that far. Does it Xena?"

Not bothering to reply, the warrior urged Argo forward.

*****

The next few candlemarks passed without conversation.

After running all of the symptoms through her mind, the warrior still wasn't able to figure out which poison Callisto had used. In all of her travels, she had never come across anything that affected the body in the ways Callisto had described. Guilt washed over her. She had allowed her enemy to torment Gabrielle for nothing. And now, as much as she wanted to ask the bard how she was feeling… as much as she needed to hear the young woman's voice, she remained silent not wanting to cause her friend further pain.

As if reading the warrior's thoughts, Gabrielle turned to her. "Can we stop? I… I need to take a break."

Without hesitation, Xena pulled Argo to a halt and quickly helped her friend down.

The bard swayed, momentarily loosing her footing. "It’s started," she whispered.

The warrior could not mask her distress. "Can you make it alone? Do you need me to help?"

Gabrielle laid a reassuring hand on her arm. "Thanks, I think I'll be okay." Taking cautious steps, she disappeared into the woods.

As soon as she was out of sight, Callisto approached the warrior. "My, my, that was so touching, soooo very brave. But she's a liar." Smiling, she met the warrior's eyes. "I happen to know that she would love to have your help undressing."

Trying to control her temper, Xena turned away angrily.

"Why, even I could see how much she enjoyed that little neck sucking session." She laughed cruelly. "Trust me. She's not nearly as innocent as she seems."

Xena spun to face her, hatred burning in her eyes.

"It's true," Callisto insisted. "For my brief stint as a god, I was able to read her thoughts. Seems she has quite a thing for you." She smiled as she watched Xena stiffened. "Mmm… that mouth of hers. I’ll just bet she'd be a tiger in bed." Teasingly, she nudged the warrior. "What about it? Have you ever wanted to try her out?"

Consumed with rage, the warrior snapped. Grabbing Callisto by the throat, she lifted her off the ground until she was dangling helplessly in midair. As she struggled to breathe, the warrior mercilessly tightened her hold.

"Xena?"

Growling, the warrior pressed her fingers deep into Callisto's flesh cutting off all air.

"XENA STOP!!!" Gabrielle pulled desperately at her friend. "You're going to kill her!"

Snapping back to her senses, the warrior released her hold, dropping Callisto like a rag doll.

"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, shocked by her friend's uncharacteristic loss of control.

Shaken by how close she had come to sentencing the bard to a sure death, Xena could only nod.

Relishing the breakdown of her adversary's cool restraint, Callisto smiled and got to her feet. "My, my… well, I guess now I know what to talk about to get your juices flowing," she taunted, rubbing at the angry red marks on her neck.

Turning from her in contempt, Xena walked toward Argo.

Concerned, Gabrielle followed, gently laying her hand on the warrior's arm.

Ashamed of her outburst, Xena struggled to apologize. "I… I’m sorry. I don't know what came over me. I promise you, it won't happen again."

"Don't worry about it. She's getting to me too."

The warrior nodded, relieved that her companion understood.

"What did she say to make you so angry?"

Xena paused before answering. "It… it's not important." Seeing the doubt in her friend's eyes, she forced a smile. "Guess I’m just a little cranky today."

"Just a tad," the bard responded playfully.

Xena gratefully squeezed her shoulder. "You look a little pale. How you doing?"

"I…I'm losing feeling in my hands and feet." She looked away shyly. "I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to do that on my own."

"It'll be okay," the warrior assured her. "We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it." Carefully lifting Gabrielle onto Argo's back, she climbed up behind her and eased the mare forward.

They rode until darkness forced them to stop. It had been the most emotionally draining day in Xena's life. She slid gratefully from the saddle and reached up to help her friend down. As she set the bard on her feet, the young woman nearly collapsed in her arms.

The poison had her tightly in its grip.

*****

~ Chapter 3 ~

Anxious to get on the road, Xena was up at first light breaking camp. With every passing moment, she could see her friend failing. Concerned by how quickly the poison had taken hold, she suggested that Gabrielle lie on the travois.

Wanting to use what strength she had left to fight the insidious drug, the bard agreed. Never in her life had she felt so weak. Yet as tired as she was, rest seemed impossible. Aside from the painful throbbing in her head, she was too worried about the warrior to sleep. Most of the night, she lay awake trying to think of a solution to their predicament but nothing had come to her.

She closed her eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over her. Blinking rapidly, she struggled to focus. Her symptoms were getting worse, a clear indication that her body was slowly losing the battle against the toxin. She took a deep breath, trying not to let fear get the best of her, but troublesome questions plagued her.

What if Callisto had miscalculated the poison's strength? What if she wasn't strong enough to survive the journey? She quickly dismissed these thoughts. Callisto must have believed that she could make it to Cirra, because without her, she would lose her hold on the warrior. Surely, she wasn't crazy enough to risk Xena's vengeance… or was she?

The cruel irony of her situation hadn't escaped her. While she remained alive, the warrior was vulnerable. Alive, she served as Callisto's shield against any retaliation. Callisto knew Xena well enough to understand that she would do anything to save her friend, regardless of the personal cost. And so far, her strategy had worked.

However, there was one thing that Callisto hadn't counted on. Gabrielle… and the strength of her love for the warrior. A love that the bard had recognized from the beginning and against all odds nurtured. Taking a deep breath, she smiled softly. She wasn't out of the game yet. In fact, she held the final card. It was within her power to free the warrior to defend herself. If necessary, her death could end the madness.

As she focused on her love for Xena, she felt her pain ease. She thought back to the lake… to the press of the warrior's naked body against her. In her entire life, she had never experienced anything so thrilling. The contact had been electric, the heat so intense that she'd been sure that it would consume her. Never had she felt such desire.

Goosebumps rose on her flesh as she recalled the delicious sensation of Xena's lips moving against the tender skin of her neck. The intimate contact had aroused her in ways she'd only dreamed about. Even in that most desperate situation, Gabrielle’s body had responded.

In fact, she'd been so lost in the embrace… so lost in the draw of the warrior's powerful mouth that she'd nearly swooned. Light-headed from the feel of Xena's lips pressed against her heated flesh, she'd clung wantonly to the powerful woman's hips, at last, not caring how her companion might interpret the gesture.

But the warrior hadn't noticed. For her, there'd been nothing sexual in the act. She'd merely been trying to save a life… her friend's life. It wasn't that Xena didn't love her… she did. Just not in that way.

She thought back to the time Xena had borrowed Autolycus’ body… the time she had kissed her. For Gabrielle, that kiss had changed everything. Like a spark in the dark, it had ignited feelings she'd been reluctant to face, making her question everything she'd ever been told about love. That one kiss had filled her with a hunger so compelling, that her worst fear was that it would never be sated.

Down deep in her heart, she had hoped that one day she would see a hint that the warrior felt the same… that there would come a time when she would be able to share her true feelings.

Now unfortunately, it seemed that would never happen. Even if by some miracle Xena did have feelings for her beyond those she let show, it was not the time for her to push the disclosure. With her death eminent, the knowledge would only bring her companion more pain. And if Xena regarded her as only a friend, telling the warrior of her love would only make their last hours together awkward. It was best that Xena never learn the truth.

As sad as that thought made her, she felt grateful for the friendship they shared. Because of the warrior, her life had been more exciting than any adventure she could imagine. She had experienced more joy than most people dared hope for.

A calmness washed over her. Her death could save Xena's life. Resolved in her decision, she began to focus on what she could do to make things easier for her companion. For that, she needed time alone with the warrior… to talk. Pulling herself to a sitting position, she called to her.

Quickly dismounting, the warrior came to her side. "Are you okay?"

She nodded. "I… I need to…" Blushing, she looked down shyly.

Impatient with the young woman's modesty, Callisto finished for her. "I think she's trying to tell you that she has to pee."

Pained that her friend had to endure this indignity, Xena ignored her enemy and tenderly swept the small woman into her arms.

Resting her head in the crook of the tall woman's neck, Gabrielle brushed her lips against the warrior's soft skin and inhaled deeply. The scent of leather and spice flooded her senses… Xena's scent. She held the breath for long moments before slowly releasing it.

Lost in her thoughts, the warrior never noticed. She was too busy contemplating the best way to accomplish the task with the least embarrassment to the bard. "I think if I lean you on that rock you can…."

The bard interrupted. "What I… what I really wanted was to talk to you… alone. Can we sit for a minute?"

Carrying her to a large tree, the warrior settled her gently against its base, then nervously took a seat beside her.

Gabrielle quickly glanced around to make sure they hadn't been followed. "Xena, if what Callisto said is true, I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to be able to speak." She paused, trying to carefully select her words. "There are so many things I need to tell you."

Xena shifted uncomfortably, unable to disguise her anxiety. "Gabrielle, somehow I’ll get you the antidote. You don’t need to..."

Pressing her finger to the warrior’s lips, the bard silenced her. When she spoke, her voice was choked with emotion. "This time... the time I've spent traveling with you, has been the best part of my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything." Although, the pained expression on Xena’s face made it difficult for her to continue, she forced herself. "I… I need you to understand. If I… if I don’t make it, I don't want you to blame yourself. This isn't your fault."

The warrior looked away sadly.

Gabrielle reached out. Cupping the warrior's face in her hand, she drew her back. "It was my choice to travel with you and if I had it to do again, I wouldn't change a thing… not a thing. Please, you have to believe that."

Pulling the bard to her, Xena held her tightly. "Gabrielle, I’m so sorry. I wish it were me. It should be me. This is wrong. You don’t…" her voice caught. "I… I've been so bad for you. If it weren't for me, you would be happily married with a family. If only...."

"If it weren't for you," the bard interrupted, her voice firm with conviction, "I would be a slave or dead… and you know it." She met her friend's eyes. "If... I die; I need you to remember everything I’ve told you. Don't blame yourself. You've done nothing but make my life happy and complete." She paused, struggling to keep her tears from flowing. The thought of death separating them for all eternity was more than she could bear. She needed the warrior to continue on her path to redemption so that one-day they would be reunited. "Xena, I need to know that you will keep your promise to me after I’m gone. Don’t give in to the darkness. You deserve so much more."

It took all of the warrior's strength to keep from dissolving into tears. Burying her face in Gabrielle’s hair, she whispered her promise.

When she finally returned to the travois with the bard, it was all she could do to release her from her arms. Never, had her heart been filled with such despair. Turning, she quickly mounted Argo.

*****

~ Chapter 4 ~

About midday, they stopped to give the horses a brief rest. Bored, Callisto decided to have some fun. "Sooo Xena," she taunted, an evil glint twinkling in her eyes. "I'm kind of curious. Exactly how far are you willing to go to save the bard’s life?" Smiling, she tossed her dagger to the warrior.

Catching it easily, Xena eyed her cautiously. "What is it you want me to do?"

"I was just thinking how much fun it would be to watch you slit your horse's throat."

"NO!" Gabrielle pleaded. "Xena, Please don’t do it!"

Callisto grinned.

Careful to show no emotion, the warrior met her enemy's eyes unflinchingly. "If I did, would you give Gabrielle the antidote?"

Annoyed by Xena's calm resolve, Callisto's face hardened. She'd suggested the idea to torment the warrior, hoping to make her struggle with the painful decision.

Xena walked to Argo with quiet resignation and pressed the dagger to her mare's throat. "Give her the antidote and I'll do it."

Ruffled by the unexpected turn of events, Callisto spoke up angrily. "You're not getting off the hook that easily," she hissed. "We're going to play this out to the end… in Cirra." Taking a deep breath, she glared at her adversary. "My stallion is no pack mule. We'll need your horse to haul your little friend. She'd never survive the walk and I do so want her to live long enough to bear witness to your death." Suddenly, she brightened, the very thought of the warrior's demise instantly improving her mood. "Killing the horse is an excellent idea though. Let’s save it for later. Just another innocent to die at your hand."

Xena hurled the dagger, imbedding it in the tree next to Callisto’s right ear. Pushing her anger aside, she turned from her enemy and reached into her saddlebag to retrieve food for Gabrielle. Now more than ever, she needed to stay focused.

Callisto continued to taunt her. "Feeding her at this point is rather silly, don't you think? If things going according to schedule, she’ll be vomiting for the better part of the day."

Xena threw her a threatening look.

"Alright," Callisto conceded. "If it'll keep you moving. But, only water for you," she demanded. "Going hungry a couple of days will make you easier to handle." She grinned wickedly. "Besides, you don't have that much more time to live. No need to waste good food."

Eating was the last thing on the warrior's mind. Gabrielle was the only thing she cared about now. Kneeling beside her friend, she held out a piece of dried meat.

The bard lifted her hand, weakly refusing. "Thanks, but I'm not very hungry."

"You have to help your body battle the poison. Try to eat, you need to keep strong."

Anxious to please her companion, she took a small bite and swallowed uneasily.

*****

~ Chapter 5 ~

Gabrielle's head throbbed painfully as she watched the warrior walk toward the stream to fill their waterskin. Her enemy's description of her headache had been right on the mark. The pain was unrelenting, almost debilitating. She tried to think of something else… anything else. Turning, she looked at Callisto. As much as she disliked the idea of conversing with her enemy, even Callisto's taunting was preferable to being left alone with her pain. "I was wondering about something."

The blonde warrior grinned. "Something like… when you can expect the next symptom?"

"No, actually, I was curious about how you managed to escape the lava."

"Ever the storyteller, I see."

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, I guess so."

Callisto paused momentarily as she considered whether or not to answer. "Hera released me hoping I would help her with a little trap for Hercules… which of course, I was glad to do. Unfortunately my freedom came at a high price: my godhood and my immortality."

"How long have you been free?"

"Oh, not long. As you might have guessed… I was anxious to look up my old pal, Xena." Suddenly, her expression hardened, her eyes becoming frighteningly cold. "You see, there's just so much to pay her back for."

The hatred in her enemy's eyes sent a chill to her core. Quickly looking away, Gabrielle was relieved to see the warrior walking toward them.

Bending down, Xena handed the bard the waterskin. "How you doing?"

As she started to reply, her stomach cramped, forcing a low groan from her throat.

"Www… whoa, now that looked painful," Callisto teased.

Anger flaring, the warrior spun ready to wipe the smile off her enemy’s face.

The sound of the bard's voice stopped her. "Xena, I…I… I'm going to be sick."

Turning quickly, the warrior held Gabrielle's hair back as she vomited over the side of the travois.

The nausea came, in seemingly unending waves, forcing every muscle in small woman's body to tense repeatedly. Never had the warrior felt so helpless. There was nothing for her to do but hold her friend as she watched her strength slowly ebb.

Even after Gabrielle's stomach was empty, the nausea continued, giving the tortured young woman little rest. Finally, muscles too weak to constrict, she melted into Xena's arms, so drained that she couldn't even lift her head.

Desperate to ease the bard's suffering, she gently rubbed her back.

Callisto stood off to the side, tapping her foot impatiently. "This is cozy and all, but if she’s done puking, we really should be moving on." When the warrior ignored her, she exhaled in frustration. "I shouldn't have to remind you that we're racing against time here. If we don’t hurry, she's going to miss the finale."

Weakened and miserable, Gabrielle looked up helplessly.

The fear Xena saw in her companion’s eyes made her chest constrict painfully. She turned to Callisto. "I’m staying on the travois with her until she's through this. Argo will keep us going." She called to her mare. Her voice cracking with emotion she wasn't able to conceal.

Argo promptly obeyed, falling in step with the stallion.

Casting the warrior an irritated glance, Callisto turned away in disgust.

Lying on her side, she pulled the bard back against her chest. Manipulating various pressure points, she tried to ease her friend's pain. Unfortunately, the poison had so adversely affected the nerves that it didn't do much good. Her feeble efforts gave Gabrielle only brief periods of relief, then once again, her stomach muscles would convulse cruelly.

For candlemarks, Xena held her friend in her arms, rocking her tortured body, until finally, exhausted, the bard drifted into a shallow slumber. The warrior immediately mounted Argo and picked up the pace.

Callisto pulled up alongside her. "Seems she's not as strong as the others I tried this on. It doesn’t look like she'll make it to Cirra."

The warrior threw her a menacing look. "You'd better hope you’re wrong or I promise you that your own death will be much more slow and painful than the one you planned for her."

Callisto feigned a shiver and smiled. "I’m so frightened."

Xena glared at her. "Do I need to remind you what I was like before Gabrielle came into my life? Isn’t that what this is all about?"

"Need I remind YOU, that my life means nothing to me since your little romp through Cirra all those years ago. I've lived for revenge and I'll gladly die for it."

The warrior didn’t respond. There was nothing to be said. Callisto was right. Having already taken everything that mattered to her enemy, Xena had nothing left to threaten her with. Urging Argo forward, she continued on in silence, the bard’s tortured moans a constant reminder of how dire the situation had become.

*****

Stopping at dusk to give the horses a well-needed rest, Xena quickly set up camp. It alarmed her that despite the warm evening air her friend was shivering. Picking up her bedroll, she laid it over the bard.

Gabrielle looked up gratefully. "I can't seem to get warm."

Xena gently tucked the covers around her. "Maybe a fire would help. Will you be okay if I leave to collect some wood?"

Gabrielle nodded weakly. As the warrior's image faded in the distance, she closed her eyes taking advantage of the brief respite from her cramps. Almost instantly, she drifted into a troubled sleep.

Less than a candlemark later, a vivid nightmare awakened her. Heart hammering, she frantically attempted to focus in the darkness. Hearing the familiar sound of whetstone on metal, she exhaled in relief. Expecting to see Xena, she turned, only to be confronted with the image of her enemy.

As Gabrielle warily watched her, she was struck by the uncharacteristic calm in the blonde woman's features. She almost looked like a different person. Unusually introspective… her expression seemed almost regretful. Amazed at the change, Gabrielle quickly thought of something non-threatening to say. "I love that sound. There's something soothing about it."

Not looking up, Callisto continued to sharpen her sword. "Mmm, I know what you mean. It reminds me of my father."

Surprised by her response, the bard continued, not wanting to let the possible opportunity pass. "Was he a warrior too?"

"No, he was a blacksmith… He didn't believe in violence or killing."

"I don't either," the bard confessed.

Callisto turned to face her, eyes once again cold. "Then what are you doing traveling with a warlord?"

"It's hard to explain." She paused to collect her thoughts. "If you could see Xena as I do, you'd..."

"Sorry," Callisto jabbed, casting the bard a knowing smile. "It just her head that I want on a platter. Unlike you, I have no interest in the rest of her body."

Gabrielle felt her face flush, but refused to let the woman get to her. "I don't think you realize how much you both have in common."

Callisto threw her a menacing glare, but remained silent.

"When Xena was very young, her brother and many of her townspeople died at the hands of an evil warlord. It changed her, like the loss of your family changed you."

"How touching."

Once again, the bard felt her stomach muscles beginning to tighten. Stubbornly, she forced herself to continue. "It scarred her. But, she's trying so hard to change. In just the short time that I've known her, she's done so much to help people.

Ignoring her, Callisto re-sheathed her sword.

Having opened the door, Gabrielle was desperate not to let it close again. "Can't you see? Killing her now won't change the bad she’s done. It will only put an end to the good she's doing."

Callisto’s eyes narrowed in hatred. "Nothing she could ever do could make up for her past… nothing!"

Gabrielle grimaced against the pain gripping her. "I think you're wrong," she inhaled deeply, struggling to finish. "But even if you're not, your demons won't vanish with her death. Forgiving her is the only thing that will give you peace."

Callisto rolled her eyes. "Of course… that healing forgiveness. You'd know all about that wouldn't you." She flashed an evil grin. "Tell me. Have you gotten over me killing your husband yet?"

Bravely meeting Callisto's eyes, the bard nodded. "I needed to forgive you so that I could go on with my life. I understand that you must be in terrible pain to do the things you've done."

"And I suppose if you die before we make it to Cirra, You’ll forgive me that too," the blonde warrior smirked.

"Yes," Gabrielle replied honestly.

Shaking her head in disbelief, Callisto exhaled loudly. "You’re a fool."

"Maybe so, but I'm asking you to honor my last request… let go of your hatred… let Xena live. If you need a life for retribution, have mine. Taking Xena’s won’t end your pain." Gabrielle winced as her stomach tightened once again. "Please, you know it’s true. Look in your heart."

Callisto turned from her. "In case you hadn’t noticed… I don’t have a heart."

*****

~ Chapter 6 ~

During the night, Gabrielle took a turn for the worse. Desperate to get her friend to Cirra as quickly as possible Xena lit torches so that they could they travel in darkness.

A sense of foreboding hung in the air as they made their way through the night. Callisto hadn't spoken a word since they broke camp and although her uncharacteristic silence was unnerving, Xena would have preferred her enemy’s taunting to the torment of being left to her own conscience.

Abruptly reining in her stallion, Callisto turned to the warrior. "Off your horse, now!"

The bard lay wide-eyed on the travois, terrified by the scene unfolding before her.

Xena dismounted cautiously, her eyes never leaving her enemy.

Drawing her sword, Callisto forced the warrior to back up so that Gabrielle might have a clearer view. "Since your little friend is not likely to survive long enough to see the show in Cirra, I think we should give her a command performance here, don't you?"

Xena nodded, hoping that her death might still save her companion.

The mad woman smiled gleefully. "Before we jump right to the main event, let's give her a little thrill, shall we? After all, I think she's earned it." Glancing over her shoulder, she checked to make sure she had the bard’s attention.

Gabrielle looked on, terrified at the thought of what her enemy had in mind.

Leveling her sword at the warrior's throat, Callisto barked her first order. "Take off your clothes."

Understanding that the demand was somehow meant to torment Gabrielle, Xena paused, reluctant to add to the young woman’s suffering.

"You heard me. Take them off, NOW!"

Not wanting to undermine Gabrielle's only chance, Xena began stripping until she stood naked before her enemy.

Callisto turned to the bard. "Enjoying the show, dear?"

Filled with dread, Gabrielle remained silent.

"No? Well, give me a moment. I’m just warming up. It’s going to get even better, I promise." Grabbing a rope from her horse, she walked toward the warrior. "Put your hands out in front of you."

Xena hesitated. "Give her the antidote first."

"I'm in control here," Callisto said coldly. "Do as I say and maybe I'll let her live."

Desperate, the warrior held out her hands.

"Mmm, good girl," she praised as she tied the warrior’s hands tightly together. Throwing the free end over a large tree limb, she gave it a powerful yank, pulling up until Xena's toes barely touched the ground.

Pleased with the dark-haired woman's positioning, she quickly secured the rope. "Now… we can begin."

"Please, don’t do this!" Gabrielle begged, cheeks wet with tears.

Callisto merely smiled and backhanded Xena hard across the face.

Head snapping back, a stream of blood flew from the warrior's mouth.

"Oooh, that was good," Callisto purred to the bard. "You were so wrong about the forgive and forget thing. I feel better already." Relishing her power over the warrior, she struck her over and over again, the last blow so forceful that the warrior lost her footing and spun helplessly.

Dazed by her enemy's particularly vicious assault, it took Xena a moment to focus.

Even from where Gabrielle lay, she could see bruises already beginning to form on the warrior's cheeks… blood flowing from her nose and mouth.

The mad woman grinned wickedly. "Not so pretty now, is she? Still want to run your fingers through her hair?"

"STOP... PLEASE, STOP!" Gabrielle sobbed.

Callisto drew her dagger and grabbed a hand-full of Xena’s hair. Slicing through it roughly, she tossed the long raven locks on the bard’s lap. "A little memento."

Gabrielle stared in horror at the tangle of silky black hair. Her stomach clenched painfully as a wave of dizziness mercifully threatened her consciousness.

Seeing the bard falter, Callisto released a heavy sigh. "Looks like we need to hurry this along. I wouldn’t want you to miss the finale." Turning back to Xena, she paused to admire her work. "She has such nice skin, doesn’t she?" Teasingly, she ran her finger between the warrior's breasts. "Ah, but sadly not for long."

Gabrielle watched in silent horror as Callisto lifted the dagger to Xena's stomach and began carving letters in her soft flesh. The bard desperately tried to rise… to move to help her friend… but her limbs wouldn't work. She didn't have the strength. Weeping, she pleaded with her enemy.

Callisto ignored her and continued her task, occasionally wiping away the trails of blood left by her dagger. Finally, she stepped back to reveal her work. "Well, what do you think?" she asked, her eyes dancing wildly. "A definite improvement, I’d say."

Carved into the warrior's skin were three words:

Vengeance

Is

Mine

Physically unable to take action, Gabrielle looked to the one she had always turned. "Xena, fight her... please FIGHT!"

Raising her eyes to meet the bard’s, she shook her head. "Gabrielle, I’m sorry I…"

The impact of Callisto's double-handed blow stopped the warrior mid-sentence.

Hearing the sound of breaking bones, the bard winced and closed her eyes. Moaning helplessly, she begged for her enemy's mercy.

"What? Tired of the game already?" Callisto taunted. "Well, if you’re not going to watch, I’ll have to add more sound effects." Driving her dagger into the warrior’s stomach, she twisted it cruelly.

Xena groaned through clenched teeth.

Angered by the warrior's control, Callisto turned the dagger violently before pulling it out.

Blood poured from Xena's belly.

Knowing her friend could never survive such a severe wound, Gabrielle prayed out loud to the gods for an end to her friend's suffering.

Callisto only laughed. Once again raising her dagger, she sliced into the warrior's chest. Inserting her hand into the gaping wound, she extracted Xena's heart with a wet sucking sound and held it out to the bard, a look of utter triumph on her face. "Isn’t’ this what you always wanted?"

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Gabrielle wailed.

Kneeing beside the travois, Xena tried to soothe her panicked friend. "Gabrielle! It’s okay. I’m here."

"Hallucinations must be starting," Callisto offered. "Had to be something pretty good for her to scream that loudly." She smiled. "Maybe she got a glimpse of the real you, huh?"

Desperate to sooth her friend's pain, Xena pulled her into her arms and held her close.

Gabrielle thrashed wildly. Eyes filled with terror, she stared through the warrior, showing no sign of recognition.

Repeatedly Xena tried to soothe her, reassuring the bard that she wouldn't allow her die, but there was no calming the distraught young woman. At a loss at what to do, she rocked her terrified friend gently in her arms and hummed softly. Gradually, her companion's horrified cries dulled to anguished moans. And finally, after nearly a candlemark, Gabrielle drifted into an exhausted sleep.

Reluctantly, the warrior laid her down and mounted Argo, pushing the mare harder than she ever had before.

*****

~ Chapter 7 ~

Although she was now resting quietly, Xena sensed something in the bard’s stillness that frightened her more than anything had thus far. Her friend's breathing had changed. Beneath each labored breath, there was a soft, raspy whistle.

As they rested the horses, the warrior kept vigil, her eyes never leaving the bard. Occasionally the young woman’s limbs would jerk violently. Once, so forcefully, that it stirred Gabrielle from her exhausted sleep. Looking into the bard's eyes, Xena's heart fell. The pupils were dilated, so much so, that the green of her iris was not even visible. It gave her the startling appearance of some wild bird.

Frightened by the brightness, Gabrielle cried out, her voice strained… barely a whisper. "I... I can’t... see." Her chest rose and fell in desperate gasps, as she struggled to pull air into her failing lungs. Every breath sounded thick, moist.

"I’m right here, Gabrielle. It's the poison. Your pupils are dilated."

Tears filled the warrior's eyes as she watched her companion edging closer and closer to death. It was clear that no matter how hard they pushed the horses, they would not reach Cirra before nightfall. To make matters worse, Gabrielle's temperature had spiked. Helpless to do anything but fight the symptoms, the warrior hurried to the river for cool water, hoping to lower her temperature.

Once Xena was out of sight, Callisto approached the feverish woman. In just a glance, she could see how dire the bard's condition had become. She turned away and angrily kicked a stump. The young men she had used as test subjects had been approximately her same size and they had lasted over four days. What had gone wrong?

A gurgling sound caused her to turn. It was Gabrielle trying to speak, her voice barely audible. Drawn by the magnitude of the young woman's effort, she knelt to better hear her.

"Callisto?"

"Yes," she answered, her voice tight.

"Please..." the bard gasped. " Don’t... hurt... Xena."

Each word she uttered was punctuated by a moist wheezing; making it infinitely clear that even this simple attempt to speak caused her great pain. Suddenly uncomfortable, Callisto started to rise.

Gabrielle’s hand blindly caught hold of her leathers. "Let my death... end... it."

Twisting free, Callisto walked quickly into the woods.

Witnessing only the end of their interaction, Xena rushed to the bard’s side, fearful Callisto had harmed her. "Gabrielle, I’m here." Hands shaking, she wet a cloth and pressed it to the young woman's forehead.

The bard opened her eyes and tried desperately to focus on her friend. "Save your… self," she whispered. Never had she felt so weary… so tired of fighting. Every breath was a struggle. Suddenly a comforting thought occurred to her. If she gave in, Xena could live. As the peaceful calm washed over her, she closed her eyes and gave up the battle.

The warrior watched helplessly as her friend became frighteningly still. Panic rising, she pulled the bard into her arms. "Gabrielle! Don’t give up! Please… fight!"

Distraught, she gently tried to rouse her. The bard did not respond. An unbearable ache swelled in her chest erupting in an anguished cry. "Noooo, please. I can't go on without you." Clutching her friend to her, she pleaded. "I... I love you so much. Hold on… please… hold on."

A tortured moan escaped the young woman's lips, as she seemed to renew her struggle.

Quickly lying the bard down, Xena ran into the woods in search of her enemy. Finding her, she wasted no time. "Callisto, please! She'll never make it to Cirra. At the rate she's going, she won’t last through the night. If you have the antidote, you have to give it to her! You have my word that I'll take my own life… either here or in Cirra… whatever you want."

"Now what fun would there be in that?" Callisto sneered.

Unable to mask the desperation in her voice, Xena pleaded. "I know I was a monster. I can never atone for what I’ve done. If I could bring your family back, I would give my life to do it. But I can’t. I wish that I could. They were innocent and didn't deserve to die anymore than Gabrielle does." She wiped haphazardly at the moisture on her cheeks. "Please, she's never caused harm to another living thing. She… she's helped so many in her short life. Her only crime is caring for me. It's me you should punish. If you act quickly, there still may be time to save her." The warrior reached out, hands trembling. "Please, stop this!"

"She means that much to you…"

"Yes… so much I…"

Callisto’s features hardened. "What do you know about love and caring?!" The blonde was suddenly livid. "Murder, rape, destruction: they're all you know!"

The warrior stepped back, her enemy's words pummeling her like physical blows, the air thick with her hatred… a hatred she had earned.

"Strip!" Callisto commanded.

Confused, Xena thought she'd heard her wrong.

Set on breaking the warrior, Callisto repeated her demand. "I said strip!"

Willing to do anything to save Gabrielle, Xena quickly obeyed. Discarding every shred of her clothing, she stood naked and vulnerable before her enemy.

Callisto drew her sword. "Put your hands behind your back."

The warrior immediately complied.

Lying the flat of her sword on Xena’ shoulder, she rested the razor sharp blade at the base of the warrior's neck. "Frankly, I can’t see the attraction… why the bard lusts after you so is beyond me, but then she doesn’t know your true nature, does she?" She kicked at the ground spraying Xena with dirt. "As for me, I could take you or leave you."

Xena dropped to her knees. "Take me, if that’s what you want. Torture me to your heart’s content. I'll do anything you ask. Anything! I will be your slave until the end of my days. Please, just ask."

"Why Xena, it’s sounds like you’re begging."

"If that’s what you want. Just don’t let her die. Take me instead."

"You would pleasure me?"

"Yes."

"Kill for me?"

"Yes."

"Fight for whatever cause I might choose?"

"Yes, anything." Tears ran down her cheeks. "My body and my sword are yours to command, everything... anything I have." Even though it meant breaking her oath to Gabrielle, she offered without hesitation. It was the moment of truth… there was nothing she wouldn't do to keep her friend alive. "Please just give her the antidote!"

Callisto merely sneered. "You're pathetic." Disgusted, she threw the warrior's clothes at her. "Get dressed."

Xena stared at her blankly. Because of her, Gabrielle was going to die. She had nothing to bargain with… not even her life. Slumping forward, she lowered her head in despair.

Callisto raised her sword but the warrior never saw it… never realized her intent, until the hilt struck her.

*****

~ Chapter 8 ~

She awoke to the scratch of leaves against her naked body. As she sat up, her head throbbed painfully. Momentarily confused, she glanced around. In a horrifying stream of images, her memory returned. Jumping to her feet, she rushed back to camp. The thought of what she might find terrified her.

As she broke through the forest, she spotted Gabrielle exactly where she'd left her. Hurrying to her side, she dropped to her knees.

The labored rise and fall of the young woman's chest brought tears of relief to her eyes. By some miracle, the bard was still alive. Bending forward, she lovingly pressed her lips to her friend's forehead and quickly pulled back. Gabrielle was burning up with fever. As she turned for the waterskin, her eyes fell to a piece of parchment lying next to an empty vial. Unrolling it, she began to read.

 

 

Dearest Xena,

You were such a disappointment. Not at all like the warrior, I remember. You used to be so much more resourceful. I can see that you're definitely slipping.

If I were the bard, I'd start looking for a better protector. She'd be dead if I hadn’t given her the antidote. Although… I must say, you do have a certain knack for groveling. In light of your failure here, I suggest that you hone that skill.

Best heed my warning and stay out of my way in the future.

Next time, I'll show no mercy, no matter how hard you cry.

 

Xena dropped the note, tears of relief trailing down her cheeks. At least now, Gabrielle had a fighting chance. She dampened a cloth with cool water and gently wiped the bard's face. Extremely weak, her companion's recovery was far from certain. At best, her chances of survival were slim… but if she could make it through the night…. maybe…

The warrior released a heavy sigh. If Gabrielle died, it would be her fault. If she lived, it would be Callisto who had saved her.

*****

Part II

*****

~ Chapter 9 ~

It was a waiting game now. Xena remained close, keeping a watchful eye.

Gathering armloads of ferns, she layered them to make a soft bed. Finally satisfied with the thickness, she gently laid Gabrielle on top and covered her with blankets. At a loss for what more to do for her friend, she added wood to the fire and nervously monitored the young woman's condition.

In the middle of the night, the bard’s fever soared dangerously high. Once again, the warrior used cool compresses in an effort to bring it down. However, after nearly a candlemark there was no improvement. Afraid to allow her friend's temperature to climb any higher, Xena carried the frail young woman to the stream and waded in. Kneeling, she gradually immersed her in the cool water.

The bard lay still as death.

Struggling to hold back her tears, Xena cradled her in her arms and lightly brushed her cheek. The heat radiating from her was alarming. Gently tilting her companion's head back, she wet her hair.

The bard moaned weakly as her skin slowly began to cool.

"That's it Gabrielle… come back to me." Closing her eyes, the warrior held tight to the young woman who had come to mean everything to her. The relief she felt was enormous. At last, the bard seemed to respond. Carefully drying her off, Xena carried her back to bed.

Immediately the young woman began to shiver violently.

Covering her with their blankets, she put more wood on the fire. When that didn't work, she stripped off her leathers and climbed in with her. Pulling the bard close, she shared the only thing she had left to give, the heat of her own body.

Never in her life had the warrior been so frightened. Her vast knowledge of herbs and medicine was virtually useless against the effects of the poison. Pale and thin, Gabrielle was now barely a shadow of the feisty young woman she'd come to care so deeply about.

Lovingly stroking the bard's hair, she vowed that if her companion made it through this, she would never again place her in danger.

*****

Sometime before dawn, the tremors finally ceased.

As Gabrielle relaxed in her embrace, resting comfortably for the first time in days, Xena allowed herself to drift into a troubled sleep.

She awoke a short time later, her arms still wrapped protectively around her companion. Pulling back to examine her friend more closely, the warrior was stunned by the changes she saw. In a little over a candlemark, Gabrielle's color had dramatically improved. She even seemed to be breathing more easily.

Testing for fever, Xena allowed her lips to linger. The bard's temperature felt normal. Releasing a sigh of relief, she rose from bed and tucked the blankets around her young friend. Quickly rummaging through her saddlebag, she retrieved a variety of herbs and ground them up in the bottom of a mug. As she turned to hang the kettle of water over the fire, she heard the bard moan and went to her side.

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open. Pupils still dilated, she squinted, trying to shield her sensitive eyes from the light. Voice barely audible, she struggled to speak. "Xena…"

"Shhhh, it’s okay. You're safe now," she whispered, affectionately brushing the stray strands of blonde hair from her face. "Don't try to talk." Reaching for the waterskin, she pulled out the cork. "I need you to try to drink a little." Gently lifting her companion's head, she poured a small amount between her lips.

Gabrielle swallowed with difficulty, then closed her eyes, her body immediately succumbing to sleep.

Xena kept a close watch, patiently attending to her every need. Frighteningly weak, her companion was rarely conscious for more than a few moments at a time. Understanding how desperately the bard's body needed rest, the warrior let her sleep, only waking her occasionally to drink.

The biggest challenge was keeping Gabrielle warm. In this fragile state, her body wasn't able to hold its heat. In an effort to keep the bard's chills away, Xena kept the campfire going continually, making frequent trips to the forest to collect dead tree limbs.

As she stacked the latest supply of wood next to the fire, she felt the hair on the back of her neck rise in warning.

Someone was watching. She could sense it.

Turning cautiously, she was surprised to see Gabrielle staring at her. The warrior's chest tightened in concern. Hurrying to her side, she dropped to her knees to check on her. Looking into her eyes, she was astonished to find the bard's pupils nearly back to their normal size. The green of her irises was every bit as vivid as she remembered. In her entire life, Xena had never seen anything so beautiful. Up until that very moment, she hadn't realized how much she'd missed those eyes. She smiled gently. "Hey, how you feeling?"

"Ccc…Cold," the bard stuttered, her body trembling.

Without hesitation, the warrior slid under the covers and pulled Gabrielle close. Instantly, she felt her relax. "There, is that better?" Hugging her tightly, she listened for the bard's reply. None came. The young woman had already drifted off.

*****

The next morning, Gabrielle seemed much more alert. She even managed a weak smile as the warrior approached her.

Pressing her fingers to the blonde's forehead, Xena smiled back. "You're looking much better today."

"Thanks to you," Gabrielle whispered gratefully. "I knew you would save me."

Uneasy with her friend's comment, Xena glanced away awkwardly. Once Gabrielle was stronger, she would tell her the truth… but not now. The conversation would spark too many painful questions… questions she didn't like the answers to. Pulling the kettle from the fire, she poured a cup of medicinal tea. "Do you think you can drink?"

The bard nodded and tried unsuccessfully to sit up.

"Wait, let me help." Sitting behind her friend, she positioned herself so that Gabrielle could lean back comfortably against her chest.

"I… I can't believe how weak I am," the bard apologized. "I can hardly move."

Although the young woman's voice was hoarse and about two octaves lower than normal, it was like music to the warrior's ears. Xena carefully held the cup of tea to her companion’s lips. "It’s a miracle you’re alive."

The bard took a long sip and swallowed.

"How’s your vision?"

"It's better, but I'm stilling feeling a little dizzy."

"It's no wonder. You've been through a lot."

Gabrielle sighed heavily. "Yeah, but at least my most important muscle is working."

"And what’s that?" Xena asked curiously.

"My tongue, of course."

The playful comment warmed the warrior's heart. Suddenly, everything seemed right in her world. "Thank the gods for that, I don’t think I could have stood one more day of silence."

Tilting her face upward, Gabrielle rewarded the dark-haired woman with a smile, then groaned in frustration as her head dropped back on Xena's shoulder, the simple movement exhausting her.

"It'll come," the warrior assured her. "It's going to take a while for your body to heal. Just take it one step at a time." Breaking some bread into small pieces, she offered her a bite.

Gabrielle slowly chewed. "Mmm, this is great."

"Good, you need to eat and drink as much as you can." She held up another piece, which her friend gratefully accepted.

Soon the bard was so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open. "I'm sorry, I don't think I can eat any more."

"You did fine," Xena praised. "Now, rest."

After covering her with blankets, the warrior went to put more wood on the fire. When she returned, her friend was fast asleep.

*****

~ Chapter 10 ~

Over the course of the next few days, there was a marked improvement in Gabrielle's condition. Although she still needed support to sit, she was now able to move her arms and feed herself. Best of all, her appetite had returned with a vengeance.

For the first time since the poisoning, the warrior allowed herself to believe that her friend would eventually recover. To her, the speed of the bard's recuperation didn't matter… each gain she made, no matter how small, was a sign of progress.

But to Gabrielle, the return of her health couldn't come quickly enough. Dependent on Xena for almost everything, she hated being a burden. Yet, as frustrating as things were at times, all in all, she had never been happier. The experience had allowed her to witness a different side of her friend. The devotion Xena had shown, filled her with such love for the warrior that it was nearly impossible to contain. Entranced by her attentive companion, she watched her endlessly, barely able to tear her eyes away.

The bard's preoccupation hadn't escaped Xena's notice. But, considering her helpless state, it seemed a natural reaction. In fact, to help alleviate her friend's fear she made an effort to stay as close to camp as possible. After everything Gabrielle had been through, she was willing to do whatever it took to put her companion's mind at ease. And it seemed she'd succeeded. Despite her weakened condition, the bard appeared quite content.

The truth was, Gabrielle was more than just content. She was happier than she'd ever been… so happy; that she began to feel a bit guilty about using her illness to get closer to the woman she loved. Although she hadn't shivered or felt truly cold in days, every night as they prepared to sleep, she would feign a chill so that Xena would take her in her arms and hold her. At times, she was almost grateful to Callisto. To Gabrielle, this newfound intimacy was worth every bit of suffering she had endured.

Not that she wasn't anxious to get well… she was. Wanting to please the warrior, she worked tirelessly to regain her strength. And slow, but sure, her health was returning.

Sensing she was ready, Xena encouraged her friend to push her limits. With her equilibrium off, balance was Gabrielle's biggest hurdle. But they took it a little at a time until the bard was finally able to walk, at first with help, and eventually, short distances on her own.

Everyday she was improving. Her body was even beginning to adjust to fluctuations in temperature. So much so, that at night, she found that she didn’t need as many blankets.

This created a problem.

She didn't know how to refuse the extra covers and not lose the warrior’s company in bed. Ironically, there were evenings when she prayed for a cool breeze so that the heat of her body would not give her away. To her relief, Xena didn't seem to notice.

Gabrielle was wrong. The warrior had noticed, although, not nearly as soon as she should have. The situation had become almost laughable as each night they lay sweating in each other's arms with blankets piled high.

Xena understood her own reasons for allowing it to continue. Coming so close to losing the bard had frightened her. But there was more to it than that. She loved Gabrielle and was reluctant to give up the wondrous feeling of peace she got from simply holding her.

The bard's motives for continuing the charade; however, were less clear. She guessed Gabrielle was feeling vulnerable and insecure. And if that were the case, she couldn't blame her. Still, somewhere in the back of Xena's mind, she feared that there was more to it.

As hard as she'd tried, she hadn't quite been able to dismiss Callisto's comment about reading Gabrielle's thoughts. At the time, she hadn't believed her. But now, she wasn't nearly as sure. As stormy a history as they'd had, she'd never caught her enemy in an outright lie. In fact, if anything, Callisto was cruelly truthful.

Once again, she pushed the thought back. In light of the oath she'd made to never again place the bard in danger, the idea that Gabrielle might indeed have feelings for her was too painful to face.

*****

~ Chapter 11 ~

"This rabbit is the best I've ever tasted," Xena commented as she licked her fingers. "It's good to have you cooking again."

The bard smiled. "It's the least I can do now that I'm beginning to feel better."

"Does that mean you'll be doing the dishes too?" the warrior teased.

"Actually, I was kind of hoping you'd do them. I wanted to do some writing tonight."

"Sssh… sure," Xena replied, hesitance seeping into her voice. For days, she'd been dreading this moment, knowing that sooner or later the bard's need to record the events of her life would prompt questions… questions, whose answers signaled the end of their travels together.

Gabrielle reached for her parchment and quill. "So, tell me. What happened with Callisto? How were you able to convince her to give you the antidote?"

The warrior felt her world crumbling. Appetite lost, she set her plate down. "I wasn’t able to convince her."

Gabrielle cast her a puzzled look. "I don't understand."

"Callisto… she changed her mind. I had nothing to do with it."

"What? She just changed her mind. I can't believe that. There must have been something you did or…"

"No." Xena paused, glancing up sadly. "I failed you."

"That's not true."

"It is," the warrior replied flatly. "Callisto saved you, not me. She's the one that gave you the antidote."

The pain in Xena's eyes pierced the young woman's heart. "It doesn't matter. I know you did everything you could."

The warrior closed her eyes and shook her head. "It wasn't enough. If she had truly wanted you and I dead, we would be."

"B… but…"

"She broke me," Xena confessed, her eyes distant.

"No," the bard persisted. "Don't you see, you…"

The warrior cut her off. "Gabrielle, you weren't there. I offered her my body… my sword… my life. I told her I would fight for her causes… do her bidding. In addition, I would have. I… I would have done anything she asked of me… even if it meant breaking my oath to you." She lowered her eyes. "In the end, it was Callisto who was honorable --- not me." Rising abruptly, she turned and walked into the woods.

*****

Heart heavy, Gabrielle lay for candlemarks waiting for her companion to return. Although she knew without a doubt that Xena was nearby, close enough to help her if she should need it, she dared not call to her. The warrior had made it clear that she needed to be alone.

In all of their time together, she had never seen Xena so down on herself. She truly believed that she'd failed her but the warrior was wrong. She wasn't seeing the whole picture. Something she'd done had forced the mad woman to re-think her plan. Maybe it was as simple as allowing Callisto to glimpse her vulnerability… making herself human in her enemy's eyes. Regardless, Xena had won and the proof of it was they were both alive.

The bard glanced anxiously towards the woods. Somehow, she had to make her friend see that none of the rest mattered… not any of it. With unparalleled bravery, Xena had done what was necessary, laying everything on the line to save her. The magnitude of her sacrifice brought tears to the bard's eyes. She took a shaky breath. Now, it was her turn to lay herself bare. It was time to tell the warrior how she truly felt.

Sensing that Xena wouldn't return as long as she was awake, she stretched out on her bedroll and feigned sleep. Soon, just as she'd guessed, she heard the familiar sound of the warrior's footfalls. Pulse racing, she listened intently, hoping with all her being that Xena would lie down beside her.

Instead, the warrior walked to the other side of the fire.

The none to subtle rejection made Gabrielle's heart ache. Now, more than ever, she longed for the comfort of her companion's arms. The thought of things going back to the way they had once been was unbearable. She could no longer pretend she felt only friendship for Xena… could no longer bottle up her feelings. Her heart would not allow the denial any more than her body, would allow her to forget the press of the warrior against her skin.

Summoning the courage, she opened her eyes and looked across the fire at her friend. "Xena, please, we need to talk about this."

The warrior remained quiet.

Relieved that Xena seemed ready to hear her out, she went on. "You're not being fair to yourself. You did everything humanly possible. There's no greater sacrifice you could have made."

She winced at the bard's statement. Never had Gabrielle been more wrong. There was a greater sacrifice… and she was about to make it.

"You risked everything to save me," the bard continued, looking deep into her companion's eyes. "You can't know what that means to me…. nothing else matters. I truly don't care why Callisto let me live. I'm just so grateful for this time with you… these nights… I feel such…" She paused, heart hammering in her chest. "Xena, I... I'm in love with you."

The warrior quickly looked away. In her dreams, those words had given her more joy than she thought possible. Now, they only brought pain. This was no fantasy. They could not simply walk off into the sunset arm in arm. This was real. She had to consider what was best for the Gabrielle. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to face her friend. "Save your love for someone who deserves it."

"But, you do."

Xena swallowed nervously. "Gabrielle, we…" the words caught in her throat. She shook her head. "It can never be. If Callisto could use you to get to me, then others could do the same."

"No… I… I'll be more careful, I…"

Xena cut her off harshly. "Don't you understand? My hands were tied!" She met her friend's eyes. "This isn't up for discussion. I refuse to put you in that kind of danger." She hastily rose to her feet. "I'm going to get some wood for the fire. Try to sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a hard day. We're heading out at dawn for the Amazon village."

*****

~ Chapter 12 ~

True to her word, they began their journey early the next morning. Even though Gabrielle was now capable of riding or even walking for short distances, Xena remained adamant that she lay in the travois.

Not wanting to further strain their relationship, the bard passively accepted the decision. But, her heart was breaking.

The warrior's aloofness was devastating. Although Xena continued to see to her every need, she did so with a cool detachment. To ease the painful silence, Gabrielle wrote in her scrolls, trying to better understand what had happened. After days of contemplation, she knew only one thing for certain: there was more to this than simply the warrior's need to protect her. The very idea was ludicrous. She had faced infinitely greater danger when she'd first joined Xena. Now, at least she was proficient enough with her staff to fend off almost any attack.

Yet suddenly, it was as if they had gone back in time. The warrior was treating her much as she had when they first traveled together: like a stranger… an obligation that she was looking to get rid of. Her chest tightened with dread. That was what this trip was all about, wasn’t it? Xena was planning to leave her with the Amazons, where she'd be safe.

"Damn it!" The young woman cursed under her breath. What had changed? What was her companion running from? Reversing their positions, Gabrielle tried to imagine how she would feel if the warrior was close to death and there was nothing she could do to help. It hurt even to think about it because Xena had come to mean everything to her.

The thought gave her pause. Was it possible the warrior felt the same for her?

Riding atop Argo, Xena too, was lost in her thoughts. Leaving the bard was the last thing she wanted. But what choice did she have? How many others, like Callisto, would be waiting in line for their chance at revenge? As long as Gabrielle was with her, she would never be safe. She winced as she recalled the suffering her friend had endured.

But it was more than just the issue of the bard's physical safety that had sealed her decision. It was her companion's declaration of love. Callisto had been right. Gabrielle knew nothing of the temptations she battled --- the anger she fought day in and day out… her thirst for power. Sooner or later, the darkness inside her would leave its' mark on the bard and she could not allow that to happen.

Callisto had been right about something else, too. Gabrielle was a true innocent who could never comprehend the depth of the warrior’s desire… the passion that was such a part of her… such a dangerous part. There was no denying that it had been her passion... or rather, her lust… that had placed the bard in peril. The memory of what had sent her into the chilly river the morning of Callisto’s attack was still painfully vivid.

And there was more. The part she had pushed from her mind, unwilling to face. Deepening their relationship would require a surrendering of herself that she didn't have the courage for. Caesar's words still echoed in her mind. "Divide a woman’s emotions from her sensibilities and you have her." She'd sworn it would never happen again, but it had and because her love for the bard was stronger than anything she'd ever known, she was more vulnerable than ever before.

Would she have been able to outwit Callisto if she hadn't been so obsessed with Gabrielle? She needed to believe that she could have… needed to believe that it had been love that had clouded her thinking, because it made this tough decision less difficult.

It was better this way. Before dark, they would arrive at the Amazon village and there would be an end to it.

*****

Distressed about the impending separation, Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears as they neared their destination. Frustrated by her inability to convince Xena that they were better off together than apart, she angrily wiped the moisture from her cheeks. If only she could be more like her friend. The warrior always seemed to have a solution for every problem. Xena was a take-charge kind of person… a leader. While she… on the other hand, was a follower.

The bard winced at the comparison, hoping in her heart that it wasn't actually true. Surely, she wasn't the same nave girl she'd been when they first met. She was much less dependent now… and not just because her fighting skills had improved. Experience had made her more capable and confident.

As an interesting thought occurred to her, Gabrielle sat up in the travois. She was looking at things as though Xena was in control, but where they were headed, that wasn't the case. There, she was queen. The Amazons were her people. The warriors there were at her command. As a plan began to form in her mind, her despair quickly faded. With a little luck, she might just have a chance. "Xena, stop!"

Concerned, the warrior pulled Argo to an abrupt halt. "Is everything okay?"

Rising from the travois, the bard pulled her staff from the saddle. "I’m fine. I've decided to walk the rest of the way."

"I don’t think that’s a good..."

"It’s my body, and I'm ready," the bard interrupted. Tightly gripping her staff, she planted the end firmly on the ground and looked up at the warrior. "I refuse to be pulled into my village on a stretcher when I’m perfectly capable of walking." Turning, she headed down the road, never looking back.

Stunned, Xena dismounted and followed without saying a word.

The bard inhaled deeply. She felt the best she had in days. A strong breeze ruffled her bangs, drawing her attention to the darkening sky. In the distance, a clap of thunder warned of an approaching storm. She smiled. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

*****

~ Chapter 13 ~

Alerted by scouts of her friends' arrival, Ephiny waited at the gates to greet them. Smiling, she watched them. "It's been awhile. Good to have you back."

"It's good to be back," the bard replied as she warmly embraced the Amazon.

Ephiny cast a puzzled glance at the travois. "Someone hurt?"

Hoping that her companion would answer, the warrior remained silent.

Gabrielle cleared her throat nervously. "It's a long story."

"I see," Ephiny commented, noting the tension in her friend's voice. "Well, I hope it has a happy ending."

"Me too," the bard whispered. As she turned to see Xena's reaction, the rain began to fall.

Tugging Gabrielle's arm, the regent urged her forward. "Let’s go talk. We have a lot to catch up on."

Looking back over her shoulder, Gabrielle called to the warrior. "Would you mind taking my things to my hut for me?"

Grateful not to have to listen to the telling of a tale that would be forever painful, Xena nodded and reached for the saddlebags.

The bard's chest tightened as she watched her companion walk away. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and turned to follow Ephiny.

*****

By the time the warrior reached Gabrielle’s hut, her leathers were drenched. Wiping haphazardly at the moisture, she silently cursed the storm. It had been her plan to leave immediately but now it looked as if she would have to stay the night. Exasperated, she dropped the saddlebags to the floor.

As she began to remove Gabrielle's belongings, a harsh reality hit her… come morning; she would leave alone… without the bard. Solemnly, she finished laying her companion's clothes on the bed. Her heart grew heavy as her eyes fell upon her friend's shift. Lovingly, she ran her fingers over the well-worn material and raised it to her lips. Breathing in the bard’s scent, she sighed. After tonight, she would probably never see her friend again… never hear her voice. With an awkward tenderness, she put the garment down and quickly exited.

Hurrying through the steady downpour, Xena tried to take comfort in the knowledge that it wouldn't last. Tomorrow, the weather would be better and if she were lucky, she could get an early start. She might even be able to leave before the bard woke. Although it was a cowardly way to end things, she was convinced that a clean break would be easier on both of them.

Pushing open the door to her hut, the warrior was suddenly overcome with a bone-numbing weariness. The last few nights she'd barely slept. Her dreams were haunted by images of the bard. Quickly slipping into a dry shift, she sat on the bed and rubbed her temples.

As she was about to lie back, there was a brusque knock at her door. Rising to answer it, she was surprised to see her old friend accompanied by four Amazon guards. "Solari, what is it? Is something wrong?"

"I'm afraid I have to ask you to come with us." Behind her, the others drew their weapons.

Xena looked at her questioningly. "What’s this about?"

"I don't know. I'm just following orders."

"Whose orders?"

"The queen’s."

Xena stiffened at the idea of another confrontation with Gabrielle. Releasing a frustrated sigh, she nodded. "Alright. Just give me a minute to change."

"That won’t be necessary." Solari replied, motioning one of the guards forward. The young woman handed her a pair of iron manacles.

"Hold it right there." Xena commanded. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on."

"We've been ordered to take you into custody. That's all I know." Solari met the warrior's eyes. "If you choose not to comply, we're prepared to use whatever force is necessary."

Xena carefully appraised the women. Their loyalty to the queen was beyond question. There was not a doubt in her mind that they would fight to the death to serve her. Unfortunately, that limited her options. Although she was reluctant to let herself be taken prisoner, she wasn't prepared to injure these women in order to make a hasty escape either. For now, at least, it made more sense to go along. Turning to Solari, she extended her arms.

Securing the shackles around the warrior's wrists, the amazon fighter cast Xena a respectful glance. "Let’s go."

Flanked on either side by a pair of guards, the warrior followed Solari out into the rain.

*****

As they approached the jail, the door was opened and Xena was led inside. She glanced around warily. Except for the large bed in the corner of the room, the prison cell was fairly typical.

Solari walked to the far side of the room where two iron rings were imbedded in the wall, high overhead.

Xena stood fast, holding her ground. It was completely against her better judgement to allow her freedom to be further restricted. She quickly reconsidered escape. The cell was locked. She'd heard the turn of the key. As for the guards, she could handle the four younger women, probably without inflicting any fatal injuries. The problem was Solari. She would not be easy to subdue.

Sensing the warrior's internal struggle, Solari waited silently.

After several tense moments, Xena walked to her side and turned her back to the wall. It wasn't worth the risk. There were too many unknowns. Raising her arms, she allowed the Amazon to secure her to the wall. "I want to speak with Ephiny," she said abruptly, her patience at an end. "Now!"

"I'll give her your message. You have my word."

As the Amazons filed out of her cell, closing the door behind them, she strained to hear Solari's orders. The distance was too great. Quickly, she tested her bonds. Even though they were secure, she was confident that if she were given enough time alone she could... Before she had finished the thought, a guard entered and stood watchfully. Xena's jaw tightened in frustration. It was obvious they weren’t taking chances… but why?

It was nearly a candlemark before once again, she heard the key turn in the door to her cell. She looked up, relieved to see her friend. "Ephiny, it's about time. I’m beginning to lose my sense of humor. Now, get me out of here."

"I'm afraid I can't do that. These are Gabrielle's orders, not mine. She outranks me, remember?"

"I don't know what kind of game she's playing but I've had enough of it. I want to see her now! Send a guard to get her."

"Sorry, I'm afraid that I can't spare anymore guards on this detail."

"That's the first sensible thing anyone has said since I arrived."

The regent smiled. "I'll tell Gabrielle you're anxious to see her. In the meantime, is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?"

The warrior looked up at her manacles. "Yeah, how about giving me the key?"

"See now?" Ephiny winked as she turned to leave. "You haven’t completely lost your sense of humor."

"Lucky for your queen," Xena grunted.

Smiling wryly, the regent closed and locked the door behind her.

*****

~ Chapter 14 ~

Watching the sun set through the bars of her cell, the warrior clenched her hands into fists and tugged once again at her bonds. The guard silently watched as the chains held firmly. "I'm losing circulation in my arms," Xena complained. "What's taking her so long?"

The Amazon ignored her.

Rolling her shoulders to alleviate the stiffness, the warrior mumbled under her breath. She was about to ask for Ephiny again, when the sound of voices drew her attention. Suddenly the door opened.

Gabrielle entered and motioned for the guard to leave.

Rattling her bonds, Xena glared at the bard. "Mind telling me what's going on here?"

Without answering, she walked across the room and retrieved a chair. Positioning it in front of the warrior, she took a seat.

"Well?" Xena repeated, her agitation clear.

Gabrielle merely shrugged. "Since you insist on treating me like a child, it occurred to me that perhaps I've given you the wrong impression." Looking into the warrior's eyes, she paused. "I intend to correct that."

The sultry tone of the bard's voice made Xena's pulse quicken. Swallowing hard, she lowered her eyes. It was a mistake. Gabrielle wasn't dressed in her usual clothes. She was wearing tight-fitting Amazon leathers that clung seductively to every curve. Instantly, her anger was replaced by a keen sexual tension. "I… I don’t mean to treat you like a child. I'm just…"

"But, you do," the bard interrupted. "You were planning to leave me here, like some kid that needed babysitting, weren't you?"

Xena didn't answer. There was no denying it.

Slowly, Gabrielle rose and stood to the side of the chair, putting her foot on the seat.

Puzzled, Xena watched as the young woman's hands slid seductively down her thigh, tenderly tracing the long sloping curve as if enthralled with the feel of her own skin. Moving to the ties of her boot, she casually loosened the laces and eased the shoe silently to the floor.

The warrior could not take her eyes off her companion's hands. The graceful movement of the bard's fingers was mesmerizing. Quickly, she blinked her eyes to break the spell. "Gabrielle, it… it’s not safe for you to travel with me." Risking a quick glance to determine her friend's reaction, she continued, her mounting tension seeping into her voice. "After what happened with Callisto, you know it's true."

Unruffled by Xena's comment, she addressed her calmly. "You decide for yourself what risks you're willing to take. I think that I should have the same right." Raising her arm, she unbuckled her left bracer and slid it off.

The bard's composure threw her. Xena had expected anger or defiance… those she could deal with… take action against… but this… Her heart raced as she watched the muscles of the bard’s arm flex. Taking a deep breath, she attempted to give further support to her argument. "Have you forgotten, you nearly died?"

"But I didn't." She met the warrior's eyes. "As you can see, I’m very much alive." To illustrate her point, she lightly ran the palms of her hands down her sides and over hips in an intimate caress. Then, without pause, she released the buckles of her right bracer and dropped it casually at Xena’s feet.

Suddenly anxious about her companion's motives, the warrior pulled hard on her chains. "Gabrielle, I want you to unlock these."

The bard flashed a sensual smile. "I don't think so," she winked. "At least, not yet." Withdrawing a dagger and key from her pouch, Gabrielle placed them on the chair. Unfastening her belt, she slowly pulled it from her waist allowing it to dangle momentarily before it dropped to the floor.

Heart racing, Xena took a shaky breath. Suddenly she wasn't at all sure if the sparkle in her friend's eyes was a trick of the torchlight or simply lust. "Why am I being held here?" she blurted, an audible tremor in her voice.

"Because you're running from me." With a slow and deliberate motion, she slid her skirt over her hips and firmly held the warrior's gaze. "You see… I don’t intend to give you up without a fight. And, since you seem to think that I don’t truly 'mean' what I say… or 'understand' what I want, I thought that I would try to convince you with my actions, rather than my words."

Xena swallowed hard. There was no mistaking the bard’s intent. She pulled anxiously at her shackles. "Take these off me!"

Gabrielle simply shook her head.

"You don't know what you're doing," the warrior replied nervously. "I… I…" Her words caught in her throat as the bard untied the laces of her shirt and slid it off her shoulders, carelessly discarding it.

"You're wrong. I know exactly what I’m doing." She reached down to unfasten her breeches.

Heart hammering, Xena watched the delicate material fall to the floor. She dared not shift her eyes from the puddle of clothing before her. If she looked up at her naked companion, she knew all would be lost. She hadn't the will to refuse what she had so long desired. Closing her eyes, Xena struggled not to give in. "I… I can’t give you what you need. I’m not good..."

Gabrielle stepped forward, cutting the warrior off. "I think we both know that you can give me exactly what I need."

Drawn by the passion in the bard's voice, she raised her eyes. Gabrielle's beauty took her breath away. Legs suddenly weak, she leaned back, helplessly hugging the wall.

Picking up the dagger, the blonde lightly caressed the sharp edge with the tip of her finger. "Tell me you don’t want me."

Xena trembled with desire. "Gabrielle, please… I’m not good for you. There… there’s a darkness in me…" She faltered, her mind reeling.

"I know, and I want all of you… the darkness and the light." Looking into her eyes, she ran the dagger suggestively between the warrior’s breasts and cut a small slit in the neck of Xena's shift. "You don't have to hide it from me. I want it all." Grasping the fabric on either side of the tear, she boldly ripped it down the middle, leaving the warrior completely exposed.

Xena gasped as the cool air hit her fevered skin. Laid bare, there was no way to hide the excitement coursing through her body. Skin flush with arousal, her nipples stood erect, betraying her.

Encouraged, Gabrielle placed her hands on either side of the warrior's waist, her thumbs lightly caressing the soft hollows of her hips.

Xena moaned helplessly at the exquisite sensation, the urge to surrender maddening.

Sliding her hands up the tall woman's torso, Gabrielle paused at the outer edge of the warrior's breasts and leaned forward, her mouth perilously close to the tip of Xena's nipple. She licked her lips seductively. "I've fantasized about this moment for so long. Tell me want you want. Teach me how to please you."

The warrior groaned. The warm caress of the bard's breath was the sweetest torture she had ever endured. Control snapping, she arched forward.

Gabrielle instantly took her cue. Closing her lips over the warrior's nipple, she captured it lightly between her teeth.

Xena moaned loudly as the bard gently bit down, stroking the hardened point with her tongue. Sensation shot through her leaving her dizzy with desire, hungry for more. Never had she experienced such rapture.

Suddenly, the bard stepped back, reluctantly releasing her. "I hope I’ve cleared up any doubt you had about what I want." Voice filled with undisguised passion, she gazed at the warrior. "The question is... what do you want?"

Heart pounding furiously in her chest, no words came.

"Tell me that you want me to stop… and I will."

Getting no answer, Gabrielle grasped the warrior's nipples and gently pulled. Leaning close, she whispered softly into her ear. "The choice is yours. Tell me to stop… or close your eyes and let go, surrender to our desire." Nearly breathless with her newly discovered power, she twirled the erect points between her fingers, gently pumping them. "Tell me what you want."

Xena emitted a low growl as the bard squeezed her captive nipples. Torn between arching into the glorious sensation and pulling back to increase the irresistible tension, she was lost, unable to speak. Never, had she known such bittersweet anguish.

Gabrielle was torn too. Although she could feel the warrior's desire, she was reluctant to go farther without Xena's complete consent. She stilled. "If you want me to stop, tell me. I need to hear the words."

"Pleaseeeee," the warrior cried, nearly swooning with pleasure.

"Please what?" The bard held her breath, awaiting Xena’s reply.

"Please don’t…" Breathless she forced the final word. "…stop."

Misinterpreting the dark-haired woman's inflection, Gabrielle released her.

A groan tore from Xena's throat.

Understanding her error, the bard looked into the warrior’s eyes. The desire she saw within them made her tremble.

Xena tugged desperately on her bonds. "Please, I… I want you."

"Show me,…" the bard purred, voice dripping with hunger. Sliding her hands behind the warrior's neck, she pulled her forward. The touch of Xena's lips to her own was electric. The air nearly crackled with energy. Gabrielle moaned, the warrior's urgency surging through her like a powerful drug. The sensation was indescribable.

When at last they parted, Xena searched her companion's eyes. There was no mistaking the young woman's desire for her. Pulling desperately at her restraints, she struggled to speak, her voice vibrating with passion. "Gabrielle… the key."

Retrieving it quickly from the chair, the bard turned, then hesitated. "Www… what if you change your mind when I release you?"

The warrior cleared her throat nervously. "I can tell you, that is very unlikely."

"This isn’t a trick, is it?" she questioned warily.

"Gabrielle, look at me. Look at my body. I want you!"

Considering the warrior's words, the bard reached out tentatively and began tracing a path down the tall woman's torso. As she reached the dark triangle of hair, she stopped and gently slid the tip of her finger between the warrior's folds. Enveloped in the slippery warmth of her companion's sex, she smiled. "I guess you do want me."

Xena groaned, her body quivering. "The key… NOW!"

Quickly pulling the chair closer, Gabrielle stepped onto it to release her prisoner.

This new position placed the blonde's breast within easy reach of the warrior's mouth. Unable to resist the temptation, Xena hungrily licked the tip of the bard's nipple.

Startled by the unexpected caress, Gabrielle dropped the key. It hit the floor, bouncing several times before disappearing from view. Jumping from the chair, the bard got down on her hands and knees to look for it.

Desperate for her freedom, Xena spoke up anxiously. "Did you find it?"

Looking up to answer, Gabrielle found her mouth tantalizingly close to the warrior's sex. Suddenly, her mind reeled with possibilities. "It’s caught in a crack in the floor. I can’t reach it."

"You’ve got to be kidding," Xena groaned.

"Well, actually... I am." Grinning playfully, she held up the key.

"I’m going to get you for that," the warrior promised, relief coursing through her.

Lightly caressing the sensitive skin below the Xena's navel, the bard winked. "We'll see." As the warrior's taut muscles twitched anxiously, Gabrielle marveled at her companion's extraordinary body… a body... that at last, was hers for the taking. Smiling at the thought, she slowly moved her hand lower.

The powerful woman froze as she felt Gabrielle's fingers slide purposefully downward.

"You're so beautiful," the bard purred. Overcome with a need to sample what she had so long desired, she gently parted the warrior's folds.

Xena exhaled in a low hiss. Thighs trembling, she struggled to maintain her stance. "Gods Gabrielle, release me… please!"

Pausing, the bard looked up and smiled. "Oh… I intend to."

Once again, the key clattered to the floor but this time, the sound barely registered in Xena's mind. Her companion's loving caress blocked out all else.

Inexperienced, but eager to please, the bard explored enthusiastically, at first with the tips of her fingers, then her lips, and finally her tongue as she carefully gauged the warrior's reaction.

Lost in sensation, Xena no longer had the will to halt what the bard had put in motion. Sighing in pleasure she arched toward her young lover.

It was the only response Gabrielle required. Boldly placing two fingers at the warrior's entrance, she slid deep inside her with one slow thrust.

Releasing a full-throated moan, the dark-haired woman surrendered completely. "Don’t stop… please don't stop!"

Encouraged, the bard intensified her efforts, lightly circling the warrior's clit with her tongue as her finger continued to stroke her lover's tight walls.

Glorious sensations coursed throughout Xena's body. Teetering on the brink of climax, Xena groaned helplessly.

Sensing her impending release Gabrielle increased her pace. Taking the warrior's clit between her lips, she flicked her tongue slowly back and forth.

Suddenly, the warrior stiffened. Clenching her jaw, she exploded in climax, the chains jangling overhead as her body spasmed in wave after wave of pleasure.

Although taken off guard by the power of Xena's orgasm, the bard held to her tightly, riding it out.

After several long moments, the warrior's hips jerked one last time and she stilled. Awash in the afterglow Xena dangled limply from her shackles, completely spent.

The bard looked up in awe.

Slowly the warrior opened her eyes. Seeing her young lover's adoring gaze, she whispered the bard's name, her voice thick with passion.

Gabrielle's heart pounded wildly. Quickly retrieving the key from the floor, she stood before the woman she loved with all of her heart. There was so much that she wanted to say… so much that she needed to explain. With trembling fingers, she reached out and lovingly brushed the tangle of hair from her companion's face. "I… I…" Voice choked with emotion, she stopped.

Seeing her struggle, Xena started to speak.

"Please," Gabrielle interrupted. "Now, more than ever, I need you to understand what I'm feeling. I… I know that you believed that if you left me here I would be protected… but I can't be happy here, not without you. I can't bear the thought of being separated from you. Not after all we've shared." She swallowed hard and looked into the warrior's eyes. "Xena… I love you more than anything I know… more than the warmth of the sunlight or the peace I feel when I look up into a star filled sky... more than writing or storytelling... more than my friends or my family. Being with you is worth any risk that I have to take. I'm not afraid of dying, not as long as we're together." She took a shaky breath. "I trust in you. I know you'll do everything in your power to keep me from harm's way. I'm asking you to trust in me… to trust in us. Please… take my hand and be with me for whatever time we have left."

A tear ran down the warrior’s cheek as she made a futile attempt to reach for her companion. "Gabrielle, please unlock these... I need to hold you."

Without hesitation, the young woman released her.

Ignoring the stiffness in her shoulders, Xena pulled her companion into a tender embrace. "I love you, Gabrielle."

The bard melted in her arms, tears of joy streaming down her cheeks.

Gently holding her at arm's length, the warrior looked deep into her companion's eyes. "Believe me… I do trust in you. It's me I'm not sure of." Reaching out she lovingly wiped the tears from her companion's face. "I can't bear the thought of being separated from you, either. I'll do anything you ask. Tell me what you want."

Gabrielle smiled through her tears. "It's you I want."

"Then you've got me."

"As my partner, and lover?"

Xena smiled. "Yes."

Falling into the warrior's arms, she kissed her passionately.

When at last they separated, Xena glanced past her young lover and smiled. "Convenient place for a bed."

"Mmhmm. I thought so."

"Pretty sure of yourself, weren't you?"

Gabrielle blushed hotly. "Better to plan for success than failure. Know what I mean?"

Xena smiled. "I think I’m beginning to."

"See that," the bard quipped. "Isn't it amazing what a little jail time will do?"

The warrior rolled her eyes. "I don't think you realize how lucky you were. This whole plan could have easily spiraled out of your control."

"Really?"

She nodded. "Taking me prisoner was a very risky proposition."

"And why's that?"

"Well, for one, I don't appreciate being bound and held captive."

"You could have fooled me," Gabrielle teased.

Now it was Xena's turn to blush. She spoke up quickly. "It was fortunate for you that I chose to show restraint. Your guards were way too inexperienced. I could have easily overpowered them."

"I know. That's why I picked them. I counted on you showing them mercy."

"And I suppose that you think I'm going to show you mercy too."

Gabrielle raised a mischievous brow. "Well actually, I hoped not."

Xena smiled. "It seems you know me pretty well."

"Mmm, not as well as I'd like to," the bard winked.

Sweeping the young woman into her arms, the warrior carried her across the room and laid her on the soft mattress. Discarding her torn shift, she walked purposely to the end of the large bed.

Gabrielle gazed upon the powerful woman in wonder. In her fantasies, Xena was aggressive and infinitely experienced: a mix she found incredibly erotic. Now, standing before her, confident and in control, the warrior appeared exactly as she'd imagined.

Concerned that her companion was not yet fully recovered, Xena silently appraised her, looking for signs of weariness. She found none. In fact, Gabrielle seemed aglow with vitality and sexual tension. There was not even a hint of fatigue in her eyes, only intense arousal and a deep-seeded hunger… a hunger the warrior felt certain she could satisfy.

Reaching down, she grasped the bard's ankles and slowly spread her legs, making her intentions clear without speaking a word.

A soft moan escaped Gabrielle's lips as she allowed herself to be opened. Pulse racing, a searing heat rushed through her. Never in her life had she ever wanted anything so badly.

Pleased by her response, the warrior knelt between the bard's outstretched legs and slowly lowered herself.

Gabrielle's breath caught as their naked bodies at long last touched, melding together as if they were one. Awash with sensation, her belly fluttered with arousal. Dizzy with desire, she inhaled deeply, taking in Xena's scent. Senses reeling, she gasped and looked longingly into the dark-haired woman's eyes.

Smiling softly, the warrior leaned down and kissed her.

The young woman's lips parted instantly in invitation.

Teasingly, Xena declined, lightly nipping the bard's lower lip before moving downward. Brushing her tongue across her young lover's sensitive flesh, she placed a line of kisses down the bard's body, slowly moving lower.

Gabrielle cried out in pleasure as the warrior's lips traced the curve of her breast. The desire to guide her powerful lover's mouth to her nipples and nurture her in the way she'd always dreamed of was all consuming. Belly fluttering in anticipation, she turned toward her.

It was too late. Xena had moved on.

Intending to retrace her path, the warrior left her lover wanting as she eagerly continued downward.

The young woman's groan of disappointment was immediately followed by a gasp of delight as Xena's mouth slowly approached the pale triangle between her legs.

Tentatively, the warrior caressed the outer edge with her tongue, then abruptly stopped.

"What is it? Www… what's wrong?"

Xena looked up anxiously. "It's just I... I... I’ve never done this before."

The bard lifted her head from the pillow in astonishment. "Yyy... you’re kidding," she stammered.

"Well... actually... I am." The warrior admitted, her brows arching playfully. She watched with delight as Gabrielle's head dropped back, her body shaking with laugher. "Gotcha, didn’t I?"

The bard exhaled in relief. "You're incorrigible, you know that?"

"Mmm, so they tell me." Stretching out beside her companion, she turned to face her. "I… I guess it's no secret that the sex isn't new to me."

The bard glanced down shyly.

Cupping the young woman's cheek in her hand Xena looked into her eyes, her expression suddenly serious. "Gabrielle, I…" She swallowed nervously. "In my entire life, you're the only one I've ever given my heart to." Lovingly, she brushed her thumb over the bard's lips. "You asked me to surrender and I have… completely. I’m yours."

Reaching out, Gabrielle pulled the warrior to her, kissing her tenderly. Feeling Xena's tongue slide between her lips, she reciprocated, eagerly exploring the warm recesses of the warrior's mouth. The sweetness was irresistible… utterly intoxicating. Suddenly, desperate to communicate her urgency, she threaded her fingers through Xena's hair and deepened the kiss.

The warrior responded in kind, slowly running her hand over the swell of the bard's hip as she stroked her young lover's sensitive skin with the tips of her fingers. Anxiously moving lower, she lightly caressed the soft blonde curls above the bard's sex.

Gabrielle quivered beneath her touch and instinctively spread her legs.

Xena smiled. "That’s it," she purred. "Open for me." Gently separating the bard's folds, she slipped two fingers between them. Gliding effortlessly through Gabrielle's silky softness, she lightly stroked the outer edge of her lover's swollen clit.

The bard groaned loudly.

Pulse racing, she paused at Gabrielle's entrance. "You’re mine now," she breathed.

"Yours," the bard echoed, dizzy with need.

Sighing with pleasure, the warrior slowly eased inside.

Deliciously filled, Gabrielle's muscles grasped her lover's long, slender fingers, pulling them deeper.

Tenderly caressing her slippery inner walls, Xena slid slowly back and forth.

Wave after wave of sensation washed over the bard. Excited beyond measure she gripped tightly to the blanket, her head rolling from side to side as she moaned in pleasure.

Pulling back one last time, Xena pushed fully inside, then stilled.

Gabrielle groaned helplessly, arching her hips.

"Easy," the warrior soothed, gently rotating her fingers. "Feel me, like I'm a part of you."

A low moan escaped the blonde's lips as Xena merged with her very being.

Fondling Gabrielle's small, firm breasts with her free hand, she lovingly coaxed the bard's heated blood to the surface as her tongue teasingly circled her erect nipples. Sensing her young lover was ready, Xena ran her hand sensually up the bard’s side, pausing at the outer curve of her left breast. Using her thumb, she pressed deeply, activating the pressure point.

Instantly, Gabrielle felt her nipples grow unbearably hard. The very air seemed to caress her. She gasped sharply at the sudden, but acute sensitivity. "Ohhhhh gods." Arching in passion, she offered her breasts to Xena's waiting mouth.

Without hesitation, the warrior accepted. Brushing the delicate flesh with her lips, she lightly flicked the swollen tips with her tongue.

Gabrielle moaned in pleasure as, at last, Xena's mouth closed over her erect nipple and drew from her hungrily. Incredible sensations coursed through her, awakening her body. Suddenly, keenly aware of the soft pulsing of her sex, she lifted her hips from the bed forcing the warrior's fingers to shift inside her.

Taking her cue, Xena began once again, to move with smooth, slow thrusts.

Instantly Gabrielle’s moans grew louder, the muscles of her inner thighs quivering as her orgasm rapidly approached.

Gliding her thumb through her ample moisture, she swirled it repeatedly over the bard’s swollen clit.

Waiting breathlessly for the moment of release, it was as though Gabrielle's entire being had become caught in time. Then… all at once, it was upon her. Body tingling with pleasure, she spiraled over the edge, blissfully falling as the powerful climax engulfed her.

As the bard's muscles tightly clutched her fingers, Xena felt a final tremor pass through her young lover. Sliding her free hand down Gabrielle's belly, she carefully spread her fingers across the bard's uterus and pressed firmly.

Once again Gabrielle was climbing, her pleasure incomparable. Overcome with sensation she gasped, her breath coming in desperate pants as she felt her orgasm swell inside her, demanding release.

Focusing her attention on a sensitive spot near the bard's entrance, the warrior curled her fingers and stroked gently. "I've got you," the warrior promised. "Let it come."

Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply and let the irresistible spasms overtake her. Screaming the warrior's name, Gabrielle arched her hips and exploded in a shattering climax, shaking helpless as Xena's knowing fingers drew the last vestiges of pleasure from her.

*****

~ Chapter 15 ~

Hearing the bard's impassioned moans echo in the night, Ephiny and Solari turned to each other and smiled. "It seems our prisoner may have escaped," the regent commented wryly.

Solari lifted a playful brow. "Mmmm... lucky queen."

Once again, Gabrielle cried out in ecstasy.

They both laughed.

"I don’t think I’m going to be able to concentrate on these treaty revisions," Ephiny conceded. "What do you say we call it quits until morning?"

"Fine by me. I can't keep my mind on work either." As the queen moaned loudly, Solari rolled her eyes playfully.

"Looks like it's going to be a long night," the regent sighed.

"Yeah," the amazon commiserated. "But, you're welcome to stay in my hut, if you'd like."

"Thanks, but I think I'll tough it out. Certainly, this can't go on too much longer. After all she's still recovering from the poisoning."

The fighter shrugged, then laughed as Gabrielle's voice once again pierced the thin walls of the regent's hut. "I don't know… she sounds pretty healthy to me."

The regent shook her head and smiled.

"Well, if you should change your mind the invitation still holds."

"Right." Yawning, Ephiny stood up from the table. "Oh, by the way, better make sure someone unlocks their door first thing in the morning."

"You don't think they’ll want out tonight?"

Hearing the bard scream her lover's name, Ephiny winked. "I sincerely doubt it."

*****

~ Chapter 16 ~

Xena held the sleeping blonde in her protective embrace. For the first time in her life, she felt utterly at peace, and she owed it all to the innocent young woman in her arms. She smiled to herself… well, maybe not 'so' innocent. Brushing her lips lovingly across the bard’s forehead, she sighed happily.

Lashes fluttering, Gabrielle opened her eyes. As she slowly focused on the warrior, she smiled and lifted her head, tenderly kissing her dark-haired lover. "It seems that you do have many skills," she teased.

"As do you."

"You think so?"

"Definitely." Lying back, Xena pulled the bard to her chest.

Gabrielle snuggled close. "I'm so happy, I could shout."

Smiling, the warrior kissed her. "What's stopping you?"

"Well," she hesitated shyly. "What if the guards misinterpret it?"

"I wouldn't worry."

The bard cast her a questioning look. "But they're right outside the door."

"I doubt very much that they're still there."

"What do you mean?"

Xena paused, trying to think of a delicate way to explain. "It's just that, well… you were fairly loud when we were making love and since they didn't charge in with weapons drawn, they must have understood the nature of your cries."

Blushing brightly, Gabrielle covered her face with her hands. "Gods, how embarrassing."

"Nah, trust me, it's nothing they haven't heard before."

"I… I don't know what came over me. I just couldn't seem to help myself. You were so incredible."

"Mmm, you too."

"I guess it just part of my personality to be vocal."

"I've noticed," the warrior replied, hugging her affectionately. "And I love that part."

Delighted by the compliment, Gabrielle hugged her warmly and snuggled close. "You know, I always imagined that you would be loud too… like you are in battle."

"Well, I can assure you, you definitely made me feel like crying out."

Curious, the bard rose to her elbow. "Then what stopped you?"

"It's a safety thing. I've trained myself to hold it in."

Gabrielle's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "But, that means you never really let go completely."

Xena shrugged. "It's my job to protect you… to protect us."

"I know, but we're pretty safe here, maybe you don't needed to be quite so careful. Besides, I don't know if you've noticed, but I've become much better at defending myself… much more confident."

The warrior smiled, teasingly. "Oh, I've noticed."

"That's not what I meant and you know it," she laughed and turned to face the warrior. "Seriously, I think it should be my job to protect you too."

"Gabrielle, what you do for me is much more important than just fighting." Looking into her eyes, she lightly caressed the bard's cheek. "You've healed my soul. I've never felt so comfortable with anyone. You take care of me in ways..." She sighed heavily. "I know I'm not expressing this very well… but you make me feel good and that's not an easy job."

Rolling on top of the warrior, Gabrielle straddled her hips and smiled mischievously.

Xena looked up at her warily. "And just what do you think you're doing?"

"My job." Leaning forward, she bent to kiss her dark-haired lover.

Dizzy with passion, the warrior struggled to pull back. "Gabrielle, you've been pretty sick. I don’t want you over-exerting."

"Oh I won't, I’ll go nice and slow, I promise."

The bard's sensual smile sent a shiver of excitement down Xena's spine. Swallowing hard, she trembled as Gabrielle's mouth closed on her nipple.

Swirling her tongue lovingly over the hardened tip, the bard drew a soft moan from the warrior. Abruptly, she pulled back. "Xena?"

"Hmmm?"

"I want it all. Don’t hold back. Let me hear you."

*****

Ephiny sat bolt upright in bed as the warrior's passionate cries filled the night. Grabbing her blanket and pillow, she turned toward the door and smiled softly. "Xena, you must be blessed by the gods..."

If the warrior could have had heard her, she would have whole-heartedly agreed.

 

The end…

(Gods, I hope not. This is such fun.)

…………………………………………………

Copyrighted November 1997 by Friction

 


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