Wet Dreams

by

Friction

LEGAL DISCLAIMER:Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle and all other characters that have appeared in the syndicated series are the sole copyrighted 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 depicts explicit sex between women. If you’re under 18, live someplace where this is illegal or it’s not your thing please try another story. There is wonderful fan fiction of every variety out there to choose from.GENRE:Shamelessly, romantic Xenaerotica.

Although I see all of my tales to some degree as "coming out" stories, this one is…in the truest sense. At its core, it's a story of denied desire and coming to terms with it.

The timeframe is 1st/2nd season XWP. What can I say? A younger, more na´ve Gabrielle better serves my purpose. ;-)

BARD'S NOTE:

"Coming out" can be a very rocky road. It is not my intent to trivialize the dangers. Certainly there can be valid reasons for remaining closeted. Rather, it was my goal to write a story that affirms lesbian love and the bond that lesbian women share. Therefore, this tale tends to focus on the positive aspects of openly embracing that very special love.

SPECIAL THANKS:Once again, this story has been vastly improved through the tireless efforts of my proofreaders: Lunacy, and my partner. I can’t thank these women enough for the many hours they’ve invested helping me bring this to you. They’re the best!

DEDICATION:

This one's for Pamela, who helped me understand two things central to this story. First: that to appreciate all the wondrous things life had to offer I had to accept and appreciate myself, and second: that often, the best things in life are not sensible. I wouldn't trade a single moment of the past 13 years. You hold my heart hon.

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

 

On to the story…

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*****

Part I

*****

-- Chapter 1 --

Although throughout my travels I've heard many tales about seeing someone across the room and falling hopelessly in love, I never truly believed it possible until it happened to me.

My companion and I hadn't known each other long, when fate set us on a course across the Aegean. The ship's captain, though a rogue, was bright and ruggedly handsome, so it came as no surprise when my friend began to show an interest in him. I saw it coming from the start. It was her eyes that betrayed her, just as mine would later betray me.

Looking back now, I never could have predicted the events that were to follow, never could have guessed that I was capable of experiencing such intense desire. Nor would I have dreamed in my wildest fantasies that on that first night at sea, I would lie motionless in my hammock and watch her take him…but I did.

It was the sound of her voice, unlike I'd ever heard it, that first awakened me. Startlingly sensual, it pulled me from sleep. Although, I couldn't make out her words, her tone--low and needful--drew me in. I couldn't help but look.

Peering cautiously across the large cabin we shared, I saw them. Stripped to the waist, the captain stood with his back to me, partially blocking her from my view. I watched, entranced, as her hands slid across his shoulders, her blunt nails lightly scratching his skin. Her fingers moved slowly, almost teasingly, along his spine, only to disappear from view as they glided over his hips.

Suddenly, embarrassed to have intruded on their intimate tryst, I glanced away, but her moan of pleasure drew me back. As wrong as it was, I couldn't help myself. I was mesmerized, unable to tear my eyes from them.

Although, from my vantage point, I was no longer able to see her hands, I knew from the play of muscles in her arms that they were moving with purpose. Silently I watched as his belt dropped to the floor, quickly followed by his pants.

He groaned with pleasure and fumbled impatiently with her shift. Grasping the bottom edge, he quickly pulled it over her head and tossed it carelessly aside.

I swallowed hard as he stepped to the side, affording me a better view.

Bathed in the shadowy lamplight, she stood naked, her skin aglow with golden hues that hinted at its rich, velvety softness. Her features were hauntingly beautiful, her body flawless.

In stark contrast, her jet-black hair draped sensually over her well-defined shoulders, slowly drawing my eyes downward over each and every finely sculpted curve…from the gentle swell of her breasts to the tips of her erect nipples.

As his hands trailed down her sides, my eyes helplessly followed, watching the muscles of her abdomen twitch in anticipation.

Slowly, she rose to the balls of her feet, her instep gracefully arching. Parting her full, sensual lips, she tilted her head upward and pulled him to her in a rawly passionate embrace. My heart raced as I envisioned his tongue slide into her warm, yielding mouth. Even in my most vivid dreams, I had not imagined such a kiss.

Her arousal was palpable, the air so thick with it that I could barely breathe.

Grasping his shoulders, she drew her legs around his waist and pressed tightly against him, a throaty growl escaping her lips.

Driven by a need he could no longer contain, he slid his hands under her bottom, awkwardly struggling to position her.

Taking control, she pulled herself up in order to give him the space he required.

It was at that moment that she saw me. In the warm luminescence of the lantern's light, she looked right at me…and smiled, her eyes sparkling like flames beneath her long lashes, the hunger within them shocking.

Heart hammering, I gazed into them…eyes that shone with such intense desire that they seemed almost predatory… daring me to look away.

I couldn't.

Deep in my belly, I felt a liquid whirling, a melting heat. I rose to my feet, intending to leave, but my strength had drained from me. I stood frozen in place, helplessly watching as she slid from his hips and gently pushed him back.

Quickly, he turned to confront the source of her distraction.

Embarrassed, I nervously looked away, lowering my glance. That's when I saw the gleaming moisture at his waist…a shimmering wetness that I knew was not entirely his own. Trembling, I forced myself to look up.

His eyes, drunken with lust, met mine. I shuddered with passion.

Slowly he ambled toward me, his musky scent infiltrating my lungs. Fiercely masculine, his very presence overpowered me. I was his for the taking.

Without hesitation, his bulky hands grabbed for me, pulling me close, so close that his breath felt blistering against my cheek. My mouth opened in a silent gasp as his lips drove against me, the kiss bruising and demanding. His mouth took complete possession of mine, his thick tongue thrusting and invading my deepest recesses as he compelled my surrender.

Forcefully gripping my waist, he held me to him. It was then that I felt his…

Her brow furrowed as she searched her mind for the right words.

It was then that I felt his…his…magnificent manhood.

Shaking her head, she tapped her index finger to her lips as she reconsidered. His… ah… his… rrr--rigid rod.

"Nah."

Biting her lip, she closed her eyes to better envision the scene. Immediately she reopened them. This just wasn't working.

"Think!" She tried again.

It was then I experienced his…

"Mmm, not intimate enough."

It was then that I saw his… penis.

She winced.

"Nnn--no. Too clinical."

It was then that I saw his… pul--sing penis.

"Ick."

Scratching out the line in a bold stroke, she released a heavy sigh. "Come on, you can do this," she told herself. "Try something a little more subtle."

Struggling, she began again. It was then that I sensed his… sensed his… his… tool.

"That's just great," she huffed. "Sounds like he's getting ready to make repairs."

It was then I sensed his… throb--bing tool.

Crinkling the half-written page into a tight ball, the young woman sighed in frustration and leaned back against a tree. She pressed her fingers against her temples, rubbing lightly to ease the dull thudding behind her eyes.

Generally, writing came easily to her, but this was proving impossible. As hard as she tried, she just couldn't get it right. Now time was running out. Her story was due in just a few days.

To further complicate things, her original instructor had suddenly fallen ill and her attempts to reach his replacement for assistance had been unsuccessful. Now her only hope was that her guidance counselor would know how to contact the new writing teacher. Lifting the flap of her backpack, she stuffed the troublesome story into it and made her way to the literature building.

Once inside, she hurried up the stairs and yanked the door open. In her rush, she failed to notice the newly mopped floor and skated halfway down the hallway before finally regaining her balance.

A goofy-looking man set down the WET FLOOR sign he'd been holding and pointed a warning finger at it.

She rolled her eyes and continued down the hallway at a slower pace.

As she approached the counselor's door, she paused and took a deep breath. Considering their stormy history, it was difficult to swallow her pride and ask for help. But unfortunately, with the deadline for her assignment just around the corner, she was running out of options. Hesitantly, she raised her hand and knocked.

"Come in." A slender, brown-eyed blonde looked up from her reading and smiled sweetly. "Ahhh, yes. I

remember you from my class last year. 'Gabrielle,' isn't it?"

The young woman nodded uncomfortably. As friendly as the counselor seemed, she knew there was another side to her, cruel and calculating. Just last season, the woman had coldly failed the student she'd been dating, forcing him to drop out.

The brown-eyed woman pointed to the chair across from her. "Please have a seat." As she watched her student reluctantly sit, she smiled. "Now…what can I do for you?"

"Well, I've been trying to set up a meeting with the new writing teacher but I haven't had any luck. I'm having difficulty with a paper and really need to--"

"--As you know," the counselor said, "I've taught some writing courses myself. Maybe I can be of assistance?"

"Thanks, but I don't think so."

"What's the assignment?"

Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle hesitated, then replied, "Erotic fiction."

"Ah, the 'bestsellers' class." The woman's brown eyes sparkled with renewed interest. "What seems to be the problem?"

"I'm not really sure," Gabrielle answered honestly. "I've tried several approaches, but certain parts of my writing seem…I don't know…awkward."

"Passionless?" the counselor suggested.

"Well, yes, some of it. I…uh…."

The older woman smiled knowingly. "When it comes to conveying powerful emotions, I've always found experience helpful."

Gabrielle shifted in her seat. "I think it's just a matter of pacing, choosing the right words. I…."

The counselor looked at her doubtfully. "As I recall, you were quite studious…all work and no play."

"Well, I--"

The teacher continued. "Tell me. When's the last time you went out on a date?"

Stunned by the woman's forwardness, Gabrielle stuttered her reply. "I--I--I really don't think--"

"--Yes," the counselor interrupted, pressing her finger thoughtfully to her lips. "That's right. I remember now. You were dating that young man who dropped out mid-term, the agricultural student."

"I don't see what that has to do with my assignment," Gabrielle replied abruptly.

"Everything!" the counselor declared. "Sex with fumbling little boys can be sooo boring. What you need is a little inspiration, that's all. Someone who knows how to please a woman, someone who knows how to take control."

The young woman blushed. "Really, I don't--"

"--Yes," I can see that," the woman replied playfully.

Annoyed and a bit anxious, Gabrielle stood up.

The counselor smiled, obviously enjoying her student's discomfort "Come, now. What could it hurt to try? You might even end up having fun."

Before she could reply, the office door swung open.

"Did I hear someone mention fun?" A tall, dark-haired man entered. After flashing his colleague a smile, he turned to Gabrielle. "Well, helloooo," he crooned. "I don't think I've had the pleasure."

"I'm sure not," the counselor commented wryly. "Her major is writing. Not much call for criminal justice in her line of study."

"Now that's a pity," he declared, his eyes running the length of the young woman's body.

Gabrielle took a tentative step toward the door, hoping to make a graceful exit. "I really should be going."

Ignoring her, the counselor spoke up. "She's looking for the new writing teacher, any ideas?"

"Hmm, I think the new teacher has an office in the building across the road." He pointed out the window. "Just inside the door, take a right, continue to the end of the hall, and take another right… or is it left?" He scratched his head thoughtfully. "Maybe I'd better jot it down."

Gabrielle handed him something to write with.

Sketching out a rough map, he slipped her quill into his pocket. "There you go."

She raised her brow and held out her hand. "Ahh…that's mine."

"Of course," he replied, laughing nervously. "Sorry."

Thanking him, she made a quick exit and hurried down the hallway. Just as she was about to grab for the handle of the door, it flew open.

The startled janitor dropped the bucket he was carrying, splashing dirty water across the front of her shirt.

She looked down in stunned disbelief.

Yanking a stained rag from his pants pocket, he reached for her chest.

She immediately held out her hand to stop him. "No! That's okay. I'll take care of it."

"You know," he complained, "you really ought to pay more attention to what's happening around you."

Shaking her head in frustration, she pushed past him and exited to the next building.

*****

Seeing light at the base of the writing teacher's door, she knocked.

No one answered.

Hoping at the very least to leave a note, she pushed the door open and peered inside. Immediately, she was struck by the comfortable feel of the room. On a large walnut desk, in the center of the office, a small lamp glowed warmly. A few unpacked boxes lay on the floor, adding to the relaxed atmosphere. She stepped inside and turned to take it all in.

Several pictures adorned the walls, but one in particular drew her attention, a drawing of a small cave with golden walls. Unable to make out the two figures in the foreground, she stared intently, then moved closer. As she came forward for a better view, her hip brushed the edge of the desk, sending a pile of papers fluttering to the floor.

Bending to pick them up, she angrily reprimanded herself. Why was she lingering? She couldn't allow herself to get distracted. She had responsibilities…obligations. Quickly pulling out a piece of paper, she rummaged through her backpack for her quill. It was missing.

Frustrated, she scanned the desk. Lying off to the side was an unusual writing instrument with a leather grip. Intrigued, she picked it up and inhaled the pungent aroma. Turning it over in her hand, she felt a delicious tingling sensation race across her skin and closed her eyes dreamily. The very air around her felt electric, charged with energy.

Suddenly, a light breeze swept across the room, causing her skirt to flutter against her thighs. She opened her eyes and looked toward the window.

It was closed.

Once again, the lightweight materials shifted, sliding up her leg, then falling. Goosebumps rose on her arms. Instinctively, she turned to the door, half expecting someone to be there.

No one was.

Shrugging it off, she leaned over the desk to start her note. The moment she touched the quill to paper, a wave of dizziness washed over her. As she grabbed the edge of the desk for support, she felt hands settle firmly at her waist. Startled, she spun to see who held her.

The room was empty.

Heart pounding, she blinked in an effort to clear her head but the pressure remained constant, like fingers gently squeezing her hips. Anxiously, stepping to the side, she felt the invisible hands glide across her stomach. Knees trembling, she leaned away from the desk.

Once again, she felt the gentle fingers move over her ribs in a feathery caress. Her belly flooded with heat. She swallowed hard, telling herself that this couldn't be real. She was overworked…tired…imagining it. Closing her eyes, she attempted to dispel the illusion.

It was a mistake. Without the benefit of sight, the intimate touches no longer seemed simply a figment of her imagination, but deliciously real. A soothing warmth radiated through her, and suddenly the temptation to lose herself in it became nearly overpowering.

The breeze blew lightly across her heated skin, gently lifting her blouse away from her body. Glancing down, she watched the top button on her shirt ease through the small hole confining it, quickly followed by the second and third and….

Inhaling sharply, she pulled her blouse closed.

Suddenly from behind she felt the press of a lean, tall body against her. As she tried to turn, unseen hands tenderly cupped her breasts. A soft moan escaped her lips as invisible thumbs gently circled her nipples. Instantly the small points hardened, straining against her tightly closed blouse.

Pulse racing, she found herself unable to move. She had no desire to. Dizzy with pleasure, her head lolled back as the hands continued to skillfully massage her breasts. Her body was suddenly on fire.

She gasped as the cool breeze blew through her hair, leaving the delicate flesh of her neck exposed. It was then that she sensed a moist heat, like a lover's mouth against her skin. Trembling, she felt the soft fullness of lips press to her neck. They opened against her, gently suckling. She moaned softly, the intimate touch pulling sensation from her very core. Arching into the invisible body, she encouraged the presence to draw from her.

And it did, again and again and again, until she was ablaze.

Fear and arousal warred for dominance in her fevered mind, as she struggled to regain control. This was wrong…unnatural. Dropping the writing implement, she pulled away.

Instantly, the presence was gone.

Slowly her head began to clear. Confused, she looked toward the door and heard the sound of approaching footfalls. Quickly trying to collect herself, she ran her hands through her hair and looked up to see a well-built blonde peering into the room.

"May I help you?" the man asked politely.

She took a nervous breath. "Uh, yes. Are you the new writing instructor?"

"I'm afraid not," he smiled. "I have the office across the hall." As he examined her more closely, his eyes instinctively settled at her gaping cleavage.

Blushing hotly, Gabrielle quickly folded her arms across her chest.

He cleared his throat nervously.

"I…uh…do you have any idea where I might find my teacher?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Sorry. I think your best bet would be to leave a note."

"Yes, that's a good idea." Hesitantly, she turned back to the desk and reached for the quill. As soon as her fingers closed around its soft leather sheath, she felt a rush of heat, an intense energy pulsing through her body. Suddenly the room began to spin.

Seeing her falter, the professor reached out.

She stepped back, the quill slipping through her fingers.

"You okay?"

"Yes, I guess I shouldn't have skipped breakfast."

He flashed her an understanding smile. "I'd be happy to remedy that. Perhaps I could take you to lunch."

"That's kind of you," she said, "but I really need to find my teacher."

"Maybe the acting instructor could help you. I understand they're old acquaintances from the past. If you'd like to stop by and ask him, he's holding rehearsals downstairs, first door on the right."

"Thanks."

"Any time," he smiled. Holding the door for her, he watched with concern as she hurried down the hall. When she disappeared from sight, he entered the office and glanced down at the note she'd left. There were only two words scrawled in shaky script.

"I want…."

He shrugged. Obviously, the dizzy spell had interrupted her. Dropping the paper into the wastebasket, he turned and left.

*****

Gabrielle slowly opened the door to the rehearsal room and quietly closed it behind her.

A muscular man with a neatly trimmed beard stood on a stage angrily waiving a script at a flustered young man. "That was pathetic! Where's your passion--your desire?!" He motioned to the tall, dark-haired woman at the boy's side. "Open your eyes and look at her! She's beautiful."

Embarrassed, the young actor looked away and immediately noticed Gabrielle standing by the door.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you!" the teacher bellowed.

"But…" He raised his arm sheepishly, pointing to the back of the room.

Perturbed, the dark-haired man spun to look.

Gabrielle spoke up timidly. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but I was told that I might find the new writing teacher here."

"Does this look like a writing class to you?" the drama teacher asked curtly.

"No, but…"

Turning from her, he once again addressed the young man. "Any one of the actors here could do a better job than you. Why, even a novice…." As an idea came to him, he spun to face Gabrielle, his eyes hungrily appraising her. "Why, I could get a more passionate performance out of this young woman."

Uncomfortable, she tried to make a graceful exit. "Look, I'm sorry, I…"

Suddenly calm, he flashed her a charming smile. "Please, don't apologize. After the performance you just viewed, I can understand your confusion." He motioned her closer. "Come."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. Come up on the stage. I want to use you to demonstrate my point."

"But I…"

His brow arched mischievously, softening his features somewhat. "Now, you aren't going to make me ask you twice, are you?"

Reluctantly, she walked forward and stepped onto the stage.

Grasping her shoulder, he squeezed appreciatively. "Very nice. You're in excellent shape."

"I really don't belong here. I should be going."

"Nonsense. You've got what it takes. I can feel it." He turned to the young actor. "You! Watch closely and learn." Reaching out, he handed her the pages he'd been holding. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Well, I--"

He abruptly cut her off. "Let me ask you something. Have you ever seen someone across a crowded room? Someone so intriguing that in one glance they captured your attention and held it. That's what this story is all about: finding that one special person."

She quickly glanced over the dialog. "But this is a man's part."

"What's the difference?" He smiled mischievously. "After all, this is just make-believe, isn't it?"

"But I--I can't pretend…."

He waved his hand, dismissing her protest. "Nonsense, you'll love "it."

"I'm sorry," she apologized, handing him the script. "I just can't do this."

Disappointed, he shrugged. "Shame. I have the feeling you'd be a natural." Tilting his head, he examined her closely. "One thing though. The hair…it's all wrong. The style makes you look na´ve and unapproachable. You ought to think about changing it."

He smiled. "By the way, I think you'll find the new writing teacher upstairs, second door on the right. But in my opinion, you're wasting your time with that. Writing is for observers. My instincts tell me that you, my dear, are much too passionate to simply sit back and watch."

Turning nervously, she headed down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor. As she reached the landing, she saw the janitor mopping in front of the door. Irritated by yet another encounter with this clumsy man, she barely restrained her temper. "Excuse me. You're blocking my way."

He frowned and pushed the bucket to the side. "Everyone's in such a rush. My job's important too, you know."

The blonde gave him a curious look. "And what is your job, exactly?"

"Isn't it obvious?" He held up the mop. "I'm the one who keeps things from getting too dirty."

She glanced around. Except for a few spots that had escaped notice, the place appeared almost sterile. "Can I get through, please? I'm really in a hurry."

Awkwardly, he pushed the door open. "If you're looking for the writing class, it's just around the corner." As he turned to point, the handle of his mop came round, hitting her squarely in the forehead.

*****

"Ouch!!!"

Sword in hand, Xena was instantly at her friend's side. Seeing no visible threat, she knelt beside the bard. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"

Disoriented, Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her eyes, trying to focus. "No, I'm fine. I guess I was dreaming."

"Must have been some dream."

Nodding, the bard rubbed her head as the dream slowly began coming back to her. Just like the dreams before it, she was able to recall every confusing detail. How many had there been now? Dozens, she guessed. In fact, since she'd decided to come home for her sister's wedding, these dreams had become almost a nightly occurrence, each one more unusual than the last. To make matters worse, the past few nights a new twist had been added: a powerfully erotic presence.

"What's that?" the warrior asked, tilting her head as she looked curiously at her friend.

"What?"

"That--on your neck."

Instinctively the bard reached up with both hands. "What do you mean?"

Pushing the blonde's hands down, Xena bent closer to examine the mark. "It looks like a--" She stopped mid-sentence, suddenly confused. The reddish mark on the bard's neck looked suspiciously like a hickey.

"What is it?" Gabrielle questioned, her voice tinged with concern.

"It looks like some kind of bite…or something."

Instantly, the bard's mind flashed back to her dream. Placing her fingers on the spot where she'd experienced the intense pulling, her mind struggled for a reasonable explanation.

"Yeah, right there. Does it hurt?"

"No, I can't even feel it."

The warrior gently touched the bruise. "Hmm, it's not inflamed and the skin's not broken." She pulled her hand back. "I wouldn't worry. It doesn't look serious." Getting down on her hands and knees, she began searching the bard's bedroll for something that might have caused the mark. "If there was anything here, it's gone now," she assured her. Getting to her feet, she shrugged. "It must have happened when we were traveling through the swamp."

Gabrielle swallowed hard, her belly fluttering as she recalled the warm lips pressed to her neck.

"You sure you're okay?" Xena asked.

Lost in the memory, the bard merely nodded.

"You've still got about a candlemark before dawn. Maybe you should try to sleep."

Anxious about her latest dream, Gabrielle shook her head. "Unless you're tired, I'd just as soon pack things up and head out."

"Okay. I'll break camp. Why don't you relax…do some work on your new story."

"I've given up on it," the bard answered flatly.

Xena pulled a piece of dried meat from the backpack and handed it to her friend. "Why?"

The young woman shrugged. "I'm having trouble with one of the scenes."

Grabbing some meat for herself, the warrior took a seat beside her. "Why don't you run it past me?" she suggested. "Maybe I can help."

"I don't think so. It's a love story…not really your thing."

"Oh." Xena's brow furrowed. "You usually don't have trouble with those."

"I know. But this time I decided to try something different."

"Like what?" the warrior asked, her curiosity piqued.

"Well," she paused, feeling her face color. "This time I wanted to write a scene that was a little more graphic. You know, a…a love scene. " She rushed on nervously. "All the sophisticated bards are doing them."

Xena smiled. "They're just a ploy. Good storytellers don't need explicit scenes. They use their skill with words to inspire their listener's imaginations."

"I guess, but--"

"--Trust me. Your stories are fine as they are." Puzzled, she watched her friend's shoulders slump. "What brought all this on?"

Gabrielle looked down shyly. "It's just… lately I've been thinking about the bard we saw in Athens. I've never seen anyone capture the attention of an audience the way she did."

Xena remembered the erotic tale. Rarely had she found herself so absorbed in a story. She'd been able to visualize each scene as if she'd been there. Clearing her throat, she met the bard's eyes. "Her story was no better or worse than yours. She has a different style, that's all."

"Well, recently I've been thinking that I'd like to change my style."

"Then go for it," the warrior encouraged.

"I've tried, but I'm having trouble describing…" She searched for a delicate way to phrase her problem. "Certain things come across sounding hokey and contrived."

Xena pursed her lips thoughtfully. "You've never had a problem making your stories feel real before. Just use the same technique you do for those."

"That's just it." The young woman blushed. "I pull from my experiences to write those."

"Oh." The warrior was silent. Feeling suddenly awkward, she searched for a way to change the subject. "Hey, I almost forgot to ask you about your dream. Must have been quite a nightmare to wake you out of a sound sleep."

Gabrielle smiled and rolled her eyes at her friend's teasing comment. "It wasn't a nightmare exactly. It…" Unsure of how much to disclose, she hesitated, picking nervously at the frayed edge of her blanket. "It was just a very vivid dream."

"What was it about?"

"Well, I was attending this academy to learn how to write. But it was strange, not like the academies here, and even though I kept running into people we know, they were different. Most of them were teachers."

"Like who?"

"Autolycus, Aeolus… even Joxer."

"Joxer?" Xena winced. "I thought you said it wasn't a nightmare."

The blonde grinned. "Seriously, it wasn't a threatening dream. Even our enemies were friendly."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, Ares taught theatre."

"Theatre?" Xena lifted a brow as she considered it. "Well, I guess he does have a flare for the dramatic."

"It was really kind of romantic. He was doing this play and--"

"--Gabrielle, you've gotta stop eating before you go to bed."

The bard smiled. "Joke if you want, but it was kind of interesting. Even Callisto was in it."

"Callisto? What did she do?"

"Well, truthfully, not much of anything. She was a guidance counselor."

"Guidance counselor?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Something I made up, I guess."

Seeing the warrior's puzzled look, she tried to explain. "I went to see her for help with a story."

"The love scene," Xena guessed.

"Yeah, funny how dreams sometimes reflect life. Anyway, I needed her to help me get in touch with my writing teacher." She stopped and reached for another piece of dried meat.

"So, did Callisto help?"

"Not really," Gabrielle replied sheepishly. "But she was eager to give advice."

"What advice?" The warrior asked, unable to mask her curiosity.

"She said I needed to date more." Feeling the heat rise to her cheeks, she laughed to cover her embarrassment.

"Figures." Xena dug her heel into the dirt. How like Callisto to undermine her, even in the bard's dreams.

"Maybe she was right," she conceded. "I really don't have much experience."

Glancing away nervously, the warrior quickly changed the subject. "What about me? What did I do?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "Actually, you weren't in the dream."

"Oh?"

"Kinda odd, huh?"

Feeling a bit slighted, Xena merely nodded.

"Like I said, it was strange. There were a lot of things that didn't make much sense."

"Since you made Joxer a teacher, I'd have to agree," Xena jabbed.

Gabrielle smiled. "He wasn't an instructor. I must have added him for comic relief. He just kinda bumbled around, keeping me from getting together with my writing teacher."

"Well, since you're still having trouble with the story, I take it the writing teacher wasn't able to help you either."

The bard sighed. "Unfortunately, I woke up before I got to that part. Guess I'll never know."

*****

-- Chapter 2 --

"Any chance we can make it to Poteidaia before dark?"

"Hard to tell." The warrior pointed at the clouds to the east. "Looks like rain. It all depends on how long it lasts."

"Hope it holds off," Gabrielle commented, looking away from the darkening sky. "It would be great to make it home in time for supper." She released a long sigh. "I can't even remember the last time I had dinner with my family."

"Miss your mom's cooking, huh?"

"Yeah," she admitted. "That…and other things."

Xena felt a pang of guilt. The young woman had given up a lot to travel with her. Pulling Argo to a stop, she mounted. "Come on," she said, reaching down to her friend. "Hop on. We'll make better time."

Snuggling in, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the tall woman's waist. As the smell of the warrior's leathers permeated her senses, her mind flashed back to the unusual pen in the writing teacher's office. The memory of strong hands roaming her body made her wriggle uneasily.

"Okay back there?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Not at all confident in her statement, the bard loosened her hold and eased back. Why was she having these strange dreams? Was there some hidden meaning? She thought back to Callisto's advice. Maybe she'd been on the road too long… maybe it was time to broaden her experience and date a little. Suddenly, she looked up, the sensation of rain on her bare legs pulling her from her thoughts.

Xena steered Argo toward the shelter of large stand of pines.

Immediately, Gabrielle slid down and began pulling off her boots.

The warrior looked at her curiously. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to cool off." Tossing her shoes aside, she stepped out into the gently falling rain. As the water ran down her bare arms, she laughed happily.

Amused, the warrior watched as the bard wriggled her toes in the moist soil.

"This feels great! You've got to try it."

"I don't think so. Do you know how uncomfortable wet leather is?"

"Well, take it off then," Gabrielle suggested.

The tall woman rolled her eyes.

"Why not?

"I don't feel like it."

"Oh, come on," the blonde urged. "It's refreshing."

"Gabrielle, we're barely off the main road."

"So? There's no one around." She flashed a mischievous smile and continued to coax her. "I dare you."

"No," Xena answered firmly.

"I'll take mine off too."

"Right," the warrior replied sarcastically, knowing her young friend was far too modest to follow through.

Shrugging, Gabrielle continued to twirl playfully, reveling in the sensation of the cool water on her skin.

As Xena watched, she thought back to their early days together. Back then, the bard had been completely comfortable with her body, swimming naked without hesitation. Now, Gabrielle rarely even changed clothes in front of her. And, although it was easier for the warrior not to be reminded of something she wanted but could never have, she couldn't help wondering what had caused her companion to become so self-conscious.

When she had first noticed the change in her friend, she'd worried that Gabrielle had sensed her interest. As careful as she'd been not to let her feelings show, there were times…. She sighed, remembering the underwater cave and how, caught up in the moment, she'd forgotten herself and let her desire show. But- if the bard noticed, she'd never let on. In fact, if anything, the experience seemed to enhance their friendship.

"Know what your trouble is?" Gabrielle called out, interrupting the warrior's thoughts. "You're too serious. Relax and have a little fun for once."

Xena shook her head. "Just because-- I have enough sense to come in out of the rain, that doesn't mean that I don't know how to have a good time."

"Could'a fooled me," Gabrielle teased. Walking toward the warrior, she reached out and took her hand, tugging lightly. "Come on. Wouldn't it feel good to let go? For once, stop being so practical. Listen to your body."

The cool press of the bard's hand sent a shiver through her. She pulled back and nervously ran her fingers through her dark hair. If Gabrielle only knew how much she wanted to give in to her body's needs…. She longed to drop the fašade and take the young woman as she had over and over again in her fantasies.

Shrugging off Xena's rebuff, the bard stepped back into the rain and tilted her face to the sky, allowing the water to cascade over her body.

The warrior stood transfixed, mesmerized by the vision before her. Soaking wet, Gabrielle's clothing was nearly transparent, showing how dramatically the young woman's body had matured. Her girlish figure had given way to sensual curves and well-defined muscle. The sight nearly took Xena's breath away.

Tightly clenching her fists at her sides, the warrior turned away, but it did no good. Gabrielle's image lingered in her mind, fueling her fantasies. She longed to run her hands over the gentle slope of the bard's breasts…longed to pleasure her in ways the young woman could never have dreamed of. But fear held her back…fear that she would lose control…fear that it would be the one thing her friend could never forgive.

She exhaled in frustration and reminded herself that Gabrielle was off limits, forbidden fruit that she could never sample. No matter how great the temptation, she would not risk losing the bard's trust. It was her lifeline.

Desperately in need of a distraction, she walked into the woods to wait for the rain to end. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the sun streamed through the thinning clouds. Hoping that she'd given the bard enough time to change into dry clothes, she made her way back. As she broke through the forest, she stiffened at the sound of Gabrielle's wet top slapping the ground. Quickly turning away, she pretended to check one of Argo's hooves.

"Is there a problem?" the bard asked, leaning down.

"No, I'm just checking." Xena lowered the horse's foot and risked a quick glance. To her relief, her friend was fully clothed.

Gabrielle smiled and held out her hairbrush. "I have a few tangles. Can you help?"

"Sure." Motioning her companion to a log, Xena knelt behind her. Slowly working her fingers through the soft, blonde hair, she inhaled deeply, taking in its sweet, earthy scent. After removing the worst of the knots, she used long, slow brush strokes to smooth it out.

"Mmm, you're so good at that," Gabrielle purred. "So gentle."

Xena smiled. "Well, I've had lots of practice."

It was true. They both had. The warrior thought back to the first time her friend had asked to braid her hair. After some persuading, she had agreed. There had been something so innocent and caring about the act that she had found herself reciprocating. In those early days, this casual interaction had bonded them in a way few things could. Now it was part of their routine and something the warrior truly enjoyed. It was a time when she could let her guard down and focus on her companion without fear of discovery.

Xena smiled as she thought of the dripping-wet bard twirling in the rain. As torturous as the display had been, she had been glad to see her friend exhibiting some of the carefree playfulness she'd come to love.

For several moons, Gabrielle had seemed uncharacteristically reserved. The warrior had chosen to ignore the change in her friend because the idea that her companion might be longing for a more normal life was too distressing to face. But now, only a half-day's travel from the bard's home, she could think of little else.

*****

As they headed up the path to her parent's house, Gabrielle became suddenly quiet. She had expected to feel excited about being home, but instead she was oddly troubled. After so much time away, it felt strange to be back.

Noting the change in her friend's mood, Xena attempted to cheer her. "Good news. Looks like you might be in time for dinner."

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed, her tone unexpectedly indifferent. "Let's get Argo settled." She opened the barn door and stepped inside. As light flooded the room, she looked toward the loft, then turned to Xena. "You can put Argo in the front stall."

Unfastening the saddle, the warrior laid it over the rail. As she turned to speak, she paused. Gabrielle stared off into the distance, apparently lost in her thoughts. Xena lightly touched her friend's shoulder. "Ready to go in?"

The bard simply nodded and began walking slowly toward the house. As she approached the door, a curious sense of foreboding washed over her. It so disturbed her that, for an instant, she considering turning around. Instead, she took a breath and raised her hand to knock.

Pulling the door open, Lila stared at them for a moment and then cried out in delight. "Gabrielle!" She flew into her sister's arms. "Mom, Dad, Gabrielle's home!" Hugging the bard warmly, she kissed her softly on the cheek. "I'm so glad to see you."

Gabrielle pulled back and smiled. "It's good to see you too."

Hecuba hurried forward, embracing her daughter affectionately. "We've missed you so!" Tugging on her daughter's arm, she pulled her inside.

Xena followed uneasily.

Hesitantly, Gabrielle stepped up and hugged her father. "Hi, Dad."

He squeezed her tightly, then held her at arm's length, looking her over. "You're a little thin," he commented. "I hope you've been getting enough to eat."

Lila rolled her eyes. "You've got to be kidding. She looks great!"

Gabrielle gave her an appreciative smile and turned to her friend. "You remember Xena."

Herodotus looked to the warrior but said nothing.

"Of course," Hecuba replied nervously. "You're looking well."

Glancing at her father, Lila quickly addressed her sister. "As always, your timing is perfect. We were just sitting down to dinner."

"Yes, I hope you're both hungry." Hecuba smiled.

"Actually, I'm just dropping Gabrielle off," Xena replied. "I should be heading out."

"You're leaving now?" the bard asked uneasily.

Surprised by the apprehension in her friend's voice, the warrior paused. "Well, I--"

"--At least stay the night," Gabrielle interrupted. "Y--you don't want to overtax Argo. She could use the rest."

Lila cast the warrior a friendly smile. "Really, you must stay. Mom's a great cook. You'll love her stew."

Casting a glance at her anxious companion, Xena relented. "Okay. Thank you."

"That's wonderful," Hecuba declared happily. "I'll set a couple more places at the table while you get settled."

Gabrielle brushed the warrior's arm nervously and pointed. "My room is this way."

"I'll get some extra blankets," Lila offered. "You can sleep on the fur rug and give Xena your bed."

"If it's all right, I'll bunk with you for the night," the bard requested. "Xena refuses to sleep in a confined space with me." Flashing the warrior a playful smile, she explained. "It's my snoring. It keeps her up."

Lila's brow furrowed. "Gee, I don't remember you ever snoring."

Gabrielle shrugged. "It started just this past year."

The warrior glanced away guiltily. In truth, the bard was a very quiet sleeper. She'd made up the snoring thing in order to avoid sharing the same bed when they stayed at inns.

"No problem," Lila laughed. "Stay with me. I can sleep through anything."

Uncomfortable, Xena spoke up. "Don't bother, I'll be fine in the barn."

Lila grimaced. "But the barn smells like horses."

Seeing the tension in the warrior's eyes, Gabrielle feared she might decide not to stay after all. "She doesn't mind. Xena sleeps with Argo all the time." She nervously looked to her friend for confirmation.

Confused by the bard's odd behavior, the warrior backed her up. "It's true. I love the smell of horses," she commented teasingly.

Hecuba frowned. "Are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable in the house? We could set you up in here by the fire."

"Thanks, but really, I'll be fine outside."

"She's used to it," Gabrielle commented. "Besides, Argo gets a little edgy when Xena's not around."

Glancing discreetly at his wife, Herodotus rolled his eyes.

Gabrielle grabbed the warrior's arm and quickly ushered her out of the room. "Let's go get settled."

Xena set the saddlebags on the bard's bed and turned to her. "Everything okay?"

Gabrielle wrung her hands. "Sure, it's--it's just," she paused. "I know being around my folks is tough for you."

Xena smiled. "Don't worry about it. I'll survive." Squeezing her friend's arm reassuringly, she glanced around at the dolls and various assorted knick-knacks. It was clearly the room of a young girl, but, other than that, she saw nothing that seemed to fit the bard's personality. "So this was your room, huh?"

"Yeah." Releasing a heavy sigh, the bard glanced around. "Funny, it looks a lot smaller than I remember."

The warrior shrugged. "Somehow, I expected it to be different."

"In what way?"

"I don't know. It just doesn't seem much like you."

"Well, maybe not as much as it did then… but I guess it shows a side of me."

"What's this?" The warrior picked up a small log with a face carved in it.

"Oh, that. I made it when I was a kid. It's a birdhouse. Can't you tell?" she teased.

Xena held it up, examining it more closely.

The bard laughed nervously. "The other kids did more traditional stuff. I wanted mine to be unique."

The warrior smiled. She liked the unusual design. It was in keeping with the young woman she'd come to know. "I think it's very creative."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, the birds didn't seem to think so. They never used it. I think it scared them away."

"Nah, it's a fine birdhouse. The holes are just a little too small, that's all."

As Gabrielle pulled her clothes from the saddlebags, she glanced up at her friend. "So tell me. What's your room at home like?"

"I don't have a room there anymore. Mom rents it out when they're busy."

"Well, I'll bet it would tell me a lot about you."

"Not really. I was different then too." She released a heavy sigh. "Nothing like I am now."

Hecuba peeked her head around the corner. "Dinner's ready."

"Okay, Mom, we'll be right there."

Starting toward the door, Gabrielle turned to the warrior. "Thanks for staying. I-- know this family stuff isn't really your thing."

The warrior winked. "Hey, if your mother's half the cook that you are, I can hardly wait."

*****

"This is very good," Xena praised. "I see where Gabrielle gets her cooking talents."

Hecuba beamed. "Why, how sweet. Would you like some more?"

The warrior nodded and handed the bard's mother her plate.

"What about you Gabrielle?"

"No, thanks."

Never having known the bard to turn down seconds, Xena looked up curiously.

Lila turned to her sister and smiled. "I'm so glad you got word of the wedding and could make it home."

"Yeah. I could hardly believe it when I heard the news. I didn't even know that you and Graham had been dating."

Lila shook her head teasingly. "We've been seeing each other well over a year now. I guess you've been away."

Seeing the disapproval in her father's eyes, Gabrielle looked away anxiously. "Time goes by so quickly…I hadn't realized."

"Well, at least you’re here now," Hecuba offered.

"Yeah." Lila turned to the warrior. "It's a shame you can't stay too, Xena."

Gabrielle glanced at her friend hopefully.

"Thanks, Lila. I'd like to but after I leave here, I'm headed to Amphipolis. My mother's inn could use some repairs. I thought I'd take this time to help her out."

"I hear she runs a nice place," Hecuba commented politely.

"Yes, I think she and my brother do okay."

"How long are you staying, Gabrielle?" her mother asked.

"Until after the wedding. Xena's coming back in about a moon."

"That's great. We'll have lots of time together," Lila said. "I just hope you don't get too bored. I'm sure that you're used to things being much more exciting."

"I'll be fine."

"So what are your plans while you're here?" her mother asked.

"Well, besides helping Lila get ready for the wedding, I thought I could help Dad with the crops and maybe get together with some friends. Are Anya and Marta still in town?"

"Anya married and moved away," Lila replied, "but Marta's still here. She just had her second child a couple of moons ago. He's the cutest little thing. You'll have to stop by and see him."

"Gee, I didn't even know she was married," Gabrielle confessed.

"She wed the merchant's son that first fall after you left."

"Two kids…wow!"

Lila shrugged. "All of the women your age have at least one."

"And you could too, if you'd stop traipsing around the countryside," Herodotus interjected. "Roads are for journeys, not destinations. You can't make a life on them."

"Someday she'll settle down," her mother defended. "Won't you, dear?"

Gabrielle clenched her hands nervously in her lap.

Noting her daughter's tension, Hecuba continued. "Anyway, I've always thought it was important for women to do a little living before starting a family."

"Nonsense," Herodotus replied. "There's nothing more important than family. Our children are the future, the keepers of our history."

Xena watched her friend shrink back in her chair. "Gabrielle does her part to keep history. She's become quite a renowned bard."

"I know!" Lila exclaimed. "From time to time we get news of your adventures. Your life sounds so exciting."

Hecuba's brow furrowed. "I hope all the stories we're told aren't true. It sounds dangerous."

"I'm sure what you hear is exaggerated," Gabrielle assured her mother. "You have nothing to worry about. I'm safe with Xena. She's an incredible fighter."

Lila turned to the warrior. "You know, our dad was a soldier years ago."

Relieved to be onto a new subject, Xena spoke up. "Whose army did you serve in?"

Herodotus frowned. "Doesn't really matter, does it? No good comes of war."

Hecuba spoke up to explain. "Although his father and brothers were soldiers, Herodotus never believed in fighting or violence. He broke family tradition by marrying me and moving away to become a farmer. At the time it was a very courageous thing for him to do."

"Nothing courageous about it," Herodotus grumbled. "I just wanted to make a life for my family and contribute to my village in a positive way."

"Regardless," Hecuba insisted, "it was a brave thing to do."

Lila paused thoughtfully, then turned to her sister. "Maybe that's where your rebellious nature comes from."

Herodotus stiffened. "The paths we've chosen can hardly be compared."

"That's the truth," Lila laughed, missing her father's point. "Our lives aren't nearly as exciting as Gabrielle's." She turned to her sister and smiled. "The villagers see you as a hero."

"It takes more than fighting skills and story-telling to make a hero," her father asserted.

Before Xena had a chance to respond, the bard quickly picked up several dirty plates and stood. "Why don't you relax, Mom? I'll clean up."

Taking Gabrielle's cue, the warrior reluctantly let his comment drop. Still, her friend's uncharacteristic behavior worried her. Since they'd arrived, she'd barely seen a trace of her companion's bubbly enthusiasm. It was clear that something was bothering the bard…but what? Suddenly she was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of distant music.

Lila squealed with delight. "Listen! The musicians are practicing." She grabbed her sister's arm. "Never mind the dishes. Let's go listen."

Hecuba smiled. "Go ahead. I can handle things here."

The bard looked questioningly at her friend. "Want to come?"

"She's not done eating," Lila urged, pulling anxiously on her sister's arm. "Come on. We're missing them."

Xena waved her off. "You go ahead. I'll catch up later."

As soon as they'd gone, Hecuba spoke up, angrily addressing her husband. "Do you have to be so hard on her?"

"It's no life for a woman, wandering from place to place." He turned to Xena. "It's different for you…safer. You have a reputation."

The warrior met his eyes. "I think you'd be surprised at how good your daughter has become at defending herself."

"That's beside the point. She's far too na´ve and trusting to be out there risking her life. Gabrielle just doesn't have the personality for that kind of thing. She's too impulsive, too lacking in common sense."

Hecuba set her cup down noisily.

Seeing her unspoken disapproval, he rushed on. "You know it's true. Why, it wasn't that long ago that she used to run outside every time she heard a thunderstorm just so she could play in the rain."

As Xena listened to the bard's father echo the same worries she'd once had, she cringed inwardly.

"She has a gift for enjoying life, that's all," Hecuba replied with conviction.

"If she stayed home, she could make something of herself."

"Gabrielle has made something of herself," Xena defended. "If you could see all the lives she's affected, you'd be very proud of her."

Herodotus bristled. "Did I say I wasn't?"

"Of course not. It's just--"

"--I've always been proud of her."

"Then maybe you should tell her," Hecuba suggested.

"She knows how I feel," he declared.

"Does she?" Xena questioned.

He released a heavy sigh. "Tell me, what's she going to do a couple of years down the road? It's difficult for older women to find good husbands."

"Before long, she'll decide to settle down," Hecuba reassured him. "Wait and see." She cast him a hopeful glance. "Maybe that's why she's come home for a visit."

Xena's chest tightened as the bard's mother voiced her worst fear. Standing abruptly, she began clearing her dishes.

"Don't you bother," Hecuba insisted. "I'll take care of them."

The warrior shifted uncomfortably. "If you'll excuse me, I really should check on Argo. Thank you for dinner."

"You're welcome," Hecuba smiled. "I'm glad you could join us."

Nodding, Xena turned and closed the door behind her.

"You know, she's not really as gruff as I expected," Hecuba admitted. "She's very polite."

Herodotus shrugged. "I, for one, am happy to see her go."

"What a rude thing to say."

"I don't care. She's a strange one. I don't trust her."

"Strange in what way?"

"What do you mean, 'What way'? In what way isn't she?"

"She has a nice smile."

Herodotus rolled his eyes. "I hear tigers have pretty white teeth too, but I wouldn't want one in my house."

"Anyone with such nice table manners can't be all bad."

"For crying out loud, Hecuba! She's a woman warrior. Don't you find that strange?"

His wife shrugged. "I think it's admirable that she's learned how to defend herself."

"'Admirable'? With her past? I'll tell you. I for one, find it very hard to believe that she's suddenly made a complete turn-around. No one changes that much."

"That's not true. Look at the merchant's boy…what's his name?"

He waved off his wife's comment. "She's a loner. I don't trust people who don't have ties."

"I don't know…she seems to care about her mother."

Herodotus shook his head in frustration. "Look at the way she dresses. She doesn't even wear normal clothing."

"Maybe it's more comfortable in her line of work."

"Work? What work? As far as I can tell, she doesn't do anything but travel around."

"Gabrielle says she can do almost anything. She helps people with all kinds of things wherever they go."

Determined to make his point, he tried a different tack. "What about that horse? Don't you think that's a little odd?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why, she can't be away from it for a candlemark without getting edgy. You heard Gabrielle. She even has to sleep with it."

Hecuba paused a moment, trying to think of a reasonable explanation. Perplexed, she shrugged and began clearing the dishes."

Pleased to have finally gotten the last word, Herodotus smiled and got up to help.

*****

Seeing Gabrielle and Lila sitting on the bench by the barn, Xena walked toward them.

The bard looked up sheepishly, guilty for leaving her friend alone with her parents. "How'd it go?"

"It was fine."

"Listen to the musicians." Lila sighed. "They're wonderful, aren't they?"

"Uh-huh," the warrior agreed. "We heard them in Athens last summer."

Lila turned to her sister, eyes wide with surprise. "I thought you didn't like to go to dances."

"I guess I don't mind as much as I used to," she confessed.

"That's great! There's a dance coming up. You and Graham and I can go together."

Gabrielle spoke up anxiously. "Well, I don't know."

Lila looked to the warrior for support. "Xena, you've got to help me convince her to come along. It'll be such fun."

The warrior cast her friend a puzzled look. As a rule, the bard was up to trying anything. "You don't want to go?"

She shrugged. "I just feel a little awkward, that’s all."

"Even if you can't dance, you can come along and watch," Lila urged.

"Gabrielle can dance," Xena assured her. "In fact, she's quite good."

"When did you learn? I couldn't drag you to the local functions when we were growing up."

"I guess I've picked up a little here and there."

"Yeah, we just learned some new steps on our last trip to Athens," the warrior commented.

"I'd love to see them. Can you show me?"

"Now?" the bard questioned hesitantly.

Lila nodded. "Yeah, why not? We have the music."

"I--I can't just dance by myself."

"Of course not," Xena smiled, pulling her to her feet.

Side by side, they danced around the barn.

When they finished, Lila clapped excitedly. "That was great! You'll be the hit of the party. Most of the villagers have never seen those steps."

Breathless with excitement, Gabrielle smiled. Dancing with Xena was always fun. The warrior had such energy that it was a challenge keeping up with her.

"Show me more," Lila pleaded.

Once again feeling self-conscious, Gabrielle hesitated. "But they're playing a slow one now."

"So?"

"I've never slow-danced," the bard admitted.

"Never?"

Xena watched the young blonde's cheeks flush and quickly spoke up in her defense. "For some reason men are reluctant to approach her when I'm around." She shrugged playfully. "Guess they find me intimidating or something."

Lila laughed.

"Dancing slow isn't that much different than what you're used to," Xena explained. "Come here, I'll show you."

Gabrielle nervously wiped her sweaty palms over her skirt before taking the warrior's hand.

Laying her hand on the bard's waist, Xena gently pulled her closer. "Put your left hand on my shoulder…that's it." Feeling her friend's tension, she smiled reassuringly. "You already know the basic steps. The movements are just a little more subtle, that's all."

The bard nodded.

"The most important thing is to concentrate on your partner's hands. That's how he'll direct you." As Xena began to dance, Gabrielle looked down at her feet and awkwardly tried to follow. The tall woman stopped and placed a hand under the bard's chin, encouraging her to meet her gaze. "Keep your eyes on me. Don't think about your feet. Focus on your partner. The idea is to move as one. It's about feeling, not mechanics. Just relax and clear your mind."

Slowly, the warrior began to move them around the barn.

The bard took a deep breath, letting her body relax, and looked into Xena's eyes.

At first, in order to help the bard become accustomed to her movements, the warrior's direction was very deliberate. Then, gradually, she eased up. Soon Gabrielle was responding to the gentlest of pressure without even being aware of it.

Suddenly it seemed the most natural thing in the world. The bard felt almost weightless, as if she were floating, until finally there was only she, Xena, and the dance. It was magical.

Slowly twirling, the warrior continued to move her partner around the barn. Although there was a respectable distance between them, she felt a rush of heat where her fingers pressed against the bard's skin. The energy between them was palpable. She could almost feel Gabrielle's heart keeping pace with her own.

Slowly the music wound down and Xena dipped the bard back, bending into her.

A pleasant fluttering rolled through Gabrielle's belly and she felt her cheeks flush hotly. Breathless, she looked into the warrior's eyes.

Lila applauded wildly. "Wow, Xena, you're terrific!"

The dark-haired woman pulled her friend upright and released her, putting some much needed space between them.

"You must do a lot of dancing," Lila praised.

The warrior winked. "Nah, it's hard for me to find a partner who's a strong enough lead." Clearing her throat, she turned back to the bard. "See, there's nothing to it."

"Gabrielle, you have to come," Lila insisted.

The bard glanced up shyly. "I don't know. "I--"

"Tell her, Xena. She just has to."

The warrior looked to her friend. "Could be fun. Maybe you should give it a try."

The bard reluctantly nodded.

"This is great!" Lila exclaimed, hugging her happily. "And I know just who to pair you up with for a date."

"Date?" the bard questioned anxiously.

"Of course. Someone has to escort you. Women here never go to dances alone," she insisted.

Xena managed a weak smile as a wave of apprehension washed over her. "Well, I think I'll stretch my legs…walk for a bit."

Gabrielle took a step toward her. "I'll go with you."

"Why don't you stay and enjoy the music with Lila. Sounds like they'll be practicing for a while."

She nodded reluctantly. "Okay, I'll see you in the morning, then."

"I doubt you'll be awake. I'm planning on getting an early start."

Suddenly dreading their separation, the bard spoke up quickly. "I want to see you off. I'll be up."

"Okay. Good-night." Turning, the warrior disappeared into the darkness.

*****

-- Chapter 3 --

After circling the outskirts of town for over a candlemark, Xena made her way to the tavern. Since traveling with Gabrielle, she'd all but given up these noisy establishments, with their drunken clientele. For her, they were an uncomfortable reminder of times better forgotten. But tonight was different. Tonight she needed the distraction.

Pushing open the door, she glanced around. The place was nearly empty. She felt both relieved and disappointed. Although she wasn't up to idle conversation, she dreaded being left alone to her thoughts… thoughts of Gabrielle. She headed toward a secluded corner table and settled wearily in the seat.

"Evening," the barmaid greeted. "What can I get you?"

"The strongest stuff you have."

"You've got it. The redhead smiled. "I'll be right back."

Xena pinched the bridge of her nose to try to relieve the throbbing pain behind her eyes. Instantly, she detected the subtle traces of the bard's scent on her skin. Her mind flashed back to the barn and how good the bard had felt in her arms…how right it had….

"Here you go," the barmaid said, placing a mug on the table. "But I should warn you--it's pretty potent stuff. Two drinks and you're likely to wake up with a hangover. Three and you're likely to wake up in someone else's bed." She winked. "Considering the crew we have in here tonight, I'd hold to two if I were you."

"Thanks." Xena took a long sip, quickly followed by a second. The potent liquid burned like fire. Closing her eyes, she leaned back in her chair, relishing the sensation. Maybe Gabrielle had been right this afternoon. Maybe she did need to relax a little, let go of her tension. She sighed wistfully as a jumble of conflicting emotions washed over her. Draining the last of her drink, she banged the mug down.

Taking her cue, the barmaid poured a second and walked toward the warrior's table. Sensing that her customer was in no mood to talk, she set the drink down and left without comment. This business had taught her a lot about people. She recognized the all too familiar look in the dark-haired woman's eyes, the look of someone who needed to forget.

Xena stared ahead, lost in her thoughts. As much as she longed to distance herself from the bard emotionally, she couldn't help feeling uneasy about their separation. Her mind wandered to Lila's remarks about the dance. Who was this farm boy she had picked to escort Gabrielle? And what if he tried something? Or, worse, what if Gabrielle liked it?

Taking several drinks of ale, she exhaled in frustration and silently reprimanded herself. She never should have agreed to stay until morning. If she had dropped Gabrielle off as she'd planned, these thoughts of the bard would not be tormenting her now. Closing her eyes, she pushed the image from her mind and concentrated on the burning liquid. Who was she kidding? Here or halfway across the world, it didn't matter--her mind always wandered back to the bard.

Finishing the last of her drink, she motioned for a third and quickly took a swig.

Suddenly she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. The eerie sensation, like a sixth sense, almost always foretold something bad. But, unlike in the past, tonight she knew what that something was. The day she'd been dreading was nearing…the day Gabrielle would leave her for someone stable and dependable…someone like this farm boy. A shiver ran down her back. Reaching for her mug, she stared into the dark liquid as if she were glimpsing her own dismal future.

As she considered what her life would be like without the bard, the hinges of the tavern door creaked, pulling her from her thoughts. Looking up, she saw a striking young woman with long, silver hair enter the room.

Oddly drawn to her, Xena watched her approach the bar.

Glancing her way, the woman smiled and began walking toward her.

As she approached, the warrior took in every detail, from her fair complexion to her pale, almost translucent eyes. There was a strange energy surrounding her. Xena could feel it like electricity in the air. There was something about the woman, something oddly familiar that tugged at her memory, making her wonder if they'd met before.

As if reading her thoughts, the woman spoke. "I saw you in Athens about a moon ago. You attended the bard's performance." Smiling pleasantly, she held out her hand. "'Xena,' isn't it?"

Reaching out, the warrior felt an odd sensation trail up her arm the instant they touched.

"My name is Asia."

In what must have been a trick of the candlelight, the woman's pale eyes seemed to take on a bluish tint. Xena released her grip and took a long sip of her drink.

"Mind if I join you?"

"Actually, I'm not in the mood for conversation," the warrior answered honestly.

"Hmm, that's interesting. A woman of few words traveling with a woman driven by them. Intriguing combination." Her eyes twinkled playfully.

"Do you know Gabrielle?"

"No, but she seemed quite engrossed in the storyteller's performance. I just assumed she was a fellow bard."

Having had her fill of idle chat, the warrior downed the remainder of her drink and stood. "If you'll excuse me."

"Certainly," Asia smiled. "I'm sure our paths will cross again."

Xena shrugged. "I doubt it. I'm leaving town in the morning."

"Ah, well, you never know. It's a small world."

Turning, Xena pushed the door open and stepped into the night.

*****

Gabrielle couldn't remember ever feeling so tired. Drained by her homecoming, she stretched out on her bed and tried to will her body to relax. It was useless. For the past several moons she couldn't seem to escape the edgy tension that plagued her. Hoping that in time it would pass, she tried to ignore it, but during their last trip to Athens, things had escalated. It was there that her sleeping problems had begun.

It puzzled her. There had been nothing out of the ordinary about the trip. In fact, it had been the most fun she and Xena had had in a long time. They'd attended a big celebration, heard an excellent bard, and even had the good fortune to run into a friend from Poteidaia who had informed her of Lila's engagement.

But it was there that the unusual dreams had started. As they continued through the coming nights, she had made the decision to travel to Poteidaia for Lila's wedding. Distressed by the strange nighttime visions, she'd hoped that returning to her roots would give her a sense of stability, clear her head, and help her to understand what was causing the dreams.

She released a frustrated sigh. So far, being home had only made her more edgy.

As she lay alone in her room, surrounded by symbols of her youth, a cold realization settled in the pit of her stomach: she felt as out of place in her hometown now as she ever had. Unlike Lila, she had never really fit in here, had never had very many friends.

A shiver ran through her as she recalled her closest childhood friend, Anya. She was one of the few people who seemed to neither notice nor care that Gabrielle was different. The two of them had been virtually inseparable. Running hand in hand through the fields, they'd shared a magical time in life when the world was theirs to discover and anything seemed possible. Sadly, that carefree time came to an end in their twelfth summer when a young boy captured Anna's interest. Without warning, her friend's attention had shifted away from her, leaving her hurt and confused.

Somehow, Anya had changed while Gabrielle remained the same.

After that, things only got worse. As the young girls her age gradually drifted into their intended roles, Gabrielle continued to march to her own drummer, both unwilling and unable to change what, for her, seemed completely natural. Unfortunately, her refusal to conform had only made her stand out all the more.

Now, faced with her sister's wedding, a dance and the prospect of a blind date, she felt her old insecurities resurface, reopening the painful wounds of her childhood. The confidence that seasons of traveling with Xena had built unexpectedly deserted her. It was as if she'd gone back in time…as if nothing had changed.

She found herself wishing she had never come. Only one day into her visit and she was already longing for it to be over. The idea of spending an entire moon in Poteidaia without Xena seemed unbearable. A penetrating cold pressed in on her. Longing for the warmth of one of the warrior's well-tended fires, she pulled the covers up to her chin.

How she had changed.

Before traveling with Xena, she had rarely slept outside. Now she actually preferred it. On the odd occasion when they were forced to stay at an inn, she found it cold, confining, and lonely. She always slept better under the evening sky, lying across the fire from her friend. The sounds of the night were comforting. The rhythmic thrumming of crickets, the crackling fire, the warrior's soft humming all gave her a sense of peace and security. Already she missed them. Just thinking of the long nights ahead made her feel cold and alone.

Hastily pushing off her blankets, she climbed out of bed and walked to the hearth. In no time, she had a small fire going. Lowering herself to the thick fur rug, she held her hands before her, allowing the fire's warmth to slowly penetrate her skin. Eyes growing heavy, she focused on the flickering light as the flames quickly consumed the smaller twigs. ~~~~~

Staring into the heart of the blaze, she watched the smoke tangle around the logs before rising up the chimney. Its fluid movement was so calming that almost immediately she felt her tension ease and her limbs become heavy. Feeling pleasantly lightheaded, she allowed her eyelids to drift closed, painful childhood memories forgotten.

The wood hissed softly as the persistent flames burrowed into the hairline cracks along its surface. Now nearly fully engulfed, the logs released additional smoke. But, unlike the pale gray smoke rising up the chimney, this dense white vapor took a different path. Instead of traveling up the flu, it split into two wispy tendrils that curled purposefully along the lip of the mantel, moving outward toward the corners. Veering away from the fireplace, the slender columns of preternatural smoke began drifting toward her, swirling in hypnotic patterns.

Oddly, it wasn't danger the bard felt as her eyes followed their eerily seductive trail but a curious fascination. Entranced, she reached out.

Its touch was electric. A powerful tingling sensation raced across her skin as the smoke spiraled sensually between her fingers. Gliding over the soft material of her gown, it trailed up her arms and flowed over her shoulders, gently cascading down her back. It felt incredible...tender as a lover's caress.

Dizzy with excitement, she allowed a sigh to escape her lips. She wanted more. Longing to feel the liquid warmth of the smoke pour over her sensitive skin, she leaned back, spreading her arms behind her for support, her fingers clutching the fur rug. As if sensing her need, the smoke slowly rolled over her, making her arch in pleasure.

The ties of her nightshirt strained against the pressure, leaving a small gap in the material between her breasts. The tendrils reacted instantly. Coiling around her waist, they purposefully made their way up the front of her gown.

Watching the smoke glide inside the narrow opening, she gasped as the tendrils streamed uninhibited across her skin in a sensual assault. Swirling beneath her thin shift, the smoke seemed a living thing, twisting and undulating against her, licking at her creamy flesh.

Her gown billowed, fluttering wildly. Guided by the unseen force, the tie that held it closed slipped through one hole after another until, unencumbered at last, it fluttered across the room like a ribbon cast into the wind.

Her nightshirt lay open, revealing her virginal skin, untouched by even the sun's rays. Unable to tear her eyes away, she sat mesmerized as the smoke gathered in a dense cloud before her. Heart pounding, she watched as the vapor began shifting its shape in a most deliberate way, the end of each column splitting into smaller tendrils, taking on the eerie appearance of hands…hands with long, graceful fingers…hands that reached for her.

Leaning back, she moaned softly as the preternatural hands lightly brushed the tips of her nipples, leaving an acrid sting in their wake. Burning with sensation, the delicate flesh hardened, standing firm and erect. Instantly, all thoughts of breaking away were forgotten. Her body gave in without a fight. Shamelessly she groaned and arched forward, succumbing to a need so deep-seated that there was nothing for her to do but surrender.

The ropy columns encircled her soft swells like silken scarves, contracting slowly as they gradually increased their pressure. The feeling was exquisite. Now achingly hard, her nipples begged for attention.

As if in answer to her plea, two of the tendrils thinned, forming small rings as they floated teasingly over the distended points. The prospect of them encircling her tender flesh made her shiver with excitement. Heart hammering, she was barely able to breathe as she watched the tiny rings lower over her erect nipples, gripping them firmly. Straining against the tight confinement, sensation washed through her, filling her belly with liquid heat.

Overcome, she fell back on the bearskin rug.

The rings moved with her, tightening to secure their hold. She writhed in ecstasy as the additional tension triggered sharp spasms in her trapped nipples.

Still, the smoke maintained its grip, riding out every motion while gently pulling upward. There seemed no escape from the stinging bands and she wanted none. Digging her fingers deep into the thick fur, she raised her back off the floor in an attempt to relieve the throbbing in her breasts. Never had she experienced such powerful sensations. They engulfed her completely, overwhelming her senses. Her pleasure was indescribable.

Just when she thought that she could not endure another moment, the small rings eased their hold.

Groaning, she dropped back onto the rug, gasping for breath.

But her relief was short lived. After only a brief pause, the bands once again tightened. This time she cried out, her breasts now keenly sensitive to even the slightest pressure. The rings slowly loosened, giving her relief…then tightened, loosened, then tightened, again and again, milking sensation from every pore. Nipples aching deliciously from the continual stimulation, she found herself longing for the onset of each contraction and the rush of heat that accompanied it.

Once more the bands tightened. Awash in sensation, she anticipated the brief release, but it did not come. Nipples throbbing, she moaned and clawed desperately at the rug beneath her.

Dizzy with desire, she watched tiny tentacles form on the outer edge of each ring. As they began stroking the tips of her darkened nipples, she gasped in ecstasy. Back and forth, over and over again, they undulated across her delicate flesh, moving in a synchronized rhythm. Utterly rigid, her nipples were helpless against the onslaught. The rings pulsed with life, constricting and releasing more quickly now, their every caress sending jolts of pleasure through her.

She took in great gulps of air, desperate to cool her burning lungs. It seemed the smoke would consume her but she didn't care. Lost in sensation, she cried out, desperate for something more…something she couldn't name.

As if feeding on her arousal, the smoke grew in volume, gaining mass. Once again, it divided, forming two additional ropy tendrils that forked like fingers from her tormented breasts. Her belly quivered as they slid side by side over her taut abdomen, separating at the gentle slope of her hips. Tracing a twisting path along the outside of her legs, they awakened every nerve they came in contact. Then, reversing their path, they curled around her instep and moved slowly up her inner calves.

Explosive gasps burst from her throat as the swirling smoke lightly caressed her inner thighs, urging her to open. Arousal surged in her belly as fluid trickled from her sex. The smoke was unrelenting, pressing her legs wider as it promised unending bliss. Delirious with pleasure, she allowed her knees to fall open.

The room was suddenly utterly quiet as the two tendrils twirled around one another, joining to create one thicker column. Her breath caught. There was no doubt of their destination. Her heart pounded violently as additional smoke gathered overhead. Gripped by fear, she watched as it began to take the shape of a face...a face she couldn't bear to have revealed. Snapping her eyes shut before it could clarify, she drew air into her aching lungs and expelled it in a desperate cry. "Nooooo!!!"

~~~~~

Across the village, the prophet glanced away from the crackling fire and looked out her window at the star-filled sky.

*****

Gabrielle awoke, disoriented. Uncovered on the fur rug, she felt the bite of the cool morning air on her bare skin. The fire had long ago gone out. Only a few scattered remnants of charred wood remained. She shivered and pulled her nightshirt closed. Immediately, she stiffened in discomfort. The soft material felt painfully coarse as it brushed her nipples.

Glancing in the mirror, she released a startled gasp. Never before had she seen her nipples so prominent, so swollen. They stood atop her breast like succulent berries, the bright-red tips much darker than their normal shade of dusky rose. Without conscious thought she lifted her hands and gently grazed the rigid points. A moan escaped her lips. The tender flesh was so incredibly sensitive that even the tiny ridges on her fingers felt coarse.

Alarmed, she stepped back and scanned the length of her image. Other than her breasts, the rest of body appeared normal. She let her gown fall to the floor. As she looked over her shoulder to check her back, a flash of color at the edge of the hearth caught her eye. Curious, she approached, crouching down to get a better look. It was the tie from her nightshirt.

As she ran the charred material through her fingers, her heart raced. Vivid images flashed through her mind. Suddenly, she remembered everything…the way the smoke had pulled the tie from her gown… the curling sensation it had created deep in her belly…the delicious friction as it squeezed her nipples.

She dropped the tie and stepped back, her hands trembling. It was physically impossible for smoke to do the things she had envisioned. Had she done this to herself in the throes of the dream? Light-headed, she leaned against the wall for support. Taking long, even breaths, she looked straight ahead, trying to calm herself.

Through her window, a hint of sun shone on the horizon. It was nearly daybreak. Suddenly, she remembered Xena's early departure. Now, more anxious than ever about the warrior leaving, she grabbed her skirt from the back of the chair and slid it over her hips. The top was more difficult. She knew her sensitive breasts could not tolerate its snug fit. Quickly selecting an oversized blouse from the drawer, she carefully pulled it over her head. Struggling not to think about the pleasant tingling in her breasts, she slipped her feet in her boots and rushed out the door to find her friend.

On her way to the barn, she attempted to recall more of her dream. Never in her life had she experienced anything so erotic. The mere memory caused goosebumps to rise on her flesh. Pushing the images back, she flung open the barn door, expecting to find the warrior gone. To her surprise, Xena was still there, in the process of rolling up her bedding.

The bard exhaled in relief. "Whew…I was afraid I'd missed you."

"Nope," the warrior replied casually. "I'm getting a late start."

"You?" Gabrielle asked a little shocked.

Xena shrugged. "Yeah, I slept like a rock."

"Mother's cooking has that effect on people," the bard teased. "Now you know why I'm a late sleeper."

The warrior lifted a doubting brow.

Seeing that her friend wasn't buying it, she changed the subject. "Can I help you get things ready?"

"Thanks, but I'm done." Xena tossed a blanket over Argo's back and hefted the saddle on top.

Gabrielle reached for the bridle, gasping silently as her arm brushed the side of her sensitive breast. Masking her reaction the best she could, she handed the reins to her friend.

Quickly sliding the bridle over Argo's ears, the warrior turned to face her friend. "Guess I'm all set." Running her fingers through her dark hair, she hastily flipped it over her shoulder.

Generally, this familiar gesture made the bard smile. But this time, as she watched the warrior's silky strands tumble into place, she felt oddly anxious. She swallowed hard, exiting the barn quickly as her nipples tightened.

The warrior followed. Stopping, she cast Gabrielle a fond glance. "Well, I guess I'll see you after the wedding."

The bard didn't respond. Her mind was racing. As an experienced healer, Xena might know the cause of her sensitive condition. All she had to do was work up the nerve to ask her.

Noting her lapse into silence, Xena looked curiously at her companion. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, I--"

The warrior pressed her fingers to the bard's forehead. "You look at little flushed."

Gabrielle stepped back nervously. "Well…I…uh…I had some trouble sleeping. I--I had another dream."

"Like the last one?"

"No, this was different. It was…uh…."

"What was it about?"

The bard paused before responding. If she told the warrior about the experience, would Xena think she had conjured the erotic fantasy in some dark corner of her mind? Had she? And what about the physical effect her last two dreams had had on her…the hickey… the sensitive nipples? Would Xena want to examine her? She blushed hotly. The thought of Xena seeing her breasts in their current state of arousal was too embarrassing to contemplate. What if she had done this to herself? Would Xena be able to tell just by looking that her injuries were self-inflicted? The whole thing was so crazy that the warrior would surely think she had lost her mind, and maybe she had. The young woman swallowed hard. "It--it was nothing…just another odd dream."

"Probably that huge meal you ate," the warrior teased.

Gabrielle smiled, tightening her grip on her staff. "You're probably right. I did have a lot of foods I don't normally eat. Maybe I overdid it just a bit."

The warrior raised her brows playfully. "A bit! You ate enough to feed a small army. I swear, I don't know where you put it all."

"Yeah, well, I noticed you did your part too."

"Um-hmm," Xena agreed. "Your mom's a great cook. If I stayed much longer, I'd have to let out my leathers." She lightly patted her stomach as she continued walking.

Trying to ignore the pleasant tingling in her nipples, Gabrielle followed. After only a few steps, she felt a gathering of moisture between her legs. Nervously, she quickened her pace, but with each step she felt herself becoming more and more aroused. Legs trembling, she silently prayed the warrior wouldn't notice her odd gait.

As luck would have it, Xena didn't notice. She was lost in her own thoughts…thoughts of the bard.

It wasn't until they approached the outskirts of town that the warrior turned to face her. The early morning light illuminated the bard's face, giving her an incredibly sensual appearance. Unable to resist, Xena's eyes followed the tapered neckline of Gabrielle's blouse. Positioned as the bard was, with the sun to her side, Xena could see the tips of the young blonde's nipples standing erect through the sheer material. She looked away quickly and cleared her throat. "Well, enjoy the wedding. I'll see you in about a moon."

"A moon," Gabrielle repeated, her voice husky with an excitement she could barely suppress. Her mouth went suddenly dry as the dark-haired woman moved forward to embrace her.

Quickly stepping back, she gave her friend a hurried explanation. "My…uh…I'm kind of sore this morning. I must have slept in an awkward position."

"Is it your back? I could give you a quick massage to relax the muscles."

Gabrielle folded her arms self-consciously across her sensitive chest. "Thanks, but…really…I'll be fine."

"Okay," Xena shrugged. "Well…take care."

As the bard watched the warrior walk away, her eyes settled on the tall woman's hips and their gentle sway. Her thoughts drifted back to her dream.

An unexpected warmth washed over her as she remembered how the smoke in the form of fingers had aroused her. Fingers…. How would it feel to have real fingers fondle her breasts? If smoke could create such incredible sensations, what pleasure could the fingers and lips of a real lover bring? A flutter rippled through her belly. Her heart hammered with alarm as she realized that the erotic thoughts once isolated to her dreams were beginning to cross over into her waking life. Taking a shaky breath, she called out to her companion, "Xena!"

The dark-haired woman turned. "Yeah?"

Gabrielle froze, the courage draining from her. "Uh…try to stay out of trouble, huh?"

The warrior smiled. "You too."

*****

As she watched her friend disappear over the rise, the blonde felt inexplicably lonely. When was the last time she and Xena had been apart for any length of time? She couldn't even remember. Lately, it was almost second nature to have the warrior at her side.

Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath. Maybe this separation was just what she needed. It would give her time to figure out what was happening to her. The dreams and the hard time she'd had with her writing…surely these were indications that she needed to step back and examine her life.

"Morning."

Startled out of her thoughts by a familiar voice, Gabrielle looked up to see her mother standing at the top of the hill, holding a basket of laundry.

"Hi, Mom." Hurrying to her side, she reached for the laundry. "Let me take that."

Hecuba smiled gratefully. "You're up early this morning, dear."

"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed. "You too."

"I've always been an early riser," her mother teased. "You were just never awake to see it."

"I guess I've changed. Xena's not one to waste time sleeping."

"Did she get off okay?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"I don't envy her the trip. Looks like it might rain by late afternoon." Hecuba pointed to the dark clouds.

"Oh, that doesn't bother Xena. She's good at finding shelter."

"Well, I don't know how you two do it, sleeping outside all the time."

"It's peaceful listening to the night sounds, looking up at the stars."

"I think that would get old for me in a hurry." Hecuba frowned. "What do you do in bad weather?"

"We manage. Occasionally we stay at an inn or with friends. It's really not so--" She looked up as a tall, silver-haired woman approached them.

Hecuba waved and called out pleasantly. "Looks like we're all trying to get our wash done before the rain comes."

The tall woman glanced at the sky. "No rush, looks like we've got at least three or four candlemarks."

"Its awful, all this rain we've been having," Hecuba complained. " I just hope the weather's nice for the wedding."

"I think you can count on it," the tall woman assured.

"Is that an official prediction, then?"

"Mmm-hmm, pretty much." She smiled and continued down the path. "Have a good day, ladies."

Gabrielle gazed after her curiously. "Who was that? She looks familiar."

"I'm sorry, dear, I should have introduced you. Asia's new in town. Arrived just a couple of days ago from Amphipolis. She's renting your Aunt Rina's cottage."

The bard, who had a knack for remembering faces, struggled to place the unusual woman. "Maybe that's where I saw her, in Amphipolis."

"Could have been just about anywhere. Like you and Xena, she's on the road quite a bit."

"Where's she from originally?"

"I don't know. She's been all over. You'd enjoy talking with her. She has some interesting stories."

"Is she a bard?"

"No, she's a prophet. Rina says that she's got the gift, that she can look inside people's minds and tell their futures."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes skeptically. "You know how Aunt Rina exaggerates."

Hecuba shrugged. "I don't know. Just yesterday, I heard that she helped our neighbor find water for his new well. Got it on the first try, too. Didn't even use a divining rod…just closed her eyes and walked over to the spot."

Knowing how stories like this were often distorted through the telling, the bard shook her head doubtfully. "I'm sure there's more to it."

"Maybe, but she's predicted other things too."

"Like what?"

"She said you'd be coming home for Lila's wedding. And just like that, you showed up out of the blue."

Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise. How could this woman have known about her trip? She hadn't discussed it with anyone but Xena.

"Anyway, Rina is convinced that she has special powers." Hecuba paused. "Speaking of your aunt, it would be nice if you made time to stop by sometime during your visit to see her."

Gabrielle nodded mechanically, her mind preoccupied with thoughts of the silver-haired woman.

*****

Continued

 


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