WARNING: The following story contains descriptions of sexual activity between consenting adults. If you are below 18 years of age, or if you are offended by this type of material, or if this material is illegal where you are, stop reading now.
by Ella Quince
You'd think a warrior would have coarse hands, but she doesn't. Xena's hands are long and slender, with fingers that taper to delicate tips. Yet they were strong enough to catch me when I stumbled, wrapping themselves around my wrist and holding the weight of my body while my feet scrabbled for purchase on the crumbling stones of the mountain path.
Then, with a heave that lifted me into the air like a bird taking flight, she pulled me up and set me down on the firm ground by her side. "Are you all right?" she asked, and I nodded that I was. I hadn't been in any real danger--the path is steep but not treacherous--still I couldn't seem to gather my breath enough to speak. Her grip, which hadn't loosened, was warm, as if I wore an iron bracelet heated by the sun. I followed the trail of corded muscles from her wrist up along her arm, marveling at her subtle display of strength.
She must have noticed the way I fought for air because I could see a puzzled frown tug at the corners of her mouth. It's such an expressive mouth, with full lips, but she keeps it under tight control. Over time I've learned to judge her moods by the most subtle changes in her face: the tightening of a muscle in her jaw, the changing hue of her blue eyes. They were darkening now, but I couldn't tell why.
"Really, I'm fine," I said, and she let go. I was close enough to see the sheen of sweat on her neck and shoulders, raised by our hard climb away from the pass below. The effort must have winded her, too, because her breathing was as labored as mine, the soft swell of her breasts rising and falling beneath the hard shell of her armor.
I could feel my body tense, poised on the brink of movement. An impulse to act gathered strength within me, but without direction or focus. I waited for Xena to signal a return to our march, but she didn't move.
An impatient nicker from Argo, trailing behind us, finally broke the spell.
"We can't make camp here, we'll have to keep going," and I wondered if she was angry with me because her voice was edged with hoarseness.
Again, all I could do was nod and turn away to continue climbing upward to the plateau that topped the mountain. Before, our silence had been companionable, but now there was a raw quality to it that made my stomach prickle. Usually I could summon a story to cover my unease and woo Xena back into good humor, but a ghostly hand had wiped across the slate of my mind, erasing all thought.
I moved on instinct, through a fog that blurred the passage of time. When we crested the edge of the mountain and entered the grassy meadows of the plateau , I noted with surprise that the sun was low in the sky. Hours had passed since I had slipped on the rocky path, yet I remembered nothing of our journey except for the sight of Xena's averted face, carved out of unyielding stone. She had kept her gaze fixed forward, refusing to even glance in my direction.
The knot in my stomach tightened. I had been gone such a short time that I expected everything to be the same when I returned from Poteidaia. Our reunion this morning had been joyful, full of banter and fond looks...but then I had stumbled on the trail and somehow that one misstep had thrown our friendship out of balance.
Xena barely paused to scan the terrain ahead of us before she pointed off to the right. "We can make camp by that stand of trees. There's a stream nearby." I used to resent these terse, unembroidered directives, but for the first time it occurred to me that she must have passed through here with her army and the memory that had just surfaced was a painful one.
Without any further discussion, we proceeded to the site Xena had chosen. She tethered and fed Argo; I unpacked the saddlebags and laid out our bedding. This had always been one of my favorite times of the day. The familiar ritual of preparing ourselves for a quiet evening together was the one common thread that our wandering existence allowed. Tonight, however, the predictability of our routine made me restless. I tried to focus my attention on gathering wood for our fire while Xena groomed Argo, but each twig and branch that I collected only strained my patience further. Returning to camp, I dropped my load in an untidy heap that was much smaller than I had expected. I would have to repeat my efforts.
I turned and caught Xena watching me, the brush in her hand suspended in mid-stroke. Without even a flicker of embarrassment in her eyes, she resumed her grooming. Instead, I was the one who could feel warm blood rushing to my cheeks. She said in a firm voice, "I missed you. I'm glad you're back."
Xena doesn't talk much, yet she never seems to have trouble saying what she feels. I talk too much, yet I had to feign a casual tone in order to force out my reply. "I'm glad to be back."
She nodded, as if satisfied by this simple exchange. For her, everything had returned to the way it was before. Which meant she saw me as the same Gabrielle who had walked away from her over a week ago. So why did I feel so different?
I lashed out with my foot, scattering the kindling, then stamped heavily on the back of a dry branch. The crack of its breaking echoed loudly in the still air.
Xena moved out from behind Argo. "Come on. We'd better wash up before the sun sets."
"I don't have the fire ready yet."
She dismissed my resistance with a shrug. "It's a warm night. We'll deal with it later." Without a backward glance, taking my agreement for granted, she set off through the trees.
I rummaged through our packs for two clean chemises and tucked them under my arm. As I trailed after Xena, I reflected on the curious fact that not once today had she questioned my long silences. And now she was just as indifferent to my unfinished chores. So perhaps she wasn't altogether unaware of the shifting stones beneath my feet that threatened to trip me a second time. What would happen if I tumbled off this strange emotional path I was walking? Could she catch me as easily as she had this morning?
When I reached the stream, Xena was already undressing. She hadn't waited for me to step forward and unbuckle her armor. I watched as she quickly, methodically stripped herself of metal and leather. She didn't need my help, she never had, yet I had always taken great pleasure in assisting her. This return to self-sufficiency was another reminder of the time we'd spent apart, another tear in the fabric of our friendship. Until this moment I would have staked my life on the strength of our bond, yet there was a terror growing within me that the tie between us had become sheer as silk and that with one careless motion I could shred it beyond mending.
Naked, her skin glowing bronze in the reddened light of the day's end, she moved with the grace of a lean, muscled animal down the sloping bank into the water. As she walked farther and farther out, a gentle current swirled around her knees, curled up her long thighs and across her stomach, then finally lapped over the curve of her breasts. She threw back her head to dip her mane of black hair in the water and the arc of her body was more beautiful than a rainbow.
With clumsy fingers I tugged off my own clothing. A shallow dive off the bank plunged my body into the cool water. Another kick drove me down to where my hands could skim the streambed. Rough pebbles tickled my palms. When my lungs ached beyond bearing, I kicked one last time and shot upward, gasping for air when my head broke through the surface of the water. Xena didn't call for me to join her. We finished bathing in the same silence that had plagued us all day.
When the sun's edge touched the horizon, we waded out of the stream and patted ourselves dry with the cotton chemises. The loose garment fluttered against my stomach and breasts as we strolled back to camp, and I wondered if Xena's skin prickled to the cold, damp touch like mine did. Too often she seems untouched by human concerns, a demi-god striding among mortals. Like Daedelus, who knew the dangers of flying too close to the sun, I slowed my steps to lengthen the distance between us.
She was standing in the center of the campsite when I emerged from the shadows of the trees. After a pointed glance in my direction, she said, "Does this mean you're in the mood for a cold supper?"
"What?" Then I noticed the meager store of firewood that my foot had scattered across the ground. My hands clenched in guilty remembrance of the wood I had meant to gather on the way back. "I forgot."
"You must have had other things on your mind." A stranger might have mistaken her comment for a flat statement of fact, but I saw the way her mouth quirked at the ends, battling to hide a wry amusement.
"I hate that look!"
My pique didn't mar the complacency of her expression. "What look is that?"
"Smug and arrogant. As if you have all the answers, while I'm still stumbling around like the village idiot."
She let loose a sigh of exasperation. It was the first crack in her facade. "You're not stupid, Gabrielle, just...inexperienced."
"And whose fault is that? I'm not a child, and I didn't come back here to be treated like one." I flailed in search of a weapon that could pierce her armor. "I should have stayed in Poteidaia."
She flinched. I struck another blow. "At least Meleager thought of me as a woman."
"That's enough," she said, but more with sorrow than pain.
"I don't need you!" I was shouting. The words tore their way through my throat, and the wounds they left bled me of strength. I sank to my knees, fighting against a wave of nausea. I had wanted to hurt her, but I was the one who was shattered by my outburst. Not even tears could ease the ache inside of me, although I could feel them welling behind my eyes.
Xena knelt down beside me.
Her voice was gentle, as if offering me forgiveness, but I was too shaken to meet her gaze. I stared down at my hands. They were trembling.
"Gabrielle," she said again, just as gently, and her hands reached out to cover mine, drawing them together as if she cupped a dove between her palms. "You have a right to be angry."
That unexpected confession gave me the courage to look up. Her face was solemn, almost sad. Moments before I had wanted to burn the laughter out of her eyes, and now that I had done just that, I yearned to bring it back again. She laughed so seldom, and it usually gave me such joy to see her smile. "I'm sorry," I stammered. "I don't know why..."
"I do." Xena's voice had dropped to a whisper, but her face was so close to mine that I had no trouble hearing her. "And I know what to do about it."
I held my breath. I thought I was waiting for words that would explain the source of my rage, yet somehow I must have known she was going to kiss me because I leaned forward to meet her.
The softness of her lips was no surprise. I had studied their shape often enough to imagine what they would feel like pressed against my mouth.
My hands began to tremble again, but this time she let them go. I wrapped my arms around her neck and she pulled me even closer. I had never dared to imagine the softness of her breasts. I wanted to stretch my whole body against her, to mold myself to the shape of her muscle and bone, but she pulled back from the kiss. Her eyes were clouded with doubt.
"Gabrielle..." Her voice was hoarse, edged with the same coarse quality I had heard this morning, and at last I understood what emotion had overtaken her on the path up the mountain and why she didn't dare face me again during the journey. Layer upon layer of meaning unfolded inside of me, brushing new colors over the past. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
"Yes," I said, with a certainty which sprang full-grown from my heart. "We've waited long enough."
A sigh escaped from her lips, as if she had set down a heavy burden. Freed from restraint, Xena drew off her chemise in a slow, sensual unveiling of the curving lines of her body. Before tonight I had never dared to admire her openly, never allowed myself to admit the hunger I felt when I saw her naked. And if the color of passion is dusky blue, then her eyes betrayed an equal hunger at the sight of my undressing.
She pushed me back against the blankets and covered my body with her own. I gave myself over to the strength in her hands, to the stroke and glide of her fingers down my sides and over my hips. I wanted to study her face, flushed with desire, to watch the eager way she took my breast into her mouth, but with each flick of her tongue I was pulled deeper inside myself until my eyes fluttered shut and I slipped into the darkness of pure sensation.
Then her hand eased between my legs.
I had touched myself before and felt pleasure, but never with this intensity. My body had kept secrets from me, as had Xena. A surge of renewed anger knifed its way past my desire, arresting my rocking motion. I barely had breath to spare, but I said, "You knew...it could be like this."
"No," she whispered in my ear, "I hoped it would be."
And I was set free again. I soared higher and higher until the most unbearable sweetness broke my wings and sent me tumbling downward. She caught me in her arms and cradled me as the tremors that rippled through my body faded away. I was lulled into a warm drowsiness as she stroked my hair and laid soft kisses on my cheek.
The sun's light had faded completely by now, and we were bathed in night, but I discovered a new urge that fought against sleep: the desire to touch everywhere I had been touched. I wasn't sure I could please her, but she shivered when I laid my hand on her breast. And when I rubbed my thumb across the puckered dart of her nipple, she gasped.
After that it was easy--I just did what I wanted. And I wanted to do so much. With each caress, with each taste of her skin, I brought delight to both of us. By the time my fingers dipped and swirled in molten fire, I felt as if I'd always known how to make love to her, always known how to match the rhythm of her racing pulse.
Xena drew one last shuddering gasp, then cried out a warning. I was ready, my arms open wide, when she fell into my embrace.
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