DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are property of MCA /Universal. No copyright infringement was or is intended. This fiction may contain descriptions of a sexual nature between two consenting adult women. Please do not continue if you are under 18 years of age or this is illegal in your locale.
The following story contains adult themes depicting sexual relations between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are under the age of18 or reading this material is illegal where you live, please do not read any further. The writer accepts no legal responsibility for noncompliancewith this warning.
The feeling was unmistakable. Soft hairs on the back of her neck prickled with the awareness of being watched. Xena struck the flint in her hand with renewed vigor, then bending her face to the ground, blew on the kindling that had caught the spark. A dim glow crawled its way up the twists of grass toward the crosshatch of sticks she had assembled. With a unhurried uncoiling of her body, she rose to her feet. Out of habit, she checked the perimeter of the camp, but knew better than to rely too much on sight once the sun had set below the horizon. Instead, she focused her mind on another sense: she listened.
When she heard the low nicker of a horse coming from the shadowed woods nearby, she pulled her sword from its sheath. Her armor lay on the ground by her feet, but there was no time to bother with strapping it back on. "Who's there?" she demanded, and scanned the darkness with growing anticipation of an evening fight.
After a long silence, a section of the shadows seemed to shimmer with movement. A familiar voice called out, "It's just me."
"Gabrielle?" Still, Xena did not relax her guard. A dark timbre to the quality of her friend's voice triggered her sense of danger.
"I got tired of waiting at the inn." There was only a whisper-soft rustle of underbrush as a figure emerged from the woods, leading a horse by its reins. The weak light of the waning moon threw the forms into silhouette as they drew nearer to the camp. When, wondered Xena, had Gabrielle acquired the stealth to stalk silently through a forest at night?
"You shouldn't have followed me," said Xena, but her anger was muted by a growing unease. She resisted the temptation to sheath her blade. "You're not ready to enter this kind of combat."
With a warning crackle, the wood she had gathered finally caught fire and the surging blaze threw a circle of light around the camp. The approaching figure stopped just outside the ring of illumination, but Xena caught a glimpse of polished leather and strips of metal. Her grip on her weapon tightened. "Where did you get that armor? Not to mention the mount."
There was harshness in the answering laugh that robbed it of humor. "Oh, well, that's a long story." The intruder stepped forward to reveal her face. It was Gabrielle.
But then she drew closer still, and Xena hissed in surprise. Even by the dancing flames of the campfire she could trace the lines of age on the face before her. She stared into the woman's eyes and saw a hard glint that had never been there before. "You're not Gabrielle. Where is she?"
"Don't worry, she's safe, sleeping comfortably at the inn where you left her." Heedless of any danger, the woman strolled past Xena's upraised sword, leading her horse to a spot near Argo. She tethered the reins to a low-hanging branch. Then, with practiced movements, she removed the saddle, pulled a brush out of a side pocket, and began to groom her mount. "Yes, Gabrielle stayed there at the inn for days, waiting patiently until she heard the hoofbeats of the returning army. Then she ran outside and wrapped herself around a signpost, bracing herself against the sweep of the crowds that poured into the streets to greet the soldiers. Soon the word spread that King Miklos had been victorious. That was no surprise to her. After all, who could lose with Xena fighting on his side?"
The rhythm and cadence of her speech were an eerie echo of Gabrielle's; the grim, ironic edge was not. "Who are you?" asked Xena.
The woman looked over her shoulder. "Aren't you getting tired of holding that sword?"
After a moment's consideration, Xena relented and sheathed her weapon. "I asked you a question. Who are you?"
Turning back to her grooming, the stranger said, "So Gabrielle looked for Xena at the head of the troops, and then by the king's side when his entourage rode past. And she looked for her among the soldiers guarding the enemy who had been captured. But still no Xena. Finally, she called out to a wounded man, one of many who came straggling behind the army, and asked him if he had seen or heard of Xena's whereabouts. He nodded and pointed to the long line of carts that were last in the procession. Then, and only then, did Gabrielle realize that she would have to search among the stacks of the dead to find your broken body."
"I don't care much for your story."
The woman packed the brush away. "I've never cared much for it myself."
Xena had noted the corded muscles on the woman's arms when she hefted the saddle off her horse. When she removed her armor, her closely-fitted tunic revealed a torso that was equally muscled. She was the same height as Gabrielle, even the shape of her bones was the same, but she was wiry and compact, without the curving lines of a young woman. Once her hair might have been the same color as Gabrielle's, but the braid that gathered at her neck and trailed down her back was laced with fine veins of white.
Still, when the stranger turned away from the horses, with a blanket roll tucked under one arm, Xena caught her breath at the sharp sense of recognition that her image evoked. Not Gabrielle, yet....
The woman read the confusion on her face. "I've changed, Xena, but you're exactly as I remembered you."
Then she strode past the warrior and shook out her blanket on the ground next to the fire. "Are you ready for the rest of the story?"
It was such a familiar phrase, one that Xena had heard just yesterday. There could be no mistake. "Gabrielle?"
"Of course, there isn't enough time to tell you all that's happened to me since you died," said the woman who was Gabrielle as she settled down onto the ground. She started ever so slightly when Xena sat close beside her, then fell silent, as if losing her place in the narrative.
"How did you get here?" prompted Xena.
The woman shrugged, regaining her composure. "The old tales showed me the way. I spent ten years searching for certain items beloved by the gods, trading each one to a god in exchange for a favor owed them by yet another god, until finally I could make a demand of The Fates themselves. The particular favor I asked for was not one they wanted to grant, but I can be very persuasive and they were in my debt."
With a growing sense of apprehension, Xena said, "You came back to stand by me in the battle tomorrow."
"Yes. This time I'm ready. This time I'm a warrior who can guard your back."
"A warrior?" echoed Xena bleakly. Gabrielle's blood innocence lost? Her hands clenched into fists as she searched the strangely altered face for some hint of the gentleness it had always displayed before. "No. No, you were going to become a bard, Gabrielle."
"I thought so, too." The woman turned away to stare at the fire. "And I tried to follow that path. For a year after your death, I refused to even wield my staff...but there was so much I hadn't told you before you were killed, so much I hadn't even told myself, that I couldn't get past the silence between us. My stories died inside me. All of them. I couldn't forget that I should have been by your side that day."
"No! You weren't ready to fight in this battle!"
"I wasn't ready to bury you, either." She met Xena's gaze again, and said in a flat, hard voice, "I'm the one who washed your body before it was wrapped for the journey to Amphipolis. I paid the innkeeper three dinars to let me lay you out on the floor of the inn's stable. You were covered with blood; so much blood that it took two buckets of water to wash it all away. Some of the wounds were so deep I had to pull tatters of your leather tunic out of them."
"I remember everything. There was a cut here..." she reached out a hand to lightly touch a spot on Xena's side, "...and another here..." she touched the warrior's upper shoulder, "... but the one that killed you was--"
"Stop." Xena caught Gabrielle's hand in her own and held it tightly. "Don't do this."
Gabrielle shuddered. Her voice cracked as she said, "And every time I touched a woman, I thought of you...wondered what it would have been like to make love to you, because all I would ever know was the feel of cold--"
"Enough!" Xena cut off the stream of words by pulling Gabrielle into a fierce embrace. She held on even when the body in her arms stiffened with a brittle resistance to comfort. "It's over. I'm alive, and I'm going to stay that way."
And she held on when the trembling of Gabrielle's limbs signaled that her rigid control was shattering. Her sobs were dry, harsh, as much an outpouring of exhaustion and relief as they were of sorrow.
When the storm had passed, the woman that lay cradled in Xena's arms was no longer a stranger. The creases etched into her face had blurred into faint lines, just as the hardened muscles of her body had softened as she nestled against Xena's chest. Even her silence was familiar, born of one those rare moments of contentment that stemmed her usual flood of words and thoughts.
At some point the soothing touches Xena had used to calm her -- the stroking of her hair, the light kiss to a cheek -- lingered, became caresses, and an answering tension returned to Gabrielle's arms as their embrace gathered strength. Desire slipped from its chains so quietly that their lips met before Xena admitted to herself what she was doing. The whispering voice of conscience urged her to pull back from the kiss, to somehow evade what was about to happen, yet it was Gabrielle who broke away first.
"No..." Gabrielle said, with a ragged gasp. "You once told me, 'Don't change, I like you just the way you are.' But I have changed. I'm not the--"
Xena pressed a finger to Gabrielle's lips to stop her confession. "You've loved me past death. Do you really think I can't love you in life?" And she knew that nothing could keep her from trying to erase the haunted look from Gabrielle's face. Renewing their kiss with a greater fervor than she had allowed herself before, she let her hands wander freely, and was rewarded when she saw passion flare in Gabrielle's eyes.
Tenderness gave way to an urgency that was less gentle, less patient. They stripped each other of leather and cloth and let their bodies bridge the gap of years that lay between them. There were so many untold stories in Gabrielle's touch; she was practiced in giving pleasure. But her own need finally overwhelmed her detachment, and she grew clumsy and awkward, shivering in anticipation of Xena's next caress. Each kiss, each glide of hand and tongue across skin, was an answer to a question they had asked only in dreams, never of each other, and this new language swept them both into a realm beyond thought, beyond expectation.
Whispered words sharpened into cries which braided into one voice, rising and falling to the same rhythm that rocked their hips. Then, for a single sweet moment, they were lost inside themselves and inside the other, oblivious to everything but the shuddering arch of two bodies joined as one.
When they finally fell apart from each other, to lie side by side and let the warmth of the campfire dry the sweat from their skin, Gabrielle said, "All that time we were together, why did you hold back? You must have known I was in love with you."
With a soft sigh, Xena admitted to herself, as well as to Gabrielle, "Yes, I knew." Her fingers traced the faint white line of a scar across her companion's thigh. This woman was a warrior, so perhaps she could understand better than a young bard. "When we first met, my rage was so near the surface that I didn't trust myself with any emotion."
"And after that?"
"You were so young...."
"Not that young," said Gabrielle firmly. "Old enough to know what I wanted, old enough to wonder why you couldn't return my love."
"I did...I do...it's just that..." This was a more difficult admission, one Xena could barely choke out in a whisper. "I have so much to atone for...how can I justify taking this kind of pleasure in life?"
"And how long will this atonement take?" demanded Gabrielle. When Xena remained silent, she said, "Remember, you also give pleasure when you love someone. And when you denied yourself that joy, you robbed me of it as well."
Xena drew breath at that raw truth, and Gabrielle pressed her advantage with a new demand. "When you return to the Gabrielle who's waiting for you, don't hold back any longer. There's so little time even in the longest life. Don't waste a moment of it; don't let her waste it, either."
"No more apologies." Gabrielle slipped her arms around the warrior's waist. She pulled Xena closer and began to lay a path of warm, languorous kisses along her neck and shoulders. "No more words."
And there were none, only the soft murmur of sighs as they entwined their limbs and began a slow dance of renewed desire. When the night air grew chill, they wrapped themselves in a blanket and dozed, but only until some slight movement wakened them to explore each other's bodies again.
All too soon the dying campfire warned them of approaching dawn. Before the edge of the horizon could lighten, the two women reluctantly pulled apart and rose to make their preparations. Despite the passage of time, Gabrielle slipped easily into their routine for breaking camp and saddling the horses. And when Xena reached for her breastplate, Gabrielle moved quickly to take it from her. "Hey, this is my job, remember?"
Xena smiled her assent, but as she stood still, shivering at the occasional touch of cold metal, the smile faded. "No matter what may happen to me, I have to go into this battle."
Gabrielle nodded. "I understand. You gave the king your word." She fastened the shoulder links, then moved down to the waist cinches. "Besides, victory was hard won that day; Miklos himself was badly wounded and most of his generals were killed. Without you, he probably would have lost his kingdom."
"Gabrielle, no one warrior makes that much of a difference."
"Only when the warrior is Xena," the woman said with a knowing smile. She gave a final tug to test the fit of the armor, then stepped back. "Done."
"My turn," said Xena.
Stooping to the ground, Xena lifted up the armor that belonged to Gabrielle. "I said it's my turn," and she motioned for her companion to move closer.
A flush of color brushed across Gabrielle's cheeks, but she stepped forward.
"Don't fidget," chided Xena, and after Gabrielle had dutifully frozen in place, she carefully fitted the breastplate to her lover's body. Then, with hands still lingering in place, Xena pressed her lips to her lover's mouth, adding a bittersweet closing to an old ritual.
When they finally pulled away from the kiss, Gabrielle reached up to caress the warrior's face. "Xena...this was the right thing for me to do. Remember that."
"What do you mean by--"
"No," said the woman with a shake of her head, "I can't explain now. Just remember."
With a troubled frown, Xena said, "All right, I will." The temptation to kiss Gabrielle one more time was frustrated by the sound of Argo's impatient nicker, and the restless stamping of the horses' hooves urged them to hurry.
Xena had tucked the last of the camp blankets into a saddlebag when she saw Gabrielle pull a sword from her mount's saddlesheath and run her fingers lightly along the blade to check the sharpness of its edge. "Where's your staff?" Xena demanded before she could stop herself.
Forest green eyes met her gaze and held it without flinching. "It's packed away. I won't be needing it today." With practised ease, Gabrielle slipped the sword back in place. Then, grabbing her mount's reins, she vaulted easily into the saddle. "It's time. Let's go."
Dawn's earliest light revealed the trail they would follow. A hard ride down the winding mountain path brought them to the heart of the valley where Miklos was gathering his army, ranks of grim-faced warriors determined to defend their land against invasion. The warlord who had promised to conquer them was assembling his mercenaries on a high ridge to the south.
The bulk of the king's forces were massed to guard the main road where it crossed the territory's border, but Xena and Gabrielle chose to reinforce the weak left flank that blocked another less-travelled pass through the valley. If either line was breached, the defenseless towns beyond would be overrun by the enemy. Since the ground they defended was too rough for combat on horseback, Xena was forced to turn Argo over to a young shepherd boy who promised to lead their mounts to safety.
"Check her hooves often," commanded Xena sternly. "This area is rocky, and I don't want her lamed."
"And whatever you do, don't tangle the reins," muttered Gabrielle under her breath, just loud enough for the warrior to hear her. Gabrielle's lips twitched into a wry smile. "Oh, yes, I remember everything."
There was no time for a retort. A thundering chorus of war cries announced the start of battle, and the two women turned and braced themselves for the first onslaught of warriors that rushed over a nearby ridge. Within minutes they were surrounded by the flash and rattle of brandished weapons.
Throwing off her first attacker, Xena caught sight of a man charging toward Gabrielle. To her relief, her lover easily side-stepped his blow, but Xena wasn't prepared for the woman's next move: she lunged forward. Xena watched in horror as Gabrielle drove her sword through the man's chest, then kicked the body off her blade with a booted foot.
"Look out!" cried Gabrielle suddenly.
Xena regained her focus just in time to duck beneath a sword swing aimed at her neck. Lashing out with her leg, she kicked her opponent off the ground. Then, as she and Gabrielle clashed with yet more warriors, her companion yelled back over her shoulder, "Stop worrying about me. I can take care of myself." And proved it with a sweeping slash that sent her assailant reeling away with a badly wounded arm.
They soon set a rhythm and cadence to their partnership. Poised back to back, they cut down everyone who approached them. However, as more and more of the king's men fell, they were gradually isolated from the main force. Alone, Xena would have been overwhelmed, but together she and Gabrielle held their ground. They parried and thrust and slashed until there were no more warriors left standing around them.
"Well, it looks like we've made it," said Xena with a gasp of relief. She lowered her blade to let the sheen of blood drain off the point.
Gabrielle shook her head. Her body was still tensed, her sword still raised for defense. "The battle isn't over. You aren't safe yet."
"But we've run out of anyone to fight."
"Not yet..." With a troubled frown, Gabrielle scanned the horizon, and then jabbed a finger toward the southwest. "There!" she cried, just as a fresh wave of marauders ran into view.
Another fierce engagement followed, but one which the two women fought with the same ruthless efficiency as before. Rising fear in the eyes of their enemies hinted at a turn in the tide of the battle. Then, from the distance, came the sound of a blaring horn calling for retreat. As the opposing warriors began to break ranks and run, Gabrielle deflected a falling sword stroke aimed at Xena's back. A twist of her own weapon's blade sliced open the throat of the man who had attacked her lover.
When he fell to the ground, Gabrielle cried out with triumph, "That was it! That was the last blow that could have killed you!"
Xena whirled around to stare at the dying warrior. "How can you be so sure?"
"I just...know." Gabrielle's face contorted as if in pain. "Xena..."
She reached out her hand, but when her fingers closed around Xena's arm, the warrior felt no pressure. She couldn't even feel the touch of the hand on her bare skin. "Gabrielle? What's happening?"
"I'm fading," Gabrielle said in a hoarse whisper. "This time you survive the battle. The woman who buried your corpse doesn't exist any more." Her image rippled like a banner caught in the breeze. "The Fates are reweaving the tapestry of our lives."
Don't forget me....
The words echoed in Xena's mind, not in the air. She was alone on the battlefield.
The cold knot of fear which had started in her stomach was growing. If she didn't move now, it would overwhelm her. And she had to move. The sun was almost touching the horizon. Soon there wouldn't be enough light for the task she faced.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle unclenched her hands from the rough pole which had been her anchor against the currents of people who had swept around her earlier that day. She forced herself to look at the row of rough wooden carts lined along the other side of the street. She took one hesitant step toward them, then another.
She's not there. I can look, but I won't find her body, because she's still alive... somewhere...
The street was quiet now, empty except for the two guards who kept watch over the fallen warriors. The sounds of the city's victory celebration had been carried into inns and taverns and homes. There were no more wails and laments from women and children pawing their way through the bodies in the carts; families had carried away the last of their dead an hour ago, and only the friendless remained unclaimed.
Except, perhaps, for one last....
She froze in place, robbed of breath, then whirled around to search the long avenue once again. This time she saw Xena making slow progress down the middle of the street, patiently leading a lame Argo who plodded unevenly behind her. Gabrielle had managed to steady her breathing by the time they drew near, but her voice still quavered when she said, "Oh, there you are. I was wondering when you'd show up."
"You were, huh?"
"Well, it's late, and I'm starved. I was just about to go..." Her voice betrayed her, choking off the attempt at nonchalance.
She tried to turn away before Xena could take full measure of her distress. Instead, somehow, she found herself wrapped in the warrior's arms. Solid, strong arms that were warm to the touch; arms that locked out dread and the half-formed images of torn flesh. With her face buried against Xena's shoulder, she could finally whisper, "I was so afraid you weren't coming back."
"Yes, I know," said Xena. And the kiss she brushed against Gabrielle's cheek set the young woman's heart pounding in a way that resembled fear, yet was some other emotion entirely. That one soft touch sparked a hunger deep inside her that remained even after the embrace had ended.
Gabrielle suppressed the shiver of anticipation that threatened to course through her body. Why should tonight be any different from all the other nights they spent sleeping side by side but never touching. Nothing had changed. There was no reason to expect that this time unbuckling Xena's armor would signal a prelude to their evening instead of an end to the day.
And yet, as she and Xena strolled down the street together in companionable silence, Gabrielle felt her conviction growing stronger. Tonight would be different...at last.
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