The Journey Home
by Tonya Muir
General Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and various other characters are all property of MCA Universal and Renaissance Pictures, and their writers. All rights are reserved to the legal owners, and no infringement is intended. Please don't come after me don't have much besides a couple worthless horses and a slew of pooches .
This story is not incredibly violent in fact, you may have to look kind of hard for the plot. There are some references to violence that may be uncomfortable and some generally dark ideas and atmospheres.
Part of this story may be best classified as Hurt/Comfort involving the characters Xena: Warrior Princess and Gabrielle. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This is a post rift story, it does not take season four into account but contains spoilers for third season. It's mostly a relationship piece, discovery of selves kind of thing. There is a plot, I promise, but don't expect to be moved by it. It's my first piece of fan fiction I've actually allowed anyone to read so please keep that in mind and be gentle. All constructive criticism will be gratefully accepted!
Special thanks to my Beta Reader Suzanne (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to Lunacy for providing the Beta Reader hook-up deal on her website (http://xenite.simplenet.com/lunacy/index.html). And muchos kudos to my husband Clive who, though he doesn't understand the Xena Obsession, is supportive in my need to dwell in it. I love you.
Whew now on with the show!!
The Journey Home
by Tonya Muir
The morning sun slanted across the small clearing with varying shades of orange and red cutting through the misty morning fog. Dew filled grass dazzled in the light and reflected the glowing embers of a dying fire. The clearing itself held the signs of a sparse camp: bedrolls, cooking utensils, and various packs. And one large golden mare who cropped the wet grass with apparent relish, occasionally flicking an ear to the clearing's other inhabitants.
Xena sat quietly on a log by the fire, stoking its remains with a long green stick before deciding whether or not to toss fresh wood into the pit. The sunlight danced appraisingly across her chiseled features, highlighting pale blue eyes and well planed cheekbones. Her jet black hair fell down her back to rest between well defined shoulder blades and looked like it had been combed with the fingers of restless hands then allowed to dry.
She'd been up for awhile, having already done some sword drills and groomed the palomino mare. Now she simply relaxed and waited for her companion to open her eyes to the growing sunlight. She cast a glance that direction, smirking slightly as she saw nothing but the top of a red blonde head poking from the bedroll. She remembered a time when she'd drag Gabrielle awake at the break of dawn, sometimes gently, more often not. A time when she was so unhappy with herself that she forced her foul mood on all those around her, even this gentle woman she'd come to know as a friend.
But now she was content to let Gabrielle sleep in, having learned after several years traveling together that they were both much happier when the younger woman got enough sleep. It was one of the ways the stalwart warrior exhibited her feelings for this young woman. Despite the walls around her own heart, the dark warrior had developed an unprecedented tenderness, fondness, and compassion for the fair haired young bard. Xena didn't really mind starting out a little later, anyway. After all, the only schedule they followed was their own.
So she rose now, to build the fire back up and set a pot of water on a flat rock just inside the licking flames. Then she fidgeted with two mugs and some herbs, resting them on the log where she'd been seated, before going back to Argo and straightening the mare's white mane. Just killing time, letting the morning sun warm her, and the cool crisp air revive her. She listened to the ripping of green grass, being crunched in large teeth, and the wind through the leaves over their heads. It promised to be a beautiful day.
She was pouring water over the herbs when Gabrielle finally moved, stretching her limbs and rolling from a curled position to lay flat on her back, blinking into the cloudless sky. Xena watched the leaves and sun dapple a pattern on the other woman's features, highlighting emerald eyes and fair brows which now knit together in the concentration of waking.
"'Morning," Xena said softly, knowing Gabrielle was a slow riser and needed a few gentle minutes before starting her day in earnest. The dark haired woman was not at all surprised with herself for respecting this part of the young bard since their years of travel had taught them each so much about patience and trust. As well as life and each other.
So she moved quietly to sit next to Gabrielle, holding the mugs in her hands, waiting for the younger woman to hitch herself up on one elbow and turn sleepy green eyes her direction. Xena smiled and offered a mug that was taken gratefully and sipped from for several long moments before a grin creased her companion's face and those eyes took on their everyday merriment.
"Good morning," she said softly, raising the mug and patting Xena on her leg, such touches coming easily between them. "Thank you."
The warrior nodded and gained her feet again, moving back to the fire to pour more tea. "Breakfast on the road?"
"Sure," Gabrielle set down her own cup after finishing its contents, then stood and stretched, brushing long, fair hair back from her face with clumsy hands, rubbing at her eyes. Then she turned and watched Xena quietly before rolling up her blankets and stowing them with the rest of her belongings. "Be back," she disappeared down the trail towards the small river they'd camped near.
With a fondness in her eyes, Xena watched her go. Three years ago she'd needed nothing but her sword and her chakram. Now she needed nothing but this slight woman's companionship. Nothing more, nothing less. She'd promised never to trust again, had even had her doubts after Hope killed Solan, but had found her need for the bard irresistible. So here they were, mending a broken friendship while trying to fit back together the broken pieces of themselves at the same time. No small task and certainly not without its share of pain.
But lately things had been good. Gabrielle was more fit than she had been in a long time. Her body had been terribly hurt by the quick and surprising pregnancy and childbirth, then the vigorous travels immediately following. She'd been skin and bones before Xena had noticed, too wrapped up in her own tragedy, and slowed down. The recent weeks had been heavy on food and relaxation, light on traveling and fighting, and the bard looked better for it. Her outfit no longer drooped off of her bony frame and she now awoke with bright eyes and a spring in her step that had been missing for too long.
Xena didn't resent the change in their lifestyle, the warrior mused as she packed her own belongings and saddled Argo. Actually, the rest had done a lot for the tension and frustration that coursed through her body in previous months. How she'd wanted to hate Gabrielle ... and how impossible that had been. So she'd had to come to terms with what had happened, the parts they'd both played, and the loss of her son. No regrets, no grudges. Gabrielle would have died for Solan, Xena knew, and she had never intended for the end result to be what it was. And, even now, months later, she still saw that sad regret in the young woman's eyes at least once a day.
Just yesterday she'd seen it as they were walking. Those green eyes stared quietly forward on the road as she rested a hand on the golden mare's shoulder while Xena rode.
"Gabrielle," the warrior had called softly and her breath caught when those haunted eyes swung upwards to meet hers. She laid a large hand on the top of the bard's head, her fingers painfully gentle. "There's nothing to forgive because I don't blame you."
And Gabrielle's eyes had flashed with shock that the warrior could read her thoughts so easily. She was also a little surprised that this dark woman, normally somewhat distant and evasive, was being so open. Gabrielle glanced back forward after a moment of considering those sapphire depths. "You should hate me." She hadn't seen hate there, though. The bard knew that her friend harbored her own guilt over the events that had led to Solan's death.
"I don't," Xena whispered back, smoothing the soft strands under her fingers. "I never could. Stop hating yourself."
Easier said than done, Xena realized as Gabrielle interrupted her thoughts when she returned from the river, face and hair wet. Because Xena was still hating herself for not protecting Gabrielle and for pushing her so hard about Hope instead of discussing the potential disaster Hope represented. She didn't consider Gabrielle's thoughts and emotions as a young new mother - had asked for the bard's blind trust in a manner she'd no right to expect.
She considered herself lucky to still be able to call Gabrielle a friend after that. Xena was used to living with pain and guilt, though, and it was more important to her to help the bard overcome hers.
Xena pulled a linen from the saddle bag she'd just attached and tossed it to the bard who caught it with a grin and a light laugh, then rubbed it over her wet hair several times before tossing it back. Gabrielle combed through her tangled tresses with delicate fingers and fashioned them into a single braid to hang between her shoulder blades.
"Ready?" Xena inquired as she put out the fire, pouring the remains of their water over the embers and kicking dirt on them.
"Mmm," Gabrielle agreed, packing away the pot Xena handed her and patting the tall golden mare on the shoulder. "Good morning, beautiful," she whispered into Argo's ear. The mare flicked it absently, turning to snuffle the young woman's exposed belly.
"If you're done flirting with my horse," Xena teased, taking the reins and starting out of the clearing.
The bard smiled and slapped Xena on the arm playfully, not even stopping to consider that she was the only person in the world who could handle this warrior so casually. It had become second nature to both of them and though absent for several of the previous months, was now returning to the rapport they'd once shared.
They walked quietly through the morning, side by side for several hours before Xena grew restless and hopped on Argo. She urged the mare to canter several lengths away from Gabrielle and then turning to go the same distance behind her. Sometimes circling her, sometimes kneeing the leggy mare into a headlong gallop. Gabrielle kept walking, well used to this aberrant behavior from her companion, and entertained herself by tapping her staff into the dirt ahead of her or spinning it lightly between her hands.
They'd learned months ago that this silence between them could be comfortable. There'd been a time when Gabrielle followed the warrior, chatting endlessly, forming stories and relaying ideas. But there had been no chatter since Solan had died. No stories since Gabrielle had killed her daughter. In the time that had passed, the young bard had become used to the silence in her mind and her life. Xena, against her own expectations, actually missed the light voice and the imaginative words. But she never pushed, never pried, and figured it would come to Gabrielle in time. That would be a sure indication of the young bard's healing.
They ate their midday meal the same as their morning, out of the saddle bags, and continued their steady pace. Argo walked solemnly behind them, occasionally shoving her soft nose into the nearest back, but mostly plodding along without a hint of the grace she possessed.
Somewhere in the afternoon, Xena tossed an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, feeling again the freedom to do such a thing after months of estrangement. The younger woman turned and smiled at her friend before wrapping an arm around her waist, feeling the heat of bronzed skin even through leather and armor. She closed her eyes for several long moments, raising her face to the sunlight, seeing the red of her eyelids due to the bright backdrop the sun offered.
"I missed you," Gabrielle said at last, surprising them both with the abrupt admission, blinking her eyes open and wondering, briefly, how one could suck words back into their mouth.
"I've always been right here," the warrior responded softly, tilting her head towards her companion.
"Not always," Gabrielle whispered. Where did that come from? Shut up, Gabrielle admonished herself, tensing her muscles as she anticipated the warrior's reaction.
Xena was quiet for many strides as Gabrielle continued to wonder at the intelligence of her whispered words. But the arm, strong and steady, still encased her shoulders and this buoyed the bard slightly.
Finally she felt a squeeze around her shoulders and a kiss on her temple that sent tingles down Gabrielle's back. "I'm sorry," the warrior whispered, the guilt in her voice.
Gabrielle turned her head upward to see her friend's face. "Me too. That wasn't fair. I wasn't exactly the best supporter you had either."
Another kiss to the temple, given so easily and so naturally, a gentle ruffle of the hair. "We're okay, my bard."
"Yes, we are," Gabrielle smiled at the endearment, choosing not to argue her choice of words though she didn't much feel like a bard anymore. And was relieved to feel the coil of tension in her abdomen dissipate at the warrior's gentle touch and voice.
But the words had stung and Xena considered them thoughtfully even as she continued to match her strides with the bard's shorter ones. Even as her fingertips gently stroked the bared shoulder still resting under a callused hand. There were times when her words had been too harsh and her touch not gentle. There had been anger shared between them and even fear. Look forward, she chastised herself. Hadn't she learned anything from her long journey of redemption? Always look forward but learn from the past.
"Come on," finally she broke the mood herself, tugging Gabrielle to Argo. She mounted and then offered the bard a helpful arm up. They watched each other for several long moments as if sizing each other up. "C'mon," Xena repeated. "It'll be fun."
"Yeah, great," she leaned back to look at the mare's head. "No offense, Argo." But she accepted the lift up, as she always did, and settled behind Xena to wrap her arms around the other woman's waist. "Are we in a hurry?"
"No," Xena replied with no indication she intended to elaborate. She couldn't explain to Gabrielle her reasoning: she loved to ride, loved the freedom and the exhilaration, and she wanted to share that with the person who meant more to her than any other on this earth. A person to whom she'd surrender her heart though she was perfectly content to share her friendship. She'd been with men and women in her darker days, used each equally and without preference or regard, so the idea of an intimate relationship with another woman was not new to her. But the idea of a loving relationship was.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, was young and inexperienced, and definitely showed a preference for men. Xena was quite satisfied with their friendship now that the gentleness and familiarity was returning. She'd learned to master her physical urges as well as her emotional ones a decade ago. So she tried not to dwell on these thoughts, preferring instead to be the best friend and supporter she could be, despite their recent history, despite her dark past.
Xena kneed Argo into a canter once her companion was settled comfortably behind her, listening to the sound of shod hooves on the well packed cart road, resting a hand on the bard's to ensure that her grip was solid. They moved easily along the path for quite awhile, Argo's ground eating strides flying unhindered over the shadow dappled dirt. The sun patterning through the leaves onto horse and riders, sunlight chasing shadows. Light and dark that mingled and danced and came out anew and, together, was viewed so much differently than each on its own.
The warrior slowed the mare some time later to navigate rocky ground and then trot over a small wooden bridge. She let Argo continue trotting as the path became narrow and winding and headed decidedly uphill into the lower elevations of the surrounding mountain.
Gabrielle took as much as she could, trying to relax her stomach and back muscles as Xena had instructed her hundreds of times in order to lessen the bouncing of this gait. But she'd never been able to master it and after several long minutes of being hopelessly jostled as Xena sat comfortably and completely relaxed. She spoke up. "Xena, I need to stop."
"Sorry," her companion intoned softly. She should have been paying attention but the truth of it was that she had been completely lost in the flawlessness of the moment. "Stop stop, or slow down stop?"
"Slow down is good," Gabrielle replied, taking the opportunity to stretch her arms to her side and then behind her to pat Argo on the rump. The mare switched her tail in annoyance so Gabrielle did it again.
Xena laughed softly. "I wouldn't do that, bard. Argo doesn't like to be teased."
"Neither do you but you let me do it," Gabrielle said playfully, relaxing now that her insides were no longer being hopelessly shaken.
"Hmmm, good point," Xena conceded, patting the exposed knee to her right. "Why do we put up with your antics?"
Gabrielle leaned back so her head rested at the top of Argo's tail and her shoulders rose and fell with each movement of the powerful hips, taking a moment to decide whether to consider the question seriously or not. Decided not to. "The real question is 'why do Argo and I put up with your antics?'"
"Good question," Xena agreed, a little worried about the bard using Argo as a tanning deck but confident in the mare's ability to remain calm and her own ability to keep Gabrielle on the horse and not the ground. "You sure are comfortable for someone who doesn't like horses."
"Argo and I have a special understanding," Gabrielle explained. "I understand she's not a normal horse and she understands I'm not a normal person."
"No surprise there," Xena muttered under her breath and got a poke in the back for her comment.
"So where are we going?" the bard inquired with a soft airy quality to her voice, still sprawled across the mare's haunches.
Suddenly the warmth of a hand on her thigh disappeared and wrapped itself in her green halter top, pulling Gabrielle back to a sitting position.
"Hey!" she yelped by way of protest as the long dark fingers disentangled from their purchase on her shirt.
"Shhh," Xena hissed through closed teeth, placing the bard's arms back around her waist and drawing her sword, mindful of the warm presence behind her.
Argo reacted to the unmistakable sound of sword leaving scabbard and started dancing on lithe legs, head high and nostrils flared, loving the battle as much as her owner.
"Hold on tight," Xena whispered, the hair on the back of her neck tingled with the imminent danger as she focused her hearing, past Gabrielle's short nervous breaths, past Argo's snorts of anticipation, into the woods, through the first line of trees. There. Clothes scraping against bark. And there, the snapping of pine needles. And there, the slow steady breath of an attacker in wait. Three all together. Two to the left one to the right.
She felt Gabrielle release her strong hold to free her staff from its tether on the saddle. Sensed the bard raising the staff to be perpendicular to the ground. Good girl, my bard. How far we've come. She listened again. Swords, not arrows. Good.
Then she patted Gabrielle on the thigh, "stay on Argo," whispered only for her ears, and she flipped her leg over the mare's withers, sliding down to the ground with her back to the horse. Gabrielle moved from her position behind the cantle to the seat where she was more easily balanced.
The attack came as soon as Gabrielle had moved, barely giving her time to spin the staff around to a defensive position. All three rushed at once, Xena kicked the fastest in the chest, buying her enough time to block the second man's overheaded sword thrust. Gabrielle used her staff to clock the third man squarely in his chin.
Xena's first adversary was back on his feet in moments, wielding his sword at Xena, causing her to make quick work of the second attacker and leaving him bloody on the ground at their feet. Gabrielle's man rose blearily to his feet only to be smacked in the jaw a second time by the hardwood staff. He went down without a sound, followed immediately by the last man standing.
They stood for several long seconds in the aftermath before Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle, asking in a look what she didn't need words for. The bard nodded her silent response then slid off a dancing Argo to help Xena examine the still bodies on the forest floor.
Xena considered this question for several moments before shaking her head. "Don't think so. Too well dressed for simple thieves. Maybe part of some raiding party. Or a scouting party for an army? Nice swords."
She nodded slowly. "Don't know who would be out here or why." She gave up her search. "Hop on up. Let's get out of here before your friend comes around."
Gabrielle obliged, knowing Xena wanted her on Argo in case they needed to make a quick escape: Xena was able to mount much faster than the bard.
"Maybe Gregor will know," Xena mused as they left the evidence behind them.
"That's who we're going to visit."
"Old friend?" Gabrielle asked and Xena wondered if that was a tinge of jealousy she'd heard. She rested a hand on her companion's knee.
"Why are we headed there?"
"You'll see," she responded with a touch of mischief and a squeeze to the warm flesh under her hand.
And Gabrielle conceded, content to wait for Xena to play her hand, trusting the warrior without hesitation.
They walked until dusk, Gabrielle having slid to the ground to use her own feet instead of Argo's. Xena found them a small clearing well off the path and she set up a meager camp, not wanting to unpack too much due to their earlier encounter. She allowed only a small fire and they ate from their stash of dried meat and fruits. Argo remained saddled though the bridle was removed to free her mouth of the bit and allow her to graze on the sparse mountain grass.
Xena sharpened her sword, enjoying the familiar sound of stone on steel. The dark warrior glanced occasionally to her companion who was seated by the fire, playing absently with the leather laces on her right boot. "Do you need a larger fire to write by?" Xena asked softly, returning her glance to the steel before her, asking the question casually even though it was anything but. She'd never asked Gabrielle about her writing, had promised herself she wouldn't. But the timing just seemed right. Especially if they were going to be at Gregor's home soon.
"No thank you," the whispered response. "Don't feel much like writing tonight. But thank you for asking." She turned light emerald eyes to regard her companion, intrigued by the question. But the darker woman showed no change in her body language or her features. So Gabrielle turned away again, even though the sight of orange firelight on bronzed skin was almost too intoxicating to dismiss. And a lot better to look at than these dumb boots and silly laces.
Xena nodded at the bard's gentle gratitude, never losing a beat in her chore. But she knew her friend was thinking now, evaluating the question.
"Xena?" a soft voice whispered much later that night as they lay side by side watching stars through the canopy of trees.
"Do you ever ... I mean ... before, well ... before when we traveled and I practiced my stories on you?" She hung it there as a question, wanting Xena to acknowledge that time.
"I remember," the warrior responded.
"Do you ... do you ever miss that? Or are you just glad for some quiet?" she asked the last part in a rush, ending it with a self deprecating laugh. Giving Xena permission to take it as a joke if she chose. Or if the truth might be painful.
"I do miss it," Xena whispered, reaching a hand out from under her blanket to caress the other woman's exposed arm with a very gentle touch. Then she rolled her back to the bard and settled down for the night, senses alert for any hint of danger.
Gabrielle stared at the stars late into the night, wondering if she could will herself to feel the stories again. For Xena.
A gentle caress on her cheek and a feather light touch in her hair brought the bard to awareness. She blinked into darkness left by the cold fire, frightened for just a moment before the warmth of the hand returned to her face.
"Sorry, Gabrielle," Xena's whispered words. "We need to get moving."
"It's dark," was the muttered response and Gabrielle caught a flash of white teeth as the darkness immediately above her took on slight features.
"Amazing, isn't it?"
"Don't make fun of me, too tired," Gabrielle grumbled, throwing her forearm over her eyes to hide her features from her companion.
Xena regretted it, knew she'd broken one of their unspoken rules of no teasing before full wakefulness. Gabrielle was too sensitive at this time. "Sorry," she whispered, stroking the bard's now exposed arm from wrist to elbow with a very gentle touch.
"S'okay," muffled behind the arm.
"Come on," Xena took Gabrielle's hand and helped her to stand.
"Is it night or morning?" the bard asked, leaning back slightly to view the stars overhead. Clouds had moved in during the night, blocking any clue she might have seen.
"In between. Couldn't sleep. We're too unprotected here. We'll be to Gregor's by nightfall if we leave now."
She nodded numbly, unmoving as Xena packed up her bedroll and attached it to the patiently waiting Argo. The taller woman's movements were precise and efficient as she finished packing up what few items they'd used during their brief stop.
"Up with you," she said softly to Gabrielle, bringing her around to Argo's side and helping her mount. Then she hopped up behind and Gabrielle turned to look over her shoulder, a little confused to be riding in front. "You go back to sleep," Xena said by way of explanation. "This way I can keep an eye on you."
"Do you ever sleep?" the bard's words were murmured even as she settled against the armor to her back and leaned her head against Xena's shoulder.
Xena didn't respond, knowing the question was rhetorical, but wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's waist and kneed Argo forward into a steady walk.
It was nearly sunrise when the bard next stirred, moving restlessly against her companion, pulling away from the warrior's tight hold. Xena relaxed and waited for her to settle down, not realizing until she heard the mumbled words and faint noises of fear that Gabrielle was asleep. And having a nightmare.
They'd been better lately, though they'd haunted her every night for months before. Vivid memories of her loss of innocence, birth of her child, death of Solan. They'd never discussed the dreams, hadn't really needed to for Xena to know their cause, but had learned to live with them much as they'd learned to live with the other changes the whole dreadful experience had brought.
Xena jostled the other woman gently, leaning forward to whisper into her ear. "Gabrielle, wake up. It's okay."
More whimpers, more fighting.
"Come on, my bard." She shook her slightly harder until Gabrielle awoke with a sharp intake of breath.
Several moments of blinking into the graying dawn later, Gabrielle sat up, distancing herself from Xena, her body still tense and stiff. "Sorry," she muttered, rubbing at her face with both hands. "To use you as a pillow."
"Many skills," Xena responded lightly, trying not to make a big deal out of the other woman's awkwardness. "You were keeping me warm."
"You're never cold," Gabrielle replied, the words tumbling out randomly as she gathered her senses. This nightmare had been a return to the bad ones of months before. Visions of Gabrielle killing Solan with her own hand, and then Xena, and finally Hope. Where once she couldn't begin to understand what it was like to kill because it was an experience she knew nothing about, now her dreams were filled with anger and bloodshed.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
The question surprised Gabrielle, Xena had always treated her nightmares casually, as if they didn't exist. Gabrielle had assumed it was because she didn't want to discuss such emotional matters but wondered now if she'd been refraining to protect the bard, offer her privacy. So much had changed between them. Several moons ago they wouldn't even touch each other, afraid of what a simple gesture may imply, afraid to rebuild a friendship that had crumbled before their eyes. But now Xena's hand was gentle as it lay on Gabrielle's thigh, the touch familiar.
Now Xena spoke more freely than she had before, asking about writing and nightmares when not so long ago Gabrielle had suffered in silence.
"Gabrielle?" Xena tilted her head forward to try and decipher what the bard may be thinking by the expression on her face.
"No ... I think," she stopped, covered Xena's hand with her own. "Not ready yet."
Xena nodded, then voiced the motion realizing Gabrielle wasn't able to see her. "Okay." Then she pulled the bard back against her chest. "Relax."
She complied easily, finding more strength and comfort in that embrace than she'd ever known in her life. And not for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to have a woman as a life partner. Silly thoughts. But somehow unavoidable as the dark haired warrior ran gentle fingertips up and down Gabrielle's thigh, then they traveled across her bare stomach. And the woman's breath warm over her shoulder.
Gabrielle had never been touched by a man that way, with such casual intimacy. Why did it seem so right to feel Xena's hands on her body? Which led to thoughts of self doubt and confusion wrought of a sheltered and finely structured upbringing that taught of farming and villages, and women marrying a nice man then raising children.
"Do you ever think about getting married," she asked abruptly in typical Gabrielle fashion, surprising the warrior with her completely nonsensical question, but following her silent thoughts so completely that she didn't comprehend the dark woman's surprise.
She felt Xena's hand slow and the muscles straighten behind her as Xena held her breath for just a moment. Then everything resumed as normal. "No. I don't."
"Don't you want to meet some guy and settle down and have kids? Some day?" Gabrielle turned slightly to eye her companion, warming up rather quickly to this odd subject. Wanting to understand what the taller woman considered important in life. What revealed itself to her as normal.
"Hadn't thought of it, really," Xena shrugged. "Not that kind of person, I guess."
Xena laughed tenderly, dancing fingertips across the bard's exposed stomach. "You tell me, Gabrielle."
"I like kids," she explained while trying to squirm away from tickling fingertips but having nowhere to go.
"I know. What brought this on anyway?" the warrior stopped tickling to resume a gentle stroking on the other's thigh, the movement of her hand made without conscious thought.
The younger woman shrugged, wanting to answer the question honestly without revealing too much of her thought process. "I guess I just wonder if you have to have those things to be happy: a husband, children."
"Are you happy now?" Xena asked carefully, trying not to let on how important the answer was to her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean ..." she gripped Xena's forearm. "... I'm happy right now, being here with you. I'm happy to have this again." But there's still so far to go and still so much to say.
"Me too," Xena responded softly in that gentle husky voice that warmed the bard from within. She'd understood the spoken and unspoken words of her friend and was content for now with the answer she'd provided. Then, "There's a small stream running off to our right. Do you want to stop for a minute?"
"Yes, thank you," Gabrielle agreed readily at the thought of scrubbing sleep from her face as the morning sun now shined on them.
When they started out again, Gabrielle walked next to Argo, a hand absently tangled in the mare's mane, while Xena rode.
That day they encountered two more small groups of attackers which Xena disposed of rather easily. Occasionally, Gabrielle knocked one down but mostly found the warrior's skills more than adequate for the task at hand. Both groups were similar to the previous day's: well-dressed and well-armed but not sparkling in skills or stamina.
Finally they rounded a bend in the trail, emerging on a bluff and overlooking expansive fields leading to a small but sturdy castle.
"Are we there?" Gabrielle asked, looking to her traveling partner who now stood on the ground next to her, looking for all the world like caged fire in her relaxed but ready stance and flashing blue eyes.
"We're there," those icy eyes rested briefly on Gabrielle who had already turned her attention back to the fields and started walking again. She'd been incredibly quiet all afternoon and Xena knew that she was tired and hungry, her lack of reserves not allowing her to spend a day of little sleep and less food without feeling the strain. The bard had not had enough time to recover, was still showing more ribs and hip bone than Xena thought she should.
But there was not a word of complaint from the fair woman. She's much stronger than she appears, Xena mused, in body and mind. I don't give her enough credit. She lengthened her strides to catch up with her companion, settling into her pace with a naturalness borne from years of being together, knowing the nuances of the person beside her fairly intimately.
"Big dinner, I promise," were the only words she offered but she was rewarded with sparkling green eyes and a smile large enough to expose even teeth that proved to the warrior that she did understand Gabrielle on some level and was, occasionally, capable of saying the right things.
As they grew nearer, Xena launched herself onto Argo's back and held a hand out to the bard. "We'll ride in."
"Don't we always?" Gabrielle teased as she accepted the warrior's help and settled herself behind the saddle.
The gates were open but well guarded, indicating to Xena they were at a time of troubled peace. The first guard stopped her immediately.
"Xena of Amphipolis to see Gregor of Talces."
The guard relaxed, even smiled very slightly. "He's been expecting you, Xena. You may take your horse to our stable and then you will be shown to your rooms." It seemed as if he added the plural to rooms once running his eyes over Gabrielle seated quietly behind the warrior, cheek brushing against the dark woman's warm shoulder as she met the eyes of the man standing on the ground next to them. She found the eyes gentle and friendly, encased in bronze wrinkled skin.
The stable housed nearly fifty horses, it appeared, and was clean and well kept. Argo was settled quickly, given a large box stall that opened into a small paddock of sturdy wood rails. She snuffled at the straw with mild interest before moving into the sunlight of the paddock and crouching to roll and cover her golden coat with dry dust. When she rose and shook, the dust billowed off of her in ugly clouds and Xena moaned. "Impossible horse," she said with mock anger. Argo tossed her head triumphantly then wandered to the water bucket and took deep swallows.
"She'll be fine," the stable boy, all of twelve summers maybe, offered. "Won't you follow me?"
So they did, Gabrielle sticking close to Xena's side as the warrior's keen eyes traveled the inner courtyard, committing each detail to memory with a cunning mind that was sharper than most people understood or gave credit. Gabrielle was comfortable walking beside this woman even in the most daunting of situations because she trusted those lightning quick moves and finely honed skills above anything.
The lad led them into a side door of the main building and introduced them to a young woman who waited there. She was diminutive with a young face and a soft smile, wearing a light blue dress and well made sandals, clearly well cared for and not wanting.
"Master Gregor is unable to attend to you at the moment. He requested I show you to your rooms where you may freshen up for dinner," the girl said with an eloquent voice and well articulated words, sparkling blue eyes in their direction. Though the blueness of them more closely matched the dress she wore than the icy depths of the warrior's own eyes. Gabrielle decided that Xena's were much nicer to look at, the way their lightness contrasted easily with the woman's dark hair and bronzed skin. But she tucked that observation away shyly, hiding it with her other thoughts and admiration of the dark woman beside her. And, as if the warrior could read the fair woman's thoughts, she bestowed a slight smirk in the direction of her companion before following the young girl as she walked away.
The two rooms were down the hall from each other, Xena's having already been prepared with a basin of water, linens, and some bread and cheese. Gabrielle's room was clean but empty of these items.
"They didn't know I was coming," Gabrielle stated simply, neither disappointed or surprised as she and the warrior stood in the bare room.
Xena shrugged. "Stay with me for now. I'm sure your room will be in order later." She pointed to the door with her chin, indicating for the bard to leave the room ahead of her.
She didn't need to be asked twice. Gabrielle rinsed the dirt of traveling from her hands and face, then took a piece of the bread and a small chunk of cheese before settling herself on the edge of Xena's bed and watching the warrior follow the same routine.
"Eat more, Gabrielle," Xena offered her the platter.
The bard shook her head, sliding farther back on the bed and lying down on her side with her head propped in her left hand.
"You're not eating enough," Xena prodded gently. Not sure if she should push this issue. Their boundaries were not yet defined as far as their permissions with each other in this rediscovery of their relationship. But some battles were more than worth fighting.
"I'm fine. I'm just not as hungry as I used to be," her voice was gentle, not showing any hint of the annoyance Xena had feared. But, for a fleeting moment, Xena saw the old haunted look return to her friend's eyes. Then it was gone, leaving a touch of sadness in its wake.
"Are you tired, Gabrielle?" Xena asked softly. "Rest before dinner."
"Maybe I'll work up an appetite?" Gabrielle teased, though her heart wasn't in it. One word, one thought, and those memories assaulted her unbidden, leaving the guilt and shame to rest back on her overburdened shoulders. It was hard work despising yourself, even here during the final stages of it.
Xena saw through her weak act, saw that the haunted look had returned to stay for awhile, and lay down facing her. She traced a finger along the bard's jaw line, the intimacy of the touch not escaping either of them.
"You sleep, and I'll watch over you. No nightmares."
"Am I so transparent?" Gabrielle whispered, watching this woman before her with undisguised awe. Hard as stone on the outside but the most caring and understanding heart on the inside. What did I do to deserve you, the bard wondered softly. How is it that those hands that kill so easily are so gentle to me? And better yet, why me of all people?
"Not transparent, my bard," she smiled gently, cupping Gabrielle behind the head to place a kiss on her forehead. "I know you." Then she pushed the younger woman down on the bed and combed long fingers through strawberry blonde hair, untangling the knots she found there with gentleness. Until the emerald eyes fluttered closed and the breathing evened to a soft rise and fall of her chest.
Save for a few well placed candles, the room was dark when Gabrielle awoke. She scanned her surroundings quickly, slightly frightened, not liking to wake up in strange places and not liking to be alone.
"I'm here," the warrior's deep husky voice reached her from across the room where she'd apparently been sitting and looking out the opened window. Gabrielle watched the dark woman surrounded by darkness, living in darkness, for a long moment before shaking her head and pulling back the blankets her companion must have tossed on her while she slept.
"Did I sleep too long?" Gabrielle rose from the bed to stretch and then straighten her skirt and top.
"No. Still no Gregor. I've been watching Argo." And you, she added silently, not turning her eyes away from the window but easily recalling the younger woman's features relaxed in sleep.
Gabrielle crossed the room and rested a hand on her friend's shoulder, playing idly with the armor there. "You can see her?"
"Hmmm," Xena nodded and pointed across the courtyard where the palomino mare stood silently in her paddock, golden coat highlighted by the dancing torches mounted along the walls. The sun had long since set and the breeze that blew in the window and engulfed them with invisible tendrils was cool and smelled vaguely of a rain to come. "Are you hungry?"
"Yes," the bard placed her other hand on her bare midriff as if to cover a silent grumbling.
Xena smiled, though she tried to hide it from the bard lest her companion interpret it as condescending or ridiculing when it was actually wrought of fondness for the fair haired woman at her side. "There's still some bread," she offered as her gaze remained directed to the window, still not able to look at her friend for fear of showing too much in her eyes of what she'd been thinking while Gabrielle slept.
"I think I'll wait for dinner." Gabrielle watched out the window as well, her hand straying much of its own mind into the other woman's hair where she tangled her fingers affectionately in starkly dark tresses which looked uninviting but were soft and delicate in her caress.
Xena didn't respond but enjoyed the sensations nonetheless. She'd never in her life looked forward to the touch of another like she did Gabrielle's: a hug, a pat, a gentle squeeze. Dangerous territory. Does she know what I feel in her touch? Does she know how easy it would be to cross the line we've never even considered?
Neither was sure of how much time had passed as they quietly relished the silence and the feel of each other's presence before there was a knock on the chamber door. Gabrielle extricated her fingers with a bashful grin as Xena stood. The warrior flashed her a rare vibrant smile that reached her ice blue eyes and was meant only for this light woman. Don't be ashamed, bard.
Gregor was taller than Xena by half a head, forcing Gabrielle to tilt her neck slightly when she smiled her greeting. He had dark hair that tangled to his shoulders and dark eyes that didn't express humor though the compassion in them was unmistakable. He smiled when he saw Xena and scooped her into a bear hug which she returned more readily than Gabrielle had expected.
She stepped back and tugged gently at her companion's arm until she stepped forward to be part of their conversation. Then she introduced the bard to their host.
"Now I understand," Gregor smiled upon meeting the young woman, his eyes flashed to Xena. "I was curious when I received your note. Why would an ex-warlord want to meet with an ex-commander? Now that the bard is here-"
But Xena interrupted him with a hand on his arm and a finger to her lips. Had Gabrielle been able to see her face, she would have seen the gentle mischief sparkling in eyes darkened to a cobalt blue.
"Ah. It's a surprise is it?"
And Gabrielle laughed, unable to remain silent any longer. "I want to know!"
"Soon, Gabrielle," Xena smiled to both her host and her friend before placing a hand at the small of Gabrielle's back and escorting her out of the room.
Dinner was a large affair with everyone from Gregor to the kitchen staff to the stable boy piled around a huge table. The chat was idle and non threatening though Gregor had hinted at some issues he wanted to discuss with Xena after dinner.
Xena watched Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye, having inconveniently been seated across the table and down several seats from her, to ensure she was eating. And found herself disappointed when the bard didn't even finish one plateful of the delicious food set before them. Instead she spoke animatedly with the two young women sitting on either side of her.
When the majority rose from the table and began to help in the clearing of platters and goblets, Xena winked at Gregor who nodded. Then she wove her way through the crowd to Gabrielle, which wasn't hard as those in her way parted easily to make a path for this tall dark woman clad in leather and armor. The warrior barely noticed their movement from her, having become used to it after so long.
But Gabrielle did notice and furrowed her brow slightly, bothered by the way others treated her companion.
"Come with me, bring your goblet," Xena tugged at her friend's elbow, not noticing, or at least not commenting, at the state of Gabrielle's brow.
"Just let me help clean up," Gabrielle argued, trying to free her arm, already knowing it was a lost cause. Xena refilled her goblet with wine and placed it back in the bard's hand.
Xena just looked at her, no more words, but a gentle tinge in those sapphire eyes that melted Gabrielle without effort and reminded the bard how little her companion ever wanted or asked for. So she followed the warrior, taking a sip from the wine and realizing it was her third goblet that evening.
The surprise was well worth the wait as Gregor and Xena opened heavy wooden doors about halfway down the largest main floor hall and they each stepped aside. Revealing to Gabrielle a huge room filled with scrolls. The room was as tall as the building itself, taking up three stories, with balconies and ladders, spiral steps, and parchments of writing everywhere. Wall sconces lit the area well and reflected off of comfortable chairs and tables, softening in the expanses of woven rugs that covered the stone floor.
She looked to Xena, speechless, her eyes moist.
"No, no, my bard," Xena laughed, enveloping her friend in a hug. "Don't cry. I just thought you'd want to read some other work since you weren't feeling so much like writing yourself anymore. Gregor has the biggest collection I've ever seen."
"Thank you," she whispered into Xena's neck, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. She took a few deep breaths and held the dark woman close enough to feel her armor biting into soft pale skin.
"You go do some searching, Gabrielle. Gregor and I have a couple other issues to discuss," she disentangled herself from the bard, making sure none of the wine had spilled, and gave her a gentle shove into the room.
Gregor set a flask of wine he'd been carrying on the closest reading table. "Enjoy yourself Gabrielle the bard. Be comfortable."
The doors closed behind her and she had no clue where to begin.
When Xena returned to her room much later, she found it empty. So she examined Gabrielle's room with the same barren results. She decided to go drag her friend away from the scrolls as it was more than halfway through the night and Gabrielle would be exhausted when the sunlight came in just a few hours time.
She found the bard sitting in a comfortable looking high backed chair in the middle of the room, scrolls spread on her lap and the table in front of her. More scrolls by her feet.
"Hey you," Xena called softly as she fully entered the room and Gabrielle's eyes flicked up to meet hers.
"Hey," she smiled.
Xena picked up the wine flask which rested on the table next to the scrolls and felt its heaviness ... or lack of. It was nearly empty. "How do you feel?"
"Fine. Great! I've just been reading through this stack of scrolls and it's fascinating. History, politics. I may start on some more fictional reading tomorrow," her eyes moved back to trace the written words before her.
"Have you stood recently?"
"Hmmm?" she looked up. "No. Why?"
"You've had quite a bit to drink, Gabrielle," said without rancor or teasing, just a gentle statement. Intense blue eyes took in the exquisite scene before her of her companion nestled warmly in a large chair, feet tucked under her, long red blonde tresses indicating a hand had pushed them back countless times.
"Well, I feel it a little bit. A little fuzzy. I just lost track of what I was drinking I guess." Fuzzy enough apparently to miss the gentle scrutiny of the dark woman still standing several paces away.
"Why don't you come to bed? We can stay here several days, Gabrielle."
The young woman nodded, glad she'd be able to get some more reading in, and placed the scrolls from her lap to the table. Then jumped up to her feet and swayed. Xena stepped forward immediately to catch her elbow.
"Sorry. I guess I did have more than I thought," she dropped her eyes from the piercing blue of her companion's interpreting that look as annoyance rather than the concern it really was.
"Don't be sorry. C'mon," her words were soft and kind, contradicting what the bard thought she saw, and she kept her hand securely around Gabrielle's upper arm as they made their way upstairs to the guest rooms they'd been assigned. Without hesitation Xena led Gabrielle to her own room, disregarding the one farther down the hall where the bard had been shown earlier in the day. She placed Gabrielle gently on the bed and started to remove her boots with deft fingers.
"You don't have to coddle me, Xena," the fair haired woman said softly, even as she lost herself in the touch and examined the dark head bowed before her with increasing interest. "I really am okay ... just a little tipsy."
Xena smiled, not looking up from her task of pulling unlaced boots away from slender legs. "I don't mind," but then a thought occurred to her as she ran a hand along the other woman's recently freed calf muscle. "Do you?" she glanced up questioningly, meeting a gentle green gaze.
"No," laughed the bard, not noticing the slight trepidation that had been in her companion's voice. "I love it." A pause, then a twinkle in those emerald eyes as they met ice blue. "I love you."
Xena's turn to laugh softly and even blush slightly though it was barely noticeable in the dark hue of her skin. How could she have been worried? She knew Gabrielle better than anyone in the world. "Love you, too, my bard," the casualness of the statement belying the strong emotions behind the words. She finished removing Gabrielle's boots and tossed them casually to the corner of the room by the rest of their belongings. Then she started rifling through a saddle bag and threw a linen shirt in Gabrielle's direction.
"Thanks," the young blonde stripped herself quickly, not the least bit concerned that Xena was in the room with her, then pulled the shirt over her head and threw herself backwards on the bed, spreading arms and legs in relaxation.
"Comfortable?" Xena smirked, raising a thin dark eyebrow in an arch.
"Mmhmm," the bard agreed. "Are you going to send me to my own room?" she pouted, flashing expressive eyes up to her friend.
"I can share," Xena countered off handedly, slipping into a sleeping shirt herself before sitting on the edge of the bed, the only room the other woman had allowed her. "The question is, can you?"
Gabrielle smiled and moved over on the bed, closer to the wall to give Xena the outside which she preferred. Xena settled next to her and watched the laughing eyes as the bard reclined on her side, head resting in her left hand.
"Did you like your surprise?" the warrior inquired in a quiet tone, the way she stretched out on the bed reminding Gabrielle of a deceptively relaxed predator, extreme power and grace in a supple form. Eyes glinted at her and showed nothing the bard hadn't seen before: humor, gentleness.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said softly and found herself reaching almost involuntarily towards the other woman, drawn inexplicably to trace the well planed cheekbone with her index finger and then wrapping that nimble finger in a tendril of black hair. "Why are you so kind to me after everything I've done?" the bard asked suddenly, moving her eyes from their concentration of dark hair around pale finger to find the other woman's eyes had been closed, savoring the touch.
The question surprised Xena and she blinked sleepy eyes back open to lean in conspiratorially. "You deserve the utmost in kindness, Gabrielle. I'm honored to have you beside me. You mean everything to me."
The smaller woman lay on her back again, her once giddy mood now turned somber as she considered these words and the truth behind them. Her companion was a woman of few words so these last sentences were all the more poignant for knowing the warrior's intractable nature. "I killed Solan."
She'd never said it before, never fully voiced the guilt she lived with every day. Had Xena been drinking or eating, she surely would have choked with the shock of the simple statement. Oh, Gabrielle, don't do this now. We have the rest of our lives to talk about this. I want you to be happy here. But out loud she simply said, "No you didn't, Gabrielle."
"Hope was my responsibility and I let it happen." There were no tears, the young woman almost beyond the point of crying as the familiar ache raised its head and gnawed horribly on her insides. She wondered vaguely on some plane if her inebriated state could in any way facilitate this conversation, knew it couldn't, knew she should stop talking and just close her eyes and go to sleep. And endure the inevitable nightmares that would follow.
Xena reached one hand out to brush fingertips against the other woman's cheek, urging her friend to meet her eyes and see her conviction in their blue depths.
But Gabrielle wouldn't respond to the unspoken request, instead fluttering her eyes closed and murmuring softly, "If I'd listened to you and killed her. Then ..."
"Don't do this," Xena moved now to lean over her friend, tracing her fair wrinkled brow then brushing back her hair. "I forgive you, Gabrielle. Please forgive yourself. I'm even more guilty. I never should have asked you to do what I did. I never should have forgotten your feelings or your trust. Or your innocence. You shouldn't have been in Britannia, I dragged you there. It was my fault." She kissed her forehead. "I brought you here to make you happy, not to bring all this up."
Gabrielle opened her eyes again to watch her companion intently, still fighting an alcohol induced haze and a bout of self hatred. But she focused on the ice blue eyes in front of her and the genuine emotion she saw there: trust, compassion, forgiveness, guilt ... and love. And slowly her own raw feelings and the haze won over and she found herself leaning forward, tentatively, giving Xena every chance in the world to back away.
But the warrior's eyes were flashing through her own thoughts and confusions, sharing the desire but wanting, as always, to protect the woman before her. Their lips touched softly, with barely any pressure, and Gabrielle's eyes slid closed.
Their lips parted briefly, eyes blinking open. Sapphire met emerald in a long moment of silence filled with unspoken words of devotion and love.
Then Gabrielle found herself wanting more, leaning forward to press her lips harder into the woman above her, reaching up to wrap her fingers in the shirt at her fingertips. A tumbling sensation of velvet lips and softer tongue, warm saliva that tasted lightly of mead. She moaned softly. For several long moments they were lost in the sensations of each other, mouths gliding over mouths, tongues searching, hands wandering.
Finally, Xena backed off, withdrawing her tongue from the bard's mouth, licking those lips on the way out. Her breath was short and rapid, the desire in her climbing much more rapidly than she found comfortable.
Gabrielle looked up to meet Xena's eyes and the warrior saw doubt in those green depths, fear of rejection while she was sure her own eyes reflected the desire and love she'd been trying to hide until this moment. "Not here, not now, my bard," Xena whispered. "You've had too much wine."
"I want you. I can feel it and I haven't before," and it was a true though vague statement. She had never felt desire rolling through her abdomen and pelvic region as she did now. Not even with her late husband ... that encounter having been short and painful.
"Shh, I know. Gods do I know," Xena whispered, framing the younger woman's face between large hands. "But I want you to have time to think about this and I want you to be sober."
"Please?" barely a whimper as an emerald gaze searched the face above her but Xena closed her eyes against the waves of emotion.
"Not tonight, Gabrielle. But I swear to Zeus that if you feel this way without wine, I'll be glad to reciprocate," Xena assured her, hands framing fair face while thumbs stroked Gabrielle's cheeks.
The bard's fingers relaxed but stayed where they were. "Would you be ... would you be all right with a woman? Is it okay ... to feel this way?" Xena saw confusion on the face she held with large but delicate hands.
She smiled. "I would, I know. And what's right is what you feel, in your heart, not what others think and say. You need to decide for yourself if you could be happy with a woman. You need to be sure that what you feel here, right now, is your heart speaking and not your feelings of guilt or loneliness."
The fair-haired woman's features softened to gentle understanding and the eyes followed Xena as she lay down on her back, pulling the bard with her into a hug. "Sleep, Gabrielle. We have plenty of time to discuss this later."
Surprisingly, the young bard's desire ebbed relatively quickly and she found herself snuggling down and sleeping in just a short amount of time. Xena, however, was far from dreaming with the heat of her friend seeping easily through their shirts as if it were skin on skin.
For the first time in a very long time, Gabrielle woke of her own volition before sunlight slanted through the window onto the stone floor. Her ear rested securely between Xena's right shoulder and breast. And one arm, which had started the evening curled up, afraid to touch, was now spread across the other woman's abdomen with abandon. She checked all of her senses quickly: hearing her heartbeat and gentle breath, smelling the linen beneath her cheek, seeing the gentle rise and fall of the chest at her eye level. What was Xena thinking, what would she feel? Did Xena pity the young bard for her naive advances? Her stomach lurched lightly with nervousness.
"'Morning," her pillow spoke softly and it was then that Gabrielle realized there was a warm secure arm wrapped around her. That had to be a good sign ... didn't it?
"Is it?" Gabrielle asked sleepily, stretching her limbs slightly without truly moving at all.
"Getting there. How do you feel, Gabrielle?"
"Good. How about you?" the bard answered with trepidation in that normally lilting voice.
"Fine. Why are you awake?" the warrior's dark voice was gentle as she tried to feel out if the bard had any regrets from their late night actions.
"Couldn't sleep anymore," stated simply with an accompanying slight shrug of linen covered shoulders.
Silence for several long moments.
"Gabrielle, look at me," Xena reached a hand under the bard's chin and pulled gently, wanting to see her face.
The smaller woman shifted, bringing her forearm up between Xena's breasts and leaning her weight on it as she lifted her upper body off the warrior to meet her eyes.
Xena smiled, touched Gabrielle's nose with the tip of her finger, met sleepy green eyes that showed only minimal embarrassment in the dark.
"Is your mouth dry?" the warrior raised one eyebrow with her question and Gabrielle wandered how she was able to do that.
The bard worked her tongue along inner cheeks and teeth for a minute before nodding to Xena. "Let me get you some water," she started to move but Gabrielle shook her head.
"I'll get it." She got up gingerly and climbed over the warrior to plant bare feet on the floor and pad over to the cool stone pitcher. She poured a cup, drank it standing up, then poured another to carry back to the bed where she sat on the side, facing away from her friend.
Xena raised a hand and rubbed the bard's back, smoothing the flat of her palm down the young woman's spine and then digging gentle but thorough fingers into the tense muscles she found at the small of her back. And though her motions may have been conceived as sensual, they were merely meant to offer support to her companion.
"Umm ..." Gabrielle started with no real conviction and paused for a long enough time that Xena wasn't really sure she planned to continue.
Do I let her off the hook? Give her the alcohol as an excuse? "Gabrielle, if you want to forget last night ... I can do that." But I don't want to, my bard. I'll follow your lead, this time, since you always loyally follow mine. No questions asked.
The muscles tensed under her fingertips at the same time the bard's linen clad shoulders sagged. "Do you want to forget?" A voice so tiny anyone but Xena might not have heard it.
Xena massaged the muscles again for a very long silent moment. The right thing to do, she told herself, would be to say yes. Gabrielle deserved someone besides this gruff ex-warlord with a sordid past and a treacherous future. But they'd been all right so far. Gabrielle had never been forced to stay at the warrior's side. She was old enough and certainly wise enough to make her own decisions. So Xena mentally ripped up her plan and threw it out the window. "No." One word with so much meaning.
The muscles relaxed though Gabrielle still didn't turn to face her companion. "Really?"
"Yeah," Xena said softly. "Really."
"I feel a little nervous ... awkward ..."
"It's just me, Gabrielle. And you. We know each other better than we know ourselves. Now there's just more ... action. Same feelings."
Gabrielle laughed very softly. "That's the part that worries me."
"Come here," Xena pulled the bard backwards and then down onto the bed to tuck her back into the spot on her shoulder she'd recently left. The warrior placed the mug of water on the floor by the bed. "Relax." Xena stroked Gabrielle's shoulders and back, trying to offer comfort.
The smaller woman leaned into the touch, letting the tension leave her as the warrior's closeness provided safety and solace. Slowly, Xena's touch wandered further down Gabrielle's back, then along her ribs, her other hand caressing an arm, reaching between them to stroke her stomach.
"Relax, my bard," Xena whispered again, fingers trailing lightly over linen covered skin. Gabrielle moved up Xena's body and turned to face her, their lips so close they were breathing the same air. The bard's eyes moved from Xena's lips to her eyes as if asking permission.
Xena smiled gently and tilted her head forward, kissing Gabrielle very lightly, small nibbles along her lower lip which she covered immediately with a soothing tongue.
She proceeded slowly, allowing the bard to set the pace but continuing her caresses. She could feel the heat rising in her already from the anticipation of sliding against Gabrielle's body, of consummating a relationship they started long ago.
Soon Gabrielle had moved so she lay completely on the warrior and Xena shifted her hips, spreading her legs to allow the bard to lay between them. Their kisses had become eager and hungry, each seeking more from the other, a twining of tongues and lips. Xena moved her caresses under her partner's shift, her large hands rubbing the soft skin on the woman's back and lowering to her ribs and the outside of her breasts. She could feel Gabrielle's labored breaths in the rhythm of her ribs, and could hear the gentle moans despite her own sounds of pleasure.
Xena rose her hips to the bard's, instinct finally taking over with the small woman's gentle movements while nestled between her legs. Gabrielle shuddered with the pressure against her center and closed her eyes but grew less active in her kisses and when Xena ran her hands back to their previous position in the small of the bard's back, she felt the tension had returned. So she slowed as well, placing gentle kisses on Gabrielle's cheeks and forehead, concentrating on keeping her hips still even though she was still incredibly aroused. When she felt more in control, she raised her hands to Gabrielle's face and smoothed her hair back, then pressed the bard's head against her shoulder.
They lay in silence for several long moments, each regaining breath and equilibrium.
"I'm sorry, Xena," the bard whispered at last. "I just ... I'm not ready yet."
"Don't apologize," Xena took Gabrielle's chin in her hand and raised her face so they could see each other's eyes. "There's nothing to apologize for. The only boundaries we need to be concerned about are the ones we set. And it doesn't matter where those are as long as we're both comfortable with them."
"I've never felt that ... way before. Is that normal?" Gabrielle settled herself back against the warrior's shoulder but didn't get off of her.
Xena smiled, glad the bard couldn't see her face for fear she might feel she was being ridiculed. "It can be. When emotions are high and the situation is right. What about Perdicus?" Her voice was gentle and her hands smoothed the linen shirt over her partner's back and hips.
"We only did anything that one night and it was ... not so good. He was in a hurry, I guess, he'd waited so long. And I was pretty nervous. I'd never done anything before that ... and I didn't realize it was supposed to hurt like that. He tried to be gentle, I know he did. But I guess something was wrong with me." She spoke softly, but she wasn't afraid to share this with Xena so the words came fairly easily and smoothly.
"I don't think it was you, Gabrielle," Xena whispered gently, her fingers moving up to caress the young woman's head and neck. "Sometimes, when you're nervous or apprehensive, the body can't ... get ready right. And it can be dry or hurt. The first time almost always hurts."
Gabrielle nodded. She did remember it that way.
"So, when we're ready to do that, we'll take our time and be sure you're not nervous."
"Why didn't Perdicus ..."
"You were both young, Gabrielle. He loved you and did his best but he didn't know any better than you did." The warrior did an excellent job of disguising the pain this topic brought to her. Letting Gabrielle go and then watching her friend's husband die were not two of her proudest moments in life.
"There's a lot we can do: hug, touch, kiss," Xena offered softly after a moment or two of silence, kissing her young friend on the top of strawberry blonde hair.
"I really like the sound of that," Gabrielle whispered, snuggling deeper into Xena's embrace.
"Go back to sleep, it's still dark outside, my bard," Xena's voice was husky and barely audible though it was right next to Gabrielle's ear.
Gabrielle moved, "Should I get on the bed?" she asked sheepishly.
"Stay where you are. It's comfortable."
So she did and soon both women had fallen asleep again, while the thundering clouds finally broke open and released sheets of cool and clear rain.
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