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Time seemed to grind to a halt, eternity encased in a single heartbeat, as Xena brushed Gabrielle's lips with her own. The lightest of caresses, merely the suggestion of a warm breath, but jagged lightning coursed along her raw nerves in response. Both women pulled back as if they'd been burned, astonishment and desire warring for dominance in two pairs of eyes. In that timeless moment between what had passed and what was to come, lightning also crashed outside their makeshift shelter, splintering the tree that sheltered Argo.
The frightened horse bucked and screamed, dancing away from falling branches and smouldering debris. One branch fell before her eyes, severing her tether, and once free she careened off into the driving rain as though the Furies themselves persued her.
Xena swore and vaulted out of the bedroll, shrugging into her clothes."Stay here! Whatever you do, don't go back out into the rain, or you'll freeze to death. I'll be back." With that she was out and running through the downpour after Argo.
Gabrielle fell back into the blankets, pounding her fist against the ground in helpless frustration.
She slept peacefully in the light of the false dawn by the time Xena returned, leading a slightly lame Argo on an improvised vine halter. The storm had broken around midnight, but it had taken her the rest of the night to track down the frightened mare.
She sat down, unconsciously positioning herself so she could gaze at Gabrielle's sleeping face. In the dim twilight her mind raced and crawled, putting together different scenarios like puzzle pieces. She wondered if the previous night had been nothing more than a fever dream. None of it seemed real, here in the light of morning... not the closeness, the declaration of love, nor what had almost happened afterwards. Perhaps her sleeping mind had deceived her, trying desperately to soothe an aching heart...
Xena sat motionless, brooding, until Gabrielle finally stirred and fought her way out of the depths of sleep. Then, suddenly unprepared to meet her friend's eyes, she set about pulling food from the packs and putting together a cold breakfast.
"I know of a good inn near here, I thought we might want to stay there tonight. It's only half a day's walk, if the rain doesn't start again, but with you frozen half to death and Argo throwing a shoe, I thought we could all use a warm bed and a hot supper...."
Gabrielle nodded, mumbling around a mouthful of bread that she thought that was a wonderful idea. So they gathered up their things, breaking the load into packs *they* could carry, since Argo certainly couldn't.
They were delayed several times by swollen streams, since Xena insisted on finding a way around that would keep Gabrielle as dry as possible. As a result, it was closer to evening than mid-day before they got anywhere near the tavern. Gabrielle had been uncharacteristically quiet the whole day, and Xena couldn't help but brood over what that might mean. Perhaps last night HAD happened, and Gabrielle was having second thoughts about what she'd said...
Xena was so distracted by her doubts, in fact, that she almost didn't hear the sound of swords clashing until it was too late. She pulled Argo up short of the thicker underbrush and left Gabrielle holding the reigns. "I'll be right back." she whispered, and sprinted ahead before Gabrielle could object.
In the verge of the well trodden road, two men did their best to kill each other, while beside them the young woman that was chained to their wagon struggled with her bonds, trying desperately to break free. She jerked and pulled, obviously hoping to wrench the chain free of it's moorings, but her efforts seemed to have little effect other than the damage done to her arm.
The men seemed very evenly matched, but then the taller slipped in a patch of mud, dropping his guard for a brief moment. That was all the opening the other man needed, and he laughed as he slid the lifeless body off his blade. "Try to cheat me out of MY share of the profits, will you? Steal the girl and sneak off when I wasn't looking? Well, not this time, Thesalonious. Not this time." Then he turned back towards the frantic slave girl. "And now for you, you conniving little bitch!"
Before he could do anything else unpleasant, Xena stepped out of the bush with a sarcastic jibe. "Easy enough to conquer a woman who's already in chains. Are you man enough to take one that's still free?"
He shook his head, waving her away. "This is none of your affair, bitch. What I do with my property is *my* business, and if you know what's good for you you'll move along. I have no quarrel with you, yet." Xena strode closer, quickly getting within striking range of the bully. "Well, maybe I have a quarrel with you... "
Growling in annoyance the big man charged her, swinging wildly. She blocked his sword easily, and sent him sprawling on the ground with a firm kick in the pants. "You'll have to do better than that, unless you intend to give up now and let the girl be . . ." He got up and attacked again, this time taking Xena more seriously. They tussled back and forth, and she was breathing hard and grinning like a madwoman by the time he finally forced her to kill him. She knelt, taking a moment to clean her bloody sword on his tunic and try to regain her composure before standing back up.
Only then did she turn to get a better look at the slave girl. Self-consciously aware of the big woman's eyes on her, the girl straightened up and struck a confident pose, belied only by the trembling of her hands and the slow trickle of blood from her wrist. She was beautiful, long curly chestnut hair setting off coffee colored skin, and brilliant green eyes raised to meet Xena's in a defiant stare.
"He was a liar, you know. I'm not a slave. I bought myself three days ago, and I'm a free woman. My mistress would've granted me my freedom long since, but her father wouldn't allow it. He said it set a bad precedent, just setting slaves free. So I saved up every dinar I could lay hands on for years, and finally bought my life back." She paused, looking at Xena and wondering what the warrior woman intended. "I'll die before I go back to that. I mean it. If you try to sell me to the slavers, I'll kill myself. Then you'll get nothing for me at all. . ."
Xena shook her head. "Don't get all worked up, I have no intention of selling you to any slavers. Whether you were free or not before, you are now. Just let me get that chain off of you, and you can do whatever you want."
Xena pulled the keys off of the dead man, and bent over the former slave to undo the lock, heart racing and blood still pounding in her ears from the fight. The girl was wearing a musky perfume that made it hard to concentrate on the recalcitrant lock. . . she was more than slightly flushed by the time she stepped away and dropped the keys nonchalantly in the wagon. Damnit, it had been a long time . . . she shook her head, cutting off that line of thought before it could get started. Turning back towards the wood's edge, she missed the look that flickered across the girl's face. A strange mixture of relief and disappointment, it was quickly replaced by curiosity as Xena called for her companion.
"You can come out now, Gabrielle. It's safe." The bard led Argo out of the underbrush and handed the reigns to Xena, looking over her shoulder inquiringly. "Who's the girl?" Xena shrugged noncommittally.
"My name is Rhea." The green eyed girl rubbed her wrist where the chain had chaffed it raw. "Listen, I wanted to thank you for, well, for not being like them..." she gestured towards the dead men. "I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions, but it's been a while since I've met anyone who was even remotely trustworthy. You forget that there are good people out there, sometimes . . ."
Xena nodded. "I know. No offense taken, I know what it's like out there. So where do you plan on heading, now that you're free?"
Rhea shrugged, bemused. "I hadn't really decided. The only home I'd ever known was with my mistress, I was born in her family's house. Once I had my freedom, I took a cheap room in the local inn, buying time to think about what to do next. Then the slavers caught me, and I haven't thought about much else except getting away . . ."
Gabrielle nodded sympathetically. "I was captured by slavers once. It wasn't condusive to deep thought. But luckily Xena rescued me, so I have more time to think now . . . hey, what kind of things can you do? Maybe we can help you figure out someplace to go where you can find work, so you can support yourself . . ."
"Do? Well, I was a lady's maid. You know, drawing baths, laying out clothes, running errands; anything she wanted me to, really. But generally, people who want that kind of service get a slave..."
Gabrielle pondered this while Xena dragged the dead bodies off of the roadside and dug a shallow grave. Then they went through the things in the wagon, discarding the dead men's clothing and other useless items. When they were done they were left with a small store of money, supplies, and of course the wagon and the horse that pulled it. Xena hefted the small pouch of Dinars in her hand and then handed it to Rhea.
"All this stuff is yours now, if you want it. You can probably get quite a bit for the horse and wagon, and that'll be something to live on until you decide what you want to do."
Rhea gawked at the money in her hand, disbelieving. "That's twice what I saved to buy my freedom, and you're just going to give it to me?"
Xena shrugged and nodded. "It's money they made selling people like you into slavery, I think its only fair that you should get some of it back."
Prohibiting further discussion on the subject, Gabrielle dragged Xena off a ways to talk to her in private. Rhea watched them covertly, fascinated by the complexity of their interaction. The way Gabrielle touched Xena's arm, almost a caress, spoke volumes about their relationship. But a slave's life often depends on interpreting their master's whims and moods correctly, and she was practiced enough to see that there was more going on here than was immediately apparent. The way Xena moved stiffly, awkwardly, and yet still tender... as though she wanted to back away, but at the same time needed to step closer. Rhea's curiosity grew by leaps and bounds, trying to figure out what was keeping these two apart. For apart they certainly were, no matter how intimate the stance.
But they didn't give her time to figure it out, instead returning with the suggestion that she should accompany them to the inn they planned to stay at that evening. It didn't require much to convince her since she had *no* desire to sleep under open sky without so much as a watch dog to keep her safe. Besides, it seemed like things with these two could get interesting . . .
Xena shook her head as she walked back over to the table. "The inn is full. The owner said he has one small room left, and that's the attic. It has only one bed, and no room for spreading out pallets, but that's the best he can do."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It's better than sleeping outside, especially since it's raining again. . ." Xena nodded and went off to find inn-keeper and pay him for the room.
After diner they dropped their bags in the tiny attic room and headed down to the communal baths. The landlord had assured them that no one else was there at the moment, so they'd have the place to themselves.
When they arrived, a servant handed them soft, clean bathsheets, and showed them into the anteroom. "I'm afraid it isn't the Baths in Athens, with marble pools and statues. But there is hot water in the large wooden tub, cold in the smaller one, and buckets and scrub brushes to wash yourself over the grate before you climb in to soak. Please feel free to ring the bell, if there's anything you need, and someone will be right with you. Enjoy..."
The anteroom was luxuriously warm, and Gabrielle looked forward to climbing into the hot water. She hadn't felt really warm since her dunking of the previous day. She sat down on a bench to take off her footgear, and found herself fascinated by the smooth line of a bare leg across the room. Rhea had taken off her outer skirt, and was wearing only by a brief shift. Then she lifted that over her head, revealing a beautiful back crisscrossed by thin whip scars. Gabrielle fought down an impulse to reach out and trace the lines with her hand, and ask who had been so cruel... She hadn't intended to stare, but she found herself blushing inexplicably anyway when Rhea turned around and caught her looking. She jerked her eyes away, fussing with the ties on her dress, and so she missed the slow smile that lit Rhea's eyes. But Xena caught it, and her face went suddenly blank and unreadable. Rhea made eye contact with her deliberately, raising an eyebrow, but Xena only shook her head and finished taking off her armor.
Once they were in the bathing room the tension eased somewhat. Gabrielle prattled on, telling stories of Xena's adventures, and Rhea entertained them with tales of life in a rich metropolitan House. She was bright and witty, even making Xena laugh a time or two, and they continued their banter on the way back up to the room.
Rhea was the first through the door, and giggling, she bounced to the middle of the room, whirling around to face the others. "And so, in the words of the famous poet Sappho when she visited my mistress and her lover of the moment: 'This dispute is easy to resolve, my dears. One of you on either side, and I shall take the middle!' . . ." With that she collapsed backwards theatrically, striking the bed dead center, arms folded over her chest in a comic death pose. After a moment she cracked one eye open to look at her companions. "Well, are you coming to bed or do you intend to stay there all night? Not that I mind having the bed to myself, mind you. . ."
Gabrielle laughed, and throwing her hands up in the air, shrugged and crawled in next to the wall, leaving the outside to Xena.
There was room for the three of them, but not quite enough for comfort, and Gabrielle tossed and turned for quite some time. Xena, on the other hand, was quickly taking the deep, even breaths of a dreamless sleeper. Finally Gabrielle settled in on her side, facing the wall, her back pressed up against Rhea's side.
Rhea, snugged in between the two, was far from sleep however. She lay still, biding her time, waiting. When she was fairly certain that Xena was asleep, and just as sure that Gabrielle was *not*, she casually rolled over, tossing an arm over the bard as though she did it in her sleep. She held her breath, but got no reaction other than a distinct tensing of Gabrielle's muscles.
Minutes passed with agonizing slowness, and eventually she shifted, allowing her hand to 'accidentally' brush against Gabrielle's breast. This time she was rewarded with a tiny gasp, and the feel of a nipple hardening instantly against her palm. When the bard didn't slap her, or roll away, she let her fingers wander more freely, stroking over breast and stomach, teasing playfully through the thin fabric of the sleeping robe. She trailed a seeking hand down the outside of the firmly muscled thigh, and back up along the inner surface, promising more but never *quite* taking the motion to it's logical conclusion.
Gabrielle's breath grew sharp and ragged, though she was doing her best to keep quiet. The move had completely surprised her, but it had also set her instantly aflame, setting long bottled up tensions free to play havoc with her body. She suppressed a shudder, suddenly afraid that Xena would wake at any moment, and wondering how she would explain the situation. . .
Rhea, occupied with Gabrielle, lost track of time and simply luxuriated in the heady rush of sensation. But after a while, something suddenly struck her as different. It took her a moment to figure out what it was. Xena's breath, that had been so deep and steady before, was now definitely following the pattern of someone wide awake. As she shifted ever so slightly, Xena held her breath, obviously trying not to draw attention to the fact that she had woken.
Rhea grinned in delight, and nuzzled the back of Gabrielle's neck, eliciting a whispered moan. Every sense attuned, she could tell that Xena was listening, and that she was not disinterested in what was going on next to her. Greatly daring, Rhea, reached back and laid a gentle hand on Xena's thigh. The big warrior started violently, but did nothing to remove the hand that traced it's way slowly up her exposed leg.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle had noticed that Rhea's hand was suddenly busy elsewhere. She rolled over to face Rhea, just in time to see her caress Xena's breast. The slow fire within exploded into lightning as she realized that Xena was awake, and somehow the thought that she knew what Gabrielle and Rhea had been doing was both embarrassing and intoxicating, making her head spin.
Rhea noticed Gabrielle's renewed attention, and rolled so that she was facing the flushed bard, and Xena pressed herself up against Rhea's back, sandwiching her between them. Taking the initiative for the first time, Gabrielle kissed Rhea passionately, but her eyes strayed over Rhea's shoulder to Xena. Then Rhea's hands began to wander again, and all coherent thought was lost in a wave of sensation. It washed over her, almost cresting, but then receding as Rhea's hands stopped what they were doing. She opened her eyes in time to see Rhea gracefully shift herself over to the wall so that Gabrielle was left in the center, suddenly face to face with Xena. Time stopped as everyone paused, unsure of themselves and the situation. . .
But then Rhea reached around, circling Gabrielle's taut nipple with insistent fingers. Gabrielle shuddered and pressed herself against Xena, pleading with her whole body for release. Xena held back for a moment longer, but her resolve could not hold against the feel of Gabrielle's skin, the scent of her hair. . . Xena covered her moan with a kiss.
The deadlock broken, two sets of hands roamed over Gabrielle and set the tide rising again. This time nothing interrupted it's path, and the wave crashed over Gabrielle with a vengeance: ripples spreading through her again and again until she collapsed back against the sheets, spent.
When she had gotten her breath back somewhat she opened her eyes, and caught Xena in a fierce hug that turned into a fiery kiss. Shyly at first, but with growing confidence, she let her fingers trace over Xena's body, doing her best to reproduce what had been done to *her* a moment before. Still, never having done this before except in her imagination, she faltered for a moment, unsure of her direction. As if sensing her confusion, Rhea kissed her and covered her hand, guiding it gently with her own. Xena gasped as the fingers found their mark, and she rocked to the powerful rhythm. It wasn't long before her own pent up frustrations carried her over the edge, spiraling, spinning, flying . . .
An eternity later, glowing with smug satisfaction, Rhea propped herself up on one elbow. "I wondered if I was going to be able to get you two together. . . " Xena raised an eyebrow and then growled, a mock frown on her face. "How long had you been plotting it, vixen?"
Rhea, eyes wide and innocent, shook her head. "Why, whatever do you mean? It was pure chance, spur of the moment, after all, I've only known you for one day!"
Xena rolled over, straddling Rhea and pinning her arms above her head, while threatening to have Gabrielle tickle her. "We have ways of making you talk!"
Rhea squealed, laughing. "All right. All right! If you must know, from almost the first moment I saw you . . . you look quite dashing in your armor, you know! And then Gabrielle, walking out of the woods like a dryad . . . I was hopelessly entranced, bewitched . . . that's my story and I'm sticking to it!"
Xena laughed, and rolled off to the side, still keeping her grip on Rhea's wrists. "Well, now that we have your confession, only one thing remains. . . to decide your punishment! Gabrielle, what say you? What's the punishment for conspiracy and plotting?"
Gabrielle looked at Rhea, and then back to Xena, blushing. "Here, let me whisper it in your ear . . ."
After listening Xena grinned. "That's perfect." Rhea glanced back and forth at the two, waiting. "Well, are you going to tell me what it is?"
Xena shook her head. "No, I think we're going to show you instead . . ."
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