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Copyright Information: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and the various and sundry Amazons making cameo appearances all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I'm merely borrowing them for the time being.

General Disclaimers: Well... I lied. This is the fifth part of what was a five story arc called. "Chiaroscuro." But it's no longer a five part story arc. There's one chapter left. I really felt there was too much story to tell in one sitting. Oops. Please don't hurt me. The first four were "Tales of Dark and Light," "The Queen and the Soldier," "Innamorata," and "This Fire." Reading those are imperative if you don't want to be totally lost in this one.

Sex/Violence Disclaimers: Yes. And how. If the idea of two women falling in love and acting on doesn't work for you, then this is someplace you don't want to go. There is some reference to bad things, but no graphic violence. That's in the next one.

Thanks: Thanks to everyone who took the time to drop me a note with encouraging words and who are still hanging  in there with me. You guys have been great. :-) And I'm really really REALLY sorry it took so long. I promise that the conclusion will not be as long in coming. Hope you stick around for that one.

All questions, comments and other things are welcome at:    




There is a darkness inside us, and also a light. And sometimes both are wicked; and sometimes, both are love... Pain is not the same as suffering. We can have our sorrows and use them well, not just gyrate desperately to get rid of them. We can reach in and give and take. Reach in, or out, and be taken.

--Jenifer Levin

Part V: Time of Grace

"Oh gods, the celebration!" The bard smacked herself in the head in frustration. She and Xena were making their way back from the hot springs, having decided that it was probably best that they leave before they were completely poached in the warm water. Or one of us drowns... Gabrielle thought silently. Her head swam from the intense exchange the two had shared, and her skin still burned from the sensation of the warrior's lean body against hers. For better or worse, their relationship had irrevocably changed. This can't be happening... but, oh gods, it is... and I can't believe it...

"Love me."

Two words that seared themselves into the bard's soul. Two words she never expected to hear from those lips. But there they were, and the woman who said them was surrendering to the tender pressure of Gabrielle's fingertips against her throat...

And then she was wrapped around Xena, cursing the water droplets that separated them
infinitesimally and sinking into a kiss inspired by everything she had just learned about the
warrior-- about her pain, her fear, her desire...

"How could I have forgotten?" she moaned, watching various Amazons scurrying around the center square and lugging everything from wine casks to drums. The village hummed with the excitement of an imminent party, and preparations were well underway.

The low chuckle from the warrior beside her indicated that her companion obviously had no idea how dire their situation was.

"How much time to we have before the party starts, Xena?"

Eyeing the angle of the sun, the tall woman shrugged. "About a candlemark, I'd say."

Definitely not enough time. Not for... The bard's face flamed at the rampaging want in her body incited by Xena's all-too-brief touch.

Another chuckle told her that response had not gone unnoticed either.

"You are not helping here," she warned.

"Gabrielle, what's the problem?" The warrior's eyes, so recently suffused with both pain and passion, glimmered mischievously.

"The problem? The problem?" The bard's voice rose to a dangerously high octave, and Xena feared for the hearing of any animals in the vicinity. "Xena, in a candlemark this village is going to be filled with celebrating Amazons." Who are going to be lusting after you, Warrior Princess, her mind added with dismay.

Xena wasn't sure, but she thought Gabrielle actually whimpered a little at the thought. "Your point?" She tried again.

The smaller woman looked at her friend in exasperation. "But I thought... I mean that... we'd... well... you know." She finished weakly. "Don't you want to?"

Grasping the red-head's train of thought immediately, Xena smiled wolfishly. "Oh yeah," she drawled sensually, intense blue eyes sauntering down the length of Gabrielle's body.

The intimacy of the warrior's glance affected the bard like a physical touch. "Well... then..." She looked frantically at the bustling activity of the camp. She started to make her way to the Queen's hut, thinking least some time is better than none... when she was stopped by Xena's long fingers curling around her arm.

"Gabrielle," the husky voice rolled resonantly over the bard. "Where's your hurry?" she asked, gently tugging the woman back to her side.

"Well... you know... we need to..." Gabrielle jerked her head in the direction of the hut, "... Before the... you know..." Gods, I'm supposed to be a bard?

"Why the rush?" her friend teased. "Afraid you'll lose your nerve?" And was shocked to recognize a startled guilty flash dart across the green eyes. "You are, aren't you?" she asked quietly, an aching sadness creeping into her heart.

"Oh, Xena... no. I--" she began, wanting desperately to explain this burning need in her body; and the accompanying fear that if she didn't act on it immediately, it would vanish and never return. "I-- I do want you-- I'm just--" I have really got to work on this talking thing. What is wrong with me?

"Listen to me, Gabrielle," the warrior interrupted softly. "I know I'm not... the gentlest person in the world." That's putting it mildly. Steeling herself to continue, because it was important for Gabrielle to hear these words. "And for a long time I took what I wanted, when I wanted--" A brief look of regret pained her solemn features. The tall woman tilted the bard's chin up, forcing their eyes to meet. "But I want you to know something right now-- We control this. You and I. And I promise you, nothing is going to happen that is not exactly what we both want. When we both want it." Her words were quiet, but urgent. During their talk in the hot springs, the soul-torn warrior had placed what little trust she had left with the woman before her. Now she desperately needed Gabrielle to make the same gesture.

The smaller woman took a deep breath, exhaling slowly to calm her racing heart. "I know that, Xena." She smiled into her companion's worried gaze, thinking for the millionth time that there was no gods-created thing in the world more beautiful than those eyes. The nervous tension began to seep out of her muscles and was replaced by a relaxed warmth borne of the growing sensual connection they now shared. "I do," she whispered, drawing her fingertips across the slant of the warrior's cheek. "And I know that there are all kinds of ways we can express our feelings to each other," she continued. "It isn't always so--"

Xena turned her head to caress those fingertips with barely parted lips, eliciting a tiny sigh from the bard. "Overwhelming," the warrior finished in a low voice.

"Right." Gabrielle gasped as Xena slid her tongue down the length of two small fingers, drawing the tips into her mouth and nipping lightly at them with her teeth. "Although-- right now-- I'd have to-- say-- oh!-- that feels-- pretty--"

"Overwhelming," Xena repeated, releasing the hand with a quiet growl and a brilliant smile.

"You. Are. Bad." The Queen shook her head in reproach, but her smile answered the warrior's own as her heart lightened at hearing the tender reassurance.

Xena rolled her eyes, an innocent who me? expression on her face. "Come on, Your Highness." Linking Gabrielle's arm around hers in a gesture that surprised the bard. "The Amazons await you."

Well, actually, Xena... I'd say they're awaiting you. The bard-queen couldn't suppress a chuckle at the errant thought.

And got an armed eyebrow cocked in her direction. "Something amusing, My Queen?"

"You seem to be falling quite nicely into your responsibilities, Lieutenant," Gabrielle observed playfully.

"Well, we are in Amazonia," the warrior bantered.

"That's right. And don't you forget it." A wicked gleam peeked through the Queen's clear eyes. "And in that case..."

Xena knew this was going to be trouble.

"Could you please wear Amazon leathers tonight?"

A flawless sacrifice signaled the beginning of the festivities; and, as the full moon rose high over the Amazon village, it was indeed as if Artemis was smiling down on her Chosen Ones. Three blazing fires knocked the vague hint of a chill from the air and provided ample light for the drumming and dancing to come. Gabrielle appeared at Ephiny's side assisting in the sacrifice and wearing the deep crimson garb of the Queen-- her concession in exchange for Xena's wearing the Amazon leathers as requested. She scanned the crowd anxiously from the dais, but no sign of the Warrior Princess yet.

And it's not like I could miss her in this bunch, the Queen thought, suppressing a giggle. After haggling over their evening's attire for a short while, the warrior had given in with surprisingly little fuss... which made the bard a bit nervous. She was certain Xena would try to retaliate for getting roped into the celebration in the first place, especially since Gabrielle had so thoroughly quashed her attempts at evasion. Now the bard ran through a mental checklist of what her warrior friend might come up with. Hmm... okay, no water nearby, but there are horse troughs... Stay away from those... Tickling? Nah, too undignified for her to do in front of the Amazons. She wouldn't want to mess with her reputation. I'm safe there. Now, what could she do with food...?

The bard was so lost in her contemplation of potential booby-traps that she failed to notice the awed murmur rippling through the crowd.

"Gabrielle--" Ephiny whispered in her ear. Getting no response from her queen, she gave the small woman a sharp nudge in the ribs, followed by another, "Gabrielle!"

"Ow!" the bard startled at the jab. Rubbing her side, she turned irritated eyes to the Regent. "That hurt! Why did you--"

"Xena's here." Ephiny indicated with a nod of her head.

"Oh! Why didn't you just say so?" Finally turning around to see what the fuss was.

And was staggered by the vision on the ground just below her.

Xena had gone Gabrielle one better in fulfilling her request. Somewhere-- and the gods only knew where she had found them-- she had dug up the leathers that identified her as the Queen's champion. They were different from the typical Amazon warrior's garb in that the wrap-around skirt was dyed black, and the short top-- which revealed more of the dark woman's torso than it covered-- was a mix of black and the same crimson that Gabrielle wore. Soft mid-calf black boots completed the ensemble, exposing a long length of tanned leg.

Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe.

Standing just inside the circle of fire, the flames behind her, Xena seemed something more akin to the gods she so often railed against, rather than a merely mortal woman.

Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe.

Searing blue orbs were the center of the flames, the heart of the fire that burned deep inside the warrior. The Queen could see that plainly now. Everything Xena was and would be now laid bare before Gabrielle. With this silent gesture, she was asking for acceptance.

Now she eased through the still muttering crowd, making her way to the dais. In three long strides, she was by the Queen's side and offering a courtly bow. "My Queen," a velvet-toned address. "May I have the honor of accompanying you this evening?" She presented her arm to Gabrielle who hesitated only a moment before taking it with a regal nod. Realizing she was claiming something much more than an escort.

Gabrielle turned to the assembled crowd, praying she didn't look as stunned as she felt. One more official duty and then she could sit down, hopefully before her weak knees gave out on her. "In the name of Artemis, I declare the celebration underway!"

A cheer rose from the crowd.

The Queen and her soldier made their way gracefully down the dais towards the center fire, where Xena settled her neatly in a comfortable position. "May I bring you some dinner, Your Highness? Perhaps a cup of mulled ale?" Now amusement glimmered in her eyes, softening the intense blue that Gabrielle had almost drowned in while standing on the dais. The tension that had spiraled up to an almost unbearable level was released with their new understanding. Accedence had been asked and granted. Finally, they could play.

"No, I think Ephiny can take care of that, can't you Eph?" The Queen tossed the question over her shoulder at the still-gaping Regent.

"Huh? What? Oh-- dinner. Ale. Right. Be right back." The blond Amazon hastened to do her Queen's bidding, shaking her head at the pair she left behind.

Gabrielle giggled, and Xena allowed herself a smirk at the retreating Amazon. "I think she was... quite impressed... with your entrance. They all were."

Xena shrugged. "It's a warlord thing. First lesson: get everyone's attention."

"But you're not a warlord anymore," Gabrielle countered.

"Yeah, well, what can I say? Old habits die hard." She grinned at her companion who laughed in reply and nudged her softly in the side.

"Well, for what it's worth, I think they all liked the entrance. And your outfit. It's very..." Gabrielle took a deep breath and allowed her eyes to take in the woman beside her. This is mine? her mind asked giddily. Every eye in the Amazon Nation on her and she wants me?

Xena leaned in close to the Queen's ear. "I take it you approve? Because that's all I care about," she murmured, the silky words sending an accompanying shimmer of pleasure down Gabrielle's spine.

"Uh huh," the smaller woman managed.

"I'm glad," the warrior purred. "I wore it for you."

"You did?" Half a question, half a statement-- wanting acknowledgment of what had just passed between them.

"Oh yeah," Xena confirmed. "Besides--" The playful light returned to her eyes. "Do you think any Amazon-- even a drunk one-- will dare try to seduce the Queen's lover?"

Gabrielle's eyes widened, then narrowed at the dark form by her side. "You are not telling me this was all a joke," she stated flatly. Because I'll kill you if you do.

Instantly seeing the hurt that darkened her companion's eyes, Xena hastened to correct any possible misinterpretation. "No, Gabrielle, it's no joke." Her words a whispering caress. "You said there were other ways of showing how we felt. I thought this--" She gestured at her leathers. "--Might be a way to do that."

"Oh." Gabrielle breathed, her anger dissipating, and a subtle warmth that wasn't from the fire filling her.

"The Amazon thing was just a bonus," Xena added wryly. "Because some of them do tend to get a little... suggestive with me... after a couple of strong drinks." She rolled her eyes at the idea.

"You!" Gabrielle poked the warrior stiffly in the arm. "Waitaminute! So you do know you're a campfire favorite?"

"Gabrielle--" Xena deadpanned. "How could I not know? Every time we're here, I've got half the village undressing me with their eyes."

"But you never said a thing, or even acted like you saw--"

"What am I supposed to say?" Xena laughed. "Solari, please wipe that filthy thought from your mind?" Both women chuckled over that particular image. "How do you deal with it?"

"Well, it's kind of obvious that I basically agree with them," Gabrielle admitted shyly. "So I really can't say anything."

A bemused expression crossed the warrior's face. The bard had obviously misinterpreted the question. But she continued on. "Then you don't mind being the subject of some pretty intense campfire fantasies yourself?"

"Me!?" Gabrielle shook her head emphatically, the thought sending a furious blush across her features. "No no no, my friend. It's you I keep hearing about."

Xena grinned lazily. "I hate to break it to you-- but if half the village is after me, the other half lusts after you."

"Oh no," the bard disagreed.

"Oh yes."

"No, Xena. That is just not possible."

Isn't it, my bard? You call me beautiful, but looking at you, I see the word's true meaning. How can you not know how you affect people? How you affect me? Noticing the Amazon Regent returning to their side, hands full of food. "Let's ask Ephiny."

"Ask Ephiny what?" The woman in question sat down beside Xena, handing over a plate of food and some utensils.

Gabrielle continued to blush. "Uh-- nothing." Speaking in an undertone to Xena. "Let's just drop it okay?"

"What?" Ephiny prompted again.

Smiling broadly, the warrior turned to Ephiny. "Gabrielle was just wondering--"

"Xena!!" the Queen hissed.

"If there was going to be a performance tonight, or if everyone could dance?" the warrior continued smoothly.

"Oh, everyone's just cutting loose tonight," Ephiny smiled. "Looks like some of them are unwinding already." She nodded over at a small knot of young warriors laughing boisterously by the drums, knocking back mugs of ale at a rate that would leave them all wishing they were in Tartarus by the morning.

"See?" Xena turned innocently back to the bard who could only shake her head. "Here's your dinner, My Queen."

"Dammit!" Ephiny snapped her fingers in frustration. "I forgot the ale. I'll be back."

"No, Eph, sit down." Xena motioned her back down. "I'll get it." She glanced at Gabrielle and placed a hand softly on the Queen's shoulder. "Can I get you anything else?"

The bard couldn't help but return the intimate smile. "No thanks, I'm fine." And watched the warrior glide through the crowd. When she turned back to Ephiny, she noticed the Regent was studying the departing warrior's back with a confused expression.

"What's up, Ephiny?"

"I don't know, Gabrielle. Is it just me or does something seem... different... about the way Xena's acting?"

Different. That's one way to put it. Gabrielle thought a short while later. The entire Amazon village, much to its astonishment, was seeing a whole other side of the Warrior Princess. The woman who had not left their Queen's side for more than a moment was relaxed, playful, charming, and solicitous. It was as if some floodgate had opened inside of Xena, shunting aside the bleakness that was her daily burden and allowing all the hidden tenderness to tumble out into Gabrielle's shining care.

Gabrielle could feel the energy passing between them and realized from the sidelong glances she caught that it was becoming very apparent to everyone that things had changed between the Amazon Queen and the Warrior Princess. Of course, I'm not exactly discouraging that opinion, she thought wryly, looking at her hand, which was now settled comfortably on the warrior's leg. It had come rest there in the middle of an emphatic point she was making to Ephiny and-- much to her shock-- when she went to remove the trespassing hand, Xena had casually captured it in her own and gently replaced  it. The only thing that had betrayed the tall woman's nonchalant confidence was the frenetic pulse that Gabrielle felt beneath the skin of the warrior's wrist as their hands touched. The bard felt her eyes widen in surprise at the confirmation of just how unfamiliar this territory was to them both. 

Ephiny excused herself from the conversation to go refill her mug, and Gabrielle took the opportunity provided by the lull. "Are you--"

Xena raised a questioning brow.

"Are you okay with this?" She indicated her hand with a glance.

A puckish light danced in her blue eyes. "I thought you already knew how appealing I find your touch." Grinning when she was rewarded by the abashed expression spreading over the bard's features.

"No," she returned the grin with a blushing one of her own. "I mean, with everyone-- This is pretty public-- I know you're usually not much for--"

"Gabrielle--" Xena paused, thinking carefully about what she was saying. "These are your people. If we don't feel safe here... with this... then where will we?" Besides, my bard, I need to do this. And you need to see it. See if I can stand to walk in your light. The gods know you've walked in this darkness long enough with me.

The soft, rhythmic tattoo of the drums signaled the next part of the evening's festivities. The dancing would begin soon, and Xena noticed that in addition to the usual Amazon drums, there were several flute players and a couple of other instruments. "Looks like this is turning into one Hades of a party," she smiled, nodding over at the assembling musicians.

Knowing that the dark woman wasn't usually one for celebrating, Gabrielle felt like she had to ask, "Do you want to go?" The implication in those words sent a rush of heat to her face-- among other places-- and she wasn't sure if she was quite ready for that yet.

"And miss all the dancing?" A questioning reply.

"Xena, you don't dance."

"Gabrielle-- how many times do I have to tell you--"

"I know, I know. You have many skills. But Xena, I've never seen you dance." Unless you count that time we were infiltrating that castle... and you did that sexy sort of... Her brain ground to a halt at the idea of Xena dancing like that with her. For her.

Xena smirked at the expression on her friend's face. "Just because you haven't seen me dance doesn't mean I can't." Speaking softly, "I was hoping you'd save the first one for me."

So many thoughts and emotions assailed the bard simultaneously that she gave up trying to process them and  decided just to go with the strongest ones-- which were screaming at her to continue the sensual play in which she and the warrior were now engaged. In for a dinar... "I thought I was supposed to save the last dance-- at least that's how it worked in Poteidaia."

"How's that?" A seductive smile curved the warrior's mouth, responding to the light in Gabrielle's eyes. 

"Well, back home, you always danced the last dance with the person you were leaving with. Sometimes couples would go the whole night without touching-- and then when the last dance came-- you could tell it was right just by looking at them."

 Xena leaned down close to the bard, making sure her lips brushed a sensitive ear as she spoke. "All right, Gabrielle. You let me know when you want to dance."

The smaller woman closed her eyes and breathed deeply, letting the low tones soak into her skin, through the muscles and bones, down  into her blood. Oh this is so right... "Xena?" Opening her eyes to focus on the steady blue-eyed gaze. "Let's dance."

More than one Amazon dropped their plate, spilled their drink, or otherwise totally lost what they were doing as they watched their Queen and the Warrior Princess make their way to the already-crowded dancing area. The song had a slow, pulsing beat... one that Xena could feel deep inside as they drew closer together. "You're trembling," she murmured to Gabrielle, fixing a concerned look on the bard.

"I-- uh--"

"We don't have--"

"No, Xena-- It's just that I'm not a good dancer," she admitted sheepishly. "Never have been. Guess Terpsichore was jealous of all those offerings I left for her other sisters, huh?"

The taller woman only grinned at her companion. "Terpsichore has nothing to do with it, Gabrielle. Turn around." So they were facing the same direction. "There." Xena said, sliding long arms around her bard.. "How's that feel?"

Gabrielle rested her head against the broad shoulders of the woman behind her, luxuriating in the feel of Xena wrapped around her. She was conscious only of the warmth between them, of the unusual presence of Xena's bare midriff against her back. Gods, this is incredible. Finally allowing herself to be aware of this woman's body in a way she had never permitted before.  Are those her breasts...? Oh... "Huh? Oh yeah. Feels great. I'm with you."

"Good." The husky tenor in her ear again. "Now close your eyes."

"Already have." Just so I can concentrate on this... on you...

The warrior's low chuckle rumbled through the bard as a tangible sensation, rather than a mere sound. "Relax, Gabrielle. Loosen your hips. Like you were riding Argo."

Strong hands were on her waist, fingers splayed across Gabrielle's abdomen, and the small woman let out an almost silent moan that wasn't lost to Xena's keen ears. "Uh-- Xena. I hate to break it to you, but riding Argo feels nothing like this."

"It would if we were doing this," she responded quietly, keeping the smile from her voice. More times in recent memory than she cared to admit, she had imagined riding the mare with the bard snug in her embrace just as they were now. The dark woman began to rock slowly in time to the provocative beat, falling into the voluptuous sound of the flutes entwining with the harder pulse of the drums.

The moan from the bard was definitely audible this time, as her own hips picked up rhythm from the press of Xena's body against her own and the drums grew stronger.

"Put your hands on my hips, Gabrielle."

The red-head shivered at the touch of Xena's tongue against her ear. She reached behind her, unable to resist running her hands along the warrior's muscular thighs on the way to her destination. So this is a two-way street, she thought when she heard the catch in Xena's throat and felt the tiny shiver dart through the tall frame.

"That's it," Xena purred, sliding her hands up the bard's sides. "Feel that?"

Their bodies were moving freely now, instinctively adjusting to the changes in the music as it drove them on. Without warning, Xena spun the smaller woman around gracefully, so they were face to face, and danced slightly away from her partner and then back, inviting the bard to play. Gabrielle found an answering smile on her lips, and let the pulse in her heart and in the drums take over. She danced around her love, red-gold hair streaming. The tall woman felt slim hands touch her shoulders briefly, and then the bard was back in front of her, arms tangling around the warrior's neck. I thought she said she couldn't dance... Xena couldn't bite back the gasp that slipped from her lips as Gabrielle arched away from her, strong legs entwining firmly with the warrior's.

She fought the urge to sink her mouth upon Gabrielle's own, to swallow her up in the passion that was building between the pair. The music finally reached its peak, and the drums began to wind down, slowly lowering the dancers back to a more... civilized... plane.

"Xena--" A ragged breath.

"I know, Gabrielle. I know."

Gabrielle wasn't sure how they managed to slip away from the celebration or even if their disappearance had been noticed. She had glanced around for Ephiny, but hadn't seen the Regent anywhere. The pulse of the drums still kept steady time with her heart, and she could hear them dimly in the distance. Xena was lighting the last of the candles that had somehow found their way into the Queen's hut. The warrior had only smiled mysteriously and handed her a cup of wine when Gabrielle asked her where everything came from.

"Wine too?" she inquired, accepting the cup. "You do like to be prepared, don't you?"

Xena gave her another soft smile, sipping from her own cup.

"You got all this together while I was getting ready for the party?"

She shrugged. "I picked a few things up, got Solari to bring them in once you were on the dais." Another sip. "I-- I wanted things to be--" she paused, "--Nice for you. I know how you like the sweet wine. And those scented candles Erva makes. See?" She held out a tiny ball of wax to Gabrielle, still warm from the flame.

"I didn't think you noticed the scent," the smaller woman marveled, inhaling the aroma.

"I noticed," the warrior replied quietly.

Unsure of what to do next, the bard did what she always did-- and spoke her heart. "Xena-- I'm scared."

"Of me?" The same even tone.

"No--" Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Of what happens now. I've never-- I mean, well you know-- that one time--" Not mentioning the marriage that nearly broke both their unknowing hearts. "--But this is kinda different." She offered a tentative smile.

Which was returned by the woman in front of her. "Yeah," she agreed. "It is."

The two women looked at each other for a long moment, blue eyes taking in the soft hair kissed by touches of flame and the contours of the form defined by the Amazon leather that hugged her. Green eyes returned the look in kind. Two souls stunned and grateful that they had finally reached this point.

At last the warrior spoke. "Do you want me, Gabrielle?"

"Gods yes," she breathed in reply.

Moving with deliberate slowness, Xena kicked her boots off, hoping that the shadows would hide the tremors beginning to course through her, making her wonder briefly if she-- not the bard-- was the one losing her nerve. She had been a sexual predator of the most cunning sort, the conqueror in countless seductions ...but this isn't a seduction... her mind crooned's a surrender... it has to be... A deep shudder of fear and desire racked the warrior's body, and Xena bit back a sob at its force ...Let it go, warrior... let it all go... "Gabrielle--" a raw, pleading whisper.

And the bard was instantly in her arms, their kiss fueled by the power of an unconsummated need. The warrior could taste the wine in Gabrielle's mouth and chased after the sweetness that lingered there, able to at last explore the warmth at her leisure, inviting her love to do the same. Her hands were in the fiery hair, silken strands running through her fingers as she cradled the bard's head reverently in her callused palms. Gabrielle showed no such hesitation as her tongue entered Xena's mouth, wringing a groan from deep in the dark woman's throat.

Driven by her own want, Gabrielle tugged fiercely at the leathers separating them. "Off..." she mumbled, running a length of kisses down Xena's neck and reveling in the sounds her partner was making. "I want these off you." Feeling her breath catch suddenly in her throat as she looked up and saw the stark desire in Xena's face. The flames in those eyes burned hotter and brighter than any light Gabrielle had ever seen, and a part of her wanted to turn away from the intensity. But a greater force compelled her closer-- like Icarus on his reckless flight-- needing to see just how far she could go. "I want to feel you, Xena. I want your skin in my hands."

Never mind that these were things she had never consciously given thought to, much less voice. She was speaking from a place so deep inside she hadn't know of its existence until Xena's kiss. She felt the curl of this new fire in her belly and instinctively knew it was a twin flame to the warrior's own. So close... she thought incoherently. She wanted to taste the incandescence.

And then the leather barriers to her questing mouth and hands were gone ...finally... allowing her fingertips to follow the curve of Xena's breasts and to cup their fullness in her small hands.

Xena closed her eyes at the touch of Gabrielle's hands-- the bard's gentle caresses rapidly growing bolder until she was stroking both of the warrior's painfully erect nipples with knowing fingers. "Gods, Gabrielle... that feels... so... good..."

"Does it, Xena?" was the quiet reply.

"Oh yes," the woman managed between uneven breaths. She felt the bard's mouth curve into a smile against her skin.

"Then tell me how this feels..." And brought her mouth to first one nipple and then the other, jerking a startled gasp from the taller woman. She could feel Xena's heart pounding beneath her lips, and she began to tease the nipple trapped between her teeth with the tip of her tongue.

"Sweet Athena..." the warrior groaned, opening her eyes to gaze on the sight of her new lover between her breasts. Green eyes glittering with a truculent desire met her own.

Gabrielle took Xena's hands in her own and led her to the pallet. "Lie down," her words a quiet command.

Too caught up in the incendiary desire between them to be shocked at the bard's audacity, Xena tumbled backwards into the welcoming softness. Gabrielle followed her down, bracing herself on one arm and stretching her smaller length alongside her lover.

The warrior's skin glimmered gold in the candlelight, and shadows flickered coyly along the curves of her body. Gabrielle didn't know what part of the long form she wanted to devour first. She wanted her hands, her tongue, her mouth all over this amazing woman, inhaling her, feeding on her, loosing this crazy want. "Xena--" she choked out.

Seeing the intensity in her lover's eyes, Xena brought a calming hand to stroke the bard's face. "Shhh... Gabrielle... it's okay... it's just us."

"Xena-- I didn't know--" Running a trembling hand across Xena's ribbed stomach. "I want-- Do you feel this too?" Astonished at the muscles rippling in response to her touch.

"Uh huh," the warrior assured her with a gasping breath as the small hand continued its assault on her skin. "Oh gods..." she growled when Gabrielle's lips found her breasts once more. "Yes--" Gripping silky red-gold hair in her hands and arching her back to meet the voracious mouth.

Slowly, achingly those hands and that mouth began a scorching descent across the warrior's lean form... pausing to nip, suckle and caress to the music of Xena's quiet moans. The bard was fascinated by the interplay of curves and planes on the woman underneath her. Like everything else about the warrior, Xena's body was a landscape of contradictions. Clad in her leather, Xena was the epitome of a hardened warrior-- all slashing cheekbones, broad shoulders, and muscled legs. But stripped of that clothing, she revealed a softness that was intoxicating to the younger woman-- full breasts, gentle slopes down her ribs that led to the hollows of her hips, dark curly hairs that protected her sex. Her eyes traveled the woman in awe and amazement ...this is Xena... realizing that the warrior was truly offering her everything.

She glanced up the length of her lover's body to the eyes that had mesmerized her since the first time she had seen their blue depths glittering in fury at the slavers who attacked her. That blue had blurred to violet now in passion, but the flame was still there, arcing across pupils dilated in pleasure.

A barely controlled groan fell from Xena's lips. "Please--"

With a simple word, the warrior released herself to her love's touch. Gabrielle's heart lurched violently as she slid between those long legs, reveling in the way the powerful thighs quivered at her touch. The bard's nostrils were filled with Xena's arousal-- a rich scent with traces of leather, sweat, and the warrior's own indefinable essence. She ran her fingers through the dark curls swiftly before placing a small kiss at the apex of Xena's thighs.

It didn't occur to her to be worried that she had never done this before, or that she might not know how to please her new lover. All her fears were blunted by her overwhelming desire ...need... to reach inside Xena and to crowd out all the darkness in the warrior's heart with the light of their shared passion. Being afraid was no longer an option.

The first touch of her fingers to Xena's velvet wetness cut the breath right out of her. "Gods, Xena... you're so wet," she blurted.

A strangled chuckle rumbled through the warrior's chest. "Thanks to you, My Queen-- " A jagged cry twisted anything else she might have said when she felt two fingers slip inside her, "Sweet Aphrodite-- Oh yesss--" She moaned as her hips bucked up to meet their length.

This is Xena... This is Xena... was the refrain that sang through Gabrielle's body as she easily found her lover's rhythm with her hands and brought her tongue down to drink in the sweetness.

The strong thrusts of Gabrielle's hand seemed to gather all the tributaries of pleasure that her tongue sent skittering through Xena's body and direct them into one powerful surge aimed at her lover's core. Xena cried out helplessly as Gabrielle made a gift of all the pleasure that the warlord had previously only taken from her lovers, and the part of her soul still claimed by darkness recoiled from the offering, fearing that it would make her weak. Half-rising off the pallet, her eyes flew open in alarm. The vision of Gabrielle's red-gold hair fanned across her thighs, hands deep inside her body, calmed the rising panic and shoved the darkness away ...let it go... let it go... her mind chanted, her body demanded, "Let it go..." she breathed, finally surrendering to the overwhelming sensations cascading through her body. "Oh... gooodddsss.... Gaabbrriiiellle...." A fierce cry fractured the night as Xena's hips bucked their release, muscles convulsing tightly around her lover's hands.

Gabrielle remained wrapped around Xena's waist until the final shudders racked the tall woman's body, and she was silent. From the distance, faint sounds of the Amazons' party drifted into the hut. "Are you okay?" She asked gently, the warrior's moment of panic having not gone unnoticed.

"Yeah." Gabrielle could hear the smile in the simple reply and was reassured. "C'mere you," Xena growled, tugging her lover up to her side. Gabrielle began to snuggle into Xena's side, only to be stopped by the sounds of quiet laughter. "No no no--" Xena tisked. "This won't do."

"What--? Did-- Did I do something wrong?" Worry flared in the pit of her stomach.

"No, Gabrielle--" Xena gentled. "Far from it, you did everything perfectly." Solemn blue eyes focused on concerned green and then shone with a wicked merriment. "It's just that... you're still dressed."

"Oh--" the bard smiled sheepishly. "I guess I kinda got carried away. Did'ja mind?" Although the question was teasing, there was a serious note in her tone. Gabrielle knew she had needed this, needed to feel Xena's release before she could let herself go to the warrior, but she wanted to know that her lover was okay. Surrender-- even in love-- was something she knew Xena was never easy with.

Xena cupped her love's face in her hands, feeling herself drop into the green depths of the bard's eyes. "Not at all," was the quietly serious response. "In fact," a playful light crept into her eyes, "I hope you'll do it again." She kissed the bard, tasting her own wild essence on Gabrielle's lips. "But you have to let me have a turn first," she grinned devilishly.

"Oh-- I-- think-- I-- can-- manage-- that--" the bard replied between increasingly hungry kisses.

"Stand up for me, love," Xena whispered in her ear.

Gabrielle moaned softly as she stood, whether from the barest touch of Xena's teeth on her skin or the soft term of endearment, she didn't know. The sight of Xena gracefully rising with her sent another shiver of arousal scampering across her skin. Xena kept her eyes locked on the bard's as she stood in front of her love, smiling sensually as she felt Gabrielle's response. Her hands came to rest on the ties of the Queen's leather top. "May I?" she asked softly.

"Oh yes--"

The leather slipped from her shoulders, exposing two perfect breasts to Xena's eyes and hands. The warrior traced delicate patterns across the tender flesh, teasing her way across already aroused nipples, slowly sliding to her knees before her lover.


"Shh..." the dark woman crooned, deftly working the lace ties from Gabrielle's boots and removing them. She paused for a moment, her hands absorbing the strength in those calves, slowly tracing the curves of well-defined thighs. She glanced up at Gabrielle, who was finding breathing incredibly difficult at the moment. Hooking her fingers into the Queen's skirt, an arched brow asked the question.

"Please," Gabrielle whispered.

With a quick flick of her hand, the skirt was relegated to the small pile of leather at the women's feet. And her bard was finally revealed to the warrior as she had always wanted to see her. "So beautiful," she murmured, cascading kisses across Gabrielle's flat stomach and wrapping her arms around the slim waist.

"Xe--Xena?" Placing her hands on the warrior's broad shoulders to steady herself. "What-- what are you doing?"

Scattering more kisses across the tender skin, Xena replied in a low purr, "Paying homage to my queen, Gabrielle. What does it feel like?"

"Oh gods..."

"Yes?" Sliding her kisses lower.

"I never--"

Xena could feel Gabrielle's arousal was at a fever pitch, and she wanted nothing more than to bury herself in it until both she and the bard were sated.

"I mean--"

Brushing her hand across red-gold curls, so different from the her lover's silky hair.

"That is--"

Placing a soft kiss with just a hint of her tongue in the midst of those curls.

"OH GODS! Xena--"

The warrior felt strong fingers gripping her shoulders, nails digging into her flesh. "Lie back for me... That's it, the pallet's right there..." she crooned seductively.

"Xena-- come lie beside me--" Gabrielle whispered as the warrior returned to her position kneeling before the bard.

"Shh... just let me love you, Gabrielle," the dark woman whispered before sliding her tongue along the length of her Queen's sex.

Gabrielle tasted of the gentle heat of the dawning sun, and each stroke of Xena's tongue intensified her sensation of drinking in the light of her lover's desire. Xena could hear the throaty moans of the woman about her, the erotic sounds arousing her all over again. Her fingers clasped Gabrielle's hips, guiding her in a rhythm that steadily increased until the smaller woman was thrusting against Xena's mouth, opening herself with abandon to her warrior.

"Xena--" the bard gasped. "I need--" Wanting so much... "I need--" Demanding that her lover fill this ache... "Your hands-- Oh gods, yyeesss--" Finally Xena parted her sex and slipped two fingers inside. "Please-- Don't stop--"

Xena slowly worked her fingers in Gabrielle's depths, fighting to keep control of her own craving. Her hands were drenched in the bard's wetness, and the warrior couldn't suppress a moan of her own at the sensation. Xena's strokes grew deeper, pushing further inside her lover, and she slipped a third finger in, sensing the added pressure would push Gabrielle over to the edge.

An inarticulate cry tore from the red-head's throat, followed by, "Ooohh gggooodddsss xxxeeeennnNNNAAA!!!" The cry echoed through the hut as she arched up off the pallet and then collapsed back down again, breathing heavily.

Xena left her hands in place, reveling in the flowing evidence of her lover's pleasure, as the spasms slowly subsided.

"Xena?" she whispered softly.

"Yes, love?"

"Hold me."

Xena was by her side in a instant, blessing the miracle of long arms that allowed her to leave her fingers inside the bard. They rested for a few more minutes, floating in a sensual cocoon, Gabrielle's body still gently pulsing around Xena's fingers. Finally, achingly Xena withdrew her hands, despite the bard's quiet moans of protest, and with a few adroit motions, tucked them both firmly in the large pallet, drawing a cool sheet over their heated skin. "There. Sleep now..." she murmured, placing gentling kisses in Gabrielle's hair.

"Don't want to." Came the mumbled reply, although the bard's eyes were already drooping shut. "Want you..."

"I'm right here, Gabrielle."

The red-head smiled in sleepy acknowledgment.

"I promise." It was a quiet vow; no gods, priests, or humans to witness it. Just them, and the sounds of the night outside. "I'll always be here."

 "The right one is definitely larger," the bard commented, closing her eyes to better absorb the weight of the two precious objects cradled in her hands. She sprawled comfortably in her lover's lap, facing Xena-- who was sitting upright, propped against the pallet's headboard-- cupping the warrior's full breasts in her hands. "Definitely," she repeated, opening her eyes. "Why is that?"

Xena pried her own eyes open, forcing herself back from the deliciously sensual place Gabrielle's explorations had taken her. "Mmm?"

"Why is your right breast larger than your left?"

I can't believe we're having this conversation... The warrior arched a contemplative brow and glanced down at her breasts. The sight of Gabrielle's slender, pale fingers against her own tanned skin sent a pleasant shiver through her body, causing her to forget the question all over again.

"I mean, they look the same--" the bard eyed her lover's nipples, which hardened in response to the inspection. "But holding them, you can really tell--" Pressing gently against the tender flesh in her hands. She bit back a mischievous grin, well-aware of the effect her teasing was having on Xena. The warrior had been a surprisingly playful and indulgent lover this morning, waking Gabrielle up just past dawn with a series of dizzying kisses that soon escalated into something much more. That was several candlemarks ago. And still she showed no inclination towards rising and seeing what the rest of the Amazons were up to. Of course, judging from the dead silence out there, they're all still asleep... or occupied... like we are... Gabrielle thought with a giggle. "So?" she prodded, noticing that Xena's eyes had become slightly unfocused again.

"Well, I haven't gotten any complaints before," was the warrior's laconic reply.

"Oh, I'm not complaining," the red-head assured her hastily, apologizing with a quick kiss to each breast. "Just curious."

"Let's think about this, then," Xena said with a mock serious expression on her face. "You said the right one was bigger?"

"No one's ever noticed before?"

The curved brow asked Do you really want to know the answer to that?

"Anyway..." Deciding that it was a good time to change the subject, "Your bruises are almost faded." Brushing her fingers lightly across the traces of Ares' vicious assault. "Does it still hurt?"

 The warrior shook her head. "My ribs are still a little sore, but honestly--" she smiled brilliantly at the small woman in her arms. "I don't think I've ever felt better in my life."

Gabrielle answered the smile with one of her own and then began a serious assault on the warrior's lips, which were curled into a roguish grin. "I think I could do this all day," the bard-queen murmured between kisses.

"So could I," Xena agreed, a little breathlessly. "Unfortunately, we do have to get up... if only to feed you, My Queen."

"Who's hungry?" Gabrielle asked, tracing erotic patterns across Xena's breasts with her fingers.

"You, my love, if the noises your stomach has been making for the last candlemark or so are any indication," she smirked at her queen, who merely shrugged sheepishly, thinking her complaining stomach hadn't been noticed.

Further conversation between the Queen and her soldier was interrupted by excited shouts echoing across the previously sleepy village. "RIDERS INCOMING!!!!!!!!!!!!"

As Xena hurriedly threw on a tunic to cover her long form, she was eerily reminded of the scene that played itself out not too long ago at Ares' whim. Another tent, another lover ...another life. One that she had willingly walked away from for this very chance. To wake up with Gabrielle in her arms and to speak her soul for the first time in ...longer than I can remember. I don't know what I could have possibly done to deserve this, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let it slip away... the dark woman vowed, pushing away the lingering doubts that clouded her heart about the obstacles that still stood between the bard and the warrior. She glanced at the young woman struggling into her boots and couldn't resist tugging the slender body into her arms. "I promise..." she murmured against  red-gold hair, her words too muffled for the bard to make out.

Gabrielle looked up at her in smiling confusion. "What was that for?" she asked when Xena released her.

"Just 'cause," the warrior smiled back.

A radiant joy poured through Gabrielle's heart at the words and was reflected in the verdant depths of her eyes. "I think I like that."

The pair paused for a moment at the door, reluctant to leave their haven so soon. However the rest of the world was not quite so sentimental about their first night together. "Gabrielle! Xena!" Eponin's stern voice called to them from behind the door.

"What's up Ep?" Xena called as they exited from the calm and into confusion of the village square.

Four unfamiliar riders led obviously exhausted mounts behind them, escorted by a group of Amazon scouts. From the lather soaking the animals' withers, they had been riding hard for a while. The crest on the four women's uniforms tickled Xena's memory, but she couldn't quite place it. She glanced at Ephiny who wore a puzzled expression similar to her own.

"What's your business here?" Ephiny demanded. Like everyone else, she had been rousted from her slumber, and was not in the mood for pleasantries.

"Whom do I have the honor of addressing?" The leader of the riders-- a tall, rangy woman with dark brown hair and eyes asked.

"Why don't you tell us what you need and we'll see if we can help you," Xena interjected herself smoothly into the conversation. She didn't think these women were assassins, but she didn't want to put either Ephiny or Gabrielle in harm's way. Ever since the whole mess with Valesca, the Amazon Nation had been forced to deal with a growing contingent of fringe groups-- particularly in the Northern tribes-- who opposed Gabrielle's in absentia rule. The women before them were certainly warriors, and Xena wasn't taking any chances. She did, however, note Ephiny's irritation. Sorry, Eph, but Gabrielle's safety is more important than your protocol right now...

The leader grinned at the warrior. "You must be Xena. I'm glad you're here, otherwise I'd have to go looking for you too."

The hairs on Xena's neck prickled. Usually when anyone went looking for her, it was trouble. Imperceptibly she shifted her stance, in case that was what these women were indeed looking for. She felt Gabrielle, who was standing only a hairsbreadth away from her, tense up in response. "And why is that?" she asked, her even tone betraying none of her readiness.

"My commander said you'd be interested in the news that brings us here. She also knows you travel with the Queen, and we're here to enlist the Amazons' aid."

"Who is your commander and why do you want our help?" Ephiny directed the women's attention away from Xena and back to herself.

"Then you're Gabrielle?" The leader bowed deeply to Ephiny who responded-- much to Xena and Gabrielle's great surprise-- with a deep blush.

"No--" she said forcefully. "I-- I'm Ephiny, Amazon Regent. But you're in luck, Gabrielle is here." She gestured to the bard who stood at Xena's side.

"Hi," the red-head smiled at the new arrivals. "Oh stop it," she said when the women bowed again to her. "Look, you guys seem exhausted. Why don't we all go get some breakfast and you can tell us what's up." Ignoring the scowling looks from Ephiny on one side and Xena on the other. Warriors... she thought, shaking a mental head. "Come on," she called, leading the way to the dining hut.

The strangers watched with growing amazement and not a little awe at the prodigious amount of breakfast that Gabrielle was tucking away, while Xena studied the newcomers with suspicion, and Ephiny looked anywhere but at Xena and Gabrielle. The bard noticed the Regent's odd behavior and made an internal note to talk to her later. "So--" she asked, digging enthusiastically into another helping. "What brings you guys here? And where are you from?"

"My name is Reyna, this is Naomi, Zarka, and Sashi. We're lieutenants of the guard in a city-state called Argon." Both Xena and Gabrielle stared at the women in surprise. "Our commander sent us to the Amazons for aid."

"Corin," Xena said, almost too quietly to hear. "Of course. How is she?"

"Well, Xena. She sends her regards. As does Queen Livia." Reyna took a deep breath, obviously uncomfortable with having to address not only the queen of the Amazons, but also the Warrior Princess herself and not a few interested warriors. "We need your help. Reports of Roman legions landing on Grecian soil have come to us from reliable sources. They've started working their way across the countryside, apparently sacking villages. And it looks like they're head straight for Argon--"

"Roman legions? Attacking our city-states?" Ephiny interrupted. "That doesn't make sense. The Romans have always left Greece alone because of their trade and treaty arrangements with Athens and Sparta."

"Do you know whose banner they're riding under?" Xena quietly asked.

"Our reports say it's Marc Antony."

"And Antony doesn't breathe unless Caesar tells him to inhale," Xena replied grimly. "Of course, he's not the lap dog Brutus is, and he's a much better general." Caesar... her mind cried ....Oh gods... Not again.... Not now... She felt the rage beginning to close itself around her in a vice-like embrace, ruthlessly shoving away the joy of the previous night.

"Xena--" Gabrielle, turned to her lover. "If they take Argon, all they have to do is continue marching east to Poteidaia." Her face paled at the thought of Romans taking her home village. She noticed the darkening expression on her lover's face, saw the strong jaw tensing and the warmth draining out of her pale blue eyes as she absorbed the news.

The dark warrior nodded. "And that would give them a solid foothold-- a seaport-- in Greece."

"They could march south and attack our land here and continue on to Pellos," Ephiny scowled.

"Or they could go north--" Gabrielle stared at Xena in dismay, seeing the cold fire ignite in the warrior's eyes and spread throughout her body.

"And take Amphipolis," she finished for the bard. "That's not going to happen." She turned to the Argon guards. "I can't speak for the Amazons of course, but you can count on my help. You might want to dispatch a rider to Pellos. I think they'd have an interest in this as well." Her mind was racing in a thousand directions-- remembering everything she knew about the Romans' tactics, considering possible strategies and outcomes, and wondering what sort of army Corin had put together. And all the while the part of her soul that sheltered her love for Gabrielle was screaming out in protest. She took a deep breath to try and clear her rampaging thoughts.  "Poteidaia and Amphipolis don't have standing armies, but if I have anything to say about it, it won't come to that."

"Captain Ridley has already agreed to help. He and his troops are on their way."

Xena nodded her approval. She'd need the number of the Argon forces, but she was already familiar with Pellos' strength. Once she got to Argon she could confer with Corin and determine their course of action. Anything until then was rank speculation, although it was good to mull over possible plans. I'm glad Corin's going to be there... If Antony's as good as they say he is... it'll be a miracle if we can fight them off... The clamoring in her soul grew fainter as her military instincts continued to resurface. "Your horses need to rest." She turned to Ephiny, "They'll need to borrow some of the Amazons' mounts." More of a statement than a request.

Gabrielle wasn't the only one watching the change taking place in the woman beside her. The very space that the warrior took up now seemed to shimmer with a menacing energy that put an edge of fear in every woman in the room. But the bard felt she had to speak. "Wait-- Xena-- we should talk about this," Gabrielle put a restraining arm on the warrior, who had risen to leave.

But the warrior was now protected behind the remote shields that Gabrielle recognized from their early travels together. The sweet, playful lover of the morning was gone, and the bard wasn't sure how to reach the stranger who was in her stead, much less how to get her Xena back. The dark warrior merely stared at the fingers pressing against her skin and arched a  brow in response.

Seeing the emptiness in her lover's eyes, the bard jerked her hand back as if stung, and the warrior continued on as if nothing had been said, leaving the hut in half a dozen long strides.

"Whew--" Eponin glanced at Gabrielle, who was trying hard to control the violent trembling that threatened to overtake her body. "Did it just get cold in here or what?"

"The Warrior Princess returns," Ephiny muttered under her breath.

There was no argument or debate... Ephiny and Gabrielle quickly agreed on a contingent of warriors-- that included both the Queen and the Regent-- to accompany the four riders and Xena back to Argon. But it was with some trepidation that Gabrielle approached the warrior who was saddling Argo with military precision.


Hard sapphires glared back at her and then slowly focused... and softened... as she looked at the bard. Gabrielle watched helplessly as the woman she loved struggled painfully with the darkness she still feared. Finally Xena dropped her head, running long fingers through her hair. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she returned her gaze to the smaller woman. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered.

The bard closed the remaining distance between them and wrapped her arms fiercely around her love. "Shh-- it's okay. You're okay. We're okay."

They held each other for a long moment before Xena broke the silence. "This is not exactly how I imagined spending this morning." The warrior managed an unsteady laugh.

"Me either," Gabrielle agreed wryly. "Xena--" she took the dark warrior's head in her hands, forcing their eyes to meet. "What happened in there? It was like you just... went away." Usually that happens after the fight. Not before... "Is it the Romans?"

Xena paused a moment, thinking about the woman before her, thinking about everything that had led them to this path. She had known that loving Gabrielle was not something she could do halfway. It meant letting go of all the defenses, all the secrets. But she hadn't known it would all have to happen so soon.

"Xena?" The gentle love calling her back.

"It isn't the Romans, Gabrielle. It's Caesar."

"But Xena-- Caesar isn't even with these legions."

The warrior leaned away from the bard and clasped their hands together, the connection holding Xena's tenuous calm in place. "Caesar is Rome. It's that simple. He thinks his destiny is to conquer the world." She laughed humorlessly. "And I'm beginning to think mine is to try and stop him."

"Xena, no-- Your destiny is what you make it." Gabrielle objected.

"I wonder." She released one of the bard's hands and absentmindedly rubbed her temple. "Or am I Caesar's creature? The way Callisto is mine." And she's not the only one, my love. But you have no way of knowing that Callisto is the least of my crimes. Once I prayed that you would never have that knowledge, but I can see now that's a futile wish.

Gabrielle shook her head emphatically. "Callisto let hatred and rage corrupt her until there was nothing left. You are not like that."

"Aren't I though?" She dropped her lover's other hand and paced a few steps away, feeling her peace begin to shatter. "You tell me-- You're trying to love what's left. How impossible is it?" Her voice cracked. I felt you shaking when you touched me back there... "When I can still terrify you with a glance," she finished softly.

"Xena--" Realizing that her words had never been more important. "I knew going into this that loving you meant loving the darkness as well as the light. You seem to forget that." A quiet silence rested between them before she continued. "I'm not saying this is easy. But it's my choice." She reached for the warrior's hands and gently drew the tall woman into her arms. "And I choose to love you, Xena. I see you fighting so hard every day. Sometimes it breaks my heart. But at the same time it fills me with so much pride that someone so extraordinary is the woman I love." Gabrielle pulled Xena's face towards her and captured her lips in a kiss full of promise. Full of healing. Full of love. "I know it's a struggle, Xena," she murmured as they broke apart. "But just remember, you're not doing this alone anymore."

"The darkness and the light?" Xena asked, not daring to hope that maybe, just maybe, they might stand a chance.

Gabrielle smiled brilliantly in response and pulled her in for another, deeper kiss.

Their brief moment of peace was shattered by the thundering of hooves. With typical efficiency, the Amazons had assembled their kits and saddled up, ready the four days' hard ride to Argon.

Giving Gabrielle a rueful smile, Xena swung up on Argo and leaned a hand down to her lover. "You ready?" The warrior  looked into the bard's soft eyes.

"Guess this means I'm riding, huh?" The smaller woman cast a baleful glance at the warhorse.

"It's me or a mount of your own--"

"I'm coming, I'm coming..."

Riding with Xena on Argo was now certainly a much different experience for Gabrielle. She was more aware of the rhythm of the mare's hooves and the gentle movement of Xena's body. They didn't talk much during the long ride, but every so often, the warrior would gently caress the bard's hand with a reassuring touch. It seemed to the bard as though Xena was drawing a comfort from their closeness that no words could give her.

Left to its own devices, Gabrielle's mind began to wander...

This is not how I wanted everything to begin... she considered... We spend one night together and then all Tartarus breaks loose... But what a night... an almost inaudible chuckle escaped from her lips... I knew it would be incredible, but I didn't know, you know?

Get a grip, bard... The voice that she'd come to depend on in her musings spoke up. It was the voice inside her that said the things she didn't want to hear, made her look at things she didn't want to see. But it rarely steered her wrong. Xena called it her "gut." One day the warrior had returned to the campsite early to find Gabrielle debating earnestly with herself, and instead of looking at the bard as if she were mad, Xena merely told her she should trust that voice. "Gabrielle, we all have different... instincts... that protect us. How do you think I can hear an arrow being notched in a cross bow?" The bard had stared at her in amazement as the warrior shrugged. "I get this... feeling... sometimes. I'm a warrior. I listen to my body, Gabrielle. It makes sense that you have the same instinct, but it just shows itself differently. You are, after all, a bard." So she had started to listen to that voice-- which was a part of herself-- as annoying as it was sometimes. And here they were...

Yes, here you are. But do you know exactly where that is, bard?

Now is not the time to be getting cryptic... can't I just enjoy this feeling...

No... the voice bluntly replied. Think, bard... you're riding towards Roman legions with a woman who was nearly destroyed by Caesar and whose lover was murdered by his men... it's kind of a volatile situation, wouldn't you say?


Did I mention that Amphipolis is being threatened?

Okay, okay I get your point...  Xena's not going to be easy to deal with on this one...

Gabrielle shifted uneasily in the saddle behind the warrior as she began to realize the depths of what her lover was about to face.

You promised her the darkness and the light...

And I meant it.

Yet you tremble at the first sign of that darkness. You don't think she feels that?


There are times when your words aren't enough, bard.

"Gabrielle?" Xena gently nudged her companion. "Come on, we're ready to make camp."

"What?" the bard blinked rapidly, eyes refocusing on her surroundings.

"You were out of it for a while," Xena said quietly.

"Just thinking," she replied.

"I know." A soft smile played on the edges of the warrior's mouth. "You were twitching."

"What?" The bard stared at the warrior. "I do not twitch," she snorted indignantly.

"Gabrielle..." Xena regarded her solemnly. "I hate to break it to you, but when you think to yourself-- you twitch."

The red-looked looked at her, aghast.

"It's all right," the warrior hastened to reassure her. "It's not like anybody else noticed. But riding this closely together... it'd be hard not to... notice." Especially when you started flexing your thighs against mine... but I don't think you'd appreciate going there right now... She worked to conceal the smirk that threatened to curl around her lips.

Gabrielle continued to eyeball her suspiciously, but was relieved to hear the bantering tone in Xena's voice. "Yeah yeah... next you'll be telling me I talk in my sleep." Turning away to untie their saddle packs, she missed the warrior's dramatically arched brow.

"Xena?" she turned back to her companion. "Uh-- What do you want to do--" she hefted their bedrolls, a questioning look on her face. It was one thing for everyone to know that their relationship had changed, but it would be quite another to see the pair snuggled up in a bedroll come nightfall.

Xena nodded, acknowledging the unfinished question. It was something she had been considering herself, but not for the same reasons as her lover. During the long ride, Gabrielle wasn't the only one who had been mulling over the change in their relationship. Xena's mind had been filled with the memories of Caesar's betrayal, Mi'Lila's death-- and the blood she had soaked herself in as a result of both. Despite the bard's comforting words about choosing to love the warrior, Xena was well-aware that Gabrielle only knew less than half the sotry. Her instincts screamed at her to run, to push the young woman away, because the only way to avoid exposing to the bard the true depths that she had plumbed was to stop what was happening, to lock her lover far, far away from her tarnished soul. Maybe she could salvage something of their friendship that way... or at least not have Gabrielle hate her... she reasoned to herself as she returned her attention to the bard, who was waiting for an answer. "I'll take the first watch... come find you later after everyone else is asleep," she replied curtly. I'm not exactly comfortable with the whole thing yet anyway... We both need time to absorb what's happened... she lied to herself, unable to ignore the familiar curl of rage in her belly that left no room for tenderness. She smiled briefly at the bard and then turned away, never realizing that the warmth had deserted her eyes, and that her love shuddered in response to the pale coldness she saw there.

But Gabrielle awoke alone the next morning, as she did the two mornings following that one. Xena seemed to be slipping further and further into a dark silence, from which the bard had no way of recalling her. The hard pace the warrior set for them to reach Argon left no time for one of the bard's "sensitive chats," and Gabrielle was beginning to reach her wits' end. The only time the tall woman seemed at peace was when they were on Argo, and she clasped Gabrielle's arms to her like a drowning woman. That alone told Gabrielle volumes of what the warrior would not say. But she could find no way into the place where her love had barricaded herself on the way to this confrontation with ghost of Caesar's betrayal.

Had Gabrielle been a visitor-- unwelcome or no-- to the recesses of the warrior's roiling mind, she would have seen fragments of the violent images that had consumed the few candlemarks of slumber the warrior had tried to take. So Xena slept alone, away from her love, away from the curious stares of the Amazons who rode with them. No one tried to speak with her, reserving their kind words instead for the bard who could at least respond. Xena finished her watch that night, and-- like the other nights just past-- she didn't return to the camp, slipping away to a dark corner of the forest, where she could be alone with her dreams.

Visions of Ares' brutal assault melded into that horrible night on the beach, when she had been left for the sport of Caesar's men. Her legs had been broken as she was hung on the cross... the last violation of many perpetrated by the Romans. She was a barbarian to them. A warrior and a woman. At the very least a contradiction in terms. At most an unnatural abomination to be destroyed. But she had not given them the pleasure of breaking her... she had snarled and fought to the very end like the animal they called her... but sheer numbers ultimately overwhelmed her. She could smell their wine and their sweat... feel the blows that landed across her stomach and head... hear the soft grunts that accompanied those blows... along with the jeering calls of the men who circled her... At this rate, they were going to beat her to death before she ever reached the cross... and the last thought she had before losing consciousness for that first time was that she hoped her men couldn't see this...

A cry that she recognized as her own split the night, jerking her upright... struggling against the ties that held her immobile-- until her awakening mind identified the presence not as Romans, but as Gabrielle.

"Shh---" Gabrielle cradled the shivering form in her arms, brushing the hair back from the warrior's sweaty forehead. "Shh--- it's okay, it's all right--"

The warrior's ragged breaths soon subsided and her heart resumed a more normal pace, but the blank look in her eyes didn't disappear even as she regained her calm. She blinked rapidly, shaking the last of the dream away, and regarded the bard quietly. "What are you doing here?" she asked at last.

"Eponin said she saw you head out here after your watch," the bard replied, relieved that at least a measure of humanity had returned to the pale blue. "I-- I was worried about you."

"Don't," the warrior said brusquely, beginning to rise. There would be no more sleep for her tonight.

"No!" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm and rose with her. "I'm not letting you do this, Xena." Realizing that in the mood the dark woman was in right now, she could very well be playing with her life. "You've let me in too far to start shutting me out now--"

She's right... the warrior's mind said tiredly, finally recogning the folly of her attempted retreat. She could no more halt the invasion of this love than she could stop breathing. She had made the decision to try to love Gabrielle as much as her fragmented soul would let her. There was no going back. "I can't..." She focused her eyes on the bard with difficulty. "I can't... do this... all at once. And I can't do it now... not with Caesar... not with it all right here..." Her eyes were pleading, and there was a weariness to the set of her shoulders that Gabrielle had never seen before. Xena covered the hand that still rested on her arm and brought it up to her mouth. "Please," she whispered into the bard's palm.

And Gabrielle remembered the way Xena had held her close during the three days' long ride. "I listen to my body, Gabrielle." The memory sang across the bard's mind. Carefully she ran her fingers down the plane of Xena's cheek and across the soft curve of her lips. She slipped one finger past the sharp guard of the warrior's teeth into the warmth beyond. Surprise flickered over her lover's features as she reflexively caught the trespasser along the length of her tongue and teased it gently.

"Listen to your body, Xena," Gabrielle murmured, willing the warrior to communicate in a language she understood. It was a language of muscles and skin, of nerves and instinct that the bard had just been introduced to... one that she desperately wanted to learn more of beneath the dark woman's skilled hands. "C'mere--" She stretched out flat on the bedroll, tugging the warrior's length over her own. Instinctively Xena braced the majority of her weight on her elbows, but the bard would have none of it. "I want to feel you, Xena-- all of you." She took her lover's head in her heads and forced their eyes to meet. "Do you understand me?" And took Xena's mouth fiercely in her own. She sent the devouring kiss plunging through the warrior's welcoming lips, snaking past all those walls still standing between them, and finally releasing it to take up residence deep inside Xena's troubled soul.

Pulling back to take a much-needed breath, Xena sat up and tried to speak, "Gabrielle..."

"No, Xena. No words." The bard shook her head. "Not this time." Nimble fingers unlaced the top of Xena's leather tunic, exposing her breasts to Gabrielle's searching hands. "Let me have you tonight, Xena. Tomorrow we'll be in Argon-- and then you can wallow in all the rage, all the hate that you want." A burning want flared deep between the bard's legs. She was angry with them both-- with Xena for clutching at the familiar darkness to hold the fear of Gabrielle's love at bay, with herself for allowing her own fear of that darkness to prevent her from claiming Xena's love. She knew the power of those fears wouldn't be erased in one night or with one hungry joining, but it was a start. One they desperately needed.

Her lips sought the hardened nipples she teased in her hands, and she brought her teeth to bear on them with just a hint of sharpness, sinking deeper into them when she heard the warrior's answering moan. They were both sitting up now as Xena wrapped long legs around the bard's waist. Gabrielle quickly found her lover's muscled thighs, letting her hands roam freely along their length. She could feel Xena's desire growing as she neared the warrior's heated center. Slipping her fingers underneath the warrior's breeches, she couldn't suppress a small exclamation of delight at her lover's wetness.

Xena groaned at the new sensation. "In... please..." she gasped.

Gabrielle didn't hesitate, plunging three fingers into the depths of her warrior, working them deeply inside, and bringing her thumb to brush across her lover's core.

"OH GODS!" Xena threw her head back, arching her body into the driving pressure of Gabrielle's hand. Together they found a steady rhythm, moving into one another with growing fervor, until Xena released a shuddering cry of release that echoed in the bard's soul.

Neither woman slept much, but dawn found them wrapped in a tight embrace, arms and legs tangled in a sensuous heap. Xena knew they had to break camp soon in order to make it to Argon by mid-day, but she was loathe to leave this newfound sense of safety. She regarded her sleeping lover with a rueful smile.  Last night the bard had just marched up to all those walls that protected the Warrior Princess and pounded on them until they began cracking and splintering under her siege. Every day was finding them a little closer than the last, and she hadn't thought that was possible, given everything they'd already been through together. Holding a large part of herself in reserve had been a way of life for the warrior for as long as she could remember. With the single exception of Lyceus all those years ago, no one had wanted to lay claim to the whole of Xena of Amphipolis. They either wanted a piece of her-- her body, her mind, her strength-- or they wanted to change her and call it "redemption." Occasionally their intentions were honest-- like her encounter with Hercules-- but more often it was just another way to control what they couldn't understand.

And now there was this little bard... who demanded entry into all those places no one had ever wanted to go... in spite of her own fears. Just as when Gabrielle's voice had called her back from Tartarus, Xena felt her soul respond to the bard's summons now. Let it go... the mantra returned to the warrior, and this time she embraced the words, curling into the warmth that flooded into her, emboldened by her lover's gentle courage.

"Gabrielle..." she gently nudged the small form.

"Mmm?" The bard snuggled deeper into the warrior's long arms.

"Gabrielle..." Another gentle nudge. Placing a soft kiss on her forehead. "Gabrielle, it's time."



To be concluded in Part VI...

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