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Disclaimers: I just borrowed the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Perdicus, Callisto, Dahak, Krafstar, Meridian, Argo, Sphaerus and Cycnus. They are the property of Renaissance/MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement is intended. Atropos has always belonged to herself. The rest of the tale is mine with all copyrights thereto. This is a hurt/comfort-first time story. Rated: [NC-17]

Violence and love/sex: This tale has violence depicted and implied. It depicts a loving sexual relationship between two adult women. If you are under 18 and any of this is illegal where you live or disturbs you, please read something else.


Pamela A. Lord © March 1999

Xena awoke on the cavern floor. "Gabrielle—" The strawberry blonde sat up as her tall raven-haired companion stood looking about.

"Where are we?" The girl scrambled to her feet. Torches lit the huge interior. Both women were dressed as they had been upon going to bed, with boots off and short shifts. But this was not where they had fallen asleep. There was no sign of Argo, or their bedrolls, let alone Xena's weapons or Gabrielle's staff.

"Welcome." A soft feminine voice came from everywhere and nowhere. The air shimmered and an old woman appeared before them. Her face was a map of hundreds of wrinkles but her hazel eyes were young and kind. She wore a full black robe with a hood over her white hair. A pair of scissors hung from a cord at her waist.

"Atropos." Xena recognized the eldest of the three Fates. "Why are we here?"

"Are we dead?" asked Gabrielle.

"No, no..." The eldest Fate shook her head.

"What do you want from me?" Xena was used to the Gods interfering in her life but she still didn't like it.

"Not you, Xena. Gabrielle."

"Me?" After three years of being a sidekick Gabrielle was surprised and pleased that the Gods needed her help for a change.

Xena was not so sanguine; her blue eyes turned icy. "And what exactly do you want from her?" The wary warrior moved between Atropos and her eager friend.

"Once in a great while, there is a person with the essence of faith in humankind that surpasses even the Gods' powers. Decades from now, when I clip her lifeline, that faith will all but disappear. I have the ability to distill some of that attribute and to place it in others, centuries in the future."

"I have that within me?" The young woman stepped up beside Xena.

"Always," Xena smiled down at her best friend. Her green eyes sparkled back up at the tall warrior.

"For years, Xena's path was drawn in blood. Hercules was the candle that showed her a different way. You, Gabrielle, were the flame beside which she saw how she could change for the better."

The blonde smiled, in a shy self-depreciating way, "What is this essence?"

"It’s an intangible composite of feelings and dreams and will. Without it, a young woman like you, Gabrielle, would be just one more nameless village girl, swept away as yet another additional casualty in a war that devastates her land; cut down before she lived but a score of years. If I can anoint her lifeline with your precious gift, she will seek to end injustice and unite her people against the invaders that ravage her homeland. She will wield a sword, but never kill. Even though she still must die before she reaches her twentieth year, her faith and her hope will be immortal. This young peasant woman will be remembered and loved for centuries after her mortal remains are less than dust. Her actions will free an entire country because of your sacrifice. And she is just one of many, many others."

"How would you get it?" asked Gabrielle.

"You must allow me to take it in two phases." Atropos looked sadly at the young woman. "The first would be through pain. Pain without the blessed release of unconsciousness or death. Pain without respite, pain that would tear your soul apart."

"No!" Xena stared angrily at the eldest Fate. "Let it be my pain!"

Atropos shook her head. "You’re too used to pain, Xena. Giving it and receiving it. You've done it for so long, and in so many ways it's like an old friend. As a warlord, when the battlelust rose, you fought with no heed to wounds that would have crippled or killed lesser warriors. Even Ares is hard put to best your will and stamina. You heal faster than any mortal. You throw pain aside as if it were an old rag to be tossed away.

"Then there is that pain within your heart that you rarely share, the hurt inflicted by words, by regret, by guilt. Those invisible wounds that hurt the deepest are the least attended to. The nightmares have faceless victims, don't they?" Atropos saw how Xena seemed to draw herself inward. Gabrielle placed a sympathetic hand on Xena's arm. Many nights she had held the older woman when she had been wracked by evil dreams.

"Gabrielle, you feel the pain of others so intensely. You have an innate need to relieve suffering, to bring hope, even when faced with the worst life offers. You honestly believe in goodness," Atropos sighed. "You lost a husband yet forgave his murderess. You lost your blood innocence, were raped by a daemon god and bore his unnatural child. When you gave her poison, you nearly died when your heart was broken." The bard bit back a sob remembering the small, still, outstretched hand.

"So what's the second phase?" Xena growled, hating this place and the Gods’ intervention more and more.

"Love. Physical love to climax. The most exquisite pleasure that mortals can ever experience. Love that takes you out of yourself, that suspends time and tides, love that is stronger than life, deeper than death. Love that forgives, love that heals, love that trusts, love that makes two souls one. Even the Gods cannot do that." Atropos watched indulgently as Gabrielle blushed. The Fate saw that desire was yet to be made into deed, held back only by 'what ifs'.

The bard suddenly seemed to find something fascinating about the stone floor and her bare feet. Her fingers wrapped about each other then parted and tentatively reached out and took the large callused hands of the warrior. She bit her lower lip then gazed up into the beautiful azure eyes she had seen nearly every morning when she woke up and before she fell asleep at night. Yet there was more that Gabrielle desired; after all they had gone through, did Xena even want her that way? The younger woman knew the warrior princess had a multitude of lovers and conquests. What could she ever see in a backwoods nobody?

"If I say yes..." Gabrielle looked to Xena, "Could you love me?"

Xena swallowed with difficulty. "Yes, of course," she held the smaller woman’s hands to her lips and kissed them. "But—" She reached for a chakram that wasn't there as she turned to the old woman. "I'm not going to let you hurt her. Fate or no Fate, I will make your suffering a thousand fold for every pain she feels!"

"Hope was the last entity in Pandora's box. Hope fades without belief in goodness. Will you save mankind's future, Gabrielle?" Atropos' hazel eyes looked level into sea-green ones.

"I was about to beaten, probably raped and sold into slavery when you saved us, Xena. I first followed you out of wonder and a need to escape from boring old Potidaea." The young bard had a bit of trouble with the words and feelings that she had hidden for so long. "You seemed like an avenging goddess. I learned you were a healer as well as a warrior, a confidant, an audience of one for my stories. I loved your tenderness, your sense of humor, your vulnerability that you were so afraid to show. Then I loved you, the woman. I didn't know if you felt the same, or what you would say."

"I’ve loved you so much, Gabrielle. For so long." Xena held the younger woman's shoulders. "Ever since I saw a girl take an awkward swing at a thug when her people were threatened. She showed me a courage and compassion that I had never seen, and never thought I could earn." Xena pulled the bard closer, holding her tightly." You became an intrinsic part of me, a part of my soul. I saw you grow up to become an Amazon Queen, conquering with love and understanding. I didn't think you could love me, knowing what terrible acts I've committed. What I've done, I can never undo. But you don't have to do this! You don't deserve the pain! Not you! Anyone but you!"

"The Fates don't lie, do they?" The bard looked at Atropos then back at her love. "Xena, you taught me about the greater good. Not just for now but for tomorrow. Even if that tomorrow is a thousand years from now. It's just pain, I'm not even going to die!"

"Please!" The warrior's cerulean blue eyes begged Atropos. Xena hugged Gabrielle tightly and whispered in her ear, "Don't do this. Let's just walk away."

"Can I ask a favor?" Gabrielle turned out of Xena's embrace to the eldest Fate. "Don't let her watch, and bind her so she won't hurt herself trying to get to me."

"No!" Xena grabbed the girl. Gabrielle put her fingertips to Xena's lips. "And please, Atropos, don't let me hear her until it's over. I couldn't bear—" the young woman pleaded.

"Ga—" Xena was alone in a small chamber, lying down on a wide bed, cocooned in leather wrappings from shoulders to ankles. Her arms were firmly pinned by her side, she couldn't even move a finger. A cushioned strap anchored her head to one spot. She cried out and made no sound. Her voice was gone. No! Gabrielle, please don't do this! Her mind screamed impotently. Candles flickered from their posts on stone shelves, mute witnesses.

"Would you... remove your clothing." Atropos asked softly. Gabrielle pulled the thin sleeping shift over her head; she shivered in the cool air as she folded the cloth and set it aside.

"Now what?" The small blonde felt her heart catch in her throat.

"Here—" A low, square stone platform appeared. It was a step off the ground and six feet on every side. Gabrielle walked into the center. "Hold your arms out," said Atropos. The girl did so. Out of nowhere, two padded shackles snaked out and held her wrists up and to the sides, over her head. Two more clasps bound her ankles far apart from each other. The eldest Fate looked into determined emerald eyes, searching.

"Yes, I'm sure I want this to happen. I offer you my hope." Gabrielle's voice was calm.

Atropos took out a small, clear glass vial from her pocket. Removing the stopper, she bent down and set it on the ground. Atropos looked behind Gabrielle into the darkness that even the brightest torches could not dispel. Two red orbs pulsed, moving up and growing brighter. The snowy-haired Fate stepped back and nodded.

A shriek split the air so suddenly, Xena jerked, or would have had she not been bound so tightly. Again and again, Gabrielle's voice ripped out of Xena's heart and soul. The cords stood out in Xena’s neck with the futile effort to break free and save her bard. She felt beads of sweat form on her upper lip as she strained against the strap. Unconsciously, her teeth bit through her lip, she stared at the rock above her head, not tasting the blood.

"No...Nooooooooo!!! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! " A red mist coalesced about Gabrielle. Her back arched impossibly, trying to get away from the amorphous terror. Her muscles pulled taut against the bindings as agony filled her. A sheen of perspiration covered her pale body. Atropos shook. Immortal she may be, but her heart bled for the sacrifice the young woman was making. The eldest Fate couldn't stop it now even if she wanted to, and by the Styx she wanted desperately to stop it. One red drop appeared at the bottom of the glass.

Xena heard Gabrielle's tortured screams rising one after another, then falling as she drew in shuddering breaths. Her anguished cries choked off into gut wrenching sobs begging for release, for mercy. The shattered bard implored all the Gods on Olympus to stop the torments. Her cracking voice prayed for death to finish it, then her voice gave out.

The sounds! Sweet Gaia, the sounds! Xena recognized them all. She had caused them all; she had enjoyed hearing them. The warlord had relished the effects, the suffering she inflicted. There were the harsh slaps of hardened leather lashing against skin; the hollow pulping of flesh being beaten. Bones broke with stretching snaps. Arrows whistled and smacked as they pierced helpless meat. She heard a crackling and smelled charred flesh. Steel sliced in little hissing increments. Broken gasps and whimpers and underlying it all, the slow, almost imperceptible dripping of hot blood hitting cold stone.

Two hours passed, or two hundred years. Xena's imagination churned, showing her the horrors visited upon her beloved Gabrielle. The bard was hanging limp from the chains; strips of skin were flayed from her arms showing the bright wet muscles underneath. Her back was a mass of welts leaking scarlet streams over the violet bruises that covered her thighs. Jagged bones twisted through beneath both knees. Her breasts were mutilated with deep brands; half a dozen arrows protruded from her stomach and ribs. The blonde head raised slowly, air rasped from between dry lips scraping out of her punctured lungs, her green eyes were dull and empty. There was life but there was no hope.

Xena shivered, she was standing! Gabrielle appeared lying on the bed, a blanket was pulled up to her chin. Her eyes were closed, her face was pale. Damp tendrils of red gold hair clung to her temples.

"Gabrielle?" Xena slowly lifted up the cover, afraid of the damage she might see. There were no marks of injury anywhere, the bard's chest moved in a normal rhythm. She shuddered and opened her eyes.

"Oh, Xena!" She held out her arms and the warrior folded herself onto the bed, cradling her love. Gabrielle saw the trickle of blood where the older woman had bitten her lip, "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean for you to suffer!"

"Me? Oh, love—" Tears came to the blue eyes. "Don't you ever stop thinking about other people?"

The girl shivered, "Why are caves always so damn cold?" she asked with a small smile.

"Here," Xena slid under the blanket, encompassing Gabrielle in her long, strong arms. She drew the shivering woman to her and began rubbing Gabrielle's back; she felt the blonde's soft breath on her skin. Xena's pulse seemed to skip as she looked down and saw green eyes.

"Mmmm, you're always so warm," a small chuckle came from Gabrielle as she held her head on the warrior's shoulder.

"An old warlord's trick. It comes in handy when my bard is cold."

"Your bard. I like the sound of that."

"So do I." Xena's eyes closed on half-spilled tears. "You took it all, and came back to me. I couldn't stop your pain."

"Xena, look at me. Please?" The bard held the older woman's cheeks. "Could I have done anything less, without knowing you loved me, that you'd be here for me? I've learned that you can't live for someone, you can't die for someone. You just need to be there. In here," she held her hand above Xena's rapidly beating heart.

"I am always here for you, my love." Xena brushed her lips over Gabrielle's forehead.

"More than anyone, ever."

"But, Perdicus?" Xena asked as she eased a reddish blonde lock aside.

"He, I mean—we touched. But it never went farther than that." Gabrielle swallowed hard and stared past her fingers twined in raven tresses. "He began talking about the battles, coming upon the bloodshed, the rapes that ended with the women being gutted. Seeing their bodies and crying. He'd try to lose the sights with a girl bought for a night, and he didn't know her so it didn't matter. He wanted—he wanted to love me without seeing the violence.

"We held each other through our wedding night, like two children waiting out a storm when thunder splits the sky. We huddled together and reminisced about Potadeia and Troy until we fell asleep. We thought we'd have the rest of our lives to... "

"Oh, Gabrielle..." Xena held her bard tighter, "I'm so sorry."

"Xena, it wasn't –love. When Callisto killed Perdicus, I lost a good friend, a childhood friend. Not a husband, not a lover. I saw his need, and I blocked out what I felt for you. I didn't think you loved me that way."

"I did from the start," Xena smiled and gently kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "But I didn't know if you wanted me." The warrior smiled softly and tilted her head down. "I need you, more than the air I breathe."

Gabrielle took up Xena's hand and stared at it for a moment. "Xena, I wish you had been my first."

"What do you mean?"

"Dahak took that from me as well." The bard had never spoken of those terrible times in Britannia. She wet her suddenly dry lips with her tongue. "A bowl of water, clear and clean. Then you spill ink into it, and it spreads and it stains. You think the dark liquid is small in comparison to what’s in the bowl... but you can never separate them. You keep adding more and more water, but you're just fooling yourself. It's always going to be there. Hiding, below the surface."

"It’s gone, Gabrielle, it's all over with."

"No, no it's not. My memories of being touched—being forced by Dahak." The blonde shuddered.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." The warrior stroked the soft cheek beneath her hand.

"I need to tell you, now. Before I love you, or feel your loving touch." Sea green eyes looked into the past as the bard began a tale Xena wished she'd never hear.

"Krafstar yelled, 'Look out!' and I turned with the dagger that had just cut the ropes binding his wrists. Meridian swung the sword and I pushed her away. She smiled, she was happy when I stabbed her and her warm blood was all over my hands. I grabbed her girdle to stop her from falling but it slipped from my wet fingers and she collapsed. Something died in me that I never thought I'd lose. Innocence was gone. Meridian was gone. The world was gone. I remember thinking my tears made the bloodstains worse.

"Then you came, and you said everything was going to be all right. But you didn't know what Dahak was. The altar exploded, Krafstar changed into the Deliverer, and that awful fire reached out and seized me. It suspended me over the pit; I prayed to fall in and die. There was pressure outside, all over, pushing into my skin, through my clothes, my hair. Like I was drowning in some thick fog. He wasn't even a human violating me. I felt him extending tentacles into where Meridian's death had left me hollow and dark.

"When Dahak thrust into me, I felt part of you, and part of Krafstar. I knew when you were clawed on the arm then Dahak's fires went further inside. You know how frost grows on the edge of a pond in winter. You can't see it move but there's more the next day, and the next. Nothing stops it from growing, not wood nor rock nor metal. Like when your hand holds ice and doesn't let go, such an insidious cold that it burns. Then you must have cut Krafstar, I felt that too. And Dahak penetrating even deeper, closing around my heart. Almost the worst was the sound. I was deaf to everything but the hissing and roaring of those daemon flames. They reverberated into my bones, my blood, shattering my soul. I remember wishing that you had never rescued me from Caesar; that the cross would have been a kinder, cleaner death."

"I would do anything to help you, but my hatred and vengeance for Caesar led to your torment. I can never forgive myself for that." Xena held her cheek to Gabrielle's.

"No, Xena. I killed Meridian. I crossed a line I swore I'd never do. I opened myself to Dahak's evil. You became a warlord to save your home, and that was the wrong thing for the right reason. I stabbed Meridian without a second thought. She didn't even know how to hold that sword she raised against me. I let Dahak into the world."

"You were manipulated into killing," Xena tried to explain. "Gabrielle, Gods don't care about people. They just use them to their own ends, most of them anyway."

"I have dreams of you holding me, or Perdicus, and then it's Dahak shrouding me, suffocating me, tearing me open with jagged spears only to impale me over and over again."

"Oh, love... Why didn't you tell me sooner, Gabrielle?"

"Because I never remembered them so clearly, until now."

"I swear to you, whatever I can do, I will."

"You've saved my life more times than I can count, now I need you to save my heart. Xena, help me make new memories, please?"

"Gabrielle, you are my heart. All I can do is give you back what was always yours. See yourself through my eyes, my beloved bard; all that I cherish is within you." Xena sat back on her knees, uncovering the blonde's feet. Xena kissed her fingertips and lay them atop the small white arches. As she spoke, she touched each part she named in turn.

"I love your feet that have walked and run beside me. Never straying nor content to be left behind, reaching up on tiptoe, refusing to believe anything is out of reach. Your legs are strong and supple. They have carried you the length and breadth of so many lands, never too tired to explore. I love your hips that sway in graceful rhythm, self-assured and distracting as Tartarus when I ride behind you. These firm curves that settle on a stool when you tell your tales to eager ears, or by the fire as you sit cross-legged, copying in your journal. Your stomach is a silky rippling mystery that can hold so much and growl so loud in protest when ignored. Then you pat it in contented satisfaction and it grows quiet under your touch." Gabrielle blushed in self-depreciation, watching the ardent cerulean gaze upon her.

"I love your breasts, two proud hills offering comfort and ease, containing so much tenderness and patience. Your graceful shoulders, rolling and gliding as you stretch every morning, holding fast to faith and never bowed. I've seen your arms dancing, expressive in your art, and covered in Amazon leathers, a Queen. My Queen. When you hold me as you ride behind me, their warmth and confidence reassure me of your boundless trust.

"Your hands are delicate and nimble as they sew up my wounds yet again, or as they prepare dinner with just the right spices. Callused, not from the simple chores of a farm girl carrying water or wood, but from long serious hours, building competency with a fighting staff. I love these fingers that turn deftly to quill and parchment and the writer's bump, slightly crooked at the joint, from tales yet to be told and chronicles yet to be sung.

"I love your red gold mane, this wealth of young lioness capturing flame from sunlight and cooking fire. For so many nights I have watched as the colors are caught and released as naturally as breathing, in unquenchable beauty.

"I love your eyes that have seen the impossible in me. Your steady gaze gives me peace, and impels me in a silence more eloquent than any words, never to give up. Your visions of a better world urge thought to become deed. In your sight, I can redeem my past and affirm my present with your unquenchable faith that I am indeed worth saving.

"I love your lips that talked their way into a ruthless warrior's heart when you offered yourself to spare others, then you called me friend. You weave your thoughts and hopes and dreams, and share that priceless gift with me. Your smiles have brushed aside my doubts. They make me believe in myself again and offer me hope.

"Most of all, I love your soul that gives without reservation. Wider than the world I have traveled, stronger than any army I have ever led, forgiving of my deepest sins and my darkest past. You give my life a purpose; you are the reason I keep trying. You keep fighting for me, my beloved."

"After everything I've done to you, you still believe in me." Tears shone in Gabrielle's bright eyes.

"Always." Xena bent down and lightly brushed her lips across Gabrielle's. Lingering, parting slightly as their tongues touched, her lips opened more, tentative yet eager. The warrior's lips tasted the sweet sea in the drops beading on Gabrielle's cheeks. Xena placed small kisses on her eyelids, rubbing against her temple softly, tracing the sculpted line from ear to neck. She felt the pulse at Gabrielle's throat and let her lips rest there before returning to Gabrielle's mouth.

"Wow..." Gabrielle smiled. "Why didn't we start this sooner?"

"I was letting Argo get used to the idea," said Xena, reaching for more. Her lips took a path across her bard's cheek and forehead. She closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of clean blonde hair, the bergamot from their soap, the faint spiced skin that was natural Gabrielle.


"Yes, Gabrielle?"

"Would you take off your shift? I mean, if you wouldn't mind?" The warrior sat up slowly, a few tugs and the clothing was on the floor. She settled back down with her arms wrapped about her bard.

"Watch me as I make love to you, Gabrielle. Where I gaze upon, each new sight is a prayer. Every caress is an offering, from my innermost heart."

Teeth pulled gently and nibbled at lips; mouths met and parted in a sweet hunger only to meet again. Xena's tongue trailed paths of deliciousness from her bard's collarbone to breast. Gabrielle felt inundated as her tongue circled over her nipple. She felt it draw tight as Xena pulled on the sensitive tip, Xena’s sword callused fingers teased the bard's other breast, rubbing back and forth over the pebbled aureole. Xena planted tiny moist licks on the hardening pink nub. Her teeth rasped gently over to Gabrielle's right breast, spiraling inward until she grasped the nipple and suckled.

Gabrielle moaned, feeling lightning coursing to her very center. A deluge of pulsating sparks spread outwards as she held her hands on the dark hair. Xena's lips reluctantly abandoned the firm breasts. She slid down Gabrielle's stomach, feeling the near invisible down beneath her lips. She looked up, meeting the bard's eyes, offering absolute trust, body and soul.

"Please, Xena...I need you." Gabrielle's voice wavered but slightly.

"Open for me, love." The warrior's hands gently parted Gabrielle's legs and played softly with the pale curls. Xena's lips planted lingering kisses on the right inner thigh then turned to give the same attention to the left. Gabrielle's hips rose up slightly, almost instinctively as the need for release built up. The musk-spiced smell of her arousal was a heady perfume to Xena's senses.

"Gods, Xena." Gabrielle's body quivered beneath her warrior's exquisite touch.

"You are so beautiful, my bard. My love." Xena spread the nether lips and blew her warm breath on the reddened pearl. Her tongue licked the velvet inner folds then centered on the core of Gabrielle's passion. She drew the nub inward, sucking and grazing her teeth around it. "You are so sweet, so good." Xena slipped her index finger into her bard, rubbing high on the inner walls, careful not to tear the thin membrane.

"Ahhhh—" Gabrielle was nearly beyond rational thought as a dam began to break and a flood of warmth spread out. Xena lapped up the nectar in slow lazy strokes and added a second finger inside. She watched as her love came closer and closer to the edge. Her lips plucked at the swollen knob, teasing tight circles around it with her tongue, her hand moved faster and faster, urging her love onward.

"Fall into me, my love. Fall with me, I‘ll be here." Xena held one arm over Gabrielle's hips as she captured the fiery bud between her teeth and rapidly flicked her tongue over it. Gabrielle began to spasm as her climax peaked. Xena added a third finger and quickly broke through the last vestige of resistance when the bard cried out in ecstasy.

Gabrielle felt stars bursting inside, an entire universe exploding. She had died and was reborn from Xena's love. She was barely conscious of Xena's fingers drawing slower and slower back and forth inside of her as the tremors wound down. Tears ran down her face, soft hiccuping sobs drew her warrior's attention.

"Xena, by the Gods, that was incredible. Will it always be like that? Why am I crying?" Gabrielle sort of laughed and coughed at the same time.

"Shhhh... Gabrielle, it's all right." Xena moved up, her arms enveloping the girl as the last after-shocks left her weak and shuddering. "No, it won't always be like that," the raven-haired woman smiled indulgently as she raised an eyebrow. "Sometimes it's even better." She brushed her lips over the blonde head and gently rocked the smaller form.

"I love you, Xena. By all the Gods, I love you."

"And you are the best of all things to happen to me. I love you too, Gabrielle."

Atropos held two translucent glass bottles. In one, a reddish smoke darted to and fro. In the other, a dark blue mist shifted gently, rising languidly to the stopper and falling again. She placed the blue one aside and taking out a lump of dark beeswax from an inner pocket, she warmed it at a nearby torch. The eldest Fate then dripped melted wax about the joint of stopper and bottleneck holding the agitated crimson fumes. She repeated the action with the bottle containing the blue vapor.

Gabrielle examined all the scars on her lover’s breasts and stomach, paler than the lightly bronzed flesh surrounding them.

"You've had more stitches than my grandmother's quilt." The bard traced a jagged line that skittered down and across several ribs.

"It goes with the territory," Xena replied with a wry smile, trying to conceal how ticklish she was.

"I would tell each blade, each unkind steel, that this should be a caress, not a cut. How many have touched you?" mused Gabrielle as she circled a small hollow to the left of Xena’s navel. That mark had been from the third crossbolt shaft from Sphaerus, the son of the warlord Cycnus.

"Oh, more than a hundred, less than a thousand."

"No, I mean how many have felt the depth of your love and compassion?"

"I took love, like I took everything else, Gabrielle."

"But you've been giving every day since we met." Gabrielle’s serious green gaze rested on Xena’s face.

"You’ve been my inspiration and my guide. Your love has shown me a better way."

Gabrielle pressed her lips to Xena’s, then placed her lips over her warrior’s heart. "And your love has always been there for me, Xena. Now let me show you how much you mean to me."

As the bard’s sweet touches consumed Xena, the warrior was vaguely aware of when the cavern disappeared and they were entwined under the sleeping furs back at their camp.

"Your hope, forever," came the whisper from Atropos.

"Mine forever," Xena asserted as she held Gabrielle tightly. The world revolved around them.

The End.

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