What starts off as a regular Solstice for the two companions turns into a nightmare when they're split apart by the appearance of Hope. Mistaking Gabrielle for her daughter, Xena finds herself making mistakes that she has somehow to find a way of making up to her grieving friend. A visit to Poteidaia then Amphipolis goes some way to mending their relationship, but it proves to be more complex for them both than Xena expects.


I do not in any way own the characters or locations in this story, I just enjoy writing about them. If you have any comments or questions, feedback is always welcome and responded to at I hope you enjoy the story!

Abandoning Hope

"Four dinars."

Xena balked at that. "Two dinars."

"Lady, I got children to feed here!" The gruff voiced market seller raised his hands expressively. "You want them to starve? I gotta make a little profit."

Surveying the heavily laden stall and the bustling market around her, Xena doubted any children in this village would be going hungry. "All right, three dinars, or I walk away."

The man gave an acquiescent little bow. "Okay, okay, you've twisted my arm." He took the coins from her and handed her the small package of dark leaves which she wanted to make tea. "Thanks for your business!"

Xena dropped her change back into the leather purse at her belt, which was now a lot lighter than when she and Gabrielle had set off earlier. The market was a large, busy place. Well known in Athens, it sold everything from exotic materials to fresh herbs and spices. The narrow tracks between overflowing clusters of stalls were crowded with people from all walks of life buying their wares, and the air was heavy with strange aromas and excited voices.

The warrior had had quite enough. To her, markets and the like were a necessary evil: she preferred quiet and solitude, and places like this just reminded her of the simple village life she had led as a child and which she could never again have. Occasional visits were necessary for acquiring supplies, though, and also it was only fair to let Gabrielle mix with other people: she was far more sociable than Xena, and the warrior knew that her young companion sometimes missed her village and its people.

It didn't take long for Xena to find her friend: she only had to follow the lilting sound of her voice and the excited chatter of children. The bard sat on a log on the perimeter of the market square, her satchel propped against her leg, arms raised to gesticulate as she spoke, a dozen or so pairs of young eyes on her.

"And then the brave warrior heaved her sword high above her head and slay the evil dragon – whoosh!" Gabrielle made appropriate chopping movements with her hands, her green eyes sparkling, and the children at her feet cooed and cheered. Xena stood watching in amusement, her hands on her hips. "So all the townspeople were freed, and the dragon disappeared, never to be seen again."

The children, of varying ages, clapped their approval, calling out for one more story, until their mothers led them reluctantly away. All the women smiled their thanks to Gabrielle, and several pressed a dinar or two into her palm.

"Telling stories about me again, Gabrielle." Xena approached her, securing her bag behind her back.

The bard pushed herself up from the log and brushed off her skirt. "It was either that or let them pet your horse to death." She looked over her shoulder to Argo, who made sure the coast was clear before cantering over to them.

"I'm sure she's very grateful to you. Aren't you, Girl?" Xena ran her slender fingers along Argo's jaw, and the horse gave a disgruntled little snort in reply, her big nostrils flaring and breathing warm air into Xena's wrist.

Gabrielle shrugged. "They were sweet kids." She willingly handed her friend the few coins she had earned, although that hadn't been her agenda. "I did have to exaggerate though, to keep their interest."

"I'm sure you did," Xena went along with her dryly. "Come on, time we were going." She hooked her boot into the stirrup and mounted her horse.

"Oh, okay." Gabrielle caught Xena's outstretched arm and pulled herself up. She hadn't had a chance to see much of the market herself, but perhaps she had lost track of time, immersed in her yarn.

"Hold on tight." Xena caught the reigns in one hand and tapped her heels against Argo's sandy coloured sides. "Ya!"

The horse set off at a lively gallop, her creamy tail whipping out behind her. Gabrielle hugged her arms around Xena's middle with alacrity, surprised by their speed and having no desire to fall off. Although the sun overhead had lost its midday intensity, it was not yet beginning to set, and Gabrielle wondered what the hurry was. She closed her eyes and tried not to get giddy, not wanting to watch the dry mud racing by under Argo's hooves.

It wasn't far back to their camp, especially not at that speed, and Gabrielle was glad when they were back under the protective canopy of trees which bordered their little clearing. As soon as they came to a halt she clambered down with her customary inelegance, even more eager to get her feet back on the ground than usual.

"What was the rush? Did you see a Cyclops that I didn't?" The bard found herself just a little out of breath.

Xena jumped down and unpacked the saddlebags. "I thought you'd be hungry for your supper." Despite her small frame, her young companion was always hungry, and could put away twice what Xena could and still wake them both with a rumbling stomach.

"Well the edge has been taken off my appetite now I've eaten half your hair -" Gabrielle wiped her hands across her face. "Couldn't you tie it back when we ride or something?"

Xena smirked. "Sorry. Argo enjoyed the run."

"I'm glad someone did." Gabrielle took one of the bags in an effort to help.

There was a momentary, companionable silence, filled only by the chattering of birds and rustling of leaves. Argo watched her human pick her way over to the embers of the fire. The smaller human with the golden mane, as always, followed her. Pleased for the peace and quiet, Argo lowered her head to make a start on the grass at her hooves.

"We didn't stay long at the market." Gabrielle was careful to keep her tone conversational rather than accusatory – she was merely curious and happily followed where Xena led.

"Well if someone had gotten on with shopping instead of entertaining the local nursery, there would have been plenty of time." Xena teased her affectionately, setting down her load.

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "You're not going to answer my question, are you." She watched the taller woman crouch down by the fire and prepare to light it. "Xena -" Gabrielle squatted opposite her. She tried to read the blue eyes, causing the warrior to pause. "What is it?"

Xena smiled, her lips tightly pressed together, and reached over to lift a strand of yellow hair from Gabrielle's eyes. "Nothing." She reassured. "It just occurred to me that we should get an early night."

"An early night?" The girl frowned.

"It's solstice eve tomorrow." Xena watched the flames spring up between them. "If you're going to get home to Poteidaia in time you need to set off fairly early, it's a days journey."

"Of course!" Gabrielle bounced to her feet and clapped her hands together excitedly, making Xena smile. "I'd completely forgotten. I lose track when we're out in the jungle."

Xena nodded. "I didn't think of it until I saw the stalls at the market."

Gabrielle was beaming. "I love winter solstice. I can't believe I forgot." She began setting up their camp for the night. "You're right, we'll get an early night, then be on the road by sunrise. If I can remember the way -" She paused, scowling, then continued her excited chatter. "Yes, I remember the way. Perhaps we can even stop off by that big lake I like, the one with all the bulrushes, maybe catch some fish -"

"Gabrielle -" Xena tried to interrupt her, but her friend was too excited to hear.

"I can't wait to see my sister." Gabrielle continued, looking up at the warrior princess, who had come to stand by her. "Do you think we could stay for a few days?"

"Gabrielle -" Xena spoke more insistently, and had to touch at her arm to get her to pause.

Gabrielle searched her eyes. "What?"

The warrior spread her hands, wanting to be tactful. "When I said you should go home, I meant you, by yourself."

Her young friend took a moment to absorb that, shaking her head unconsciously, causing ripples to run through her hair and flicking it from her shoulders. "You have other plans? I just assumed -" She knew Xena had little family, and didn't usually pay much attention to traditional celebrations.

Xena shook her head. "I don't, but -"

"Then you can come with me," Gabrielle scowled, not understanding.

"Gabrielle," Xena lay her hands on the girl's arms to be certain of her attention. "Your parents and I aren't exactly the best of friends. They won't forgive me for taking you away from them, and I don't blame them for that. Your whole village…" She shrugged. It wasn't easy to disprove a reputation like being the Destroyer of Nations; even time and distance didn't erase people's memories of that. "I don't think I'd get a very warm welcome."

"That's ridiculous." Gabrielle shook her off, annoyed only because she knew it to be true. "I came with you because I wanted to. In fact, I tricked you into it, do you remember?"

"Yes, I remember." Xena looked down at her leather boots. Where would she be now if Gabrielle hadn't been so damned persistent?

"It's my home too," The bard said defiantly, "And I want you to come."

Xena had to smile at her friend. "Thank you." She gave Gabrielle's shoulder a brief squeeze, appreciating the sentiment. "But I won't ruin your family's solstice, it's not fair. You go: take Argo, it'll be quicker and safer than on foot. I'll be fine."

The warrior went to turn away, but before she could Gabrielle caught her hand and held onto it. Bashful, Xena paused, and looked at her friend. "I want to spend it with you."

"You should be with your family."

"You are family." Gabrielle's ocean green eyes held Xena's. "I love them, and I'd like to see them sometime soon, but I want to spend the solstice with you." Xena looked down again, stroking a thumb absentmindedly over the deceptively strong fingers in her palm. "We'll stay here. Just you and me." Behind them, the palomino mare whinnied. "And Argo," Gabrielle amended.

Xena looked into the innocent round face of her companion, saw as always the sincerity and selflessness there. "Are you sure?"

Gabrielle squeezed her hand tightly. "What do you want for dinner? Did you get anything special at the market?" She whirled around and took up the frying pan, leaving Xena watching after her.

The next day was indeed the eve of winter solstice. The sun hung low in the sky, and even by mid day it wasn't very warm. Still, now matter how cold it was, or how tempting to stay tucked up in a cosy bedroll, Gabrielle's stomach would not be appeased until it was at least a little fuller than it was now.

The bard turned the big fruit over in her hands. "What am I supposed to do with this?" It was heavy in her grasp, its pale orange skin smooth and shiny with flecks of white.

Xena glanced up from sorting through the other foodstuffs. "Dunno," She shrugged, "It came free with the nutbread."
"Nutbread?" Gabrielle's head came up. "You got me nutbread?"

Xena smiled and patted the loaf she had just unpacked. Gabrielle's favourite bread wasn't easy to find, but if Athens Market didn't stock something, nowhere in the known world would have it. "How does it taste?" The warrior nodded her head toward the orange fruit.

Gabrielle sat on a rock by the fire and sliced a small chunk off the fruit with her cooking knife, its wooden handle ornately decorated. She took a bite, chewed the crunchy white flesh, then scowled and offered a piece to her companion. Having set out all the hearty and exotic supplies they had acquired the day before, Xena finally sat down and had a taste. The sour flavour elicited a similar expression from her.

"Does it need cooking?" Gabrielle quizzed.

"It needs cooking." Xena confirmed. It needed something, that was for sure. With the camp tidy and Argo brushed, the warrior had nothing to do but watch her friend, who was very domesticated and could always be relied upon to rustle up a tasty and satisfying meal.

The bard cut up the fruit and set it in a pan over the fire to soften. Between stirrings, not wanting it to burn, she dug her hand into a small woven bag of brownish beans, and toyed with them in her palm. "Are these the beans you can make into a drink?" She pushed the little shining orbs around with her thumb.

"Yeah," Xena told her, watching the way the orange firelight played over her boots. "You crush them, add them to boiling water, and stir it real good." She had sampled the beverage several times, years ago, but she never really savoured what she consumed as Gabrielle did, so it hadn't made much impression on her. It was ingrained in her to eat food quickly while it was available: either before her brother took it from her, when she was young, or, later, before she was called to join her army in battle.

"Hmm." Gabrielle smelled the mahogany beads. "Okay." She placed another pan over the fire.

When their meal was prepared Gabrielle set equal portions on two wooden dishes and handed one up to Xena, then lay out on her side on the rich brown blanket at Xena's feet, propped up on an elbow and facing the fire. Solstice was a time when they two should be together. That had become a tradition in itself, Gabrielle thought. She remembered the first solstice they had spent together, her first away from home, camping out under the trees. Xena had sat down close to her, produced a wrapped object from behind her back. Happy solstice, Sweetheart, she had said, her hand coming up and brushing over Gabrielle's cheek, her eyes full of tenderness. It was the first time she had initiated deliberate, intimate contact, aside from tugging her companion out of danger or shoving her into action. Gabrielle had been mesmerised by those eyes, almost neglecting the beautiful quill pen Xena had set in her lap.

The younger woman scooped some of the now soft and peachy flesh into her mouth. "Mmm!" She exclaimed around her food. "It's good!" Some juice ran over her chin and she rubbed at it with her arm, glancing back at her friend.

"It's a lot better cooked," Xena had to agree. She reached forward and wiped her hand over Gabrielle's face, tutting affectionately. "Look at you." The girl smiled and nestled herself against the hand for a moment. Xena settled back, tucking her feet against the rock she sat on so as not to prod her friend with a toe unless she deliberately chose to do so.

"And it beats fish." Gabrielle scooped some more succulent, watery orange flesh from her bowl and ate it. The drink from the beans hadn't lasted long: Gabrielle had drunk most of it from the pan in 'testing' before it even reached their mugs.

Xena scowled at that last comment. "I wouldn't go that far." Nothing was an improvement on fish, no matter how regularly she had it, and she wouldn't be convinced otherwise.

The blonde woman rolled her eyes. "Well, it's always good to have an alternative. I should be a cook in a royal house," She mused, licking her lips. "Kings would pay a fortune for my fare – at least, three or four hundred dinars."

Xena chuckled. "You only cooked a squash, Gabrielle."

"You're eating it, aren't you?"

"Okay, you're a good cook." Xena set down her dish. "And a good friend. I'm glad you stayed."

"I wouldn't be anywhere else." Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and assured Xena with a smile. "Let's play a game -" She turned back and wiped her sticky hands on a cloth. "You have to guess who I am by asking questions," She chattered, "But I can only answer yes or no." Xena silently rolled her eyes and rested her chin on her fist. Gabrielle was contented and happy, and they were safe and warm with no one to please but themselves; it was what Xena always aimed for. "And you only have twenty questions in which to guess," The bard continued, sitting up and warming her palms by the fire.

"Only twenty…" Xena groaned softly.

"I'll make it easier for you," Gabrielle went on unabated, "It's someone we've met -"

The girl carried on, oblivious to the fact that Xena was no longer listening to her. The warrior's spine had straightened and the little hairs on her arms stood up on end. Above the sound of the crackling fire, and Gabrielle's sing-song voice, her ears had picked up the crunch of a bootfall in the leaves behind them. There it was again, another step from someone who was trying to go unnoticed.

"Xena, are you paying attention to me?" Xena tucked her fingers into the back of Gabrielle's roughly hewn tunic and yanked her back against her legs. "If you don't want to play that's fine too -" The shocked bard tried to appease her, holding up her hands.

Xena leaned down to speak close to her ear. "There's someone in the bushes behind us, to the left. Pass me my chakram, but don't make any sudden movements." She released the material in her grasp.

Gabrielle felt her heart suddenly start to thud in her chest, and a shiver of fear went through her. Fully alert now, she slid her fingers along the ground to where the silver weapon lay, having recently been cleaned and polished. She slowly passed it back to Xena.

"Keep still and don't move unless I tell you to." Xena rose casually, keeping her razor sharp weapon of choice concealed behind her back, and picked her way over their used pots and the small logs. Her sensitive ears tracked the movement of her prey, her mind blocking out all other sounds. She was acutely aware of the sound of breathing, the soft crunch of leaves, the rustle of leather.

Grinning wildly, Xena pushed off from the ground and made a flying flip, her long hair streaming out behind her. Bringing her feet over her head, she landed soundly in front of her target, her chakram at its throat. The figure stumbled and fell over messily with a loud "Aww!", armour and limbs cluttering into an untidy pile. Xena rolled her eyes, somewhat disappointed, and returned to her log. "So what'd you say the first clue was?" She asked Gabrielle, not bothering to disguise her disinterest.

Gabrielle knelt up, ignoring her. "Who is it?"
"It is I, Joxer the Magnificent, come to protect you!"

Both women slumped.

"Although you didn't need to go for my jugular, Xena, that wasn't very friendly." Joxer clanked his way over to the fire and sat down to warm himself.

"Sorry," Xena mumbled.

"Ooh, lunch, do you have any spare?" He took what Gabrielle handed him. "Thanks." He began to eat enthusiastically, grinning, then seemed to suddenly notice the bard in front of him, and looked up to her bashfully. "Oh, hey, hey Gabby, how are you? You're good? You look good. I mean, you look fine, you look…" He tutted and shook his head. His pointed hat slipped forward over his eyes and he pushed it off irritably, thinking it was only polite in front of a lady anyway.

"We're fine, Joxer," Gabrielle humoured him gently, settling herself back on the blanket again.

"Good, that's good." The warm flesh of the fruit filled Joxer's mouth, and he grinned again, his awkwardness forgotten. "Hey this is great. Nearly as good as my cooking. You know, I once cooked a feast for -"

"What did you want, Joxer," Xena interrupted him. "Apart from lunch."

"Oh, yeah, that's right." Joxer put down his empty dish. "The market's in Town, I wondered if you'd like to come see it with me. I know some of the stall holders – old buddies, you know? – maybe I could get you a discount, if you know what I mean?" He winked merrily. Not knowing what he meant at all, both women continued to stare at him somewhat blankly. "I know all the best places, I could show you."

"Plus," Xena mused, "If we were there, you'd be less likely to get beaten up by your 'old buddies' whose livelihoods you nearly wrecked the last time the market came around, right?"

Joxer put his head to one side and his eyebrows went up under lank brown hair. He nodded grudgingly. "That too…"

Gabrielle laughed softly with Xena for a moment, then felt slightly guilty and handed her friend a wine skin. "We went yesterday, Joxer."

"Oh, you did?"

Xena nodded. "That's why we're in Athens."

"Oh, you did." Joxer nodded too, clearly defeated and lost for what to say next. Gabrielle sympathised, and glanced back to Xena, who looked as if she felt for him too.

"We weren't there long," Gabrielle took a sip from her own skin. "Was there anything else good?"

"Well, there was a travelling show: some famous poet, I don't know," He waved his hand dismissively, but continued with renewed enthusiasm. "They had musicians too, and acrobats. I saw the tent as I came past."

Gabrielle smiled, interested in this. "That sounds great. I'd like to see that. Xena?" She looked back hopefully.

The warrior scowled. "Sounds like an afternoon in Tartarus to me."

Joxer swallowed. "I could take you. I mean, you could tag along with me if you want. We might have to stop on the way, for me to foil an evil warlord, maybe rescue a maiden or two -" He illustrated this with his hands, "–but yeah, you could come."

It wouldn't be dark for many hours yet, so Gabrielle and Joxer set off for the market, Gabrielle promising Xena that she'd be back long before it was solstice. The warrior had started to worry when her friend hadn't returned as the sun began to set, but the blonde girl was nonchalant as she strolled into the camp. "Hello," She said to Xena.

"Hey. Where's Joxer, he didn't come back with you?"

"No, he wanted to stay for a while." She sat down on a log, her hands in her lap, as if waiting for something.

"Oh, right." Xena smiled: this was an unexpected bonus. It would just be the two of them, then, and it was solstice eve. "Did you eat already?" She sat down too.

"I'm fine, thank you." The girl smiled mildly.

The fire was burning down to an ember, and the night sky was dusky black and still. Xena inhaled deeply. The air was fresh with the aroma of pinewood, and, cutting through that, there was Gabrielle's unique scent. "Are you tired, Gabrielle?" Xena let her voice drop a note. She lightly brushed away a twig that had become entangled in blonde hair.

"Yes, I am tired," Hope told her.

"Think we should turn in?" Xena slid her fingers down the slender arm and grasped the girl's hand in her own.

Hope looked down at their hands, taken aback for a moment, but soon recovered herself. "Of course, if you want to." There was no need to rock the boat. All she had to do was masquerade as her mother for long enough to convince Xena to travel to Rome. That wouldn't be hard: this woman would go anywhere and do anything that her mother asked. Xena would always come first to Gabrielle, above and beyond her own daughter, Hope thought. Still, it didn't matter. Once in Rome, Xena would be convinced to take up her weapons again and lead an army alongside Dahak: her father's great plan would finally come to pass. Eliciting such rage from the warrior wouldn't be difficult either, all it would take would be, say, an accident, the loss of Gabrielle, and her miraculous reformation would crumble into the ashes. Perhaps her mother would have a use, beyond bearing her, after all.

"C'mon then…" Xena smiled, squeezing the fingers in hers. Hope smiled back politely and patted the hand. She went to pull away, but Xena rose, pulling the smaller woman with her. They went over to the bedrolls, which were laid out side by side, and Xena took the other hand too. "You know that I love you, Gabrielle…"

Hope almost flinched away from the unexpected kiss, only just stopped herself in time. She watched Xena, whose eyes were closed, and felt the gentle pressure on her lips. The warrior pulled Hope's limp hands around her own waist, then reached to cup the pretty face in her palms and deepen the kiss. Hope closed her eyes too, allowing the contact, and concentrated on finding a way to use this new turn of events against those who opposed the great Dahak. She wouldn't pass up an opportunity to gather information and ammunition, and besides, it would give her pleasure to wield this power, to pretend to be her submissive mother but know all along that she was the one in control of the deception. She smiled unpleasantly to herself, and lifted her chin so that Xena would kiss down her neck. The warrior woman would merely be a pawn in her game.

Ready for the night ahead, Xena sat on her fur and gently guided the smaller woman so she crouched astride her. Xena was strong and could easily take Gabrielle's weight, and she liked to have her close like this. She traced her fingers over the muscular thighs, teasing them up under the brown skirt, and gave her partner a warm smile.

Hope adopted this new position without protest, watching the fingers that moved over her and finally came to untie the green cord at her chest. She paid very little attention to the physical sensations she was experiencing, although her brain did register the tickle of Xena's fingers, the unintentional touch of her breath and her hair. Like pain, it was inconsequential. What was far more intoxicating – and ultimately more addictive – was the helplessness of her prey, the vulnerability.

This defenceless quality in Xena only intensified when the rough green material came off Hope's shoulders. The smaller woman gave a smile which Xena interpreted as merely devilish, and she set about unfastening the warrior's leathers. Hope rocked forward, facilitating Xena's soft nuzzling of her breasts. Strong warrior hands went under her buttocks, and Hope played along, pressing her loins into the now bare abdomen. She pictured herself as a cat, gently batting at a mouse before going in for the kill. She smiled.

Xena buried her face in the soft flesh. These moments of intimacy with Gabrielle were as much spiritual as physical, and they gave her strength and joy and hope. She felt small fingers weave into her hair and hold her head, and the firm breasts pressed up against her mouth.

"That's perfect," The girl said darkly. She had begun to rock, very softly, against Xena's leg. "Yes, Xena…" The voice didn't carry its usual pleading tone: it was far more masterful tonight. Xena felt the fingernails that raked down her back, and brought her head up sharply at the stinging of tiny pink marks forming on her flesh. The pain doubled her arousal. In the fading firelight, the blonde girl's eyes were unreadable, but her lips were upturned.

"My turn…" Hope dropped down and traced her tongue under the curve of Xena's breast before taking the nipple into her mouth, her lips moist and warm and her nose pressed against the skin. She sucked insistently a few times, then squeezed with her teeth. It wasn't hard enough to draw blood, but it gave Xena a little nip, and made her grunt.

"Gods, Gabrielle -" Xena had never known her friend like this. She had sometimes asked Gabrielle to be a little rougher with her, but any attempt had always resulted in giggles and a shy apology from Gabrielle, who said she just couldn't bring herself to inflict pain on the warrior. Xena had accepted that, but now, seeing her companion almost animal like and elemental, a hungry flame sprang to life in her belly, and she growled. She encircled the small, hot body in her arms.

Withdrawing her favours, Hope straightened and made a show of removing her skirt, her eyes locked with Xena's. She wanted to enjoy every treacherous moment.

"Gabrielle…" Xena swallowed, "You're so…"

"Wild?" Hope offered, "Evil? So… different?" She spoke the words seductively, and leaned down to take a kiss, consuming Xena's mouth. "I want to abandon all conscience tonight. Tonight, it's just you and I." She pushed Xena down onto her back and straddled her. Her naked body was silhouetted against the firelight. "I'm the only one on your mind. Isn't that right?"

"The only one," Xena told her, still taken aback, but too painfully aroused to be concerned by it.

"Good." Giving a sultry smile, Hope lowered herself, her position giving her power and dominance, and took the other breast into her mouth. Closing her eyes, she feasted on the flesh like a baby on its sustenance, liking the thought that if she was denied a relationship with her mother, she would take it from the very one who was the cause of that denial.

Xena simply lay back on the furs, heat radiating from her skin and her breath coming fast and dry. For a while she caressed the girl's sides, feeling her movements, but soon she lost the presence of mind to do even that. The soft stomach was against her own, and a leg was deliberately pressed between her own, torturing her with each tiny movement. It seemed as if every part of her body was being stimulated, and she lost track of where exactly she was being touched. It was almost a violation. She heard herself begging, then even the words became unintelligible. Usually she tried to quieten herself, when she was with Gabrielle, so as not to frighten or embarrass her, but tonight she had no such strength of will, and the sounds came up out of her freely.

The smaller woman on top of her was relentless, and soon every muscle clamped tight then began to jerk. Her long fingers clawed into the bedroll, and for an instant white light flashed across her eyes. She strained up against the slim body repeatedly, until her strained muscles lost all tone and she collapsed onto the furs, her chest working with the effort to draw in enough air. When she could finally control her thumping heart and open her eyes, she saw her partner kneeling over her, watching her intently. The girl's look, fixed and confident, was closer to smugness than Xena had ever seen Gabrielle display.

"Did I do it right?" Hope asked in a rhetorical tone.

"You… you were incredible." Xena shook her head. "You are incredible." She sat up, with effort, and put her arms around Hope, holding her gently for a moment. Her task accomplished, Hope relaxed. Anything from now on was a bonus, an extra point scored. Xena kissed her, soft and attentive. "Why don't you lie down, hmm? Yeah, that's it." The taller woman lowered Hope onto the bedroll and the girl watched, her hands trailing trough Xena's. She saw the warrior kissing down her body, and long fingers traced over her breasts, which reacted even as she watched them, hardening and darkening. It took a moment to realise what Xena was going to do, but then she accepted this too, bending her knees and letting them fall to the sides. Xena's tongue was hot and moist, her nose pressed into the ruddy flesh, and Hope gazed up at the stars above her, her mind focussed on her victory and the success she would have. She laid her hand on the back of Xena's head, rather tempted to pull on her hair. She jolted despite herself when Xena's tongue went into her, and she fell into her orgasm, enjoying it with the simplicity of one who has no fear and total self-assurance. She had no awareness of what sounds she made or how her body moved, only that when it was over she was even more relaxed and warm than before.

"You're beautiful," Xena told her with a warm smile, stroking blonde hair from the pretty face. Sprawled out with her hands where they'd landed, Hope slowly opened her eyes and smiled back with unconcealed self-satisfaction. "Gods, I'm exhausted." Xena kissed a flushed cheek. "Gonna sleep well tonight, huh?" She gingerly lay down beside the girl and pulled the covers over them both, making sure Hope was well covered. She rested her cheek on her lover's hot shoulder and closed tired eyes, her body tucked up close to the girl's.

"Yes, you sleep." Hope stroked the hair. "Don't think about anything: there's not a thing in the world you can do about it." She smiled.

In the morning Xena rolled over dozily and went to put her arm around the woman who lay beside her. Her fingers meeting nothing but cool fur, she sat up abruptly and looked about her. She guessed Gabrielle had started on breakfast, or gone down to the river to bathe, and so got up and dressed, thinking about nothing in particular. The morning fell into chaos when Joxer staggered back into the camp, holding up Gabrielle, who had blood oozing from a dark split on her forehead and was only just staying on her feet. Her heart rate leaping up, Xena caught the girl and got her down, seeing how white her skin was and how her eyes were rolling backwards. "What happened?" The warrior barked at Joxer, fussing over the blood, all the time listening for breath and pressing a palm onto Gabrielle's chest to make sure the thudding was still there.

Joxer hurriedly explained how he had found Gabrielle in one of the small winding streets around the market the afternoon before, unconscious and wounded. He had tried to send word to Xena, but on solstice eve no one wanted to ride out into the forest for the meagre amount he was able to offer them. Doing what he thought was best, he had taken Gabrielle into an inn and they had stayed there overnight, until the bard had enough strength to travel. He was shocked and stuttering himself, all the usual bravado gone. He paced up and down a few times then dropped onto his knees and touched hesitantly at Gabrielle's shoulder, playing the green material between his fingertips.

"No, no," Xena insisted, "She was here with me, she's been right here. What are you talking about, Joxer?" The bleeding wasn't life threatening: Gabrielle would be all right so long as she was kept quiet.

"I'm telling you, we were at this tavern, right by the stables."

"No, she just left here!" Frustrated, Xena wrapped a spare length of bandage around her hands and pulled it taught. Joxer just sat shaking his head, as if he thought she were crazy. Xena knew he had no cause to lie. "Well, did she say anything?"

Joxer swallowed, tucking his chin over the top of his rough sacking tunic. "Just one word: Hope. What does that mean, hope for what?"

Xena was sure she was going to vomit. It explained everything. Last night hadn't been Gabrielle at all. It had been Hope… She squeezed her hands into fists, fighting to control rage, the likes of which she hadn't felt for years. "I have to go do something."

"What? You can't leave, Xena, she's sick, can't you do something?"

"She'll be fine, Joxer," Xena reassured him. "I have to do this. Look after her: I won't be long." She managed to give him a smile: he was a real friend and he would do everything that could be done for Gabrielle, she only needed rest. Xena leaned down and pushed back blonde hair to talk to her partner, wanting to cry and refusing to let herself. "Gabrielle… I'm gonna go do something, for both of us. I promise I'll be back soon, okay?" She thought she managed to make eye contact for a second before the slightly swollen eyes closed again. "Then we're gonna spend the solstice together, just you and I, just like you wanted. I love you." She pressed a kiss against the girl's forehead. That done, she snatched up her sword and went after her prey.

When Xena returned to the camp there was blood on her sword, dark and satisfying. It was done. She dropped the blade and went to Gabrielle, who was still pale but visibly better, and sitting on a log. She thanked Joxer but asked him to go, knowing there would be no room in her thoughts for anyone except Gabrielle today.

She knelt and set about examining the bloody bandage. "Not a good start to the solstice, Gabrielle, huh?"

"Xena -"

Xena unpacked her medical pouch, wanting to be busy. "Just sit quiet now…"

"Xena, it was Hope…" Gabrielle remembered everything: wandering off amongst the picturesque streets, her child's face as she struck the blow, Hello Mother…

"Let's see to this wound." Xena pushed back damp blonde hair and started to dab at the trickle of blood on Gabrielle's forehead. The blow had split the skin, and the blood was fresh and bright.

"I saw her, she did this…"

Xena pressed her lips together, finally having to face what was unavoidable. "I know. She was here." The tear didn't need stitching, but as with all head wounds it had bled profusely. Even that wasn't as serious as the following concussion might be. Xena scowled, dissatisfied.

"Here? Did she hurt you?" Xena shook her head. Gabrielle's small fingers touched at the warrior's arm in a futile effort to stop her ministrations, which were smarting. "What happened?"

A cursory explanation would do. No need for details. What was the point in making it worse and hurting Gabrielle more? It had been a mistake; just a mistake. "I killed her." Xena gazed at the knee in front of her, seeing the fair hairs stand up. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. When I saw what she'd done to you…" She shrugged. "I know she's your daughter, I know how you feel. But she was a monster: she was dangerous."

"I know, you don't need to say it." Gabrielle studied her hands. "I knew it was inevitable, one day, really."

Xena blinked, surprised by her friend's reaction. "I am sorry, Gabrielle. But it's over now, hey? It's over." She cupped the pretty face in her hand, and Gabrielle managed a smile. "I buried her," Xena offered. "I thought you'd want that." She continued with her work. "Just a pile of rocks, but I put some flowers… Well." Xena shrugged. She knew how it felt to bury a child, and flowers were poor consolation.

Gabrielle looked up at her. "Thank you, Xena. I mean it, thank you for doing that. You must have been angry. I know you did it for me: I'm grateful."

Something hard inside Xena melted. Even after what she had done, Gabrielle only saw the best in her. She inhaled deeply and steeled herself. "This should heal just fine now."

"How about the headache?" Gabrielle managed a joke.

"That too. Here, come and lie down for a bit."

Gabrielle nodded and stood willingly enough, but she staggered, and Xena caught hold of her. "Just a bit dizzy -"

"Yeah. I've got you, come on." The warrior helped her friend to the fur. "Lie down." Gabrielle wouldn't let go, so Xena sat too, holding the girl against her. "I'm here." She began to stroke the honey hair. Gabrielle fidgeted almost constantly, restless, and Xena knew to make sure a dish was to hand. The bard grew paler and her skin damper, until finally she twisted urgently, clutched Xena's arm around her, and vomited. Xena actually felt her body straining, then it gave a little shudder and she coughed.

"Shh…" Xena patted her back, seeing her colour return. "That all?"

Gabrielle nodded, wiping at her face. "Where did you bury Hope?"

"Huh?" This wasn't going to go away, was it.

"I'd like to see her. Just to say goodbye."

Knowing Gabrielle would still be feeling queasy, Xena instinctively rubbed circles into her back, as she always did. "At the market. Just behind the town hall, in a field."

"Oh." Gabrielle nodded, silent for a moment. "Why… why at the market? Didn't you say she was here? Why'd you take her all that way?"

Xena went cold, her hand pausing. "Well I didn't know it was her. Not when she was here."

"What?" Gabrielle turned, breaking their contact.

"I thought it was you," Xena confessed.

"But didn't… didn't you talk to her?" Gabrielle was clearly disturbed by this. "I mean, how could you not have known? I don't understand, Xena, you know me so well."

Xena shrugged. She had given that question endless thought – she thought of nothing else – yet she still had no answer. "I just thought you were a little quiet."

"Quiet?" Gabrielle exclaimed, incredulous. "How long was she here?"

Xena knew, then, that there was no hiding the truth. She couldn't protect Gabrielle from it, and she couldn't live with a deception. "All night."

"Wait… all night? She was here all night?" Gabrielle got up on her knees. "You slept beside her, you probably even held her, and you didn't realise it wasn't me?"

Xena could barely believe it herself. How could she have been so blind? Gabrielle's words narrated her own thoughts, and were torture. She pressed a hand over her mouth, her eyes filling as her mind relived the scene over and over. Here on this bedroll. Her betrayal of Gabrielle, the betrayal of her own body: the perfect revenge of a monster physically identical to her mother.

Gabrielle was perfectly still, her eyes fixed on the warrior. "You thought it was me," She said slowly. "Please, please Xena, tell me you didn't sleep with her."

To actually hear it was acutely painful. Xena bit down on her fist, trying to stifle the little cry that rose up in her throat. She didn't dare look at Gabrielle.

Her partner recoiled a little, revolted. "You did, didn't you." She shook her head, pulling away. Anger spilled into her voice, and it rose in volume. "You… slept with my daughter…" She spat, disgusted, "… then you killed her."

It was a horribly accurate summary. "I'm so -"

"I don't believe this -"

"I never meant to hurt you, listen to me -" Xena reached out imploringly, but Gabrielle shrunk away, not permitting the contact.

"Did she force you?" Gabrielle demanded to know.

Not able to touch the girl, Xena threw up her hands, exasperated. There was only one honest answer. "No."



The bard was shaking her head, and stood to back off. "Let me get this straight." Her voice shook with anger, the like of which Xena had very rarely seen in her. "Did you let her touch you, like I do? Did you touch her like that?"

Xena stood too. "It doesn't matter, I love you -"

"You answer me!" Gabrielle yelled, fists tight by her sides. "Did you touch her, and kiss her, until she…" She grimaced but continued. "Until she had her filthy little release underneath you? Well?"

Xena looked out across the camp to the trees, fantasising that if she just began to run, and kept on running, reality would become a dream and this would all be untrue. "Yes."

"And you let her do the same to you? My daughter, Xena? My child?"

"Enough, Gabrielle, stop it."

Gabrielle looked as if she were going to vomit again. She pushed back her hair and turned away. "I'm taking Argo."

"Gabrielle -"

"I need some time with this, Xena. I'm going to Poteidaia."

"Please, don't just…"

But the girl had run off into the woods, leaving Xena looking helplessly after her.

Xena knew how badly she'd hurt Gabrielle. She couldn't begin to imagine how she'd feel if their roles were reversed, but she knew it was bad. It had only been a mistake, though: she hoped Gabrielle would see that, given time. She waited a few days, fussed uselessly and irritably around the camp, then headed for Poteidaia. After all, Gabrielle wouldn't have told her where she was going if she didn't intend for Xena to follow, the warrior reasoned. She'd apologise – she was sorry – and Gabrielle would understand.

It was a fair walk, with no Argo, and it gave Xena too much time to think. No one was better at wallowing in guilt and self-condemnation, and Xena realised how much she'd grown to rely on Gabrielle to pull her out of it. It was almost a relief to arrive. Poteidaia was a pretty little village, probably more so than Amphipolis, but despite its busy farming industry it was fundamentally a quiet, dreamy neighbourhood: not enough action to keep a fretful warrior princess occupied. Still, it was worth staying for a while if it meant Gabrielle could be in a place where she would be loved and supported.

Gabrielle's family home remained as Xena remembered it: slightly run down, but homely in its own way, with shutters at the windows and a flowerless plant growing up the door frame. She approached the door with determination. She would just take as she found, would just talk to Gabrielle and…

A voice came from inside the cottage. "And this is what you get for going off with that woman!"

Xena exhaled slowly. This was never going to be easy. She knocked softly, then immediately wondered if interrupting a family argument – about her – was such good timing. No one answered, probably because no one heard. Curious, and concerned for Gabrielle, she pushed open the door and quietly went inside. The hallway was small and dark, a pair of muddy farmer's boots in the corner and a vase of slightly wilting flowers on a shelf. Xena looked into the kitchen area, not sure whether to announce herself or just leave. In the end she did neither, and stood watching in silence. Stealth came effortlessly, after so much practice, and no one noticed her.

"Cuts, and bruises, you shouldn't be fighting!" Gabrielle's father continued, jabbing his finger toward his daughter's forehead and the purplish mark there.

"This wasn't Xena's fault," Gabrielle insisted. The family stood in a confrontational position, the parents facing their two children. The younger girl, Lila, was holding her sister's hand.

"Everything is Xena's fault, look at you!"

Gabrielle shook her head, disregarding that as ludicrous. Her jaw was set in anger and her eyes had gone cold and hard, all the warmth Xena was so used to seeing gone.

The bard's mother took her turn, adopting a softer but rather authoritative tone. "I'm sorry to be harsh, Gabrielle, but she's a killer and she's just put ideas in your head."

"Don't you talk about Xena like that." Gabrielle stood her ground, her body language defensive, while Lila tried helplessly to pull her back. "She's my friend."

Behind her wall, Xena felt her heart warm a little. It was such a simple statement, yet Gabrielle had said it with vehemence, and it sounded good to hear.

Gabrielle's father snorted. "It isn't right, Girl. The two of you going around together, you should be home, where you belong."

"I like my life with Xena," Gabrielle persevered quietly. "Father, I've learned so much -"

The atmosphere grew tenser. The argument was escalating out of all control, like an army fuelled by the blood of their own, an animal on the hunt. Xena could see it.

"Gabrielle," Her mother tried, "Come home. We can forget all about this." She wiped her hands over her apron.

Xena saw her companion's cheeks flush red with anger. "I want to be with Xena," She insisted. Hope rose up in Xena at those words, sudden and unchecked, fluttering in her throat and making her mildly dizzy. She still wants to be with me…

Lila, the shorter of the two sisters, with brown hair that curled up at the ends, was clearly upset by the scene unfolding in her home. "Gabrielle, don't fight, let's go for a walk…" She tugged her sister's hand. "You should be resting."

Gabrielle put an arm around the younger girl to comfort her and whispered a reassurance into her ear, but she didn't take her eyes from her parents. "I love her. Why won't you accept that?"

Her father brought his hands up in exasperation. "She's a murderer! I don't want you seeing that evil bitch again, do you hear?"

Gabrielle's voice dropped an octave. "You don't know me anymore. You haven't a clue."

The elder woman had turned to console her husband, but her words were clearly intended for Gabrielle. "We couldn't even get to know our beautiful little grandchild…"

Xena saw something rend in Gabrielle, then, and all the anger was replaced with that old, horrible despair. The girl's spirit, which was always so strong and unfaltering, had taken so much battering, little by little, that Xena dreaded the day it would be extinguished completely, like dark clouds creeping over the face of the sun. How could she not take responsibility for that? She had unwittingly driven a wedge between Gabrielle and her family from the very day she arrived in their village.

"I'll find someplace else to stay." Broken, Gabrielle turned away from her parents.

"Gabrielle -" Lila panicked.

"I can't handle this right now." Gabrielle's fingers traced absently over the bump under her fringe.

"Please, Gabrielle, don't go?" Lila clutched at her sister as if to restrain her, demanding recognition.

"Lila, Lila -" Gabrielle turned to give the girl her complete attention, stroking hair from her pretty young face. "I have to, I just have to." She spoke softly, finding a smile. "I'll come back to see you soon, I promise." She put her arms around Lila and hugged her.

"I miss you, Gabby -"

"I miss you too, so much." Gabrielle kissed the straight brown hair then the rosy cheek, her movements desperate and her eyes squeezed closed. "I love you, Lila," She whispered, "I love you."

"You too…"

Gabrielle had one last hug, clutching the girl fiercely, then made for the door, grabbing hold of her satchel. Startled, Xena stumbled back, but only made it as far as the doorway before Gabrielle rounded the corner and bumped into her. After the slightest pause, the bard pressed herself tight against Xena, her arms securely around the warrior and her head tucked under her chin. Xena automatically held the girl, a smile thawing her. Everything was going to be all right…"I'm sorry…"

"Xena let's go home," Gabrielle said, pulling back, her eyes not rising to meet her partner's.

The taller woman frowned, wrong footed again. "Gabrielle, you are home…" She kept her arms extended, but Gabrielle ignored them.

"No, home to your mother."

"All right…"

"Get Argo." There was no warmth in her voice, and she shoved past Xena and marched across the village square and out of sight.

Xena didn't know whether to be relieved or more worried. Almost mechanically, she went to the stables and found Argo, waited impatiently for her to be fed, and paid the stable boy. She didn't know for sure where she'd find Gabrielle, but on foot she wouldn't have gotten far. The bard liked to walk when she needed to think, liked to be outside in the forest. It was easy to cover ground on Argo, and Xena soon spotted Gabrielle's satchel propped by a rock. She dismounted and spied her friend bathing in the lake, pushing water through hair which had turned a shade darker.

Xena untied the saddle bags then sat on the rock and waited anxiously. When she emerged Gabrielle threw a linen around her and trudged up the bank. Ignoring Xena, she went to Argo and rested her forehead against the mare's, completely drained. The horse supported her for a silent moment, then whinnied softly and licked a drop of water from under her nose. "Go Argo, go on -" Gabrielle rubbed the sandy jaw. "I'm making you wet." She gave a smile that threatened to turn into a sob. "Go find some apples. There, see?" She nudged Argo's nose around so she would look towards a tree at the edge of the lake. "Go on -" She watched the horse leave, then sat down silently beside Xena on the rock. Emotion had exhausted her, and she didn't bother to dry herself.

Xena regarded her until she could no longer hold her tongue. "Gabrielle, it's the middle of winter..." She watched water drip from the girl's hair and run in a little path along her collar bone.

"Yes I know that." Gabrielle snapped.

Xena knew she'd been foolish to assume that things would be as they were before. Foolish and arrogant. Gabrielle had every right to be angry. Biting her lip, the warrior rose, fetched a drying rag and fresh clothes from a saddle bag, and handed them to Gabrielle.

"Thank you." Without looking at her, Gabrielle dried her face, shivering. Xena was compelled to reach out for her, but she twisted away. "I can do it myself."

Xena sat back down and watched her. Gabrielle rubbed at her arms, but it was pointless because more water ran from her soaked hair. Determined this time, Xena tenderly lifted the wet hair from Gabrielle's back and laid it neatly over her shoulder. Gabrielle recoiled, but Xena was having none of it, and continued. As if frozen by indecision, the bard sat still, letting Xena reach around her and dry her shoulders. "You've got scratches on your arms," The warrior observed.

"Argo and I went for a gallop. Must've been the twigs, or something." Gabrielle felt the material of the blanket slide off her shoulders. She looked down at herself emotionlessly.

"Thought you didn't like riding fast." Xena wasn't one for small talk, but it was better than the silence. She began to dry the dripping hair.

"Argo wouldn't throw me, she's gentle." Another shiver went through the blonde woman.

"Gabrielle -" Moved, Xena sat and reached out her arms, wanting with surprising intensity to offer comfort.

"Don't -"

"Don't be silly -" Persistent, Xena eased the girl closer and briskly dried her arms and back.

Gabrielle's shivers took all her strength, and she rested her hands on her knees, leaning her weight forward. She could feel her own shaking, but couldn't stop it.

Xena felt this submission was some small progress. "Don't argue with me, all right?" She reached around Gabrielle and grasped the blanket. "Lift up -" She tugged it out from under the girl. "Don't argue now," She mumbled, "Only trying to help you, Sweetheart." A small nod. "Let's get you dressed, huh?"

Gabrielle sat obediently, largely ignoring Xena helping her into her clothes. Her eyes wandered to a plain white flower growing at the base of the boulder. She stooped to pick it, holding the stem between thumb and forefinger. Somehow she couldn't find the beauty in it, though, and ended up absently pulling off the petals one by one. "It's a nice grave," She said at last, so quietly Xena almost didn't hear her.

"Uh ha…" Not sure where this was leading but hoping it wasn't into another argument, Xena got on with her task, crouching by the young woman's feet and finding a dry corner of cloth.

"I know she was my daughter," Gabrielle watched Xena drying her toes, "But she was evil." Xena paused, thinking that this couldn't have been easy for Gabrielle to say. "I don't blame you for what happened. Not now." Gabrielle's foot was resting on Xena's thigh, and she curled her toes experimentally to capture a crease of cloth. "She hurt us."

Xena could almost see the pendulum swinging. Where was Gabrielle headed with this? "At the house," She said carefully, "I heard you say, you loved me…"

Gabrielle nodded. "Nothing could change that. Hope tried, only because she never had it for herself." She looked up to the blackening sky, pressing her lips together, refusing to let the tears out. "I'm so sorry for everything that's happened. Hope… was my fault."

Xena shook her head fervently, but found her own throat too thick to allow her to speak. Instead, she lifted the small foot and pressed a kiss into the sole, nuzzling her face into the flesh for a moment. When she looked up she saw that Gabrielle was watching her, and she received a tiny smile. "You still want to go to Amphipolis?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I don't want to stay here, Xena."

"All right." The warrior rose, pleased to have something to do, and handed Gabrielle her boots. She whistled for Argo and gathered up their bags. It would mean riding for a few hours at dusk, but the road was straight and familiar.

Gabrielle stood and joined Xena at Argo, hugging herself. "I c…can't get warm."

"I'll help you. Here, get up -" She guided her partner's boot into the stirrup then shoved her up onto the horse. Taking a last glance around, she mounted Argo herself, settling her legs on either side of Gabrielle and reaching around her for the reigns. "Lean back on me, keep warm." She tapped Argo with her heels, and didn't look back as Poteidaia faded behind them.

It was late evening by the time they arrived at Cyrene's Inn, and Xena's mother had been busy drying goblets and stacking them before she retired for the night. Surprised and pleased, she had given Xena a warm hug before lecturing her about the infrequency of her visits, eliciting rolled eyes and a sheepish 'Sorry Mom' from the warrior. Gabrielle stood back, groggy from dozing during the journey and not wanting to interrupt.

"And Gabrielle," Cyrene had greeted her with outstretched arms, "I've missed you too, Little One."

"Hello Mother," Gabrielle accepted the hug, putting on a brave face. She wasn't blind to the irony that Xena's mother treated her more like a daughter than her own parents, and although it brought pride, it brought sadness too.

The following days fell into a comforting routine. They would walk and spar in the mornings, visit the market for food and supplies, then join Cyrene for a lunch of bread and hard cheese, or berries and a home made pie. In the afternoon Xena would repair some furniture, or the roof, or tend to Argo, while Gabrielle helped Cyrene prepare the tavern for the evening rush.

It was good to be home. It was safe and warm, no battles to fight and no unwelcome visitors. They hadn't talked, not really, but things seemed to be okay. They seemed to be. On somewhere around the fifth or sixth night – Xena had lost count – she slid into the big old bed beside her companion and pulled the cover over herself. The oak framed window, its curtains still pulled aside, afforded a view over the field behind the house. Gabrielle liked to lie and watch the sun setting. Even in the dark, it was clear enough to see stars and night birds.

Wary, Xena reached out to stroke her fingertips over Gabrielle's wrist, wanting some sort of contact. Everything felt normal between them, and had done ever since they arrived here, but Xena couldn't pretend that nothing had happened, that nothing had changed. It was just like the analogy they had once made together: just because a pebble sinks under the surface of the water, it doesn't mean it was never thrown. "So you got a full belly, huh Gabrielle?"

Watching a bead of rain trace a path down the window pane, Gabrielle nodded. She was comfortable in her blue shift, her head resting on her hand. "Yeah. Your mom's a good cook, right? I like those cherries, the ones in the pie? You think we could make one of those?"

Xena smiled and shifted her body closer. Gabrielle was resilient, and always managed to bounce back from the stressors in her life. She always had a smile and friendly conversation. "I don't think you can bake a pie in a frying pan." She curled her fingers under Gabrielle's, and the small hand settled into hers. "Guess we'll have to drop by Amphipolis more often."

"Your mother would like that."

"Mmm." Xena took the soft hand and raised it to her lips to kiss the knuckles. Gabrielle's fingers gripped and relaxed around her own in an unconscious rhythm, like a kitten kneading with its paws. Her partner's skin had a unique taste and scent, and Xena was captivated by it even on Gabrielle's hands. She separated one finger, studying the pinkish nail, then took the fingertip into her mouth. Gabrielle rolled over to watch.

The need to be close to Gabrielle, now more than ever, was consuming. Xena kissed the palm then released the hand to slide her arms around Gabrielle, and the two moved into a cuddle. Xena caressed the girl's young body under her shift, feeling cool hands knitting into her hair. "Gabrielle…" Xena nuzzled a kiss under her jaw. "Been so long…"

It has felt like an age, and I've missed the physical act of having Gabrielle in my arms, missed the intensely emotional experience of joining with her like this. Gabrielle and I first slept together when she was barely more than a child, not long after we began to travel together, her hair still wavy and her body not yet quite mature. Despite the passing of years, I can count on my hands the number of times we've been truly intimate – it isn't unusual for months to pass – it seems to be all we need. For a long time Gabrielle was unsure of herself, and at her young age I could expect nothing more. She spent time with several lads whom we met in the towns we passed though, and even married, 'to be sure, once and for all'. Gabrielle was still fairly young – and more naïve than she would ever have admitted – when we got ourselves caught up in an effort to reunite a cursed Orpheus with his body and defeat Bacchus' hold over his women folk. The party held by the vampire women bore little resemblance to the gatherings held in Poteidaia, I'm quite certain, and Gabrielle returned full of questions for me, interested and eager. I knew that night that she had made her choice, once and for all.

I continue my kisses, light and tender, like she deserves, over Gabrielle's cheek, and move so as to be half on top of her. I guide my leg between hers and feel her soft thighs tighten just a little around mine. I can feel gentle lips kissing at my ear, the tip of her tongue warm and wet. Fire builds up in me, its tendrils reaching to my limbs and making my fingers and toes tingle. I start to lose myself. My hand goes down beside us and slowly traces up Gabrielle's smooth thigh, toward her hip, taking the shift with it: I don't notice when she silently pushes my hand away. My fingers return to her knee, not heeding her silent warning, and start their teasing upward journey again.

My mouth has somehow found hers and I can taste all the wet sweetness there as she strains up to me, making a soft sound of desire. Desperate now, and blinded, I bring my hands up over her belly, dragging her shift up enough to see that she is warm and not wearing anything underneath. In a moment of breathless excitement I press my hands to her beautiful breasts and squeeze them to her, knowing how full and sensitive they will be to her, feeling tense nipples in my palms.

She pulls her head back from mine, breaking the kiss and startling me. A hand clamps onto each wrist and my arms are pushed away. "Xena stop it." She scowls unattractively and untangles herself from me.

"What's wrong?" I immediately worry that I've hurt her. I watch as she pulls her shift down around her.

"Nothing," She tells me, "I just… I'm not ready, I don't want to be touched like that yet, that's all."

I feel as if I've flushed cold. "You're still angry…"

"I'm not angry with you, Xena." Her voice is gentle, at least. "I'm not angry."

"Then what -" I hate not knowing what's going on.

"I just wanted to kiss and cuddle," She explains, busily straightening the covers over herself. "My head throbs if, you know, I get too tense."

I should have thought of that: the bruise is there as a vivid enough reminder. "I'm sorry…"

"Xena it's fine, honestly." Gabrielle turns to me and lays her hand on my arm, bridging the sudden gap between us. Her skin is warm, and a vision of being wrapped in her arms in passion flickers across my mind, an echo of moments before which teases me and reminds me that I'm far from being satisfied. "It's nice just being with you."

So she just wants to be together for tonight; I can understand that, and we can just play together all night if that's what she wants. Gabrielle is the romantic, I should be more aware of her needs. "So long as you're okay."

"I am."

I worry when she's upset, when she's ill, when she worries. It's a consequence of loving someone that I recognise and accept. She smiles, and I'm reassured. I lean toward her for a kiss, happy to give what she needs. I never dreamt a simple kiss could be so intimate, before I met her. I had kissed men, and organically it felt like the right thing to do, but with Gabrielle it makes a connection that goes beyond physical touch. I hold her face in my hands and try to be with her, feeling her little nose against my cheek.

Gabrielle breaks off the kiss sooner than I expect. "You were working outside all afternoon, Xena," She tells me gently, tenderly stroking back my hair with a light finger. "You must be tired."

"I don't feel tired," I go along with what I think is her game, and snuggle my arms around her. In truth, we do this far more often than we actually have sex: spend the night just holding each other and talking, kissing occasionally, holding hands. I shouldn't be surprised or disappointed that it's what she wants most now, after all she's been through. I lean down to her again, and am confused when she instead kisses my cheek.

"You must need to rest," She repeats, still smiling at me. "And it's beautiful night. Let's watch it together?" With that, Gabrielle turns in my arms and lies down with her back pressed against me and my hands clasped in hers. "Are you warm enough to sleep?"

The blanket covers us, and I am too stunned by the change of pace to do more than mumble 'Yes' into a tumble of blonde hair.

"Good." She pats my hands then releases them and settles with her head on her arm.

Sleep is the last thing my body either desires or was expecting. I lift my head so as to rest my chin more comfortably on silky hair and gaze out of the window at the approaching night, which to me looks no different to any other. I'm confused and my body is throbbing in frustration. Did I move too fast for her? Or is this an indication of something more? We often sleep like this, so why does it trouble me that her head is on the pillow instead of my shoulder, that she doesn't press the soles of her feet to my shins to warm them? I always chide Gabrielle for over analysing everything, perhaps I'm doing the same now. It isn't long before she's snoring in my arms, her little body quiet and relaxed. Maybe she's trying to teach me patience.

Xena didn't sleep at all soundly, her body taking a long time to relax. She remained curled behind Gabrielle, slowly bringing her breathing in synch with the bard's. She had worked hard helping her mother since they arrived, and had always fallen into a deep sleep at the end of the day, paying little attention to what Gabrielle was doing. This was the first night she awoke when a dream disturbed Gabrielle's sleep.

The blonde woman often dreamed and often spoke in her sleep. Used to this, Xena would ignore it, unless she heard something that could be used for teasing ammunition the next day or, like tonight, Gabrielle sounded distressed. Hearing what sounded like a fearful tone to her companion's indecipherable mumblings, Xena rubbed her fingertips into the small of Gabrielle's back. "Go back to sleep." It was her usual weary intervention, like a mother reaching out of bed to rock the cradle of a restless infant, and normally had the desired effect.

When Gabrielle didn't quieten, Xena pushed herself up on an elbow. "Just a dream…" She leaned over the sleeping woman to adjust her position: the hair in her eyes, the hands at her mouth, creased clothing, a slipped blanket. Gabrielle was scowling, her breathing a little heavy, and she was muttering something about being afraid. "Hey -" Xena tried to reassure her by pressing a cool hand to her forehead. "The monster's not gonna get you," She indulged the girl, leaning closer to whisper to her. "You tell it it'll have to get past me first." Gabrielle always woke with fantastical stories about adventures which predictably placed Xena as the hero.

"What if… What if I can't…?" Gabrielle mumbled into her pillow.

The back rubbing wasn't working. "C'mon -" Xena gathered Gabrielle up and rolled her over. Her body was densely limp, but even so she was plenty light enough. "I gotta get some sleep tonight, huh?" Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms, settling her head, then made sure she was covered by the blanket. "Quiet now, that's it." Gabrielle had automatically curled herself against the warrior, her fingers seeking out convenient places to hold, and her cheek nestled against Xena's shoulder. "Just rest." Xena had the girl held tightly in her arms, and looked down to kiss a flushed cheek. Gabrielle's lips were parted to breathe, but she looked peaceful again. "Tell me about it in the morning." The warrior closed her eyes and returned to sleep.

The next day was uneventful. The two women helped Cyrene with various chores and tasks that she had been putting off, Argo was washed and re-shoed, and Gabrielle mended some of her clothes. They ate their evening meal in the tavern, watching Cyrene merrily serving her patrons. By late evening the place was full, noisy with the sound of laughter and chatter, warm and dimly lit by candles. In civilian clothes, Xena looked relaxed and content as she finished her meat and wine. There was a small band at one end of the large room, and a fair number of people were dancing to the simple music.

"Look at them," Gabrielle smiled, "They're having a good time. Would you like to dance, Xena?" She teased.

Xena gave her a dry look. "I don't dance."

"Well sure," Gabrielle conceded, "But you could. You do have many skills, right?"

"Many." Xena gently scooped up the hand that reached across the oak table to her.

"But I guess everyone would see. Wouldn't want you to embarrass yourself." Gabrielle felt the fingers squeeze around hers. Xena was always so gentle with her. "Besides, people would talk."

"Not once I'd put my fist in their face they wouldn't."

"Xena…" Gabrielle laughed and shook her head, hair falling attractively over her shoulders. "It's quiet here. You could put your arm around me, if you wanted to."

Xena tipped her chin upwards, her lips pressed together: a sure sign that she was pretending to think. She caught a glimpse of Gabrielle's eyes, then gave in and put and arm around her. She missed life on the road, the freedom and adventure of it, but there were benefits to being in a quiet village, and there was no hurry to move on. Not having to worry about attackers, wild animals and the cold meant more time to spend with Gabrielle, and to get over this thing that had happened between them.

Xena doesn't have any great sense of rhythm, and I probably shouldn't have joked about the dancing and put ideas in her head. Still, she's holding me in her arms and that's what I need most right now. The fears that my nightmares realise linger at the back of my mind all the time, and the nearer to night time it gets the harder it is to ignore. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think about Hope. I just want to be with Xena.

She talks to me quietly, about nothing of importance, her breath stirring my hair, and I reply, liking the to-and-fro of interaction. Resting my head at the base of her neck, I can feel the vibration when she speaks. Occasionally she will pull me closer to her, just reaffirm her grip on me, as if making sure that I'm with her and signalling to anyone who might be watching that I'm hers. She isn't one for being openly affectionate, and I'm sure she only feels comfortable enough to do this because she's at home. I love this.

She leans down to kiss me. Nothing honours me more than when Xena wants to do this. I can't remember ever wanting to refuse. I obligingly tip my head back and part my lips for her, wanting to feel her tongue, her nose against my cheek. When she lifts her head she gives me a smile, the one that's just for me, and has to return for a quick peck on the cheek, which makes me laugh. She does have a soft side, and it's adorable when she lets it show.

I let her do what she wishes, and she lifts my hand to hold it by her chest and kiss my knuckles. "What were you dreaming about last night?"

"Dreaming?" I had forgotten about the blasted dream, and all it represents, for a blissful moment, but now it's back.

"Yeah, you were having a nightmare, what were you fighting? Bacchae? Cyclops?" I know it's a casual question to her – she's paying more attention to my fingers than her words – but it's not something I want to talk about. I don't want to burden her with it either. How much has she guessed?

"What was I saying?"

"Don't know, I couldn't make it out." She comes back for another kiss. I love Xena holding me and I need it now, but if I allow it, it will inevitably led to something more. How can I tell her that I can't get that feeling when I'm with her? That it'll get so far then stop dead because when she says my name I'll hear Hope's? Xena doesn't deserve to be teased. "Let's go to bed, Sweetheart…"

"I'm tired, Xena, aren't you?" I give a humourless laugh and pull away more abruptly than I intend, knowing what a dreadful excuse it is.

"No I'm not tired," She insists, letting go, and I know that she's suddenly angry and suspicious. "What's wrong, Gabrielle? Why do you keep doing this?"

I hate what I've done and I have to think quickly. "Doing what?" I should know that pleading ignorance never works – Xena's too intuitive – but I don't know what else to do.

"You don't let me near you, you let me get so far then you run away. Just like last night." She extends her hands, exasperated, and I can't look at her. "I try not to move too fast for you, but in the name of the Gods, it's been months, Gabrielle… I miss you." These last words are quieter and in an altogether different tone; they wring my heart.

"I miss you, Xena -" I touch at the fabric over her stomach, wanting – needing – to make contact.

She reaches out. "Then let's -"

I have to pull back before she can touch me: I can't let her touch me, I daren't. "I'm sorry," I shake my head. I know I've left her lost for words, and she drops her hands. "I'm sorry, Xena, I'm tired, I just want to go to bed."

I have to get to my feet and leave her there. I can only just deal with my own feelings over this, I couldn't cope with hers too. I go to our room and quickly change into my shift in the dark. And now what? Lie beside her as if nothing has happened? At least when we make camp we can put our rugs on either side of the fire if we've argued. What do I do here, make Xena sleep on the floor?

So I snatch up a blanket and head down the wooden steps into the lounge. There is no one here, as Cyrene will be busy tending to her customers for some hours yet. I don't want to sleep, I don't want to have the dream again. I find a mug and fill it with water from a skin, then sit on the double seated padded bench by the embers of the fire. I don't want to sleep, but I am so tired. I haven't slept properly since… Well, since Hope. I don't want to sleep, but I doze off, and into a nightmare.

Gabrielle took her daughter's hand and pulled her playfully into a cuddle. They were the same height, now, and Hope had inherited many of her mother's appealing features: her blonde hair and small frame, her eye colour and her smile. There could be nothing more precious in the Kingdom of the Gods than having a child, Gabrielle thought, and she held Hope and told her so. Hope smiled and nodded understanding, radiant as the morning sun lit her hair.

Behind them, Xena strode back from the river, waving a hello. Eager to see what Xena had caught, Hope ran over to her. Gabrielle watched with pleasure as Xena encircled Hope with an arm and kissed her hair. She started toward them, wanting to enjoy her family.

As she walked, though, in slow motion she saw Xena pull the serrated knife from her belt that she used for gutting fish. Before Gabrielle could scream, Xena's hand came up and then the blade dug into Hope's back, bringing an awful wet sound and a spurting of dark blood. Hope dropped onto the ground and Xena grinned.

"No!" White with panic, Gabrielle sat and grabbed at the woman leaning over her.

"Little One! Take it easy!"

Gabrielle recoiled in embarrassment at the realisation that it was Xena's mother she was clinging to. Awareness returned quickly but the dream's emotion remained vivid. "I'm sorry, Cyrene, I didn't…"

"What are you doing here, Child, couldn't you sleep?" Cyrene set her candle down on the table.

"No." Gabrielle rubbed at her eyes, startled when she found them wet. It was no use trying to hide it from Cyrene: she had already noticed.


"Just… a bad dream," The bard tried to dismiss it, but she was exhausted, emotionally and physically, and had no strength left.

"It must have been…"

Gabrielle nodded, all the images flooding back into her mind – of Xena and Hope together, of Hope's death, Gabrielle herself killing her child – swimming, nightmarish visions.

"Oh, why, my child -" Cyrene automatically took the sobbing girl into her arms and swaddled her in the blanket, rocking and patting at her and mumbling comfort. Gabrielle was distraught for several moments, holding shaking hands to her face, before she calmed a little. Cyrene moved to sit beside her and pushed back her hair. "Gabrielle, what's wrong."

"I just had a nightmare, I just…"

"Come, Gabrielle, the truth," Cyrene encouraged, holding the girl's head to her shoulder. She had single-handedly raised two children and she knew how to offer comfort and still extract a confession. This started Gabrielle crying again, and the elder woman tucked the blanket more closely about her and shh'd her. "There there, Angel. When you share problems you halve them, did your mother ever tell you that? Come now, Gabrielle, don't carry this by yourself, tell me."

Gabrielle nodded. It was true that she couldn't go on like this, and it was a relief to be able to tell Cyrene. Xena's mother had faced more hardship in her life than Gabrielle's mother could probably envisage, but she remained warm and unjudgemental. Gabrielle remembered when Xena had first introduced them: she had been nervous, but proud at the same time, as Xena was a very private person and it was an honour indeed to be welcomed into her home. Cyrene had been open and kind at that first meeting, and now treated Gabrielle as one of her own. "All right," The bard nodded, "Okay."

"A drink first, then, and dry your eyes." Cyrene wiped at Gabrielle's face with roughened hands then offered her the mug of water. Gabrielle drunk deeply before nodding her thanks. "Slowly, my darling, and from the beginning."

"Well, I…" Gabrielle looked about her, trying to find a distraction, some way to distance herself from her words. "I was raped, you see, and…" A silent sob went through her chest and took her voice for a moment, leaving her feeling as if she wanted to retch. It was suddenly very cold. "I had a child. A girl." Gabrielle's fingers went to rub the fading bruise on her forehead. "But her father, he wasn't human, he was evil, and she… Well." Gabrielle's hand stilled then returned to her lap.

Cyrene replaced it with her own, examining the wound. That done, she scooped Gabrielle's hands into hers and they sat in silence for a short time. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle nodded. Everyone was sorry.

"I would expect your dreams to be disturbed," Cyrene sympathised, busying herself with wiping tears from the girl's cheeks.

"That's not what the nightmares are about." Gabrielle's voice was small. She wanted to hide away from this, but it just followed her. Perhaps, just perhaps, if she told someone it would make it bearable again.


"I have them almost every night. I always dream vividly, I mean, I always have, but this… this is worse." Feeling new tears well up, Gabrielle agitatedly rubbed them away. "I can't sleep, I can't eat, I can't let Xe…" She stopped herself, swallowing hard. "I thought it was over, but it wasn't. She came back. She tried to come between us, between Xena and I. She hurt me – she hurt both of us – and Xena…" An active imagination had its drawbacks: Gabrielle had pictured the scene a thousand times in a thousand different ways. "Xena killed her." Cyrene nodded slowly, her expression intent but open. "I don't blame her," Gabrielle sniffed. She looked up to meet the elder woman's eyes, wanting to be believed. "She was protecting me, protecting everyone. I loved Hope, but she was wicked."

"I see."

"It's just that now, after what happened, I… I'm so scared that…" As Gabrielle spoke her words became more hurried and her breath became ragged.

"Here, here -" Cyrene decisively put her arms around Gabrielle and cuddled her, knowing this was difficult and wanting to help. "What is it you're fearful of?"

Not only was the embrace comforting, but it mercifully avoided the need for eye contact. Gabrielle accepted it readily, not as passive as before. "I'm not sure if I can feel the same, about Xena," She confided, gazing at the rough stone wall over the fire. "I try, I want to, but…"

Cyrene nodded. "No one could blame you for feeling as you do." She straightened, releasing Gabrielle. "Even Xena would understand, it takes time. But Child, whatever Xena did – whatever she does – it is out of love for you. I have eyes! See how she looks at you, Gabrielle. You must talk, the both of you. It's the only way." She smiled knowingly. "You're tired, it's difficult to see things clearly, I know. Go to bed, Child, take your rest."

Gabrielle nodded, knowing it was a sensible suggestion. "Thank you."

Cyrene squeezed the hand that came into hers. "Go on now."

Gabrielle had crept into bed and let sleep take her away, exhausted by her crying and her worrying. Cyrene was right, and everything was just a shade more tolerable in the morning. Unwilling to wait any longer, Gabrielle pawed at Xena.

"Xena. Wake up. We need to talk, wake up."

The first strains of weak winter sun came through the window, and Xena had to rub her eyes before she could force them to open. "I'm awake."

"I know I haven't treated you fairly. I was pretending everything was all right when it wasn't."
Alert too, now, Xena turned over.

"I'm angry at Hope, and in a way I'm angry at you too, but I know what happened wasn't your fault, that you thought it was me. I have to work through it." Gabrielle gave her partner a small smile, hoping there would be no hard feelings. "I wanted to tell you, you're still my best friend."

Immeasurably pleased, Xena stroked the face that she adored so much. "You don't need to explain. I'm sorry too. We'll get over this."

Gabrielle nodded. "I do want to be with you again, Xena. I want you to understand that. The two of us are together forever, right? Of course. I miss it when we're not… you know." She moved closer and put her arms around Xena, stroking the warrior's neck with the backs of her fingers.

Despite her more gregarious character, youth made Gabrielle the shier of the two when it came to intimacy and these words were pleasurable for Xena to hear. At the back of her mind she had always questioned whether Gabrielle accepted their physical relationship just to please her. Inexperience meant that the bard rarely initiated more than a kiss on the cheek and a platonic hug by the fire: this was the first time she had spoken openly about desiring Xena physically.

"I love you," Xena praised her.

"I love you," Gabrielle replied quickly and simply.

"It's gonna be a pretty sunrise." Xena stroked a finger along Gabrielle's jaw. "You want to watch it together? Promise I'll stay awake this time."

The girl laughed. "No, I don't want to watch the sunrise." Surprising Xena, Gabrielle hugged her close and kissed her, stroking her hair and feeling her body. They fell back onto the bed together and began to play, somewhat boisterously, like kittens enjoying rough and tumble.

Xena ended up on top of Gabrielle, and the younger woman watched the warrior when she stiffened and groaned for her. The bard loved to see it, to hear her name being said like that. When it was over she took Xena into her arms and tried to warm her in the blankets.

"You didn't…" Xena tried, out of breath.

"Shh…" Gabrielle treasured and kissed her in something akin to a motherly fashion.

"But you didn't… you didn't have a…" Xena managed to lift her head from Gabrielle's chest, pushing up on an elbow to look at her. The girl's smile was angelic. "Do you want me to carry on?"

"No…" Gabrielle soothed her.

"Gabrielle, I want you to enjoy yourself…"

"It was lovely," The girl said honestly. "I enjoyed being with you. Lie and cuddle me. It's too early to get up." Gabrielle was warm and reassuring, and after a hesitant pause Xena acquiesced and settled to doze.

The blonde woman had felt wonderful, while Xena was touching her, joyful and alive. Her arousal never became painfully intense, and now she was relaxed and comfortable without having… Gabrielle scowled softly to herself. Without having what normally happens as inevitably and predictably as the sun rises when Xena is close to me. Still, she was so intoxicated by the feel and smell of dark hair, a beautiful face against her breast, long fingers locked with her own, that she questioned it no further. It was relief enough to have done it and have enjoyed it, with not the slightest thought of Hope or the horrible week that had just passed.

As the day progressed, it felt like nothing had ever come between them. They chatted idly and teased each other, and in the evening, after their meal, Xena pulled her companion into her arms and carried her to their room, laughing when this set Gabrielle off into infectious giggling. Xena loved intimacy with Gabrielle, and both had their confidence renewed. Clothes were quickly discarded, and the taller woman set to work trying to give her friend pleasure.

Gabrielle relaxed. Her storytelling mind created an analogy of the situation, and she got to thinking that desire was like honey dripping from a wooden spoon. It would take a while, but then a rich drop would move itself and begin to fall. Slowly but surely it would come, thick amber fluid thinning almost imperceptibly until finally, finally, the drop would let go and fall.

Tonight, though, the honey wouldn't drip. After what felt to Xena like a very long time, Gabrielle pressed on her shoulders to make her pause. "Stop, Xena, that's enough." Shaking her head, Gabrielle got her legs out from under the warrior's. "I've had enough, you can stop." She found the covers and arranged them over herself.

Confused, Xena pushed herself up. "I'm sorry…" She had had her own release some time ago. Usually they came close together, but she hadn't been able to hold it off any longer.

"It's fine, Xena. Come lie next to me." The smaller woman pulled Xena into a cuddle. The warrior had made her tingle with excitement since the first day they met, and she still loved every touch: why was the intensity not there? She had been comfortable and relaxed, and had enjoyed watching Xena, but that was as far as it went. There was no release, and indeed not even the need for one. Gabrielle was worried: she had never had physical difficulties before, did this mean that her feelings had changed?

"Is there something else you'd like me to do? I mean…"

"No, no, you were lovely."

"But Gabrielle, you haven't…"

"It doesn't matter," Gabrielle interrupted, annoyed at herself. Why was her body betraying her? She rolled away and curled herself up, wanting to hide. None of this was Xena's fault. The warrior was the only thing in her life that mattered; what would she do if she couldn't feel the same way about the woman who was supposed to be her soulmate?

"Gab -" Xena felt winded, and her voice trailed off. She touched at Gabrielle's side, wary at first, then more determined. "Gabby?" Her hand moved over the girl and she squeezed her tightly. "I can't cope with any more secrets. Please, tell me?"

Gabrielle gazed out of the window. "I can't…" Her voice felt useless, and she had to cough and try harder. "I can't seem to… have a release, when we're together, it… it doesn't come. I feel good, but…" She shrugged.

Xena inhaled deeply. "You're probably tired, you've been through a lot, you just -"

"No, no," Gabrielle shook her head, frustrated. "You don't understand, I… I can do it by myself." It felt like a dreadful admission. "It's only with you."

"Oh." This was worse. Xena didn't know what to say, and so lay down behind Gabrielle, an arm around her, to think.

"Life's been a bit strange, lately, hasn't it," The bard said at length.

"Yeah," Xena agreed. "What do you want to do?"

Gabrielle sighed, but it was thoughtful rather than morose. "Get back to normal," She decided, holding on to Xena's hands. "I love your mother, she's been so kind, but I like it best when it's you and I, back on the road. That's when it's perfect. Isn't it?" She looked over her shoulder.

Xena smiled. "Uh ha."

So the following day, early, while the sun was still just appearing over the top of the old tavern, the two women said goodbye to Cyrene and embarked on a new journey. The elder woman wished them well and watched them leave: a tall figure on horseback and a smaller silhouette walking by her side.

The camp was quiet, peaceful. Despite all the temples and palaces that she had visited, Xena liked it here best. There was, of course, a hearty fire, illuminating the area and sending little spits of flame up toward the night sky.

The warrior sat down on the fur, her back against a tree, and watched Gabrielle silently come to sit beside her. They had spoken about everything, and now silence between them was easy and comfortable, as it always had been. Xena offered her hand. Gabrielle smiled and interweaved their fingers. "All right?"
"All right." The girl nodded. They watched the fire for a while until the wind got up and Gabrielle shivered comically. She moved closer to Xena and rested against her, her head on her shoulder.

"Gonna be a cold night." The dark haired woman took a blanket and set it around Gabrielle's shoulders, then put an arm around her.

"Yeah." Gabrielle played with a strand of brown hair, feeling Xena's cheek rubbing her forehead. "Can I braid you hair?"

"If you want."

Xena would have permitted anything Gabrielle requested at that moment. She nestled her nose close against a soft cheek, earning herself a giggle and a hand stroking her jaw, then went to turn around.

"No no, I can do it like this." Gabrielle reached up, so Xena bowed her head helpfully. "Did you wash it in the river?"

"Uh ha. You can't reach like that, c'mon." Xena got a good grip on Gabrielle's hips and helped her into her lap, stretching out her long legs.

Gabrielle held onto Xena's shoulders to steady herself, and fidgeted until she was happy. Xena was warm underneath her, and with the blanket around her she felt comfortable. "And you let it dry in the sun?"

"How else would I dry it, Gabrielle?" Xena tutted, tucking her arms under the blanket and around her partner. The position placed Gabrielle's neck right by her nose, so she leaned forward almost imperceptibly so as to inhale the scent over her pulse point, where it was strongest.

"I love the way it smells." Gabrielle smoothed down the brown waves, noticing the fairer sunstreaks, then began to separate out a strand to braid. Xena didn't let anyone else touch her hair – she even protested when Argo snuffled it – but she never minded Gabrielle's fingers going through it.

Xena had stopped listening. She found that she was rocking Gabrielle, just holding her close and treasuring her. She let her head rest under Gabrielle's chin, and closed her eyes.

"Hey, I'm, not done," Gabrielle chastised gently, and tipped Xena's face back up to her. "Hmm, not bad." She pulled the two braids down by Xena's ears to check that they were of equal length.

"Thank you."

"Xena -" Gabrielle looked as if she were going to say more, then stopped. Instead, she pulled her shift over her head, discarding it, and wrapped her arms around Xena's shoulders. "Let's."

The warrior held onto her gently but innocently, worried she might do something wrong. "Are you sure?"

"Mmm Hmm." She struggled to push herself up, and turned in Xena's arms so as to be facing the same way and rest back against her. "Come on, touch me," Her voice teasing, she looked over her shoulder to give her friend a familiar, girlish smile.

Xena reached around and stroked at her face, her chin on the slightly freckled shoulder. "Only if you want to," She warned.

"Xena, I want to!" Gabrielle laughed. "Really." She watched the long fingers move down her throat to curl under her breasts, and lightly covered the hands with her own. Being touched like this always created a kind of hunger in her, a need to be close to someone. She pushed the hands more firmly against her and her back arched softly as she felt the fingertips brush over her nipples. "That's nice."

"Gabrielle, you show me," Xena encouraged, speaking close to Gabrielle's ear. "You show me what to do."

This was something new, and it appealed. Smiling, she took Xena's hands and dragged them down her body, letting her legs fall on either side of her partner's. "Here -"

"Go on -" Xena rested her hands on the smooth thighs. "I'm watching you."

The very thought of that sent a tingle along Gabrielle's spine, and it seemed as if her need for air was suddenly greater. She let her fingers move as they wished, tried to stop concentrating. As the feelings built she rested her head back against Xena and closed her eyes. She could feel the warm skin behind her, and the strips of leather brushing her legs, which suddenly struck her as funny. "Your leathers are tickling."

Xena smiled too. She knew what Gabrielle liked, of course, after all this time, but it was amazing to actually watch her, to see her hands moving, the expressions which moved across her face, the little archings and tensings of her body. She joined Gabrielle's hands with her own, wanting to complement rather than take over.

Gabrielle lifted her head to watch. "There, but harder," she instructed.

"Like this?"
A nod. "Yeah."

This continued for a while, until Gabrielle stopped and let Xena continue. She reached back to run her hands over Xena's hair, and the warrior bowed her head to help, kissing anywhere she could reach.

She feels warm here, and I like having her weight on me, it's somehow reassuring. She fidgets – typical Gabrielle – and I accommodate it. I only need one hand, really, and wrap the other arm around her waist to support her, knowing in any case that she likes to be touched on her belly. I've tucked her hair over one shoulder, and when she turns her head and her lips come to mine fire runs through my body with startling force. Her brows are drawn together, and I realise that this is the most eager I've seen her. What Gabrielle wants tonight, she is undeniably going to get. At the back of my mind a small voice tells me that perhaps this isn't this wisest move, as my hand gathers pace, but it's been so long, and we want each other so much, that my minimal resistance crumbles into the fire. I'll do this calmly and gently, I tell myself, but I'll give Gabrielle what she wants. Her fingers curl tight into my hair and grip on. "Gabrielle, you're pulling my hair out –!"

"Don't stop…"

"I won't stop, but…" It's actually acutely painful to have your hair wrenched out at the roots, but I resign myself: the gain will be worth the price.

She lets go anyway, unable to concentrate, and her sweaty fists rest back on my shoulders. "I can't…" She's grimacing, her thigh muscles trembling slightly with the exertion of being so tense.

"Yes you can." I can afford to sound confident. It's almost here, I can see it. Her neck and chest have taken on their customary pink flush, and her nipples have gone dark and swollen.

"Please, it won't…" Her voice has gone dry and breathless.

"You can, Gabrielle." I know it for a fact. "Don't hold your breath – relax." All she needs is some gentle coaxing, it's all happening, it's just in slow motion. It's incredible to watch, and I'm amazed and proud at the same time. "C'mon, Gabrielle, do it for me…" I whisper into her ear. "Just let go, let me see you. Come on Darling…"

She cries out and pushes herself up against my hand. A wave of victory and triumph rushes through me which almost equals the intensity of her orgasm. Her body feels hot in my arms to the point of being feverish, and the hair which lies at the back of her neck has darkened with sweat. As she slowly lies back I can feel her twitching, and she runs the tip of her tongue across her lips to moisten them. After a long exhalation she twists again and clambers back astride me.

"Clever girl…" I tell her.

She's grinning devilishly. "Again, Xena. Take this off -"

She claws hastily at my leathers, and I'm too excited to hesitate. I struggle out of them and we fall onto the fur, Gabrielle naked and willing underneath me. She laughs, her lips a brighter red than usual, and we kiss. My passion is fuelled by hers and within no time at all I'm barely aware of what we're doing. I let my hands go wherever they desire, I don't question or analyse it because I can feel that she's doing the same to me. I can taste her hair and my eyes are filled with the warm hue of her skin. Her sweaty hands find my shoulders and pull me down, while her soft legs come up and hook around me, feet scoring down my body. The intimate aroma of her finds me and I'm blinded to everything else. I go to the hot, ruddy pink flesh and slide my finger into her. Her hands grip at the fur, and the sounds that she makes encourage me to join the first finger with a second.

This is as far as I would usually go: it seems to satisfy Gabrielle, and after all she is petite and young, and her flesh is tight around me. Tonight though her cries beg me for more. Excited, I press in a third finger.

Immediately Gabrielle reacts and brings me back to sanity. The sobbing moan she makes is not born of the usual pleasure-pain that I stir in her: it's real and it makes her grimace and pull her legs closer to her body. I cannot imagine anything worse than knowing I've physically hurt her, and I withdraw, cringing at the thought of making it worse. I look down at my fingers and find them smeared with blood.

So Gabrielle and Perdicus didn't ever…

"Don't stop -" It's a growled order, and her hands come down, find mine, and guide me back inside. Sweet Gods, this feeling is so powerful. With a free hand I fumble for her leg and push it under me, needing its firmness against me. My body moves in its own rhythm and I have no control. I drop my head onto her, ignoring the hands that move alternately between my hair and her own breasts, rubbing and caressing.

Every muscle is tense, and I can't hold back. Fire rushes through me, taking my breath, and I strain to be nearer to her, to meld with my soulmate. Her strong muscles clamp around me, painfully tight, before going into their own unique pulse. I can't hear if either of us makes a sound, much as I usually love listening to her: there is only the thudding of my own blood in my ears.

I can't get my breath. I force myself to lift my head, my neck muscles protesting, and drag myself up her body. Our legs are entwined and beginning to cramp. I get to the same level as her and flop back down, my nose against her cheek.

I stay like that for what feels like only an instant but is surely a little longer; it's as if my mind has swum out of consciousness for a few seconds. As soon as I regain awareness of myself, Gabrielle is my first thought. I croak her name, pushing myself up on shaky arms. "I love you…" How do I thank her for this? "I love you, I love you…" I kiss at her cheeks, forehead and eyelids, and although she doesn't open her eyes she does part her lips. I oblige and kiss her, wanting to gather her up and keep her safe and close to me always.

"Xena, I feel sore." The words are mumbled and she doesn't stir, but they make me fully alert.

"I know," I sympathise, moved. "It'll soon go off, Gabrielle, I promise."


"Yeah. Now roll over, c'mon -" Half pushing her, I get her onto her side with her legs tucked close to her stomach, and tug the blanket over her. "Rest for a bit." All I want to do is sit and watch her while she dozes. I had always assumed that she and Perdicus had consummated their marriage, and to find out that Gabrielle held back from that final step because of me makes me immeasurably proud and humbled.

I can tell from her breathing that she doesn't sleep for long, and soon she's pushing hair back from her face. "I think I'm hungry now."

I smile. Gabrielle is always hungry. "All right."

Xena got herself up and went over to their bags, stoking the fire on her way. She unpacked and poured some seeds from a small bag into a pan and set it over the flames. She thought for a moment, then gave a shrill whistle and waited with a smile until she heard the pattering of hooves behind her.

Argo gave a questioning whinny and looked over the warrior's shoulder. "Here, Girl -" Xena held up an apple. "A little extra evening treat for you." The horse made a sound to suggest she was pleasantly surprised, and politely took the fruit. Xena heard it crunching by her ear, and reached up to rub the mare's nose, feeling satisfied and contented. Argo gave a thank you snort, then trotted off again.

The bard had sat up and pulled on her clothes. "It just occurred to me," She said, "I never got you a solstice gift." Xena shook her head to dismiss that, stretching out her legs. It had been a solstice she would rather forget. "Tell you what; I could do something for you instead."

"What, like collect the firewood and catch the fish for a month?" Xena joked hopefully.

"No," Gabrielle chastised her. "I mean like… I could teach you something. Like you taught me the staff, and how to ride, and how to tend a fire, and wash your clothes without getting eaten by crocodiles."

"Could you teach me to cook?"

"It has to be a sensible suggestion, Xena," Gabrielle dismissed.

"Mmm." Xena conceded that. She watched as the small seeds in the pan grew hot and began to pop, puffing out into fluffy balls. When they were all done, she reached forward to take the pan from the flames, and inspected the contents. Satisfied with their progress, she poured them into two dishes which Gabrielle held up helpfully, cursing as the stray ones burned her hands. "Teach me to tell stories, then."


"Like your stories. I wish I could do that."

It was said so simply, Gabrielle thought, but it wasn't a joke and it wasn't just to hush her up. It was the first indication Xena had given that she was interested in the bard's scrolls. "All right," She said proudly.

"Great. Can we eat now?"

"Okay. We could have some of that hard goat's cheese with these." Gabrielle looked around her. "I'm sure I had some left, where'd it go?" The aroma from the seeds rose up and filled her nostrils. This was a particular favourite treat. Xena suddenly took on a rather guilty look and focussed her attention on picking an unpoped kernel from her lap. "Xena -" Gabrielle pressed her, "Did you eat that cheese?"

"No!" Xena pretended to be offended, hoping Gabrielle would change the subject.

Her friend wasn't so easily distracted though, not when it came to food. "So where is it?"

Xena gave an exaggerated shrug. "Argo and I were having a little chat late last night and she was feeling a bit peckish, so…"

"You fed our last piece of cheese to your horse?" Gabrielle dropped the wooden dishes onto her knees. Xena just looked sheepish. "I can't believe -" She looked up to the heavens, hoping to find a moment of inner serenity. "I have rights too, you know. Surely I rank a little above a horse in the great plan of things? I am an Amazon Princess, you know, that has to count for something."

Xena rolled her eyes. She had just known Gabrielle would get carried away with herself over this princess thing. She held out her hand for a bowl.

Gabrielle almost gave her one, then reconsidered. "I wonder, actually, which one of us ranks the highest." She put on a mock frown. Her body felt good and she was confident and happy. "A warrior princess – that's you, Xena – or… Amazon royalty? That's me." She weighed the two bowls in her hands, trying to decide which had the slightly larger share.

"Don't push it." Xena took the bowl closest to her, impatient for her snack. She stirred the balls around the dish to make sure they were evenly warm, then offered one to Gabrielle, smiling as the girl ate it from her fingers.

"If you think about it," Gabrielle began to chatter philosophically through a mouthful of nuts. "You should probably walk a few paces behind me, as a mark of respect." She cocked her head to one side, as if considering this for the first time. Light from the flames danced around her legs, and she stretched them out to warm the soles of her feet.

Xena snorted in a good imitation of Argo. "I'll be beside you. End of argument."

Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, then chuckled to herself, nudging her shoulder affectionately against Xena's. "You always are, aren't you."

Xena smiled and put an arm around her. "Gabrielle, I'm at your feet." She said simply.

The rosy cheeked girl laughed at that and rested her head against Xena's, and together they finished their nuts as they gazed into the warm brightness of the fire.

The End