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They left the company of the Amazons. As they made to leave, Gabrielle came up onto Argo without hesitation, putting her arms around Xena. She held to her even when the riding was easy and gentle.  They rode through the day and into the evening, finding their way to a river and following its course.  They pressed on then into the night, without a word spoken. Strong moonlight, amplified by its reflection on the water, lit their way. 

            Gabrielle looked up at the moon and felt the gentle sway of Argo's gait, the subtle shifting of tension in Xena's stomach under her hands. Xena did not seem to tire. In the dim light, Gabrielle leaned forward and rested her cheek against the back of Xena's shoulder. She could feel that Xena was unaffected by her weight as it pressed into her.  She felt a pain in her chest remembering how weak Xena had been as they drew her out of the sarcophagus only two days before.  Perhaps the ambrosia had continued to have an effect, giving Xena unusual strength now.  Though her own body felt tired, she herself felt strangely awake.

            Leaning forward this way, Gabrielle felt they might continue on far into the night. They were entering back into their life again; the common, being nearly taken away, now felt new, heavy, and sacred.  She had strayed away from all thought when at last, Xena sensed Argo was tired and stopped.  They had dipped down into a valley.  Gabrielle looked out and saw an alcove in the rock wall nearby that would make a perfect place to camp. The water nearby was almost still. She slid down, taking Xena's offered hand with practiced ease. 

            "There's enough of a moon," Xena said, "We can have a bath." Gabrielle dug in the bags to retrieve their soap and sponge.  She felt herself in a almost dreamlike state where exhaustion mingled with strange and seemingly ceaseless energy.  Xena freed Argo, who blew at her with a tender nudge and received many soft words and pets in return. 

            Gabrielle felt the water wrap itself around her body.  The warmth of the day remained where it had been absorbed by water, sand, and stone.  She closed her eyes and let herself ease out until she felt the slightest tug of the water's flow. Gabrielle filled the sponge with soap then put the cake on a rock so it would not be lost.

            Xena undressed and slipped into the water.  She had just submerged herself and come up, pushing her hair back and the water off her face.  She caught Gabrielle's look, as she watched her, and unthinkingly reached out her hand as Gabrielle drew near.  

            Gabrielle reached and took her hand.  She opened Xena's hand and washed it, gently.  She moved slowly and in total focus, as if compelled by some need.

            Xena had been caught off guard, and she stood accepting Gabrielle's lead. Xena watched their touching hands closely, feeling an ache in her chest.  Gabrielle worked her way up her arm, and it seemed to send a rush fire under Xena's skin to pool in the base of her throat.  She felt her head bow nearer to Gabrielle.

            Gabrielle looked up to Xena's face in the moonlight.  Her lips were parted slightly, her brow furrowed, the look soft and open.  Her hands at Xena's throat now, moved across her collarbones as she continued on in her task. She felt her own hands against Xena's skin were trembling.  

            Xena heard Gabrielle's breath halting as she exhaled.  Her face was in shadow, and Xena reached under the water to catch gently Gabrielle's body at her sides.  She  moved them in the water, turning them to bring Gabrielle's face also into the moonlight. In the light, Xena could see she was crying.  She thought of doing something to comfort her friend, thought of drawing her close but found that she only stood still, watching her.  Gabrielle's hands moved over Xena's other shoulder.

            Xena realized at last what it was Gabrielle was doing… washing her body. As she had for burial. Xena watched now Gabrielle's illuminated face.  She could see the pain she was reliving and replacing there.  Gabrielle was healing herself, pressing away a memory of death with a living one, creating a new ritual.  She looked over Xena's body as she touched it, needing to feel it alive again.  Xena stood quietly and watched Gabrielle, as she engaged in her self-made, sacred task. 

            The wisdom of her friend filled Xena with awe.  She had her own instinct, which ran as deep and intuitive as Xena's own, yet on a different course, discovering, inventing things Xena would not have in a lifetime.  Xena felt if she'd had half Gabrielle's instinct for tenderness, she never would have ended up on the path her life had taken, never caused so much pain. She felt still the urge to bring her hand up to touch Gabrielle's face.  She thought to touch her mouth with her fingertips.

            She stood transfixed, watching her friend's expression, feeling her hands wash over her.  The heat in Xena's throat poured now through her chest and made her eyes water, as she swallowed hard.  How can I tolerate such love? Xena thought.  Her heart seemed to quaver, as if fearing its own death.  She had not been touched with love in so long, and so little in life, it seemed it might send her fleeing, like a deer startled upon imagining the coming of a great hunt.  Feeling the presence of her own familiar heart, she knew she would have to learn again what it was to be brave.  This was her new purpose, she realized, standing in the water under Gabrielle's hands, her new quest.

            When she made her way down Xena's other arm to her hand, Gabrielle felt how Xena's hand trembled in her own.  She's still weak, she thought, and felt a protective fierceness flare in her chest.  She dipped the hand in the water, then clutched it and drew it against her own cheek. 

            This touch seemed to break the spell upon Xena.  She felt her other hand, still on Gabrielle's side. She stepped in closer as she turned Gabrielle's face up to her own and drew her near.  As if on instinct, she repeated the one moment in which Gabrielle had lost her fear in the past days and brought her lips down to Gabrielle's.

            The soft feel of Xena's lips on her own made everything inside Gabrielle grow still for a moment.  Xena's mouth remained upon hers this time with no disruption.  That first soft kiss became another and another, each prolonged and broken only by a moment.  Before, she'd had only a flicker of the feel and the taste of Xena's mouth against her own.  Now with each small pause, as their lips touched once again, they seemed to become more real, and Xena drew away from being a ghost, a phantom, and became fully real. 

            Gabrielle lost her sense of time as they stood in the water.  When they finally stopped, Gabrielle felt in her breath how the intimacy of the gesture had made her shake.  At last Xena's arms came around her, and Gabrielle felt the living body of her friend, strong and alive, as it pressed into her own. She could feel the water and the night air around them now again.  Most of all, she felt Xena, alive and in her arms, holding her in return. The world was drawn, it seemed, around Xena, the fixture that made constancy, that made a home for her in this world. She held Xena hard, and the embrace was returned now.  They both were trembling, she could feel, but there was enough strength between them now that Gabrielle felt no fear. 

 

            They slept that night without bothering to build a fire or even dress. Unpacking their bedrolls and blankets and piling them together, they lay beside one another just under the outcropping of rock.  Xena had put her sword near them, ever vigilant, and Gabrielle went and brought her staff to her own side.  She lay next to Xena, still vividly awake, despite the lateness of the hour and the exhaustion she felt in her body.  The familiar heat from Xena's body beside her own felt as warm and bright as sunlight as the heat of it spilled against her side.  Xena lay next to her also awake, giving signs of exhaustion, as well.

            Gabrielle moved to place her head on her friend's shoulder, receiving Xena's arm about her.  As she lay her arm across Xena's stomach, she hesitated, worrying a moment at a memory of the injuries she knew had been caused there. There was a time the suggestion that such a gentle touch could harm Xena would have seemed hilarious to Gabrielle, but that time was past.  She could feel the steady rise and fall of her forearm, beneath which Xena's ribs breathed unharried, unbroken.  The feel of her leg against Xena's and Xena's shoulder against her cheek were familiar, but the feel of her arm across Xena's skin, her hand on her naked side were new. She looked over Xena's body in the faint light.  She could see Xena's chest moving.  If the moon were any brighter, she could move the blanket aside and see Xena's skin now unbruised, unmarked by their ordeal.  She focused long on that breath.  Warmth built between their bodies until Gabrielle fell asleep. 

 

            Gabrielle felt her mind shifting into consciousness, out of sleep, like a body rising slowly out of water.  Faint light touched everything around her, revealing sand, stone, and blankets in faint grey.  Her mind and body felt exposed, fragile – the feel of having awakened too early in the dawn.

            Her hearing reached out at once for any sound or feel that might have woken her.  Deep fear had made her more vigilant.  A pain grew in her chest, slipping in like the terror of watching a silent thief enter one's home, and it left her lying helpless with her breath caught as a pain pressing itself against the walls of her chest.  Xena is dead, she thought, clear and hard, a statement of fact.  She expected to wake to the cold before dawn and find herself alone.

            But she felt the warmth of the body beside her, and she turned her head. Xena was there, still asleep. She turned her hand atop the blanket to rest against Xena's hip, feeling the warmth of her skin coming through to contrast with the cool air.  Gabrielle lay letting her heart slow and her breath come back.  She tracked the now familiar pain the rush of adrenaline caused, as it turned in her stomach.  When it finally released, it sent streaks of pain down her legs. She'd become accustomed to the rhythm of it as it ran its course through her body. 

            Practically winded, she turned onto her side.  She lay awake in the rising of dawn.  She reached to feel the soft flutter of Xena's breath against her fingertips. She touched the blanket over her breastbone and felt the easy rise and fall of her chest. Gabrielle felt now the pain of joy in her chest like the sounding of a fine bell, its notes ringing deeper than bone, to find her friend there with her again.  Her heart seemed to swell as if it must enlarge to embrace this moment. The feeling was familiar for Gabrielle, especially since she had found Xena – it reminded her of who she was, of her own purpose in life.

            She smiled softly to herself and rubbed her face into the blanket. She felt the soft rasp of the sand beneath the fabric.  She wondered how many days it would take.  Xena's return might become natural to her mind during the day, the inevitable outcome of their quest.  But it would take time to get it into her body, the knowledge.  Over many days of carrying Xena's body, first shattered and overcome with pain, then enclosed and silent, she woke each day to the dread reality of Xena's life slipping away, beyond her power to save.  There were so many days.  She felt sure she would awaken like this many times. As many times as it took to really learn again that Xena was there.  That death had been unmade. 

            She could almost hear the moans, so unlike her stoic friend, that Xena unknowingly uttered when Gabrielle first moved her to place her onto the litter she had made and pain drew her near to consciousness.  She had frozen a moment at the sound, unwillingly, and her frantic thoughts cleared and drew away even from the pain in her leg like a fire-iron pressed into her skin.  She is dying, Gabrielle had thought looking down at Xena.  The thought that presented itself without emotion, unquestionable. It seemed to echo as a feeling each time she heard the sound over the coming days.  And when the sound faded away, she grew even more afraid and the feeling became everything once more.  She drove them forward, further up the mountain.  She felt it a wonder that Argo had not died under her maddened pressing.  Only her own resolve had allowed her to make such a journey.     

            Remembering all this now, Gabrielle gripped protectively at Xena's shoulder, which brought her awake.  Xena turned at once onto her side and slid her arms about Gabrielle. Gabrielle curled forward, near to hiding herself in Xena's embrace.  Xena ran her hand over Gabrielle's hair and down her back with a slow rhythm that seemed to soothe her.  Gabrielle felt her stomach growl and realized how hungry she was, explaining some small part of how fragile she felt. They had not eaten since the day before when they had their farewell feast in the afternoon with the Amazons. She felt tired, also, from the night before.  This brought back the memory of the tenderness they shared, of touching Xena's body and seeing it in the light of the moon, and the soft, lingering kisses Xena gave her before they left the water. 

            As she remembered this, she moved back to look at Xena's face, and she touched Xena's lips with the tips of her fingers.  Xena went still, as if with shock.  Gabrielle felt a sharp twist in her own stomach, but she ran her fingertips over Xena's lips.  Xena's breath came as the faintest flutter, as if she were afraid to breath openly.  The look in her face, her eyes closed, seemed as if she were in pain.  But her eyes opened then to meet Gabrielle's, and her breath grew slowly to fullness.  Gabrielle felt a knot in her throat, uncomfortable but warm.  She leaned into the curve of Xena's neck and shoulder. She felt Xena's hair slip forward onto her cheek.  The strong arms tightened around her.

 

            They moved slowly that day.  Gabrielle did not even try to keep from staring at Xena.  She felt compelled to understand how her friend was changed by their ordeal.  By dying, she thought. It was already beginning to seem strange.  The change was hard to pinpoint, to describe, until she realized how Xena moved.  It was  different, slower, more relaxed.  She was still constantly vigilant, eyes scanning the horizon.  It seemed her strength was there just under the surface, ready to erupt – a body always prepared for a sudden threat. But there was some urgency, some driven quality that had left Xena.  Her "dreadful efficiency" is gone, Gabrielle realized, and it brought out a smile and a soft laugh.

            "What?" Xena said, already smiling fully. 

            It was one of the frictions that had become an ongoing joke between them. Xena's energy and relentlessness, her driven focus, often inspired and awed Gabrielle, but at times she could seem heartless and unmoored, compelled to constant motion.  Gabrielle's complaints that they did not stay long enough in town or that Xena would wolf down her food without seeming to taste it, mere seconds to the minutes it took to prepare it, seemed to perplex Xena. Gabrielle noticed then how it was a quality that affected her whole life, noticing Xena's brief observation of the most stunning beauty – a rainbow as it broke through retreating clouds, a rust-colored moon, or a hawk's flight as it swooped low overheard – would end promptly, as she charged forward on her purpose.  She noticed how she would stay awake until exhausted and fall into her blankets, then rise early every day, never lingering in bed.  She noticed how she could never really stop. When once she convinced her to attend a play, Gabrielle had watched Xena shift and start to chew her nails, agitated, trying to tolerate the experience.  It was like bringing a wild wolf to a religious ritual, Gabrielle had thought.

            Gabrielle had learned to take space from Xena, parting from her often for a time, so that she could keep life at her own pace.  Xena had accepted this and stopped urging Gabrielle to let her get her a horse or to stay focused, recognizing her friend was simply different than herself.  It seemed that Xena might keep more her pace now.  Gabrielle looked at her friend's smiling face, vivid and real as a moment of absolute clarity, the kind that burns itself into the mind and remains untarnished through the passing years. 

            "I'm just laughing," she said, "Just happy." She knew Xena could tell there was a thought she wasn't sharing, but she merely smiled, enjoying the moment without pursuing her further.

            All day, Gabrielle continued to watch Xena.  She is different, she realized with absolute certainty, watching Xena look out over the river, standing still, Argo's bridle in her hand.   She was not looking cross the river for some threat, but at the water itself.  And Gabrielle knew she found it beautiful and allowed the sight of it to fill her up, at long last.  It felt that Gabrielle had waited years to see it and did not always believe she ever would. 

            I've changed, as well, she realized.  She recognized that her own body was being held different, the same way she noticed in Xena.  It seemed she'd grown taller or more solid somehow.  She walked with a confidence, a sort of peace in itself.  When they stood next to one another, Xena seemed the same height, yet it felt as if she had been drawn closer and no longer towered over Gabrielle.  She seems still larger than life, but I don't feel so small, Gabrielle realized. She'd had a glimpse of her life without Xena now – a life still far away from the villages of her youth. She would never go back to what she left or who she was before, and the thought left her feeling free, relieved, and clear.  And she had brought her friend back, against all odds.  This is what she's been trying to tell me about myself all along, Gabrielle realized.  She looked at Xena, and felt her eyes well.  Her hand strayed to her own chest, as if to brace her heart. 

            Both women passed the day quiet in one another's company, near to overwhelmed with gratitude. 

 

            That night, Xena went down to the river to bathe as Gabrielle prepared a fine dinner of provisions the Amazons had sent away with them.  They sat and ate together, quiet as they watched the sun set over the water.   

            "I'll finish this," Xena said, taking charge of the cleaning, giving Gabrielle a chance to go down to the water herself before the last light faded away.

            Gabrielle bathed without any hurry and watched as the last shreds of light fade out of the sky and the stars began to appear.  She traced the lines of the constellations in her mind, drawing out fragments of a hundred stories. 

            When she returned, she found Xena by the fire, focused on sharpening her sword. At the sight, she felt her own mood shift and become  more serious. She looked down at their bedding laid out beside one another on the sand and grass. 

            "I thought you said we'd be safe along this valley," Gabrielle said.

            "We are.  King Tinus is a good ruler.  His kingdom is well protected. We'll have peace for a few days, at least, here along the river,"  Xena said.  "It'll make for a nice change."  She shared a knowing look and half a smile with Gabrielle at this before bringing her eyes back to her sword. 

            Gabrielle came closer to the fire and sat across from Xena.  Thoughts of her dreadful efficiency flashed across her mind again now without much humor.  Xena is coming back to herself, she thought, but she felt it as a worry.   

            "You're sharpening your sword," she said. 

            Xena smiled, obviously embarrassed.

            "Old habits," she said.  "I guess they're the most comfortable."  Xena's hands stopped a moment.  There was a long silence in which both women looked away from one another, yet knew they held one another's full attention. 

            Gabrielle wondered a moment what was happening between them.  She felt fear now, she realized, though she couldn't say why.  Like something was about to be lost.  Xena put her sword down, and Gabrielle felt her heart stir anew with anxiety, as she picked up a gauntlet and started un-working the old string to replace it. Constant motion, Gabrielle thought. 

            "Xena," Gabrielle said, her voice came out heavy.  Xena responded to her tone, looking to her more open and quite attentive.  Gabrielle was unsure for a moment what she meant to say.  She forced her voice to start. 

            "They say that when you die, the dead can hear your thoughts," she said.

            "Yes," Xena said.  Her eyes were incredibly clear as she looked at Gabrielle. 

            "So you heard my thoughts," she said. 

            "Yes, I heard them," Xena said. 

            Her tone gave away nothing.  Gabrielle studied her face.  Her expression seemed open, and yet it was also unreadable to Gabrielle in this moment. Her brows were drawn together, but the look was not quite worry.  Gabrielle felt a sudden desperation to know what her friend was thinking. 

            She steadied herself a moment by turning away from Xena's unshakable gaze. She stared instead into the fire, her own brow furrowing now.  She was almost startled when Xena began to speak.  She had not expected a response, yet Xena's tone seemed to follow a line of questioning. 

            "You said that, when I was inside you, you felt what it was like to be me," Xena said.

            "I did.  I told you what it was like," Gabrielle said. 

            She remembered being annoyed at Xena's response.  She'd realized then they were still among strangers. This was the kind of conversation they could have only in private.  She had kicked Xena's boot, mildly, then sat and lay her head against Xena's arm, and Xena did not resist.  It was the closest they could be in the present company.  Xena was too guarded around others.  She'd never reveal her true feelings. Xena had been silent for a long time now, so Gabrielle added, "You talked to Autolycus," thinking now of Xena's surprising, deep trust for the man, "He got to be you, as well.  What did he say?"

            "That wasn't the same," Xena said.  "He let me see him, parts of himself he keeps hidden. So I know what you mean."

            "But he didn't see what I saw?  He didn't get to feel you?" Gabrielle asked, feeling her own voice catch, strangely.  Xena's focus strayed back to her gauntlet, stirring up her restlessness.  She stripped out the old string. 

            "Gabrielle, what you felt, the warmth you said… that love," she grew softer at this, Gabrielle noticed, "That was me, you're right.  And that is how I feel, now, about humanity. About what I'm here to do." Xena's look darkened.

            "The things I saw… crossing over," Gabrielle felt fear tighten in her throat and the hair to rose on the back of her neck as Xena's words brushed the topic of the Underworld, "They were shadows of a life before. It was a life I lived for death," Xena's look was filled with such remorse at this, Gabrielle felt a flicker of recognition, the start of some epiphany about her friend that did not yet fully form.  "I came back to live a different life," Xena finished. 

            "You came back to live out a side of you that's always been there. It was just covered up for a time," Gabrielle said.  Xena looked at Gabrielle, her face full of such feeling, Gabrielle felt her own throat constrict.

            "Yes," she said, "But those feelings… they weren't just for humanity. They were for you. It was your thoughts I heard on the other side that changed me.  Your love that brought me back." 

            Xena's hand lightly clasped her own knee as she said this, Gabrielle saw, in an uncharacteristic, uncertain gesture.  A long silence passed between them in which Xena's eyes flickered to Gabrielle's mouth, as if waiting for her to speak.  They held one another's look then a long moment before Xena broke it. Xena turned suddenly, distracted and without much energy, to rethread the new string. 

            Gabrielle sat still looking at her.  She got up.  Xena turned her face up as she drew near, her guard barely rising and replaced at once with what felt an extreme vulnerability.  She watched Gabrielle as she had the night before, in the water, looking to her lead. Gabrielle put her own hand to Xena's knee, as she knelt in front of her friend.  Xena glanced to her mouth once more and to her eyes again and looked away. 

            Gabrielle said nothing.  She merely reached, slow and calm, and unhooked one side of Xena's armor.  Xena's eyes were fixed then on Gabrielle's hands, and her eyebrows lifted and her lips parted again.  Xena merely watched as Gabrielle reached to the second hook. 

            Gabrielle felt sure she could sense the heightened beating of Xena's heart. She slowed and reached to touch Xena's face, bringing it up to allow Xena's gaze to meet her own again. Xena turned her body now to help, and Gabrielle undid the hook and removed the breastplate of Xena's armor.

            Their hands caught at one another as she finished.  Gabrielle reached to press at Xena's shoulders, so she would lean back.  Xena set the gauntlet aside, her hand trembling visibly, before she let her hands down behind her, bracing her weight.  Her eyes avoided Gabrielle's.  So Gabrielle just touched her, running her fingers over Xena's collarbones, her throat, her shoulders, the leather covering her sides.  She felt how this made Xena's body shiver just slightly. She held her eyes nearly closed.

            Gabrielle swallowed hard and leaned in to kiss the base of Xena's throat, feeling Xena's breath stop there and her head sink back more.  When she took her lips away and leaned up, Xena met her gaze. Gabrielle could see the desire in her eyes, which were filled with a tenderness that was new between them. But Xena's lips were parted and her brows furrowed again in this new look, one of fear and inhibition.   

            "This doesn't have to change anything," Gabrielle said. She ran her hands over Xena's shoulders.  A long moment passed between them as they looked at one another. 

            "It'll change me," Xena said.  Her voice was so soft.  She leaned her head forward slowly, as she swallowed many times. Her gaze fell on Gabrielle's lips.

            Gabrielle leaned in to her, and they kissed. 

            After a long time had passed, Gabrielle realized how Xena had sunken back over her arms and how hard the position must be to hold, with Gabrielle now leaning into her.  She could sense from the solidness of her body that Xena's strength had not even begun to waver, even as she drew her weight away.  My strong friend, she thought, running her hand up the middle of Xena's beautiful chest.  As if in response to her thought, she felt Xena's chest quiver. 

            She drew the straps off Xena's shoulders.  She stood them up then and stepped behind her to remove her clothing entirely.  Gabrielle started to slip out of her own clothes, as Xena turned and helped with quick and certain hands.  Xena drew her close at once, and she felt their bodies press against one another.  They kissed again, and Gabrielle felt surprised at how her own heart raced and her body seemed to have grown so heavy, she felt as if Xena's embrace partly held her up.  She wanted to move down to the blanket and to draw Xena over her. She hesitated only a moment, but Xena could feel it.  They moved together, then, down to the blankets. 

            They settled in close to one another, lying on their sides. Gabrielle entwined Xena's fingers in her own.  Xena met her gaze easily now, showing that same mix of love and fear.  Gabrielle could feel the warmth from Xena's body, as it spilled against her own.  Gabrielle could feel Xena's breath against her mouth as their lips met, the implausible heat and softness stunned her again and seemed to draw all her senses there. 

            Gabrielle put her arm around Xena and pressed her hand into her back. Xena's back moved under her touch like a drawn bow, drawing their bodies in near enough to touch. Gabrielle felt first a jolt of energy moving down from her stomach between her legs, then the steady breath of her friend against her own chest, deepened as if she'd been running. It made her aware of the quality of her own breath, strained and quickened. 

            The unfamiliar feel of this intense passion combined with familiar feel of Xena so near and of the great trust that existed between them moved her more deeply than she had ever imagined a lover could.  She felt she would grow overwhelmed. She felt herself tremble and grew almost breathless as they kissed.  Yet Xena's presence seemed also able to keep her near. She touched Xena's face with her fingertips, feeling her cheekbone, tracing the strong line of her jaw. She felt Xena's lips as they parted her own, and Xena's tongue as it touched her own the first time. She felt as if the surprising heat of Xena's mouth now reached down into her body, coursing through her. She almost felt she lost track of where they each were on the blankets, as if their bodies had mingled somehow.

            She felt that Xena's arms had come around her and drawn her closer, subtly beginning to take possession of her.  And she felt Xena's leg between her thighs pressing up against her. It seemed to be making her feel almost drunk as if from too much wine. 

            Gabrielle's thoughts strayed a moment… to Perdicus.  She remembered the feel of their familiarity, him coming to her out of the past, choosing to be with him.  Her heart beating wildly the night of their wedding when he removed her dress.  She remembered the feel of her hands on his back, cool sweat on his warm skin, the sound of his breath. She remembered the moment when he found ecstasy on top of her.  Her eyes open, eager to witness this night after waiting for what seemed so long, she saw his face, his eyes closed and lips parted.  She drew him close as he moaned.  She kept her arms around him when it was over and thought of the tenderness of what she'd witnessed.  In this way, she held away her thoughts of the pain of having been made love to for the first time, and also the pain she did not even know to name as yet – the pain of the absence of her own transforming pleasure which she always believed she would find.  She believed so in his love for her that she focused all her thought on it that night. She had consigned herself to a life of pleasing another from that night, but fate had a different plan.

            Xena seemed to sense the distance to which Gabrielle had drawn as she strayed into these thoughts.  She drew back to look at her face and lowered her leg.  Gabrielle did not meet her gaze, but looked over Xena's bare shoulders to her naked chest.  Xena felt now to Gabrielle so near – nearer than she had ever been before in all their time together.  She had so longed to draw close to Xena.  The desire had kept its resilience over the months and years of their friendship with Xena often closed and far away in herself.  Now, suddenly, it seemed all Xena's armor had been stripped. She had but to reach out her hand to touch Xena now.  She was all there. 

            Gabrielle touched her own mouth.  Then she reached down between them.  She shifted their legs and put her hand between Xena's thighs.  When her hand touched Xena's body, she saw Xena's eyes grow heavy and her lips part at once.  She drew in a deep breath and seemed to hold it for a prolonged moment.  It was almost as if Gabrielle could feel the touch in her own body, causing her legs to press harder into Xena's.  She wanted Xena to look at her, and she touched her face and her lips.  Xena's eyes opened to look at hers, and they'd grown dark. She felt a sort of amazement watching Xena's response, her own mouth opening then smiling.  Xena gave the softest moan, and her back arched reflexively.  This drew her slightly away from Gabrielle.  

            Gabrielle moved herself up and urged Xena to turn fully onto her back. Her dark hair slipped off her shoulders and onto the blanket as she did.  Gabrielle came up onto her elbow so that she could lean in over her and see her.  Gabrielle looked down over Xena's body.  She had seen Xena naked many times, yet this was different.  Xena's body felt incredibly exposed, and Gabrielle saw how it quaked within the disciplined movements of her breathing.  She looked down to her own hand, touching her so intimately, and to Xena's thighs, which she perceived very slightly to shiver. She felt Xena open and incredibly willing to receive her touch.  As she continued touching her, Gabrielle felt a knot of love and desire in her chest, astonished by how comfortable she felt in such passion with her friend.

            Xena met Gabrielle's eyes easily now.  She had yielded, by choice, to Gabrielle whatever part of herself she always kept hidden.  Whatever fear she had felt was gone now.  It had been replaced with an incredible depth of pleasure that seemed to only bring out deeper desire as it was felt. Xena glanced to Gabrielle's mouth. Gabrielle could see in her eyes when they met how much she wanted to be kissed. 

            It was this look that finally set Gabrielle fully on fire. She felt herself filled suddenly with more boldness than from the strongest wine.  Gabrielle moved over Xena and kissed her with a deep and uninhibited kiss.  This brought out a sound from deep in Xena's chest.  Gabrielle kissed her fiercely now, her hand pressing into the back of Xena's neck, as she surprised even herself.  It was as if something broke loose in Xena in response, and Xena's hands grasped her now almost desperately, as she lost some of her inhibition. 

            Gabrielle shifted the arm she was braced so she could touch Xena's breast and gently run her fingertips over her nipple.  In response, Xena leaned forward, her eyebrows coming together sharply, then her head fell back.  After a time, she leaned forward again to watch Gabrielle touching her.           

            Gabrielle kissed her more then let go then only to put her mouth to her breast where her hand had been.  Xena began to cry out at this, her body becoming at once yielded and tense, holding onto Gabrielle with little restraint, as she was shaken by pleasure. She gasped, audibly, coming to its dramatic height. 

            When this passed, rather than losing energy, she leaned forward again and pressed her forehead into the curve of Gabrielle's shoulder.  Her body still shook.  To Gabrielle's amazement, she felt sure she should not stop. She brought her hand to the back of Xena's neck and held her tight against herself.  It seemed the release had only increased Xena's feeling, and she became more audible and trembled with pleasure.  Gabrielle felt her build again to another, deeper shudder.

            Xena fell back again, her body still moving and her breath drawing in deeply. Gabrielle wanted to push her even further, and she moved fully over Xena, who dragged her eagerly into the embrace.  Their kisses grew almost rough.  Xena was brought to another shuddering climax, breaking her mouth away from Gabrielle's to gasp.  This time Gabrielle let much of her weight down, and Xena held her hard against her own body. Each peak seemed different than that last, and this one seemed to linger and shudder her whole being. Gabrielle felt sure it was heightened by her own nearness to Xena.  This amazed her and filled her with warmth that claimed her experience for a moment even in the midst of their passion.

            She turned her face in to kiss Xena's neck, as Xena held her close. Xena was still responding, but she seemed driven nearly wild now by Gabrielle's touch.  She could feel Xena's whole body trembling. They were practically wrestling in their embrace.  She ran first one hand then the other over Xena's thighs, pressing them against herself to steady their quaking.  Her hand strayed to the middle of Xena's chest, resting there.  Gabrielle could feel Xena's heart pounding into her cupped hand, and she flattened it against her chest, as if to calm it.

            They kissed until Xena's body had grown easy again and her trembling subsided. Gabrielle felt herself yielding then, to Xena's embrace.  Her hold, in response, became tender, as she felt Gabrielle sink down against her. Xena turned them, bringing herself over Gabrielle. 

            Their blankets were crowded about them, and Gabrielle heard the cracking of the nearby fire and felt the warmth from Xena's body pressing the cold away. All these elements were common to any other night.  Yet now, with Xena overtop of her, she felt herself handed over to Xena entirely, more so even than in those times of danger when Xena held Gabrielle's life in her hands, as she had many times before this night.

            Xena held herself up on one arm.  She looked with what seemed like awe over Gabrielle's body, so familiar and yet new, altered by desire.  There was a reddened flush to her skin that ran all along her body.  Her arms had fallen back and her legs lay open. She bent one knee and pressed the inside of her thigh against Xena's hip and pressed her hand into the small of her back, urging her to draw down onto herself.  Xena hesitated.  She touched Xena's face and looked over Xena's expression, seeing her eyes heavy and her lips slightly parted.  Her hand on Xena back could feel that her heart had slowed.

            Xena's heart beat with such force that she felt tremors of its strikes echo in her ribs.  She kissed Gabrielle neck and shoulders.  Then she drew up away from her again.  Xena closed and opened her hand, consumed with the thought of touching her friend.

            "Don't let me hurt you," she said. 

            Gabrielle nearly laughed, but she felt that Xena was in earnest. She slid her arms about Xena's shoulders.  And Xena took Gabrielle into her arms fully – the one safe place, Gabrielle had often thought, in all the world.  Xena held her softly, but she could feel Xena's strength, under the surface, as the muscles beneath her skin shifted, bearing her own weight with such ease. Xena turned her face to kiss Gabrielle's cheek, and in the gentle ease of the movement, Gabrielle knew in some way beyond mere thought that she had been fully healed. She felt a wave of relief and joy wash through her. 

            She looked at Xena's face once more.  Gabrielle felt herself soundly now in the present moment, where passion was making them unsure.  She took Xena's face in her hands, then drew her down to kiss her. She meant to convey her confidence without words, and Xena responded to this at once. She shifted into a state new and yet familiar to Gabrielle where she seemed driven entirely by instinct, as in a fight.  Xena held and touched her body knowingly, now, with a touch that was strong, yet gentle. It was as if her desire came up from deep inside and burst forth with a soft quietness like the arrival of so many seeds in the first rush of spring.  Gabrielle felt herself respond with this change in Xena, altered by it in kind.  

            When Xena's hand came between Gabrielle's legs, Gabrielle felt her own heart pound wildly in response.  Xena's touch was firm yet equally tender and seemed to know what was felt as it touched.  Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to surrender, overcome by a feeling in her chest like it was falling open.  She swallowed down a catch in her breath that hurt her throat as Xena leaned down to kiss her breasts.  Xena brought one hand under her to hold her up when her back arched.

            She felt Xena reach in and touch her inside for the first time. Gabrielle felt herself gasp and lost her breath.  She felt the skin on her face and chest burn and hid her face in the curve of Xena's shoulder. Xena turned their faces and kissed her now exposed throat.  The feel of Xena's hand was entirely unlike what Gabrielle had felt before. She found no pain under her touch and instead seemed to lose all other thought, drawn into a complete focus on the pleasure she caused.  She drew her own breath in and out, finding and following it.  She became lost in pleasure, as if in a trance. Xena seemed able to sense and seek out the most sensitive and responsive places, moving her hand to press forward and another finger in to press more fully, then turning to hand to press gently down and slide against her body.  

            Gabrielle soon gasped and held hard to Xena, almost struggling in their embrace, as she responded to her touch.  Xena seemed to understand her nearly desperate response and only held her harder and nearer.  Xena was relentless, lost in total focus, wanting to build Gabrielle's pleasure to its height. She moved up and kissed her, bearing her down into the blankets, such Gabrielle felt a conviction that she had never truly been kissed before.  And Gabrielle drew Xena in and felt she was willing to follow her anywhere. She was too awash now in passion to feel any shame, and Xena, who could sense this, kissed her way, leaving a trail of what felt an almost desperate heat, down her body and brought her mouth now to Gabrielle as her fingers still moved inside her, establishing longer and deeper strokes. 

            Gabrielle felt nearly maddened for a moment.  She thought she could not tolerate any more pleasure. Xena brought her free hand up to reach across and touch both her nipples with her thumb and fingertips. Her arm applied a pressure that helped hold Gabrielle down to allow her to tolerate this.  Still Gabrielle came quickly and almost violently, to climax. And the pleasure, instead of dropping off sharply, as she anticipated from experience alone, broke out in wave upon wave, coursing through her body and setting her to shudder, swept under completely as if in the pull of some great tide. 

            She became conscious again of herself and felt her hands grasping Xena's shoulders.  Gabrielle heard a soft moan of pleasure from Xena as her mouth moved gently against her. The sound sent a rush of flame as a shudder coursing up her own body.  She felt that Xena was holding her off the blanket with a hand under her arched back.  She waited as last of her own response died out, as her body shifted at last out of the now shuddering tension it held. 

            As her body released, she sank down into the covers.  Her breath came back, and Gabrielle felt Xena's hand resting now on her side before coming to press gently at her low stomach, making her shudder again.  She could feel how tender her breasts were from the touch, and the rest of her body still pulsed. She felt suddenly unbearably exhausted.  She could hear their cries echoing in her mind, fully conscious of them only now.

            She brought one arm up in order to hide her eyes in the crook of her elbow. She tried to steady her breath, which seemed shaken.  She felt a rush of emotion rise then that found no resistance in her broken chest and was shocked to find herself suddenly weeping.  She held her face in her hands.  She dared then a look at Xena, worried what she would make of her sudden crisis of emotion. 

            Xena had been kissing her gently, trying to draw out the last, calming moments of pleasure, slowly bringing her fingers away.  Her face held a look of obvious surprise with her mouth held open, as she looked up at Gabrielle and saw her response.

            She brought her body up along Gabrielle's and urged her hands away with the lightest touch.  Gabrielle complied, her arms gathered to her own chest, as if to protect herself. She could see Xena's expression was now one of worry.  She struggled to keep Xena's gaze.  Xena drew her into an embrace, still strong but now grown infinitely tender.  Gabrielle kissed her, and one of their soft, lingering kisses from the water returned to them now.  Gabrielle's embarrassment faded then, and she wept openly.

            "It's alright," Xena said finally.  She seemed to struggle to find her own voice.  She pushed the tears away from Gabrielle's face.

            "I lost you," Gabrielle said, her own voice coming out broken and fragile. She pulled Xena into an almost desperate kiss, then held hard to her.  Xena's body seemed at first to sink with the release of her own fear, as she realized Gabrielle's response was about the weeks before and not what was happening between them now.   Then she drew Gabrielle into a firm embrace.  She touched Gabrielle's face with more confidence now and met her gaze again. 

            "I'm here now," she said.  She kissed her again and drew her closer and said, "I'm here with you now."  

 

            Gabrielle awoke slowly, to a bright morning.  She felt at first a heavy veil of sleep over her and a vague, surprised concern to be waking so late.  Just as she began to turn from her side onto her back, her thoughts awoke more, and she had the familiar flash of fear and emptiness of realizing that Xena was gone. Then, swiftly washing over it, came a memory of the night before. 

            Her body remembered, vividly, as if their touches from the night before had just ended.  She turned to see Xena lying next to her.  She was still asleep on her side, her face incredibly peaceful.  Her naked shoulder and part of her chest showed above the line of the blanket.  Gabrielle's chest grew so full looking at her, it felt like pain. The memory brought on a feeling like intense sun sinking into her skin.

            Xena, feeling her gaze even through her sleep, awoke.  She moved her head once, blinking slowly, before she saw Gabrielle.  She's coming back to herself, Gabrielle realized, and her chest tightened a moment in concern. Xena's face softened, and she smiled, and Gabrielle's realization turned to one of joy.  Xena touched the hand Gabrielle held at her own chest tentatively, before she drew them into an embrace.  She ran her hand over Gabrielle's side. Gabrielle shivered with the memory of pleasure it evoked, and they both smiled at this, as if sharing some small joke. The awoke into the new day, as familiar and confident in each other now as they had ever been.

 

            They passed another gentle day along the water, making no attempt at haste. They made camp early, and when their dinner was done, Xena brought their bed rolls out and placed them together.  Gabrielle came at once to lie next to her, touching her side along the way.  They each noticed the other's excitement to be bedding down so early, and neither tried to hide how pleased they felt by the prospect.   

            They were quiet together as the sun set.  Xena lay looking up into the stars, and Gabrielle lay on her stomach, up on her elbows, studying the fire.  Gabrielle took Xena's hand, watching as their fingers entwined. They shared a shy sort of smile, before Gabrielle kissed the back of her hand. 

            "You're different than I thought you'd be, as a lover," Gabrielle said, the last part quite soft and shy.  Xena was quiet a moment, looking over her face. 

            "Is it a disappointment?" Xena asked, also soft and without much emotion. Gabrielle laughed, gently but deeply, as she shook her head, clearing thinking this absurd. 

            "A lot of encounters are," Xena said.  Gabrielle had put a hand over her face in her laughter. Instead of answering she leaned in to kiss Xena several long kisses.  When she drew away, Xena's expression was no longer guarded.

            "Well, you are not," she said, definitively.  Xena gave a half smile at this, but didn't lose her serious mood. 

            "Different how?" Xena asked.

            "I don't know, you're just…  so soft.  So open," Gabrielle said, as she touched Xena with her fingertips. 

            "Soft?" Xena said, in a tone of surprise. She smiled as the back of Gabrielle's hand ran over her skin.  "So not too rough then?" she said.  Her eyebrows flicked together, giving Gabrielle a hint of how genuine her worry had been.  It made her smile.  She shook her head again and rubbed her face against her own arms.

            "No, certainly not too rough.  I like being one of the few people that get to see both sides of you," Gabrielle said.  Xena smiled. They drew closer to kiss again. Between their kisses, their mouths close, Xena spoke. 

            "Well, you can have me any way you want me.  You bring out so many sides of me.  I'll be as gentle as a lamb with you, if it's what you want." Gabrielle shook her head, biting at her lip.

            "No, not too gentle," she said, smiling, "You're my warrior."

            Xena grinned, as Gabrielle hid her face on Xena's arm before coming up to kiss with her more.  

 

THE END (Of this beginning.)